By Talin Tahajian, Poetry Editor
Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney are provocative, compelling poets on their own – so when they work together, there's magic on the page, to say the least. As recent winners of Black Lawrence Press's Black River Chapbook Competition, Philip and Jeff are no strangers to working as a team. So now, we're challenging Philip and Jeff to collaborate on an interview, rather than a poem, in our first ever double contributor interview.
Both of your Adroit poems create these crazy worlds inside them. How important is physical setting to your poetry? Do you find that you write differently depending on where you are?
Philip Schaefer: I have to be constantly moving. My best stuff often happens without me, usually while hiking my dog up a mountain and sweating out last night’s stupor. Sometimes I try to write poems in front of a computer or in a notepad, but mostly they suck. I must be moving—legs pumping with blood, mouth cursing at my shit-head terrier to stop barking at logs that look like taxidermied squirrels, etc. I’m obsessed with place. With knowing a world, creating a world, and obfuscating this world. I often feel like I live in Twin Peaks, and it’s the best place to live. I will dread the day I ever have to leave the mountains. How’s Annie?!
Jeff Whitney: Having shifted the past 6 years from Madrid to Montana to South Korea to Portland, place is a large, capital P kind of idea that’s always looming in my mind. In writing, I rarely create the same world as the one I experience in real life, though it may contain some of the same landmarks. The setting in the poem that appears in Adroit, for example, is based on an actual airfield near my parents’ home on San Juan Island, but hardly any of the details are real. As Dick Hugo (sort of) put it, all truth must conform to music—and not the other way around.
I’m sure something seeps in to my writing from whichever place I happen to be hanging my hat, but usually physical location has little bearing on the writing I do at that moment. For instance, during my time in Madrid there was a stretch of highway my bus went down on the way home from work that lent a great view of planes coming in to land at Barajas. It was amazing to see them, stretched out sometimes 4 or 5 back, little lights progressively dimmer and smaller ramping up in the sky, to think of the people hauled in from everywhere and then to think of me passing beneath, going my way. I used to imagine this was a very important experience, something I would have to write about. I tried. The poems were mightily unsuccessful. It hasn’t come up in any poem since, may never will.
You’ve written a bunch of chapbooks together—how does your process of collaboration work? Is it always easy? What are the most difficult/natural things about poetic collaboration?
PS: OK, a bunch is endearing, but not true. We’ve written two, and though we’ve been lucky as hell to get them published, it certainly doesn’t feel easy. It’s pretty incredible, actually, that we’ve found each other in this sort of poetic northwestern vortex. We both received our MFAs from Montana, though we never overlapped. Except right before Jeff moved. He had a garage sale of sorts and I took some wool socks off his hands/feet, and a couple copies of his first chapbook. From there, the poe-mance is history. We kept in touch and realized we had extremely similar voices and aesthetics, and thought, shoot, let’s see what happens.
We exchange lines and stanzas and poems almost every day, in some capacity, and all through the web. After a month or so of this back-and-forth, we begin whittling. And whistling. We become like the seven dwarves until the work is done. Then we hit click.
We seem to yin and yang each other pretty well. When one of us creates the world, the other one fills in the details. I say Everest, he hangs a climber by his own pickaxe.
JW: Our process of collaboration for those two chapbooks was pretty haphazard: we did some writing exercises, put together some things we’d written individually, and shared in the editing of each others’ writing along the way.
Some people use the word work to describe the writing process, but with Phil it never felt like that at all. It was always fun, always invigorating. As a result, it was easy to keep going with it. Looking back, it really felt quite natural to do a collaboration. Poetry is, after all, inherently collaborative, not only between the writer and the reader, but between the writer and all the other writers/artists/people with whom he or she has been in contact.
I’d say the most difficult thing was settling revision ideas—the little stuff: comma here, line break there—but even that wasn’t so tough. If ever I suggested something Phil didn’t agree with, he’d tell me why, and if he seemed more passionate about his idea than I was about mine, we’d go with his.
In that same vein, what are some things you’ve learned about your own poetry by working closely with someone else’s?
JW: I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about Phil’s poetry. Being so close to the ground floor on his writing process has helped me understand the way he tends to shape poems: his tendencies, his preoccupations, and how he flushes those things out. But for my own poetry, it’s tougher to say. I suppose the flipside is that through collaboration I became much more aware of what my own tendencies are in writing. I also found myself taking on more of a “Phil voice” as we went further along. I’d venture to say that Phil twisted some of his stuff to inhabit more of a Jeff sound. Just like the knowledge that is gained by reading great poetry, I have been able to add Phil’s approach to poems to my own tool belt, and that’s a pretty damn useful thing to have.
