The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: This poem utilizes humor in a way that is very effective. Can you speak to the role humor plays in “How Not to Spell Gymnasium?”
Roy Bentley: The Alan Swann character in My Favorite Year (a 1982 film I admire) tells us that on his deathbed the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean was asked about comedy. Alan Swann passes along that Kean is reported to have said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” If I can work a word like diarrhea into a poem in which phrases like phonological bowels and metalinguistic glory are present, I will. Doing so is a respectful attempt to offset the weight of those phrases and “win” the reader’s less defended attention. In short, it’s an opportunity to disarm.
RR: Your poem “How Not to Spell Gymnasium” wrestles with the construction of language and how language can change when spoken aloud. At the same time, the piece exhibits a great attention to sound and the musicality of language. How much do language and sound factor into your writing process? Do you write with attention to how your poem will sound when read out loud?
RB: It should surprise no one that I read my work aloud at every step of the process. What may be surprising is that rock ‘n roll taught me the musicality of words: groups like Yes and the Who, the Beatles and the Stones, individuals like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell—folks whose work is behind every word I write. (It’s interesting that I can’t listen to music with words while I’m writing, but those influences are behind everything I do.)
RR: In what ways does representation through language intersect with experience in this poem? For example, the poem ends with “you watch your step down / from Rolling Fields Elementary School’s stage / past what is beyond words…” Is there a fallibility to both that is unavoidable, and if so what broader implications are there in this piece?
RB: I tell students: Nothing is carved in stone until it is. In the case of this poem, the events and associations happened (pretty much) in the chronology enfolded into the piece. I try not to “dilute” reality except when it is absolutely necessary. As in the case of preserving a confidence or trying not to “out” someone. Maybe a better answer to such an amazing metaphysical question is, I don’t know. I really am clueless as to how I do what I do. I think the fallibility is a strength to be evidenced at every turn, and acknowledged. When my father used to want to chasten me for some perceived malfeasance he’d say, Roy, you’d fuck up a wet dream. I think I’m trying always and forever not to be accused of that.
RR: There is a tension in this piece between the speaker’s intuitive retrospection and the actions the speaker’s younger self takes in the past. It’s useful, of course, to consider our pasts, and yet it can be painful to recognize just how young we were and how little we knew. How might literature’s ability to allow us to consider a past—ours or a fictionalized, hypothetical one—affect our understanding of memory and self-awareness?
RB: Carl Jung comes to mind. In the phrase “thinking you know / a way” I echo a reliance upon a collective consciousness, however unfathomably deep in the DNA it may be. Memory is tricky stuff. I watched my mother unravel with Alzheimer’s and tried to soften her progression by reminding her that we live always and forever in the moment. But we are also a trainwreck of days and weeks and months and years in which the Now is about to take place—is, in fact, taking place always—so I want to stop and read myself my rights. I love the part about You have the right to remain silent because that really is the trick. I have a tendency to think I know something when I don’t and to speak too soon—like the Roy in the poem who blows a chance at winning because he’s an impatient little shit.
RR: What authors have influenced your writing the most?
RB: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine—I revisit James Wright often. Prose writers: John Steinbeck, Richard Ford, Truman Capote. So many others: W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins, Stanley Plumly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tobias Wolff, Dave Smith, Gerald Stern, Lee Martin. And my creative writing professors at Ohio University, Paul Nelson and Walter Tevis.