10 Questions for Robert Evory
- By Catherine Fox
“My dream awakens after sleep. I cannot swear
these are my hands. The night is probing the air
for bodies asking a little grace from the watery moon.”
—from “Trying to Pray,” Volume 60, Issue 2 (Summer 2019)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
As an undergraduate I took a class with Mary Ruefle. On the first day of class she asked a similar question and requested we bring in that early poem. I brought one in that used an image of a fly as an extended metaphor for love or being jaded about relationships or something. The point of the exercise was to note how our vocabulary and subject matter has changed from the time of our first poem. Many years later, when I got married, I realized how often I used love, desire, or women as a launch point for a poem and how I no longer felt the need to think about pursuing a love interest. This topic saturates the movie and music industry and being married helped me realize how uninterested I am in these stories. This allowed me to let go of egotistic subjects in place of political and literary allusions or to use images and language from fields in science, music, technology. All themes I had been working with, I just now addressed them more often and directly.
My first breakthrough poem came about the same time as the workshop with Mary. I was pursuing my undergraduate in music; I play percussion. I was sitting behind the timpani during rehearsal listening to the conductor direct the orchestra on how to articulate certain musical phrases from the score. To me the direction was mundane, an everyday occurrence for a musician. Inspiration came when I realized I had never heard many of the words the conductor used in poetry. All together the conductor used language to describe what he wanted to hear, what he could hear in his head and we all heard too. This was poetry. I wrote down as many of the words and phrases in a pocket notebook I carried for when such inspiration came. A notebook that is now buried at the bottom of some box along with old workshop pieces, term papers, and flyers for shows advertising my rock band Hazy Jane.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser taught me earlier on the power of an image both as a standalone metaphor, as in the poem “Student,” and how images can turn each other around to take the poem somewhere new, as in the poem “After Years.” The Orchard by Brigit Kelly made me see the power of myth and allegory to create beautiful and haunting images that portray the complexities of being alive.
I read The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic for an AP Psychology class in high school. It is about the first investigation into synesthesia in the 1980s. The specific details in the shapes the subject could feel leaves a very clear picture in my mind even now, twenty years later. He could feel with his hands cold Roman columns made of glass when eating key lime pie.
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford is the most influential book of poems from my graduate studies. I fell in love with the tangent of similes. The length, depth of images, and digression into absurdity gave me permission to let go, to unleash my mind from the content I just put on the page and to keep going—I stopped saving myself for the next poem.
The Rampage by Miroslav Holub inspired the emphasis of my PhD on the use of the microscopic and the macrocosmic imagery.
What other professions have you worked in?
I have a degree in music and have played in everything from orchestras to Celtic groups and from metal bands to Jazz trios. I also taught music lessons for many years which, I guess, is part of the progression to my current profession as a writer and teacher of creative writing. In a way, music and writing are the same: you learn and study deliberately different approaches and theories, then you have to learn to let go, to rely on muscle memory and instinct.
What did you want to be when you were young?
By the time I was in middle school I was fantasizing about being a poet and a teacher of poetry. That is one thing that has stayed constant in my life. It started when I found a pocket edition of Robert Burns’ poetry on a small bookshelf in my parents’ den. It was old. The paper dry, crisp with time. In it, the pencil cursive of its original owner. Tucked in the back was a poem written by that person. He was my grandfather. I read the poem, the book, over and over again. Being a poet is what I wanted to do. I also found my parents’ old poetry books, the Language poets from the sixties, I started reconstructing language. Everything I learned about art and music I wanted to incorporate into language: sounds, rhythms, Cubism, Pointillism, and intense emotion. It is the one activity that never wavered even when I was being pulled into other fields. The thing is, I felt I had no one to share these feelings of inspiration with, that is why I thought I should teach. And now that I am teaching creative writing it is as if I have won an Olympic event I have been training my entire life for. It hurts a little bit in the throat.
