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Will Schutt

 09-23-2014

 
Will Schutt
 
Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929

Momentarily, he's my young father
refusing to break the news he's been laid-off
and lay the groundwork for divorce. It's difficult to explain.
The mind rehearses, playing dress-up with a life.
He cannot hook the woman, his pinkies trained
perpendicularly. A vintage dress shirt slips from the line.
Pulling away in the middle of a dance, dancers become
movement on a floor-off-white, chamois. In his silence,
who is she, closing her eyes, four strands of her boy's hair
combed purposefully aside, allowing the white
of her raincoat to mask him? Mother, wife, coat.
She arches her back to receive his despondent head.
She puffs up her small breasts. Soft music's at work again,
a stereo plays "Love is Tender," romancing the age.
For six months my father dressed for work and wandered
no one will ever know where, Hotel Kempinski, say,
where he sat mutely in the plush barber's chair
dreaming he was as tall and modern as Peter the Great.


American Window Dressing

Half a dozen pestamals hanging on hooks,
          a cuckoo clock twigged from scrap metal,
a single copy of Everyman's Haiku-
          the letters pit the cover's look-at-me
moon sheen-and the poems I love
          inside: spartan, semitransparent, nature's fools,
like faraway countries in full disclosure.

"Put everything into it." My father's
          words on Sunday visits. Man of few words.
Those were the days work took him
          as far as Chungking and he sported
a straight green army coat he called
          his Mao Suit. His hair was still parted
straight to one side and he could

still lift me up so that I stood eyelevel
          with row after row of ducks, like smokers'
lungs, in the restaurant windows
          off Confucius Plaza-thick tar up top
swizzed into brown and rose gold.
          A metal sling dug under their wings ended
in a hole the heads were put through.

Knowledge of them was terrible.
          Everything looked terrible: the heads
of bok choy noosed in rubber bands
          and pale-eyed fish laid out on ice. Terrible
things put delicately, like polite fictions
          families invent. The words stand behind
great portals and are seen to yet untouchable.

 

After A Silvia

          Mirava il ciel sereno,
          Le vie dorate e gli orti,
          e quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi il monte.
          -Giacomo Leopardi

Remember? You used to thumb
through the pages of Sixteen
fixing on each snapshot of other
girls on the slopes of girlhood.
The song you sang at school
drifted through the quiet rooms
and out the street. Vague, whatever-will-be,
May took up the air. I dropped
my books. I shoved my papers in a drawer-
half my life sewn shut inside
my father's house-and cupped my ear
to catch the sound of your voice
as you hauled your heavy workload home.
I'd look out at the clear sky,
the bright streets, people's yards,
all the way down to the sea
and all the way up the hillside.
No words really fit what I felt.
The hopeful pitch of then.
To think of that time tightens my chest
and grief ploughs through me.
Shock & blowback, tricks & masks-
why is it nothing keeps its word?
What's with all the lights burning in the distance?
Before winter starved the grass
or some compliment was paid
your modest, nothing-special looks,
some narrow sickness buried you.
Whatever boyhood I had
fate hijacked too. Old friend, is this that
world we stayed awake all night for?
Truth dropped in. Far off,
your cool hand points the way.

 

               -from Westerly, selected by Guest Editor Mark J. Brewin

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Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews

Will Schutt is the author of Westerly (Yale University Press, 2013), selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. A graduate of Oberlin College and Hollins University, he is the recipient of fellowships from the James Merrill House and the Stadler Center for Poetry. His poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Agni, FIELD, The New Republic, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He currently lives with his wife in Wainscott, New York.

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Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews

A Review of Will Schutt's Westerly by Katharine Johnsen, first published by The Journal

This year’s Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize went to Will Schutt for Westerly, a collection of poems that meditate on travel and mortality, on being led and pushed to and from the West. Schutt engages memory and its fallibilities, the elegy and possibilities that must come with it. The speaker takes the reader on travels from a small town in Rhode Island, to Wisconsin, to the West Coast, and to Italy.

