A Conversation with Poet A. E. Watkins: The Metamorphosis of a Manuscript

By David Blomenberg, Reviews Editor

Moving from a collection of various poems to a book manuscript is a strange, intuitive, almost spooky process.  What brings a collection together?  Recently I sat down with poet A. E. Watkins to talk with him about the genesis and metamorphosis of the manuscript of his first book, Dear, Companion, recently published by Dream Horse Press. The book is centered on Allerton Park in Illinois through the seasons while at the same time details the development of a relationship.

David Blomenberg:  You of course were publishing poems before this book.  Those are different.  What was it that told you that you were latching on a book idea here with the pieces collected here?

A. E. Watkins:  A lot of pieces didn’t make it into the book.  A whole series—I suppose they could be a chapbook—were based on The Wizard of Oz. They were really fun and some had been accepted in various places. Those were originally in the manuscript. I could’ve worked them in, but as I kept looking at the manuscript, I didn’t feel that they were really connected.  I kept thinking of ways that they could be included: there was a lot of mythology, with some very specifically tied to mythology, and others less directly so, and that could relate to the book with some of the mythological poems spread throughout.

The manuscript I sent in was very different from the book.  It had a lot of the language from the other season poems.  They weren’t all Allerton poems, but I saw things were going to get a lot more confused if I tried to force these to be Allerton poems.  So I spent a full year—I’d already hit a critical mass and just continued to work to finish the cycle. I felt like that last year was what made the book.  Lines of poems would work, but the poem wouldn’t fit.  Why couldn’t I make this work?  Couldn’t I just make this all fit into a seasonal narrative? A lot of these poems seemed to explicitly work that way.  That last year [of revision] made the manuscript, otherwise it would’ve just seemed like a mish-mash of things that had been previously published in journals.

DB:  As far as latching onto a structure where the narrative goes through the seasons, what brought you to that?

AEW:  It seems even a little trite to say, but it just worked. It could be seen as a sort of tried-and-true way, but some of the pieces pushed the edges of that, so I felt that to have this sort of structure was fine if I had some of these other poems that acted as bookmarks and pushed that envelope.  It felt like a way of creating a sense of something holistic.  So many of the poems are so engaged with the landscape. The engagement with the landscape is sort of an emotional/intellectual engagement; the seasons have a role in that—they become a lexicon of our emotionality.

In general conversation, so much of our discussion with each other about emotions takes on seasonal qualities..   When we talk about feeling gloomy, that’s both a quality of light we experience on certain days. So in this way it seemed to make sense to organize the book that way.

DB:  Just this week, I thought of your book when I was driving—one of the arresting images in the opening poems:  flocks of starlings involved in this game where they were doing horse-laps between two trees: two flocks intersecting and switching places. It was such a good representation of the relationship between the two people in the book.  Was it this image or another that formed the genesis of the book?

AEW:  The birds—I find myself talking about them all the time. friends make fun of me because I do it so much.   They move in a way that’s so fluid, and seem to mimic in their movement the way we imagine thoughts move.  Melville has a lot of examples. Stevens—with his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”…Even like going back to Donne…a long tradition as a metaphor for thought or a signifier that is loose in an interesting way, yet that is constantly running and changing. Just from reading those writers and liking what they did brought me to that as well.  I’ve always been drawn to literature and poetry that portrays thought—how thinking happens.  Literature that does that visually.  I’m a very visual person and I saw this as a great way to portray thought.

DB:  This focus on thinking, though—a century ago the Novel of Ideas was big:  the Russians, the Germans, but that sort of thing doesn’t seem terribly fashionable now.  People have even been writing articles about how the Novel of Ideas is dead.  What draws you to it here?

AEW:  I feel as though it isn’t fashionable, sure—at least something that is explicitly saying it’s so, but I think many people are still doing it anyway; they’re just sneaking it in.  If you are writing poems that are pretty abstract, how are you not already in that realm?  Ashbery does that a lot, sure, but there’s also a lot after him who do that too, that are still very much in that vein, with non sequiturs but still a thread of thought that shows the connection, the mind at work. It’s part of the game of the poem. That’s one of the interesting things about unpacking it. Even if it’s not necessarily a meditative poem, so much contemporary poetry is still about that.

DB:  So many things seem to be a moving between two poles in the books:  The birds, the towns, homes—but the Allerton poems lock a lot of this into one specific place.  Talk a bit more about that.

AEW:  Allerton was a sort of holdover that I didn’t want to let go of. I used to go there all the time when I was an undergraduate, and it’s an amazing estate, with elaborate gardens and statues based on characters from mythology. It’s not as crumbly as it was, but it still has that nostalgic decay which I find very attractive. There’s so much imagery in the book of houses falling apart, the breakdown of interior and exterior, which is another aspect of the park. All of the very constructed gardens give a sense of being inside, a sense that you are in a sort of extension of the mansion, and then you can exit the gardens to actual wilderness.  The garden becomes a sort of permeable barrier, where you are between inside and outside, which shows up especially in the Winter poems of the book. The park was so interesting to me thematically I decided to keep it. And by keeping it, it forces some sort of continuity of space that allowed moves from childhood to living in apartments to other things.

DB:  The gardens—this internal/external space runs in tandem with the building and exploration of the relationship depicted in the book…the two trees between which the starlings fly.

AEW:  What I find really interesting about the pathetic fallacy is that, sure, it’s a sort of bullshit trope, in that it can be seen as a simple projection of emotion onto a landscape, but what it actually points to is a perceived breakdown between internal and external spaces. Maybe we are both things. Maybe we are the internal in the external world. We are, to a great extent, determined by how we interact with our environment.  A lot of the structural breakdown, then, in the book, points to this breakdown between internal and external.  In the context of a relationship, you have to break down that wall.  You can’t be sheltered and insulated.  You need to think of yourself as more than just you and as something larger, and that’s tough.  It gets harder and harder to do that.  As a kid who grew up super-shy and introverted, that was hard for me.  And with the imagery—the trees breaking through into the house toward the end—it starts representing a sort of ideal for me, a merging of the two.

A. E. Watkins lectures at Purdue University. Dear, Companion is published by Dream Horse Press

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