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7 Questions for Temple Cone

PUBLISHED: July 7, 2010

Temple Cone, an associate professor of English at the United States Naval Academy, has published a book of poems and five chapbooks. He is now finishing a book of ghazals, from which five poems appear in our summer issue. His poetry has appeared in publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, storySouth, and the Beloit Poetry Journal. Here, he meditates on music, haiku, scholarship, and the natural world.

1. Your poems in this issue are full of classical musicians and references to music. How does music interact with your writing?
Well, music and poetic form are rather close: in both cases, you’re dealing with abstractions that nevertheless have sensuous effects. So it doesn’t surprise me that Dante and Olivier Messiaen appear together in one of my poems; they both create complex yet utterly efficient structures that are themselves expressive and meaningful. Perhaps the surprise is that more musicians don’t show up! I happen to have been interested in classical music from an early age, but I’m fairly ecumenical in my taste; Vic Chesnutt and Henry Purcell share equal time on my iPod.

Or were you wondering about the practical matter of writing to music? I can say that I find it difficult to write with much noise at all, let alone music. That’s not the case when I’m revising, though the music usually can’t be vocal (unless it’s a language I don’t understand). Counterpoint and complex structures really draw me, so Bach is all over my iPod, but I also like the rhythms of 20th century composers like Peter Warlock, Messiaen, John Tavener, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Part. One of my favorite recent pieces is Eleni Karaindrou’s Ulysses’ Gaze, which is very somber and haunting, but reassuring, too.

2. All five of the poems have the same form—a special three-line ghazal. The poems also share an easy familiarity with the range of Western artistic tradition, from Mozart to Messiaen, King Proteus to Kierkegaard. Did the form and content of these poems appear organically in the first draft, or did they come about in later revisions?
The form was there from the beginning, but something about it gave me permission to deal with the content. I’ve always been attracted to the classical ghazal’s incantatory and phantasmagoric properties (they appeal to my inner Coleridge, I suppose), but the form seemed unnecessarily tidy and tight, even prissy. These modified ghazals lengthen the traditional couplets to tercets and fix the number of stanzas at six, sometimes with, sometimes without, the refrain word at the end of each stanza that tethers the poem’s associative leaps of the imagination. They feel bigger and shaggier, with more room for wild associations than the classical ghazal, and as soon as I started writing them, I felt free to slip the lyric mode of my earlier poems, with their sense of a stable self and their attention to image and emotional experience. What’s ironic is that these poems ‘sound’ a lot more like what’s going on in my head much of the time. That may be the ‘easy familiarity with the range of Western artistic tradition’ you’re talking about, though your phrase is entirely too generous and makes me sound far savvier than I am. Hemingway had his “grace under pressure”; these poems may be “dabbling under pressure.”

I began writing these ghazals a few years ago, and have completed a book-length manuscript since, though I continue to write new poems in the form. They’re weird and wild to write; I won’t claim to be taking dictation from angels as Blake did, but sometimes they seem to arise quite of their accord. I think the way I write them speaks to the way they range and rove. I rise early—a little before 4 AM—and do as little as possible to rouse myself—no newspaper, no computer, no coffee (not always!). Sitting on the couch, I write whatever came to mind, be that an abstraction, an image, a mangled quotation, whatever, no matter how strange or disconnected from my waking thoughts. Usually I’m too tired to judge what I’ve written, and that makes it easier to start asking questions—about where the line is going; about what other images, phrases, or words could cohabit with it; how I might top it rhetorically; etc. The drafts are varied, copious, and always surprising, since I often can’t quite remember writing them. Sometimes I draft two or three poems in a couple of hours and revise them over the next couple of weeks; sometimes I end up with drafts of stanzas that develop into new poems a few days later; sometimes I write a poem with scarcely an edit.

3. These poems are very interested in the natural world, in mayflies and hummingbirds. At the same time, there is an implicit criticism of such naturalistic poetry, with the line “[t]here is no end to the rabble of poets who write about butterflies.” What do you consider to be your relationship with the natural world?
At home, and not at home. I know what it’s like to be inspired by the natural world, to want to capture that moment of awe or wonder in a poem, but I’m wary of all that happens between the initial encounter and the final revision. It’s too easy to make nature a proxy for the self. There’s an early poem by Robert Hass, “On the Coast Near Sausalito,” where he writes that “it’s strange to kill / for the sudden feel of life. / The danger is / to moralize / that strangeness.” That captures it for me: an experience of nature that is at once intuitive yet highly self-conscious and guarded about its intentions. I guess you could call it a scientific attitude, one that is appreciative, admiring, inquisitive, analytical, and skeptical all at once. I politely disagree with Wordsworth that “we murder to dissect”; I think scientific knowledge intensifies reverence and de-sentimentalizes our attitudes towards nature, which are really just attitudes about ourselves. My wife is a botanist, and several of our friends are ecologists, and simply by being in their company I have learned many things about the flora and fauna of the regions where I’ve lived. That education has made me intimate with my surroundings, and such intimacy has fostered greater reverence and respect than if I’d simply kept an Emersonian view of nature as a temple of the heart. Once you understand what deer overpopulation can do to woodland orchid populations, for instance, you stop being soft-hearted about hunting, especially in the absence of large predators.

