John Timpane: “Autumnals”, Tankettes & the Philadelphia Poetry Scene. Sept. 2012.
Poetdelphia: Does nature recur as a theme frequently in your work, and if so, why do you think that is?
John Timpane: Isn’t everything nature? We are. We’re in it, and, since its laws apparently remain steady throughout the universe, what happens with the stars happens with us. We’re connected, as distant as those things sometimes seem. That profound connection moves me. We’re saturated in what we are, nor can we ever know all of it. That calls to me all the time: our cloud of unknowing, what we can never get beyond. That’s nature, too: a measure of what we, being what we are, can never know.
So much poetry uses the natural world as a metaphoric pivot on which to turn to questions of a mental/spiritual/emotional nature, but in a way, maybe the two worlds should not be considered separate or separable. Our notions of “inner” and “outer,” while totally understandable, probably willfully ignore the many ways in which we often are our surroundings, and the ways our surroundings express us, even when we are most persuaded we’re captains of our souls. So perhaps that’s what’s going on sometimes in my work. Even when I write about machinery (which I do a lot), I’m writing about nature.
Example? I am finishing a book-length poem on the Tenth Labor of Hercules, and in it our hero reflects on how much he loves new inventions – ships, fulcrums, four-wheeled chariots, tools of building and measurement, pulleys – and especially how he loves the way they capitalize on laws of weight and force, and bring within human grasp what really lies outside it. Even – wait, especially! – domesticated animals, which are genetic inventions courtesy of the human imagination. His tenth labor is to steal deific cattle from a chaos-monster at the far edge of the world, and he falls in love with the beasts – as everyone does who sets eyes on them. They are expressions of the best of humanity, the beauty we can bring into the world by working with the world into which we are brought. What we soullessly call “technology” is really nature working on nature, through nature. (From Winter’s Tale: “an art that nature makes.”) I agree with Hercules: that’s something to love with all you’ve got. Because it’s all we’ve got.
Poetdelphia: “Autumnals” is a mirror poem, each section reversing itself at a fulcrum in the middle. Why did you choose this form, and how does it influence the neologism that creates new word combinations at the end?
JT: By accident. For about five years, I wrote a huge number of what I sheepishly call “tonkettes,” poems in tanka or renga form that sometimes are, and sometimes really aren’t, tanka. (There are many traditions and rules about subject matter, season words, and technique, which I sometimes followed and often didn’t, out of ignorance, lack of skill, or a combination of the twosome Japanese masters wrote tanka that read the same backward and forward, or read as mirrors. This is probably a different matter (I won’t say easier!) when using pictograms. In English, it’s both trickier and somewhat less magical, because you have to count syllables. The count is 31 for a tonka(ette). I found it crucial to decide what the central turn would be. It could be a repeated word, as in “beyond/(beyond” in “Autumnals I” (which, come to think, is not a repetition because it lies across that parenthesis). Or you can play with a central keystone-word of an odd number of syllables. “Tomatolingus,” for example, the central act of plunging your tongue into the center of a garden-fresh Bully Boy. If you’re going to write a mirror-poem like this, you’re committing yourself to unfurling in the opposite direction in which you furled. You can play and vary that, but such messing usually smells of the schools, so I didn’t try to avoid evident symmetricalities. I did want the second half to make its own sense, using the arrangements of the first half in reverse. In “I,” autumn is what bereaves at first, but is is bereaved at the end, or at least you could read it that way. The sequence of time does the first whispering, then destiny whispers in the second part.
So the second half need not and maybe should not “say the same thing” as the first. It could vary unto undoing. I wasn’t interested in undermining the form that much. I guess what I was just saying about inner and outer gets an echo in “Autumnals II,” where we start with “Octobers” that, on some kind of “inner” stage, turn and exchange and change “weathers” into “inner Octobers.” The mindset of a season turns that season into a mindset, the mindset of that season. Maybe that’s just me reading it.
As with any piece, I was just hoping an event would happen. I teach students to think of the act of writing a poem as “creating an event that happens for others.” The catch is, only other people can know whether the event really does happen for them. You hope it does, but you can never really tell.
