An Interview with Bill Tremblay
introduced by Steven Riel
An Interview with Bill Tremblay
introduced by Steven Riel
Back in 2020, when Bill Tremblay shared with me an earlier version of his most recent book manuscript, The Luminous Race Track (now slated for publication by Lynx House Press later in 2022), I was impressed by how strong and evocative his poems are. Many convey with precise richness the atmosphere of growing up during the 1950s in one of the small mill cities and towns in Central Massachusetts and Northeastern Connecticut that are chiefly populated by Franco-Americans. Although I was raised a decade later in the same general area, whenever my family would visit relatives or travel nearby, I encountered remnants of the milieu that Bill describes. His poems recreate the feel of neighborhoods with tenement clotheslines and parochial school playgrounds—I could smell the soil and sidewalks in the places he depicts.
I wondered why I hadn’t already read Tremblay’s books and why they didn’t have a higher profile in Franco-American circles when it seemed evident that his work merited a prominent place in our ethnic group’s canon. Partly this could be because Bill left New England and stayed away for decades, therefore having fewer chances to plug into Franco-American literary networks and the venues for presentation that exist in that region. Perhaps, too, Tremblay’s career in the upper echelons of the mainstream U.S. poetry community (as he edited the Colorado Review and headed the MFA program at the Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado) inadvertently resulted in a distance between him and Franco-American readers.
His work has had some degree of visibility within our community. After the publication of Duhamel, Bill made a presentation at one of the colloques sponsored by the French Institute at Assumption College, and his long poem “Jack Kerouac’s Funeral” appeared alongside contributions by such Franco-American luminaries as A. Poulin, Jr., John Dufresne, David Plante, and Dorianne Laux in Lives in Translation: An Anthology of Contemporary Franco-American Writings (edited by Denis Ledoux), but Bill’s extensive body of work that addresses Franco-American life is not as well-known as it deserves to be.
As Tremblay catalogs in the following interview, poems related to his Franco-American heritage appear in several of his books besides Duhamel: “Not every book I’ve written/published is about Southbridge or has Southbridge in it even as a shadowy background, but most of them do.” It isn’t just this content, however, that merits our attention. There is the consistent excellence of Bill’s poetry—the freshness of his perceptions (“The downcast eyes of winter trees”) and their skillful rendering. There is the remarkable range of this poet’s talent—spanning from his meditations in Walks along the Ditch that patiently gather and glow around a reservoir near the Rockies, to this jazzy evocation of Beat writers and their aesthetic:
angleheaded hipsters in the starry dynamo
of the night all mad for life generating this
spontaneous bop prosody
“[S]pontaneous bop prosody”: any poet who uncovers the music in those three words by placing them together is a writer worth knowing about and studying.
One of the original goals embraced by the founding editors of Résonance was to create a virtual point of convergence, where Franco-American writers and artists could learn about and inspire one another. As a fellow poet, I was inspired both by Bill’s poems and by all that he undertakes in his historical epistolary novel about the remarkable life of the frontiersman Joseph Antoine Janis. Poetry Editor Alexa Bonsey and I decided to invite Tremblay to submit a group of poems and to interview him for this issue. What follows is an interview developed over email in late 2021 and early 2022. In it, Tremblay reflects on his literary journey and the aesthetics that propel him. I am so very pleased that this account of Bill’s creative life, full as it is of achievement, graces our journal.
SR: I admire the range of your work—all the different kinds of poems you attempt and successfully pull off. Just in your book Duhamel: Ideas of Order in Little Canada, I found noteworthy variety: a poem that mostly uses dialogue to convey an argument between two parents, another that loosely tracks the consciousness of the sequence’s central character as he experiences a breakdown, and a dramatic monologue in that same character’s voice as he uses the technical language of textile manufacturing to describe his job history. How do you manage to write using so many different methods? You’ve also written a radio play and a libretto for an operatic musical. Are those part of the answer?
BT: Before I answer that I’d like to issue a caveat. Over many decades, I’ve thought a lot about what I’m doing in writing poems. I’ve become aware of some of my tendencies and my evolution as a poet. But that doesn’t mean I have the final word. That rests with readers, who often have perceptions and insights that astound me.
To get started, in the poem you mentioned about the parents, the boy is listening to opera on the radio in the living room and, as he hears his mother and father argue in the kitchen, he imagines them wearing horned hats as they sing in French. Your question, however, has triggered a memory that bears on the issue of variety of poetic forms. Can I tell a story?