He sets the tone of the collection with the opening poem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” balancing the intellectual with pop culture, giving weight to the historical patter of Billy Joel as he invokes de Sade, foreshadowing loss amidst a pleasant summer scene. In “Rock Maple, White Pine,” he writes “Part of you is thinking this early / why ravel means entangle and disentangle // at the same time, as if the interrogative / mood were the only concept // hanging about to hold the hour still.” This is what Schutt gives us throughout the collection—poems that entangle and disentangle at the same time. He teasingly complicates and simplifies in the same sentences, kindly asking the reader to consider the speaker’s observations and declarations. In the unrhymed sonnet “A Kind of Poetry,” Schutt writes “Sometimes you turn to poetry / the way you turn to another country. / […] / You notice things you wouldn’t / otherwise. You notice things.” He then does exactly that in the elegantly translated mid-century Italian poems that make up the second section.

In “Crenellated Playroom,” his most heartbreaking poem and the longest in the collection, Schutt elegizes a dear friend who died young, whose “midlife crisis / peaked in prep school.” She is the embodiment of youth and maturity, living and elegy. In the poem, as her health fails, Laura’s personality is vibrant; she is those contradictions embodied. As Schutt writes, “—At her sickest, whittled down to brutal / humor only have-nots possess, grand dame / receiving guests in bed, Laura would say, / ‘That coat’s not really your color’ or ‘I hope / she’s not at my funeral.’” She is the juxtaposition of the serious intellectual and the democratic humorist.

In Westerly, Schutt takes up estrangement. It finds its way into poems about family and fatherhood, about travel, growing up, and loss. As Carl Phillips writes in his introduction to the collection, “we become more estranged, it seems, not only from others but from ourselves—who we were, who we remember being, or what we think we remember, which is different from knowing.” In the ekphrastic poem, “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” Schutt sees in the image his “young father…[laying] the groundwork for divorce.”

Schutt is at his best when his poems are at once intimate and confessional, traditional and restrained. His work is personal and public, domestic and international. Even in death, the poems are full of life. He examines, then peels layers back slowly, revealing—in stunning and accessible language—complicated and difficult truths.

 

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Click here to read a review of Westerly in Blackbird 

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Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews

An Interview with Will Schutt by Aaron Bauer

Aaron Bauer: “After A Silvia” has an epigraph from Leopardi that isn’t translated. What prompted you to keep the epigraph in the original language instead of translating? What does keeping it in the original language add to the poem?

Will Schutt: As the title suggests, the poem itself is an adaptation of Leopardi’s poem “A Silvia,” and the epigraph—a group of lines from that poem—is loosely translated in the body of my adaptation: “I’d look out at the clear sky, / the bright streets, people’s yards, / all the way down to the sea / and all the way up the hillside.” Using my own version for the epigraph seemed redundant (and misleading, since I take many liberties with the original). Using another translator’s version presented two problems. First, there was the problem of choosing among the many strong English translations of the poem. Second, most of those translations were pitched at a slightly different register and I thought it might be jarring for a reader. Just listen to Jonathan Galassi’s accurate version: “I looked out on the cloudless sky, / the golden streets, the gardens / and, far off, the sea here and mountains there.” Of course, I could have done without the epigraph, but given that this poem closes a book with many ties to Italy, I thought hearing a little Italian wasn’t such a bad thing.   

AB: Likewise, the reference in the title “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929” seems rather esoteric. When coming up with titles for poems or subject matter, how does reader accessibility come into play? Are you ever worried about readers “getting it?”

