Inch by Inch from the Chaos:
A Conversation with F. Daniel Rzicznek ~ Gary McDowell
F. Daniel Rzicznek was born in Indiana and grew up
in northeastern Ohio. His first collection of poems, Neck of the World,
won the 2007 May Swenson Award and appeared last year from Utah State
University Press. He is also the author of the chapbook Cloud Tablets,
winner of the Wick Poetry Center Chapbook Competition and published by Kent
State University Press. His poems have appeared in The New Republic,
Boston Review, The Iowa Review, AGNI, and Gulf Coast, with
newer work forthcoming in Bateau, Barn Owl Review, Subtropics,
and Cave Wall. He teaches English Composition at Bowling Green
State University and lives with his wife in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Gary L. McDowell's poems have appeared recently or are
forthcoming in Colorado Review, The Pinch, Ninth Letter, The
Southeast Review, DIAGRAM, Bat City Review, RHINO, Copper Nickel,
Memorious, Bateau, and many others. He also has work in the
recently released The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, 2nd Floor
(No Tell Books, 2007). His chapbook, The Blueprint, appeared
in 2005 from Pudding House. His book reviews have appeared in
Mid-American Review, Third Coast, Rattle, and Luna.
He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is pursuing his Ph.D.
in Literature and Creative Writing at Western Michigan University.
He is an Assistant Poetry Editor at Third Coast and is an
editor at New Issues Poetry & Prose.
GLM: For how long had you been sending Neck of the World out when Utah State University Press called with the good news? How was the submission process for you? Did you do a lot of research, send only to places with judges that might be sympathetic to your work, or did you simply send the manuscript to reputable places?
FDR: I had been sending Neck of the World around for just under two years when it won the May Swenson. The submission process was fairly painless because I didn’t send out very aggressively and I knew better than to expect immediate success. Submitting to both publishers and journals is such a roulette-like process it’s pointless to get worked up about it. All one can do is try and try again, and find healthy ways of dealing with those times when only rejections are showing up in the mail. Research does have a lot to do with increasing one’s odds. As for the May Swenson award, it was on a good-sized list that Amy Newman gave me and the other exiting MFAs when she was visiting writer at Bowling Green State University. I started by sending to reputable-looking places with reasonable reading fees. I’ve sent to Tupelo in the past, but (correct me if I’m wrong here) I saw a $35 reading fee attached to one of their recent calls for submissions I understand the current perils that independent publishers face, but that’s quite a wad of cash when you stand a 99.75 % chance of rejection. So I’m a bit choosier now about where I send what. There’s just no affordable way to experiment with the system. Really, I think judges mean less for me than the track-record and perceivable aesthetic of the publisher. From working on Mid-American Review, I remember sending finalists to judges for poetry and short-short contests and the results were always surprising in terms of how often the judge would choose things very different from their own style. Just because Sharon Olds is judging the contest doesn’t mean she won’t choose the work of Tony Tost.
GLM: The poems in Neck of the World all feel similar in voice, tone, and mood. Over what time period did you write the poems for the book? Upon reading them, it feels like maybe they were written in a burst of energy, in a short period of time. If that’s not true (or I suppose, even if it is), what were your tactics for revision, how did you maintain the similar mood with each new poem?
FDR: The poems in Neck were all written over a two-year span, which is a fairly short period of time by general standards. I wrote quite a few poems during those two years that didn’t make it in, and I think that was the largest factor contributing to the book’s cohesiveness. I pulled many poems from the manuscript that just didn’t contribute to the other poems. I was looking for a buzz, a spark that could flow like a fuse from poem to poem in each section and any poems that interrupted that were cut. Some of them felt too similar to superior pieces already included, and others just didn’t feel as fluid and electric to me as other poems surrounding them. So while I was writing the poems that ended up in Neck, I led myself astray from that voice and mood you sense on more than one occasion. Arriving back to it however, after some failed forays, led me to some of my favorite pieces in the book, like “Radio” and “Tickets for a Fire” to name just two. The way I write poems feels a bit like an airport: arrivals, departures, the same characters passing back and forth but never expectably, and always some surprises popping up. In terms of “revision,” it’s a matter of seeing the manuscript in it all that’s the biggest challenge. Somewhat like arranging a very large group photograph.
