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Ander Monson

Ander Monson is the author of Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Other Electricities, Vacationland, The Available World, and Vanishing Point. He is the editor of DIAGRAM and New Michigan Press.

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“The Available World is strikingly original and often exhilarating. This is a refreshing and knowledgeable voice that drew me into listening carefully. There are only a few books of poems a year that engross you so convincingly.”

– Jim Harrison

“Monson's poems celebrate defiant excess. In this land of scarcity, right living involves using up what you have, where you have it; otherwise someone might wreck, steal, or use it and you might not get any more. . . . [A] carpe diem for obscure, doomed youth.”


– Stephen Burt, The Believer

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The Available World

An Interview with Ander Monson

01/20/12

Ander Monson and I grew up in the same small community that separates the United States from Canada. I think the title of his new book of poems, The Available World, published in July 2010 by Sarabande Books, is fitting, as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan seems so unavailable to the rest of the world. Ander was kind enough to answer a few question on TAW during his winter break from teaching at the University of Arizona.

* * *

Jeni Jobst: Give me a one-sentence description of The Available World.

Ander Monson: One big constantly-expanding and -contracting ball. I realize that's not much of a sentence, but then I've never been good at those.

JJ: Why was the “paintball” cover chosen?

AM: The Ball of Paint (actually not a Paint Ball -- there's a difference which gets elucidated in Vanishing Point, in which the Ball of Paint features significantly -- though I see that it's credited as "paintball" in the front matter of TAW, which is actually just a function of what I named the file before I understood the distinction, and in this way it carries its own record of error) is an amazing image, isn't it? There's one poem at least that refers specifically to it in TAW, but mostly I loved how the image suggests a cosmology, which is something the book wants to talk about or enact too. It also echoes the shape of Michigan's Lower Peninsula (see also "ball" on the Vanishing Point website, and the idea of muchness and availability. I also dig how it connects the two books, which came out within a couple months of each other in 2010. This networking happened with Other Electricities and Vacationland too.

JJ: You’ve mentioned in a previous interview with The Adirondack Review that you like the topic of isolation. Other than what you told them, about underlying tension surfacing, do you feel isolated? Did you, in the U.P.? Does it matter where one lives?

AM: I'm not sure exactly what I meant by that (it was a while ago; brains change; it's all flux, which is one of the nice things about thinking/being/writing), actually. But isolation has been and continues to be an important force of my writing process. It's certainly everywhere in my books, particularly in Vacationland and my essay "I Have Been Thinking About Snow," both the page and the video version. I think that every artist feels isolated. There's a reason why most of us who are drawn to making art are outsiders in one way or another. I suspect you have to engage in that kind of retreat from the world in order to see the thing from enough distance to want to talk about or iterate or engage with it in language or image. I find that even the sort of self-imposed isolation of several hours of silence, that is, me not talking, often starts to build up a tension in me that often leads to a burst of writing. Certainly growing up in the U. P. I felt isolated. For me it's an isolating place. That's a function of the culture and the weather (and the weather makes the culture, or draws those with a predisposition, maybe, to isolation from other cold climes and isolated, wild places), and much more so when I was growing up than it probably is now (the Internet is a sort of leveler). Even more so, I suspect, for my father, and my father's father, before the bridge was built to connect the peninsulas. I'm sure that one can find isolation in the flux of big cities too (there's lots written about that sort of anonymity), and wherever, but Upper Michigan's isolation seems particular, and particularly interesting.

JJ: Does the title indicate that knowledge of what’s available in the world only enhances your love of isolation?

AM: There's definitely an interplay in the poems between availability and isolation. It's a tension, sure, and in my view that's one of the plots of the book: muchness and diminishing. They crest and trough, a sort of zero sum game. I don't think that the poems have a collective thesis, exactly, but that they are different ways of exploring a particular digital / analog world and worldview from the perspective of availability and isolation, among other entry points.

JJ: Many of the poems in TAW are “sermons.” Does your love of sermon rhetoric stem from personal religious experience?

