By Alexandra Murphy
If you're driven to write poetry—and goodness knows the world's filled with lots of reasons not to—then do it.
- Christopher Citro
Christopher Citro is the author of If We Had a Lemon We'd Throw It and Call That the Sun (Elixir Press, 2020) and The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books, 2015). During his seven years with us at the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing he has taught prose poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyrical essays. In this interview, we talk about his unusual titles, how he eases into weirdness at poetry readings, and the importance of “play” in creativity.
Let's begin with Martha's Vineyard! You've been part of MVICW for many years now, what are some of your favorite memories of the summer conference? What brings you back?
Thank you for these wonderful questions. Yay, Martha's Vineyard!
Yes, I've taught at the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing for seven of its ten years so far. Hard to believe that it's been that long, really. It's amazing to see it continue year after year, to watch it grow, to see the attendee and faculty community blossom and broaden as its roots deepen.
As far as memories go, after ten years there are so many! The smiles on the faces of all the attendees that I've met and worked with over the years has got to be at the top of my list. Each year we meet at the opening ceremony as strangers, toasting one another with elderflower wine, and by the end of the week so much has happened, so much has been shared between us in the classrooms, after classes, during our one-on-one manuscript sessions, at the evening readings, while exploring the towns and attractions of Martha's Vineyard. I've had my mind and heart blown away at the attendee readings, hearing people share what they've created. By the end of each week, I can't imagine not seeing these folks ever again. And for so many, we've kept in contact over the years. We follow and support each other's writing journeys. It's one of the best experiences of my life as a writer and teacher!
Then there's the faculty, the wonderful, inspiring writers I've worked alongside of over the years. All the great suppers Alexander has cooked for us, all the gentle breakfasts we've quietly enjoyed in the faculty house tip-toeing past one another as we work on our writing and art, like we're living in the most awesome writer's dormitory you could imagine. The late nights talking, reciting poems to one another, playing games, singing songs. Exploring the Vineyard together. Eating lobsters on the beach in Menemsha as the sun sets behind the sailboats. Swimming beneath the New England sun, or under a mattress of stars as the summer bioluminescence shimmers and sparkles in the water.
Ah… I could go on, but I'm getting teary-eyed.
As for what brings me back? Well, all the above. And more…
I really love your work. You especially have such a way with titles that pulls me in to read each piece. I'm wondering though—if someone were reading your work for the first time, which piece would you hope they started with?
Thanks for the kind words! I really appreciate that.
As for titles, any facility I have with them I put it down to a period many years ago when I got stuck in a pattern of writing poems composed entirely of single, free-standing lines. I was an undergraduate and had discovered the myriad joys of the great poet Amy Gerstler, including her amazing list poems. I couldn't stop writing my own. After a while, you really get into trying to make a whole exciting thing happen in a reader's head just in one single line. I try to channel that experience when I come up with my titles.
For readers who may be coming to my work for the first time, from my first book, The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy, I'd recommend the poem, "Single Male in Search of Someone Who'll Stay." It encapsulates many of that book's styles and themes: it's narrative, it's a prose poem, it's about the beauty and challenge of relationships, it's got a goose in it behaving oddly.
From my second book, If We Had a Lemon We'd Throw It and Call That the Sun, forthcoming in 2020 from Elixir Press, I'd say, "It's Something People in Love Do." It won a Pushcart Prize the year after its publication. It's got a reference to a Marx Brothers film, a goofy line about credit scores, and a final kiss at the end. Or the title poem, If We Had a Lemon We'd Throw It and Call That the Sun, which incorporates pasta salads and old Westerns. Or Our Beautiful Life When It's Filled with Shrieks, which mixes together blackberries, pineapples, collection agencies, and extreme bicycling. Each of these poems share the book's themes of relationships, grocery shopping, and anxiety, as well as a quick, jump-cut style. The fact that they all have my cat in them is another, if personal, plus.
Speaking of titles, what's with the title I Never Intend To, How 'Bout You? How about the last line? I want to read into it, "the different things we imagine we'd reach if we climbed it" On the surface, it's a hilarious line! But I can't help but wonder if there's deeper context to it?
That impulse you have—that there's some deeper context to the poem—makes me so happy to hear. That poem shares the style of much of my first book book: a narrative prose poem about relationships, touched with surrealism. Back when I wrote those kinds of poems, I'd get into a sort of trance with my pen and paper and wait until a situation presented itself via some strong voice. I'd start writing images, letting the voice guide me, and see how the narrative situation played out according to its own logic. If I came to a place that surprised me or made me really uncomfortable, I ended the poem. That line you quote is from the end of the poem, and when it arrived I too felt that there was some deeper context to it.