SR: Of course.
BT: In 1974 when Richard Hugo spent a year as a visiting poet at the University of Colorado-Boulder, I’d drive down from Fort Collins, where I was an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, to hang out with him. We’d go down to Pearl Street where there was a pool hall and play three-way eight ball with Gretel Ehrlich.
One time he asked me about my football career at Columbia. I told him I’d only played freshman ball, but the coach told me I had graded out well with the assistant coaches, and he planned to use me a lot as a “utility man” as a sophomore.
“But you don’t want to be a utility man in poetry, Bill,” Dick commented.
“If you want to be published by Norton, you’ll have to find one highly personal style so that the public knows what it will get when buying your books.”
I wondered if he were saying that the public should dictate my style.
He said, “You know when you go into a museum, and you see a painting, and you say to yourself, ‘That’s a Picasso’? That’s what I mean. You want to get to a point where the reader can see a poem and say, ‘That’s a Tremblay.’”
I thought about Dick’s advice a lot back then. It was probably good career advice, but I wasn’t sure it was good poetic advice for me. It made perfect sense for him. He had mastered a tone, an attitude which could be called typically “western,” a tough exterior in the language with an interior that was sad and a little outraged at the bad days the old mining towns had fallen on. “Isn’t this defeat /so accurate, the church bell simply seems/a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?”
I had already accepted the notion of “organic” poetry, among which was that a poem will take the form of the subject it’s exploring. And in my way of feeling, the word “subject” is often replaced by the word “situation.” The old classification of poetry is: 1) narrative, 2) dramatic, and 3) lyrical. I write in all three because the situations that pique my interest are all three. I like what Northrup Frye has to say about narrative and lyrical in relation to the Homeric epics: narrative is for telling the journey to the Underworld and lyric is for the sacred speech of Tiresias directing Odysseus back to his home in Ithaca. Tiresias says, “You will carry an oar inland until no one recognizes it.”
So in Duhamel there are many different situations. You probably got the allusion to Wallace Stevens’ “Ideas of Order in Key West” in my subtitle, “Ideas of Order in Little Canada.” The poem “Unwritten Laws” creates the specific “ideas of order” within which a guy like Duhamel, who quits his factory job to devote himself to painting, can only be regarded by everyone in a factory town as an outlier. When he and his common-law wife Marie-Paul fight it’s about how sick she is of supporting him. The tragedy, as Robert Creeley notes in a response to Duhamel, is that it “presents a unique testament to a world whose brutal fragility has found no other way to speak.”
That’s the thing about the social ambience of factory towns: people live their lives inside the structure of factory-time. They usually don’t speak or think in other ways. When I was growing up my mother spoke French to her sister. Often the word “travail” came up. I asked what it meant, and they said “work, a job.” At St. Mary’s Grammar School I learned that “travail” was the price Adam and Eve would have to pay after their expulsion from Eden—and also the sorrow, the pain of birthing children and losing them. Travail was Adam’s curse and the human condition. It was also what I later came to understand from reading William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles.” For example, when I received my letter of admission to Columbia University I showed it to my mother and father and they said, “But why would you do that? You’re smart. You could get a good job in the factory.” That was their situation, the context within which they lived and breathed.
So in Duhamel, the poems that use different forms and techniques are units in a larger theme called “Ideas of Order in Little Canada.” In Crying in the Cheap Seats one of the major poems is called “A Sistine Chapel of Southbridge/The Endless Poem Merged.” In Duhamel, he is learning stained-glass art. I accept that each poem should stand on its own as an enjoyable experience, but I offer also its function in the larger context of each book. One way to create the meaning of “meaning” is to find the home that each thing or image or action belongs to. Finding the key that unlocks the further room. Sometimes it takes a long journey to find that key. Sometimes years.
I absorbed many lessons over those years. The first one I discovered on my own, namely to use the structure of what you’re writing about in the written piece. The variety of poetic forms in my work is, I think, a result. Sometimes there are two things going on. In “Central Avenue Breakdown,” which you refer to, there’s a television element and a jazz element. On-screen it’s Milton Berle in drag, but in Duhamel’s head it’s Nat King Cole playing “Central Avenue Breakdown,” a frenetic boogie-woogie tune. Duhamel feels in his brain what a threat television is to his sense of what art is—chasing a holy vision, an apparition that chooses ordinary things to inhabit—whereas Uncle Milty is about silly diversions. At the time of writing I didn’t appreciate how important silly diversions are, especially in times of crisis.
