Trying to Generate Heat: an interview with David Roderick

Weston Cutter


David Roderick’s the author of Blue Colonial, which won the APR/Honickman, and now The Americans, out recently from Pitt. You know those times in which you suddenly get sort of lasered by a poet’s work that came sort of out-of-nowhere—the poems hit, and hard, but you didn’t see them coming? That was for me how I received The Americans, knowing little of the book and then getting it, paging through it at the office and finding lines like: “What happened to the golden rule / among all / your shining objects—” (“Dear Suburb,”); and “It worked / for a while, their screened-in story, / where a half-deflated soccer ball / wedged the door. Drunk on lilac, / they cheered whenever a bee seemed / to veer off course.” (“Build Your Dream Home Here”). The lines of course give not the completest picture: in The Americans, Roderick language is incredibly somehow firm and flowing, and the sizzle offered has most to do with the big take-aways the reader gleans on reading eight or nine poems in a row (which is to say: it’s fine to quote the poems, but reading them all together offers a whole nother charge). It’s a great and humbling book, humane and serious without preachiness, earnest without feeling screed-y.

Mr Roderick was kind enough to answer some questions over email, the results of which are as follows.


In the most general/large-spirited way you want to address it, what are some of the things (baseball games, trains, taxi services, movies, poems, sounds) that’ve shaped you as a writer? This is very much the *influence* question, but spread it as broadly as you’re willing.

Wow, what a way to start! As a writer I want everything to be relevant, which means being receptive to the full spectrum of high and low culture, our culture. So: stand-up comedy, cell phones and apps, sports, cartoons, block parties and parades, parenting, graffiti art, shopping and advertising, book culture in all its forms, diners, pornography, cooking shows, U.F.O. sightings, the slow-food movement, blah blah blah—I could make an endless list. Walt Whitman’s large-spirited zest for life helped kindle these enthusiasms.

Traveling is also important to me because I feel more alive when I’m on the move. Way more alive than when I’m sitting at a desk hammering at poems.

If you’re interested in specifics, I can think of a number of things that probably influenced The Americans more directly: films by Errol Morris and Terrence Malick; The Wire; Italian Renaissance painting; championships won by the Boston Red Sox; the poetry of Anna Akhmatova; Louie; the 2008 Presidential campaign; early Bob Dylan; early Public Enemy. For a few years I was obsessed with the Kennedy family (especially RFK). I like art that borrows documentary techniques and strategies. (Can you tell I like making lists?) Finally, I don’t think it’s a secret that Robert Frank’s photographs inspired my new book.

I’m really curious about The Americans: I’ve now read this one before having read your earlier work, and so I have this weird (to me) sort of dissociative sense of knowing that this is some other thing’s *after*, though I don’t know the earlier thing. I’ve ended up (unintentionally) thinking a good bit about this fact, how there’s precedent to The Americans that, eventually, I’ll discover is or isn’t remotely like what I’d imagined it to be (we all do this, of course; I remember the strangest feeling when I tore back through Joel Brouwer’s work after reading his most recent and thinking: huh, I would’ve seen this man’s stuff had I read these first). I guess I’m curious if or how or how much your thinking/feeling regarding your first book has changed with the release of this new one. Do you feel they’re markedly akin or wildly different? Maybe along those lines: just because you mentioned in an interview that (presumably) Dear Suburb was the original title of The Americans (or at least the at-one-point working title), and the first one’s also got architecture/abode stuff in the title, do you think of yourself as a domestic poet? That might be among the very lamest questions I’ve ever asked, and I’m sorry for it, but here we are.

The earlier thing, I guess, is Blue Colonial, my first book. A lot of those early poems were inspired by historical research, especially material covering the colonial period in Massachusetts. I grew up in Plymouth, surrounded by all that history and myth. I wanted to write more to that mythology and eventually through it in order to figure out some things about myself and circumstance. I hope it’s a solid first effort.

In hindsight, I can see more clearly Blue Colonial’s narrow scope. First of all, almost all the poems take place in historical or contemporary Plymouth. But the limitations are also aesthetic: the tone, vision, and emotional range feel very small to me now.

So I wanted book #2 to break away from #1 in as many ways as possible. Obviously the newer book still has a very “American” feel to it. That’s intentional. But I hope that American quality isn’t provincial or domestic.

In an effort to work with a broader tonal palette, I wrote in modes and forms I’d never attempted before, like epistolary poems, love poems, ballads, prose poems, and poems with a political resonance. Those unfamiliar modes applied pressure to my language and made me hunt harder for threads of music that appealed to me. Ultimately those modes helped me write poems inflected with humor, anger, wonder, and disgust.

I don’t know how well to ask this, but here goes: you have several moments of sort of taking stock or account of America’s past and misdeeds—there feel moments throughout when you’re like *claiming* or trying to take responsibility for some of the legacy (costs) of being American. Is that remotely accurate? If so: what led to that, for you? What led to this book being one that (seemingly) is maybe trying not only to ground itself in but *situate* the present moment in the past? I’m maybe mangling this a bit. Look: there’s “In My Name” which seems overtly about addressing what’s done in our names, as citizens, and there are enough “Dear Suburb” poems to make at least somewhat clear what those payments/deeds are trying to purchase for us. I’m sorry. Maybe this question’s impossible or getting away from me.