Basically with that kind of poem, I want it to work and be enjoyable simply on the surface of the story. Then I want the whole poem, more or less, to function as a kind of giant metaphor for other things. The last thing I'd do is say myself what I think those deeper, metaphorical contexts are. It's my feeling that readers are a huge part of the meaning making of a poem, and I'd never want to get in the way and impose my thoughts there. I provide the poem, the rest is up to the reader. One of my greatest joys as a writer is to hear from readers what they get from my poems. And it's not a puzzle situation, or an allegory—it's not about a reader finding anything I've hidden. It's about the way the poem only really comes to life when it's played on the instruments in the concert hall of the reader's heart.
How do you select your poems for your reading events? If you're reading a few, do you try to start with your more unusual pieces or ease into your weirdness?
That's an awesome question. I love reading my poems aloud, and I've been working on trying to do a decent job of it for decades. I've spent so many hours of my life sitting in the audience during poetry readings that make me want to claw my own eyeballs out with a spork, that my main goal when putting together a reading is not to elicit that kind of impulse in my listeners.
I take a lot of things into consideration when putting together a reading. I think about who my audience might be and what they might be in the mood to hear. I try to include poems from both of my books, as well as newer work, especially if I know there'll be people there who've heard me read before. Yes, I try to "ease into my weirdness." I make sure not to pick poems that might be too challenging to follow if only heard instead of read on the page. Experience has taught me never to start with the funny poems, since many people, even now, don't know that serious poems can include humor. Reading poems with humor too soon just wastes them. (I tried a few times years ago telling the audience they're allowed to laugh, then learned immediately that this is a great way to get people to never laugh.)
For the overall arc of a reading I basically shape it the way I used to make mix tapes, back in the days of mix tapes: happy – sad – happy. I start with poems that have clear situations and welcome the reader in. Then I get into the darker themes in the middle of the reading. And for the end I try to use poems that are more upbeat or at least have a real sense of rising energy or crescendo, because who wants to end on a bummer? I want to end a reading with my audience jumping out of their seats, both crying and laughing, as they tear the theatre to shreds around us, screaming about the tragic-comic beauty of life itself. So far that last part hasn't happened yet.
So many of your poems feel like such visually contained little stories that have worlds beyond their brief contained lines. For example, in "Sword Swallowers in Transition," is there more to the world around it?
Again, thank you. Hearing that my poems might "have worlds beyond their brief contained lines" makes my inner cat stretch and claw at the carpet, purring pleasurably.
I think I sort of anticipated this question when I wrote about "I Never Intend To, How 'Bout You?" earlier, when I said that I want those kinds of narrative poems to be both compete as stories and also metaphors that expand in the reader's head, to feel like they occur in "worlds beyond their brief contained lines." Even in my more recent, non-narrative poems, I hope that they will expand off the page into the reader's head and heart. It's part of what I think about when it comes time to end a poem. The last thing I want to do is have the poem's ending shut it down for a reader. Back when I was an undergraduate, my beloved poetry teacher Wayne Dodd used to say something about having heard some writer say that a poem should "snap shut at the end" like a beautiful box. That sounds pretty, but instead of being shut away in a box, he wants his poems to take flight, to expand inside the reader. Or something like that—he phrased it better.
And that's what I want from my poems. A poetic version of the old Hemingway thing about a good short story should provide the reader with the exposed tip of an iceberg, and leave them with the understanding that there's a hell of a lot more going on beneath the water's surface. Translate that to poems, and I'm with Hemingway. At least about that.
Do you prefer your poems to be listened to, read on the page, or read out loud? Is there something that you feel audiences miss if they are not looking at the words or vice versa?
I prefer my poems to be whispered—from memory—between lovers in bed.
Why does the prose poem attract you? What do you think it offers writers?
I started writing prose poems because when I was an undergraduate, first introduced to the incredible universe of contemporary poetry during workshop, so many of the poets whose work I flipped for wrote prose poetry: Charles Simic, Amy Gerstler, James Tate, Russell Edson. They did things in their poems that I didn't know you were allowed to do, that I didn’t know it was possible to do. The fact that they did it so often in the form of prose poems meant that I would inevitably try to write them myself. If these folks had all been writing sonnets, chances are I'd be trying to figure out how to get my words into fourteen-lined chunks of end-rhymed, iambic pentameter. In many ways we as writers are made by the writers we adore.
