The Fourth River

Interview: Adam Tavel

By on March 3, 2014


Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his forthcoming collections are The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, 2014) and Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013), a chapbook. His recent poems appear or will soon appear in West Branch, Indiana Review, Zone 3, Diode, Bayou, Yemassee, The Cincinnati Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Tavel is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

~Interview by Christopher Ruff

The Fourth River: Can you talk about your path as a poet? Not that typical poet’s bio stuff, but the writers, the teachers, and the moments that led you to choose this life of words.

Adam Tavel: One of the biggest influences in my writing life was, and remains, David Hillenburg, my sixth grade English teacher. When I met him, he was only in his second or third year of teaching and seemed like a strikingly irreverent figure among the other hum-drum faculty of my junior high: tall, lanky, with long sideburns and a wacky tie collection. His classroom was idiosyncratic in ways that I’m sure is outlawed now, with pictures of Elvis, a cork board littered with a dozen of Bukowski’s PG-rated poems (though the occasional word was still blacked out with marker, CIA-style), and a large list of behavioral commandments, most of which sought to differentiate the nuances between ‘nose scratching’ and ‘nose picking.’ He wasn’t a rule-breaker and he didn’t incite rebellion, but he did challenge us to think for ourselves and be as creative as possible. Among other things, he had us read The Phantom Toll Booth and Sounder, and he certainly was the first person in my life who seemed genuinely invested in poetry. He was also the faculty advisor for the school’s literary magazine, so we bonded pretty quickly once I showed an interest in writing beyond my mere assignments. I’m glad to note that we’re still close friends all these years later.

Certainly there have been many other influences, too. My mother was an aspiring journalist in college, so I had an early appreciation for language. In college and graduate school, I was blessed to study with more brilliant professors and writers than I can count. Perhaps the most critical mentor, though, was my undergraduate mentor, labor historian John Hinshaw, who was unbelievably patient with me—I would ambush him during his office hours, an essay draft and new poems in tow, and he always took the time to read everything I wrote. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to realize that I consumed so much of his time, especially with material that had nothing to do with his courses. I try to remember these moments now, when my own students sheepishly ask for guidance with assignments for other classes or timidly slide me one of their  poems or stories.

It’s unwise to extrapolate any grand generalizations from the limited experiences that comprise my writing life, as the development of any poet is a long, quirky, serendipitous adventure that relies just as much on luck and pluck as it does on talent. That said, though, I think our earliest guides—parents and teachers—shape us in ways that last a lifetime. This is a fairly clichéd statement, but I fret about the detrimental impact of rigorous standardized testing and No Child Left Behind; not only do they both devalue the arts, but they send the message that creativity is a distraction with no currency in the intellectual marketplace. I’m sure the bureaucrats would say that those moments at the beginning or end of class spent on a poem outside the curriculum is a waste of time, but it is in such moments that poets far better than I are made.

FR: In some of your poetry—such as “Witness 483: Phoenix Lights Incident, 1997” and “Widow’s Lament” (both published in Connotation Press), and “Fever Dream in Which Anne Sexton Is My Mother Begging for Her Job at the Sunshine Supermarket After Her Third Reprimand for Tardiness” (published in diode)—your speakers seem to be actors on the stage, reciting their climactic monologues. Do you have a background in theater? Do you pull inspiration for these characters from movies, TV, plays? Or real life? Or just out of your imagination? Do you do research on these personae to make them as authentic as you do, or do they come more spontaneously from your well of inspiration?

AT: I dabbled in acting as a high school and college student, but it was never something to which I aspired, and I don’t think those experiences were formative in my writing life. That said, I have a deep affinity for the dramatic monologue, or persona poem, and I go through long periods where it is my dominant mode. As an undergraduate, I was a history major and worked briefly for the Smithsonian and Maryland State Archives, but even before that I was obsessed with history—the earliest interests I can recall having as a child were dinosaurs and ancient Egypt. So I suppose the monologue is my way to explore this obsession, but also to engage in acts of ventriloquism.

