How Things Mean: An Interview with Kevin Prufer

Interview by Aza Pace

Kevin Prufer is the author of seven poetry collections and the recipient of numerous awards, including four Pushcart prizes, two William Rockhill Nelson awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared widely in journals such as Poetry, Paris Review, and The Southern Review. While working as a professor in the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, he is also Editor-at-Large of Pleiades and Co-Curator of the Unsung Masters Series.

Prufer’s most recent poetry collection from Four Way Books, How He Loved Them, explores the complexities of violence, beauty, and compassion. The poems in this collection shift masterfully between an observer’s detached eye and more intimate voices, each a character in its own right. Amid the threat of war, vampires, and heartbreaking loneliness, the poems simultaneously seek out the compassion and curiosity between lovers, between parents and children, and between strangers.

I had the good fortune to study with Kevin Prufer at the University of Houston and was glad for the opportunity to speak with him about his new book over email.

Aza Pace: While reading How He Loved Them, I was struck by how your poems find a wonderful balance between violence and pain on the one hand and beauty, humor, and compassion on the other. During the writing process, how do you think about striking this balance? What kinds of perspectives or strategies do you adopt to reach it?

Kevin Prufer: It’s not something I necessarily think about during the writing process.  Instead, that balance seems to come to me from somewhere outside of myself, if there is balance at all.  I know I sometimes write very unbalanced poems, but there’s pleasure in that, too.

I do believe that poems often exist between poles or energy points.  The power in a poem might not be in a single assertion of feeling or thought; rather it exists between the poles of two or three (or more) seemingly contradictory (or at least “unlike”) thoughts or feelings.  That is, a poem might very well be terrifying, but to be terrifying in itself isn’t necessarily all that interesting.  A poem might also be beautiful or lush or witty – but again, none of those things by themselves is particularly interesting.  When a poem is lush, sad, and terrifying at once, things become exciting, not in any single element, but in the mind that might feel (or think) within all those elements at once.  Such poems suggest the complexity of a thinking/feeling mind.

AP: The poems in this collection sometimes locate consciousness in unexpected places. For instance, we might be invited to see from the perspective of a bullet, a river, or a car being sunk in a lake. Do you think of these as persona poems, even if a poem’s consciousness shifts around? If so, what opportunities do you think this form offers you as a writer?

KP:  I think that, in the world of poetry, things—inanimate objects, trees, clocks, bullets—often suggest larger ideas, they mean.  So, if they’re going to be always suggesting and meaning and implying, why can’t they also just speak?  I really think that’s the primary impulse behind all my talking objects—that, if I am going to believe that they are meaningful in my poems, it makes sense for me to give them voices, so they can explain their positions to readers (and, in the writing process, to me).

Don’t you sometimes get to the point (when you are writing a poem), when you ask yourself, “what am I going on about here?  What’s all this writing really trying communicate?”  I think when I ask myself that question, I tend to allow the poem, and the objects in the poem, to make themselves clear in whatever way seems most right, whether that is through symbolic (or metaphoric) gesture, or through dialogue.

And, yes,