What do I think prose poetry offers to writers? Well, everything a verse poem does but without line breaks. And I don't mean that flippantly. Line breaks are awesome. It's also awesome in a poem not to have them sometimes. For me, a line break inevitably puts a little spotlight on the final word of a line—when I write verse, I want that spotlight. But sometimes a poem doesn’t want to have little spotlights periodically hitting its words inside the sentences. Sometimes they want a different kind of lighting, maybe something more ambient, say from a string of Xmas lights up along the ceiling that you hung there one night when you were feeling nostalgic for your college days and thought, "What's stopping me from doing that again? Who says adults can't have Xmas lights in their house year-round? Now where did that old Lava Lamp get to?"
What's one of the best writing tips you've ever gotten?
Treat writing as a vocation. If you're driven to write poetry—and goodness knows the world's filled with lots of reasons not to—then do it. Take it seriously, do it often and with a single-mindedness of purpose that you would bring to anything else that your life depends on. And in a totally non-exaggerating way, my life to me depends on my writing poetry. This "tip" I got in graduate school from the poet Maurice Manning. And he didn't give it as a tip. He shared a version of it—the vocation part—while talking about his own life. And because I admire him so much, it lodged in my head. And the intervening years have proven it useful for my own writing life.
That's something on the big, Yoda-like level of writing tips.
Here's another one, no less useful for its specificity: end on an image. As writers who wish to communicate clearly, we often have the unconscious drive to conclude a poem, to sum it up. This is a generous impulse but a bad one for a poem. It makes us go abstract, which is always a lousy idea in a poem. It also puts us, the writer, in between the reader and the poem. It makes us tell the reader what the poem means (*shudder*); it makes the reader a passive receiver of a lecture. Instead, end the poem with a new image that opens up in the reader, that continues the poem in her head after she's put it aside, that makes her want to zoom back up to the top and read it again, or sit back in and make that "Aw…" noise that we poets love to try to get our readers to make.
Are there lessons you've gained from being part of MVICW that you think other writers who haven't attended would benefit from?
One of the aspects of MVICW that I cherish is the philosophy that Alexander, from the very first year, has fostered. Anyone who's attended knows what I'm referring to. The idea that the time we share together on the Vineyard should be one where we allow ourselves to be free to play as writers, that we should send packing the voice of our "inner critic," the voice that stifles our creativity by telling us we're no good. "Play" is vital to making art, including art about deep and painful things. "Play" as a component of creativity should not be taken lightly. And a critical voice, while essential to helping craft a piece of writing to its final shape, can prove stifling when in the vulnerable, open-hearted stages of first drafts, when exploring new possibilities for your writing and craft.
Another thing that comes to mind is something that the poet and essayist Matthew Gavin Frank said one night while talking about his former teacher, the poet Norman Dubie. I hope I'm remembering this right—the lesson is simply, "stay in the room." Or maybe "stay in the chair." Either way the idea, as I took it, is that if you're writing well, if you're on a roll, do your damnedest to keep your butt in your chair scribbling. Writing doesn't happen unless you are, um, writing. Inspiration doesn’t come along every day, and when it does, let go of it about as willingly as a hungry dachshund would a greasy short rib.
I've seen you've done a few interviews in the past, is there ever a question you wish you would get asked but have yet to?
"Where would you like us to mail your two hundred thousand dollar check?"
Your questions were awesome and such fun to respond to. I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome, except to add that I hope everyone reading this remains safe, secure, and healthy during this frightening pandemic. And that we all make it through and maybe meet again on the Vineyard at the start of another Institute week of growing new poems and stories and essays together, to lift a glass of elderflower wine and shout "skål!"
You can purchase a copy of
If We Had a Lemon We'd Throw It and Call That the Sun, here.
Christopher Citro is the author of If We Had a Lemon We'd Throw It and Call That the Sun (Elixir Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Antivenom Poetry Award, and The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books, 2015). His poetry appears in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, the 2018 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Crazyhorse, Missouri Review, Best New Poets, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Smartish Pace, Witness, and Alaska Quarterly Review. His creative nonfiction appears in Boulevard, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, Essay Daily, Passages North, Bellingham Review, and Colorado Review. He teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego and lives in Syracuse, New York.