Most of the figures I attempt to embody are dead, so the pleasure and challenge in these poems is remaining true to the voice while simultaneously resurrecting the voice for the contemporary ear. Occasionally this sort of poem requires research—to avoid an anachronism or accurately date something, for example—but I try to avoid having my poems, however archaic, turn into little reports. My friend William Hathaway scoffed at a bad historical poem he read a few years ago, joking that it seemed like the poet had merely versified a Wikipedia article. I thought that was one of the sharpest insults I had ever heard. There are all manner of pitfalls to the monologue, but flat reportage and/or pedantry are chief among them.

FR: Seemingly opposite of these dramatic monologues, you write some poems—like “Target Practice” (published in diode) and “The Rocket” (published on The Fourth River Online)—that seem to come from your voice, with references to people the reader may assume to be drawn from your life. In these poems, there seems to be a direct opposition between “adulthood” and “childhood.” Does this run along the lines of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in some way? Is there some other thread of experience you’re trying to unravel here? Or do you just have a latent adolescence inside of you dying to tear away your adult experience (as I often find true for myself)?

AT: It’s funny that you ask this question, as I asked something similar of my friend Eric Anderson a few months ago when I interviewed him for a separate project. For me, it’s important to differentiate “innocence” from “childhood,” and “childhood” from “adolescence” for that matter. I like to think of innocence as a state of being that is often anchored by childhood, but is not limited to childhood, which is merely an age. Adolescence largely repulses me, as I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a post-war fiction created by advertisers to exacerbate and extend the inherent dilemmas of being a teenager as a means to sell garbage. Somewhere in America, a balding father blares a classic rock station in his convertible, shrieking the phrase “teenage wasteland.”

Getting back to your question, though, the two poems you reference are certainly in the confessional mode and present me, or versions of me, as their speakers. The notion that innocence always meets a violent end—and is often crushed and obliterated, as it was at Sandy Hook—is a prevalent theme in my poems, but it’s an ancient idea, as it’s front and center in the Greek tragedies, and the Bible, and the quirky verses of our prophet Blake.

I’m not sure I see innocence and experience as necessarily antithetical—injury, illness, senility, and dementia can all result in a kind of tragic innocence at any stage of life—but I do see childhood and adulthood as being fairly rigid constructs. One of the many gifts poetry gives us is the ability to see the world afresh through the eyes of another, so my poems addressing childhood seek, and occasionally find, a bewildered amazement in keeping with the romantic sublime. As a father, I can trespass into childhood through imaginative play, but I’m always aware that it’s foreign territory, and I’m always aware that I’m a tourist, even if my heart swells from the visit.

FR: In “The Undertaker’s Son Gets Cast as Ophelia’s Gravedigger” (published in Toad), were you really the son of an undertaker (hence falling under the more personal poem category) or would this poem fall under the dramatic monologue category? Either way, this idea of “typecasting” is very interesting, as we tend to fall into certain roles in our lives that seem to be cast even before we are born. Into what roles do you find yourself sometimes “typecast”? Do you try to capitalize on those “types” or try to break free from them?

AT: I know nothing of undertaking and don’t have any family or friends in the field, so thankfully I lack first-hand experience with it. The poem’s narrative situation is built on a fairly rudimentary irony, but as you insinuate, it’s also mining how we typecast each other, and at times allow ourselves to be typecast. The voice is that of a quirky kid who is as horny as he is creative, so his motives for auditioning for a stage role are less than genuine. The image of a guitar-slung teen butchering a Dylan cover for his Hamlet audition struck me as pretty witty until I later saw Steve Coogan’s Hamlet 2 and realized how much further the irony could go, and of course how unoriginal my idea was.

The discovery for me in writing the poem was that this speaker is fairly oblivious to the world, secures a bit part because he’s assumed to know something about death, and in the end realizes that he knows a great deal about death after all. It’s also about fathers and sons, and how sons are frequently inadvertent apprentices. This is a fatalistic view, of course, but sometimes I find it difficult to see the world through any other lens.

