An Interview with Tim Seibles
What is your writing process like?
Perhaps a line will come to me, just a line out of nowhere–and there will be a certain kind of ring or what I call a snap to it, and that’s the signal that maybe I better pay real attention and see what comes. It’s all intuitive, of course. Most days I’ll sit down with my notebook. Sometimes I’ll look at drafts and mess around with revisions, but sometimes there will be an expectant feeling. That’s the only way I can describe it. Then, maybe a line comes, sometimes followed by several lines, and then the poem starts to take shape. Once you have a sense of the whole poem, then you begin to revise and refine, trying to get at what I call the essential news of the poem. You have to get to the thing that demanded an audience, that shouted inside you. That can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months or even years–if it’s a poem that’s longer and more complex. Sometimes you end up working through layers and layers of language, and the opening line that felt so promising ends up being discarded, and you realize that it was just a trigger. So, for me the process is primarily one of patience and focus, listening as carefully as possible and not settling for what seemspretty good. There’s a certain point, for me at least, where the thing that drove the poem into being makes itself known. That’s what I wait for. That’s how most of the poems I write come into being.
Do you have to do anything to check that process of going away and coming back to a poem? To keep yourself producing and moving forward?
At this stage in my life, I have so many drafts of different things that if I’m not creating a new poem, there’s always a draft to re-examine. I’m rarely faced with deadlines as a poet. It’s a great luxury, but I usually get to work on a poem as long as I need to. I was looking at a poem that I finished earlier this year, for example. I was referring to myself in the poem as being 56, but I was finishing the poem at 58. I didn’t realize it had been a two-year process! I don’t need much external motivation; I’m always writing.
How do you know when a collection is complete? Do you get a feeling similar to when you finish a poem?
There comes a point–this has been true of every book I’ve finished so far–when you feel that there’s enough here to begin thinking about these poems as a collection.
And then I go into a classroom late at night, and I put one poem on each desktop. Then I start walking up and down the rows, “That’ll be first. That’ll be second.” Then, of course, that may not be the right order, so you lay them all out again and do it over. Eventually, you come to a place where the order feels right. You might shuffle a poem here or there, but the essence of the collection, the basic chronology is in place. Then it’s just a matter–like with a poem–of simply refining the order so that it works as seamlessly as possible. Now, unfortunately, many people do not read books of poems chronologically. They skip around as though they think the poet put the poems together arbitrarily. No poet puts a book together arbitrarily–there is a reason that the poems are in a certain order–you’re trying to tell a particular story, poem by poem.
When you lay them out and walk between the desks, do you sometimes see a poem sticking out that you know is not going to be part of the collection?
Yes. Before I finished Fast Animal, I did a series of four very long persona poems in the voices of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Frederick Douglass’s wife, and Douglass’s lover. They were each about five pages long. I did a lot of research to create what I hope was a convincing look at these historical figures, but it was very clear when I laid the poems out that they were not going to fit in Fast Animal. I would love to have them in a collection for a larger audience, but I think what I’m going to end up doing is publishing them as a chapbook, so that those poems will exist by themselves as a separate collection, because I don’t think they’ll fit in the next book, either. So there are poems that you know very quickly are not part of a collection. Even if you love a poem, if it doesn’t fit the flow of a collection, it has to be put aside.
Do you ever have the opposite experience? Feeling a gap, as if there’s a missing poem?
If I do, I’ll go back and continue to write poems. If I’m putting together the chronology, and I feel there’s something missing I’ll just put the poems back in my notebook and keep writing. With Fast Animal, for example, I thought I had finished the book, and then I was in an airport and a line came to me; it hit me pretty hard. I started writing and realized this poem would be the closing poem of the collection.
At what point did you decide that Fast Animal would be the title, and how did that decision come to be?
I’ll look at poems and if a line or phrase jumps out that seems to capture some essential thing about the book–like Fast Animal, came from the line “consciousness turned like a fast animal to the blood on my face.” Out of context it probably sounds like the ranting of a maniac, but this entire book is about memory and consciousness and the movements thereof. So, I thought, “That’s it.” Consciousness is an animal that moves around, and it is, in its way, very hungry and agile. I also like titles that make people stop and think. “Fast Animal? What fast animal?” I want the title to be intriguing. And I liked the sound of Fast Animal. Generally, the title does come when the collection is finished or very close to being finished. Again you’re relying on a certain intuitive feel for what you’ve written, and you just hope that your gut sense of the collection is right. There’s no truly rational way to write a poem or title a manuscript.
How did you learn that you would be receiving the Roethke Prize?
Well, I was looking through email on my computer at school, and I saw this thing, “Tim Seibles… Theodore Roethke Prize…” Now, coincidentally, I have loved Theodore Roethke’s poems for years and years, and many of my good friends know that. They know I dig Roethke–and I didn’t know there was a prize in his name! So, when I saw Theodore Roethke Prize, I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me! Fast Animal had been out for two years, and usually the window for awards is about a year, maybe a little more; and then your book is kind of seen as older, however silly that may seem. So, I got the PEN Oakland Award, and I’d been a finalist for the National Book Award, and God knows you couldn’t ask for more. I wasn’t sitting around thinking, “There’s got to be another award!” So, I had stopped thinking about this book being news in the literary world. So the first time I read the letter, I read it kind of quickly, looking for a punchline. Then, when I didn’t find a punchline, I read it again and thought, “This seems real. Wow.” Then, I actually talked to someone at the foundation, and it became real to me–a really wonderful thing!
What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies?
My favorite thing in terms of relaxation would probably be playing tennis. That’s what I do when I want to be outside my brain–exist as an agile and worthy mammal on the tennis court for a while. Not thinking analytically, just moving, reacting, moving, reacting. Feeling the angles. There’s a ton of freedom in those moments. You’re just somewhere else. You’re not in the world of worries, the world of business, the world of war, the world of relationship confusion, the world of race, the world of poverty. For a while, there’s simply a game happening and you’re in it and you’re moving and you’re wildly alive in it. There’s this wonderful kind of escape in sports. I think that many people who don’t play sports watch them for that reason, but playing sports for me is the real thing, because then you’re putting your body on the line. You’re in the sweat, you’re in the movement: you’re diving, you’re running, you’re lunging.
The other thing I’ve come to take more and more seriously over the last ten years is playing guitar. I really want to figure out how to make music. What does it mean to compose music? I’ve been a composer of language for years, but how do you find a melody? So I take guitar lessons once every two weeks and try to practice four or five days a week, sometimes just thirty minutes, sometimes an hour and a half, two hours, sometimes more. I want to understand how someone can speak through harmony, melody, rhythm. It seems like magic! That’s a real fascination for me now. I wouldn’t call it a hobby–I take it too seriously! I don’t know if I’m ever going to be a real guitarist, but I’m playing a lot!
Nathan Summerlin is a graduate assistant at Wilkes University’s graduate creative writing program. He has no ability to feel the angles in tennis but does play a little guitar.