Interview conducted by Justin Bigos
Justin Bigos: First, I’d like to thank you for coming to Denton to read for the kickoff of the Kraken Reading Series. You read your work beautifully, and we in the audience were grateful to have you. Before we begin to discuss your first book, The Currency, I’m wondering if you can tell us a bit more about most of the poems you read, which sounded like newer work. Whereas The Currency is very serious in tone and makes allusions to high art, I noticed that the newer work had references to pop culture, and was often pretty funny. Are any of these changes intentional?
Paul Otremba: Thank you for having me to Denton. I had a wonderful time at the reading. It was a great venue, and you were spectacular hosts. The majority of what I read is new work. Those poems are from my second book, which I’m calling Pax Americana right now, and it’s scheduled to come out with Four Way Booksin January of 2015. The attempts at humor and the pop culture references you noticed are intentional. After completing The Currency, there was a period of time when new poems were scarce in their arrival, if they came at all. As I was finishing up that manuscript, I felt every new draft I wrote was in some way auditioning for the book, so there were formal and thematic affinities. During the extensive editing that went into the book’s final version, I became painfully aware of those affinities, which on generous days I’d want to call obsessions, and on self-critical days I’d call merely habits. I try to keep a balance between those days.
It took me a while to find the new obsessions. I didn’t want to write the same poems over again. I believe in the work of poetry, of grinding out daily with the art. Reading and playing around with bits of language—which I consider doing my work—can sustain me for a long time, but eventually I want something resembling a draft of a complete poem. Some things I did to pass the time were formal exercises, setting myself arbitrary constraints that potentially could be generative. I don’t think you need an idea to start a poem or even a particular voice figured out. All you need is a little bit of structure to react against, to set some words down in an arrangement and see what they produce. I wrote sonnets and psalms and epistles and these short narrative pieces; those exercises led me to some surprising diction, rhythms, and subjects. I was also treating the poems as repositories for the various things I was thinking about and encountering. I had turned off that internal editor I had needed to guide the subject matter and tone to complete the first book. In that process I realized there were many aspects to my personality (specifically humor) and interests (mostly movies and television) that hadn’t made it into the poems yet.
It’s not like I had some aesthetic revelation or conversion. The poems of The Currencyare merely the poems I was interested in figuring out then. And sure, there is my temperament and the accidents of what I was reading and thinking about at the time. I don’t believe there is a poet you are supposed to be, some poet-homunculus hidden in there you need to discover so it can express itself. When I think of a poem having a voice, that is not what I mean. Recently, I was reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry,” and in it he talks about the lyric voice as being an expression of the poet’s thoughts and sentiments, an “obscure impulse,” “a demon against which he [sic] feels powerless,” which the poet must find the words for, as if she or he were performing an “exorcism of this demon.” When I read that, I couldn’t help but transpose it to exercising the demon, which feels a little more honest to how I create poems. Whenever