Interview by Alyse Richmond, for The Fourth River
Tobias Wray is a poetry editor for the cream city review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Bellingham Review, North American Review, Blackbird and elsewhere. He’s been a finalist for the Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship. He holds an M.F.A. in Poetry and Translation from the University of Arkansas and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he co-curates Eat Local :: Read Local, a program that partners local restaurants with poets from Milwaukee and Madison.
Tobias’ poems, “Portrait of a Spider”, “Terra Incognita”, and “Top/Bottom: Ekphrasis” appear in The Fourth River’s Fall 2015 online issue under the theme, “Queering Nature.”
The Fourth River: One of the things I enjoy about your nature writing is that it carries a strong sense of nostalgia that permeates images of plants and animals. As a poet, I find it fascinating when someone is able to successfully associate memories with unexpected creatures, in this case spiders and crawfish. Why did you choose to draw memories from them, or would you say that they chose you? Do you usually turn to living things as subjects or characters when writing about the past, or was this a stylistic decision made solely for your “Queering Nature” submission to The Fourth River?
Tobias Wray: My perception of nature might also be characterized as American: I see it as a place of earthly normalcy, as a place untouched, as reflecting the possibility of culturally-instilled ideals, something like Edenic perfection. Nature is somewhere outside. But, as someone with deep ties to the South, the Ozarks are also the very real landscape of my childhood memories, a place for wandering, a place of discovery. In one sense, people are actually the unexpected creatures in the woods; the crawfish and centipedes and ground squirrels are the locals. These kinds of poetic choices—which are attempts to look at myself as a strange creature—thrill me most; the surprise of a mirror where a mirror is least expected. I think identity is very much fascinated with its own margins. Yet, every attempt to demonstrate this feels very much like picking up a handful of water.
You’re right that nature writing is, like all imagining, associative. But, I think folks who live in more population dense areas tend to see themselves in contrast to the natural world, which makes it all the more inviting to write about. When I wrote all three of these poems, I was in the middle of pursuing a PhD in Milwaukee. I wrote at a desk on the third floor of the Golda Meir Library looking down at a street full of students and buses and general bustle. Of course, the place we are in somewhat determines the place we imagine into. For me, the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas is familiar terrain, a place I cast into to explore my own emotional landscape, trading the familiar chaos of the street for the jagged leaves and rocks of creeks.
And, I agree with you about nature writing being imbued with nostalgia, particularly in what it latches onto. Nostalgia is all about contrast—the difference between where we are and where we were. Being queer, as an artist, as a person, I have some insight into the conscious reconciling of otherness. On the other hand, I’m also white, able-bodied, and highly privileged. So, when I think of queering nature my first impulse is to think about inherent contradictions: the weirdness of nostalgic nature writing in this place and time, when we are only now coming to terms with our global impact as a species.
TFR: I also noticed that music – specifically the piano – enters some of your poems. Do you play in real life? If so, how much does being a musician influence your writing? Have you ever written lyrics? Do you feel a musical background changes the way you view or read poetry?
TW: I was never able to sustain any consistent musical practice before I became a poet. My father, however, was a clarinetist and a music professor. He had a certain expression on his face whenever he played. His eyebrows arched high on certain notes and his forehead would round and dip in anticipation of a run. The correct embouchure for a clarinetist tightens the lips and flattens the chin into the appearance of a chimpanzee communicating a dramatic feeling. Yet, he seemed the most himself then—much more accessible somehow than the stormy man who complained about the state of the kitchen or the rudeness of store clerks. Here was a man who existed only once his instrument case opened and the first note filled the room. This distant relationship to my father (who also took me hiking in the woods each summer) was complicated when I reached adolescence and realized that I was very much attracted to men like him. I do in fact write about this quite often. I think I tend to write about music in a very similar way to how I write about nature: as something both familiar and strange.
I think of the lyric as the same kind of reflection, or expectation for reflection. If I see a tree covered in cobwebs and think it looks like a balloon and then think about the actual laws that govern a balloon and realize what a strange balloon this would be, and then feel unsettled, because perhaps strange balloons have always hung at the corners of my memory, then I have a lyric image. This becomes a clear psychological narrative, or a way of mapping a pattern of thinking. There may be no real difference between poetic lyric and song lyrics in that sense of analysis.