Another lesson was editing or revision. That I learned from Robert Bly.
We had been corresponding for about a year-and-a-half. He wrote me a postcard saying he would be in Worcester doing a reading and staying at the downtown Holiday Inn. We arranged to meet. I brought the manuscript that would become Crying in the Cheap Seats. Robert went through every line in that collection with a blue felt-tip pen. His observation was that I would offer an image then I would explain it. He focused on a poem about my wife having a miscarriage. He drew a blue line through my explanations. What was left was what he called a “strong” poem. He was promoting the idea of the “deep image” poem. But he addressed me at the level I was at—a poetics of embodiment stemming from William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things.” Bly taught me compression. He quoted Robert Southey, who wrote, “It is with words as it is with sunbeams, the more condensed the deeper they burn.”
He also told me about a French poet named Francis Ponge who pioneered the “object poem.” Since I had already found the idea of using the structure of a thing as the structure of a poem the idea clicked right into place for me. But Bly went further. He told me that, in writing about objects, a poet can develop a sense of the subjective dimension of things, that they can speak to us in a number of ways. He quoted Rilke, a line in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” that says “there is no place/that does not see you.” I was familiar with that notion, but only in a theological context, i.e. that God “sees” everything, is omniscient. But that a tree could see people was new territory. This tutorial took place in 1968, a time when it seemed everyone was saying, “It blew my mind.”
SR: Duhamel was published by BOA Editions. A. Poulin, Jr. was the founder and president of that press. How well did you know him?
BT: I first met Al in Amherst at a party connected to the week-long poetry festival that Joseph Langland used to put together when I was finishing my MFA at UMass. Al was mixing these bomber martinis for everybody, and he and I got into a discussion of Robert Creeley’s poems. He was editing an anthology called Contemporary American Poetry at the time (spring 1972), and he asked me my opinion. I told him I like For Love, but when Creeley started his poems about “X” and “Y” it was a little more algebra than I could relate to very well.
On the other hand, Creeley’s real contribution was to revolutionize the line break. When I heard him speak, it occurred to me that his line breaks were similar to his conversation. Someone asked him about his missing eye: Had he ever had a glass eye? I remember he said, “I did/after the/accident/that cost me/the eye/but I soon grew weary of/proposing it/as real.” A halting style, yet one that embodied his care about diction, a care which pays off in the word “proposing,” strangely formal and funny at the same time, an echo of a marriage proposal.
Quick-cut forward to summer, 1983. I’m swimming at a Rhode Island beach with Jane Lunin Perel. She looks at me and says: “You have this book coming out … so why aren’t you happy?” I told her it was a new and selected, and I felt as if I were running out of material to write about. Or rather, that I no longer wanted to exploit my stance toward “the daily news” as the content of poetry such as in The Anarchist Heart.
Later that summer I was hunting quahogs with my brother Ray. We were talking about Southbridge. I said there was no art going on there. Ray reminded me of Duhamel, a guy who lived across the alley from us. I went home to Colorado and wrote down everything I could remember about him. Took me ten minutes. And it struck me that this was exactly the challenge I needed—to imagine the inner life of someone I hardly knew, to get beyond memory, to throw myself out beyond my experience into other lives.
I started writing about Duhamel in couplets first. Someone suggested I send the poems to Anselm Parlatore at Blue Fish. When they appeared in print, I got a letter from Poulin saying, “I feel like I know these people.” He was talking about Duhamel and Marie-Paul and Frances, her lesbian lover. A whole lot of things started happening. I got a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A sabbatical for six months on Cape Cod. Al offered to publish the book.
I started the Colorado Review and became the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Colorado State. Those were heady times. The book cover is particularly beautiful. It’s a painting by Roland J. Meunier (who always thought I based Duhamel on him) from a childhood memory of Roland’s home town of Biddeford, Maine.
In the summer of 1989 I stopped at Al’s house in Brockport on the way to a six-week stay at Yaddo. We had lunch at a restaurant with a view of the Erie Canal. He bought a pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t supposed to smoke; he had a serious heart condition, and he didn’t look well. I was worried about him. And later when he died I wasn’t surprised, but I was sad. He and I shared a common Franco-American background. He said that publishing Duhamel was something good he could do for Franco-American culture. I feel fortunate to have known him. Besides, he was a cool guy in a sort of “Beat” way. I thought he resembled a white Lester Young in his porkpie hat.
