Momentarily, he's my young father
refusing to break the news he's
and lay the groundwork for divorce. It's difficult to explain.
The mind rehearses, playing dress-up
with a life.
He cannot hook the woman, his pinkies trained
perpendicularly. A vintage dress shirt slips from the
Pulling away in the middle of a dance, dancers become
movement on a floor-off-white, chamois. In his silence,
who is she, closing her eyes, four strands of her boy's hair
combed purposefully aside, allowing the white
of her raincoat to mask him? Mother, wife, coat.
She arches her back to receive his despondent head.
up her small breasts. Soft music's at work again,
a stereo plays "Love is Tender," romancing the age.
For six months my father dressed for work and wandered
no one will ever know where, Hotel Kempinski, say,
he sat mutely in the plush barber's chair
dreaming he was as tall and modern as Peter the Great.
American Window Dressing
Half a dozen pestamals hanging on hooks,
a cuckoo clock twigged from scrap metal,
a single copy of Everyman's Haiku-
the letters pit the cover's look-at-me
moon sheen-and the poems I love
inside: spartan, semitransparent, nature's fools,
like faraway countries in full disclosure.
"Put everything into it." My father's
on Sunday visits. Man of few words.
Those were the days work took him
as far as Chungking and he sported
a straight green army coat he called
his Mao Suit. His hair was still parted
straight to one side and he could
still lift me up so that I stood eyelevel
with row after
row of ducks, like smokers'
lungs, in the restaurant windows
off Confucius Plaza-thick tar up top
swizzed into brown and rose gold.
A metal sling dug under their wings ended
in a hole the heads were put through.
Knowledge of them was terrible.
Everything looked terrible:
of bok choy noosed in rubber bands
fish laid out on ice. Terrible
things put delicately, like polite fictions
families invent. The words stand behind
great portals and are seen to yet untouchable.
After A Silvia
Mirava il ciel sereno,
Le vie dorate e gli orti,
e quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi
Remember? You used to thumb
pages of Sixteen
fixing on each snapshot of other
girls on the slopes of girlhood.
The song you
sang at school
drifted through the quiet rooms
and out the street. Vague, whatever-will-be,
May took up
the air. I dropped
my books. I shoved my papers in a drawer-
half my life sewn shut inside
my father's house-and
cupped my ear
to catch the sound of your voice
as you hauled your heavy workload home.
I'd look out at the
the bright streets, people's yards,
all the way down to the sea
and all the way up the hillside.
No words really fit what I felt.
The hopeful pitch of then.
To think of that time tightens my chest
grief ploughs through me.
Shock & blowback, tricks & masks-
why is it nothing keeps its word?
with all the lights burning in the distance?
Before winter starved the grass
or some compliment was paid
your modest, nothing-special looks,
some narrow sickness buried you.
Whatever boyhood I had
too. Old friend, is this that
world we stayed awake all night for?
Truth dropped in. Far off,
hand points the way.
-from Westerly, selected by Guest Editor Mark J. Brewin
Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews
Will Schutt is the author of Westerly
(Yale University Press, 2013), selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. A
graduate of Oberlin College and Hollins University, he is the recipient of fellowships from the James Merrill House and
the Stadler Center for Poetry. His poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Agni, FIELD, The New Republic,
The Southern Review and elsewhere. He currently lives with his wife in Wainscott, New York.
Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews
A Review of Will Schutt's Westerly by
Katharine Johnsen, first published by The
This year’s Yale Series of Younger
Poets Prize went to Will Schutt for Westerly, a collection of poems that meditate on travel and mortality, on being
led and pushed to and from the West. Schutt engages memory and its fallibilities, the elegy and possibilities that must
come with it. The speaker takes the reader on travels from a small town in Rhode Island, to Wisconsin, to the West Coast,
and to Italy.