You’re exactly right, I think, though I didn’t realize I was up to these things until I was most of the way through writing the poems for the book. A friend of mine, Alan Shapiro, suggested after reading The Americans that I’m trying to write from political feelings rather than political opinions. It’s a good read, and he says it better and more efficiently than I ever could.

Like Keats, I’m distrustful of poems that have too much of a design on their audience. I imagine my poems as mediations, not rants or diatribes. So even “In My Name,” which you mentioned, seems to me to have come out of nowhere. In early drafts I’m just pushing language around and trying to generate heat. That poem features a suburban character expressing anxiety about America’s foreign policy—specifically our use of drones in the Middle East—and is probably one of the book’s central poems. At first I wasn’t sure I should include “In My Name” in the book. Fortunately I’d already written other poems that support that poem by laying groundwork for it or cooling the energy in its wake.

It occurs to me now that some of my poems come from a great disappointment I have in myself—that I never protested the war in Iraq, never went out into the streets of San Francisco, when I lived there, to scream my lungs out against it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t muster the energy or courage. So there are poems in this book that have a penitential purpose, I suppose. Maybe this is pure Irish-Catholic guilt rising inside me, but I believe that in America we’re all culpable, in some small way, for a sagging economy, violent conflicts abroad, a gridlocked political situation, poverty, and a threatened natural world. Particularly those of us in power are responsible for these circumstances.

Part of me wonders, re the q above, if the bigger this-is-what-citizenship-looks-like push has to do with fatherhood, which is [obv] something I’m more than a little preoccupied presently by.

Fatherhood absolutely intensifies that feeling for me. In the past four years my wife gave birth to two daughters. They’re the stars of my life. I want to provide well for them and want them to grow up safe, with even more opportunities than I had. So living in my suburban neighborhood in Greensboro makes sense. I’m incredibly fortunate to live in such a beautiful community (and in America). I hope I never take it for granted.

You might very well get to this in the influence q above, but, along with the historical-situational stuff of the previous mess of a Q, I’m curious about how The Americans seems to be almost taking up older poems themselves and twisting them open, redoing them. “New Directive”’s the most obvious, but (maybe this is just me) in “Love Field” it seems like you’re engaging (both with the structure of it and with the content) with Jorie Graham’s poem about the JFK assassination. Maybe that’s a hopelessly dupey reach. Who knows. Was that something you were going after, too? Sort of new-blooding some older poetry as well?

Poetry is a vital, circulating bloodstream. I love the idea of blood-doping some Frost and Basho and Hart Crane and Anna Akhmatova. I think we poets are always engaged with poems from the past—constantly repurposing them, stealing from them, juicing them, challenging them. In the case of “New Directive,” I was probably doing that a little more deliberately than I had before, nodding to the influence rather than hiding it.

I’m curious about place (re: you, sure, but everyone). Knowing, again, not thing 1 about Blue Colonial, I can Google+find with ease (and would’ve guessed similarly) that it’s set in the northeast. You also won a travelling scholarship, and you’ve (seemingly) bounced all over—San Francisco for the Stegner and beyond, North Carolina, etc. What’s home for you? Do you like the roving, or has it been a searching and you’re slowly, ongoingly nearing yr deep-down radar’s beep? Is there a difference—in/for you, personally—in writing in all these places? Maybe that’s absurd. I don’t know (I’m so hopelessly Midwest I just can’t do anything anywhere else).

Home is always Massachusetts, that provincial, salty place—where my fellow Massholes will run you off the highway if you get all up in their space. However, I love to rove. New places = new inputs. The great Steve Earle, who I saw in concert two weeks ago, said he lives in New York because he finds that the older he gets, the more inputs he needs in order to be creative. That sounds just about right to me. I guess I’m a restless dude… that restlessness comes through in The Americans. I worry I’ll always be restless.

As for the writing, my habits adjust depending on circumstances. I can write anywhere as long as I have a space for my laptop, notebooks, and books. I tend to do most of my writing these days in coffee shops.

Do you like doing the interviews you do on The Rumpus? That’s not what I mean: what about them do you like? Do you enjoy the give/take with other writers? It seems—maybe this is untrue—like a much more fun, freewheeling, informal setting for talking about poetry—poetry that doesn’t take itself super seriously. I don’t know. (I apologize for continually falling back on that sort of shruggy I-don’t-know; it’s the end of the school day, I slept 5 hours, and and and). I guess I’m mostly curious about how folks who do poetry get involved in poetry-ish things, stuff having to do with poetry, that isn’t Poetry Itself.

I love doing The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show! Freewheeling, yes—the show’s objective is to introduce a broad audience to the real human beings behind the poems. I’ve spoken to Oliver de la Paz about his books but also his video game obsession. Katie Peterson chatted with me about siblinghood and competitive board games. With Danny Anderson I talked baseball, politics, and poetry. I enjoy that sort of casual give and take.

What’s the view out your window?

What seems to be a small, serene backyard. I know for a fact, however, there’s some fierce wildlife living in and around our lame-ass garden. Mosquitoes (including nasty little bastards called “no-see-ums”), rabbits, chipmunks, slugs and beetles and snails, cats, squirrels galore, semi-harmless-looking snakes, and lots of birds on the make. My kids are delighted by all of it. I’m glad they drag me out there to remind me how wild it actually is.