GLM: How did you decide upon the final order of the poems in Neck of the World? Poetically: did the poems speak to each other in a way that led you to a specific order, were you conscious of writing a ‘book’ as you wrote each poem? Physically: did you spread the poems all over the floor (as many poets seem to do), shuffle them in your lap, etc? How long of a process was this for you?
FDR: Deciding upon the final order of the poems in Neck of the World was an up-to-the-last minute process that took about two years from writing the final poem for the project and sending the final proof to the publisher. I was very much conscious of writing a ‘book’ as you put it. It was a goal I set for myself before entering Bowling Green State University’s MFA program, and Neck of the World, before it won the May Swenson, was my graduate thesis. So during the whole writing process, I knew I was building toward a. a thesis, and b. a full-length collection. So, poetically, I was sensing the reverberations between certain poems as I wrote them, but I also wrote a whole hell of a lot that was cut away in the end. My original rough draft was around 80 pages long and I had it broken into sections, with each section taped to different walls in the apartment I was living in at the time. So going into the kitchen for a snack or a drink, I’d move this poem here, that poem there. In the hall to the bathroom, I’d take a second to look the order of another section over and make adjustments. It was a casual process and not very nerve-wracking. I moved poems at will and just played around for awhile. Once the fat was cut away, it actually became harder to work with the order. Having advisors certainly helped, and both Larissa Szporluk and Amy Newman were instrumental in helping me find the shape of the book. I think, however, that I’d still be playing with the order if I hadn’t won the May Swenson, and not because the current order doesn’t work. It does. But I’m a bit of a tinkerer when it comes to this stuff, so publishing helped me finalize it.
GLM: How do you compose? What is your physical act of writing like? Are you a pen and paper guy? A straight to computer guy? Do you always compose the same way? If you change your routine, does it affect your writing? Negatively? Positively?
FDR: I’ve developed some small but flexible rituals when it comes to composition. I compose only by hand, pen and paper. Always the same pen in the same notebook. I write and rewrite, these days only a handful of drafts, before typing the poem up. I’m a firm believer in approaching the poem as a handmade object, with a pen and a lamp my only technology. To me, using a computer to compose takes all of the personality out of the act. I speak only for myself, not wanting my Luddite tendencies to be taken as possible advice. But I think best in my own handwriting, with room to cross words out, make notes, even draw pictures. I like the feel of paper under my hands as well. Paper reminds me of the natural world, the realm of original forms. Seeing how a computer was once a series of natural objects (and it was) is a bit too complicated to make it work in the same way. And the bonus is that when the power grid irreparably fails and plunges us all into a new dark age, I won’t have to rearrange my habits too much.
GLM: Your influences, I’m sure, are vast and widely varied, but was there a group of poets, writers, musicians, or visual artists that were particularly influential or important to you during the composition and revision of Neck of the World?
FDR: There was no specific or organized group of poets, artists, etc. that really influenced the book, but there were most certainly influences. First and foremost, the poetry of Larissa Szporluk, James Wright, Charles Simic, and the early work of Larry Levis. But music also played an important role. Many of the poems were written while listening to the music of John Fahey, specifically the albums Days Have Gone By and Womblife, as well as an incredible album of hybridized bluegrass and classical called Uncommon Ritual, by Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, and Mike Marshall. The earthiness of Fahey really had quite an effect on me artistically. It’s extremely emotive music, in an ancient sense, and I think it is partially responsible for the fierceness of some of my syntax and rhythm. Uncommon Ritual, is a much subtler album that alternates between some very calming nocturnes and blasts of furiously joyous pickin’, as well as darker, moodier moments. I still write to music, although not ritualistically. I can write perfectly well without music, but I do prefer having it on most of the time. Music is a huge part of my thinking process.
GLM: The voice of the maple tree in “Speakmaple”, the voice (as you called it in a radio interview) of frogdom in “Genius of Frogs,” how do those voices come to you? Are you aware of these voices being different than the voice of your human speakers? Does the voice arrive first and prompt you to find the object it represents? Or does the object come first and charge you with matching it to a voice?