He sets the tone of the collection with
the opening poem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” balancing the intellectual with pop culture, giving weight
to the historical patter of Billy Joel as he invokes de Sade, foreshadowing loss amidst a pleasant summer scene. In “Rock
Maple, White Pine,” he writes “Part of you is thinking this early / why ravel means entangle and disentangle
// at the same time, as if the interrogative / mood were the only concept // hanging about to hold the hour still.”
This is what Schutt gives us throughout the collection—poems that entangle and disentangle at the same time. He teasingly
complicates and simplifies in the same sentences, kindly asking the reader to consider the speaker’s observations and
declarations. In the unrhymed sonnet “A Kind of Poetry,” Schutt writes “Sometimes you turn to poetry /
the way you turn to another country. / […] / You notice things you wouldn’t / otherwise. You notice things.”
He then does exactly that in the elegantly translated mid-century Italian poems that make up the second section.
In “Crenellated Playroom,” his most heartbreaking poem
and the longest in the collection, Schutt elegizes a dear friend who died young, whose “midlife crisis / peaked in
prep school.” She is the embodiment of youth and maturity, living and elegy. In the poem, as her health fails, Laura’s
personality is vibrant; she is those contradictions embodied. As Schutt writes, “—At her sickest, whittled down
to brutal / humor only have-nots possess, grand dame / receiving guests in bed, Laura would say, / ‘That coat’s
not really your color’ or ‘I hope / she’s not at my funeral.’” She is the juxtaposition
of the serious intellectual and the democratic humorist.
Westerly, Schutt takes up estrangement. It finds its way into poems about family and fatherhood, about travel, growing
up, and loss. As Carl Phillips writes in his introduction to the collection, “we become more estranged, it seems,
not only from others but from ourselves—who we were, who we remember being, or what we think we remember, which is
different from knowing.” In the ekphrastic poem, “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,”
Schutt sees in the image his “young father…[laying] the groundwork for divorce.”
Schutt is at his best when his poems are at once intimate and confessional, traditional and restrained. His work
is personal and public, domestic and international. Even in death, the poems are full of life. He examines, then peels layers
back slowly, revealing—in stunning and accessible language—complicated and difficult truths.
Click here to read a review of Westerly in Blackbird
Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews
An Interview with Will Schutt by
Aaron Bauer: “After A Silvia” has an epigraph from Leopardi
that isn’t translated. What prompted you to keep the epigraph in the original language instead of translating? What
does keeping it in the original language add to the poem?
Will Schutt: As the title suggests,
the poem itself is an adaptation of Leopardi’s poem “A Silvia,” and the epigraph—a group of lines
from that poem—is loosely translated in the body of my adaptation: “I’d look out at the clear sky, / the
bright streets, people’s yards, / all the way down to the sea / and all the way up the hillside.” Using my own
version for the epigraph seemed redundant (and misleading, since I take many liberties with the original). Using another translator’s
version presented two problems. First, there was the problem of choosing among the many strong English translations of the
poem. Second, most of those translations were pitched at a slightly different register and I thought it might be jarring for
a reader. Just listen to Jonathan Galassi’s accurate version: “I looked out on the cloudless sky, / the
golden streets, the gardens / and, far off, the sea here and mountains there.” Of course, I could have done without
the epigraph, but given that this poem closes a book with many ties to Italy, I thought hearing a little Italian wasn’t
such a bad thing.
AB: Likewise, the reference in the title “Postcard of Peter
Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929” seems rather esoteric. When coming up with titles for poems or subject matter, how
does reader accessibility come into play? Are you ever worried about readers “getting it?”
It may be an esoteric reference but you don’t need to know the postcard to engage with the poem on one level. The poem’s
speaker is projecting his parents’ story onto the postcard, and that story has to do with one parent withholding information
from the other. Withholding—and trying to access the inaccessible—is the crux of the poem which is presented in
a fairly straightforward manner, I hope. That the image on the postcard is a snapshot of two young woeful-looking Austrian
and Austro-Hungarian actors who left Germany when the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in the US adds another layer
of richness, I think, but isn’t essential to engaging with the poem. I don’t want to shut readers out, but I also
expect them to be adventurous enough to enter unchartered territory, and, if intrigued, to look up the reference. But I take
your point. Some people won’t bother looking it up; that’s the risk. Yet I find almost any cultural reference
will come across as esoteric to someone from somewhere at some time.
Still looking at “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” this poem seems to break the “good
writing” edict against -ly adverbs, placing heavy emphasis on them at some crucial points in the poem. Did your ear
lead you to these choices, are you just a fan of breaking the rules, or is there some other specific reason you went in this
direction? Are there any choice guidelines you like to follow when writing or revising your poetry?
Not breaking the rules but bending them purposefully—I believe that’s one of the primary goals of any living poet.
I was just rereading an early poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “Seascape,” which is largely a description of a coastal
scene (although, it turns out, not a very realistic one). The first 13 lines are larded with adjectives like “beautiful”
and “immaculate” and “ornamental.” At first I cringed. “What is she doing,” I wondered.
Then, as the poem progresses, you realize the adjectives are doing double-duty; they slyly underscore the artificiality of
Although I wasn’t thinking of Bishop’s poem while writing “Postcard…”
I remember being aware that the speaker in my own poem was fantasizing about the past (“romancing the age,” “playing
dress up with a life”), and I felt that something in the language needed to tease that out further. How else do we embellish
a sentence but by using adjectives and adverbs?
As for common revision practices, I look at what each draft is
trying to say and make sure the language is working toward that end. A teacher of mine once said that you can’t revise
into a void; you have to have a sense of what the poem is about if you’re to do anything meaningful with it. Which is
one reason why no “good writing” rules are sacrosanct.
AB: These three poems vary
in line length from relatively short in “After A Silvia” to rather long in “Postcard of Peter Lorre
Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929.” Many poets tend to write in either shorter lines or longer lines. Do you feel any allegiance
to the short poetic line or the long poetic line? What prompts you to choose one over the other in your work and in these
poems in particular?
WS: I try to look at each poem on its own terms to figure out what each demands
(of the line, of language). This can create problems for me as a poet, and made putting together a book of poems particularly
difficult. I was adamant—maybe a little too adamant—that I was writing a collection of individual poems and resistant
to the idea of writing a project book or a book with a manufactured arc. I understand a reader might feel that the poems are
too diffuse, yet there are plenty of poets whose line lengths vary. Stevens, for one.
The variety of line lengths
might also reflect my age. I am at an early point in my career and still figuring out what kind of poem I want to write. Of
course I could make an argument that the longer lines in “Postcard…” are related to the poem’s sense
of longing, and that in “After A Silvia” the short lines marshal a sense of candor that seems appropriate
for a poem in which the speaker has lived through loss and feels no need to doll it up. But I don’t think the process
was that analytical, at least not at the start. A smidgeon of intuition goes into writing poetry too.
All three of the poems we are featuring are from the point of view of young speakers. What attracts you to writing in this
WS: That voice felt natural. I spent most of my teens and college years affecting
an old man’s voice—on and off the page—and while that may suit my personal temperament, I distrusted it
in the poems I was writing in my late twenties and early thirties. And there’s a frankness about that perspective that
fits the poems’ themes: the painful coming to consciousness; reckoning with one’s cultural and poetic inheritance.
But I wouldn’t be so quick to say that “Postcard…” is written from a young person’s
perspective. Adults, in my experience, daydream about their parents’ lives as much as young people do. The speaker in
that poem gives nothing away; he remains as inaccessible as the phantom of his father.
Both “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929” and “American Window Dressing” seem to
contain narratives about fathers who are absent and/or are making poor decisions. Do you find family life—particularly
the father-son relationship—as a source of inspiration for your poetry or more as something you simply can’t help
writing about? What would you say to people who claim that contemporary poetry (and literature in general) is too focused
on the “bad father” narrative?
