Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton interviewed John Skoyles in his office at Emerson College, Boston, MA, when they were visiting scholars in December, 2017.
Cassandra Atherton: How do writing and teaching intersect for you? Clearly with The Nut File,1 work and writing on some level have a lovely symbiosis for you. Do you think teaching and writing influence one another as a two-way process?
John Skoyles: It’s a two-edged sword. If you hadn’t brought up the subject of prose poems prior to this interview you would never know that I had picked two books — one good, one bad — in order to show a student: he’s coming here at 3:35 pm. In doing that, I had to decide what I am going to say about each of them. I wouldn’t otherwise have done that. I wasn’t rehearsing it when I said to you, all the gestures of Russell Edson without any of the intelligence, soul or emotion are in the weak one. The other is Jason Whitmarsh’s The Histories.2 It’s all discovery, and it’s funny and it’s doing something new.
If I wasn’t going to meet that student, I would have had that in the back of my mind but it’s helpful to me when I’m at my own desk to think: is this just a gesture you’re using or are you after something more? So it is a check all the time when you have to verbalise something — even when I’m walking the dog I may be talking to myself but I wouldn’t have the audience I have as a teacher; not that it’s only an audience. But I think it’s helpful to me, and the ambition in my own work — I’m trying to get my students to be ambitious with their work and it boosts me – that’s the positive part.
The other part is, while on my way in to work I’m not daydreaming, and lines are not occurring to me in the same way that they are when I am off work (and most of my writing is done when school is over). When I’m away from work I’m hearing those voices and taking dictation, and when I’m driving I’m thinking of something. But when I’m thinking of the students’ work — and I’m meeting them today and talking about poetry — although one couldn’t have a better job, it does distract. But I think it’s a trade-off. And, as the adage goes, ‘the pen is lighter than the shovel’.
Cassandra: I think it’s a shame if you can’t get something out of the teaching element of your workload. I work with some people who see teaching and writing as totally separate but I think it’s important to find a way to benefit from the teaching.
John: It’s the only way to do it. I learnt that in college when I had to take an education course — we had to write an essay on an educator like Horace Mann, or someone, and I thought this is going to kill me, but I was reading Pound’s Confucian cantos and I thought I’d do Confucius. It’s the only C I ever got in college but I learned something about Kung3 and it was helpful in my reading of that work. Teaching is similar, although I don’t teach just what I want to learn. This semester I’ve used JD McClatchy’s The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry,3 because this is not an English department, and every week we pick someone different to study: Darwish, Montale, Tranströmer,Walcott.4 I even assigned a poet who wasn’t very well known: Claire Malroux — the French poet.5 I’ve never written a long poem and I know some of the students are inclined that way, so I thought, ‘let’s have a look at Malroux and the long poem’. Teaching has to repay you, otherwise you are bitter. And you’ve seen that …
Cassandra: Oh, yes, we all have experienced the bitter teacher.
John: Or you never see them because they’re never available. That was my experience in Grad School. I think I learnt how to be a good teacher by having so many indifferent teachers.
Cassandra: There are amazing things written by your students about you on the internet.
John: I haven’t seen them but thank you …
Cassandra: A Moveable Famine6 is a wonderful way to learn about your relationship with poetry — I notice that its tagline in reviews emphasises a kind of fairytale where a boy from Queens ends up at some of the most famous writing workshops in America. Could you talk a little about the idea of poetry and class? I think poetry is often still considered elitist by some people when the evidence is that poetry is read by very broad audiences.
John: Almost all the poets I know come from non-literary, lower or middle class backgrounds. In fact, the student who was in here today is a zoo keeper from Bakersfield and I took him fishing when he came down to visit me this summer. He told me when he interviewed for a job, the main question was, ‘Can you carry 50 pounds?’ and yet he’s sitting here, writing terrific poetry — how did he get there? Allen Grossman’s7 father ran the biggest car dealership in Minnesota. How does that happen?
My mother did like poetry, even though she didn’t go to college — I think she might have taken one class at Queens College — but she did read poetry to me. It’s funny because this semester somebody said something about somebody being in jail and a student said, ‘Well Oscar Wilde wrote a poem in jail’, and I said, ‘I know: “He did not wear his scarlet coat, / For blood and wine are red, / And blood and wine were on his hands / When they found him with the dead, / The poor dead woman whom he loved, / And murdered in her bed …”’. My mother made me memorise most of it. But what a weird poem – ‘each man kills the thing he loves’8 – and I was memorising this as a little boy. And that stayed in my mind. It wasn’t a literary household by any means, but it spoke to me.
Cassandra: That is such an interesting point about memorising and reciting poems or learning them by heart, but we don’t really do it anymore.