SR: You’ve also written about Mexico. How did that come about?
BT: I went to Mexico with my friend, Philip Garrison, to tour Mexico City and Michoacán where he had taught English at a university in Morelia. As I waited for Phil to arrive I visited La Casa Azul in Coyoacán, where Frida Kahlo grew up. Leon Trotsky’s house was only a few blocks away, so I walked down there, too. Standing in the room where Trotsky was murdered was truly a powerful and complicated experience. I had read his book, Art & Revolution, years before and had been excited by his idea that revolutions should be perpetual. To do that, to be that, societies would have to look to their artists for the evolution of humane structures of government.
I sat in the gardens at La Casa Azul and took notes. Later I went to the twin houses in San Angel—one for Diego, one for Frida. I read that Paulette Goddard paid Diego a visit after shooting a comedy in Hollywood. I took notes for a poem about their encounter.
A year later my wife Cynthia and I went to Mexico. I wanted to show her the Mexico Phil (or as he was known in Mexico, Felipe) had shown me. Through friends from Fort Collins, I was invited by Omie Kerr, Cultural Attaché at the US Embassy, to give a reading of my work. It was a gala affair at her palatial home with many servants in white uniforms for about two dozen people in the Mexico City art scene, among them the Director of the Folklórico, the Director of the Mexican Film Archives, a representative of the Mexican Senate.
I read several poems after dinner, including one in which Trotsky, his wife Natalia, Frida, Paulette, and Diego go dancing at a nightclub in Mexico City to Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” People seemed to like the poems. They asked me why I had chosen to write about Mexico. I said that as a North American I was brought up to honor “rugged individualism,” but there’s always a Jungian “shadow” to things. I have a great longing for community, which I found in Mexico much more than in my native country. Omie put “Anything Goes” on the stereo, and the party went on maybe a half-hour longer.
One of the guests, the Director of the Film Archives, invited me to visit, so I went. He gave me a private showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! I literally was blown away. I went to the Benjamin Franklin Library and took out Eisenstein’s Notes of a Film Director and found him speaking about his film aesthetic and its relation to Marxian social theory, i.e. applied dialectics. So as Cynthia toured twelve Mexican cities I was taking notes, especially the use of contrast in light and darkness for dramatic purposes. Another interesting detail was that Eisenstein claimed he was influenced by the poetry of Alexander Pushkin in his film technique. Eisenstein realized that each line of Pushkin could be seen as one “shot.” So when we got home I thoroughly revised the whole manuscript focusing on Trotsky’s emotions as he waited for the inevitable attempt on his life. As well, I wanted to return Eisenstein’s film technique to its poetic origins. Shooting Script, the resulting book, won the Colorado Book Award.
SR: Much of your work has been focused on Southbridge, and yet you have lived in Colorado for a long time. How many years?
BT: We moved there in August, 1973. So, going on forty-eight years.
SR: What impact has Colorado had on your work?
BT: A completely different terrain. The high plains, buffalo grass, the foothills, the Arapaho Range, Horsetooth Rock. If you climb the foothills and look to the east you can see the curvature of the earth. It’s semi-arid. In Fort Collins people have been planting trees for a hundred and fifty years, and along the Cache La Poudre River there are riparian forests. Wildlife comes down out of the mountains—coyotes, mountain lions, bears, deer, elk, and rattlesnakes—you really have to be careful where you step.
For maybe the first six months we were there Cynthia was suspicious of the sky, which goes from horizon to horizon, as if something big might fall out of it onto us. She and I grew up in places where the forests grow into the town. Living in Massachusetts with all its trees is like living inside a set of parentheses. Your view of the sky is limited, but it’s comforting. Cynthia said she felt exposed. Unprotected. The landscape is more elemental. She wrote a poem in the early days about “envying the rooted safety of beets,” which is published in her book, Bread Crumbs.
There were new words to learn—nighthawk, cliff swallow, rabbit brush, wild plum, magpie squawking in the box elders, meadowlarks trilling across prairies. There was wild asparagus along the ditches, wire fences, and streams. And differences in language. When we went to a store, the cashiers would ask, “Want a sack with that?” Instead of bag. And native Coloradoans would pronounce Denver as Dinver.
