Please welcome Megan Volpert to the Poetic Asides blog! I met Megan earlier this year in Austin as we were both National Feature Poets for the Austin International Poetry Festival and from the Atlanta area. Anyway, I watched her read twice in Texas and enjoyed both readings.
Volpert is the author of five books on communication and popular culture. She is also the editor of This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. For the better part of a decade, Volpert has been doing three things: teaching high school English in Atlanta, living with ulcerative colitis, and driving a motorcycle.
Predictably, her website is www.meganvolpert.com.
Volpert's Only Ride is a wonderful collection of prose poems that can be read in order, out of order, but especially out loud.
Here is a poem I really enjoyed from Only Ride:
We all fight, by Megan Volpert
I think it would be cool to own a switchblade. But that means carrying it around & then that means using it, which seems like no fun. I'm not a violent person. Go ahead & throw me under the bus though, because I can lift it with my tongue. No kid ever bullied me in school. For years, I didn't understand it was because of my smart mouth. I didn't even know I had one until my father put soap in it. All people are strong & most don't know what their strengths are. The life is perfectly salvageable. It's just the person is not yet interested in getting saved.
What are you currently up to?
Well, I finally watched all of Breaking Bad this summer. But work wise, there are a few things brewing. Most immediately, in May 2015, Gina Myers of Lame House Press is kindly publishing a chapbook of about a dozen weird little language experiments I built based on something Michel Foucault once said. So we are having a blast contemplating design elements for that.
But I'm also knee deep in research for a book of essays I'm writing about punk rhetorics of independence during the American Bicentennial year, which is like holding a seance for Hunter S. Thompson. That will be breaking some new nonfiction ground for Sibling Rivalry Press, though I don't think there's anyone left who doubts that SRP is blowing up all kinds of new avenues. Bryan Borland-Pennington is deeply visionary, and moreover, remarkably nice for somebody so successful.
A little further out, I've recently begun to collaborate with the amazing and tender performance artist Craig Gingrich-Philbrook. We are investigating the nature of failure, of shows we imagined but then tossed away before they could become realities. That will be CGP's first book, to which a million people have been looking forward for a very long time, and I'm just proud he wants to make the leap on that with me.
Only Ride is your fifth collection of poems. Do you have a process for assembling poems for a collection of poetry?
Yes, I've basically stopped thinking about each piece in isolation. They each have to stand alone, of course, but more and more often I am beginning with the big idea then drilling down to determine its component parts. I know what sort of machines I'm after, so I really proceed more from what the total function of the book will be and then write bits and pieces as I stumble across applications of the project's main functions in my daily life.
Only Ride, in particular, is based on a series of constraints. It's all prose poems between 95 and 110 words, with titles that are complete sentences. My previous collection was the Warhol thing, which was so sprawling and research heavy that I really wanted to work on something more compact and minimal next. I typed most of them on my phone, on the train during my morning commute. I'd let a batch sit in my notepad for a month or so, then revise the whole pile over a couple hours on a weekend. I knew my subjects, so when I reached my target of 66 pieces, I laid them all out on the floor and organized first based on chronological order of the events in the poems then for the right emotional arch within each subject or time period.
Other stuff can present itself for more obvious arrangement, for example, the 1976 book will report historical events in a straightforward chronological order, one month per chapter. I do prefer organic methods like that. My first two collections still feel well organized, but I agonized over those little piecemeal frankensteins, which in hindsight seems unnecessary.
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One of my favorite moments from this year's Austin International Poetry Festival was watching you have the audience select random poems from Only Ride to read—kind of like a poetry jukebox. Was that the intention for this collection?
Intention is a strong word, but sure. In the design discussions, I was adamant about no table of contents and no page numbers. Life doesn't have those, and I like it if the physical product of my books can surprise readers in useful ways like that. It contributes something beyond just the quality of the writing. Fonts choices are also of critical import to me, selecting the weight of the paper, and so on. I'm lucky SRP trusts me to participate in those choices.