AM: You know, I wish I'd had a more interesting religious upbringing. I grew up Presbyterian-Congregationalist in Houghton, which is to say largely unreligious. I remember my pastor saying "well, if there is a God" at one point, and me thinking, hmmm. The sermons I remember were mostly dull, hardly a reason to come to church. I liked the singing and the lemon bars and the pot lucks, but stopped right about when I was confirmed. My interest in the sermon comes out of living in Alabama (I went to grad school there) and being around the culture of the Baptist church, which is a whole lot more exciting. I don't have any real belief in it, exactly, but the shapes of their services, or the services of, say, some Pentecostals -- there's real fire there. You can feel the rhetoric in your body: that's what good rhetoric should do: affect the body. I can see a version of myself growing up in a church that was either more demonstrative and performative, or else more invested in its own mystery (like Catholicism or maybe Mormonism) and how that might have held me more closely. So I learned to love the sermon, and I thought well, why not repurpose the sermon, as best I could, for poetry?

JJ: Your “armless brother” pops up more than once in this collection. Why? Do you have an armless brother?

AM: The armless brother character showed up first in Other Electricities, and he showed up in Vacationland, and to a much smaller extent, in one of the essays in Neck Deep. I am not fully sure why he still draws me, but he does. He came from a line I wrote in a failed poem (maybe a story, I don't remember) in an undergraduate workshop, I think. It didn't work out in the poem/story, but he became a character of interest in the constellation of my work. I do have a brother, but he has arms.

JJ: How long does it take you to write a poem?

AM: It depends a lot. There are a few poems in the book that were written in more or less a sitting -- an hour or two. Sometimes you get lucky. All of them started with a burst of generative something, and then sat, sometimes for five years, at the back of my mind somewhere, undergoing occasional revisions. Most of them went through somewhere between a dozen and twenty drafts. Nearly all of them that were published in journals or wherever were significantly rewritten for the book. One of them, "For Orts," became a sestina between its publication in Beloit Poetry Journal and its final home in the book. Well, by final home I suppose I mean temporary home. You never know where they'll end up.

JJ: With what poet do you feel most akin?

AM: You know, I don't really feel like I'm part of a tradition, or feel a real kinship with a lot of poets. That's probably willfully naive to say, but it's true. There are real echoes of A. R. Ammons in TAW, I think, but only some of his work. I have a weird connection with the work of Simone Muench, a poet whose chapbook New Michigan Press, the small press I run, published a ways back. I remember reading her poems and them making my mouth go wow in a familiar way, and recognizing something there. I'm in the middle of reading Julie Paegle's torch song tango choir which is quite lovely. I read slowly because it's really working for me, so it tends to give rise to my own language. And Nick Lantz's We Don't Know We Don't Know. I read a lot of poetry, actually, maybe unsurprisingly. Albert Goldbarth's Opticks, though I wouldn't put myself in the same league as his work at all. What he does is beyond my comprehension and amazing in its own way, though some of our interests align. There's so much out there, much of it a crapfest, but some of it remarkable. It's one of the reasons I continue to edit my small press and my magazine: to stay connected to what others are doing in the world, and to try to publish the work that gets me hot.

JJ: What’s next?

AM: Writing-wise I'm in the midst of a collection of short essays (<750 words as of this writing, though that constraint may go) that start as poems written in response to things (texts, objects, images, conversations, whatever) found in some way in libraries. I imagine it being published as cards in a box, designed to be tucked into books as something for the next reader to find, a nod to the histories and futures of books as objects.

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1 Comment

  1. Jordan Blum said on 01/20/12 at 1:10 am Reply

    Very interesting. I especially like the discussion on isolation and its inevitability with writers and writing. There’s that cliche of the writer being most prolific and prophetic when everyone else is sleeping (either before sleeping, at 3 am, or after sleeping, at 6 am). Writing is all about internalizing to construct, so how can it NOT be isolating?

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