This is the first of a two-part interview with the poet Christopher DeWeese; read part two here.
Something brilliant happens when a poet tangles with philosophy; he plunges into questions he knows are unanswerable, with a hypersensitive awareness of perspective. I have been lucky enough to witness this entanglement twice recently. The first time was while reading the poetry collection The Father of the Arrow is the Thought (Octopus Books, 2015), a book of poems attempting to cope with the scale that nature’s omnipotence outweighs human capability. The second time was during my interview in late 2015 with the book’s author, Christopher DeWeese.
DeWeese is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Wright State University and author of The Black Forest (Octopus Books, 2012) and The Father of the Arrow is the Thought. His poetry can be found in Tin House, Boston Review, Granta, Fence, and elsewhere. Originally from Port Townsend, Washington, he grew up in mountains and tents under the stars, and, later, on the road with the Incognito Travelling Circus.
STORY: So the new book was published in August, correct? What are you working on now?
CHRISTOPHER DEWEESE: Right now I’m trying to finish what would be my third book, which I’ve been working on for seven or eight years already, so it’s been a really long project. I have, in the past, worked on multiple things at once—which I kind of like, working on two or three different projects at once, because then if I get tired of one for a while, I can shift over to another one. I have this book that’s called Alternative Music. It’s all of these 90s bands from when I was a young person that had big hits on alternative radio that, when I was a teenager, I really loved, and then didn’t listen to for the past, basically, fifteen to twenty years. So those poems are me trying to misremember the lyrics to those songs. So it’s kind of a conceptual book in some ways. It’s also about my memories of the 90s, and being around the Northwest, being around the grunge scene. So in some ways its almost memoir-esque—trying to talk about childhood, nostalgia, being a teenager, the excitement of rock music. But then there’s a layer upon that, of the fallibility of memory, that I’m really interested in, and how, over time, memory is not a constant. We’re not like computers; it’s not like our memories are a file where everything’s there and we can access it perfectly. Memories get corrupted over time. There’s degradation, and oftentimes things just get lost if you don’t think about them for a long time. So I’m really interested in, as an artistic process, trying to use the fallibility of my memory as a creative technique.
STORY: So it’s pulling in narrative, personal experience as well as philosophical concept?
DEWEESE: Yeah, yeah.
STORY: And it seems like that’s what the last book centered on as well?
DEWEESE: I think that’s what I’m interested in doing. My first book was much less specifically about me. It was kind of persona poems, in a way, or these trying on masks of a certain sort. I come from kind of an avant garde tradition of poetry, but I’m really interested in still writing about myself, but trying to find newer or stranger ways of doing it that aren’t confessional poetry.
STORY: Is your narrative style purposeful, or is that just natural or organic?
DEWEESE: I think that, as a poet, everything is on an axis of time and space. That’s kind of the fundamental constraints of being human: we work within space and we work within time. And what I like about the idea of a narrative poem is that it has to situate itself on those two planes, like a poem that unfolds in time and is in this specific space. So, in this newer book, there’s kind of this landscape idea of this space in which the poem’s taking place—via the swan or the mountain, physiographic locations—but then they also take place within time, sometimes a condensed period of time, sometimes a longer period of time. So, I like the limits of the fact that I’m constrained by those things. There’s some poets who are just like, “This is a poem about taking out the garbage.” And mine’s like, “Oh, I took out the garbage and had this idea.” It’s very simple in that it’s working very coherently in space and time, and I think I like disrupting that a little bit. And I think it still is kind of a narrative, with gaps within it or big shifts. I really like surprising myself when I’m writing poems. I’m always trying to remember that I don’t want to totally disrupt the poem, but I like to let it move in strange angles or take certain detours of logic.
STORY: In regards to your style itself, what first drew me to your poetry was the balance between concrete language and figurative language, because there’s such fantastic figurative language and metaphor, but it still follows this somewhat plain style, the more narrative style. Do you think that’s reflective of the more philosophical concept that you’re aiming for?
