by Jacob Sunderlin, Co-Editor of Poetry
Like every beer drinker with a couple folders of poems, I just got back from AWP. Happy to report that I am operational, minus brain cells. Among the learnable things at such a venue as AWP: how many people there are running around writing poetry and fiction. Weston Cutter is one of the ones worth a damn. And it’s a whole barge full of damns.
Weston’s a hardworking man—he’s the author of the book of stories You’d Be a Stranger, Too, has had poems published recently in Forklift, OH and the Kenyon Review, and is an assistant professor at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne. Also, if you’re not reading his blog you’re missing out. After contributing a poem to the most recent issue of Sycamore, he was kind enough to correspond with me and answer my dumb questions via email. Here, we talk about the midwest, dick pillars, Bob Hicok, and blogs.
Sycamore Review: My knowledge of Minnesota is limited mostly to being the birthplace of Robert Zimmerman, Prince, my friend Geordie, lots of lakes, and tater-tot hotdish. Tell us more.
Weston Cutter: I’ve tried answering this a couple times now and think itemizing might be the best way:
1) MN’s topographically gorgeous—yes to the lakes, which are great, but there’s also the Mississippi which carves a gorgeous bluffy path through the two cities and does lots to a kid’s (at least this kid’s) notion of what nature Should Look Like (I also worked on boats on the Mississippi for several years and am therefore just desperately fond of the thing).
2) MN’s socio-politically awesome. The DFL (Democratic Farmer Laborers) party was begun there in the 20′s (I think), and in the early 20th century business leaders each pledged to donate 5% of their revenue to social progress and development—hence Target (a MN company) sponsoring free museum nights at damn near every major museum in the country, hence more arts fellowships in MN than anywhere else I know of. We also spend tons on education there, which, the further I inch into adulthood, seems crucial. Plus, politically, we’re just wild: from Wellstone to Jesse Ventura to the anti-Christ Bachmann to Franken, we just do what we do, who knows who or why.
3) There’s a tone to MN, or at least I feel it that way, a spirit or attitude, and it’s manifest in our athletics and music and art: we’re always good, often great, but we’re never the Big Deal. No MN sports team’s won its league’s championship other than my beloved Twins (’87! ’91!), though we often field pretty fantastic teams (I assume it’s uncool to note sports stuff on a blog for a lit journal, but come on: Garnett’s first words on wining a ring in Boston? “This is for all the fans in Minny!”). Aside from Dylan and Prince, our musicians have always been *great* but often are overlooked, not ultimately Recognized in ways bands from other areas are (see: Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould, etc.)(plus think of those twin dick pillars of early 20th C AM writing—Hemingway and Fitzgerald—and realize one’s all macho and broad while the other was softer, weirder, harder to pin, married to a crazy artist, from MN)(plus there’s other stuff: MN’s rap scene’s phenomenal basically because Slug and the Rhymesayers guys just kept showing up, making it, creating it). Minnesota is underdog central to me. I can’t love it enough. This probably doesn’t all even make sense and yet it doesn’t even come close, either, to covering the subject.
SR: What is Midwestern literature? Do you consider yourself a Midwestern writer?
WC: I love this question, and have asked it to folks, but damned if I’ve got any idea what it means or how to shake it out. Ander Monson answered this question in terms of Great Lakesness, which I think somewhat obtains, though I now live in Indiana and there’s little resembling my beloved home territory yet both states border Great Lakes. I do think midwestern lit’s got something of a chip on its shoulder in a good way, a need to prove, though god knows how I could provide evidence for such a claim. I’m not sure what commonalities might obtain among midwest lit, other than (maybe) earnestness or a slight distance, but who knows.
SR: Your poem “If Not River” in Sycamore casts a kind of power relationship between the land and the river, the state of Minnesota and the speaker of the poem. You’ve also addressed Alaska in a similar way. I’m wondering if, for you, writing about a place helps to connect you to it? Or, do you have to “know” a place (whatever that means) before you feel you can comfortably write about it?
WC: I got sort of obsessed with place a bit just because I ended up writing a poem about place and it worked and, like anyone, I keep doing stuff that works until it doesn’t work. I’m not sure what poem was first, but I think it was the Alaska one–a place I’ve never lived, I just have a good friend there. I know the place stuff started coming when I was done with my MFA and teaching in real rural Iowa and was trying to come to grip or term with the fact that I was where I was yet lived, internally, among the bluffs I grew up in. Plus I was traveling lots then as well—my now-wife lived in Chicago so I was driving regularly from rural NW Iowa to Omaha so I could fly to Chicago…none of which has a thing to do with either of your questions.
So: 1) I don’t think writing about a place helps me connect to it; I’m as (un)connected to Alaska now as I was before I wrote that poem, I’m as connected to MN as I’ll always be. So, 2) yeah, I think I do have to know a place before I write it—but I wrote Virginia after I left it, and I write more about MN now, not there, than I ever did while there. I’m just into my 30s and am only now I think starting to realize how critical geography is for me. I’m not sure how clear I am about how it all adds up in or for me, in cause-+-effect terms. I live in Indiana now but can’t imagine writing about it as place other than where I presently am. For what it’s worth: lots of this is because of Hicok’s poem “A Primer,” which is in my running for Best Poem Ever.