FDR: I’m just full of voices that are always competing with one another and vying for poetic attention. Whenever I write about anything autobiographical, in the sense that it’s actually happened, I use myself as the speaker. Otherwise, the voices all arrive in different ways. You mention “Genius of Frogs,” which is an interesting case because I only identified the voice after the poem was written. It just started as this weird speaker that I couldn’t identify until after the third or fourth draft. The opposite happened with “Speakmaple.” I had the idea of a speaking tree and then the voice just breezed in virtually on its own with the story about the baby, etc. It’s an interesting question, whether I notice the difference between say the Speakmaple and a human speaker, whether myself or a character. This is something I frequently contemplate, because it’s such a big part of my poetry and I can’t always tell where one voice ends and another begins. And how do I write from the perspective of a tree while still using human language and human points of reference (the body, the mind, our perception of colors, etc.)? I don’t have an answer yet, but I am still actively writing “voice” poems, but now on a large scale, somewhat in the tradition of Berryman. I have an old hermit who is speaking about his past and his present, and I have a part-fly, part-human, part-god who is wicked and a bit of a devil, very cynical about existence in general and wanting very much to bathe in the blood of things. He’s a handful, but an interesting voice to take on. I think every voice I use is a reflection (or even facet) of my own voice, which is comforting and helps me unify how I look at my poems, but it’s also scary, makes me feel a bit unwell sometimes.
GLM: You’re an avid waterfowler, a fisherman, an outdoorsman. I feel like the poems of Neck are rooted in nature, rooted in the voice of the physical world, the world where things grow, live, and die. How much do you rely on the outdoors to influence your writing?
FDR: This is an interesting question and it’s one I’ve meditated on for a couple of days, a couple of days afield actually. It occurred to me that the coexistence of poetry and sport in my life is coincidental. I became aware of poetry during a three year hiatus from fishing and hunting. One never led me necessarily to the other. However, it occurred to me this weekend as I half-froze in a dry grass field waiting for geese and mallards that never arrived, that both poetry and hunting (fishing less so) are once-essential activities that contemporary culture has made less than essential. In other words, we’re led to believe that for food we go to the grocery store and for community and expression we go to the television, all in the name of the dollar. In further words, I’m a relic and a hybrid. Few poets I know hunt (more than I imagined, however, indeed fish) and even fewer hunters I know read or even pretend to be interested in poetry. I wish someone would send me a letter proving all of this wrong, but the evidence I’ve seen tells me otherwise. So both my outdoor pursuits and my poetic work share the quality of being outdated, unwanted, and generally avoided. Neither result in any substantial monetary gain. Both take great amounts of time and patience. Both require minimal assistance from technology when done right. And both are veering toward extinction, yet I believe they are essential. I couldn’t live without either.
Now, to get to your actual question, all of my experience and understanding begins and ends in the natural world, which is everywhere, even on the top floor of the Sears Tower. We have nothing without it. No clothes, no food, no shelter, no language, no art, no sex, no television. My thinking is constantly at odds with religious theories that make a case for separation of flesh and essence or make a case for nothingness, because when I look at a tree or a mouse or a cloud, or even a house, I see essence in the object, and even a dead thing has spiritual substance, soul, something to impart. I recently found a mallard in the marsh while I was hunting and he had been torn apart by hawks and eagles for at least a few days. Every last edible scrap of his body had been taken and there he was: a skeleton with a head and wings and what looked to be (but surely wasn’t) a smile on his beak. I saw quite a lot of soul in his form, by no means an empty husk. So, the idea of honoring the individual thing is something my poetry takes up. To exist is to eventually cease to exist, and this is the first and last lesson of nature. To get right to the bottom of your question, my reliance as a writer on the outdoors is complete. I wouldn’t write without it. Hunting and fishing have taught me patience, which has endless practical applications, and animals have instructed my poetic awareness in every poem I’ve written.
GLM: Throughout the book, there’s a lot of shifting colors, shades of light, scenes of rain or fog. I wondered if you were aware of the recurrence of these images as you wrote the poems or if you were surprised by the echoes as you were putting the book together. In other words, were you conscious of these visual themes?