John: I haven’t taught undergraduates in a literature class for a while, but when I did, for the final exam I made each person memorise a poem and at the end we went around the room and recited the poem. And it’s something they will always have. I took my son on a sixth grade class bus trip from Cape Cod to New York City. I was a chaperone and I remember saying, read this ‘Fire and Ice’ poem by Robert Frost, which he did while everyone else was throwing Twinkies and carrot sticks at each another. He memorised it and he still knows that poem, and I think it’s something you can give to someone.
Tip O’Neil was the speaker of the House of Representatives in the US Congress — a big Irish guy — and I remember hearing him once say that he really stumbled when he was a young State Representative from Boston, and Mayor Curley (they were all in cohoots) said to him, ‘Come here young man’, and gave him a pocketful of poems, and said, ‘Memorise these. Any time you are called to the stage you will have something to say’. One poem was by Charles Hanson Towne: ‘Around the corner I have a friend, / In this great city that has no end; / Yet days go by, and weeks rush on, / And before I know it, a year is gone. / And I never see my old friend’s face / For life is a swift and terrible race. / … And now we are busy, tired men: / Tired with playing a foolish game, / Tired with trying to make a name …’ Tip would recite this and his whole audience of tradesmen, veterans and construction workers would be very moved, clapping and cheering.
Where I come from has probably made my poetry more accessible — I want it to be accessible. If I’m on the bus or a plane and the person next to me asks, ‘What do you do?’ I say I’m a teacher. But if I can see a little crack of light, and if a woman is reading a Diane Ackerman book or something not genre — I can usually tell by the shape of the book — and if we do talk, I say I’m a writer, maybe say I’m a poet. They are often curious and it turns out they do have some favourite poems. Robert Pinsky explored this in his Favorite Poem Project,9 when he went around the States having audiences recite their favourites.
Cassandra: Your poetry combines verbal complexity, plain speaking, sharp observation, wry humour and occasional self-deprecation, which frequently results in poems of complex tonality. Is this part of what you aim for as a writer? And there is a sense of the poignant, and sometimes a sense of sadness, behind much of your work. Could you comment on that?
John: I feel like I’ve just been psychoanalysed … It’s how my poems turn out even though I’m shooting higher in some ways. If I had a wish it would be that my poems have more sweep to them. Every semester for years I would go around the room and say to graduate students, what do you want to do with your work? And I’d say, ‘I’ll start — I’m going to try and stop writing autobiographical poems’. But then, with The Nut File, what happened was I realised you can’t will that. Collecting all those obituaries, newspaper clippings, emails and memos led me to looking at the poetic elements in each, and I started putting those into lines and I was thinking: I have made a little baby step in that direction, but not as great as I wish. I mean, I don’t know if we all wish we were something else …
John: Probably. I mean, reading Darwish, I feel miniscule. Really, I don’t mind you quoting that. When I read him, I feel there is a person who had a grand sweep of history, something I lack.
Paul Hetherington: I think there is quite a sweep in your work, but it is often almost like something that comes up through the poem, almost subterraneously; but it surfaces and often by the end — this is just an observation — you finish the poem with a rhyme or something that gives a definite sense of conclusion. Often by then, this subterranean matter has surfaced. Is that something you are aware of doing?
John: Through revision I do, yes, absolutely. I showed Stanley Kunitz10 some of my poems when I was 24 and he said, ‘All your poems wrap up really neatly’, which is what I tried to do. He has famously said, ‘The ending of a poem should be a door and a window. It should close but you should also be able to look through it.’ That has been a guiding light for me. I always think, I don’t want to wrap up the poem by closing it down. I try to impart that to people. If you can, you don’t want to read it again because you know how it’s going to end. But if you can live with a poem, then it leaves you thinking of more than its subject, then you’ve done a good thing.
Paul: There is a sense of the poignant and sadness in your poetry; can you comment on that?
John: If I was happy, I wouldn’t write poetry, that’s for sure. [laughter]
Paul: That’s probably true of most poets.
John: I think of reading Camus at high school and his saying that people have their profoundest thoughts when thinking of suicide; well, that always stuck with me. Maybe I’ve mixed it all up by now. First of all, I remember thinking: ‘Oh you can have profound thoughts and you can kill yourself, too!’ I didn’t know; the world is big isn’t it? [laughter]. Possibilities loom everywhere.
It’s always the way with your own family who says, ‘Why don’t you write a happy poem, John?’ I’m sure you’ve heard it. It’s like Trump saying, ‘You’re writing fake news, why don’t you write the real news, that I got a hole in one?’ We live the good and we dwell on the bad most of the time; the little harms and little hurts stay with us. Alan Dugan11 used to say, ‘pain made art’ — art as a way of purging yourself of the pain and you get over it. It can be a blood-letting, really.
