Mikko Harvey: The poems in You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not The Forest You Were Born to Graze harness the energy of narrative but are not, it seems to me, stories in any traditional sense of the word. They frequently digress and redefine themselves. I think this combination—a sense of moving toward a narrative ending, but exploding outward in the process—is what makes the book, strangely (strangely because the term is rarely attached to poetry), a page-turner. The humor helps too. Did you plan to write such a fun book, or did it just come out this way?
Kyle McCord: I’m glad you brought up fun because fun sometimes feels like the unacknowledged middle child of poetry. It has to ride in the backseat of the van behind Truth and Beauty who spilled milk in one of the cup holders. It has to hang out in the basement because Beauty is always hogging the bathroom, and Truth locked herself in the study.
The subject rarely commands page space in major lit mags either; I checked (just to avoid libelous claims), but there is no “The Art of Fun” coming out from Graywolf. But because I studied in an MFA program that emphasized irony, satire, mimesis, the reuniting of seemingly estranged dialects (commercial, romantic—big or little “r”—philosophical), all of which I think are fun, I treasure poems that are willing to risk irrelevance for the sake of play. I love Carroll, Dickinson, Tate because they aren’t afraid to be silly, to screw around on the page and see what you as the reader do.
But back to your question which I’ve stealthily avoided. Your observations here are spot on. I did set out to have fun. Apparently, inside my brain forest are some hundred spastic animuses, weird personas, who are just waiting to take the wheel in a poem. So, they get to drive for most of this book. Typically, the poems start in some place that’s pretty wacky for narrative, like “If you’re reading this, I forgive you for eating me first.” I typically attempt build on that narrative with the knowledge that the speaker will betray the initial impulse for some more alluring challenge. Why not turn the speaker into a game show host for “Love Connection?” Why not digress into the legal language of a will? I let myself chase these questions. That helps generate the explosive power you’re describing.
MH: What was your process like while working on this book? The poems are so exuberant that I imagine you writing each one in a single, wild burst—but maybe that effect comes from slow deliberation on your part.
Related to process—what tends to set your imagination in motion?
KM: There are two possible stories about this book. 1. I wrote You Are Indeed an Elk But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze over three years or 2. I wrote You Are Indeed an Elk But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze in thirty days on a bathroom floor in Riga, Latvia. Both are true.
I’m not sure if anyone else does this, but I write all of my poems in cursive longhand. I write messy too because slight misreads are great for unleashing the unconsidered language behind a poem. For two years I wrote these poems in a Moleskin notebook. I went to some exotic places during that time too which got my imagination moving: island resorts in the Caribbean, haunted museums in Louisiana, Oklahoma. So, I didn’t always have the luxury of time because I had to get off the speedboat or check out that weird noise in the shadowy gallery. Thus, some of the poems have this hurried feel.
In 2012, I won the Baltic Writing Residency, which was such an insane honor. Adam Day and Aleks Carlsons sent me off to the fanciest hotel in Riga, Latvia—the Hotel Bergs. I didn’t emerge, more or less, for thirty days except to take a train to Poland and to go see “Prometheus” twice at the big Cineplex. I would wake up, go sit in the bathroom because it had heated floors, and stare at the page and computer screen until something came to mind. Sometimes, I would read a book between lines. At the time, I was reading Chris Deweese, Heather Christle, Rebecca Hazelton, Dorothea Lasky, Matthew Zapruder, and books by about fifteen other poets. I’d wait till I hit a turn of phrase, a particularly attractive measure of syntax, or a friendly image, and I’d see if I could graft that into my poem. I emerged from the hotel with a hundred and some pages of poems that I spent the next year tearing and mending into what you see now. If I were to show you the poems in the Moleskin, I bet you wouldn’t recognize them. That’s how dramatically I reforged what was there.
MH: The book is divided into three section, each corresponding to part of the book’s title: “This is Not the Forest,” “You Are Indeed an Elk,” and “You Were Born to Graze.” Can you talk about how you approached the organization of this book, and how you see the poems coming together as a whole?
KM: To do that, I might have to talk about the title. In the winter of last year, I was paid one of the greatest compliments I can imagine. My fiancé, Lydia, was working at this horrible bank. To give you an idea what it was like, one of her customers, having heard that one could take pictures of checks and send them to the bank for deposit, emailed the bank a picture of a twenty dollar bill and demanded that it be added to her account. These were the kinds of customers she was routinely dealing with.
