Our poetry co-editor Chris LaMay-West recently had this exchange with Darren Morris, our Issue #12 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about the making of metaphor, his progressive loss of vision, grief, and literary influences on his writing.
The role of the senses seems very strong in your poetry–“The Cold” really evokes the physical sensation of the morgue, and “Fear of Great and Small Percussions” similarly works with sound and the feeling of pressure. Is this something you consciously approach in your writing process, or is it more instinctive?
Sensory observance is crucial and essential to metaphor making. The thing itself is never precisely the thing itself. This is the failure of language but also its wonderment. It is not just about accuracy, but novelty, newness. The world renews by our perceptions of it. The cargo of a message is always a bit of a mystery, but that is what I am attempting to uncover in the writing, and that is what I am trying to deliver to the reader. In order to cross a river of meaning without drowning, we step across from one surfaced stone to the next. It is more thrilling to leap to stones set as far apart as possible.
But the risk is that no reader may be able to follow us. For me, the best poems are simple, uniquely expressed observance and typically of singular gestures or scenes in which a window might be opened to a metaphorical space that can be repurposed by multiple experiences. It has to feel grounded in reality before a message might arise, and if I can make that grounding unique, I feel like I’m doing my job. Because my eyesight has been recently compromised, I cannot say that my other senses (tools by which I observe the world) have been heightened, but certainly the sensory nature, the physical nature a poem holds in the imagination has become more interesting and important to me. If the scene of a poem is there, then the magic might happen.
In a similar vein, “Limitations” and some of your other poetry published elsewhere addresses your changing eyesight. Are you finding that changes in how you see, physically, effect what you “see” poetically?
The progressive loss of my vision has had a tremendous effect on my writing. People who know about my condition have asked me where I would like to visit and what I want to see before I go truly blind, and it is difficult to explain, for example, just how much of the Grand Canyon experience would be lost on me. I awoke six years ago with most of my visual field missing. I was 40 years old and, theretofore, had nearly perfect vision. I still have nearly perfect straight-ahead vision but just a narrowed cone of it now. The camera still works, but the loss of peripheral vision causes many other things such as the inability to track motion adequately and problems with depth perception. The weirdest and most difficult thing is the loss of awareness—not just of spatial orientation—but awareness itself. It’s amazing what we see without truly seeing and how much normal vision can enable us to sense beyond what we are truly sure of.
People with my form of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder affecting the cones and rods of the retina, move with constant trepidation, and this trepidation infects our state of being. I have had collisions with living and inanimate objects. At a broadly built 6 feet 4 inches, I beg your forgiveness in advance, but the inanimate objects are simply painful reminders of my insignificance. What can I say but that I am thankful for this suffering? The world is saying I am still here and every bruise says Don’t forget me.
Aside from practical and emotional attachment to the world and current fears stemming from impacts on my marriage, my occupation, my freedom—the current loss of vision and the fear of continuing diminishment, whether it occurs or not, have resulted in a few additional observations, the most important being the sense of loss itself, which feels like a physical presence. The unseen becomes what is seen, the un-sensed what is felt. All these things bleed through my writing. In poems, I have already begun exploring elements of light and color and the odd persistence of those memories that defy any reason for having stored them—peripheral memory is it were. It’s also as though I am saying goodbye to the visible, and knowing that it all might vanish quite suddenly, it has made me more careful about seeing the things I do.
But I am also interested in how I might improve my memory capacity, because I feel very much as if my current accumulation of images will be all I take with me into my later years. It increases the significance of these observed images, but unless I attach them to memory, I fear I will lose them forever. Poems are the best way for me to see these things again.
The act of creating a poem forms a meaning all in itself regardless of the subject of the poem. Analysis of image attachment to potential meaning should always be elusive and mysterious. Otherwise there would be no surprise in the writing. One sustains the other this way. Publishing poems is an extra vanity. I do it to enter into a dialog with other writers and readers. Ultimately every poem asks the same question: Isn’t this so? I suppose I will always have an interest in making connections this way. I do know that on a personal level I love the visual world, and I am simultaneously saddened and privileged by seeing it go.
Looking at the poems we’re publishing, and others of yours published elsewhere, I’ve noticed a kind of precision of scientific and medical language in several of them. Is this something you have a background or interest in, and do you have any thoughts about how this influences your writing?