I shouldn’t cast stones, though, for my own poems have often treated nature as a place of spiritual instruction and rejuvenation, and I don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to engage the world this way. Indeed, such poetry can move people learn to care about nature in the first place; here I agree with what Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude, that the things of this world “through the turnings intricate of verse, / Present themselves as objects recognized, / In flashes, and with glory not their own.” But I think a dangerous complacency sets in if we regard nature too long as a spiritual text, if we look out at woods, rivers, plains, and whatnot, and come to see only our own values manifest.

4. You write a column for Daily Haiku and refer to Kobayashi Issa in “The Rest of Silence.” How does haiku affect your style?
I’ve been reading haiku for years, ever since I found a copy of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North at summer camp when I was thirteen (I still have it, along with my guilt about its theft). But I didn’t begin writing haiku seriously until a few years ago, and when I say seriously, I mean with a full commitment to the traditions of that mode. Too often, the haiku that I wrote early on were simply three-line versions of what I was already doing in my longer lyric poems. But haiku isn’t really a form into which you can squeeze any subject, emotion, or experience. It’s a stance, really, a bit like zazen, the Zen sitting meditation in which attention to form is, in a sense, the spiritual content of the practice. And when I started writing them in earnest, I realized that a lot of the poems I thought were haiku were in fact senryu, another three-line mode in which the subject isn’t nature but human nature. That discovery was a bit of egg on the face for the college English professor, let me tell you. But I’m grateful to haiku for making me a beginner again: for all the publications I might claim, I’m still the person I was when I started writing poems fifteen years ago, can still fail wretchedly, can still exhilarate at the least moment of grace. I think Issa would laugh at me, and then with me, on that count.

As for how haiku affects my style: I could offer any number of familiar observations about the importance of image, compression, or diction in haiku, and they’d all be true, but the unexpected benefit is how haiku demands that one work with grammatical incompleteness. There’s just not a lot of room in three lines and seventeen or fewer syllables, so all sorts of grammatical connections have to be jettisoned. In a way, the associative leaps of the long-lined ghazals dispense with connections, too (logical, if not grammatical), by stretching the bonds between images, lines, or stanzas beyond easily explicable limits (how’d I get from Shakespeare to Wile E. Coyote?). I actually began writing these haiku at the same time that I started writing the long-lined ghazals, and it’s interesting to go back over my journals and see tiny haiku paired with sprawling, messy, eighteen-line poems that run from margin to margin. It’s a real Mutt and Jeff relationship.

5. As a holder of both an MFA in creative writing and PhD in English literature, how do you balance your scholarly work with your creative work? Does synergy occur?
Creative writing and scholarship have not always been cooperative practices for me. The kind of openness I need to create images, play with words, and make associative connections below or beyond my rational mind is often at odds with the logical analysis, rhetorical clarity, and balancing of others’ arguments that scholarship demands. Yet poetry and scholarship are both ways for me to engage with literature and with the world at large. Sometimes I feel like an ambidextrous pitcher who can change pitching hands between games but not between innings. I can say that poets I’ve written articles about—Robinson Jeffers, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, Denise Levertov, Ciaran Carson—engaged me first as a fellow poet, one drawn to image and rhythm and voice, so deeply, perhaps, that my research was simply an extension of my excitement about their work. Scholarship, in turn, exposes me to writers, moments of history, bodies of thought, and odd sorts of information I’m not sure I’d have encountered or sought out otherwise (like that bit about Hamlet’s O-moans that I mention in “The Rest of Silence”).

6. What projects are you planning for the future?
Well, I just learned that my second book, The Broken Meadow, received the 2010 Old Seventy Creek Poetry Prize, so I’ll be (enthusiastically!) involved with that for a while. Meanwhile, I’m trying to find a publisher for the book of ghazals, which is tentatively titled Tangofugue, though I’m also still writing poems in that mode. I’ve also been experimenting with formal(ish) poems that make use of this weird voice that sounds really familiar to me—downhome, educated, embittered, and enraptured. These new poems are all about eros, faith, dialect, and the rural landscape of the South. They ask what it means to be devoted: to a spouse, to a child, to an upbringing, to a locale, to a life of poetry, to the divine. I’ve written a bunch of them, and though I’ve got a sense of a broader sequence in which they fit together, I’m more interested in writing the next one, and the next one after that. It’s like what Creeley wrote: “drive, he sd, for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going.”

7. What have you been reading lately?
Summer is the time to soak up all the books I don’t get to read during the year, when I’m more narrowly focused on the books I teach in class and on recent poetry. The books currently scattered around my house are themselves a bit scattered in content: Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; George Eliot’s Middlemarch; James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599; Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations; and Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. I’m also eagerly awaiting the release of Alan Furst’s new spy novel. As far as scholarship goes, I’m doing some research on a fine play by John Patrick Shanley, Defiance (so I’m reading a number of Vietnam Era histories) and finishing a reference book on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is so miserable (though beautiful) a book that I can only take solace in the lightest confections of all: P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. As for recent poetry, I’ve really enjoyed Kevin McFadden’s Hardscrabble, Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, and Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, and I’m rereading a beautiful, heartening, and savagely funny book by a friend and former classmate of mine, Deborah Slicer’s The White Calf Kicks.

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