August … the dog days of summer. Unless, of course, your name is Dan Manchester and you’ve written a compendium of verse titled In Love with Love and Lousy Poetry—in which case, the hottest month of the year just ain’t a problem. The beast you’re really wrestling with is love … and lousy poetry. The combination is a true nemesis—and has been the undoing of many a good man.
That said, I believe Dan is engaging in a bit of hyperbole here. His poetry is anything but “lousy,” and we’re here to bear testament. That, in any case, is my belief and my hope.
As we always do at the start, let’s take a look at Dan’s bio:
RRB:Before we get to the three poems I’ve selected from In Love with Love and Lousy Poetry, let’s spend a couple of minutes on your piece “Prayer,” which I found on the Web at the Burnside Review.
The subject of this poem is a rather delicate one, and I believe you’ve handled it exceedingly well. Would you now be comfortable talking about it, or would you prefer just to let the piece speak for itself?
DTM:I wrote “Prayer” in the winter of 2001-2002, during my first year of graduate school. My cousin, Rachael, was at the end of her battle with a stem cell brain tumor; her condition had gotten to a point where it was obvious to all involved where things were headed. I was living in Indiana and feeling very far away from my family in Rhode Island. Rachael was sixteen when she died that Thanksgiving (2002, in the early morning of the holiday). I’d had two friends in high school who’d also lost out to cancer at about that same age, so the combination of these two situations—separated by nearly a decade—came to overlap for me, emotionally. Even my dreams at the time were often of high school. It’s little wonder the two also overlapped in my writing.
I grew up in the Northeast, on the shore—so waves and snow are two things that bring me home. My thesis at IU wound up being about the general idea of loss—something I still write about almost by default—with Rachael at its center. That I wrote this particular poem before she’d even died unsettled me initially. It took me a while to realize I hadn’t actually written it for her. This thought occurred to me at precisely the moment I wrote the line people always ask me about, by the way—“I’ve pissed her profile in snow banks.” It’s a memory, though it’s not really mine. I took it wholesale from a high school friend who, while drunk, was trying to bring our dead friend to a party—an amusing gesture that quickly lost its humor. Inserting that line was both an acknowledgment and an attempt to remove any hint of sentimentality—a temptation I’m constantly at battle with. The allusion to lying, at the end of the piece, is something I also felt was necessary: namely, as recognition of the fact that while she was like a sister, and I’ve called her my sister—not only in this one poem but in others (all throughout my first manuscript, in fact)—she really wasn’t.
RRB:Thanks, Dan, for the personal revelation. It’s a well-constructed piece. ‘Nough said.
Take us now, if you will, through the following poems from your folio. I’ve chosen three (from a total of fourteen) only because I have limited time and space in which to conduct this interview. I hope you can understand.
At the same time, I think these three might be representative of the entire work. If you disagree, by all means say so. In any case, please give us some background to these pieces.
Let’s take them one at a time and let you fill in the blanks following each.
DTM:“In Love with Love and Lousy Poetry” is, at its heart, an extended poem about my relationship with poetry. I jokingly refer to it as ‘my big breaking-up-with-poetry poem. Though my relationship with poetry really did feel like a break-up leading up to when I wrote this poem—as in missing it; hating it; being confused by it; pulling out pictures of it late at night and sighing. About four years ago, and after I’d left graduate school, I more or less stopped writing poetry. I even stopped reading poems for the most part. I was living in Kyrgyzstan, working at the American University Central Asia, writing what would become a terrible novel, thinking I’d write only prose forever after. Then, in 2007, having moved back to the U.S. and still not speaking to poetry, as it were, Brad Davis, editor of The Broken Bridge Review, very kindly asked me if I’d consider being what he called the guinea pig poet for the Review’s new folio series. Their annual review was moving to a quarterly single-author folio, and he wanted a first one that would sort of solidify the idea for others—as folios are something of a publishing mystery between the broadsheet and the chapbook. Brad was my first writing teacher in high school and has been a great friend over the years, so of course I said yes—which meant I was stuck thinking about poetry again.
