Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with John Casteen
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In “Wild Horse / Wild Deer,” the form illustrates the dream-like feel of the content. Did you try other formats for the piece before deciding upon the one we see now?
John Casteen: I had to go back through my notebook to make sure I’m giving an accurate answer to this one. In terms of lineation, stanza divisions, and prosody, no: the format you see is the format I wrote out in draft. But before that first writing with pencil and paper, the format had been verbal—meaning, with pace and pauses, but without lines or stanzas. I had said the poem in various stages over the course of two or three days, and recorded it bit by bit, once I felt I had gotten the sound the way I wanted to hear it in any given passage. So what you see on the page reflects what I heard on a voice recorder after trying it various ways out loud.
RR: Did a particular location inspire the natural imagery in “Wild Horse / Wild Deer”? When writing on natural themes, do you struggle with not falling into long-standing clichés of typical nature poetry?
JC: Yes. The poem is set in the courtyard of the campus of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts at Mount St. Angelo in Amherst, Virginia. The studio barn complex fronts on a fenced pasture, and there’s a little road that runs alongside it, with some small trees. I was there for a couple weeks in the late spring of 2013, and ran into this arrangement of animals and terrain. And in terms of the title, I was writing partially in response to a piece of sculpture I saw when I was there.
Nature is not inherently good subject matter for poems. Or at least, it’s no better than the city, or politics, or love, or whatever else one chooses as the ostensible subject or occasion. The real subject is interior. Anything external is adequate subject matter if it’s a reliable way in, and if it demands that the poet be inventive in his or her means of address.
RR: “Figure” introduces thought-provoking concepts concerning the way the context of our words morph from situation to situation. What inspired you to write a piece on the duality of language?
JC: A lot of writers and theorists have done a better and more careful job of articulating this issue than I can, probably. Language is the only tool we have for expressing emotional, intellectual, or spiritual conditions, and it’s more often a blunt instrument than a scalpel. (I’m talking about expressing a sense of things, not communicating information. Language is perfectly good for that.) By which I mean, words are slippery, and their meanings are conditional, and they often say something other than what we mean; it’s always an intermediary screen between our intent and another’s perception. Language is abstract thinking, which introduces one variable, in the context of culture, which introduces another. Music is probably better, and dance is probably better, for purely expressive purposes.
So what provoked a poem on this subject was probably a steady diet of Charles Wright and Aimee Mann, a little “Meditation at Lagunitas” from way back, some Chomsky and Saussure and Lacan and Derrida. A longstanding and very affectionate disagreement with Rachel Zucker on the subjects of language and landscape. The word “figure” interested me because, like “set,” it could function as so many different parts of speech, and had both formal and vernacular uses.
RR: For part of your life you designed and built custom furniture. Are there any parallels that you have found between that craft and the process behind writing poetry?
JC: I think there are metaphors of any process of making that translate into others. I learned a lot as a designer/builder about line, form, and material. I was working mostly in wood, so it was a very tangible and tactile experience. In writing, too, there’s a process of gathering, assembly, and finishing that anyone who has ever cooked, planted a garden, painted, thrown a pot, or plumbed a house will recognize. You figure out what you need to work with, learn to use the tools of arranging and connecting the materials, do the work of applying the techniques to the goods, and test it. Any large and unwieldy process is just a large number of small steps, done correctly, in the right order.
RR: How do you see white space operating in a poem such as “Wild Horse / Wild Deer”?
JC: White space on the page is the corollary of pausing between saying one thing aloud, to oneself or to someone who’s intimately close, and saying something else. You finish one thought or idea, one utterance, when what’s necessary has been said. You don’t sully the moment by speaking again until there’s a next necessary idea or observation. The white space is silence, which is what in a real conversation allows one to confirm the dignity and gravity of what’s happening.
“Figure” and “Wild Horse / Wild Deer” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.1.
John Casteen’s Free Union (2009) and For the Mountain Laurel (2011) are part of the VQR Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press. Recent or forthcoming poems appear in Fence, The Southern Review, The Paris Review, From the Fishouse, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and other magazines, and in Best American Poetry and The Rumpus Poetry Anthology. He has contributed personal and topical nonfiction to Offline, The Morning News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other magazines and newspapers. He lives in Earlysville, Virginia, and teaches poetry at Sweet Briar College, where he founded and directs the Sweet Briar Undergraduate Creative Writing Conference.