DEWEESE: Perhaps. I do think that I really love imagery, and I think that I can’t help but, in my writing, to be pulled towards image in simile and metaphor. I love the poetry of William Carlos Williams because I just love seeing the things that he’s talking about. I think that there’s great power in the simplicity of that. That’s one aspect I really like working with. But then there are also other elements. Within the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve grown more interested in just how, as I get older— I’m in my mid-thirties now—just how so much of what I’m interested in thinking about has to do with the passage of time. And I think, in the newer book, one of the themes that’s not the most overt theme is for me, at least, looking at an undercurrent of nostalgia, of thinking back to when I was younger, of certain friends who have died. I think that’s happened, too. I’ve reached the point where people I grew up with, once I turned thirty or so, some of them died, and thinking about and talking about time and space, those people are suddenly fixed in time and space because they don’t go beyond a certain time. So that has really influenced my thinking about poetry—kind of like going back and dealing with them in certain ways. I also have the advantage, since I’m alive, of continuing to be able to reorient myself.
STORY: So it’s kind of like this intangible and unpredictable timeline that’s endless, that most of us will never be able to see?
DEWEESE: Yeah, yeah. And I also really love—you know, there’s a tradition in the poetry of poets who use the direct address to move forward in time, past the point of their own mortality. John Keats has a very famous fragment—it’s not even a full poem that he wrote, right before he died—called “This Living Hand,” and in that poem he’s basically saying, if my hand can reach through the page to you who are reading this poem in the future, this is what I would do. And the power of that is really incredible. I feel when I’m reading a poem like that—he’s been dead almost 200 years or whatever—I feel like he’s really talking to me. So there’s this element of time travel that’s possible also through the poems.
Another poet I like a lot is Mayakovsky, who was a Russian poet, and he does that a lot, too. He was a big poet of the revolution in Russia, and very into communism, and he’d be like, “You who are reading this in the future, you’re gonna think I was a real asshole, but I don’t care, I’m going and eating a sandwich!” or whatever, and it’s just cool how the technology of the poem allows for voice before you could record somebody talking. Somebody’s brain is recorded in this profound way. I find that incredibly appealing.
STORY: That’s interesting. It seems like there’s this idea of transcendence. I noticed two somewhat different themes in your poetry. One is how nature transcends the mind. And then also, how the mind can transcend physical human existence. Do you think one is more important than the other, that one trumps the other?
DEWEESE: I don’t think so. I grew up in a place that’s very beautiful; it’s in Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula, which is the very northwest part of the state, on the water, with mountains on two sides. It’s this incredible physical, natural spot. I think I was very spoiled to grow up in a place where, any direction you looked, there was just beautiful stuff. So I find in my being away from that—I’ve lived in places that have their own beauty, but it’s much more modest I think—I feel compelled towards, talking about nostalgia again, pulled back towards that landscape, and I miss it. So I think about that, and it kind of works in concept with the other thing you were talking about, really, which is the physical body and the imagination trumping that, being able to transcend that. As I get older, I become more and more conscious of the limitations of the body. I remember being 20 or 21, and I felt like I could do anything and stay really healthy. You can treat your body like crap and you’re just very powerful. But, getting older, I have a lot of friends who have, in their thirties, gotten cancer of various sorts. It’s just this sort of fragility of the body, and I’ve been lucky that nothing like that has happened to me. But the growing consciousness of the possibility of that at any time with me or my loved ones, that all of a sudden something in our code could get switched, or something terrible could happen, it’s very, very frightening. I think my awareness of that, of the possibility of things to change quickly, it’s something that really dawned upon me in the last few years.
STORY: And that’s something, too, that very much relates to nature, because I think that, in our own bodies, if we have some serious, internal problem like that, we’re done, and there’s no continuation. But in nature, if you have a tree that dies, the ecosystem still survives. And it seems, if you’re not counting human impact…
DEWEESE: That’s the problem, right?
STORY: … nature is infinite. But we’re certainly changing that, that infinite ability.
DEWEESE: That’s a great point, and that’s something that I think about. With the landscape, where I’m from, I’m conscious of the fact that there are certain things that, while they might stay beautiful, hidden behind the tree line is a giant clear cut that you can’t see. And there’s a lot of that—things that we are not even totally conscious of. Like the Pacific Ocean. It looks beautiful, but then there’s this giant trash patch you can’t see, and that’s growing, and that’s a thing we can’t necessarily come back from or take away.
STORY: I don’t want to dive much into the political thought of this, but I guess that may be why we have such a hard time seeing climate change and its impacts on our environment: because we think it will always be there. When you see a human who has cancer who’s dying, you know the life is ending. But you don’t know the ocean’s life is ending, because you can’t see it. On a smaller scale: Inner Harbor has had tremendous, tremendous issues with pollution, and it took the city seeing hundreds of dead fish floating in the harbor to start a cleanup. It’s almost like what we limit ourselves to see is what we want to change.
DEWEESE: Yeah, yeah—until something becomes unavoidable. I know people who are like, “Everything looks terrible with climate change, but humans are so resourceful that we’ll get to a certain point, we’ll find a way to overcome.” And I admire them, their optimism and all that stuff. It’s not like I think that writing poems about it is going to cure anything. But it’s just what I’m dealing with.
STORY: I think that just making people consider it is the first step of everything, maybe. It seems that your experience in nature has strongly influenced your poetry?
DEWEESE: I think so. Again, it goes with this idea that one of my subjects is kind of nostalgia. A lot of my experience in nature comes from the first 20 years of my life. Growing up, I’d go backpacking with my parents a lot, go hiking—and, you know, back then, the Internet didn’t exist for me. In high school, with my friends, that’s what we’d do. We’d go out on the beach and hang out, like, every day. And now, I’m more busy. I have a job and a family and stuff. I still get little opportunities sometimes, and I really appreciate the way I feel when I’m in a natural setting. But it’s a much smaller part of my life.
STORY: When did you start writing poetry?
DEWEESE: Very early. I think I started in fourth grade.
STORY: Do you feel that your writing at a time when you had much more involvement in nature is different from now, when you don’t have as much involvement?
DEWEESE: Oh yeah. I wasn’t writing about nature then. Then, I was writing about cities and how cool I thought cities were and trying to write Jack Kerouac poetry or something. So at that point, I probably thought that where I was was really boring. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and live in a city and live a fast-paced cosmopolitan life. It’s kind of like you always want to be in the one that you’re pulled towards, whatever is kind of lacking.
STORY: In your book there’s a Paul Klee epigraph, and you mention him multiple times throughout the book. What first drew you to his work?
DEWEESE: I just found this book of his. I had always liked his artwork, but he wasn’t one of my favorite artists, necessarily. But when I was in college, I had a friend who really loved him who lived in Philadelphia, and she was really into art. I remember she took me to a museum in Philadelphia, and they have a lot of his work. And I was really into it, but he was never somebody who I cared enough about to write a book about. But I was in a used bookstore and I just found this strange book by him that were his notes from when he was a teacher in the 1920’s in the Bauhaus in Germany. It’s his lectures, notes about teaching, design, and drawing. It’s this book called The Pedagogical Sketchbook, and its really fascinating to me. It didn’t really make sense, a lot of it—I just felt very drawn towards thinking about these very abstract concepts he had. So the epigraph of my book, and in those little sections in my book, are just from one chapter of his book, when he’s talking about Arabs, and what he said really stuck with me, and seems really true. And I had just been starting to write the poems for my book when I found his book, and I was like, “Oh, this is interesting. I want to, in some way, write a whole book that’s informed by this.” It’s not too strict, but I think that what he says in some ways are undergirding all of the poems.
STORY: I did not know of him before I read your book, but after I did some research on him; there’s definitely parallels. One of his quotes from your book that I wrote down was one that said, “half-winged, half-imprisoned.” And that seems to be kind of a perfect representation of the poems and the book itself. Is he continuing to influence your work, your latest work?
DEWEESE: No, I don’t think so. I think it was this project. Now there will be other influences.
STORY: Now the influences are 90s bands.
DEWEESE: Pretty much. I’ve written 110 poems for this book, and I’m trying to get 120.
STORY: So it will be a much longer piece?
DEWEESE: Well, each poem is pretty short. They’re only 10 lines long, so they’re very short poems. Pretty much any band you could think of from the 90s is in there.
STORY: It’s so interesting. I’m a 90s music fan, but I was born in ’93, so I think I just missed the 90s grunge phase.
DEWEESE: Yeah and it’s fascinating to me, because now, after I write these, I like to go on YouTube and look at the videos that I haven’t watched for 20 years, and looking at the comments is so funny, because there’s a lot of people of your age who are like, “Oh, I can’t believe I missed out on the 90s. This is when music was real!” The era before you is always going to seem cooler at the time. When I was growing up, the 80s were like that. People were like, “Oh, the 80s are so cool. If only we weren’t surrounded by Alice in Chains and these terrible grunge bands.” So there’s always going to be a little of that retrospective nostalgia.
Kaila Young is an editorial assistant for Story. She is also co-editor of The York Review and a writer for Susquehanna Style.