2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Interview by Katie Peterson
Katie Peterson: You’ve been writing a long time, and you’re a legendary ambassador for poetry. How did you feel when you found out you were nominated?
Tim Seibles: When I first heard that I’d been nominated, of course, there was a period of disbelief. I’d never really thought about actually being a finalist for such a prestigious award. I’d missed the official phone call because I was out of town, so my first notifications came as text messages from friends. (I had been discussing poetry with a class at The Nichols School in Buffalo, NY, when I noticed my phone vibrating repeatedly in my pocket.) As I came to accept the news as true, I was thrilled, but somewhat overwhelmed. It’s an amazing thing to have your efforts acknowledged in such a way.
KP: Memorable poems in your book are in “traditional” poetic forms, like the ode (“Ode to Sleep” and “Ode to Hands”), and the more restrictive French form, the villanelle (“Kiss My Villanelle”). How would you describe your relationship with form?
TS: Though I am primarily a free verser, I love traditional forms. I was first drawn to odes while reading Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Watermelon.” And, of course, after that, the others that he wrote. He seemed to be riffing on verbal possibilities like a jazz saxophonist—so playful and passionate. His work was truly liberating. I love the singingness of the villanelle. The form wants to sing, the refrains, the rhyme, the metrical regularity. What draws me back to that form is the idea of shaping speech until it edges over the border into song.
KP: When did you figure out that you wanted to write poetry?
TS: I was 19 years old taking my first creative writing class with Michael Ryan, a recent Yale Series of Younger Poets winner. I had initially thought I would pursue fiction (and I still find fiction utterly wonderful), but Ryan was so passionate when he read poems to us that I found myself wanting to feel words the way he felt words. I wanted to be awake in language the way he was awake.
KP: Lyric poetry traditionally occupies a moment in time. In many of the poems of Fast Animal, you speak about the difficulty of holding on to the moment. I’m thinking of the ending of “The Last Poem About Race,” where you call the present tense, “just a song / that’s really over by the time it begins.” What do you think is the relationship between poetry and time?
TS: To a certain extent, I believe that poetry’s relationship to time is something like photography’s relationship to time. A poem, generally speaking, wants to capture the instant when something is seen, clearly felt, deeply understood, just like a photograph wants to hold onto such instants. However, poetry lives in time like music. Moving through a poem requires actual minutes, and there’s the feeling that the reader has traveled and landed somewhere else, feeling differently, knowing something new. A poem obliges us to take time to read it, but can also invite us to suspend the normal parameters of time and be carried who-knows-where in memory or imagination.
KP: In many of your poems you use short lines, repetition of simple phrases, and spacings that indicate a break or a pause in the middle of the line. You are an excellent reader of your own work. What do you want readers to experience with the book, but without you? What are you trying to preserve on the page?
TS: I would like to believe that the choices I make regarding line breaks, stanza breaks, and caesuras will give readers some idea of a poem’s pacing—its hesitations and its hurries—because pacing is part of the poem’s tone and, therefore, part of the way a poem makes its meaning(s). Lines and stanzas also reveal emphases, adding sonic weight to a word/phrase or diminishing the semantic force of a particular word/phrase. Beyond this, I want someone to be able to read my poems aloud with a reasonably clear sense of how I heard them in my own head. In this respect, the shape of a poem on the page is something like sheet music.
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2006), and two forthcoming collections, The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013) and Permission (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2014). The recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, she is Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University.