An Interview with Tim Seibles
-by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I think one of the things I
like in particular about "Trying For Fire," and about your poetry in general, is the ease with which the narrative
unfolds on the page. This poem moves much like the boy playing football, "ten ways at once," and, yet, rarely leaves
the reader feeling left out. Obviously, this is one of the many goals of your poetry, and I think of many poets, though some
of us, including myself, are nowhere near as successful at this as you are.
I'm wondering how it is that you manage to keep this poem together, how you keep it so controlled, elegant, even
though it covers such an immense territory. And, while I know the answer to this question is most likely a resounding no,
is writing poetry easy for you? You certainly make it look easy.
Timothy Seibles: Well,
you're right, it's not easy, but I love to write poems, so the revision work is mostly a pleasure. I think
most of the writing we like is the product of patience and sweat. If I'm able to move seamlessly in some poems
it's probably the result of reading a lot of good poems. Bit by bit the things you read infiltrate your own sense
AMK: Another aspect
of this poem that I think makes it so inviting is that it doesn't announce itself as a poem. By "announce" I
mean, the poem looks like a poem. It has relatively short lines, a title at the top, is chocked full of metaphor, sound, and
image, but, unlike a poem by, say, Robert Pinsky, "Trying For Fire" doesn't declare from the mountain top: "I
am a poem!"TS: It's hard to say where a poem comes from. "Trying
for Fire" is a pretty accurate poem— autobiographically speaking— so maybe it originates with the impulse
to remember my life and get some sense of how I became the person that I am and, then, to situate my single life in the larger
history of the world. One of the things that drives me to write is the desire to 'see' who I am and to figure out
'how' I belong (or don't belong) here.
Some obviously criticize contemporary poetry for its "lack" of traditional structure
and for being "too" accessible. Ironically, many people who don't read and/or write much poetry are
sort of puzzled by contemporary poetry for these reasons as well.
What do you think of this reading of
contemporary poetry? Is this poem rooted in any sort of traditional structure or element of romantic/modern poetry? If I asked
you to "define" contemporary poetry in some way, could you?
TS: For me, there's
no such thing as "too accessible." Half the battle— if not more than half— is in finding language that
seems both accurate (with regard to the subject) and inviting to a reader. If I didn't care about communicating I'd
wouldn't write poems; I'd simply write in a diary or journal. A poem, in my eyes, is a public document of experience—
meant to be shared. I think people read poetry to discover things about the world and about themselves. A poem is an invitation
to think hard about the human condition, to recognize differences in experience and to see our own struggles in the lives/voices
of others. If a poem is carelessly obscure it can't reveal anything worthwhile, and poetry is about revelation, not adding
confusion to an already difficult world.
With regard to traditional structure, poetry— all poems— want
to be 'the best words in the best order.' Free verse, formal verse, it doesn't matter. The tradition that interests
me most is the tradition of employing language with great care to capture something essential about our time in the world.
Both free verse and formal verse can do that— and both can fail. The fact that the structure of free verse is less rigid
than that of formal verse only makes for different kinds of challenges. In the final analysis, all poets simply want to get
it 'right'— how ever that's construed.
AMK: Can you tell us a little bit about
the process of writing this poem? Where did it come from? How did it evolve over time?
AMK: Lastly, I think that anyone who is dedicated to what they do has a sort of internal ranking
of that which they produce. Do you mind my asking how highly this poem ranks in your mind and why?
TS: Truthfully, I don't do much internal
ranking, but I like this poem a lot— and I still like it after having written it almost 20 years ago.
Like most writers, I’m most excited by what I'm doing now. Every poem one writes leads to the next
poem, so there's the sense of 'growing' as one writes. This means I'm always most passionate
about the newest thing I've written.
for spending some time with my poems, Andy.
AMK: Thank you.