10 Questions for Colin Bailes
- By Lara Stecewycz
Less his offense and more
the punishment, how Actaeon was pursued
by his own hounds,
devoured by that which he thought he had tamed—
is that what I mean when I say
I, too, watched hunger
—from “Actaeon,” Vol. 64, Issue 2 (Summer 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
This is a difficult question to answer because I started writing dreadfully embarrassing song lyrics when I was very young—throughout middle school—and transitioned to what you might call poetry my freshman or sophomore year of high school. Even then, though, I wasn’t writing anything noteworthy, although I certainly thought I was at the time. The same could be said of the poetry I wrote throughout undergrad. So maybe it’s fair to say that one of the first pieces I wrote of which I am proud—that ended up in my manuscript—is a poem titled “Sunshine State.” It's one of the first poems I wrote where I think I was honest with myself—and relatively straight-forward—about my drinking problem. Before that, all the poems I wrote were shrouded in metaphor and allegory because I wasn’t willing to confront what was going on inside me.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Louise Glück and Carl Phillips are two of my favorite poets and poets whose work has probably borne the biggest mark on my own, at least I hope. Glück for her clarity, her ability to deliver a complex thought with deceptively simple language. And Phillips for how his work is a blueprint of the mind at work, teasing out a problem. When I first started writing poetry, I think I always entered a poem with a plan, knowing where I wanted to end up. Phillips showed me that the poem can be a place for discovery, a place to get lost.
The late Jay Hopler has been an influence for years now, as well. Frank Stanford and Jack Gilbert, especially Gilbert’s The Great Fires, were of early influence, as was Michael Hofmann. Other influences are W.S. Merwin, Charles Wright, and Ellen Bryant Voigt. I go to Devin Johnston, A.E. Stallings, and Ange Mlinko for their music. Eduardo C. Corral, Jenny Xie, Leila Chatti, Noah Warren, and Jake Skeets. Katie Peterson, David Baker, Henri Cole, Forrest Gander, and Arthur Sze. But Carl Phillips and Louise Glück are the two poets I return to the most. When I feel lost, they’re the ones who show me the way back.
What other professions have you worked in?
I worked in the service industry for nearly a decade before attending graduate school. I started as a dishwasher and then worked my way up to a barback position before eventually becoming a bartender. I’ve also worked as a bike messenger and a bookseller, and I stocked shelves at a department store.
What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was in middle school, I wanted to be an astronomer. My parents gave me a telescope for my twelfth or thirteenth birthday. I was very much baffled by the scope of the universe—I still am—by the natural world beyond our own, and beyond what we can see with the naked eye. It’s mind-blowing and terrifying and exciting to think of the almost infinite number of galaxies, solar systems, and planets in the universe.
What inspired you to write this piece?
This piece is included in my first manuscript, which is essentially a recovery narrative. I wanted to create a balance, a parallel, between myth and autobiography throughout the book, and “Actaeon” is one of the poems that resulted from that endeavor. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is ripe for various interpretations and manipulation, such as how the story of Narcissus, for instance, can resonate beyond just mere self-absorption and can relate to any kind of obsession or desire. With the Actaeon myth, I was very much interested in exploring the subversion of the hunter and the hunted, but also the fact that Actaeon inevitably dies at the hands of his own hounds, “devoured by that which he thought he had tamed.” While writing the poem, I was hoping to create a mythic parallel between Actaeon and myself in the hopes to say something about the self-destructive aspects of addiction and alcoholism. In the end, though, I hope the poem resonates beyond such restrictive bounds and can take on multiple meanings itself.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I used to never consider myself a “poet-of-place” until I left Florida for the first time at age twenty-eight. As soon as I moved away, my work became influenced by the Florida landscape, specifically North Central Florida, which is a very different natural landscape from what, I think, most people’s vision is of Florida—Disney World, for instance, or the beaches, South Florida, Miami, and Daytona Beach, among other images and stereotypes. While writing my MFA thesis I was very much inspired by my backyard in Gainesville—the loblollies and longleaf pines, southern magnolias and moss-draped live oaks blending with typical subtropical foliage, like lemon and loquat trees and date palms. That entire natural world became very symbolic while I was writing the manuscript and processing my experiences in Florida, working toward my sobriety.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Strangely, perhaps, I try to not listen to music while I write because I find that the language of song lyrics interferes with the language of poetry. For whatever reason, I tend to separate those two artforms. But I do still listen to a lot of music, mostly the same bands for the last two decades: Midwest emo and post-rock like Owls and Joan of Arc, Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Yes and no. My days are already fairly ritualized, so if I’m writing that day then writing poetry replaces whatever work I would normally be doing. Typically: coffee, breakfast, a little bit of reading, and then I stare at birds out the window and a blank page until something happens. The most important things I need in order to write are silence, time to do nothing, and attunement to the natural world. Conversely, at other times, lines and entire poems come to me in the shower or as I’m drifting off to sleep, and there’s no ritual in that.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’ve always wanted to be a visual artist, but I’ve never had the talent for it. My mom and two older brothers are naturally gifted painters, and I’ve always admired them for that. Painting has always resonated with me, especially the work of Mark Rothko, J.M.W. Turner, and Andreas Achenbach, so it’s a bit frustrating to be just absolutely terrible at drawing and painting. In high school I thought I could get away with exploring sculpture—working with clay—but it turned out to be harder than I thought.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished reading David Bottoms’ Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch, which was wonderfully inspirational and already influential. I re-read Louise Glück about once a year, so I’m currently reading The Wild Iris for probably the seventh or eighth time. I’ve also slowly been making progress on Merwin’s Migration for over a year now, soaking in his work a little at a time. Henri Cole’s new selected sonnets, Gravity and Center, just came out, so I’m reading that, as well. The stack of books on my nightstand includes The Essential Emily Dickinson, The Poetry of Rilke, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems.
COLIN BAILES holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he served as the 2020–2021 Levis Reading Prize Fellow and was awarded the Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. A 2022 National Poetry Series finalist, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2022, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, Missouri Review, Narrative, Nashville Review, Quarterly West, Raleigh Review, Subtropics, and wildness, among other journals. He lives and teaches in Richmond, VA.