William Trowbridge’s latest collection, Put This On, Please: New and Selected Poems, was published in March by Red Hen Press. His other collections are Ship of Fool, The Complete Book of Kong, Flickers, O Paradise, Enter Dark Stranger, and the chapbooks The Packing House Cantata, The Four Seasons, and The Book of Kong. His poems have appeared in more than 35 anthologies and textbooks, as well as on The Writer’s Almanac and in such periodicals as Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Boulevard, The Southern Review, Plume, Columbia, Rattle, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and New Letters. Trowbridge lives in the Kansas City area and teaches in the University of Nebraska low-residency MFA in writing program. He is currently Poet Laureate of Missouri. His website is williamtrowbridge.net.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax besides writing and teaching?
William Trowbridge: I like to watch film classics, which I’ve always drawn from in my poems. I especially like the silent comedies and especially the ones of Buster Keaton. I’m also a big fan of the Laurel and Hardy talkies. And I’ve written whole collection of poems narrated from the point of view of King Kong. I also like to ride my Triumph Sprint ST motorcycle, travel, dine out with friends, and tend to the landscaping in our yard. And, of course, I enjoy giving poetry readings around the country.
Geosi Gyasi: Teaching and writing – which of them do you enjoy doing most?
William Trowbridge: That’s a tough one: each activity offers its own rich rewards. I’m having an especially fulfilling experience in my present teaching post in the University of Nebraska Low-Residency MFA in Writing Program — wonderful students of all ages and a first-rate group of colleagues. But I must say that I enjoy writing even more — though not by much.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever encountered any student who is frustrated about writing?
William Trowbridge: I think everyone gets frustrated about his or her writing once in a while. Sometimes a poem just won’t come out the way you’d hoped. William Stafford had some refreshing advice about one kind of frustration: “There is no such thing as writers block for writers whose standards are low enough. ” I don’t think he meant to just start writing bad poetry. Rather, he was suggesting a strategy for avoiding the feeling of anxiety people suffer from having overly-high hopes for an early draft and giving up on it too soon. As Stafford said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” When one of my students gets frustrated, I try listen to what the worries are and try to address them. I find that sometimes assigning a poetry exercise helps get things going again. One of the best exercises I’ve ever run across is “20 Little Poetry Projects,” by Jim Simmerman. It asks you to do the twenty projects the exercise calls for in the order in which they’re listed. They are very little projects. For example, one of them asks you to “use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.” You can start this exercise without having any idea what the poem is going to be about or where it will go, and you almost always wind up with a poem worth keeping. I’ve found that it works for students from junior high to graduate school, as well as for established poets. There’s an anthology consisting entirely of poems written from this exercise. It ranges from works by kids to ones by poets like Robin Becker, Allison Joseph, and Michael Waters. It’s called Mischief, Caprice, & Other Poetic Strategies, ed. Terry Wolverton (Red Hen Press).
Geosi Gyasi: For how long have you been writing?
William Trowbridge: If you mean writing poetry, I started later than most. I was going to be a scholar, specializing in the American novel. My doctoral dissertation was on the novels of William Faulkner. But while I was studying modern poetry to prepare for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam, I came across some poems by Howard Nemerov that seemed to cast a spell on me. So I decided to write a poem, imitating his style. Then I wrote another and another, and finally I had enough to take to a trusted professor to find out if they were any good. He liked them enough to recommend I enter the Academy of American Poets competition at Vanderbilt, which I wound up winning. I think from then on, that encouragement and, even more, the lift I got from writing poems carried me into a new vocation, though it took me a number of years to shift from Faulkner scholar to poet.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
William Trowbridge: No, thank goodness.
Geosi Gyasi: What interests you about the writing process?
William Trowbridge: I think the most interesting part is the series of discoveries you usually make while writing a poem. I tell my students to “listen” to what the poem says to them about where it wants to go. When a poem begins to steer you away from your original conception, it’s time to follow it instead of enforcing that old rule about “sticking to the subject” we’re given in early prose-writing classes. In most cases, following where the poem takes you will yield delightful and necessary surprises — necessary because, as Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I love those surprises.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you remember most about your days as a student at Vanderbilt University?
William Trowbridge: I have good memories of many of my professors and fellow students. My dissertation director, Thomas Daniel Young, was one of the best teachers and best people I’ve ever encountered. I wasn’t alone in that opinion: a fellow grad student named his first child after Dr. Young. I’m still in contact with some of my grad student pals. And I also recall the lingering aura of the Fugitive Poets, a Vanderbilt group that included the poets John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. The English department was then located in Old Central Hall, which was the original farmhouse on the property purchased with money Cornelius Vanderbilt gave in 1873 for the founding of the university. In the entryway was a plaque that read, “Through these doors passed the Fugitives daily.”
Geosi Gyasi: Is poetry hard to write?
William Trowbridge: I guess my answer would echo Woody Allen’s reply to the question “Do you think sex is dirty?” He answered, “Only if it’s done right.”
Geosi Gyasi: So what makes a poem “right”?
