Interviewed by Allison Linville
Diane Raptosh’s fourth book of poetry, American Amnesiac (Etruscan Press), was recently longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award. The recipient of three fellowships in literature from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, she is currently serving as the Boise Poet Laureate (2013) as well as the Idaho Writer in Residence (2013-2016). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Women’s Studies Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Terrain.org, OccuPoetry, and the Los Angeles Review. Her work has also been anthologized widely in such places as New Poets of the American West, Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting, Classifieds: An Anthology of Prose Poems, and The Glenn Gould Anthology.
She holds the Eyck-Berringer Endowed Chair in English at The College of Idaho, where she teaches literature and creative writing as well as directs the program in criminal justice/prison studies. A highly active ambassador for poetry, she has conducted writing workshops, given readings, and lectured on poetry in a variety of locations ranging from university auditoriums to maximum security prisons, school buses to riverbanks. She lives with her family in Boise, Idaho.
Q: Congratulations on being named the first Poet Laureate of Boise! How has the experience affected you? How have you used that designation to bring more recognition to poetry in your community?
I gave three public readings in Boise on the following designated themes: environment, community, and enterprise. I’ve also given a number of workshops and readings locally, in places like bookstores and libraries. At these events, I tried to start conversations about what writing poetry in the twenty-first century might entail. I don’t have to tell you that a lot has changed in the world of poetics since many people last read a poem: that poem was usually read in high school, and equally often, it was a piece by Robert Frost. I love Frost as much as anyone, but his works are not necessarily representative of the variety of poetry being written now.
So too, I wanted to bring poetry to some communities that might be overlooked or forgotten. So this past summer, I gave a series of three three-hour workshops at our local women’s prison. The women were receptive and eager students. They did some very fine work. Our time together culminated in their giving a big reading on the premises. The students were allowed to invite anyone they wanted from the inside. They brought in an overflow audience and did encore performances! We had a great time.
Q: For anyone who hasn’t read your most recent book, American Amnesiac, how would you describe the collection?
American Amnesiac is a meditation on identity, on what it might mean to be a self. So too, it is a critical investigation of twenty-first century America. A book-length dramatic monologue, the work’s protagonist, Calvin J. Rinehart—who comes to prefer the “everyman” designation John Doe, describes and enacts the formidable struggles ordinary Americans of every race, gender, and class (but for the extremely affluent) must now face. Rinehart/Doe reckons with everything from race (including what it might mean to be white) and war to the American criminal justice system and environmental degradation—the while sustaining motifs pertaining to music, movies, philosophy, and internet culture. To crib the language of Etruscan Press's editor Phil Brady, “the dopplegangered protagonist/s serves as a vatic channel for contemporary America.” Perhaps it is fair to say that the protagonist here is a one-man revolution—one that paves the way for a world in which each of us more highly “esteems the we.” The book, in short, is both serious and contemplative, and, I hope, some good fun.
Q: Have you had any reviews that you felt were particularly rewarding? Or come across any reviewers or readers you felt read your work in ways you did not intend?
The book just came out in September 2013. A few good reviews have been posted on Amazon. And one more formal review recently came out in Weave Magazine. The reviewer, Marc Sheehan, was a good close reader, and I must say I found that review, titled “A Possible Decency”, very rewarding.
Q: American Amnesiac creates a strong voice and personality of the speaker that influences the meaning of the book. What influenced or inspired your poetic voice?
I have always found the dramatic monologue a rewarding and liberating form to work in. Once I came up with the idea of working with a character that represented an American “Everyman,” I realized I had a great opportunity. Such a character is coded (coated) in gender, race, and class. Voila: These are some of the primary platforms from which to consider the rather debilitated state of contemporary America. Once I got a feel for his voice, I couldn’t stop hearing it. And since he is an Everyman, well, there’s a lot of him everywhere. It was also great fun to give him some quirky tics as well as some interests that coincided with some of my own. Selfishly, then, I could explore the lands of music, culture, philosophy, and art the whole time I was listening to him.
Q: Your book has some clear political implications about government and the country we live in today; the ways we are governed, the sacrifices given by people, the constant documentation and the information age that we live in. What messages would you most like the reader to infer from your work in this regard?
I don’t want to reduce the book to any single message. As much as anything, I wanted the book to be an ambassador for poetry’s role in relation to the larger social, cultural and political issues of our time. The role of the poet, in this age of rampant, well organized, and unabashed disinformation campaigns, is perhaps more important now than ever. In a time when many journalists are afraid of telling necessary truths for fear of losing their jobs, the poet has a lot of responsibility—intellectually, culturally, and linguistically. The book tried to do some of that work: to tell some difficult truths as well as reckon with some beauties along the way.
Q: Most of the book is styled into unrhymed couplets, or a loose ghazal form, as one reviewer said. What appealed to you about this form? How did the form develop as you were writing the book? What was fun or frustrating about working with this structure?
The book does take its essential shape through an Americanized form of the middle-eastern ghazal—an adaptation of the form I have also elsewhere dubbed the “western bastard ghazal.” I use the form in a more narrative way than it is traditionally used. I liked the leaping effects the couplets afforded: They seemed right for an amnesiac who is ever grasping after the next thought, half-forgetting what just came before. This format was far more fun than frustrating. It was hard to let it go.
Q: How much did your personal experience influence your poems?
Like Cal/John, the protagonist, I feel more than a little alienated from what usually passes as American life, as well as quite horrified by most of our national priorities. As a citizen trying to stay alive and awake in the world, I cannot help but feel the protagonist’s despair. It was easy to imagine life as a shut-in; I am rather reclusive, and so it was not a stretch to inhabit the mind and thoughts of someone largely alone in a respite home. He is also a bit obsessive and compulsive, and, well, what poet isn’t that? As a poet/citizen, I felt compelled to write about the culture of twenty-first century America, such as it is. It probably helped to feel driven by desperation, by a state kin to helplessness. I had to do something.
Q: If you could collaborate with any writer on a book of poems, who would it be?
I would have liked to collaborate with Adrienne Rich. Short of that, Anne Carson seems to be having a whole lot of fun I’d like to be in on.
Q: How do you balance writing and working?
I take notes almost all the time and keep many notebooks full of random jottings: odd facts, weird words, aphorisms, jibberish. Taking a lot of notes in between teaching full time and parenthood duties helps me feel that I’m always somehow writing. Listening carefully is a good practice for staying tuned in. It’s something I try to do, sometimes fail.
Q: What were the most fun and most frustrating moments of writing American Amnesiac?
It was all fun, I must say. The most frustrating moments were when I was away from it. It was a trance of sorts. It made real life fall very short.
Q: How does place affect you in your writing?
In life as in work, I like openness and space—in all their denotations—in both inner and outer landscapes. Idaho offers of both of these in spades.
Q: As a professor at College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, what are some of your favorite ways to connect with students about writing? What are some of your favorite books to teach?
I try to teach toward technique in poetry writing classes. We spend a lot of time on craft. And then, techniques in hand, the voices begin to arrive. We also talk a lot about content. It is almost the forgotten element of poetry: its aboutness. Poems have a lot of work to do in this lifetime—much more than a typical confessional narrative can usually allow. I hope I help students to think in big terms about their work and at the same time to be playful. Predictably perhaps, I love to teach Adrienne Rich, Mahmoud Darwish, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison.