a medal or a firing squad

Our poetry co-editor Erin Post recently had this exchange with Ace Boggess, our Issue #21 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his appreciation of the absurd, how his time in prison affected his writing process, and how his approach to writing poetry differs from his novel writing.

 

Our editorial team has lauded your poems’ distinctive voice. This is one of those poetry terms that is hard to pin down, yet so very important. Can you talk a bit about voice? What does that term mean to you? How do you develop it in your work?

I try to allow let each poem to have its own voice. I don’t always know what direction one will take when I begin, so I let it find its own way. Sometimes that works, and others it turns into chaos. But, that’s okay, too. The thing is, I read so much poetry that I have hundreds of voices swirling around in my head, all fighting for attention. I prefer to leave them alone to fight it out. What I have is more of a style: narrate, then meditate. I start with the journalism of it (what happened? what did I see?), then move on to something more philosophical (what does it mean? or, at least, what does it mean to me?).

 

There’s a dark humor to these poems. For example, the great lines in ER: “How many times my bed rolls past the gift shop/ where stuffed pandas & lions stare at me/ through the thin glass like judgmental fools.” There’s a sense of the absurdity of life contained here. How does the absurd find its way into your writing?

I love absurdity, because it always stands out. I might not notice the serious guy in his serious suit as he walks into his serious office to do his serious job, but if he slips and spills his serious coffee on his serious shirt and starts cussing loudly (and seriously), I see THAT. I love THAT. I spot a teddy bear lying face down on the highway, I write about it. I respond to it. It makes me laugh and smile and just think everything’s okay, even when it isn’t. Besides, absurdity follows me around. I owned a house where the garage and driveway were at a ninety-degree angle. Absurd. Try making that turn at two a.m.

 

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing poetry and how has your work evolved?

No, definitely not. I wanted to be a rock star, but didn’t have the talent or dedication for it. What I knew was that I was alone in the world, although I was too young to understand why (there’s a big reason anxiety keeps popping up in these poems). That internal sense of isolation, that fear, led me to writing and drug addiction at about the same time. I embraced both because they made me feel better about myself. Even then, I didn’t expect to be a poet. I called myself a novelist and focused on the novels. I wrote poetry (mostly bad poetry) just so I’d have something to submit while waiting on the novels to sell. But, absurdity again, I began to receive acceptances for the poems. It felt good and drove me to read and write more poetry. I received a lot of acceptances as time went on, and from more respected or well-known journals. Next thing I knew, everyone referred to me as ‘the poet.’ Que sera sera.

 

Since you’re a poet and a novelist, can you talk about your approach to each genre? How does a novel begin for you? What about a poem? How does your work in one genre inform the other?

Writing a poem is more like taking a photograph and then discussing it with someone else. I try to find the best angle and the best light, look at it, smile about it, then figure out exactly what I’ve captured. Writing a novel takes more of a vision. I know what I want to say and where I want to go, then submerge myself in it, lose myself, really. It’s like method-acting. I become the characters in my head. I live with them. I suffer with them. Then, when the book’s finished, I’m exhausted. Because of those differences, there’s not much interplay between the poems and novels, aside from language.

 

You have been open about the five years you spent in prison for first degree robbery, and your struggle with addiction to prescription painkillers. Your most recent collection of poetry, The Prisoners, was written while you were a prisoner. How did the experiences you had while in prison shape your writing? Did it change what you found important to write about–the subjects you chose to explore?

It did three things for me. First, it sobered me up. I wasn’t looking at the world through a constant drug haze, so I could see and feel in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Second, it introduced me to a new range of experiences, both externally and internally. Most of them weren’t pleasant, but I needed them more than I can explain. I confess, my writing had grown stale before my arrest. I wrote about the same things over and over because I did the same things over and over. That changed. I had new experiences to write and think about. I collected them as if they were photos from my summer vacation in hell. Third, going to prison made me start from scratch. I’d spent the previous few years revising and recycling old manuscripts, trying to get them to work, beating them with baseball bats, or whatever. Now, I didn’t have access to those manuscripts. So, I built my book The Prisoners from the ground up. I wrote the book’s first poem on my first day at the penitentiary, and I received my acceptance of the full manuscript on the day I made it out.