Paul: People talk about poetry and feeling a lot. Your poetry thinks in mobile and shifting ways which is one of the most interesting things about your work. How important is the registration of patterns of thought to you and your poetry? Do you set out to record or register patterns of thinking as well as feeling?
John: I try to get both into a poem, and the way to do it is through what I think Berenson talks about: a tactile palpability of image.12 Image is a figure that you can grasp, so the poem doesn’t become a discursive lecture. I use image to get the balance between thought and feeling and that image is usually in the shape of a metaphor.
Cassandra: You’ve said that you think of yourself as a poet who writes in other genres, and that your first prose book, Secret Frequencies,13 grew from a poem into prose. Can you discuss the differences for you when you write in poetry and prose? I notice you have said that you often write poetry during semester but prose you take time off to write
John: With prose it’s usually a project — you outline it and you usually know how it’s going to go — and I can write for three or four hours on prose because I know where I’m going. But a poem, I might be able to jot down one draft and put it in my briefcase and take it on the bus, and if I have a few minutes look at it and cross out a line and say how the hell did you get here? But you can’t do that with a big manuscript; you have to look at the whole thing.
It’s a huge difference. I actually walked from the bus to Emerson with a nonfiction writer who said, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t work all semester’, because he’s doing these big books about learning to play blues piano from a guy in Harlem. And I know what’s happening — when you finish teaching, you always have to rev up again. You return to your work and re-read that whole manuscript. If you get that same spark as you did when you left it, you push on. If you don’t, that project could be abandoned. That’s how I feel about every prose project: I have to start over again, and if I’m interested enough I’m going on; otherwise, I’m going to throw it out.
Cassandra: And you’ve said you’ve had some prose projects that have occasionally become poems?
John: My book of poems, Inside Job,14 has a lot of these short pieces. They were going into The Nut File but I took them out and I made little poems of them because they could stand alone. These are definitely in a minor key, there is no question about it; they are strange obituaries, like one about the prize fighter Jerry Quarry, who at the end of his life wrote poems. Or they are profiles of those I knew, like Grace Paley. As I said, they are in a minor key, and they came from prose.
Cassandra: I think the way you work across both forms is fascinating.
John: I like hybrid forms. I would like to teach a class on that subject. I have got a syllabus and course pack from Amy Gerstler who teaches the hybrid form at UC Irvine, and I hope to do that someday.
Paul: You are attracted to hybridisation and the prose poetry form, and you’ve talked about lines of text and how they function in your composition: how does the line in prose poetry work for you?
John: Yes, I took bits of my book, Driven,15 and made poems of them. It seemed to me, in those pieces, that there were lines buried in the prose. Sometimes it’s just prose and you just know there is no lilt to it. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s written by the sentence, it was born in the sentence and is going to die in the sentence. There are others that when you look at them, you think, I can hear something, let me cut away the rest and I can see if there is a poem there. In several cases there was. It’s listening to the music of it, the rhythm of it. I love the rhythm of both the sentence and the line, but I know a line when I hear one and I know when it is buried.
Cassandra: You’ve also played with genre and form in descriptions of some of your books — for example ‘fictional memoir’, ‘nonfiction novel’, ‘autobiography mostly true’; do you think genres, forms and labelling of writing as distinct will eventually break down? What would this mean for writers like you who work across multiple forms?
John: I don’t think it matters at all, I don’t think it makes any difference. I found a quote from Borges somewhere who said, ‘talking of whether a book is fiction or nonfiction is like saying does the book have a green cover on your shelf or a blue cover?’ Yeah, it’s autofiction, it’s a nonfiction novel; you look at Fred Exley, A Fan’s Notes; it says ‘in this novel’ on the back of the cover, and on the inside it says, ‘a fictional memoir’. What is it? If you pin down even the people who published the book, they can’t tell you. And what does it matter anyway? Is it a good book or a bad book?
The fact is, I don’t believe there’s nonfiction, I don’t believe it. Grace Paley has that line ‘tell a story twice, it’s fiction’. Ask four people who had lunch together to describe what it was like? There are four different stories. It’s not journalism; journalism is different; but in ‘creative nonfiction’ I think it’s up for grabs, and I don’t really care what you call it. Nabokov said, ‘To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every writer is a great deceiver’.16
I wrote a lot of this new book, Driven, on sabbatical leave from Emerson. On returning, the Dean required a form describing the project. There was a space for ‘genre’ and I wrote, ‘fiction or nonfiction, depending on whether or not you believe in ghosts’. He wrote back ‘I believe in ghosts’; he was goodhumoured about it. I have ghosts in it, so is it a memoir? Those ghosts are with me, my dead parents are in the car with me, as well as my old girlfriend. Are they really there, or not?