I was hard at work trying to get a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program going and trying to increase the circulation of the Colorado Review. I began to take walks around a reservoir near where we lived. Views of the mountains as they rise toward the Never Summer Range as if by steps into the distance hit me one evening as colossally beautiful. I always felt I failed when I tried to tell people back East about the sheer scale of the western landscape. Back East if you live near the oceans there are always the waves cresting and falling. In the West it’s the stillness. There are no distractions from confronting the silences. I think that’s why I began to study the practice of tai chi chuan and Taoism, “quietism.” On a snowy morning the mountain valleys are heartbreakingly beautiful. Died-and-gone-to-heaven beautiful. Books like Rainstorm Over the Alphabet and Walks Along the Ditch are products of my engagement with nature. So it seems I had moved from a poetry of human situations to nature poems at last. I believe that Bly hoped that would happen for me.
In the early 1990s I started working on The June Rise: The Apocryphal Letters of Joseph Antoine Janis. At first it was a group of poems. I shared them with James Galvin. He had just published a wonderful prose book called The Meadow. He said he thought it was a novel. I thought he might be right. There are scattered references to Antoine Janis throughout the books on the early history of the American West. When I found a history of Larimer County and read one of his letters I got a clue to his verbal style, and once I had his “voice” I was ready to tell his story.
Antoine’s father was a true “Mountain Man.” When he was sixteen Antoine’s father took him into the Rocky Mountains and gave him an apprenticeship in the beaver trade. Antoine married Red Cloud's sister, First Elk Woman. In doing so, he committed himself to looking out for the welfare and survival of the Oglala Sioux. He was regarded in his time by some white settlers as a "race traitor" because he was one of Red Cloud's chief advisers and had a strong hand in setting the terms of the 1868 Treaty that granted the sacred Black Hills in perpetuity with all the bands of the Sioux as well as Cheyenne, Arapaho.
The novel is a love story of remarkable married fidelity. When the U.S. government sent word that First Elk Woman had to go to Pine Ridge Reservation, Antoine sold his house and land in LaPorte, CO, and shared her fate. Mercifully, he died before the massacre at Wounded Knee, but he saw the arrival of the Ghost Dance. Antoine Janis was different from the conventional idea of a French-Canadian married to a native woman. Charbonneau married to Sacajewea is the stereotype, a brutal man brutal to his wife. Janis went with Red Cloud as his translator in talks with President Grant. I think his importance has been slighted because he worked against “Manifest Destiny.” He doesn’t fit the pioneer narrative. The book is my gift to the people of Fort Collins. But I hope that others with an interest in Franco-American subjects will look into Antoine’s remarkable life as a Mountain Man, a scout for the U.S. Army, a guide to prospectors, a founder of LaPorte, Colorado. Writing the book got me into research and part of that was to follow Antoine’s trail as a beaver trapper in northern Colorado. From that I got into the practice of long walks in the wilderness areas.
When I’d go out for walks I’d take my backpack with pens, a notebook, a compass, a first-aid kit from back when I spent five years on the trail crew of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers in service to the U.S. Forest Service, and a book, usually of poetry. I felt the conflicting emotions triggered by the Roosevelt National Forest. It only seems to be a tamed wilderness. But the sheer immensity of it and how it connects to Rocky Mountain National Park says something unnervingly different. There are bears and mountain lions. That sense of enormous natural beauty and imminent if not visible danger is the complicated essence of what Longinus writes about in “On the Sublime.” It was right there, across the footbridge over the Poudre River, a posting telling the story of a boy named Vigil, who was lost from his parents on a hike up Poudre Canyon. I have the poem I wrote about it right here. It’s called “The Lost Boy,” and it was included in Best American Poems in 2003. Mind if I read it?
SR: I’d like that.
BT: THE LOST BOY
Across the Poudre River bridge
stands a stone monument to a lost boy.
Carved words fix the mystery. Did
he wander off, or was he carried off
by tooth or talon? Family, friends,
searched the mountainside calling his
name. The weather turns. Sleet, wind,
snow in slants across the ponderosas.
He blacked out under the canyon’s
Milky Way. I hear his cries in
echoing arroyos. Though his bones
moldered in cold drizzle he comes
crashing through wild plum thickets
clutching at my shirt, asking me where I was
in his sagebrush hours. Through his
ripped jacket, a flash of bone. I dare not
touch his skeletal shoulder. He’s forgotten
how to be alive. The climb is no relief,
his weight dogs my knees. Breezes
sough through purple yarrow aspen groves,
dry waterfalls. I reach the cloud meadows,
hairpin switchbacks until Mount
Greyrock juts its granite forehead into
one hard thought: what remains unfinished
in the soul keeps doubling back
until earth and sky are balanced aches
like the cliff swallow’s swift flight.
