Our nonfiction editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Tyler Friend, our Issue #29 featured poet. Here’s what they had to say about their evolution as a writer, early influences on their work, religion, images, and landscapes.
You have a background in design—you studied design during your undergrad. Are you a visual thinker?
Yeah, poems are very physical to me. I like to think of poems as objects that I can move around and change the shape of. Most of my poetry is pretty image-heavy as well.
You just completed your MFA, and part of your thesis included an installation in a space on campus. How did that interact with the poetry on the page that was also part of your thesis?
My manuscript was in my room, physically. But I also pulled out a lot of images from my poems and literalized them. I had flower pots in there, a bed, a tea kettle, and—oh, I should have had apricots! I also had a lot of photography and watercolors, so some of it was more traditional visual art and some of it was collected objects.
Did you get to do much visual art like that while in your program? Have you done much before?
My manuscript for undergrad had some visual components, but nothing this grand. I made a little chapbook for [my partner] Liz that had paintings and poems—that was a limited edition of one. And when I’m stuck on a poem I go paint.
And during this program you were working in all different genres. Do you think that was helpful for your poetry? Was there anything you were surprised to like as much as you did?
I do. I think in general it’s helped me get more friendly with my poetry and not be like, “I’m going to make this tiny, precious thing that is this shape and has this many lines.” I really liked Will Alexander’s final class assignment and what I ended up doing for that. It was weird; it read like a personal essay, but there were magic potions. I do have little snippets of conversation in my poetry, but I haven’t figured out how to do anything beyond that, like an actual conversation.
I also liked learning about alternative story structures, and I found it helpful to think of narrative as a form—thinking of plot points as stanzas, and then you have a rhyme scheme, so it repeats itself.
How do you feel about classical/traditional poetry forms?
I love having restrictions when I’m writing. I don’t usually go in for the classical forms because I’m horrible with meter, but I love having some arbitrary guidelines. I’ll decide my lines need to have multiples of three words, or that no line can have an even number of words in it. And I like playing on the idea of sonnets—fourteen-line poems that don’t rhyme or use meter in the traditional sense, but that still look vaguely sonnet-y. And I’m big into ending couplets and voltas.
When and how did you start writing poetry?
In undergrad I started out as a visual arts major, but when I went to visit the college there weren’t any art or design classes happening, so they must have thought, “Well, writing’s kind of artsy, let’s stick him in that.” So I sat in on a poetry class with Michelle Gil-Montero, who is amazing. The class was out in a garden. There was a guy in a suit, which was weird. After the class, Michelle showed me Generation, the student-produced literary magazine, and I was like, this is really cool, they make an actual, physical book for a class. I need to do this. So I added an English major. I took the magazine production class once, and then I audited it the next year. I was design editor for the magazine, so I got to help pick the order, which I really liked. It felt like curating, like a museum. One year we color-coded all the pieces based on tone and emotion and arranged them in a rainbow.
I didn’t really write much poetry until senior year, when I had a poetry workshop. Michelle always ends up having an unconscious theme to her book selections. I think that year was gay poets. Another one was poets who committed suicide. All this to say: I thought my manuscript was going to be CNF until junior year, and then it became a mixed-genre thing. And then in the year between then and coming to VCFA, I sort of settled into poetry a little bit more.
Do you feel that learning more about other genres has expanded your poems in some ways?
Yeah, I think that has a lot to do with them not being so precious anymore. Before I came to VCFA I was making very compact, little, pretty things that I thought were something clever or profound; now they’re just like, “Hey, talk about this with me.” I think they’ve become much friendlier. If you look at my chapbook, they’re all like, “Look how clever I am, you can’t figure me out. You don’t know that I’m built around these constructions…” I think a lot of that has to do with the cross-genre thing, but I also think a lot of it has to do with just growing up and being less of an anxious mess.
Do you read similarly more “open” and less “precious” poetry?