Vivian Gornick was castigated years ago because she gave a talk at a journalism school in Oklahoma and she admitted she changed some minor facts. It was the book about her mother, Fierce Attachments. She conflated some characters, I think, and I think merged two trips with her mother to the butcher shop to buy chicken livers into one scene. Big deal. In my memoir, Secret Frequencies, I had to get my father out of the book or he would rival the main male character, my uncle. I didn’t need a father and an uncle fighting for space, so I said my father was on the road a lot, more than he was. He was absent, in that he was physically home but indifferent to my wanderings and escpades, and so he was absent, really.
When I lived in Dallas and taught at Southern Methodist University, in 1976, a book was published that year called The Education of Little Tree about growing up as a Native American; it was by Forrest Carter. The department secretary, an elderly woman and graduate of Wellesley College, invited me to join her in hearing Carter speak, along with Barbara Tuchman. Carter was totally drunk and said, ‘Barbara Tuchman, she’s a good old Jew girl’ and he went on like that. Well, it turned out that he was really not a Native American, but Asa Earl Carter, Ku Klux Klan leader and segregationist speech writer. He had no Native American heritage at all. It was the only time a book jumped from a best seller on the nonfiction list to the bestseller on the fiction list [laughter]. Same book! It brings up other issues, like poet Donald Justice’s ‘tear stained test’. He said, ‘if you were moved by a poem because you cried over it, does it make it a better poem?’
Paul: You are also the poetry editor for Ploughshares. It is both print and digital journal — have poetry readerships widened with online possibilities for poetry?
John: I wrote a piece for the New York Times about giving up drinking and I wondered if it was going to appear in the print edition or online. I preferred the former. My son said to me, ‘Dad, millions of people read the Sunday Times online’. They did put my piece in the print version, but it made me think about it and it’s true, what we used to regard as a secondary format is now the primary one.
Ploughshares has a blog, with a new entry every day that reaches a tremendous audience. As you point out, the journal publishes under both species, so we have the best of both worlds. The great benefit of online publishing is that the work appears quickly, the audience reacts and there is very often an exchange between author and reader. Still, I like the feeling of the physical object in my hand, and flipping to a marked page where marginalia can be entered and revisited. There are probably fewer and fewer of us who feel like that.
1. John Skoyles 2017 The Nut File, Niantic, CT: Quale Press
2. Jason Whitmarsh 2017 The Histories, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon
3. Kung “Confucius” Fu-Tzu; Confucianism is based on his teachings.
4. JD McClatchy, The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (1996)
5. Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008), Palestinian poet, holder of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; Eugenio Montale (1896–1981), Italian poet, winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Literature; Tomas Tranströmer (1931–2015), Swedish poet, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature; Derek Walcott (1930–2017), St Lucian poet, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature.
6. Claire Malroux (1935– ), French poet and translator.
7. John Skoyles, A Moveable Famine (2014; memoir).
8. Allen Grossman (1932–2014), American poet and critic, Paul E Prosswimmer Professor of Poetry and General Education at Brandeis University; and Emeritus Andrew W Mellon Professor at Johns Hopkins University.
9. These lines are from Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol 1901 , London: HS Nichols; the last line quoted is from the final stanza of that poem: ‘And all men kill the thing they love, / By all let this be heard, / Some do it with a bitter look, / Some with a flattering word, / The coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword!’
10. Pinsky, then the Poet Laureate of the US, established this project in 1997. See https://robertpinskypoet.com/favorite-poem-project/ for more details.
11. Stanley Kunitz (1905–2006), appointed Poet Laureate of the US in 2000.
12. Alan Dugan (1923–2003), American poet, won the the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and the National Book Award for poetry in 2001. ‘pain made art’ comes from his poem ‘To a red-headed do-good waitress’: ‘no tears, no stomach-cries, but pain made art/to move her powerful red pity toward philanthropy’; in Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry.
13. Bernard Berenson (1865–1959), a highly influential American art historian specialising in Renaissance art.
14. John Skoyles, Secret Frequencies: A New York Education (2006; memoir).
15. John Skoyles, Inside Job (2016).
16. John Skoyles, Driven (2018).
17. In Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (1981).
Dugan, A 2001 ‘To a red-headed do-good waitress’, in Poems seven: New and complete poetry, New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, p. 81
McClatchy, JD 1996 The vintage book of contemporary world poetry, New York, NY: Vintage
Nabokov, V 1981 Lectures on literature, New York, NY: Harcourt
Skoyles, J 2018 Driven, Asheville, NC: MadHat Press
Skoyles, J 2017 The nut file, Niantic, CT: Quale Press
Skoyles, J 2016 Inside job, Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie-Mellon University Press
Skoyles, J 2014 A moveable famine, New York, NY: Permanent Press
Skoyles, J 2006 Secret frequencies: A New York education, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press
Whitmarsh, J 2017 The histories, Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon
Wilde, O The ballad of Reading Gaol 1901 , London: HS Nichols