SR: So the boy’s death becomes a burden the poet takes on.
BT: Yes, until the going-on with life slowly allows an adjustment in the psyche that enables a kind of détente with grief. I don’t mind saying that I like the poem because I managed to cook the language down so it becomes gnarly like metamorphic rock.
SR: Does that have something to do with the sonic qualities of your poems?
BT: Absolutely. If you read a poem like “The Lost Boy” aloud, I hope you can hear what compression can do. Consonants strike each other like steel on flint. Vowels rise and fall like notes in sheet music. “Sleet, wind,/snow in slants across the ponderosas.” E, Ih, Owh, Ah, Oh, the voice-track of a blizzard. But I don’t expect anyone to do a sound and sense assessment unless they want to make the shift from consumers to producers of literary arts.
SR: That brings up another topic I want to ask you about—your rhythms. Where do you get them?
BT: From music mostly. My brother Gerry was a musician, a trumpet player, a French horn player. He auditioned for and got into the U.S. Air Force Band. He introduced me to jazz when I was thirteen. He came home once on furlough, and I was listening to Fats Domino. He asked me to hum the sax section. It was like, “Da-dah de-dah de-dah,” over and over. So then he put on Gigi Gryce and Donald Byrd playing “Over the Rainbow,” and when they jumped an octave on the first two notes then blended their sounds back down the scale I practically jumped off the couch. It was so alive. Then he put on Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan (I’d never heard a baritone sax before) on “Tea for Two” where they “trade off.” There’s a section of a poem in the book I’m working on now called “Gerry & the Sacrament of Music” where I recall what he taught me back then. When I tried to tell him how happy I was for him to have discovered music, though I was not at all sure if I would be so lucky with writing, he looked at me over the bell of his horn, and he brought it home to specifically me:
I have notes, he says. You have words.
When you get the urge to write,
ask yourself if what you want to say
has a heart. Does it have legs enough
to finish the journey it’s on?
Does it know
how the chords change the feelings?
Does it have the breath to cross the bridges?
Does it have a spine that holds it all together?
He finds all that in his horn,
a threshold to the universe within,
a “Glory, hallelujah” ready to begin.
Again, if you go back to line breaks, you can hear they are part of the rhythm as part of the pattern of emphasis: “ask yourself/if what you/want to say/has a heart” in threes (dactyls). But rhythm is something almost entirely intuitive and talking about it as if it were a recipe is highly speculative indeed.
SR: Would you say more about “how the chords change the feelings”?
BT: Chord changes in music are like tone changes in poetry. Take any Shakespearean sonnet and you will find that tone changes happen between quatrains and especially at the final couplet, as in Sonnet #73. But you can hear it in any American standard ballad. Musicians call that chord change a “bridge” that signals a tone shift, an attitude shift, a shift in perspective. A chord change happens in the song “As Time Goes By” between verse two and verse three. The lines are, “No matter what the future brings/As time goes by,” (the refrain) and, “Moonlight and love songs/Never out of date.” The shift is in the exposition between the element of time (“future”) and romantic images (“moonlight and love songs”). As the poem unfolds itself down the page there are tonal shifts. Emily Dickinson in writing about a locomotive starts by saying “I like to see it lap the Miles,” but in stanza three she refers to its “horrid—hooting—stanza.”
You mentioned yesterday my poem “A Day Without Ambition.” That’s from Walks Along the Ditch. It started off as a kind of “get-well card” for a colleague of mine whom I’d just visited in the hospital. She had fallen and had a head injury. There are a lot of reservoirs in and around Fort Collins, the Poudre River, and the Larimer-Weld Irrigation Canal. So I’m always near water. Melville says somewhere, “Water and meditation are wedded.” So that day I’m carrying a book by Wang Wei, the T’ang Dynasty poet who was also a painter, a musician, and a high-level civil servant. And in one poem he’s talking about all the years he spent in the imperial city of Chang-An trying to advance his career. He says, “Now that I’m retired I enjoy nothing so much as nothing ...” He sees the liberation from stress as letting go of the anxieties attendant upon jockeying for the favor of the court. The poem—as I always hope it will be—served as a prompt, and in describing my surroundings at Long Pond the chief thing that emerged was a hope somehow connected to the flight of birds.