WS: I thought contemporary poetry had jettisoned narrative
altogether, whether the narratives contain bad fathers or good…
The poems featured here have less to do
with passing judgment on the father figure and more to do with each speaker’s coming to grips with the past; the fathers
and sons are emblematic, not knock-offs of reality.
That said, I do find family a source of inspiration—its
cover-ups and screw-ups as well as the forms of tenderness and understanding that can exist among family. Family is inescapable.
Why pretend otherwise? Where would we be if that same complaint about absent/flawed father characters were heeded after Hamlet?
No King Lear. No Huckleberry Finn. No Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
To me the
subject of family can deliver infinitely more compelling poems than poems that focus exclusively on the subjectivity of language—the
domain, I assume, of anyone who would claim contemporary literature is too focused on “bad dad” narratives.
AB: “American Window Dressing” seems to be set in a decidedly non-American setting—pestamals,
haikus, the Mao Suit. What motivates the juxtaposition of the American and the non-American in this poem? What defines “American”
in your view?
WS: That’s a good question and a very difficult one to answer. American identity
is much more slippery than we make it out to be; the country is fluid, shifting, unstable and composed of many cultures, races,
creeds—and, because we’re on the subject, poetries. Maybe the defining feature of America is its indefinability.
On the other hand, despite our long history of immigration,
I often find we are emphatically more ignorant of the world beyond our national borders than are people from other countries.
We’ve been mainlined the US dream for so long we have trouble digesting different visions of the world. We’re
translation poor and often resistant to other voices. Even many liberal-minded people seem to think other cultures should
resemble ours—politically, socially, economically, et cetera.
I think “American Window Dressing”
suggests some of the things above, but couches it in a narrative, and is less preachy. How long, for example, do American
poets have to read and write haiku or haiku-inflected poetry before the form becomes part of our national literature’s
AB: a single copy of Everyman’s Haiku—
pit the cover’s look-at-me
moon sheen—and the poems I love
spartan, semitransparent, nature’s fools,
like faraway countries
in full disclosure.
In these lines from “American Window Dressing,” we seem to see poetic forms manifested
in everyday objects. Are we seeing some ars poetica movements here? Do poetic forms serve as a source of inspiration
for you even when not writing in those forms?
WS: I assume you mean closed verse forms? Yes,
I find inspiration there. I’d like to believe I am catholic in my tastes, and just because I’ve never published
a villanelle doesn’t mean there aren’t several botched attempts at the bottom of my drawer.
right to glean the ars poetica thrust here. I would like to write poems that, like haiku, are cleanly expressed,
succinct and attentive to the physical world while still retaining some of that world’s psychic mystery. But I don’t
want to write haiku. Not only do I find the form limiting, but, to get back to the previous question about American culture,
I’m wary of adopting a Japanese form about which I only have a limited understanding. That’s another defining
feature of Americans: our fear of cultural appropriation.
AB: Congratulations on winning the
Yale Younger Poets winner in 2012. How many contests did you submit Westerly to before it was selected? What do you
think made Westerly strong enough to win the contest?
WS: Thanks. I submitted the manuscript
to several contests over a period of three years. I don’t have a record of exactly how many places I submitted to during
that time, but my guess is about 30.
Why did it get picked up? I’m not sure I’m the one to say. In
his foreword to the book, Carl Phillips does a remarkable job of explaining what he sees in the manuscript. I’d suggest
you start there. Carl’s forewords—like the forewords of many of his predecessors—are illuminating.
AB: Finally, what is a recent book of poetry you’ve read that you would recommend?
WS: Just one? Roger Reeves’ King Me. It’s a fierce book that succeeds at being
both socially engaged and engaging at the level of the line. Spread the word.
Click here to read an interview with Will Schutt
at Boxcar Poetry Review
Poems - Bio - Reviews- Interviews