Not much happened for months. Then, one night, feeling the pressure that I was eventually going to have to give him something much sooner than I would’ve liked, I just forced myself to start writing. I’d been re-reading Daniel Nester’s two God Save My Queen books, so initially it was all music-related and in prose. (I was at first trying to do with 80s hip hop what he has so wonderfully done for Queen. It was something of a mess, as you might imagine.) This went on for a few weeks. I’d made some arbitrarily-sized text boxes and would write to fit them. There were dozens of these boxes. Over time, I ditched the ones that were pure gibberish and honed in on others that had images I liked, or lines I liked the sound of. Then, I lined them all up in a single file and tried to make sense of them as a whole. There was the hint of a narrative, so I started exploring that. Several weeks later, I had a poem in seventeen prose parts that detailed the rise and fall of a relationship. I sent it to some friends who read for me, and one of them kindly suggested that at least three parts were rubbish—and that if I got it down to fourteen parts, I could play with the structure of a sonnet. A sonnet seemed fitting given the subject matter, so I did. Shortly after that, the line breaks came in. I love prose poems and have published and written a bunch, but the line as individual unit is the one thing that always interests me with poetry; so it was likely inevitable that in writing about my relationship with poetry, I’d write in verse. Once that was all in place, the short-lined couplets with the single end line structure took shape, and the bigger narrative fleshed itself out.
As for Part 5, specifically, there was somewhere in the prose blocks an image of a person lying fully dressed in a bathtub—a reference to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, and weirdly repeating blood images. That all somehow came together to mean an STD test for me. It’s part of most adult relationships—or can be—and it fit the larger narrative and the imagery, so I went with it. Plus, some of the ideas I was playing with throughout the whole poem were: What effect do we have on one another in the other’s absence? How can someone you love, absent, control you? How can something you fear without cause take hold of you? How can these unseen others immobilize us or soothe us, depending on the situation? All of this is how I’d been feeling about poetry for years, and it seemed to work pretty nicely within the space of a trip to the clinic.
RRB:Thanks, Dan, for that quite thorough explanation. And now, on to #9.
DTM:I was still working on the poem in the summer of 2008, many months after I’d started it. That June and July, I taught at the Broken Bridge Summer Arts Workshops, which is a residential program for high school-aged artists. I was having trouble on the initial turn in the narrative, the moment just before and just after the actual break-up. One morning at Broken Bridge, I gave my students a “How To” poem as a writing prompt—and that night, I wrote a first draft of this section. There had always seemed to me to be a sort of violence to the moment when one person knows he’s done and the other doesn’t—a sort of unintentionally hurtful selfishness—and when it finally reveals itself, it really has no choice but to wound.
DTM:This is the only section of the poem I didn’t specifically write for the folio. As I said, I was stuck trying to figure out how to deal with the moments around the break-up in the larger narrative. Like the unintentional violence that precedes a break-up, I find there’s always a second-guessing in the fallout—no matter which side of the divide one is on.
I’d written this, I believe, in 2005. It already had a lot of the elements at play in the larger poem, and it fit so nicely that I re-wrote it to work. The music floating in through the window, for instance, was in the original version of the poem and echoed the earlier music floating into the bathroom so perfectly it was obvious it could fit. I stole the Al Green story from a friend who’d actually had the misfortune of spending a night in a Georgia drunk tank with an old homeless guy singing “Love and Tenderness” for hours in a constant loop. It was a story that always stuck with me, as it’s both awful and amazing. I knew for a long time I would use it somewhere, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. The one major change I made between the version published in 2006 and the version that became Part 10 of the folio was the final line. Originally, it read “…there are times when a song shouldn’t end.” I had to beat down all of that pesky hopefulness and optimism in order for the section to work in the larger poem. There’s obviously just no room for good cheer and a positive outlook in something called “In Love with Love and Lousy Poetry.”
RRB:No, Dan, there isn’t. But you’ve given us plenty to cheer and feel positive about with your folio. I, for one, like the lay-out purely from an aesthetic perspective. Poetry sleeps well in folio form. And we, as a result of yours, will sleep well tonight.