Poetdelphia: What do you find energizing about the writing community in Philadelphia? Do you have writers you share work with or do you have favorite local journals, reading series or other writerly recommendations?
JT: What a well-kept secret this poetry town is. So many micro-climates, so many readings, so many fine and widely (not to say wildly) different poets and teachers. While there are camps and enmities (just joshing there) (on the other hand, there are some folks who dislike the way others write) (like anywhere else), the atmosphere is wide-open, accepting, and encouraging. Pleasure in the work of others is palpable. Yes, I often show work to people I trust/admire/worship. And vice versa, which is no vice. We have so many people like Leonard Gontarek, devoted to gathering groups of poets large and small and having them read and write and inter-applaud. So many connectors, like Rosemary Cappello, Lamont Steptoe, or Drexel/PBQ’s Kathy Volk Miller. So many facilitators, like the tireless Al Filreis of Kelly Writers House, the fabulous Eileen D’Angelo of Mad Poets, Diane Sahms-Guarnieri and G Emil Reutter of the Fox Chase Review, CA Conrad of so damn much, Peter Murphy of the PoetryNJ website, or the gobsmackingly industrious, canny, and superlative Nathalie Anderson, a knockout poet who also manages to publish such an indispensable poetry mailing list.
I am loving the folks at Apiary – Lillian Dunn, Tamara Oakman, and minions – with their excursions into print, video, and all manner of social-media community-building. I am a close friend of the astonishing Tom Devaney, and I really like his ONandOnScreen, its cross-pollinating anthers dusty with both video and poetry. Long may it (they!) wave. If you do not love American Poetry Journal, you are wrong, OK? You are wrong and should report to the Wrong Doctor for some Wrong Therapy. More and more, thanks to creative Web uses, our literary journals build communities, arranged around literature but extending beyond just the appearance of printed artworks to embrace people to whom that art matters. Valerie Fox and Nicole Klein’s Press 1 does that, as does the Fox Chase Review, Philadelphia Poets, Painted Bride Quarterly and associated debaucheries, CrossConnect, Schuylkill Valley Journal, New Purlieu Review, Miriam Kotzin’s fabulous Per Contra, Ernest Hilbert’s seriously bent E-Verse Radio, and all the others who will get mad at me because I cannot summon them from brain to fingers. I will reserve special notice for Frank Wilson’s Books, Inq. – The Epilogue, perhaps the best literary sounding board in our region. Ah, ah, but the goddesses who run the Wild River Review, Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy, merit serious adulation; they truly have created a world unto itself, where the world may come to sing in a new world.
As for venues, almost every major college and university runs its own verse cosmos, including Penn, Drexel, Temple, Community College of Philadelphia, UArts, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and so the hell on. Readings just pullulate, including great venues such as the Green Line Cafe, Dowlings Palace, Poetdelphia, the Germantown Poetry Festival, Moonstone Arts Center/Robin’s Bookstore, Blue Marble, Monday Poets at the Free Library, and Kelly Writers House. And the poetry groups! Moles Not Molars! Mad Poets! Fox Chase! We have the West Chester Poetry Conference, quickly becoming the nation’s best, and again, Kelly Writers House at Penn, already the nation’s best such house, model for all others. I want to live there, but they won’t let me.
I will not neglect to praise the wildly excellent poetry of Elizabeth Scanlon, or Daisy Fried, Elaine Terranova, J.C. Todd, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Michelle Taransky, Deborah Fries, Lili Bita, Ron Silliman, or the ebullient, many-spangled Lynn Levin, Helen Mallon, Greg Djanikian, Kelly McQuain, Luke Stromberg, Kim Bridgford, Frank Wilson, Paul Siegell, Laura Spagnoli, Cleveland Wall, Sonya Sanchez, Charles Bernstein, Karl Kirchwey, Bob Perelman, Vasiliki Katsarou, Hayden Saunier, Ross Gay, Carlos Hernández, Gerald Stern, C.K. Williams, Anne Marie Macari, Liz Socolow, Ellen Foos, Paul Muldoon… is this not the world? Is this not the world and its voice?
Why did you ask me this question? Do you know how much I hate you now? My brain, already shriveled, aches with overtaxation.