Our poetry co-editor Samuel Hughes recently had this exchange with Seth Copeland, our Issue #26 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his development as a poet, life in a rural area, and our gravitation towards legends, myths, and the past.
From what I can glean, it looks like you’ve spent most of your life in Oklahoma. There’s a saying out there about how there are writers who travel and writers who stay put: they both see the world in the end. How has staying close to home influenced your writing? Do you see your home as a microcosm?
A little microcosmic, yes. Oklahoma is like the rusty buckle of the Bible belt, but it’s also the land which spawned Woody Guthrie, and a host of progressive movements. It’s a place of much convergence. I like the ruin of it, that sense of the forgotten west, but I’m happy to see where the new Oklahoma will bloom, because the seeds are germinating right now.
The driving force behind these poems is the play of imagery and diction. “Zinfandel” is a bit more narrative in form, but in the other three, the arc of poem seems to be that the language whips itself up into more and more of a frenzy until we reach a transcendent point on the margins of sense before coming down. Is this your preferred mode of writing? How have you arrived at this style? How would you describe the way it works?
That’s a very flattering description; drinks are on me tonight, boss. I think a lot of it has to do with what I like to read in poetry. Poetry with overly direct language rarely engages me. It feels like a lecture. Not that nature poetry is perfect or at all profound, but if the reader is actually led to the message, they are more likely to actually ponder and ask their own questions…and thereby draw their own conclusions. Isn’t that the whole point of a literary journey, not to get to the MacGuffin, but to grow and learn along the way?
On a more general note, who do you read? Who do you see as your contemporaries? Who do you consider your forebears?
Well, there are so many great poets getting their dues now: Talin Talajian, CAConrad, Chris Campanioni. The best collection of the last few years is definitely Ocean Vuong’s, but the best poem probably goes to Danez Smith. I’m reluctant to compare myself with anybody—who would dare compare themselves to geniuses?—but I feel an affinity to some “southern Gothic” poets like Anna Journey, as well as many of the great new indigenous writers like Natalie Diaz and my fellow Comanche County poet Sy Hoahwah, but I’m not sure how comparable our styles are.
Others, past and present, who continually move me would include William Matthews, Melissa Morphew, Adrian C. Louis, Langston Hughes, Heaney, Goldbarth, Plath, Doty, so many greats, just to name a handful. I give token obeisance to Eliot, Cummings, and Whitman, as well.
The phrase “prairie noir” comes up a lot for you. You’ve used it to describe your poems that are currently in MSR, and you mentioned it in an interview you did for The Poets Without Limits. It also appears in your poem “Folklore,” which is part of your collection for MSR. It’s an evocative enough phrase that one gets a mental picture just hearing it, but what does prairie noir mean to you? Do you see it as a tradition you are participating in, or as an aesthetic you are trying to create or catalyze?
Both my parents grew up on farms, so I have that in my rearview. I’m very familiar with endless pastures, country graveyards guarded by cedar, abandoned cars parked for decades on quiet hills, the tucked away ennui of the sprawling west. Places like this are so often very quiet but are filled with weird and wonderful myths. “Folklore” springs from a real grave not far from my grandmother’s home, and, as in the poem, its origin is lost to rumor and speculation. A lot of life in a rural setting is like that, cautionary tales and zones where science is useless. A story imbues a place with mystery and intrigue, and these legends die slower in a backwoods setting, I think. “Oh, that’s where the mean guy with one leg lives. Oh, that’s a crybaby bridge site. I saw an Indian chief ride his pony across the creek at night.”
One thing I get from your poems is an affinity for the past. The scenes in “Folklore” and “Birthing Phantom” have a certain timelessness about them, which is to say a potential old-timey feel. You explore this some in “Zinfandel,” where the speaker and his friends are “suburbia’s aimless posterboys reinventing ourselves as love’s ageless troubadours.” The speaker in “Zinfandel” also says, “The more holes in our secondhand / corduroy pants, the more we can pretend to have made them.” Does this describe the way your poems interact with the past, this action of reinterpretation, of almost willful distortion? How does that inform your understanding of the present?
We have a tendency to fetishize the past, and this is something I find myself struggling with as well. I want to give meaning to a derelict old plow bearded by the weeds, but sometimes there’s nothing more there than what you see: waste and abandon. And bemoaning the erosion of the old isn’t going to halt that erosion. We filter our photos on social media so they look vintage, but they aren’t vintage. Their value is younger, and can be made no less aged and shallow by a nice sepia tint. There’s something to learn and glean from the past, but you can’t revalue a myth by simply pantomiming it.
