An Interview with Will Schutt ~ Peter LaBerge
Will Schutt is the author of Westerly, winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. He is also the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Gilman School, the James Merrill House, the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. His poems and translations have recently appeared in Agni, Field, New Republic and elsewhere. More information can be found at his website. (www.wschutt.com)
Peter LaBerge is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. His recent poetry appears in such publications as The Louisville Review, DIAGRAM, The Newport Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Word Riot, Weave Magazine, and Hanging Loose. In the past, he has been named a two-time Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist for Poetry and a commended Foyle Young Poet of the Year, among other distinctions. He grew up in Connecticut, and currently serves as the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Adroit Journal.
Peter LaBerge: First of all, congratulations on the recent release of Westerly, and its accompanying recognition as the recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award! No doubt still exciting, I'm sure. I'm always curious about how and where ideas for manuscripts originate, so I was wondering if we could begin by discussing the origin of Westerly.
Will Schutt: Thanks, Peter. Yes, the excitement has yet to wear off. I'm not sure where to begin when it comes to explaining where Westerly began. The poems were written over several years, in various homes and states of mind, under the influence of various authors and friends and teachers. The oldest translation dates back to 2004, the oldest original poem to 2007. And then so little of what I've written found its way into the collection; it's a short book. In graduate school I was always adamant about writing individual poems, poems that didn't need to be annexed to One Big Idea, and I bridled at the suggestion that poetry collections had to fall under an All-or-Nothing Rubric. No doubt I was overreacting to the glut of so-called project books. My thinking has since changed; there's something deeply satisfying about a book that coheres. But for me cohesion willed from the get-go often gets stale—for reader and writer alike. Any governing ideas I reserved for closing time, during the organization process. The ideas were broad and, on the surface, sound predictably poetic when paraphrased: inheritance, the dead, origin itself.
PL: How interesting that there was no overarching cohesion for Westerly until the production stages! I would assume that such an undertaking would require at least some sort of initial planning or cohesion—but perhaps that's why I'm still in the individual poem stage. How did you manage to suspend what I imagine was some element of concern that the book's cohesion would not manifest—or, perhaps, how did you manage to tie the various strands of narrative together during the organization process?
WS: I didn't mean to suggest it was all thrown together in the production stages. I meant to say that it wasn't until after the poems were written that I read them as a group with my right brain, that I looked for the picture the pieces added up to. Nor while writing was I utterly oblivious to my concerns or writerly inclinations—a sense of geography, an emphasis on seeing, an interest in the ordeal of inheritance and privilege. But, again, I think you have to suspend knowing and follow the dictates of language; I'm hardly alone in thinking self-consciousness kills a poem or book. That "I have something to say" business Auden suggested does not a poet make. Poets always talk about the contradictions we must embrace to make our mysterious art or our art mysterious—thanks to Keats, Whitman, Auden, etc.—yet oddly enough we all seem to have sustained interests that shine through even in the cloudiness of composition. But let me be more practical: Longer and more complicated poems, I knew, should appear toward the end or nearer the center. Don't immediately dazzle your reader with what a genius you are, right? Keep her guessing. Including translations felt fundamental, and they too seemed appropriate for the middle. My parents taught me never to end on another person's words. Ironically Westerly sort of does. The last poem is homage to/imitation of Leopardi's "To Silvia." That was the last poem I wrote and I'm sure part of me knew it was the culmination of Westerly before I'd even hit save. It seemed to encapsulate everything—diminished hope, intensified clarity, Italy, translation, that final "pointing the way." Writing it was release: Done, I thought, addio to all that.
PL: Ahh, I see. I love when writing feels like a release. Right now I'm in a poetry-writing workshop at Penn taught by Gregory Djanikian, and&madsh; while I love the course to pieces—I recognize that writing sometimes (or, on a bad day, usually) feels a bit like an assignment or a chore. As I suppose any poet should be, I'm fascinated by the actual process of writing something start to finish, but also somewhat unsettled by it. After all, it seems difficult at best to realize when any given piece is truly 'done' and ready for primetime. Can you describe (roughly) the journey you take while penning and revising a work?
WS: Well, there's less pressure to identify an ending in a translation, even a loose translation like the Leopardi poem. You know from the start where the poem's headed, and the question becomes one of reinventing the discovery of the original in a natural mode... Knowing when to say enough is difficult for one's own poems, but I'm not sure I'd say it feels like a chore. My mind is often elsewhere than in the aisle at CVS. But when I write I'm absorbed by the demands of the poem. All other concerns disappear. I feel a sense of purpose—purpose for the poem's sake—that I rarely experience otherwise. I tend to revise while writing. I'm wary of revising at too far a remove. In the past I've bungled poems that weren't fully attended to in a concentrated period of time (typically 1-3 months). When I return to a poem after a year or more, I want to rip it up, salvage a few lines or words, and cook up something new.