The letter that prompted Wang Wei’s response asked him what were his thoughts about the meaning of life. The end of his poem was: “Let us go listen to the fishermen singing in the cove.” So, as regards this situation, it occurs to me that what I should do is compose a ring of poems in answer, poems that offer nothing but language that creates sensations. That’s in effect the essence of Modernism. When Ezra Pound says, “Go in fear of abstraction,” he’s pointing to something Keats says about sensations, feelings. That is the basis of the aesthetic, the suspicion that it is the creation of phrasings that offer sensations that set off reverberations in readers, that the sensory is the mother of perception, though it may take a while for the sensations to work themselves through the human nervous system to become an aesthetic idea. That’s why I always liked to share “In a Station at the Metro,” which turns a crowd of people emerging from underground as “petals on a wet, black bough.” It’s a classic Modernist poem, but it is also an Impressionist poem. The aesthetic has a depth that stays with you. Pound’s definition of poetry is: “Poetry is the news that stays news.”
SR: What are you working on now?
BT: A new book of poems called The Luminous Race Track. A couple of years ago I took a trip to Southbridge, my home town. I went to the bridge over Central Street and took some photos looking north where the old Ames Worsted Mills were. They’ve been shuttered for maybe sixty years now. Downtown Main Street is pretty much shuttered ever since the Wells family sold the American Optical Company and took the money and opened up Old Sturbridge Village, a move that in hindsight seems prophetic of the whole post-industrial phase the United States has been in for decades. I’m sad to say the town had gone moribund, but the river was still pouring over the falls. The river is the news that stays news. When I was twelve and thirteen I used to spend a lot of time wandering along the river trying to think about things in my life. My mother had asked me to pray for a vocation. She saw me as a Jesuit. I went to morning Mass for 365 days in a row asking for some confirmation that that was my future. But nothing came. So I proceeded to the question, “If not the clergy, then what?” I think it was the first time in my life that I confronted the issue of “agency.” The backstory on that is that when I was about four years old my mother read to me a lot. And one book she read was Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with Wrinkled Knees. She said that Ann had a heart made of Valentine candy with the words “I love you” written on it, but that Andy had no heart. That meant he had no way of knowing his heart’s desire. He had to depend on Ann for everything. I mean he could see through his button eyes, but he had no relationship to what he saw except that which Ann gave him. He couldn’t perceive ...
SR: Did you identify with Andy?
BT: Well, my middle name is Andrew.
I started remembering what I was thinking about when I was thirteen and used to go to the Quinebaug River after school by myself. I realized it was a kind of refuge for me. And then the question that followed was: Why did I need a refuge? And from that question came the book I’m working on. I’m calling it The Luminous Race Track, which has to do with the missing piece in my family, my father. Ann, Andy, and the Camel. Here’s a piece of a poem I’m working on:
In the book my mother read me
when I’m so young I couldn’t yet read
Ann’s heart is made of Valentine candy.
Andy has no heart. He can never
look into himself for what is sweet and good.
He can only help Ann get what her heart
tells her she needs to be happy.
The Camel can last without water.
He is content to carry the two dolls
on his baggy hump. He’s like a trucker
gunning it all night to Elizabeth, NJ.
But when the luminous race track chants
Away, away, away, away, the Camel Spirals
upward into the caravan of stars.
My father was like the Camel, in that for him the race track at Narragansett was the luminous galaxy that beckoned him and he was helpless against its siren call.
SR: Sounds difficult.
BT: Yes. So I was thirteen and at a crossroads. I could decide to go to high school at St. Mary’s or I could go to the public high school. My mother of course wanted me to stay at the parochial school. I might have if I had had any hint of a vocation. Public school was something I had never experienced. That was its chief draw.
So, my thirteen-year-old self was in a situation. What to do? And did I have any sort of consciousness with which to decide? I literally had the river all to myself. It didn’t have an agenda except to get to Long Island Sound and merge into the Atlantic Ocean. I could begin to build toward understanding my situation. It was time to work on developing some autonomy. On a simple level, my mother had tried to tell me through the medium of a children’s story that, if I would obey her, she would guide me toward what is good and right. On a more complicated level, I could write my way toward a lived sense of what it means to grow up as an American boy with ambitions to become a football hero and what that had to do with representations of masculinity.
The Luminous Race Track, at this point, is a book about a teenager making crucial decisions in a natural setting while recollecting major events in the history of his French-Canadian Catholic family in the mid-twentieth century during the Cold War. His oldest brother Ray was a Marine in the Pacific during the end of World War II; his mother had worked on the Polaroid sunglasses used by the crew of the Enola Gay to keep them from going blind from the nuclear flash; his sister Nancy joined the WAVES, the women’s Navy corps; his brother Gerry was a musician in the 8th Air Force Band during the Korean War; his father was drafted from the merchant marine into the U.S. Navy during World War I—a military family.
Meanwhile there was the whole stereoscopic panoply of representations of American manhood in books and articles and movies and songs. The poems in the book involve a lot of representations, including the lifting of the monstrance during Mass as an embodiment of Transubstantiation. The book is also a lot about the soul; the soul provides the metaphysical “motive for metaphor” that Stevens mentions. That has been true in poetry ever since Orpheus saw Eurydice’s face in the sunlight passing through the trees. I was drafted into the U.S. Army but was exempted after President Kennedy signed legislation that said I didn’t have to go because I was a married man. All to the good. I was told that testing showed I was only 7% “trainable.” If I had gone in, my only skill would have been that I was a good typist.
Funny how things work out. The last poem in the book is called, “Thanksgiving.” I guess that’s why Dante called his book The Divine Comedy.
Not every book I’ve written/published is about Southbridge or has Southbridge in it even as a shadowy background, but most of them do. The first third of Crying in the Cheap Seats is Southbridge; a lot of The Anarchist Heart, especially the title poem; and Second Sun; and Duhamel; and Rainstorm over the Alphabet. Obviously this isn’t true of my novel, The June Rise, nor the books about Mexico, but there’s some of Southbridge in Walks along the Ditch, and now it’s foregrounded in The Luminous Race Track.
Some may know me from Claire Quintal's having "presented" me at Assumption College when there was a conference on Franco-American culture in, I believe, 1985-86, when Duhamel came out and I got the NEA. I remember when I told the audience of maybe 200 souls that my parents did not teach us French there was a rumbling. I tried to explain that it wasn't my choice, but theirs. The organization, of course, existed to (among other things) promote French-Canadian education. Nuns and priests in attendance represented parochial schools.
As I look back I realize that what I’ve been taken with since I reached “the Age of Reason” is the art of representation. It may have started from that realization that the Mass is a sort of compressed drama and that the raising of the Eucharist in the monstrance is the representation of the quintessential Catholic epiphany. I think the fact that there are a half-dozen movies that form the backdrop of The Luminous Race Track is another way to understand the variety of representational forms that were all around me as I grew up. In "The Thing,” the speaker notes certain conventions in movies—the man-woman subplot, the tendency not to reveal "the plan to kill the Thing," etc., for purposes of suspense.
When I was a freshman at Columbia University, I took an Art History class, two semesters. When we got to Abstract Expressionism, I was baffled by it until my professor taught us that it is, first of all, "non-representational" and based on the elements of painting: color, line, mass, form, light, dark, composition, etc.. My favorite painters were, of course, Van Gogh and Diego Rivera, because they were concrete expressionists. Also, they represented people and community carefully and lovingly. The papers I wrote for that course were to turn Abstract Expressionism into a drama of dynamic contrasts, in effect turning the non-representational into the representational by seeing the elements of painting as abstract characters in “brief abstract chronicles,” as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet.
However, as I look back, I see there has always been a rootedness in community. My first impulse in Crying in the Cheap Seats was to represent the working people of Southbridge who were living inside factory time. But as I matured, I saw them as redeemed by their sacrifices for their children’s education and future. I felt that was admirable. And in my own education, I associated abstraction with the way corporate executives think of workers—so many units of production. So my goals evolved. I wanted to avoid abstractions in order to rescue the real, lived sense of value and to renew the human senses by concrete diction.
And that project has stayed with me. Some of my friends in poetry talk about my work as existing at the crossroad between public and private worlds. This is true in The Anarchist Heart, which has poems on the United States and Latin America. As the decades have rolled along, it’s been an interaction between the public and private all along through Rainstorm Over the Alphabet and Walks Along the Ditch. What I have striven for is language that leaves the reader with a feel of “value added,” not just representations of life’s surfaces but gateways to our inner lives.