I can’t help noticing too a taste for the macabre in these poems. How does that come in for you?
It seems like we’re all preoccupied with death and the uncanny. As a child, Egyptian mummies fascinated me, and it spiraled from there. Many of my favorite poets’ portfolios are filled with medical curiosities, live or stuffed, and even just plain old skeletons in the closet. Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog bodies, Anna Journey’s “Carnival Afterlife,” Cathy Park Hong’s sketches of the Siamese Twins and the Hottentot Venus, these are my spooky spiritual forebears.
On a less aesthetic level, death is loss, and a lot of my work deals with that in some way. Losing faith, losing youth, losing love. As much as we receive in life, most of it is eventually taken from us. Death’s faces are just the totems to remind us, the memento mori.
In the interview you did with The Poets Without Limits, you say that your sensibility is informed by the environment of the West. You talk about sameness and stubborn simplicity and the loss of old ways. These strike me as things that resist compelling description. What does it mean for you to try to capture them in poetry?
Some of those stories I mentioned before aren’t so innocuous and thrilling, and just sad. A lot of Oklahoma’s history is a list of grievances and failed consolations toward America’s indigenous peoples, and that’s to say nothing of the Tulsa Race Riots or the bombing of the Murrah Building, an event I am just old enough to remember. Events like this challenge the vanilla coating. While the Sooner State didn’t go for the Orange One in its primaries (they also didn’t go for Clinton), he ultimately won the state in November. When I hear Oklahomans say “Yeah, let’s make America great again,” and I certainly have many times, I think to them it means a return to God & guns, all that good country folk pride, and there’s a lot of erasure implied to unironically make that claim. It’s a difficult subject. When people from other regions of the United States take the time to denigrate the American southwest as whacky cowboy redneck country, they hit on a few truths, but have not, themselves, earned the right to make these judgments. I have.
You launched a literary magazine fairly recently. How did that come about? How has it been for you? Do you find that doing editorial work influences your writing?
A lot of great journals today are mostly or only digital, including DIAGRAM, E·ratio, Birdfeast, Snorkel, and, of course, Mud Season Review. These folks are pushing literature into the 21st Century, and I wanted to try my hand at it. Jazz Cigarette will be reaching its first year, now, and thus far my compatriots and I have put together three great issues that I’m very proud of. Publishing Adrian C. Louis was a highlight; how often do we get to host our heroes?
If nothing else, reading so many different styles has helped me see as an outsider a few of my own faux pas. I’ll see something and think “Well, that’s a bit wordy or overly complicated,” and realize “Oh, I do that sometimes!”
How did you come to poetry to begin with?
In elementary school, I remember finding something striking about the imagism of haiku. I dabbled, but that’s what a child does. In high school, those pesky dead white dudes Eliot and Whitman proved to still be resonant to young live white dudes, and from there I started taking the craft seriously. I wasn’t good for a while, but I kept reading, and slowly began to develop my voice. My end goal is to be “moderately good” by the time I’m 50. It’s lofty, I know.
What are you working on now?
Working on my creative thesis, to be titled—what else?—Prairie Noir, and editing upcoming issues of Jazz Cigarette and The New Plains Review with my fellow inkies at the University of Central Oklahoma. This April, a gaggle of us will be presenting our own poetry at the PCA/ACA Conference in San Diego, discussing the very same contours of the lonesome, crowded west which we’ve discussed here.
Finally, since MSR began as an outgrowth of a writing workshop, we like to ask contributors about their relationship with workshop. I imagine that as a creative writing student you’ve been through your share of them. What are your feelings about the workshop as a part of the writing establishment? Have you had any great workshop experiences? Dreadful ones? How has it shaped your writing?
I didn’t declare my major until my third undergraduate semester. I took an Intro to Creative Writing course, and one of my friends decided to test the patience of a few older, more stuck-up classmates. He wrote a deliberately offensive (but also very gripping and beautiful) flash piece about a couple arguing in bed, and then having violent, tearful sex. Sure enough, during workshop, an older student angrily asked us all, “Do you people even know what literature is?” This touched off a barrage of back-and-forth arguing among young and old would-be writers. My friend stayed silent, turning to me with a smile, and scrawling “Mission Accomplished” on my copy. I decided this was an environment I’d like to see more of, and became an English student that week.