Q&A: Daniel Olivas and USC poet Andrew Allport

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of six books including the novel, "The Book of Want" (University of Arizona Press.)

In my day job as a government lawyer, I work with many non-writers who love literature. They belong to book clubs, read publications such as The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon.com, and LA Observed. And they argue, argue, argue about the merits of the latest "big" book.

body-of-space-in-the-shape-of-the-human.jpgSome of my colleagues have an even closer connection to literature. For example, one of the lawyers on my floor is married to an acclaimed novelist. And I recently learned that one of our newly hired attorneys has an award-winning poet for a husband. That poet is Andrew Allport, who holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, where he now teaches writing and literature. He is the author of a chapbook, "The Ice Ship and Other Vessels," published by Proem Press. His reviews and poetry have appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere.

And now Allport can add a full-length collection to his name. His book, the body | of space | in the shape of the human, won a poetry contest and was published this year by New Issues Press. After reading his new book, I asked Allport if he'd be open to an online interview, and he agreed.

DANIEL OLIVAS: Your debut collection, "the body | of space | in the shape of the human," was the winner of the 2011 New Issues Poetry Prize. How did you learn that you'd won? Had you submitted the manuscript to other poetry contests?

ANDREW ALLPORT: I had submitted the manuscript to at least a few other first book prizes, though I had really forgotten about them when I got a call from Marianne Sweringa, the managing editor at New Issues. At the time I was working as a sort of writer-for-hire in a sleepy corner of the university bureaucracy; everything I wrote was in bullet points. I was a little dazed by the news. I remember being quite sure that my name had been mistakenly put on some other poet's manuscript, and it would only be a matter of time before Marianne called back to apologize for the mix-up. She sounded like a nice person, so I hoped she'd take pity on me and publish mine as well.

DO: How did your manuscript take shape? Did it go through many iterations before you believed it was ready to submit it to the New Issues contest?

AA: It was a long and confusing process to get the book to where it ended up. I can't remember all of it, but basically what happened was this: when my father died very unexpectedly in 2008, I was already nearly done with a poetry manuscript. After a period of incapacitation, I managed to write a couple poems about the experience. But they hardly fit with the rest of the collection. Instead of starting a new manuscript, which might have been less effort, I began replacing poems, and the book gradually shifted in tone as the feeling of elegy took over, becoming darker and more emotionally direct. I think I worked this way because the idea of starting something new seemed too daunting at the time; perhaps this had to do with finding ways of making life after a traumatic experience somehow contiguous with life before, or perhaps it was something else. In any case, in the end only a couple of poems remained from the original when I submitted it to New Issues, and those were subsequently cut.

DO: You divide your collection into four sections each beginning with quotations from, respectively, Shakespeare's "King Lear," Robert Musil's novel, "The Man Without Qualities," Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 letter to Thomas Poole, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel's "On the Study of Greek Poetry." How do these authors set the stage for each section? How have they influenced you as a poet?

AA: Lear is my favorite play. I think it has affected me in different ways ever since I read it for the first time in high school, when I cried in English class over Cordelia's death, which I never saw coming. The quotation in the book, which precedes the first section, is from the scene where Edgar, the good son, is pretending to lead his blind and suicidal father towards a cliff. Edgar has to keep reassuring Gloucester that yes, the cliff is coming up soon, feeding him all this sensory information: the pitch of the hill, the smell of the sea, the tininess of the people below. When I set out to write about my father, I decided that I needed that kind of transparent artifice, in which the fictional setting becomes more evocative than the real one. The fact that there is no cliff only heightens the pathos of Gloucester's attempt at suicide; Edgar's resurrection of his father is a moment of love and forgiveness but also a lie. I knew I would lie about him, but I knew that lying would be part of telling the truth about him.

As for Musil and Coleridge and Schlegel, I don't have such a clear idea. They were things I was reading at the time and must have jotted down. They represent different ideas of art and different thematic elements of the book, but it's all kind of jumbled up and impossible to put one epigraph to a particular theme. Coleridge is talking about the difference between parts and the whole; Schlegel about naturalness and the sentimentality; Musil about progress and nostalgia. The epigraphs freeze each of them into little statuettes of thought, probably grotesquely distorted. The first epigraph of the book is the important one, I think, but--and this is true of the section breaks as well--I think it's important for a collection to have little stopping points where readers can take a break, reflect, and decide if they want to keep going or call it a day.

DO: One of my favorite poems in your collection is "Keats, Listening to Van Morrison" because I love Morrison's song "And It Stoned Me" which paints a nostalgic scene of two boys caught in the rain after going fishing. You play off the Morrison lyrics as you imagine John Keats being moved by his vocals ("Strange entanglement of singing, a twin voice..."). What brought you to this unusual pairing?

AA: Keats seems like he would have been one of those boys in the song. There's a freedom to the scenes of the song! These two boys hitchhiking around and drinking whiskey with strangers...but such an innocence, too. And the speaker is so observant and close to the sensations of the experience, with the water on his skin and the joy of just being out and alive in the world. Keats was, from all accounts, a fierce and funny guy to be around, despite the tuberculosis. I'm into the Romantics--Wordsworth gets an appearance in the book, too, hiking around in California--but to me their value is their effect on our current moods and problems, not so much their original context. The title used to be "Reading Keats, Listening to Van Morrison," but someone suggested it would be better without "Reading," because it suggests that it's Keats who is listening to the song, which is an image I like better: the two boys make him think of his brother Tom, and perhaps all the water makes him think of mortality, and his own epithet as well--"one whose name was writ on water." Likeness in the unlikeness, right?

DO: The poet, Mark Irwin, observes that your collection "take[s] its emotional heart from Book VI of St. Augustine's 'Confessions,'" a book that is considered by many as the first Western autobiography. When did you first read Confessions? Do you agree with Irwin's assessment?

AA: The title of the book comes from this section of Augustine, although the words aren't in that order. As does the question at the heart of writing: "In what state shall we depart this life?" When I first read Augustine I was attracted, as many people have been, to its honesty and specificity. As you say, it's an autobiography, and it has all the best aspects of contemporary autobiography (or what is increasingly labeled, oddly, "creative non-fiction"): humble beginnings, ambition, drugs, concubines, spiraling doubt and despair, divorce, self-reinvention, apostasy, and spiritual rebirth. Bob Dylan, basically. The metaphysical question of Book VI is the physical existence of the divine--how do you picture something that simultaneously has no shape but is everywhere? For Augustine, this was about reconciling ideas of God, but I found that they echoed the difficulty of thinking about grief and absence: someone who dies is like God to us, unknowable and intimate.

DO: How would you describe your writing routine? How do you juggle teaching, marriage and fatherhood with the writing life?

AA: It's not much of a routine. My mentor, David St. John, once gave me some reassuring advice about writing that I try to keep in mind. He said you have to recognize how you work and respect your method, no matter how erratic or disgraceful it seems compared to other people's habits. I write when I can, which is not to say I'm always writing when I could be. Teaching is a funny business in that you're always exhorting your students to write, and sometimes feel bad if you're not taking your own advice.

DO: How much do you hate the question (usually from friends and family): What are you writing now?

AA: Wait, are you pointing out the aggravating nature of this question while also asking it? Tricky...well, since you asked, I'm early in another collection. It's on boyhood, drone aircraft, Pythagoras, and water rights. So far...


More by Daniel Olivas:
Q&A: Daniel Olivas and USC poet Andrew Allport
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