She kept a small slip of paper in her desk that just said “You are indeed an elk, but this is not the forest you were born to graze.” She said reading the title reminded her that this was the wrong forest, but she knew who she was and that she wouldn’t always be here. I can’t imagine a more insightful reading of the title. Each of the sections of the book is meant to focus on one of those three aspects she listed: place, identity, and purpose.
In terms of how the poems came together beyond that organizing principle, Alan Michael Parker has a terrific essay on building a book in three dimensions. I don’t want to simplify down what is an elegant set of ideas, but on a basic level, Parker suggests that it’s easy to think about what frictional or cohesive force poems generate next to each other on a page. What is more complicated is considering how the endings and beginnings of sections and books work together, how teleologic progression of narrative and ideas has to be considered from page to page but also across an entire manuscript. Sometimes those two types of interaction are in absolute contradiction. How do we as writer build multiple levels of connection in a work? That question was buzzing in my ear when I sat down with a giant pile of poems, loosely grouped into sections.
MH: In “[Last night I heard the frail music of nighthawks]” you write, “I wouldn’t be the hawk I am today / without my masters.” Who have been your masters? Who have you learned from? Feel free to take this question as literally or loosely as you wish.
KM: I’m not sure if you know this, but I’m obsessed with “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I wrote my dissertation on time and invention in ekphrasis. While researching for a class I’m teaching on ekphrasis in the spring, I found a Randall Jarrell poem that begins “About suffering, about adoration, the old masters/ Disagree.” Take that Auden! I’m fascinated with this idea that there are “the masters,” some pantheon of the dead (as envisioned by Eliot) bickering over agony and its purpose or hovering over me as I’m writing. Even more fascinating is the idea that no one can even decide if the masters have reached a consensus.
I’ve had the pleasure of studying with some really astounding writers and teachers: James Tate, Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, James Galvin, Tessa Rumsey, James Haug, Corey Marks, Bruce Bond, B.H. Fairchild, and a slew of amazing fiction writers. It’s one of the virtues of spending so many years writing in academia. I could start listing friends who’ve completely destabilized my means of making words too, but we’d be here all day.
If any ghostly tribunal is hanging over me, I hope it’s Keats, Dickinson, and Yeats. They’re my masters of choice, I suppose. I mess around with the conceits of Romanticism so much that I imagine Keats would want to pop me one, and Dickinson and Yeats intimidate and scare me in that order. But they’re the voices of previous generations I return to most often.
MH: You studied ancient languages at Bethany Seminary. Did that experience impact your writing? It’s curious, because your poems feel so contemporary to me.
KM: This is a tricky question. Bethany is such a wonderful place with so many amazing people who went out of their way to take me into their community. There is at least one great story from that time that made its way into this book. While I was in seminary I was teaching at a university in Richmond. One of my students turned in this paper that I’m absolutely convinced he could only have written under the influence of intense psychotropics. One of the lines was “like a serpent among babies cast asunder in a barren waste of human excrement.” I knew instantly that this line had to be made into a poem.
There’s much more of Bethany in my last book, but much of the language of witness from this book comes from faith. In poems like “[In this scene, my co-pilot and I crash the moonbuggy]” and “[It happens like this]”, the narrator is building an ethos built on the credibility of personal observation and experience. I’m sure I’m channeling some of my year living in voluntary poverty and working for the Church of the Brethren. The last line of the book is probably worth considering in that light too.
MH: What do you hope is next for your writing? Do you have your sights set in a new poetic direction?
KM:I’ve got a new book coming out with Ampersand Books in 2015, and I have a book of ekphrastic poems that I’m planning to start shopping in the new year. Most of those poems are out in the world.
I’ve started filling up a Moleskin again, but more slowly this time. I run an art and reading series in Des Moines, and I’m teaching six different courses at three universities. Plus, I’m getting married to one of the most brilliant women on the planet. So, I’m busy, which is good.
The poems in this book move and turn so quickly. I’m not sure I can keep up with them anymore, so now I’m writing some pastorals, self-portraits, and elegies. Often, I find myself looking for a poem that I see as a masterful work of art, then I’ll write and write to see if I can do it better. I just read this Stanley Plumley poem in American Poetry Review that almost made me cry. I think that might be the next lovely horizon for me.
Kyle McCord is the author of five books of poetry including You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze (Gold Wake 2014) and Gentle, World, Gentler (Ampersand Books 2015). He has work featured in AGNI, Blackbird, Boston Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. His third book was selected as one of the top five books of the year by the Poetry Foundation Blog. He lives and teaches in Des Moines, Iowa. His poem "[When a man loves a woman, he sits her down]" appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal. Recently, McCord spoke with associate poetry editor Mikko Harvey about his new book.