PS: I’ve learned I have a lot to learn. I consider myself a dumb poet but a lover of words. Jeff’s poetry has this ability to fashion a world into existence within a line or two, then zoom in to the most bizarre, broken details without warning. And yet, somehow, nothing is obscured. It’s both ends of the magnifying lens. If you pay close enough attention, you realize more than one ant will burn.
What do we need to write less about? What do we need to write more about?
JW: I think people are writing about every possible thing humans could ever write about. Perhaps, if you don’t mind, I’ll frame the question as: What do we need to lend more of our attention to? And toward that, the answer hasn't changed: how to build the just city, how to maximize the well-being of all, how to responsibly live in this world, how to be a family.
PS: Honestly, I think we need to stop concerning ourselves with what we need to write less or more about. It’s not a bad question, I simply think that the words “about” and “poetry” are like apples and orangutans. Richard Hugo once said “I’d far rather mean what I say than say what I mean” and I can’t help but apply that to everything. If you sit down to write about war, or heteronormative behavior, or Nixon, you’ll write a shitty poem. Doesn’t mean these subjects can’t occur within the template of the poem, but I can’t emphasize enough that I think poetry writes people, not vice versa. Poetry is discursive and dialogical. The reader and her realm are more important to interpretation than anything the author can put on the page.
If you were to get a tattoo of a poem (or a few lines of a poem), what would it/they be?
PS: Finally an easy answer. Five years or so ago I had the lines “like a wooden ocean out of control” inked on the inside of my left forearm. They were Jack Gilbert’s words, my favorite poet. It’s one of those phrases where if I have to explain it, it’s not worth explaining. And if I don’t, and you like it, the next round is on me. Jesus, isn’t that the nature of tattoos. And poetry.
JW: Phil’s answer to this is pretty stellar, and so is his tattoo. For me, if I were ever going to go under the gun, I would feel pretty good with these lines from Antonio Machado:
Late corazón… no todo
Se lo ha tragado la tierra.
Beat heart… not everything
Has been swallowed by the earth.
Think about the biggest argument you had with a parent or adult as a teenager. Looking back, do you agree with yourselves or the parent?
JW: I wasn’t very argumentative with my folks growing up (that was my brother’s job). But, looking back, they were always right.
PS: When I was sixteen my parents booked it to Florida for vacation. I didn’t know how to drive a five-speed, so naturally they left me with our silver 1987 Nissan Stanza. It smelled like moth balls and lawnmowers. Though I was flipped off by grandmas and mule deer while learning what it meant to kick in the clutch, I eventually got the hang of it. I hated my parents that week, but I lived. And now I talk shit to anyone who can’t drive a stick shift. My parents definitely won.
Are poems arguments?
JW: I’d hesitate to refer to poems as arguments, though it’s certainly true that they make a case for more fully inhabiting the world—how to do so and why. Additionally, they contain within them language that makes arguable claims (Jack Gilbert’s wonderful line, “we must risk delight,” comes to mind).
Instead, however, I prefer to think of poems as something more numinous—and thus less rhetorically & syntactically grounded—than an argument. Closer, really, to music or what the other end of the universe has up its sleeve.
PS: Everything is an argument, from our knee socks to our cheekbones. The beluga whale is an argument. An empty church pew. It’s why poetry exists—to frame the argument in a fractured way. In fractals. A mosaic of voices. Everything exists within a context, and that context enters a contest for best argument, and whether or not you’re persuaded by joy or blood doesn’t matter; we’ve all got our money on one horse or another. Poetry is the best kind of argument (well, art in general) because it doesn’t impose its view. This goes back to that “about” thing—the best poetry leaves the reader feeling like she had as much say in the process as the poet. There is no black or white or right wing bullshit. There is just Michael Jackson and all of us wondering if we’ll die next.
Philip Schaefer’s collaborative chapbook with Jeff Whitney, Smoke Tones, is forthcoming from Phantom Limb (2015), and his poems are out or forthcoming in Forklift Ohio, DIAGRAM, Fourteen Hills, RHINO, alice blue, Interim, and Whiskey Island, among others. He can usually be found tending bar at the craft distillery in Missoula, where he recently received his MFA from the University of Montana.
Jeff Whitney is the author of three chapbooks, the most recent of which, The Tree With Lights In It, is forthcoming from Thrush Press. Along with Philip Schaefer, he is the co-author of Smoke Tones, which is forthcoming from Phantom Limb Press. Recent poems can be found or found soon in Birdfeast, Blackbird, Columbia Poetry Review, Salt Hill Journal, and Sugar House Review. He lives in Portland, where he teaches English. Find him online at www.jeff-whitney.com.
Talin Tahajian grew up near Boston. Her poetry has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, Best New Poets 2014, DIAGRAM, Salt Hill, Columbia Poetry Review, and Washington Square Review. She serves as a poetry editor for The Adroit Journal, and recently co-edited Poets on Growth (Math Paper Press, 2015). She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge, where she studies English literature and attempts to assimilate.