Reading-wise: in that senior year poetry workshop we read Lorca, Rimbaud, O’Hara—and I feel like they do a good job of being a little showy, but still accessible. Frank Stanford too; he uses a lot of slang and weird constructions that are really uncomfortable. He’ll even change words, substituting a for an—and carry characters and conventions throughout multiple poems. One of his books has over 500 pages: The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Which, now that I think about it, may have inspired the title of my thesis.
Also, Lauren Zuniga came to my school somehow—my little liberal arts Catholic school. I think she was the reason I decided I wanted to do the poetry thing for a while. I read her a lot; then I also started reading all the other Write Bloody poets. Derrick Brown runs Write Bloody like a record label, and the poets are rock stars—he requires them to tour, so he attracts a lot of spoken word poets like Andrea Gibson and Anis Mojgani. I’m not sure if I could really call them influences, though, because I tend to write poems that don’t want to be read out loud.
Though there is some kind of verbal sensibility to them—so much going on with sound in addition to forms and shapes on the page.
I guess it ends up being auditory in some ways, but when I’m writing I’m thinking about what it’s going to look like on the page, not necessarily whether it’s going to sound good. Like, “here’s an a, here’s another a; here’s a u and here’s another u.” Visual patterns. Like “On a Honeyed Moon” is horrible to try to read out loud. I’ve only tried it once—Matthew Dickman, my thesis advisor, made me read it to him over the phone.
How do you collect notes or write things to remember throughout a day?
I write stuff down all the time, mostly on receipts and stuff—not a good system. But I’ve also started using the Notes app in my phone. Most of it doesn’t make any sense when I find it later. One says, “My heart is a chubby Chihuahua.” One says, “I don’t wanna talk with you, I just wanna play with your face.” Mostly I steal phrases from my friends. It’s kind of like collaging words, and I do that a lot—there’s a bibliomancy exercise I like where I pull books at random and take words from them. One of my favorite poems is one part Midsummer Night’s Dream, one part a dictionary of ecology, and one part dream journal. I like to put things together that don’t entirely belong together.
Do you feel like your relationship to narrative has changed? How do you feel about story and storytelling?
I’ve always been very bad at it. Even when I’m just talking to people, I’ll have a thing that I think is a story that’s really just a very short anecdote where I trail off, trying to explain a really cool image I’m thinking of. I still think I’m very bad at narrative, and I don’t especially aspire to it. The only way I can deal with an extended narrative is when I’m writing about a road trip or some other type of literal movement. I’m more comfortable with the fact that I don’t like narrative now. I feel more informed about how I’m not using it—like it’s a conscious decision to not use it instead of just avoiding it.
Do you think of yourself as a Southern poet? How do you conceive of your Southern-ness and artist-self?
A lot of it has to do with my imagery: cicadas, crawdads, kudzu. I don’t have an accent obviously—though some of my friends claim it comes out when I’m tired or drunk—but I do think that the rhythms of southern dialects are something I’m steeped in, whether I like that or not.
Do you feel like, in general, the landscape of Vermont has been good for your writing practice?
It’s been real weird for me. We only have little hills in Tennessee. The social atmosphere is amazing, though. I think that’s another reason why my poetry has opened up so much, because I’ve opened up so much. The fact that I can wear a dress in public and be fairly confident that I’m not going to get murdered. It’s very freeing, much less scary.
Since your undergraduate school, Saint Vincent College, was a Catholic institution, how did that impact your experience there?
I dated a Catholic, and things got weird. She threw holy water on one of her friends.
I don’t know how much of my experience was about Catholicism and how much was just the difference between The Rust Belt and The Bible Belt. The main thing was, everyone kept asking me what religion I was, and I’d say I’m Christian (because I thought I was), then they’d ask again. They were really asking what denomination I was. When I was in the south, atheism just didn’t exist, and other religions just didn’t exist. Even if you didn’t go to church, you were Christian, and it didn’t really matter which church you went to. I did go to mass a lot while I was at SVC. It was quiet. I could think about other things. But now I just believe in everything—and nothing. Mostly everything.