But as much as I thought about how each poem would be performed aloud and live, it honestly never once occurred to me that I would have no system for putting together a set list. I think it looks silly to put sticky notes on so many pages, especially with these poems that are all just a minute long. I'd have like 20 tabs hanging out, and still the problem of whether to go through the book in order or not. I considered numbering the pages in my own reading copy for reference, but it really felt like cheating.
So I gave up control to the audience, and the first few times they loved it so profoundly that I just kept doing it. It allows me to be much more in the moment, enjoying the connections we make together. And it sure is nice not to have to sit down ahead of time for a half hour and fool myself into believing I know what those future moments of the reading should hold.
Each spread in Only Ride has a title on one page and a prose poem on the other. What appeals to you about the prose poem?
Ten years ago, I'd have said nothing appeals to me about the prose poem. In grad school, I was notoriously militant about the value of line breaks and could pontificate about the evil vagaries of the prose poem for an hour stretch without breaking a sweat.
But at some point, I gave up on the label of poetry. Truly, I know a lot of people categorize Only Ride as a collection of prose poems, but you could just as easily call them flash or micro-essays. I work in a hybrid kind of area and don't see a lot of merit in genre classifications beyond their value as marketing tools. The Warhol book was hardly clear cut as poetry either. I don't feel I've lost my capacity for line breaks, but I'm genuinely disinterested in them right now. I expect this trend to continue for awhile on into the future as I expand into making texts that are more easily identifiable as nonfiction, like the 1976 book and the collaboration with CGP.
I realize that doesn't answer your question, but it does answer for some of the assumptions sliding around under the question.
You teach high school English. Do you find teaching helps or hinders your writing? Or the other way around?
Oh, teaching helps. No question about that. Because I am essentially a manic person, I am terrible at vacationing. After two or three weeks away from my students, I'm quite refreshed and ready to go back. I did just a sick amount of research and writing for the 1976 book during my eight weeks of summer break. It was so gross. I was inside all day, alone, staring at my computer. My back hurt, my vision got weird, and I went into that freaky liminal writing space for just too long too often. I couldn't be a full time writer, and not because it doesn't pay well enough. I get great inspiration from my students, plus I need the hamster wheel of the school to keep myself from being so focused on writing that I simply go nuts.
Do you have a writing routine?
It varies from project to project because it emerges out of the needs of each project, but I can at least say that I am more productive in the morning or afternoon and that I type almost everything now. I've always enjoyed writing in transit, on airplanes or trains especially, but have no explanation to offer as to why that might be. See also: above discussion of unhealthy manic behaviors.
One poet no one knows but should—who is it?
Brock Guthrie, no relation to Woody. We went to grad school together at LSU. His debut collection, Contemplative Man, is out now from Sibling Rivalry Press. When we would workshop together, I thought most of his comments were kind of dopey but all of his poems made me totally jealous. Envy is actually not an emotion I feel very often toward other writers, but wow, I just wanted to steal everything Brock ever wrote. Brock is still not good at promoting himself, or finding a publisher. I've been helping him out on those ugly business fronts, but as a writer, he nails it every time and I'm not going to attempt to encapsulate it for you. Just buy the book. Brock is the type of guy who will go unnoticed for 40 more years, then up and win a Pulitzer on the merit of the work alone. Get in on it while he's still nobody famous, and later on you can join me in the I-told-you-so fest.
Who (or what) are you currently reading?
I used to be a one book at a time kid of girl, but now I usually have two of three things going. I read tons of monthly pop culture magazines, from Rolling Stone to Esquire. I've been checking out a lot of Erma Bombeck, which is a 1976 thing. I just finished Bob Colacello's excellent old book about the Reagans' path to the presidency. And I'm steeped in Lester Bangs just for the sound of him. I’ve always kept mainly to nonfiction and don't read much new poetry, though I did love Bruce Covey's new book. When I want poetry, I listen to new music. As I type this, I am listening to Tom Petty's new album, Hypnotic Eye, on loop. When I want fiction, I watch television dramas like Rescue Me or Six Feet Under. Whatever the medium, I pretty much prefer a pile of snark with a dash of morbidity. Surprise.
If you could only share one piece of advice with fellow poets, what would it be?
Fuhgeddaboudit. Stop asking fellow poets for advice and do whatever you damn well know in your heart feels best.