Imagine that you’re an insatiable reader – poetry, fiction, philosophy, plays, history, noir, CNF, DIY, cookbooks, travelogues, comic books, blogs, clickbait, scrolling ad infinitum. Reading for you is no mere habit and, on some level, not even a proper activity, but a kind of experiential osmosis that positions language as primary and generative in the world to which it refers . . . but another dire consequence that appeared somewhere in the osmotic flux is your desire to focus and channel it all toward some aesthetic end. Therein lies the first gauntlet. —from “You Are the Phenomenology,” Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Well, I didn’t grow up devouring books like many writers do, so the impulse to turn to language as an expressive medium came pretty late for me, and when it did come, it was both terrifying and urgent. In our junior year of college, one of my very closest friends noticed a shallow bump on his knee that seemed to be getting bigger. He went to the doctor and was told he had osteosarcoma (bone cancer). His name was Daniel. His family quickly enlisted some of the top oncological specialists in the country for his care. I still have the emails he sent between rounds of chemo, with their bright assurances that his treatment “was going well” and that he “hoped to be back next semester.” A year after his initial diagnosis, he and all the things he’d hoped to do with his life were gone. One of the first poems I wrote was an attempt to grapple with that totalizing fact. I didn’t write it until several years after his death, and it came from a memory of us fishing together on a hidden pond he’d found near our Vermont college. We only went the one time, an afternoon in early fall. The poem is called “The Perch.” It was never published, and we didn’t catch any fish that day.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This is a hard one—so many! For a long time, my literary heroes were Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens, with Stevens reigning supreme in that anxiety-of-influence kind of way. Over the past few years, though, I’ve turned mostly to prose stylists and long-line poets—Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, W.G. Sebald, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, William James—who, it seems to me, are trying to recreate the movement of thought in language. That’s what gets me about these writers: the incredible distances their lines cover.
What other professions have you worked in?
After college, I moved to DC to work as a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, the same firm that employed Edward Snowden (whom I never knew). I have to imagine we had very different jobs, because mine left me feeling utterly catatonic. I sometimes wonder when or even if I would’ve turned to writing had I not experienced this paralyzing anointment to adult life. That was my only other profession (i.e., a job that I could’ve made a steady career out of), though I’ve had lots of other short-term jobs: waiter, exterior painter, shoe salesman, museum archivist, short-order cook, mover, grant writer, life coach.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Rich! My parents divorced on mostly amicable terms when I was a toddler, so I grew up going back and forth between their houses. Money was often a challenge, especially for my mother, though she was very good at hiding her struggles from me. Otherwise, I grew up as a generally happy kid, so my young brain thought that wealth was the last piece of the puzzle. Obviously, I underestimated both the size and intricacy of the puzzle and how deftly my families had managed to provide the other pieces. This took me an embarrassingly long time to realize, such that when my students now come to me and say they have no idea what they should do with their lives, I tell them that their simple awareness of that fact puts them well ahead in the game. As proof, I recount my own story of going to college and majoring in economics and getting a big-boy job as a consultant and experiencing the aforementioned crushing-of-the-soul. At this, they usually smile with a kind of dread relief.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
That’s a strange and fascinating idea—to have a purely imagined place that influences your writing. Meaning, not a known fictional setting like Yoknapatawpha County or Middlemarch, but a private landscape that’s there for you when you need it. (Sign me up.) The closest thing I have is the ocean. I grew up in a coastal town in New Jersey, and there are traces of that origin-point throughout my writing, though I’d like to think that I’m starting to break some of those kneejerk habits.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Actually, no. I listen to a lot of music, but never while writing. When I’m working through a piece, I tend to think in sound first: rhythm, counterpoint, modulation, refrain, etc. The sense and sensory world of the piece comes out of that, and I can’t pay the right kind of attention to that process if the exterior world around me is making noise (even pleasant noise). I’m a fan of drone-ambient music—looping melodies, densely layered sound, glacial pacing, that kind of thing—and I used to fantasize about writing an entire book of poems to some Stars of the Lid album. Like an inverse soundtrack. Anyway, I’ve conceded that the idea is probably more interesting than anything it might produce.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
During graduate school, I was a night owl and often wrote well into the AM. Now I write almost exclusively in the morning—I wake up, make coffee, let the dogs out, splash some water on my face, and sit down at my desk. On days that I teach, I usually have an hour or so. On the other days, I’ll read and write and brainstorm until lunch. At that point, I usually need to move around and do something concrete. I wish I were someone who could write anywhere, under any circumstance, for hours on end, but I’m not. My partner also prefers the morning routine, so it works out well. We basically spend the first few hours of the day avoiding each other. You know, in a nurturing way.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It depends. If it’s prose, then I’ll give it to Xhenet (my novelist-partner), whose lens for literary craft is generally much different from mine, so that’s a lucky thing. If it’s poetry, I might not let anyone see it for a while, but when I’m ready, I have a small circle of readers who are all impressive at what they do: one’s a populist poet, one’s an experimental poet, one’s a photographer, one’s a painter, one’s a musician/arranger, and one’s my sister. They make a well-rounded chorus.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Something whose practice is as physical and it is mental. Since this is a hypothetical, let’s assume that my alter-ego has nerves of steel and relishes the performer’s spotlight. Maybe a concert pianist who becomes a conductor in his later years.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Fred Moten’s The Little Edges and enjoying it as much as I’d hoped (I was a big fan of Hughson’s Tavern and The Feel Trio). I’ve also just started Calamities by Renee Gladman, whose approach to lyric prose and hybridity I find moving and oddly serene. And, just today, I ordered Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, which I hope to get to before the spring semester puts all leisure reading on hold.
TIMOTHY O’KEEFE is the author of You Are the Phenomenology, winner of the 2017 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and The Goodbye Town, winner of the 2010 FIELD Poetry Prize. His poems and lyric essays have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Seneca Review, VOLT, and others. He teaches writing and literature at Piedmont College, where he directs the creative writing program. He lives in Athens, GA.