On a more global level, though, one of the great pleasures of the persona poem for me is being able to invent characters and inhabit them. When the voices are convincing, there are larger intimations of their worlds, their daily lives, their burdens and dreams. Poets sometimes think of ‘character’ as the proprietary hardware of fiction writers and playwrights, but I think that’s a reflection of our literary milieu’s resistance to narrative rather than a reflection of verse’s vast polyphonic tradition. And for me, it’s a means by which I can jettison the vessel of self, if only temporarily, and thus jettison whatever role I’m resisting at that particular moment—teacher, editor, washer of dishes, etc.

FR: In “Letter to Schnell Written on Glovebox Napkins” (published in Thrush) and in “The Rocket,” you have moments of subtle humor that punctuate the more serious aspects of your poetry. I want to laugh at the monikers “Goatee” and “Mascara Smear” even as I feel for the child of these dysfunctional adults. I know the silliness of “Captain Atom,” as I too find myself in a world of make-believe when I can momentarily escape my adult life. Do you try to offset (or maybe even highlight) the emotional impact of these poems with humor? Or does the humor come as a byproduct of the narrative being told? Maybe I’m asking “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

AT: The humor in these particular poems was present in their respective first drafts, since I realized—as I so often do—that they wouldn’t work without some modulation in pitch or feeling. And when I say ‘work,’ I don’t mean likable, or marketable, or ‘workshop clean’—I mean that I wouldn’t have been able to finish the act of composing them and contented myself unless some leavening occurred. In “The Rocket,” the speaker’s surrender to fantasy by transforming his snowy trek into a science fiction scene is fairly logical: it’s a doomed mission, so why not have some fun along the way? Of course, in “Letter to Schnell…,” it’s gallows humor, as that bickering couple’s venom for each other—and the inability to keep the speaker’s son from witnessing it, even peripherally—would just grind the poem down to nothing without some wit.

I like to think of myself as a funny guy, but the truth is that I have a pretty average sense of humor, so these moments, or turns, aren’t shrewdly mapped out. Rather, it’s a way to allow the poem to go beyond mere reportage, to acknowledge that the poem isn’t mere experience, but experience with editorial distance, rendered in such a way that the authenticity of feeling outweighs the obligation to verisimilitude. Events, particularly tragic ones, are rarely funny when they’re actually transpiring—a bad job interview, a flat tire, a romantic dinner gone awry. It’s only later that we see the humor in them and allow ourselves to laugh at the memory, and of course memories and dreams are the most elemental kinds of poems. Richard Pryor setting himself on fire wasn’t funny, but the story he told about burning was hysterical.

FR: Being that The Fourth River is a journal concerning itself with “place,” how much do you feel locality plays a role in your writing?

AT: The idea of place has always been integral to me as a reader and writer of poems. Much of my first book—which is coming out next year from Salmon Poetry—explores the landscape of my adopted home here on the Delmarva Peninsula. It is a gorgeous terrain, rife with natural wonder and the rich traditions of farming and fishing. Yet it is impossible for me to forget that it is the rightful home of the Nanticoke, a tribe long decimated, as well as the birthplace of American slavery. Like most places, it is a juxtaposition of beauty and blood.

This tension is especially palpable when I run, as I live out in the boonies, so I see plantation mansions, stubble fields, and century-old dilapidated barns all within a few miles. I’m a native Marylander, too, so even though I grew up in the more suburban parts of the state’s western shore, some of my earliest memories are of driving past the tobacco auction houses not far from my grandmother’s home. Even as a child daydreaming in the backseat of a car, they felt ancient, alien, haunted—totally out of keeping with the fast food restaurants and gas stations that surrounded them. Yet they endured, and still endure, as remnants from a not-so-distant past that still has some bearing on my present, a past that calls out for acknowledgment and reckoning.

Christopher Ruff is an alum of Chatham University’s MFA Program.  He lives in Juniata County, Pennsylvania.