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, I think these are versions of persona poems (or, at least, the inanimate objects that speak and think are characters, just as much as the people in the poems are characters).

I’m not sure where this comes from.  I was recently remembering how, when I was very young, I used to imagine that all kinds of objects in my bedroom had feelings—even picture frames and radios and old coins.  As a result, I would try to treat them well.  Who knows?  It seems like that impulse has remained (though I don’t always treat them well anymore).

AP: These poems also seem to play with genre. How do other genres or kinds of storytelling impact your work?

KP: I am interested in the idea that narrative writers—writers of stories or narrative poems—don’t just dictate series of events.  Instead, they actively manipulate the passage of time, slowing time down here, speeding it up there, offering competing timestreams side-by-side, collapsing an instant of time into lyric meditation.  Readers of narrative poetry experience time in simultaneously competing ways—the passage of time for the reader reading the narrative poem is always different from the passage of time within the narrative poem.  This, to my thinking, is an essential component of what makes narrative poetry different from lyric poetry. So, yes, I love the idea of working in multiple timelines at once, offering the same story from various, sometimes non-human perspectives.  I’m sure my beginnings as a fiction writer sharpened this interest for me.

AP: Given some of the playfulness in terms of genre and perspective we’ve been discussing, I’m also intrigued by moments in which a more “confessional” first-person speaker slips into these poems. How do you see this speaker in relation to the poems’ search for intimacy, as between parents and children or between lovers? Is this also a question of finding a balance between an intimate and a more removed narrator?

KP: I think so, yes.  I do worry about that balance a lot, as well as the seductiveness of voices that seem intimate or lovestruck, but that are also perhaps a little threatening, or that speak from the distances of God.  And, yes, it’s good to keep “confessional” in quotation marks.  I enjoy the performance of confessional voices, of voices that seem to be whispering intimately into the ear of a reader—but I’m not really capable of writing directly about myself.  Almost everything in How He Loved Them (which is mostly a book of fictional love poems) comes from the same imagined space that fiction writers draw from—invented situations and imagined characters.  I begin almost every poem, thinking, what if such-and-such happened?  Now how would someone react to that? And how might this person tell this story?  And who might he be telling it to?

AP: I’m intrigued by the way you talk about the way objects mean in a poem and how that might relate to a youthful habit to treating objects as if they’re alive. Do you think writing in this way (or maybe writing poetry in general) arises from having a compassionate, inquisitive outlook on the world?

KP: I think that having an imagination is helpful when it comes to writing poems – and compassion is a form of imagination.  That is, in order to have compassion for another person (or thing), one must be able to imagine that person’s (or thing’s) circumstances, feelings, and interior space.   I’m not sure compassion is an absolute requirement for writing poetry well, though that’s a very interesting question. I think imagination is a requirement.

Most of the good poems that I encounter involve, to a large degree, a poet (and, generally, a speaker within a poem) wrestling with great questions that are, essentially, unanswerable. A poet who thinks he’s got the answers in his poem is usually either not asking very interesting questions or writing bad (didactic or sentimental) poetry.  Considering big questions—about, perhaps, the nature of God or the complexities of love or mortality—requires a degree of inquisitiveness on the part of the poet.  There’s no requirement that a poem come to vast conclusions.  Often, reframing the question—understanding its complexities, its polyvalence, the many paths that exist within it—is enough.  That kind of thinking certainly requires inquisitiveness (if not always, necessarily, compassion).

AP: You mention starting out as a fiction writer. Over the course of your career, what has drawn you to write poetry in addition to (or instead of) prose? Are there certain aspects of poetic form that appeal to you in particular or that suit your purposes better than prose?

KP: I did start in fiction, and still publish the occasional mystery.  But I grew to love poetry for the surgically precise tools available to it, tools that are not available to prose:  The tool of the poetic line, and all the devices of rhythm, meter, caesura, and break; the tool of white space, and the way white space can suggest the inner workings of a moving mind that rests, for a moment, in unarticulated thought before thought bursts into words; the tool of poetic music.

In my time as a publishing poet, I’ve focused most on learning how these tools available only to poets might be applied to the art of story telling—that is, what happens to narrative (and the rendered flow of narrative time) under the influence of the music and silences available to poetry?  I know that poets have been working on this question for thousands of years—but it still seems vital and exciting to me, especially (I suspect) because I came to poetry through story.

AP: How He Loved Themis your seventh poetry collection. How do you think about making a manuscript distinct from previous ones? Does this happen naturally? Do you have advice for emerging writers about how to transition between projects?

KP: I think change comes naturally.  I’ve never tried to reinvent myself as a poet, especially not between books.  I think most poets evolve and change and grow as they read and rethink the way poetry might be employed as a way of understanding and thinking about the world.  The change is glacial, though—that is, I write the same poem over and over again, and destroy most of the bad ones (I hope).  If one book seems different from the previous book, it’s the result of a lot of slow change.  It’s hard to give advice about this to emerging writers, because there are so many ways writers approach poetry.  But I think maybe it’s best not to ask “h