 

You have described yourself as a “journalist-poet.” Can you talk more about what you mean by this term?

I do consider my poetry a form of journalism. I’m reporting on all the things I see, feel, encounter, and experience. I want my reader to learn the facts and discover the meanings. Sure, I’ve tried my hand at the flowery or formal, but I prefer the news. I’m saying to my reader, “This is what happened. Maybe you’ve had that experience, or maybe not. Either way, now you know.

Isn’t it beautiful? horrible? terrifying? bizarre? Great, now let’s try to understand it together.”

 

How did you learn to write poetry?

I taught myself to write poetry through years of 1) reading every journal or book of poems I could get my hands on, and 2) trial and error (mostly error). It took time for me to figure out what worked generally in a poem and what worked more specifically for me. Often, I’d think I had a handle on it only to come across a book that changed my view of things. My favorite book, David Lehman’s The Evening Sun, did that. His daily poems seemed so unfocused, and yet they knew what they were about. I still read those poems and say, to quote Keanu Reeves from all his movies, “Whoa.”

 

Do you participate in workshops, or more generally, how do you receive feedback on your work?

I was in a monthly poetry group for several years before I was locked up. Sometimes it was helpful. But, after a while, I got to recognize each person’s particular quirks of taste and could tell what each would say about the poems I brought. As such, I found myself already making conscious decisions about those things before I ever submitted a poem to the group. These days, most of my feedback is acceptance and rejection, or on occasion, specific requests for changes made by editors. I’m pretty open when it comes to editorial suggestions. My rule is that if an editor wants cuts, style changes, moves, etc., I’m good with it ninety percent of the time, as long as nothing’s added. An editor adding stuff still pisses me off.

 

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

Some connection between their lives and mine, along with a better understanding of both. Also, maybe they won’t feel so alone, or maybe I won’t. Who can say?

 

Can you talk about your writing process and routine?

My routine for poetry is a simple one. I read until I feel I’m ready to begin. There’s usually coffee involved. I write longhand with whatever pen is lucky for me at the moment. I have a certain kind of journal I use for poetry, and another kind for prose. I write wherever I can, although I find myself writing a lot while lying in bed, which is a habit left over from prison. I write at all times of day because each has its own psychological effect on a poem. In the mornings, my mind is empty, while at night it’s overflowing. Each brings something different to a poem. During the daytime, I tend to write fiction. It’s a more formal and businesslike approach.

 

How do you revise a piece?

I write longhand, as I said. I revise while I type up what I’ve written. Then I submit to journals. No hesitation, no debating. My best acceptances are almost always first time out. When a piece is rejected, I revise it again and resubmit elsewhere. I don’t allow things to sit. If I can’t figure out what to do with a poem, I consider it fatally flawed and just get rid of it. So, I revise and submit, revise and submit, until each poem receives either a medal or a firing squad.

 

How do you know when a poem is finished?

When I have it in a full-length book on my shelf, I usually stop tinkering with it then.

 

What writers, poets, artists, or other thinkers have been important to your development as a writer?

For poetry, I mentioned David Lehman’s book. I’ve also been obsessed at times with Neruda and Hicok. I love the works of Sajè, Sheehan, Matthews, Strand. There are so many great writers out there. Prose, too. I consider the existentialists poolside summer reading. I’m still consumed by Camus and Hesse. As for people I’ve actually met, old friends John McKernan (only poet to visit me in jail) and novelist John Van Kirk both at times opened my eyes to new possibilities. If you haven’t read their books (Resurrection of the Dust and Song for Chance, respectively) you should. Now.

 

What are you working on now?

Poetry and short stories mostly. I’m also preparing for two forthcoming books. My novel, A Song Without a Melody, will be released by Hyperborea Publishing in October, and my third collection of poems, tentatively titled Ultra-Deep Field, will be released by Brick Road Poetry Press after that. I’m also trying to find homes for three other poetry manuscripts and several additional novels. Juggling multiple unpublished full-length manuscripts—I think that about sums it up for the absurd.

 

 

Ace Boggess

Ace Boggess is the author of two books of poetry: The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014) and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). His novel, A Song Without a Melody, and third book of poems, Ultra-Deep Field, are forthcoming from Hyperborea Publishing and Brick Road, respectively. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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