I also wanted to be a waiter.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I believe it starts from the feeling of being so far removed from one’s self due to grief or loneliness that you no longer even recognize yourself. That the reality one wakes up to doesn’t seem real, a floating feeling as if you are observing your own life and there is no line connecting you to anyone when there is a web seemingly strung so tightly everywhere else.
And there is something striking to me over the link to god through the folding of hands as one prays; why is that a thing? So, I imagined how god might distribute his blessings onto the Earth through the seeding of a field that doesn’t grow on its own but needs also water and light which god or the angels do not supply here. But, rather, the life-giving sun is darkened by an old wound and the water is salted, which kills the seeds of wishes but somehow brings relief to the speaker.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Every place real, imagined, and reimagined influences me. Many times, I take glimmers of my life in different places and put them into a poem, as if a poem were a collage. That is why I mainly write at night. I wake up thinking of little and need to accumulate thoughts and memories throughout the day in order to have the stuff of poetry, the concrete detail, the vehicle, that carries insight or emotion. “Trying to Pray” was influenced by the pigeons in Lisbon where, for some reason, my memories are in black and white, to Yellowstone National Park standing in a field for over an hour trying to take a picture of a lightning strike, and to the farm I lived on in Pennsylvania, watching the tillers turn winter wheat into the earth to prepare the soil.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Usually, I read. I take in language until it sparks a memory, or I am inspired by a syntactical quirk or a misreading of a line. There are so many ways reading brings me to the page. It is usually not poetry, however. I prefer books on sciences, literary theory, sociology, or psychology. I used to always write my first drafts by hand, but now I sit at my computer. A first draft has to be done before I move on to a new task.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife, poet Michelle Bonczek Evory who, I am sure in helping me proof this interview, is going to tell me I should elaborate on what I find valuable in her feedback and advice, not just that it can open holes as big as barn doors that lead to a clearer, more striking poem. She will continue, I am sure, by suggesting more detail on how grateful I am to have her in my life and how in awe I am of her talents, tenacity, and honesty. She will tell me to ease back the statement “Without her, there would be no way to be the poet I am today,” but I won’t change it because even she, sometimes, gets the advice wrong.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I have worked in many art forms. The one thing I miss about music, theater, and gastronomy is how social the experience is. In some ways it is the art I miss, but the comradery is second to none until it becomes political, then it is a nightmare. For music and theater, however, they move too quickly for me now. I prefer to have my mind wander, not locked in. I know gastronomy is not in the classic definition of art forms, but I think, by today’s standard, it is. I could do that again, just not in a fast-paced kitchen.
What are you working on currently?
I have many projects. One is a long-standing project where I am writing poems influenced by science, technology, and social media. They bring together the domestic realm and isolation; the culture industry and our loss of individuality to algorithms, propaganda, and advertising; and images that come from beyond our natural senses of the micro- and macroverse as I mentioned above.
My second project started when I was an artist-in-residence at Gettysburg National Military Park. The intent is to incorporate my PhD studies in trauma theory to write a novel made up of journal entries by a Civil War soldier. The project is heavily influenced by images and language in Milton’s Paradise Lost, it weaves in and out of lyrical and narrative moments much like Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and it explores the state of the soldier outside of the battlefield as Kurt Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five.
My third project is a creation myth which generates a new vocabulary for objects, animals, and ideas. It is bringing a new perspective to our relationship with the natural world and idealizes the development of human behavior. These are sparse, open-ended poems that are driven by natural elements which, for me, is a nice break from the technology driven pieces I am working on.
Robert Evory is the assistant coordinator of the Creative Writing Department at Western Michigan University, where he is doctoral assistant. He is the managing editor and cofounder of The Poet’s Billow. He has an MFA from Syracuse University. His poetry is featured or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Spillway, Spoon River Review, Natural Bridge, Fat City Review, Nashville Review, Wisconsin Review, Arroyo, Madison Review, Water-Stone Review, and elsewhere.