SR: I love that poem–so many great moments–”The state bird / is a chained factory gate.” I wonder if a distinction in this “Midwest issue” has to do with things that come up in that poem, in that line even: socio-economic classes, see the different vocabularies of. Hicok came and read at Purdue last year and said something about some colleagues of his, other poets, just not being able to understand why he would write about someone getting laid off, because they were so far removed (and probably always had been) from such concerns. And this shows up in what gets published, doesn’t it? For me, one of the things that stands out about your work, and people like Hicok–is its void-of-bullshit language. I don’t know–am I cynical to think that it’s harder to publish a poem like that? What’s your experience been?
WC: Yeah, that poem’s just crazily good—there was a review of Words for Empty/Words for Full in the Boston Review, and that reviewer specifically mentioned “A Primer,” and noted the thing it does so well, which is the connecting aspect at the end—the “Let us all be from somewhere. / Let us tell each other everything we can.”
Which sort of leads to the aspect of this question I think you’re trying to get at: Hicok writes openly of more working-class stuff than, say, someone like Jorie Graham (whose work I adore and find ravishing and cannot get enough of), but then there’s also Levine, who’s the Poet Laureate, and his “What Work Is” has got just as much grit under its nails as much of what Bob does. I hear what you’re saying though I don’t think I’d be willing to say full-throatedly that I’m totally with your claim or totally opposed. I think probably some venues are less inclined toward poetry-that’s-got-reality-front-and-center, and some of those venues are pretty well-regarded and -known, but I’d guess the distinction’s less about subject matter and more about style—Hicok’s stuff (or at least the stuff he does that we’re here talking about—he’s got crazy other stuff, too, obviously) isn’t necessarily (as Wallace’d’ve said) envelope-puncturing, formally; I’d guess fractured, skittery, voice-thrown poems which are attempting to ultimately make more aesthetic than narrative or emotional claims might have an easier time getting the old publication greenlight (not least because sentiment’s scary and being asked to feel—especially about huge, obvious, unavoidable stuff—is nine kinds of freaky) in certain well-regarded venues. I don’t think you’re terribly cynical or anything—I think, by and large, a not-quite-working, language-y, more mysterious poem’s gonna have an easier time getting picked somewhere than a not-quite-working, blue-collar, more straightforward poem.
SR: Does that shoulder-chip you describe come from having to respond to the coastal implication that there is something missing from the Midwest? That’s it’s defined by what it lacks? That taking-down of the comparing impulse is there in your “If Not River,” it seems.
WC: Man, I’ve now tried to answer this four times, and each time the response gets noodly and abstract and silly. So: yes, I think you’re absolutely right. Your question leads to good, seemingly inarticulable thoughts for me, and I hope it does for others, too.
SR: How did you arrive at this addressing-of-state technique we see in “If Not River”? It’s almost ecstatic in effect, great to read out loud.
WC: I didn’t know who else to write to—it was desperation, a sense that I didn’t want a poem that was just gonna rhapsodize, that I needed something that put some blood in the letter, which made it need an addressee.
SR: I’m curious too, about how you’ve cultivated your (bear with this phrase) internet presence as its own place? You blog pretty prolifically and entertainingly on your Corduroy Books, and for the Kenyon Review. How important is it, do you think, for writers to do this kind of thing, to cultivate this for themselves? Do you imagine the future of the MFA will include a focus in blogging?
WC: That’s funny. The truest answer is: whatever exists of me online is pretty accidental. I started Corduroy with a friend in grad school because I wanted to be more involved with books and lit but didn’t want to start another goddamned journal (nothing against them, it’s just not my skill set) and I didn’t want to do the legwork to freelance for the dozen places I’d’ve needed to to justify asking for all the books I asked for to review. So: that’s Corduroy. It’s an excuse for free books.
I’m not sure how important this stuff is for writers—or I guess I’m not sure what sort of important you might mean. If you mean important as in materially helpful—getting jobs, getting work reviewed, nurturing relationships with other writers—then yeah, I think some online presence/activity can be real helpful (maybe that’s the easier word to consider than important)—just in that I can, for instance, read a new book by someone I’ve just found, and I can then email that person and, with the cover of an interview, I can pester that person (I’ve done this I can’t guess how many times). I find that hugely useful. I know the fact that I review stuff has made getting my own work reviewed easier.
I think there’s a whole other utility, though, and this might sound suspiciously do-goodery and a tad hokey, but whatever: if one honestly, with regularity, pours work into thinking about writing and aesthetics, one’s awareness of and insight toward those subjects deepen. It’s basic sports-metaphor stuff: practice daily and your hand gets x% softer, your bat around that much quicker. Unintentionally, my thoughts on writing and poetry have changed significantly since I’ve been able to use Corduroy as a sort of mind-dump.
As far as a focus on blogging: I don’t think there’ll be a focus on blogging, but I think MFAs and literary writing in general’s gonna soon have to contend with the fact that writing’s now real rarely done in the ways we aim for. Easy for instance that I’ve got no answer for: what happens to a poem that’s got 62 comments following it on a webpage? What’s the difference between reading that and some old Stevens poem on a page? I haven’t the faintest how that stuff shakes out, but I can’t imagine MFAs not confronting some aspects of that.