The Poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: The syntax in line one, “It was the 70s, & I too young to learn gamble”, is drastically different from the syntax throughout the entirety of your poem, “How Did Your Father Spend His Spare Time?”, and we wanted to know, why is there such a strong emphasis on syntax in this first line?
Ace Bogess: It’s interesting that you point that out. A characteristic of much of my writing, both poetry and prose, is that I tend to start out with a flourish and then, as the work goes along, I move on to the message (or plot). I think that’s because most of my poems and stories are all locked up in a room, and that first line (paragraph, chapter, etc.) is the door with the gold knocker and a keyhole not quite big enough to see through. It takes a long time to get past that door, but once I do, the rest is revealed to me all at once. I read in an interview in Rattle (I think it was with Stephen Dobyns, though I wouldn’t swear to it), where the poet said, “When I have a line, I have a poem.” That’s my way of writing, too. I fight hard to find that first line. After, everything just comes (or was already there). Sometimes I’ll go back and cut that first line out if it was too over-the-top, or sometimes I’ll trim it up a little. Even so, I’ve still written the rest of the poem because I found that first line. In this case, I loved the feel of it when I went back and edited. I think of nostalgia for childhood as being rather formal. That’s the perception of the world as children see it: rules, structure … parents still act like parents, even when they’re playing poker.
RR: You are a very prolific author, and in an interview with The Missouri Review mentioned that you sent out “hundreds of submissions” during your time while incarcerated. Do you feel that your work ethic grew out of the situation you were in at the time? Has it stayed at the same level after leaving incarceration?
AB: Honestly, it was the other way around. I wrote and published widely for more than a decade prior to being locked up. Because of that, I knew the ins and outs of submitting. The real test was in finding the courage to do it. Having been a drug addict for a long time on my way to incarceration, I often worried I wouldn’t be able to write while sober. So, I had a lot to prove to myself. After I got into a routine, though, the process of sending work out was much the same as it had been before (except of course that none of those submissions were electronic). The difference was that the things I saw and wrote about were not everyday things. There’s nothing better for a writer than to experience new things. Exciting, even frightening things. I don’t recommend that prison be one of those new things, but you get the idea. As for now, I’m writing as much or more than I did during those five years. I’m focusing more on the mundane, however. Memories play a big part, and normal sights outside of prison. I’ve written a lot of poems about deer and squirrels, for God’s sake. I never thought I’d be writing poems about deer and squirrels.
RR: Can you provide insight about the mentioned internet questionnaire and what function the subtitle plays in the poem?
AB: Nothing of particular interest. I’ve been writing these question poems since about 2002 or 2003. I collect questions wherever I can find them, writing them down as a list in my journal. Questions people ask me, questions from poems or novels I read, questions from billboards, ads, even a box of cereal once. I’ll probably write down a couple of the ones you’ve asked (my last interviewer is credited with the titles of a couple poems). Once I have the questions, I find answers … that one magic line again, then more. They might answer the question directly or else take me in some other direction. Either way, I love it. This question, though, was just one of hundreds I looked at on the web, and I don’t recall anything about where it came from other than that it was a questionnaire. Most likely, it was something psychological. I’m always looking at those.
RR: A large sense of yearning for escape can be experienced in your work. How would you define the idea of escaping, and is there a particular way you want readers to perceive this concept?
AB: Oh, yes, definitely. One can’t be locked up, even for a shorter time than I was, without becoming infected by the idea of escape, both in the physical sense and the psychological. In this poem, it takes the form of an adult escaping his screwed-up life for the simplicity and fascination of childhood, while at the same time another man is escaping the rituals and monotony of his life through games. To where do we escape, and what will we do when we get there? Well, maybe that’s what we’re trying to figure out.
RR: “How Did Your Father Spend His Spare Time?” works as a concise piece, giving the reader enough to grasp a memory, without drowning in nostalgia. As a writer, how do you find the right balance between details and emotions in order to best express the purpose of a piece?
AB: Tamping down the gushing and blushing is mostly dealt with when I edit. That’s when I try to make these poems less about me, even though in some way they’re always about me. The emotions and nostalgia sometimes overflow during the writing. As I said earlier, once I have that first line, the rest falls out of me as if I’ve been playing Jenga and pulled the wrong stick. So, I have to eliminate as much of that as I can without losing the scene. I edit my poems twice before I send them out, and then take a razor to them every time they come back unwanted. I think this poem was originally about a third longer. I’m sure there was a lot of sappiness. There always is. Que sera, sera.
“How Did Your Father Spend His Spare Time?” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.2.
Ace Boggess is the author of two books of poetry: The Prisoners and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). He is an ex-con, ex-husband, ex-reporter and completely exhausted by all the things he isn’t anymore. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, Atlanta Review, RATTLE, River Styx, Southern Humanities Review and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.