Tell Tell Poetry: This book is amazing. Can you talk about the process of writing it and finding a publisher? What was working with H_NGM_N like?
Ryan Bollenbach: First off, thanks so much Kallie! I really appreciate the kind words and for asking me to do this. As for the process, well, I had a long-running obsession with writing letters. At a time, this was part of an 85 pg manuscript that was nothing but letters. Letters to inanimate objects, abstract concepts, singer-songwriters etc.
This poem started as multiple smaller letters addressed to the season “Summer” that weren’t attached to each other. Many of the other kinds of letters were fairly heady and abstract. Because I wrote this in summer, in Alabama, which is so damn hot and visceral, I felt like it’d make sense for the summer letters to be a bit more direct. Because summer is also extremely bright and gets into everything in Alabama (and I have blue eyes, really susceptible to light), I felt compelled to draw attention to the amplification that artifice, repetition and the reuse of metaphor, was doing to its subjects in the early poems. At a point, I decided to embrace the oversaturation (like an overexposed photo) as a source of energy, contemplation, and complication, rather than something I would try to minimize or edit out of the poem.
Once I decided to move toward the artifice and find its limits, I realized the poems I was writing to “Summer” made more sense together, and I took what work I had already done and turned over what was going on in those poems as many times as I could. It was a quick, and reactive process. It felt a little viral at the time.
As for working with h_ngm_n: it was great. They allowed me to provide my own cover art (done by my friend Katy Rossing). The layout was mostly done when I sent it to them. They responded quickly to the small revisions I suggested. I sent it to h_ngm_n in part because of the awesome chaps they’ve done in the past (Carrie Lorig, Nick Sturm, and Wendy Xu come to mind), but also because I think an online hub to download free chapbooks is the ideal place for the form.
The book incorporates a lot of art and artists into the poems. What were you looking at and thinking about as you were writing?
A lot was swirling around in my head at the time. This is what I remember: Sutures (a consistently torqued idea in Eric Baus’s “The To Sound”; Photography as a medium (my mother is a wonderful nature photographer so that whole way of perceiving, as a process and product, is really important to this poem); The human eye (hence the Dali); A ( possible mis)reading of Joyelle McSweeney’s Necropastoral idea of the collapse of past, present, and future; the relationship between artifice and non-fiction (specifically from Brian Oliu’s “So You Know It’s Me” and Heidi Lynn Staples’ “Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake”); and the way narrative moved in Colin Winnette’s amazing chapbook “Loudermilk” which we published in issue 42.1 of Black Warrior Review, the first issue that I was poetry editor for. I think I write best from a constellation of ideas.
My favorite line from the book is “his cancer is suburbing, one of many / houses inside my body inside your body.” Does the “your” shift throughout the collection, or is it the same body?
My hope is that the body, and the address “you” is always morphing and being repositioned in productive ways that create new contexts. Especially with the 2nd person, I try to use the implications of the “you” as “Summer” (the straight reading) and that confessional tool of the veiled “I.”
The body morphs in this collection, the moths come to and retreat from the light, the cancer spreads and doesn’t spread. Everything is brewing in this book, and it seems to blend memory and myth. What is it like to write from a memory? What does it feel like?
I’ve always had a lot of trepidation about writing straight non-fiction. Partially because my memory for details is not great, partially because (and more importantly for me), I haven’t figured out how to write directly about someone in a way that feels more productive than, say, having a conversation with someone about a particular subject (which is not to say I don’t love a good long talk about big subjects; I certainly do).
The mythologization of memory that happens in this book, I think, is my attempt to make something new (quite removed from the “real”) and generative from my own thinking and memories: an alternative space to try configurations out. In the case of this poem, the impetus is thinking through my childhood and my relationship with my mother, both from my childhood perspective and from my current perspective looking back.
Damn: “i heard he looked a lot like a rat. / i heard he looked a lot like me.” This collection is stunning. This isn’t a question, just a statement. Can we please talk about your author photo and how awesome it is? Who took it and where were you?
This photo was taken by my longtime homie Laura Cooper. We went to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida while I was down in Florida for winter break. It was 82 degrees (In December, no lie), hence the t-shirt. There was this curtain of feathery-looking lights I found, and, well, sometimes I like to be draped.
Can you please send us a playlist to listen to while we read your manuscript?
Oh man, I always think about poems with music, but, for some reason, not this one. Try printing the poem out and reading it while sitting in the middle of an asphalt parking lot on the hottest day of summer. I’d bet you can almost hear the heat.
Read Ryan’s book from H_NGM_N here.