FDR: I was only aware of these recurring images as one might be in daily life. Of course all elements of a poem can be read as symbolic, but for me, rain and fog are just two characters in the innumerable cast that makes up the natural drama of our world. Their appearance may be due to what the actual weather outside my window was doing that day, or they may be supplied for dramatic tension in the poem, which I do have to admit some guilt about. The rain in “Foglifter” for example, gets a very dramatic treatment, even abuse one could say. I’ve dragged the rain into my poem to get the effect I’m after. One thing that’s great about weather is that it’s one of the last things man hasn’t managed to get control over. May Swenson has a poem called “Weather” where she says: “I hope they never get a rope on you, weather.” I have to agree. Weather fascinates me because it does things we’d prefer it not do, hence our obsession with it. My father used to be a Weather Channel addict, though he’s toned it down a bit in recent years. Do you know that winegrowers in France shoot rockets at hailstorms to destroy or displace the hail before it falls? This is the only instance I can think of where man manipulates weather to get a specific effect, not just using it to his advantage. Just imagine what some even moderate hail could do to a plot of vines… But, I digress. I was only half-conscious of the visual themes as I wrote the poems, but I had to become more conscious of them as I ordered the book. Just like how the rain, even in the same season, is not the same every day it falls, so too the rain in each poem is a different rain. Getting this across, placing the poems so that the rain was not a repeated, boring gimmick, but a moving, changing presence across the poems was a challenge I was faced with.
GLM: In Richard Hugo’s essay “The Triggering Town,” he provides the following anecdote: “Once a spectator said, after Jack Nicklaus had chipped a shot in from a sand trap, ‘That’s pretty lucky.’ Nicklaus is supposed to have replied, ‘Right. But I notice the more I practice, the luckier I get.’” Did you ever get that feeling—of being receptive, of working yourself into poem-writing shape—as you worked your way through the construction of Neck of the World?
FDR: Leave it to you to throw me a golf anecdote. I certainly know the feeling Nicklaus is talking about. It’s a constant problem, this idea of “fitness” as a writer. Working on Neck I had very few periods where I fell “out of shape.” This was thanks in large part to the fact that I was in an MFA program and therefore couldn’t avoid poetry for more than a day or two at a time. I was constantly working myself and making time to write those poems. It helped, too, to be living alone and on a minimal income. I think it should be mandatory for MFA candidates to spend at least one year of their program living alone with no more than $800 (or so) a month (including rent) to get by on. Then you have nothing to do but write, right? Maybe not. Well, it worked for me. It cut down on distraction and constantly turned my head back to the real work: making the poems. Now, for contrast, I do fall out of shape these days and much too frequently for my taste. I’m a firm believer that sometimes one has to write and rewrite a miserable, piece-of-shit poem in order to get to the good stuff. I worked and worked on a rough little poem two weeks ago. It turned out good in the end (I think) but it took a few days of elbow grease to get there. I guess I got myself in shape, because three days later I wrote two very sharp drafts back to back in the same afternoon. I had found an open space where I was lucky enough to have two very distinct poems arrive almost simultaneously. The first poem, the rough one, had me ready, had me on my game when the other two arrived. It’s a question of opportunity versus preparedness, and it’s different for every single poem.
GLM: The title of the book, Neck of the World, is fascinating. Could you tell me how you arrived at that title? Were there other contenders? What makes it the right title, in your mind?
FDR: Well, the poem “Neck of the World” was written first and it was playing off of another poem, also in the book, called “Neck of the Woods,” which is a fascinating little phrase. I thought it would be interesting to take the idea of a locality and maximize to include “the world” as we know it. Both poems deal, oddly enough, with ritual and youth and the way death and life move through the world. It occurred to me that “Neck of the World” would make a pretty good manuscript title. It had a weight to it, a largeness that cast a wide enough net to relate to all of the poems in the book. Larissa Szporluk had some worries about it, mainly that the word “neck” might sound funny next to the “nek” in my last name. For the record, that’s the only bad advice she’s ever given me. I’m glad I didn’t listen. The only other contender was “North of North,” yet another poem in the book, and I’m still a bit fascinated with it as a title for a project. Once again, there’s a largeness there, an abstraction that makes it attractive. I think a title should either be big and abstract or very specific, but vivid either way. It’s the in-between that typically bores me. For example, I’ve been reading and enjoying Jim Harrison’s Collected Poems, but the title of his second book, Locations, is in my opinion, a failure of a title. It’s too plain, too much of a label, even though the poems are good. Take Larry Levis’ The Widening Spell of the Leaves on the other hand. Certainly not a boring title, but one that is almost distractingly detailed. Opposite ends of the spectrum, those two. For me, Neck of the World is the right title because it perfectly sums up what the whole book is after: getting close to that vital source, that “neck” of the whole affair we know as Earth, past, present, future, and imagined.
