CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: How has editing The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics informed your writing?
Stephen Cushman: Seven years passed between first contact with Princeton University Press and publication of the Encyclopedia. During those seven years the work of editing involved reading and learning about poems, poets, and poetry produced during the last 4500 years on every continent except Antarctica, where this very minute, as the glaciers melt, people may be scribbling poems that will be the subject of an entry in the next edition. People talk all the time about information, its overwhelming abundance and its effects on us, both good and bad, and I don’t think one has to be special in any way to be transfigured by the massive amount of information between the covers of the Encyclopedia. I can see that much of what I’ve learned from the Encyclopedia has found its way into recent poems I’ve written and into what I’ve been writing about other poems. In The Red List (a book-length poem that’s coming out in October 2014), for example, there are references to Old and Middle Kingdom Egyptian poetics; to the ancient practice in what is now Ethiopia of conducting law suits in poetic form (the plaintiff or defendant won the suit with the quality of the poetic form, not with the merits of the case); to Eskimo charms; and to the paraclausithyron, a classical lyric sub-genre consisting of a lover’s lament sung to a beloved’s locked door. Most important in The Red List is the influence of Bashō’s poetic diaries, which he wrote in the seventeenth century, mixing prose and haiku in the form known as haibun. There’s no prose in The Red List, but haikus punctuate the poem throughout. I learned about all these things while editing. In what I write about other poems, I find that the Encyclopedia has made me think differently, and more critically, about what people often label “world” or “global” poetry. It turns out that the worlds they have in mind are often fairly small and select, compared to the historical and geographic expanses of all the poetry the world has given us.
RR: How would you describe your appetite or appetite in general?
SC: My appetite for some things is large and keen, for others almost non-existent. The common denominator of my appetites seems to be curiosity, of which I may have been dealt more than my share. Years ago I did some basic reading about the emotions, and I learned that one theory of the emotions is that there are eight primary ones (this is a good party game; ask your fellow party-goers to guess them), which are like the primary colors, with other emotions mixing them in various combinations. The eight primary ones are joy, sadness, anger, fear (no surprises so far), disgust, surprise, acceptance, and curiosity. I had never thought of curiosity as a primary emotion before, but now I see that it’s what drives many of my appetites, in the etymological sense of “appetite” as what one seeks after. In the case of food, for example, I don’t have the kind of appetite that leads to constant over-eating, but if I have an opportunity to try something unfamiliar(and perhaps a little strange and challenging), I’ll probably do it. Same with curiosity about places. And learning. Another great etymology is that of “student,” which whispers “to be eager.” I’d say my appetites are student-like, eager to learn, discover, experience. The occasional downside of these appetites I admit freely.
RR: Have you found your interest in Civil War era literature bleeding into your poetic style?
SC: Absolutely. The clearest example would be in the poems, beginning with the first poem of my first book (Blue Pajamas, 1998), that focus on Civil War subjects. My personal favorite is probably “Whenever I Smoke a Cigar,” which appears in the second book (Cussing Lesson, 2002) and thinks about Ulysses S. Grant slowly killing himself with the strong cigars he smoked throughout his adult life, twenty of them on the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5, 1864), when he was giving the orders that killed so many others. Beyond the poems specifically about Civil War subjects, there are many poems or parts of poems or individual lines in poems that reflect my appetite for thinking about history and time, an appetite that studying the Civil War reflects and fuels.
RR: You have recently completed The Red List, a long poem. What drew you to that format? Did you encounter any difficulties making the transition from a short form to a long one?
SC: Two factors led to writing a long poem. The first was that a kind of perfect storm of difficulties blew into my personal life, and although those difficulties were no classier than the ones in many lives, they made me distrustful of–and suddenly unable to pull off–short lyric poems with clever, pat closures. Neatly closed short lyrics felt to me like tricky performances or stunts, and I wasn’t feeling up to them. The second factor was that I happened to be teaching a graduate seminar in American long poems, and so I thought, Why not? Let’s give it a try and look to earlier long poems as models. In fact, as I’ve said, haikus break up the longer, associative sections of The Red List, so it’s not as though I snubbed short poems altogether. But there was a difficulty in spending lengthy stretches of writing time and not having a finished poem to show for it. The discipline of writing The Red List was two-fold: on the one hand, there was the discipline of sticking with it for ten months; on the other, there was the discipline of not rushing to end it. Even though I often wanted it to be over, I had to resist the temptation to tie it off neatly.
RR: You are currently working on Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War. Could you tell us a bit about that project?
SC: My share of the work for Belligerent Muse is pretty much over; now the people at University of North Carolina Press will finish up and bring the book out in September 2014. The book argues for, and tries to demonstrate, a way of reading historical writing about the Civil War, especially military history, as art. The ancient Greeks imagined a muse of historical writing, Clio, and although not every historian will like the statement, writing history is still writing, and writing will always be shaped by choices we can consider aesthetic. The chapters of the book emerged over many years of giving talks and writing essays, and as they emerged I began to see a larger pattern. The five writers are Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Individually and together, they show us how our sense of the past depends on the contours and textures of the narratives we read.
Stephen Chusman’s work in Issue 1.4:
Stephen Chusman’s newest books areThe Red List: A Poem (LSU, 2014) and Belligerent Muse: Five Civil War Writers (UNC, 2014). He is general editor of the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) and Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia.