Charles Rafferty has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. His tenth book of poetry is The Unleashable Dog (Steel Toe Books). His collection of short fiction, Saturday Night at Magellan’s, was published by Fomite Press. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Quarterly West, Massachusetts Review, and Connecticut Review. His stories have appeared in Sonora Review, Pedestal, Cortland Review, and Staccato. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.
Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your poem, “Circling”?
Charles Rafferty: That poem was actually song lyrics initially. But I can’t sing, and I’m thoroughly mediocre as a guitarist. I decided they’d have a better chance of surviving if I converted the lyrics to a poem instead.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Charles Rafferty: Although I’ve been writing poems since high school, I didn’t I really become a writer until I took some writing courses with Joe-Anne McLaughlin and Stephen Dunn. They were the first people to say “this is terrible” and “this is promising” and to give reasons I could understand. I saw a way to become better.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write “On My Forty-Second Birthday”?
Charles Rafferty: For a long time, I had the opening line in my notebook: “I have reached an age I doubt I’ll double.” I liked the sound of it, and the insight. Then it became a matter of pairing the sentiment with the worries that were on my mind.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write prose poetry?
Charles Rafferty: Yes, for a couple of years now, I’ve been writing prose poems more or less exclusively. It’s oddly freeing – to see what can be done once the stricture of the line is jettisoned.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experience?
Charles Rafferty: Inevitably. But I think it’s best to disguise your own biography, even from yourself. Unless you can see the words of a poem as things to be deleted and rearranged, you’re liable to be too interested in the fidelity of the poem in relation to your own experience. Unfortunately, what the writer did in real life is of no consequence. Taking it into consideration makes the poem worse, every time. It’s a rule.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever encountered as a writer?
Charles Rafferty: Writing bad poem after bad poem. It can be very discouraging. In the beginning, I thought everything I did passed muster. But after you get smart, after you absorb the canon, after you can judge your own efforts objectively in relation to Donne and Frost and Plath, that’s when things get difficult. You realize you suck, but this is mostly a good thing, because you can’t improve if you don’t see your flaws. Of course, the downside is that you’ll give up.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Charles Rafferty: Stephen Dunn and Joe-Anne McLaughlin were my first teachers, so they have a place of special importance to me, though I don’t think I write like either of them. The people I write most like, at least some of the time, are Russell Edson, Mark Strand, and Emily Dickinson. I also studied in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, where I had the great luck to take classes with Michael Heffernan, Heather Ross Miller, Jim Whitehead and Miller Williams.
Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?
Charles Rafferty: When I commute to work, I write on the train. I also get a lot of writing done in the lobby of my daughter’s dance classes. But really, I can write anywhere. If I’m revising a draft, I can make some progress with just ten minutes at my disposal. If I’m doing a new draft, I’ll be just fine if I can find a half-hour in my day. I don’t understand people who claim to have no time to write. It seems like laziness mostly. Even the biggest stalactites are built by tiny drops.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best poem you’ve ever written?
Charles Rafferty: That’s a tough one. I don’t have an answer. But I think my best book is The Unleashable Dog. I spent a long time revising that book and tossing out weak poems. It has the smallest percentage of clunkers in it, at least to me.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Charles Rafferty: Not exactly. But I’m sure I was writing poems to a girl I loved in high school. She’s dead now, and she never knew I wrote the poems that ended up in her locker. So there’s a nice lesson in pointlessness for you.
Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?
Charles Rafferty: Beauty. The lack of beauty. Desire. The tyranny of desire.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you get your first piece of work published?
Charles Rafferty: High school and college literary magazines. It’s hard to count those though. The first poem beyond these types of venues went to The Piedmont Literary Review. I must have seen a “call for submissions” somewhere. Or maybe a listing in the Poet’s Market, which early on I always relied on for an overview of the available journals.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you often get rejections from publishers?
Charles Rafferty: Constantly. I’m relentless though. As soon as a batch of poems comes back, I send it right back out. Maybe I’ll publish 30 poems a year, but a poem probably gets rejected at least 5 times before I find the journal that will take it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any ritual you do before you sit down to write?
Charles Rafferty: The only ritual is to sit down and do it. I don’t put any stock in certain pencils or a particular time or the temperature of my tea. Those are just ways to delay the hard work.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write love poems?
Charles Rafferty: Yes. Most of them are love poems on some level. Maybe even all of them.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best response you’ve ever received from a fan of your work?
Charles Rafferty: Beautiful women tearing off their underwear and throwing them in my direction, envelopes of money stuffed in my breast pocket. Or less grandly, someone mentioning that they read a poem of mine and liked it.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the relevance of poetry?
Charles Rafferty: Well, it’s like any other art, I suppose. It gives you insight into yourself and the world around you. I’m not one of these “poetry boosters” though. If you don’t like reading poems, don’t read them. I’m sure opera is a fine art, but it doesn’t do anything for me. Does this mark me as an ignoramus? Probably – but we all go to the grave being ignorance of most things in the world. Read what you like and enjoy it. Don’t try to convert people.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?
Charles Rafferty: Yes, a few times a year. I used to do them much more often, but they generally detract from my own writing. If I’m giving a reading, that means I’m traveling to the venue, going out to dinner, having drinks afterward, etc. It’s all time that could be spent polishing a poem. Of course, if I’m getting paid, I’ll work harder to make the reading work with my schedule. But I have a family and I’m a full-time editor, and I usually teach more than 30 credits a year. I don’t have a lot of free time at my disposal.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?
Charles Rafferty: The business side of it – keeping submissions in the mail, keeping track of what’s getting published and when. The actual writing part is never boring. Or, if it is, it lets me know it’s time to start deleting. If it’s boring for me, it will be boring for the reader.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you begin a poem?
Charles Rafferty: I’m prone to the absurd premise, the title that makes it seem it will be impossible to proceed, the opening line that is unsettling and followed by lines progressively more unsettling.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you end a poem?
Charles Rafferty: More and more often, I favor understatement. I flirt with the possibility of the non sequitur.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you want readers to like what you do?
Charles Rafferty: Of course. Otherwise they won’t be tempted to buy the book, and I’ll never get my pittance.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of creative writing workshops?
Charles Rafferty: They’re a great way to learn how to write better. They’re certainly not a necessity to good writing, but with the right teacher, they can accelerate a writer’s evolution by many years. Of course, there are plenty of bad writing workshops too – where the teacher is a lousy writer or incompetent or disengaged or bitter. Creative writing programs get a lot of grief because they turn out so many mediocre writers. The thing that people don’t always recognize is that mediocrity can be difficult to achieve for some people. Of course no one aspires to mediocrity, but any age can hold only a handful of brilliant writers. That’s the stuff we’ll be reading five hundred years from now. Everything else is horse shit. I don’t think our age is much different from any other. Maybe we have more competent writers than at any other time – because of all the writing workshops. Is that a bad thing? I hope not. Does a workshop have to churn out a Shakespeare or a Dickinson to make it seem worthwhile? Of course not! If that were the case, we might as well start closing all the suburban ballet studios, and stop putting on school plays since most of them are horrific on some level. And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of all the after-school baseball programs since almost none of those people will make it to the major leagues.