WS: It may be an esoteric reference but you don’t need to know the postcard to engage with the poem on one level. The poem’s speaker is projecting his parents’ story onto the postcard, and that story has to do with one parent withholding information from the other. Withholding—and trying to access the inaccessible—is the crux of the poem which is presented in a fairly straightforward manner, I hope. That the image on the postcard is a snapshot of two young woeful-looking Austrian and Austro-Hungarian actors who left Germany when the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in the US adds another layer of richness, I think, but isn’t essential to engaging with the poem. I don’t want to shut readers out, but I also expect them to be adventurous enough to enter unchartered territory, and, if intrigued, to look up the reference. But I take your point. Some people won’t bother looking it up; that’s the risk. Yet I find almost any cultural reference will come across as esoteric to someone from somewhere at some time.   

AB: Still looking at “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” this poem seems to break the “good writing” edict against -ly adverbs, placing heavy emphasis on them at some crucial points in the poem. Did your ear lead you to these choices, are you just a fan of breaking the rules, or is there some other specific reason you went in this direction? Are there any choice guidelines you like to follow when writing or revising your poetry?

WS: Not breaking the rules but bending them purposefully—I believe that’s one of the primary goals of any living poet. I was just rereading an early poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “Seascape,” which is largely a description of a coastal scene (although, it turns out, not a very realistic one). The first 13 lines are larded with adjectives like “beautiful” and “immaculate” and “ornamental.” At first I cringed. “What is she doing,” I wondered. Then, as the poem progresses, you realize the adjectives are doing double-duty; they slyly underscore the artificiality of the description.

Although I wasn’t thinking of Bishop’s poem while writing “Postcard…” I remember being aware that the speaker in my own poem was fantasizing about the past (“romancing the age,” “playing dress up with a life”), and I felt that something in the language needed to tease that out further. How else do we embellish a sentence but by using adjectives and adverbs?

As for common revision practices, I look at what each draft is trying to say and make sure the language is working toward that end. A teacher of mine once said that you can’t revise into a void; you have to have a sense of what the poem is about if you’re to do anything meaningful with it. Which is one reason why no “good writing” rules are sacrosanct.

AB: These three poems vary in line length from relatively short in “After A Silvia” to rather long in “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929.” Many poets tend to write in either shorter lines or longer lines. Do you feel any allegiance to the short poetic line or the long poetic line? What prompts you to choose one over the other in your work and in these poems in particular?

WS: I try to look at each poem on its own terms to figure out what each demands (of the line, of language). This can create problems for me as a poet, and made putting together a book of poems particularly difficult. I was adamant—maybe a little too adamant—that I was writing a collection of individual poems and resistant to the idea of writing a project book or a book with a manufactured arc. I understand a reader might feel that the poems are too diffuse, yet there are plenty of poets whose line lengths vary. Stevens, for one.

The variety of line lengths might also reflect my age. I am at an early point in my career and still figuring out what kind of poem I want to write. Of course I could make an argument that the longer lines in “Postcard…” are related to the poem’s sense of longing, and that in “After A Silvia” the short lines marshal a sense of candor that seems appropriate for a poem in which the speaker has lived through loss and feels no need to doll it up. But I don’t think the process was that analytical, at least not at the start. A smidgeon of intuition goes into writing poetry too.

AB: All three of the poems we are featuring are from the point of view of young speakers. What attracts you to writing in this perspective?

WS: That voice felt natural. I spent most of my teens and college years affecting an old man’s voice—on and off the page—and while that may suit my personal temperament, I distrusted it in the poems I was writing in my late twenties and early thirties. And there’s a frankness about that perspective that fits the poems’ themes: the painful coming to consciousness; reckoning with one’s cultural and poetic inheritance.

But I wouldn’t be so quick to say that “Postcard…” is written from a young person’s perspective. Adults, in my experience, daydream about their parents’ lives as much as young people do. The speaker in that poem gives nothing away; he remains as inaccessible as the phantom of his father.   

AB: Both “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929” and “American Window Dressing” seem to contain narratives about fathers who are absent and/or are making poor decisions. Do you find family life—particularly the father-son relationship—as a source of inspiration for your poetry or more as something you simply can’t help writing about? What would you say to people who claim that contemporary poetry (and literature in general) is too focused on the “bad father” narrative?

