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The Next Big Thing: Self-Interview Project - February 12, 2013

Recently, my friend and fellow poet Maggie Glover—check out her poems in the forthcoming issue of Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation!—invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing.  TNBT invites poets to interview themselves about a recent or forthcoming book, post their responses to a personal website, then call on three more writers to follow suit.

Think of it as a sophisticated, literary chain letter. Except no one receives a mysterious sum of money at the end, or saves themselves from cosmic misfortune.

Unless of course you read my book, which will result in both.

What is the title of the book?

Other Romes, which was—admittedly—a struggle. I cycled through a variety of long, unwieldy options before settling on this tag.

But Rome does tie so many of these poems together: from a series of carnivalesque, Fellini sestinas to the plaintive longing of some Jesuit priests. These priests wrote poems about their decaying bodies, which I adapted (and threaded) into the book’s second section: a sequence called “Songs of Sickness.”  But the truest “other” Rome in the book is the United States, lurching uncomfortably toward its Silver Age. The book’s final poem, “Period,” renders that little analogy explicit.

What genre does the book fall under?

Poetry, alas. But tell your friends it’s a travel book, with maps and color photos and the casual misuse of such words as bunga bunga.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Other Romes amasses an eclectic range of influences—Fellini films, eating contests, Jesuit poetry, jetliners—to confront the awkward but inevitable relationship between our personal narratives and the larger public sphere.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I began writing parts of this book shortly before 9/11 and had more or less completed it by Obama’s first inauguration. Those bookends give you both a sense of its lengthy gestation period, and the socio-political moment that the book takes—at least in some poems—into account.

There’s a passage in Whitman’s “Preface” to the 1855 Leaves of Grass that speaks to this context, and I’ve returned to it from time to time when thinking about my relationship to the body politic, poetry, and our need to live together, best as we can:

The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today. If he does not flood himself with the immediate age as with vast oceanic tide […] and if he be not himself the age transfigured […] and rises up from its inconceivable vagueness and infiniteness in the swimming shape of today […] let him merge in the general run and await his development

I’m not as convinced by the truth of this statement today as I might have been eight years, but I still remember when Whitman’s image became eerily literal. I’m thinking of 2005, and an entire American city suddenly submerged. New Orleans appears, in just that way, in my poem “Morning, Noon, and Night”: “the gulf will hate the poor some more, a lost war just continues.”

To put it succinctly, much of Other Romes explores the tension between Whitman’s democratic Romanticism and an Auden-esque resignation for what poetry can actually do in the face of injustice: bear witness and take down names.

Who or what inspired you to write the book?

My wife. Her coccyx (less dirty than it sounds). My home state (Ohio). Marcus Cicero. My cousin Natalie—and a rather shy octopus—at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My niece Mia, who turns eight this month. An encyclopedia entry on “Thanatology,” which sparked a poem of the same name. My parents. Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, who headlines a poem too. The joy of leaping naked through the dark (see “Blackout”).

There is—as the cliché goes—something for everyone in this book, and though I’ve mentioned the socio-political moment of the “aughts,” Other Romes is as much a love story as anything else. The most frequently reocurring person in the book is the woman I’d go on to marry—lucky me! Looking back at my table of contents, I realize that you can track our relation through the sequence of poems.

What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?

I may be the only poet in the United States to have written a long, Swiftian satire on a sausage-eating contest in Wisconsin. This isn’t so much a badge of pride as a call-to-arms. Poets of this country unite: the International Federation of Competitive Eating needs its poets laureate!

The poem in question is called “At the Johnsonville Bratwurst Eating Competition, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 2006.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Other Romes was published, two years ago this month, by the good folks at Saturnalia Books. They can be found at

My tagged writers for the next installment of The Next Big Thing are:

Ariel Djanikian

Natalie Shapero

Keith Ekiss

Tess Taylor

Derek MongComment