Our next In Print Festival interview is with poet, Glenn Shaheen. Shaheen was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In high school he was set on fire, which is the only time he has ever punched someone in anger. He is a former nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast and presently edits the journal NANO Fiction. His work has appeared in many publications, including Subtropics and Barrelhouse. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Radius of Arab-American Writers, Inc.
The following interview was conducted by Broken Plate 2012 student faculty member Aaron Haughton.
Aaron Haughton: There is a lot of formal variation in your poems. How do you determine which form best suits a poem?
Glenn Shaheen: Most of my poems start off in pretty regularly footed lines, a block of text on the page. For a lot of my poems, though, directional or emotional shifts can happen quickly. When those shifts are buried in a block that looks like an Auden poem, visually, they can be lost to or jarring for readers. Sometimes that’s what I want, so I leave them how they were created. When I want the unifying thread of the poem to be more evident, I’ll break the lines unevenly, spread them out across the page. This lets imagistic or narrative moments breathe a little better and also, hopefully, replicates the way I’d like the speaker of the poems to sound: hesitant, or stuttering. A few poems in Predatory are written in monostichs, and those were written that way first, without a rhythmic sensibility beyond that of natural speech, to emulate the linguistic feeling of reportage. I felt those poems work as palate cleansers against the more frenetic poems common in the book.
What interests you the most about poetry?
Often when people say what draws them to poetry it comes across as an insult to prose, so I don’t mean whatever I say next to do that, although one could read it that way. I’m drawn to the restrictions that the shorter form of the poem creates. In order to reach some kind of emotional truth in poetry, you have to filter out anything that isn’t working as part of the engine of the piece. Any extra bits are just cosmetic fluff, and a smart reader can easily pick out those bits and start to distrust the poet. I enjoy prose, too, it’s just not as visceral a creative process to me. Being a big Joy Division fan, I thought it was cool how you concluded “Longest Day of the Year” with lyrics from “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
What is your favorite Joy Division song?
That’s a tough one. I’d probably pick “Transmission,” which is obvious, but “Incubation” is close, too. Substance is my favorite album of theirs, which is cheating because it’s a way posthumous compilation. A fun and strange game to play is to listen to any New Order song and imagine Ian Curtis’s voice singing it. What a weird transition for a band to make, but I guess everybody deals with tragedy and loss in their own way.
There is a lot of panic, fear and paranoia circulating through the collection. Was this intentional? If so, why?
The initial drafts of the book were completed during the last years of the Bush administration, during the course of which the 24-Hour News Cycle and various politicians found profit in making panic, fear, and paranoia our default national state. Maybe it’s silly to blame select powerful individuals—certainly as a nation we have literally everything to lose, so why wouldn’t we always be fearful? After Obama was elected I briefly thought our era of perpetual panic was over, but that was just brief optimism—fear is still big business for media and big votes for politicians. In the book I’m trying to replicate that state of fear we were told we had to maintain to hopefully show how preposterous and unfounded constant terror is, although the speaker certainly buys into that mode of panic in many ways, especially romantically.
Who are you currently reading?
I’m always jumping around from book to book—I just two days ago (which will no longer be true when anybody reads this) finished a chapbook by Hadara Bar-Nadav called Show Me Yours
that I really loved. I also recently read Carrie Oeding’s Our List Of Solutions, which is a great suburban pastiche about the way people just collide relentlessly. Nine Acres by Nathaniel Perry was another fantastic recent one I read—a lot of beautiful pastorals about farming written in strict rhyme and meter. That’s probably about as far from my own aesthetic as you can get, but it’s terrific.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Poetically speaking, Sylvia Plath and William Blake. But even artistically, in general, I imagine that my greatest influence is probably some combination of Sonic Youth and Star Trek. I spent all
of the 80s watching Star Trek and all of the 90s listening to Sonic Youth. I think Star Trek has influenced me to view didacticism as a positive force, and not to be afraid to use high drama to get a point across: some kind of power in the imperative. Sonic Youth taught me a lot about innovation, which made me write many awful poems back in high school, thinking I was “experimental” without having ever read any contemporary poetry whatsoever. Now I think their best work is when they forge a chain between traditional melody/harmony song structure and their usual tonal noisecapades, which is something I try to do in my poetry.
What is your writing process like?
It’s not very pretty. I usually write down my ideas during the day (last year I had three hours of commuting time to and from work, so I came up with a lot of ideas in the car). Then when I’m ready to take a crack at a draft I work myself up into kind of an emotional frenzy and then I just write, directly into the loosely metrical lines I was talking about earlier. I usually feel exhausted and sick by the end of it, and I’m probably fairly unpleasant to be around during that time. For revision though I just pop in some music and relax, look at things more calculatedly. If the emotion is there in the beginning, I feel like I can’t really accidentally edit it out. Conversely, it’s a lot harder for me to put emotion in during revision, so a strong first draft is really important for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing poems, of course, but nothing I’d feel compelled to call a manuscript just yet. I’m interested in ideas of community, and how our relationships with our towns/nations mirror our interpersonal relationships. I also write flash fiction, which I backed away from when the book got taken to focus on the final push, but I’ve felt drawn back to that genre lately.
Many of the poems in Predatory have an apocalyptic tone. How do you think the world will end?
I’d really like for a science experiment to go wrong and accidentally freeze us in time for all eternity, because at least it would be in pursuit of knowledge. I don’t necessarily believe in an end of the world though, apart from the eventual death of our star and burning off of all life that will happen billions of years after we die. For our current civilization, if I had to guess, I’d bet it would end because of the usual cocktail of greed and hubris. Of course now it’s another year of the End Of The World, 2012. All of that apocalyptic stuff fascinates me, though I’ve always thought believing the world would end in one’s lifetime is more conceited than fearful. Growing up in rural Florida I certainly met a lot of people who wanted the world to end, biblically, and growing up in rural Florida I just wanted the world to end any way it possibly could.