In This Issue:
If you’re here, count yourself lucky because this month, we’re bringing you five poems from writer/editor/teacher/musician, Tom Hunley. Tom’s fourth full-length collection, Plunk, is due out from Wayne State College Press in September 2014. He’s the co-editor, with Alexandria Peary, of Creative Writing Studies: An Introduction to Its Pedagogies (forthcoming in Fall 2014 from Southern Illinois University Press). Garrison Keillor has also read three of his poems on The Writer’s Almanac. And if that weren’t enough, he’s also the bassist for the litcore rock band, Manley Pointer. Oh, and in the following interview, completely by chance, he references the 80s song that is known to make me dance with great, terrible earnest, regardless of my sobriety level. Let the fun begin.
Michael: I was absolutely blown away by the ending of Eight Bits Usually Equals One Byte. I love the build-up and the juxtaposition throughout the poem’s narrative, too. Tell me, how does poetry influence your teaching, and vice versa?
Tom: Teaching is a big part of my life, and we all write about our lives. Occasionally it shapes the content of my poems, as in “Eight Bits,” but mostly it challenges my ideas about how to write. I write along with my students when I can, so I try to create prompts that inspire me and will hopefully inspire them. Also my students are so imaginative, so full of reckless abandon, that I often leave class wanting to write with the kind of energy, idealism, and fearlessness that I see in their work.
M: I really enjoyed the mix of references in Speechless like Michael Cain, which give it a broader sense of meaning and feel. More specifically, though, do you have a certain aesthetic when it comes to love poems? What compelled you to include such varied references to astronomy, Hollywood, the Holocaust, etc?
T: I wrote that poem while teaching a group of students at the Meacham Writer’s Conference in Chattanooga, TN last year. I had introduced them to the “encyclopedic braid” exercise in my book, The Poetry Gymnasium. We brainstormed a list of quirky and intriguing facts, and then each of us tried to connect as many of those facts as possible in an original poem. For me, the pivot line was “What’s my line again?” attributed first to Michael Cain upon first seeing Heath Ledger in Batman costume, and then attributed to a younger me, seeing my future wife at a party. I didn’t set out for it to be a love poem, but I think when we’re engaging with language, our unconscious minds tend to fill in the content for us; our obsessions emerge in the writing without us consciously beckoning them.
M: Speaking of Falls has some really beautifully lyricism! Particularly when your poems steer more towards language than narrative, what serves as their genesis?What line or image birthed this poem?
T: I remember that it was almost Halloween, and my three boys were excitedly looking forward to a night of trick-or-treating. Also my students and I were reading James Tate, whose poems have a way of casting their stylistic spell on their readers.
M: Goodnight Milhouse is one of my new favorite pieces, given how it takes a peripheral character from The Simpsons (and part of our collective entertainment subconscious) and infuses him with an even greater, oddly affecting sense of tragicomedy. Can you comment on why you chose a flash-type format instead of a longer, lineated poem? Did you try multiple forms before you settled on this one?
T: In the episode “A Milhouse Divided,” Kirk Van Houten bitterly complains that his ex-wife tells their son bedtime stories about what a loser Kirk is. It seemed natural for this one to be a prose poem, because it is largely modeled on some of my sons’ favorite bedtime stories, such as Where The Wild Things Are, The Runaway Bunny, and Goodnight Moon.
M: Speaking of, Milhouse Van Houten is another poem that adds additional depth and dimension to the Simpsons character and would function, I think, even in the unlikely event that the reader weren’t already familiar with the specific character you’re referencing. What do you take to be the risks and/or benefits of pop culture references in poetry?
T: Obviously the risk is that the poems will feel dated, especially after the poem goes off the air. The benefit is the recognition factor. I don’t have to spend a lot of time on exposition; I can leap right into each character’s mind without having to spend a lot of time introducing the character. The other great benefit is that, paradoxically, writing as someone else has helped me be a lot more open and honest in my writing. With each character, I look for some aspect of their personality that connects with my personal issues. For example, when I write about Milhouse’s parents getting divorced, I’m really writing about my parents’ divorce. And when I write about Milhouse missing his father and learning by trial and error how to become manly himself, well that’s taken straight out of my life too.
M: Any new projects in the works? In other news, what’s your favorite bad 80s song?
T: I’ll probably be working on The State That Springfield Is In (my Simpsons poems) for a while. I don’t know what I’ll follow that with. My favorite bad 80s song? I don’t know about bad, but when I heard “Come On Eileen” for the first time, I was sure that Dexy’s Midnight Runners would be bigger than The Beatles.
Photo By: Nick Traveller