TFR: In “Terra Incognita”, you write, “I’ve lost another. I ushered it in, / the losing.” Then, “What’s left: / this old name for home, where the mountains are slow / to reveal themselves. You, my Arkansas.” My obvious first question is: Are you from Arkansas, or have you lived there? If so, what did you find most inspirational about its landscape? If not, why Arkansas? Why create a poem of loss that focuses on a place you don’t have a strong connection with? Have you written other poems about places you’ve called “home?”
TW: Because I write about queer identity, about being white and lower middle-class and from the South and from the Midwest, I end up claiming a lot of homes in my work. In more ways than one, that work ends up reflecting the messiness of all the categories I claim.
I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and mostly grew up in a small town in North Dakota, but because both my parents grew up in Arkansas and because most of our extended family lives there still, I spent all of my childhood summers and holidays there. I moved to a small town in the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas in 2008 to work on my MFA at the University of Arkansas’s Programs in Creative Writing and Translation. That was, as it often is for folks, a rich and productive time in my life, but it was also a lonely one.
The genesis of this poem was in the histories of the names we’ve given different spaces. Arkansas, which has a long denialist history of oppression (think, Japanese-American internment camps, the Little Rock nine, etc.), comes from another name for the Quapaw tribes that originally inhabited the region. Before the region had any shape on European maps, early French explorers called the land terra incognita or unknown land. I was interested in the human tendency toward demarcation, in particular. I wondered about the necessity and problematics of territorializing, but also, to be honest, its beauty, the comfort of knowing that someplace is part of who you are.
What it ultimately became was something of a break-up poem.
TFR: How would you describe your most recent body of work? Are you predominantly interested in writing nature and place-based poems? Which authors are you currently reading, researching and/or influenced by?
TW: As is probably clear by now, I’m interested in the intersections of identity. My current work tries to figure out how personal familial and sexual identities intersect with the fraught histories of homosexuality and queerness. More specifically, I write about the loss of my father alongside the persecution Alan Turing underwent at the end of his life and how both men serve as models for me, legacies for thinking about masculinity and endurance and failure. The sections of the book that reimagine Turing’s experience are written as fragments of a verse play, something akin to John Milton’s closet drama Samson Agoniste. I am very interested here in the unavoidable pursuit of heroic figures, and what happens when heroes also have to be people.
The chapbook project is mainly thinking about another kind of inheritance, the trials of odyssey and of experience. The chapbook’s title, forty dark ships, is drawn from Homer’s catalog of ships in The Iliad. There, I am interested in how we become our histories and the histories of those who carried us to where we are.
I am reading a lot of wonderful poets as I think through these projects. Currently, I am becoming more and more engrossed in Rickey Laurentiis’s premiere collection, Boy with Thorn. Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life has been haunting me, as well, this past year. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Carmen Giménez Smith’s book Milk & Filth and how it rethinks second-wave feminism.
TFR: Tell me about Eat Local :: Read Local. Where did this idea of partnering restaurants with poets come from? Is this program meant to expand your local literary community and, if so, how? What do you hope to achieve by building these relationships?
TW: As an academic and a teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to get out of the academy and bring poetry to people who don’t have access to it in the same way that I do. I try to acknowledge the privilege of education, but also resist its siloing, insulating tendencies. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Eat Local :: Read Local,which Ico-curate with the wonderful poet, Lindsay Daigle, has been going strong since 2008. EL : : RL celebrates partnerships between local restaurants and poets from Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin to showcase our region’s rich culinary and literary arts scenes. Both cities have strong institutional ties to Midwest poetry communities, so each April we distribute printed poems to local restaurants, who then pass them out to diners throughout National Poetry Month. We also hold readings for the program in both cities. In this way, we work with local businesses to connect with more of the community through poetry, hopefully reaching some readers we otherwise wouldn’t. The program is approaching its ten-year anniversary, so we are hoping to pull together an anthology to celebrate our current and past contributors.
Alyse Richmond resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is completing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Chatham University with concentrations in poetry, publishing and travel writing. Her work has been published in print and online by The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Helix Magazine, Malpais Review, Coal Hill Review, Lines + Stars, and El Portal, among others.