My answer was “only if it’s done right.” Whether a poem is “right” or is “done right” are two different issues. What I meant by “done right” has to do with devoting maximum and sustained attention to the elements of craft, including form, word choice, line breaks, accentual stresses, sound, sentence structure, use of tropes, and use of detail. All should work together toward the final version of the poem. Of course craft isn’t the only element at work in composing a poem. There are also those less definable ones some call “inspiration,” “insight,” and “emotional truth.” At any rate, writing a good poem almost always takes a lot of hard work, a lot of drafts before the poem is finished. Though once in a great while a poem will develop very quickly, with little revision, I’m not a believer in “first draft, best draft.” As to a poem being “right.” The finished poem may end up “right” to varying degrees, from generally right to exactly right. Which degree applies must be decided ultimately by the reader, whose decision I don’t think is entirely subjective.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve won a host of awards including Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, a Camber Press Poetry Chapbook Award, among others. Which one of them are you most proud of?
William Trowbridge: The Academy of American Poets prize was my first award, one that contributed to my decision to become a poet. The Bread Loaf scholarship and the Yaddo fellowship were other early contributors. And the Pushcart is certainly a source of pride: there were over 8000 nominations the year I won one and only 67 winners. I’m also proud of being appointed Poet Laureate of Missouri.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you get along when a poem isn’t going well?
William Trowbridge: Like most writers, I usually put it aside for a while in order to later look at it without the tunnel vision that sometimes happens when you’re working and and working and the poem still won’t come to life. When I put it away for a couple of weeks and then come come back to it, I usually discover a strategy for making it work — though in a few cases I’ve just had to send it to an early grave.
Geosi Gyasi: You were once an editor of The Laurel Review/GreenTower Press from 1986 to 2004. What’s your observation about editing and writing?
William Trowbridge: Two colleagues and I took over The Laurel Review in 1986 and edited it till 1998. None of us had any idea how much work must go into editing a good literary magazine.
I was a smoker most of those years, and I hate to think about how many cartons I went through per issue. But the rewards are also great. A great feeling of pride comes from holding a new issue you know contains some first-rate writing. I also enjoyed the contact the magazine gave me with other writers, some of whom are now old friends. And, of course, it was always a thrill to discover a writer who hadn’t yet been published. Though publishing established writers is important to the life of a literary magazine, perhaps its main function is to discover and encourage new talent,
Geosi Gyasi: You have about five poetry publications. Do you fill fulfilled as a writer? Does the number of books one writes matter at all?
William Trowbridge: Actually, I’ve published six full collections and three chapbooks. However, I find the writing of poems, rather than their publication, to be the most fulfilling. As long as I’m writing new poems, I feel fulfilled. Certainly publication is an important element of being a poet, but I think that, if it’s the main motivation, the actual writing is likely to become just a task. When that happens, you should find a different task, one that pays better.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about the writing of “Ship of Fool”?
William Trowbridge: The book consists mainly of poems about a character named Fool. At first I wasn’t clear on exactly who Fool was — other than an interesting figure to write about, one who seemed connected to the fool figure in silent and standup comedy (e.g. Keaton, Pryor, Woody Allen). But now I’ve gotten to know him better, I see him as connected to the fool archetype that appears not only in silent and stand-ups but also in tales running back to the beginning of storytelling. To borrow from Yiddish comedy, he is a combination of schlemiel and schlimazel. The difference, as you may know, is that the schlemiel is a bungler who’s always accidentally breaking things and spilling stuff on people and the schlimazel is a sad sack who’s always getting his things broken and getting stuff spilled on him. My Fool is both. He is often treated harshly, which seems to come simply from his being a fool. Most fool figures, though “comic,” are subjected to a great deal of violence. The very term “slapstick” derives from this. In her book The Fool: His Social and Literary History, Enid Welsford concludes that the Fool’s essence is expressed in St. Chrysostom’s phrase “he who gets slapped.” The fool’s vulnerability and “foolishness” are seen by the non-fool population and perhaps by the fates as an invitation to take a shot — or at least be amused by watching someone or something else do so. The fool becomes a kind of scapegoat. Nathanael West, in Day of the Locust, discourses briefly but memorably on the clown’s tendency to create a thirst for violence — usually mirthful but sometimes not — in an audience. People laugh when he gets slapped or slips on metaphorical or literal bananas. Keaton discovered this as a child when he was in his parents’ vaudeville act. When the acrobatics began to feature little Buster taking what looked like and often were hard falls, the audience roared. The Keatons became a hit. I touch on the violence motivation fairly directly in several of the Fool poems.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Enter Dark Stranger”?
William Trowbridge: Well, of course, my interest in the dark strangers in film, fiction, and poetry. The book contains poems about dark strangers like King Kong, Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and Jack Palance’s hired killer character in the movie Shane.The ones most effectively portrayed in literature and film elicit at least some empathy, however uncomfortable, as well as disapproval. And quite often they’re more interesting than whatever hero they’re in conflict with. Milton was accused by some of being a Satanist because of his riveting portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost.
Geosi Gyasi: Which of your books stands out best for you?
William Trowbridge: Just as my latest poem is always my favorite, so is my latest book.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel poetry has a place in modern world?
William Trowbridge: It certainly does. The problem is getting people in America to realize that. Right now, there’s considerable effort being put into making that happen, but many other countries seem to have much larger audiences. But when poetry no longer has a place in the world, we will have lost our collective soul.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult part of writing?
William Trowbridge: The most difficult for me, due to it’s tedium, is the clerical part: keeping book and individual poetry manuscripts circulating to magazine editors, book publishers, and contests, though I don’t spend much time on the latter. It involves a lot of record keeping, as well as envelope stuffing and stamp licking. Ugh. On-line submission, when a magazine will allow it, has made things a little easier, but I still to do a lot of the work the old fashioned way. Habit, I guess, and fear of pushing a button that will send my submission into a web black hole.