A NORMAL INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW MCFADYEN KETCHUM
by Jennifer Dean
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is the author of Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), editor of Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2012), and series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2014) and founder and managing editor of PoemoftheWeek.org.
Jennifer Dean: In the title poem, you write, “I am a poet retelling a telling.” So much of this collection is about the act of storytelling. Can you tell us the story of how you came to write this particular collection?
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: The first few poems I wrote in graduate school were terrible, and my workshop let me know it. This is the greatest gift a writer can receive: real, true, thoughtful criticism.
Judy Jordan, the workshop leader, always saved my horrific poems for last and proceeded to rip them apart, line by line, stanza by stanza, word by word…whatever was necessary. But when there was something good to say, when there was some encouragement to provide, she and the workshop did that, too. “We clearly have a good poet here,” Judy would say, “now if only we could get some actual poems out of him!”
The fourth poem I turned in was “Ghost Gear.” I don’t remember first writing it, but I do remember calling up my dad to read drafts to him. And I did a ton of research. I pulled up maps of the Aleutian Chain, depth charts, read up on the different types of nets they used and how they used them, downloaded schematics of the plane they landed on the beach. I even bought a model sockeye salmon who peered at me from my desk through its beady, plastic eyes.
As always, Judy waited until the end of workshop to slam “Ghost Gear,” but to my surprise, celebrated it. There was something in the way it told my father’s story while telling my own that struck a chord. While it was narrative, it was also highly musical. It didn’t tell the story; it sang the story. Judy and I came to call such poetry lyric-narratives, and she and the workshop demanded I write more like it. I could write a book of such tall tales told from that multifaceted perspective, the workshop said, so that’s what I did.
I completed the first draft of Ghost Gear in January 2008. The five “father-story” poems (“Ghost Gear,” “The Ever-Chamber,” “The Torchbearer,” “Lost Creek Cave,” and “First Catch”) serve as the backbone of the book. The lyric-narratives that branch from there make up the rest. I started submitting Ghost Gear to a short list of first book prizes in the spring of 2008. I revised it every time it got rejected and certainly would be doing so today if Arkansas hadn’t published it.
Why this book first? Because it’s the first one I wrote. Poetry is a collaboration with the world. I repeat: Poetry is a collaboration with the world. I didn’t write these poems; I discovered these poems. I have innumerous people, events, tragedies, successes, heartbreaks, victories and strikes of lightning to thank for it. I am eternally grateful.
JD: Your style has been compared to the styles of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Penn Warren, and Rodney Jones, among others. These are poems in the tradition of the vertical narrative; they begin grounded in the particulars of a place and time –Shreveport, Louisiana, 1955, Balsam Mountain, North Carolina, Lost Creek Cave, Tennessee—and levitate from there, creating almost-Jungian associations that spiral upward and out. How much would you say you were influenced by writers like Bishop, if at all, and how critical was place and time in the crafting of these poems?
AMK: I think it’s reasonable to say Bishop and Penn Warren helped initiate the contemporary movement of which I am an avid student. I read, on average, three collections of contemporary poetry a week. In grad school, I read a book every single day, Monday through Friday (Lisa forced me to take the weekends off), for three years. But I rarely read poets who aren’t breathing oxygen. This is certainly a failing on my part, but, again, poetry is a collaboration with the world. No poem lacks a predecessor. When I read, say, Ross Gay, I’m also reading what he’s read. When I say Judy Jordan is an influence, I’m also claiming her influences. When I read a book by Paisley Rekdal…you get the idea.
I think you’re right: my poems tend to start in one place and “spiral upward and out” from there. My poems tend to be concrete even as they are rooted in the abstract. I’m not sure how much control I have over that versus how much that is the result of my influences, however direct/indirect they may be. Maybe it’s the result of a thorough exploration of my subject. Maybe something else.
It’s important to understand that I have very little control over the abstract/philosophical aspect of my work. I exert a ton of control of the “brick-and-mortar” of a poem (the line, narrative, musicality, etc…), but the more metaphysical part, the more philosophical, artistic side of this business is a total mystery. I consider myself an artist, but I have no idea what that means. I’ve been calling myself a poet for twenty years, but ask me to define the word itself, and I’m off babbling to myself about god and the multiverse in a corner of the room.
I was raised agnostic/atheist but have become more and more a believer over the years as a result of all of this. There’s a spiritual, ineffable aspect to this whole business I can only come close to touching via verse. People often ask me how I know a poem is “finished.” The first answer is, of course, “Never,” but the more utilitarian answers is, “Once I know what the fuck I’m doing.”
My process is simple: I start with a bunch of words and no idea what I’m doing. The less I know, the better. As I gain little nuggets of understanding via writing and revising, I gain a little traction. Once the poem has taught me how to write it, once I understand what the poem is, I’m steps away from completion. It’s the poetry, you see, that does the work, not me. It’s my influences, living or dead who write this stuff. It’s the time and place in which these poems were written that writes them. It’s the natural world. It’s all those little strikes of lightning. Hard work. Frustration. Joy. Not me.
JD: Your poems often pose questions like “what else can I say of these ball-peen hammers / of distant thunderheads?” or “why this life not a life without death’s clang / from time to time between the ears?” Questions appear to play a central role in the momentum of the poems in this collection. What would you say the role the question has in this collection?
AMK: I never thought of them as adding momentum, pushing the poem forward, but I think that’s exactly right. Questions are not just another mode of speech, they prompt further thought/investigation, they probe the reader and, in a poem’s case, the speaker into unknown territory. The first 1.5 lines of Ghost Gear (“What do I know of God but that each winter / I thank Him for it?”, “Singing”) ask a question and, in many ways, the rest of the book is an attempt to answer that question.
JD: You depict every character in Ghost Gear without malice or the suggestion of resentment, even in the case of the young boys in “Stormdraining” and your younger self—chasing your demons—in “Night Driving.” Fiction writers often speak of loving their characters, even (and, perhaps, especially) the “bad” ones. Does this also apply to poetry?
AMK: I think we have to love our words and our characters. This is something I’m relearning on this book tour. Readings go really well when I love the words I’m reading, when I spit them out like little jewels, little beams of light. They don’t go so well if I’m questioning my words or don’t have the energy to express them with love.
If our characters are made up of words, then, yes, we must love them, too, no matter how bad they may be. Sam and Tim of “Stormdraining” aren’t racist; they are products of racism. And they were not loved. This held them back from living greater lives. I think it’s my duty to love them, even if they were cruel to me.
I am the son of my mother and father, but I could just as easily have been their daughter. I could have been aborted. I could be the child of warlords. I could have been born a thousand years ago. Thus malevolence… whatever form of non-love we feel for those around us strikes me as a little shortsighted, if not outright counter-productive.
Don’t get me wrong: we’re not just what/where we come from. We are what we do, the decisions we make. But lots of people don’t have choices. Many of us are forced into a corner and lashing out is our only option. It certainly happened to me when I was a kid and still happens. But, thankfully, I found poetry early on. I experienced the harsh world I grew up in from the point-of-view of an artist, a welder bringing together his materials, not just as bystander, actor, or victim.
This trait is what kept me away from the sort of hatred and malevolence I grew up around, and it’s the reason I write. My parents are activists. They raised me with the belief that I had to give back. It took me a long, long time to realize that’s what I do in a poem. “Stormdraining” gives back to Tim and Sam.