I thank you.
Dan Manchester was educated at Skidmore College and Indiana University. He is a former co-director of the Broken Bridge Summer Arts Workshops, a former high school English teacher, and a former line cook who currently earns his living as a freelance marketing and PR consultant. He is also editor of Suss: Another Literary Journal and LS&S Press. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Barrelhouse, Puerto Del Sol, Mississippi Review, Octopus, Quick Fiction, Flyway, Burnside Review, Sentence, Indiana Review, Poet Lore and elsewhere. Broken Bridge Review published his poem “In Love with Love and Lousy Poetry” as a single-author folio in early 2009. He currently lives in Rhode Island.
I woke my whole childhood to the sound of waves
and silently counted one tide to the next
the rest of the day. I went to sleep those years
watching stars wash up the beach. I can't remember
my sister's smell, which was something
like the woods surrounding our cabin in Maine
when the sun is sinking as she sets the table for dinner,
but I fully recall the feel of her cheek in my hand.
After they'd snaked a shunt from her thigh
to her brainstem, I played with the scar,
said "caterpillar" and watched for a response.
Eventually, I'll pile these sheets of paper
high enough. The morning of her funeral I watched
a sunrise colored less of a bruise, more of urine
left to stale overnight in the bowl. I searched
the sky reflected in the casket handle for a cloud
shaped like her face. I've held her cheeks in my hands,
made the mouth between smile. I've told her stories
to strangers in first person. There are no good poems
to read at a sixteen-year-old's funeral. I can
remember tides, bows of her Christmas presents,
the last strands of hair, wind on my cheek
that night, each cigarette for two years, singing
Aretha to keep her up one more hour. I can't yet
remember enough. Alone and drunk, I've pissed
her profile in snow banks. For years I've heard her
telling me not to cry, to sing some more. Every day
I calmly risk my life to stop from lying.
I left you laid out fully dressed
in my bathtub singing along
to the neighbors’ country
floating through open windows.
They’re stuck that week
on classics: Patsy, Hank…
It could be worse. Some
mistakes we feel at our neck
like warm breath, others
we lug around like a second body.
It took the nurse three tries
to find a vein. Then
blood. One week she says
We’ll call, you’ll come.
I can’t be positive, but
it’ll be okay. So stand up,
undress, start the shower.
Imagine me washing your back,
my other hand firm at your hip.
~First published in Ariel (#28, Spring, 2009) as "Free Clinic Lullaby"
I wake that next morning
demanding myself: go silent
as acetate, as a needle
to no record, as kisses
blown within a crowd.
Refuse explication, refuse
conversation, refuse, refuse.
How you compose leaving
is important as the fading
chords of doors slammed
shut in the aftermath.
Do not cringe. Wait
before saying too soon.
Wait to define this
ingrained sense of order
and place, before you
unveil your panic. Hint
at absence in the abstract
by pointing out a passing
child’s lost tooth, dusty
hollows of books gone
missing from the shelf.
Look away when she cries,
think firm as mountaintops,
steady as snipers.
~First published in Puerto del Sol (44.2, Summer, 2009)
as "How To Survive the Turn"
I’d have left whole shirtsleeves
behind. My shoes, an artery, anything.
I wandered the bathtub
this morning over an hour, water
hot as I could stand it. Al Green
floated in from the neighbors’
like one of Chagall’s goats.
There’s a question I’m avoiding,
an answer perhaps. I’ve forgotten
the word resentment twice this week;
other times it sticks to me
like that night in a Georgia jail
listening to another drunk sing
“Love & Tenderness” midnight
to morning. I still see him
there – red pants, no shirt, shoes
blown out, hair matted to one side.
His voice was perfect Reverend,
spot-on and soulful, still
moving five hours in, even
when my own drunk went stale
and my head begged to split.
I’m not saying our life together
is a prison cell – metaphors
have crumbled under less.
I’m only saying there are times
a song should end.
~published in Burnside Review (2.2, Spring, 2006) as "Love Poem Dressed in Elegy."