WS: I thought contemporary poetry had jettisoned narrative altogether, whether the narratives contain bad fathers or good…

The poems featured here have less to do with passing judgment on the father figure and more to do with each speaker’s coming to grips with the past; the fathers and sons are emblematic, not knock-offs of reality.

That said, I do find family a source of inspiration—its cover-ups and screw-ups as well as the forms of tenderness and understanding that can exist among family. Family is inescapable. Why pretend otherwise? Where would we be if that same complaint about absent/flawed father characters were heeded after Hamlet? No King Lear. No Huckleberry Finn. No Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

To me the subject of family can deliver infinitely more compelling poems than poems that focus exclusively on the subjectivity of language—the domain, I assume, of anyone who would claim contemporary literature is too focused on “bad dad” narratives.

AB: “American Window Dressing” seems to be set in a decidedly non-American setting—pestamals, haikus, the Mao Suit. What motivates the juxtaposition of the American and the non-American in this poem? What defines “American” in your view?

WS: That’s a good question and a very difficult one to answer. American identity is much more slippery than we make it out to be; the country is fluid, shifting, unstable and composed of many cultures, races, creeds—and, because we’re on the subject, poetries. Maybe the defining feature of America is its indefinability.

On the other hand, despite our long history of immigration, I often find we are emphatically more ignorant of the world beyond our national borders than are people from other countries. We’ve been mainlined the US dream for so long we have trouble digesting different visions of the world. We’re translation poor and often resistant to other voices. Even many liberal-minded people seem to think other cultures should resemble ours—politically, socially, economically, et cetera.

I think “American Window Dressing” suggests some of the things above, but couches it in a narrative, and is less preachy. How long, for example, do American poets have to read and write haiku or haiku-inflected poetry before the form becomes part of our national literature’s fabric?
 
AB:    a single copy of Everyman’s Haiku
                    the letters pit the cover’s look-at-me
         moon sheen—and the poems I love
                    inside: spartan, semitransparent, nature’s fools,
         like faraway countries in full disclosure.

In these lines from “American Window Dressing,” we seem to see poetic forms manifested in everyday objects. Are we seeing some ars poetica movements here? Do poetic forms serve as a source of inspiration for you even when not writing in those forms?

WS: I assume you mean closed verse forms? Yes, I find inspiration there. I’d like to believe I am catholic in my tastes, and just because I’ve never published a villanelle doesn’t mean there aren’t several botched attempts at the bottom of my drawer.  

You’re right to glean the ars poetica thrust here. I would like to write poems that, like haiku, are cleanly expressed, succinct and attentive to the physical world while still retaining some of that world’s psychic mystery. But I don’t want to write haiku. Not only do I find the form limiting, but, to get back to the previous question about American culture, I’m wary of adopting a Japanese form about which I only have a limited understanding. That’s another defining feature of Americans: our fear of cultural appropriation.

AB: Congratulations on winning the Yale Younger Poets winner in 2012. How many contests did you submit Westerly to before it was selected? What do you think made Westerly strong enough to win the contest?

WS: Thanks. I submitted the manuscript to several contests over a period of three years. I don’t have a record of exactly how many places I submitted to during that time, but my guess is about 30.

Why did it get picked up? I’m not sure I’m the one to say. In his foreword to the book, Carl Phillips does a remarkable job of explaining what he sees in the manuscript. I’d suggest you start there. Carl’s forewords—like the forewords of many of his predecessors—are illuminating.   

AB: Finally, what is a recent book of poetry you’ve read that you would recommend?

WS: Just one? Roger Reeves’ King Me. It’s a fierce book that succeeds at being both socially engaged and engaging at the level of the line. Spread the word. 

 

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Click here to read an interview with Will Schutt at Boxcar Poetry Review

 

Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews 




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Will Schutt



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