Science offers beautiful explanations and we should expect the language of those explanations to be just as beautiful. If I have used technical terminology in my writing, perhaps I should admit a kind of savage appropriation. I am amazed by science the way any fool might be at a magic show. Like science, poems call attention to that which is overlooked or misunderstood and gives it a new shape and understanding. I often think that scientists are the true artists, only with brains and obsessions large enough to be meaningfully creative. I have no background save novice interest in these arts; however, if astrophysics modeling manuals, for example, were written by poets, I think we should all become Einsteins.
Another thing that runs strongly through the poems here is grief. Do you find that approaching that feeling through writing lessens it, or somehow changes the experience of it?
What an amazing sensation is the sensation or state of grief. Without it, I am not sure we could prove to ourselves that we exist in any meaningful way. Having lost a brother early in my life and lived through the wreckage that the wheel of grief carved as it rolled through my family and, more importantly, how we managed to hold ourselves together despite or because of it, I can say that I have always been a student of grief. It may not be the subject, but it is the condition that produces everything I write, the context for writing itself.
That said, I know very little about grief with the exception that it is not conquerable. I know nothing of its effects on anyone else. I approach it with a kind of stoic reverence in my work and give to it the same cold and robotic indifference it has afforded me. The one indelible benefit: that it can connect us to everyone who has ever lived. In the poem titled “Grief,” the speaker pulls a ship across a frozen lake. What other disruptive force save love itself can so resolutely shape our present, past, and future, and what other force can so quickly steal us from the rational substance that frames the self?
I also noticed that you work as an editor. Do you find that your work on that side of the table influences your writing as you prepare to submit it to other editors?
I worked for 17 years as a technical editor in the business and education industries. It was not unlike working in a mail room, except that the address on every letter needed rerouting. It may have helped me to become more grammatically correct, but most days, it was a cage I voluntarily entered. I will say that it drove me toward my own creative work. I am happily on an improved career path, but it still doesn’t have anything to do with creative writing or literature. I think this is a good thing. I need to be employed in a trade that allows me to keep the creativity pure. I believe in the separation of church and state.
Influence in general is something we’re very interested in. What other poets do you think you’re influenced by? And, while we’re at it, what other genres besides writing have an influence on your writing?
Robert Lowell is the one I turn to most when I need to read how poetry is done right. But I think we are influenced by our personal relationships with writers in a different way than we are influenced by their work. I was in Larry Levis’s final group of students at Virginia Commonwealth University, prior to his death, and there wasn’t a workshop or conversation with him that did not spark something in me. I have been fortunate to work with or among mentors TR Hummer, Tom De Haven, and Sherod Santos, and briefly with Gerald Stern, CK Williams, and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Fellow classmates or friends, who are now notable writers, include Jeffrey Thomson and Penelope Pelizzon. I have kept up closer friendships with Joshua Poteat, whose new book, The Regret Histories, is coming out soon, and Angela Merta, who, like me, has yet to publish a book and yet is the only other person with whom I exchange drafts. But these are all amazing writers. They are all part of a much larger fake family tree of writers who have influenced me from the British Romantics onward, connected generationally. I am happy to share this diagram verbally if provided enough time and alcohol. It is important to have some sense of where we fall within the tradition even if no one else would include us.
It turns out that writers are often readers as well. What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing?
For a while I was just reading nonfiction on the subject of light, but it doesn’t usually go this way. Currently, I am reading Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Lawrence Raab, VS Naipaul, Kenneth Koch, George Oppen, and others. I just finished a Jim Thompson novel called, “The Killer Inside Me,” which I found kind of cool and strange even though I didn’t feel it was well written. Vonnegut is like an uncle. I keep a short stack of things next to the bed and pick whatever strikes me that night. I finish things and add new items. It’s like always having visitors to the house but some of them stay longer than others. I’ve also been listening to audio recordings of novels too, because it’s more difficult to read, but I have enjoyed it more than I expected. All selected reading inspires new writing.
What are you working on next?
I am working on finishing a novella and short stories. I also have the beginnings of a novel that is a collection of interrelated short stories. The hope is to adapt these to screen but the main objective is to finish them and move on. Poems fill the spaces in between, but there tends to be a lot of in between.