William Carlos Williams famously wrote that, “…It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” I think of that when I read poems like those written by Travis Mossotti, which have been catching attention and raising eyebrows for years thanks to their blend of gritty lyricism and punchy, plainspoken social commentary. Mossotti was kind enough to share some poems, advice, and good news for anyone who likes to read stuff that rocks.
In This Issue:
Michael: Leapfrog and The Proposal makes excellent use of sound and tactile imagery. Can you comment on the role that imagery has in your poetry? Does sound trump story or is this something you decide on a poem-by-poem basis?
Travis: Poems always seem to lilt slightly towards sound or image, content or form. I think we strive as poets to balance as best we can, but the poem always takes us where it needs to go.
I often come across poets who treat poems like leashed dogs, and they do so at the peril of the poetry. Their work seems especially overwrought and brittle, like the slightest wind could undo the whole thing.
M: On a related note, can you comment on the inspiration behind Sunny Side Cafe?
T: I was reading Levis at the time. I wrote it in a hotel room in Denver on November, 17th 2008, while my wife attended a conference. There is an actual Sunny Side Café, I’ve been to it, and there were men and women there, usually in the morning for breakfast—families. I pulled them all out of central casting.
M: Both Big and Putting Money First strike me as political poems. Can you comment on the place that poetry has in today’s society? More specifically, can you tell us how you avoid the dangers of preaching to the choir?
T: Poetry is where it always has been: comfortably on the fringe. I don’t think that gives the poet license to disregard the possibility of a more mainstream audience. I write poems that any literate, English-speaking person can understand. Still, there’s always this urge to bring poetry to a more mainstream audience, and of course there are those moments where it does happen, but I’m more interested in writing: the Poetry Foundation has more time and resources anyway.
With regards the whole preaching to the choir dilemma, I don’t see this as a problem. Poems are made things, fabricated like end tables or locomotives. For better or worse, they are representatives of a particular time and space within a particular culture operating with a particular historical perspective and they reflect certain tendencies. They are artifacts not ambassadors. I won’t pretend I’m building bridges. Nor do I feel it’s a purely rhetorical gesture to state something clearly for the record.
M: Though you and I never had classes together, we both attended Southern Illinois University. Lately, I’ve been talking to a lot of former students about graduate school.
Obviously, MFA programs don’t guarantee literary success, but what do you see as their value in today’s ultra-competitive literary scene?
T: Good MFA programs give us time to write and a built-in community. Writing is lonely enough—those MFA programs let us feel a little more connected to the universe for two or three years, and that is an admirable service.
MFA programs (and professors like Rodney Jones, Allison Joseph and Judy Jordan) also make clear that the only competition in the literary scene is the fantasy of competition we create in our heads. A good MFA program breeds work ethic, dogged persistence, and unshakable confidence in the face of seemingly insurmountable rejection.
Do you know that I’ve saved up every paper rejection letter I’ve ever gotten back in the mail? I have them bundled up with rubber bands. I look through them occasionally when I’m feeling sentimental.
M: Tell us about your new book! Also, any new projects in the works?
T: My forthcoming collection of poems Field Study is written in the tradition of American naturalist writers, and it follows carnivore recovery efforts from Yellowstone to the Outer Banks. It’s coming out in October, 2014 with Bona Fide Books (a press out of Lake Tahoe, CA that prints beautiful books), and I’m honored they selected it as the winner of the 2013 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize.
I have another collection of poems searching for a publisher, another one etherized on the revision table, and a host of other things that are far too vulnerable to mention here.