INTERVIEW WITH ERIK TSCHEKUNOW
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re intrigued by the intense emotional conflict of “Wedding Anniversary” and how it reveals the complex emotions of the speaker as an incarcerated individual. How did you approach writing from this point of view?
Erik Tschekunow: The poems I drafted while in prison, including “Wedding Anniversary,” are the most truthful I’ve ever written. They needed to be. I was the sole cause of my suffering. Suffering, like love, humbles you, I think; it shatters any illusion that you’ve got things figured out. Maybe I was finally experiencing Keats’s negative capability. I wanted freedom from my emotions, my grief, yet it was grief keeping me in condition, keeping me writing. And you get better at writing—and living–if you are willing to humble yourself.
At the same time I struggled with attempts to use a first-person perspective. Who wants to listen to an inmate? I’ve done wrong. Why should I have a voice? Plus, there are so many others like me going through the same things I’m going through, many of whom have had a much more difficult life than me—what right do I have to say “I . . .”?
Ultimately, I snuck my writing in prison. It felt secret, prohibited, shameful. But, thank goodness, I had it.
RR: How do you think about structure as you write your poems, and how does the subject you’re writing about influence that?
ET: Line-by-line, letting the breaks more than anything help the poem find its form. I like, too, when the situation of the work is reflected in its structure. For instance, while incarcerated, besides the obvious feeling of confinement, time is deformed: a day lasts longer than a week, but the weeks, all the same, seem to click by (Frankl addresses this brilliantly in Man’s Search for Meaning). I tried to bring this tension to my lines, using repetition and heavy enjambment. Still, the lines needed some regularity—they could not wander—this was prison after all. Though I did not explicitly use form, I certainly had formal poetry in mind as I wrote.
RR: What kind of environment do you prefer for writing? Do you have a specific place or routine that works for you?
ET: I immediately think of Anne Lamott’s instruction, “Write as you can, not as you want to.” She may’ve been speaking foremost of style and subject, but for me this applies to process as well. As a younger writer, I was constantly searching for the perfect creative space, often to the detriment of productivity. I was so envious of Michael Pollan’s “A Place of My Own”—built in Golden Section by his own hands, with expansive views of wilderness. Didn’t I also need this before I could be expected to write anything decent?
And then, well, prison. Desperation. Loneliness. Urgency. I needed to write, despite how uncomfortable I was. This discomfort actually helped me in the end. I learned to accept it. Accepting it was a matter of how I used it, and within those cold, rough quarters, I worked. I worked on poems. Every day. A daily routine. I’m so grateful I was able to discover the power of routine and, subsequently, persistence. I found that my muse is in the struggle, the battle to keep writing. Furthermore, the process is an end in itself. I have turned my writing into a ritual. Like any meaningful ritual, I’ve had to make it regular—a habit—returning to the work over and over, no matter what, being willing to sit with despair or fatigue or emptiness. Prison taught me to sit still. Writing might be the only thing that brings me single-pointed concentration—that wonderful freedom.
I also find it helpful to have my reading journal at hand as I work. Whenever I get stuck or discouraged, I like to scan my responses to what I’ve read recently and the quotes I’ve extracted.
RR: In your bio you spoke about how your writing is inspired by your time spent in federal prison. How do you choose which aspects impact your pieces?
ET: One of the great books I read while in prison was Emily St. John Mandell’s Station Eleven. In it, there’s a line—“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” That’s the best answer I can give right now.
RR: How did you know you wanted to write and how much would you say writing contributes to your identity?
ET: As much as I enjoy connecting with others, I’m so damn introverted. Too many times in my life I’ve isolated myself, scared, I suppose, and unwilling to feel vulnerable. Sometime during college (probably while I was still focused on studying the sciences), I found writing was a way to enter a world in which the search for understanding was sufficient. I had developed so many myths about myself and here was a way to confront them. Unfortunately, I didn’t trust the process enough, even as I became a teacher of writing. For a long time, I pretended to enjoy poetry more than I did. Still, I kept getting pulled back to it; there was something about it I needed. Whether I understand the draw or not, I need it. Thank God it’s a part of me.
Now more than ever I agree with Thoreau that “The mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things.” As counteraction, working on poems has become for me a way to restore, or heal, myself.
The greatest disloyalty in my life is when I crossed a line—even if half-wittedly—that led me to prison. Prison, though, instilled in me gratitude for what I do have, including—always, anywhere—the freedom to write.
I just read a commencement address Toni Morrison gave years ago. In it she says, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” Maybe, somehow, I freed the beautiful woman who was once my wife and whom I never treated with the respect and grace she deserved.
Read “Wedding Anniversary” by Erik Tschekunow.