PL: How interesting! I almost feel as though sometimes scrapping the weaker poems for parts is an inevitable—not to mention quintessential— process. Speaking of inevitable processes, I was wondering if we might discuss how you came to reconcile with varying poetic structures and rhythms spread throughout Westerly. In fact, just flipping quickly through the collection, the reader bears witness to many different kinds of poems (with long poems such as "Flywheel with Variable Inertia" and short poems such as "A Kind of Poetry"; with indented couplets as in "We Didn't Start the Fire" and more prose-laden approaches as in "Breughel in Rome").
WS: The variety of sizes and structures may be the result of what I mentioned before, my aversion to writing a project book. It may also be the symptom of a weakness of temperament—a short attention span—and of my wide-ranging influences. Two poets I came to early and admired equally were Robinson Jeffers and Robert Creeley. You can't get much further apart in form and feeling than those two: Creeley's short, variable line and Jeffers' epic one, Creeley's pure breath and Jeffers' physicality. Even now I'm taken aback by the idea that you can't like both poets, that somehow you can be moved to write by the one but not the other. Maybe one of the advantages of a first book is that the poet is still an apprentice, still adopting and discarding methods, and the book's acknowledgment of that—via the subject matter, homages and translations—helps reconcile the diversity of form.
PL: That's a great point—it's funny how something that seems as final as a collection really is just a matter of continual evolution. This might be going out on a limb a bit, but I'm curious: how has publishing a book affected your overall world? Do you find yourself faced with more social or professional opportunities, or is it more a matter of internal validation?
WS: It hasn't changed my life, but it has opened doors: invitations to read, to sit on panels, to submit to journals that in my ignorance I hadn't heard of before. And I've been taken aback by the kind reception of readers—many poets themselves—who have reached out simply to say welcome. I'm not saying it's all wine and roses, but I think the writing community has happily distanced itself from the one-upmanship that characterized, say, the age of New Criticism. On the other hand, publishing a book of poetry has also meant bearing certain responsibilities I wasn't exactly prepared for (such as responding to questions about authorial intent!). People get the disturbing idea that you know wherefrom you speak, or—more disturbing&mdsah;that they know who you are based upon reading (some of) your book. But that may be a positive thing; it pushes you to consider more seriously what your work is up to, who it's talking to, where you may be heading.
PL: So would you say, then, that there are aspects of your pre-Westerly life that you miss?
WS: Not so many that I'd have it otherwise! Besides, it's not as though I'm being inundated with inquiries. I hope my last answer didn't come off as ungrateful. I appreciate that people (such as yourself) are interested. Having Westerly out in the world, with the prize attached to it, awarded to me by a poet whose work I've long loved, has been extremely gratifying. The pros dwarf the cons. And, as I said before, I think the pressure to answer for your work can clarify your thinking—not necessarily about how to write a poem but, for example, about what you yourself find so significant about this funny, beguiling art. I guess on the one hand I'm just wary of forfeiting my privacy, and on the other, I feel I'm expected to have a stack of little insights in my back pocket, and I don't. The truth is I'm really not sure what I'm doing, or what it is I've done, not exactly at least. Oddly enough, I need it to be that way in order to keep working.
PL: When it comes right down to it, I suppose all you need is just a little bit of faith! That is a good point to make, though—I don't suppose new authors very often prepare for the inquisitions and responsibilities of 'the relative literary spotlight,' as it were. Any other advice for those hoping (or planning) to get debut collections out there sometime soon?
WS: Grace Paley once suggested three things a young writer should keep in mind, which I'll paraphrase here because it's some of the best general advice I've heard: Keep a low overhead, make sure people close to you understand what you do and what being around a writer entails, and learn to judge your own work honestly. Paley's second bit of advice shouldn't be seen as peddling the romance of writer as reckless outlaw. Writers tend to be self-centered and in constant search of validation. Anyone who finds them romantic ought to be tasered. Another piece of advice germane to my own experience: Learn another language and try translating. Not only is our culture short on translation and long on unilingualism—although I think that's changing—but also studying another language and literary tradition is advantageous to one's own writing. Working outside of English tests your fluency in English, forces you to reconsider the limitations and liberties of the language, and reminds you, if you needed reminding, that there is a lot more going on in literature than this year's set of American tics and tricks.
PL: I knew those college Spanish classes would pay off! Thanks so much, Will, for all of your wisdom and insight—and congratulations, once more, on Westerly's success. Here's to the future!