GLM: How about a follow-up question. I find titling poems one of the most difficult and frustrating steps of writing. For me it’s often the old chicken or the egg dilemma. Should a poem reflect its title or should the title of the poem reflect its content? Could you share some of your thoughts on this process, particularly as it pertains to Neck of the World?
FDR: Titling is certainly a challenge, but for me it’s one of the more satisfying challenges of writing. When I hit a good title, there’s a feeling of promise. I typically find titles before I write poems. I carry around pieces of note paper and write down phrases and words. Few of these actually turn into titles, but I find a lot of good leads just listening and watching. Back to “Foglifter,” that was a poem I wrote without a title in mind and I was left with a very interesting poem and no title. I looked up (I was sitting at my kitchen table) and this bag of coffee was sitting there and it said “foglifter” on the bag. So that was that. I refuse to title a poem “Untitled.” That doesn’t mean someone else can’t, but my poems always demand titles. To answer your question of should it do this or should it do that, I think a good title should do both. It should get at everything at once, in one fell swoop. Finding it is the challenge. In terms of Neck, many of those titles just fell in my lap. Kudos to serendipity. “Where Your Victory,” for example, is a phrase from the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” that was sung at an Easter service I attended. I wrote the phrase down and later wrote the poem. As I said, most of my poems happen this way. Other poems do take longer and may go through several titles before I get the right wording or shade of meaning that I’m after. “Dreamer in Winter” is a good example. I think it had at least two or three variations on that idea before the “right” one emerged. A title should serve the poem, but the poem should also earn the title.
GLM: While reading NOTW, I found myself thinking a lot about what Faulkner said: “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” Your world is so visceral, so physical. You both explore being at once at home and a visitor in nature (luckily for us readers you are both a learned and wise observer). I wonder how much you are aware of this distinction, how much of the world you are considering when you are writing about it?
FDR: Wow, that’s a huge, complicated, open-ended question. I am as aware of the world as possible when writing. And I’m also as completely aware of the poem (part of the world, no?) as I can bring myself to be. I think the word “visceral” is the right choice here and best describes my composition process. I get the idea and go for it, dive in, let it dictate my motions. At the risk of sounding like I’m full of bologna, I sometimes feel like I’m under a spell when I’m writing. The words are arriving, coming at me, and I’m putting them down. It’s not “automatic writing” because I do select and revise and there is much consciousness involved. However, I don’t sit down and say “Today I shall write about geese!” Themes and images arrive when they’re good and ready and it’s a matter of opening myself up to their whims, being observant and catching as many glimpses as I can. Poetry arrives out of experience, whether real, dreamt, or imagined (and who can say the difference?) It’s a matter of being faithful enough to turn as much of yourself as you can over to that experience, let it experience you. I love that Faulkner quote, which is new to me, because it puts in imagistic terms the truth that writers make something out of “nothing,” we draw our work inch by inch from the chaos and possibility that surrounds us. We see fertility and opportunity where others see the mundane or disgusting. So you have to be that wet seed, ready to become part of the earth, interact, grow, flourish, even die. The big factor is control. One just can’t become a graphomaniac and expect to be satisfied with the work. Rilke was obsessed with Rodin and rightly so. Sculpting and poetry seem very much like kindred souls to me. You have the stone and before scultping you might imagine the form, sense the shape, figure out intrinsically where to begin chipping away. When I get an idea, it doesn’t arrive written out from beginning to end. I might have a title, a sense of a beginning, an image I think could be included somewhere, an overall tone I’m hoping to achieve, but I’m also waiting for the wind to catch my sails. It’s improvisation with a loose plan, one that can be diverged from at any moment. For me, that’s the sense of being “a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.”