INTERVIEW WITH TORY ADKISSON
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: We love how the poem “What It Means To Be A Man” addresses the stereotypes of masculinity, yet provides the evidence that men can be more than the box we put them in. What was your inspiration for writing within this theme?
Tory Adkisson: I wrote the first draft of this poem during the first or second year of my MFA program and it was originally a much shorter poem that merely represented some of the archetypal examples of masculinity. The most archetypical men I’d grown up with were my grandmother’s husband—who we referred to as our “uncle,” I suspect largely out of his own vanity—and my stepfather, neither of whom I was particularly close with. In Los Angeles, where I went to college, the prevailing aesthetic at the time was largely metrosexual, so the contrast was quite sharp when I moved to the Midwest and encountered these types of men who purchase tools from hardware stores and fish on lakes. Until recently the poem was just a snapshot of these men, but in revising it I started to think a lot about my own relationship with masculinity and how much I resented my own “softness” after I first came out, and how much my thinking on this evolved over time. That was the key to making the poem work: balancing the depictions of archetypal masculinity with more delicate, paternal, and sensual imagery. As a gay man I feel freer than most straight men might to indulge my inherent softness because the yoke of heteronormativity is loosened around my neck by the fact of my gayness, though many gay men still subscribe to toxic ideologies centered around masculinity despite this. I hope the poem helps dispel the fear of empathy that I think underscores so much toxic masculinity by positioning the soft and vulnerable speaker as a kind of teacher at the end.
RR: The speaker of admiringly observes the “you” of the poem without revealing specific details about themselves. Can you tell us more about how you developed and thought about the speaker’s identity?
TA: This is a speaker who marvels at both the physical skill and utilitarian facility the “you” possesses, but who possesses an inherent vulnerability and desire to connect that cuts through the distance between the speaker and the “you.” The speaker could be the “you’s” sexuality and softness asserting itself amidst his various archetypal masculine activities, or it could be a pair of men discovering layers about each other on a variety of levels—material, intellectual, emotional. I write a lot about the body, masculine bodies specifically, but this is a poem about actions and pursuits and I wanted to write the body more in action here than I usually would through descriptive imagery. I think the relationship between the speaker and the subject is an essential, somewhat sacred bond that often involves a sacrificial element—in this case the speaker sacrifices his position as a pure observer to engage and to teach, while the “you” opens up to hear. To listen.
RR: More generally, how do you approach voice? How do you incorporate yourself or your own voice into the poems?
TA: I think it’s fair to say that most of poems are lyric poems and most of my speakers are heightened versions of myself. When I sit down to write, usually with a phrase, a line, or a few sentences in mind, I don’t do anything to warp the expression anymore than I would to answer these questions. However, once the scenario of the poem presents itself, revision may guide me to alter the speaker’s expression to achieve a specific aim. Despite writing mostly from an autobiographical expression, I enjoy filtering my voice through different personas, particularly those with mythological import. I’m particularly drawn to figures of metamorphosis and transformation and figures associated with deviance and monstrosity. Medusa, Grendel, Orpheus beheaded by the Furies—I feel an odd kinship with these characters that has led me to return to them multiple times in various poems.
RR: Did your experience as a Poetry Editor for The Journal change the way you approached writing poetry?
TA: I wouldn’t say it changed the way I approached writing poetry in any direct or programmatic way, however it was a wonderful opportunity to expose myself to the work of my contemporaries, many of whom are now friends thanks to the relationships I first did with them as an editor. Another valuable aspect of working on The Journal was getting experience organizing a collection of disparate poems into a book-length presentation. Though I’m still working on revising my own book-length manuscript, working on The Journal definitely helped me to consider how different poems might be assembled together, how poems of different voices and forms might play off of each other, how a reader might receive them in relation to each other, etc.
RR: Having earned your MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University, what advice would you give undergrads who are interested in pursuing a masters in creative writing?
TA: My advice for someone interested in getting an MFA is to do it for the right reasons, namely the writing. The realities of the job market such as they are, most MFA graduates don’t end up with tenure-track professorships, though they should all, ideally, end up with a better, sharper understanding of their writing and a book-length project to continue working on. The MFA is time to learn and write and should be seen in that light, as an extended residency that happens to end with a diploma in your hand. I did my program right after undergrad because I was sure I wanted to be a writer but it’s okay, and perhaps advisable, to wait until you feel that being a writer, honing your craft, and dedicating several years of life is what you want to do too.
As someone currently struggling with the student debt he accrued during his undergraduate degree, I’d also strongly suggest considering programs that fully fund their admits like my alma mater, The Ohio State University, did. (It’s a great program for that and many reasons, you should definitely consider applying!) Lastly, talk to the students and/or alumni at the programs you’re interested—after all, no one, not even the professors, know the program better than the people who are actually going through it, and most are willing to give you a frank assessment of their program’s virtues and faults.
Tory Adkisson’s work in Issue 7.1: