Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In “Mario’s Grocery Has No Cameras,” you use an everyday, seemingly banal situation to speak to a tremendously more complex message about poverty and expectations not being met. How often do you look deeper into everyday situations for inspiration?
Chris Mink: All the time! I think the everyday is the best we have, the best we are. Because the everyday is what’s real, right? We know we’re flawed, but we don’t think to hide that aspect of ourselves when we’re just cooking for some folks, or meeting our buddy at a bar, or walking through the store. We’re comfortable.
Sometimes our natural conflict is enough: the good and bad in both our habitual behavior and our decisive action. With setting, the layered tree lines of a mountain range, or the uncomfortable stench from a bowling alley’s TRON-inspired wall carpeting can be equally fantastic. But I think human actions, and interactions, are the heart of any poem. So you say, “complex,” and I say, “EXACTLY!” We are incredibly complex, and what we do in these everyday situations is the expression of that. I’m totally drawn to it.
My everyday is writing, teaching, feeling irrational rage for something I’ve read on a sports blog, calling mom to check in on her, or falling asleep to replays of Deadwood. I wish my everyday included slam-dunking in an NBA game or big wave surfing, but I’m terrified of heights and sharks.
RR: What inspired this poem?
CM: Big wave surfing.
Actually, I was in line at a grocery store behind a mother and her son, and the kid picks up a Jolly Rancher off the rack and puts it in his pocket. He starts looking around, I mean the kid’s a real pro, and he notices that I’m watching him, and I can see him working it out in his head: Can I trust this man?
Of course, discretion is the better part of valor, and so he suddenly laughs it off, pulls the candy from his pocket, and puts it back. There was this wonderful shrewdness to his reaction, and I think it reveals an aspect of ourselves that never changes: what we want versus what we’re willing to show. There are practical consequences and we consider those, but I believe we are more concerned, even if it’s subconscious, with what’s thought of us.
I didn’t care that the kid stole it, but he knew the possibilities of perception, and in two seconds he flipped the dynamic. Amazing. He’s probably the president of something right now.
Obviously the events transpire differently in the poem, but the connection to that basic human need for understanding and affirmation is there, I think.
RR: You use very clever language and line breaks in your piece, particularly in in the third stanza. How often does form determine content when you’re writing?
CM: More often, it’s the other way around. The poems I love are the ones that have stories inside of them. The story here is really the kid. He’s the only one in the poem who seems to know precisely what’s needed and what one can do without. He’s the only one who feels freed by this exchange. Everyone else in the poem is confined by expectation.
I think his authority is surprising. It surprised me when I finally found that specific path into the poem. I tried to mimic that turn in the language and the line breaks. I wanted the poem to be one of opposition: the church folks need what they believe to be sin; the grandma grows frailer while she hands out the healthy option.
That’s how I usually work: content then form. This one happens pretty linearly, and so on the page the poem is structured to reflect that: fairly standard form that relies on line break and image to create the leaps, the tension.
That said, if I ever write a poem about hoops, I promise not to put it in the shape of a basketball.
RR: What are you working on currently?
CM: I’ve been working pretty steadily on drafts of new poems, which is really fun. I’m also in the process of sending out my first manuscript, “All the Devils,” to contests, publishers, street vendors, and neighbors who don’t know me. It’s nice to see the finished product. I mean, it’s never finished, right? But when it’s finished enough that you feel good about sending it out, that’s exciting.
I also like watching the neighbors find it in their mailboxes. They’re confused now, but I think in time they’ll come to appreciate the gesture.
RR: You’ve just completed your PhD at Florida State University. What aspect of your poetry has developed most since undergraduate school?
CM: I’m eternally grateful for all the people who have taken time with my work, but what has been just as important, I think, are the recommendations my friends and fellow writers have made regarding what I should read. So you ask what aspect of my poetry has changed, and I think its simply knowing my place in this huge conversation as a result of the reading. One of my best friends has taken to sending me a book or two every month. Just stuff he thinks I should read. Open the mailbox and BOOM there’s a package. How awesome is that?
For me, lineage is an essential part of writing, both knowing one’s own and knowing the one your reader may place you in. Look at the way we talk about writing. We speak in centuries, eras, and movements before we get into specific writers and what places them together or pulls them apart.
I had to dig into all of these texts before I could sort of figure out where to plant my own flag as a writer. The kid’s missing tooth from the poem is on it.
Chris Mink’s work in Issue 2.1: