Bruce Snider is the author of three poetry collections, Fruit, (University of Wisconsin Press, Spring 2020); Paradise, Indiana (Pleiades Press, 2013); and The Year We Studied Women (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). He is co-editor of The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice (Pleiades Press, 2018). His poems and essays have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Poetry, Threepenny Review, UTNE, and ZYZZYVA, among others. His awards include a James A. Michener Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the Jenny McKean Writer-in-Washington award, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize, the Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry, the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry, as well residencies from Yaddo, the Millay Colony, the Amy Clampitt House, the James Merrill House, VCCA, and the Bogliasco Foundation. He is currently an Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco.
Preeti Vangani: Hi, Bruce. Thank you so much for talking to me about your new book, Fruit. And congratulations on winning the Wisconsin Poetry Prize! It is more than a joy for me to be able to talk to one of my first ever and most beloved poetry professors, and dive into the making of your wonderful book, which deals with life and death but also biology and sex. I understand that the book was earlier titled “The Hall of Human Origins.” Can you talk about the journey which eventually led you to Fruit.
Bruce Snider: For a long time, my working title was “The Hall of Human Origins,” which is the name of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. I lived and taught in D.C. from 2013-2014 and, “Homo,” one of the book’s earliest poems, was written there. I’d found myself writing poems inspired by the discussions my partner and I were having about whether to adopt kids and, at the same time, was spending a lot of time at the Smithsonian museums. One day, we went to the Hall of Human Origins exhibit, and it got me wondering how queer history might fit into the larger evolutionary history it traces. In fact, the exhibit became a kind of touchstone for me as I continued drafting poems for the book. The notion of a “natural” history seemed especially resonant, since same-sex desire has long been framed as “unnatural,” and I was interested in troubling those neat, human-generated categories.
Eventually, though, “The Hall of Human Origins” felt too direct and technical. “Fruit” struck me as more suggestive, marrying the religious (Garden of Eden) and genetic/reproductive themes to the queer history imbedded in the gay slur.
PV: The series of poems titled “Childless” reminded me of the string of “Afterlife” poems in your last book, Paradise, Indiana. Every piece here is such a beautiful and heartbreaking vignette that readers keep returning to over the body of the narrative. How did they come to be, and how did you decide on the shape they’d take within the manuscript?
BS: The “Childless” poems were actually some of the last poems I wrote for the book. Strangely enough, even though the book was inspired by my personal questions and anxieties, the earliest poems I wrote were the least personal. Once I started assembling the poems into a manuscript, I realized that the book was missing the lived dimension of the questions/tensions that had been obsessing me. I’ve always bristled at the word “childless” because it carries the sting of so many other “less” words—“brainless,” “heartless,” “hopeless,” etc.—so I wanted to interrogate that word a bit, spreading the poems throughout to ground the other poems in their more intimate and personal origins.
PV: Several poems in this collection begin in an origin story. Often, they trace the etymology of words, or they open in history or mythology. These final lines from the poem “Creation Myth” really stuck with me:
I’m born to thunder
in the veins, a child of form, a rusted gasket ring, some
disenchanted thing, the promise of a worm
What myths did you busy yourself with while writing this book? And who are the other writers and poets that have most directly influenced your thoughts on gender and creation?
BS: The central myths of the book are the myths of my upbringing, which were standard Christian myths—Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Ark, etc. Of course, the entire Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is really one big (pro)creation myth, fathers begetting sons who also beget sons and so on. On my father’s side, I was the oldest male grandchild, the oldest son of an oldest son, so I was told early on by both my father and grandfather that I would one day have sons to carry on the family name. Even after I came out to my family and moved away from Indiana, I felt the emotional pull of those early internalized expectations.
As for influential poets/poems, James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” has long been an important poem for me. Dickey, of course, was notoriously homophobic and misogynistic, yet I’ve always found something queer (or at least queer adjacent) in the poem’s transgression of the “natural,” how it troubles the traditional boundaries between human and animal. There’s tremendous power in the otherworldly sheep child to which the poem gives voice. It draws on what J.B. Mackinnon calls “the tension between being part of nature and standing apart from it,” which has long been a defining characteristic of being human and, in a slightly different context, is at the heart of many queer creation myths. As for more contemporary writers, I love Elizabeth Bradfield’s “Creation Myth: Peristeum and Self” and Greg Wrenn’s wonderful long poem, “Centaur,” both of which are kinds of queer myth making.
PV: Who are the other queer poets that have inspired you over your writing journey? And any newer or younger voices that you feel have shaken you good and that you would recommend?
BS: Frank O’Hara was the first queer poet I read, so inevitably he had a big impact. Mark Doty also had a huge influence early on, his first two or three books especially. I read Timothy Liu’s Burnt Offerings over and over. Perhaps lesser known, James L. White’s The Salt Ecstacies was essential for me, and still is. My instincts are so narrative that prose writers like James Baldwin, David Leavitt, Andrew Holleran, and Paul Monette were important. This was in the ‘90s; I was just coming out to friends and family and had begun thinking about myself more seriously as a writer. The idea of writing openly about queerness at that time, especially for a kid from rural Indiana, was utterly mind-blowing.
As for younger queer poets, there are so many good ones, too many to name. Most recently, one of my favorites is Jan-Henry Gray and his book Documents. He’s a great talent.
PV: Circling back to “the tension between being part of nature and standing apart from it.” I am thinking about this idea in terms of poem endings—how so many ends in this book are anchored in vivid and tender images rooted in some action. For example, the last two lines of “Because Eden, From the Hebrew, Means Pleasure”:
In the dark, he drew
a bird on his palm with a ballpoint pen,
moved his hand to make it fly.
As if the speaker hovers over the lived experience and delivers us into a sort of visual gentleness. I was recently working with an editor, and we discussed how either consciously or subconsciously, we often look at ends of poems, expecting us punch us in the gut. Tell us a little about your thinking on last lines? And when, for you, is a poem finished, if ever?
BS: I once heard Louise Glück say she could end any poem. It was beginning poems she found difficult. I’ve always felt the opposite. It’s that final moment of arrival that’s trickiest. Most of my failed poems fail because I can’t figure out where they go. As you note, image and action are common ways to embody a poem’s final tensions/themes and can provide a climactic moment; it’s essentially an epiphanic structure, leading to a kind of realization for the reader (if not always for the poem’s speaker). Increasingly, though, I’ve found myself questioning this kind of ending, wondering how I might put less emphasis on the arrival. How might things be less “punchy” and revelatory, more mysterious perhaps, or at least more varied? Like all writers, I catch myself depending on a specific set of syntactic/structural gestures that I have to be wary of.
PV: You’ve maintained that a lot of your writing stems from the fact that growing up you didn’t see a lot of rural American queerness represented in literature. And Fruit, like Paradise, Indiana captures a lot of that experience. But it also begins to make space for the urban—for example the San Francisco experience. I love these lines from the poem, “Twin Peaks Bar, San Francisco”:
He’s seen it all, the Castro’s fall, the clash
of riots, Harvey Milk, parades that lit the street,
though he kept working, people walking past
porn shops, bakeries, the plague that slashed
his boyfriend, Ted, the Greek masseur,
his face another shape beyond the glass.
How has living and teaching in California affected the lens with which you view the themes in your work?
BS: San Francisco’s rich queer history has definitely cast an important shadow over my work. Obviously, this is apparent in the Twin Peaks Bar you quote from. After moving to San Francisco, I began to realize how much rural queer history was a part of urban queer history and vice versa. The bartender, based on a real bartender who worked at TPB when I first arrived in the City, was once a farm kid from Michigan, one of the many gay men who fled (and continue to flee) the constraints of rural communities for the freedom of American cities. In that poem, I was partly interested in weaving that personal rural history into the larger queer history of the City.
PV: There are two sets of sonnet crowns in the book, “Devotions” and “Shelter,” both of which take us into the inside life, the home life, of the speaker in very different life stages, both narratives steeped in varied emotional complexities. Like your other work, much of this also seems autobiographical. Could you talk to us about the role that form plays for you in terms of shaping your memories. And how has that changed or evolved over the years?
BS: Like many poets, I turn to closed form for many reasons. Sometimes because I sense that the tensions of a particular subject are well-suited to a specific set of restraints. Sometimes because I’m interested in the ways different/similar forms might speak to one another within a manuscript. And sometimes simply because I’m stuck, and closed form can act like a crowbar, prying me away from whatever set of dead ends I’ve written myself into. I’ve found the latter to be especially true when dealing with autobiographical material or even material to which I already have a strong set of political or emotional attachments (i.e., I think I already understand the material and have something to say about it). For example, I wrote several failed free verse versions of “The Twin Peaks Bar, San Francisco,” but I couldn’t seem to escape all my preconceived ideas about what it meant that the poem was about the first gay bar in the country with windows. It had such personal and political resonance that I kept writing the poem toward what I already thought it was about and, in my experience, “aboutness” can be a real poem killer. When I started writing it as a villanelle (granted, an unusually long and roughed up one), I couldn’t force the poem into my little preconceived idea box. I had to follow the form into a new, more complex, and embodied expression of the material’s tensions. In general, I think writing is always about discovery, closed form, at least for me, in particular.
PV: In 2018, along with the poet Shara Lessley, you edited the anthology of essays, The Poem’s Country: Place and Poetic Practice. And I admire how gracefully you balance place into your own storytelling—readers go from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to a baby shower party to a hotel in Rome. What are some of the best ways, according to you, to make a place come alive in a poem?
BS: In general, I find that evoking a place is less about naming or even describing its individual parts than it is about rendering the relationships between those parts, particularly the tensions. I also always try to keep in mind Barry Lopez’s observation, and I’m paraphrasing here, that whenever you describe a place, you’re really describing two places: an outer place and an inner place. You always have to consider the subjectivity of the describer. I think Eavan Boland acknowledged this when she wrote, “what we call place is really only that detail of which we understand to be ourselves.” Philip Metres talks about describing “his” Russia in his book, Pictures at an Exhibition. “I’m wary of broad claims,” he’s acknowledged, “about the representativity of my representations.” There are all kinds of ethical questions that describing the world can raise. Katy Didden talks about some of these in her wonderful essay, “A Poetics of Tectonic Scale: The Great Distance Poem” (anthologized in The Poem’s Country), which I’d recommend to people wrestling with these issues.
I have a friend who teaches translation and translation theory, and I’ve heard her say that a translation of a poem from one language to another can never fully capture the original, but that many different translations can move us closer to the original. Sometimes I think descriptions of places are like that. My Indiana is not everyone’s Indiana. Maybe none of us can ever experience the Indiana, but once we start to have several different renderings of it, we move closer to some truer experience of the place.
PV: You’ve had such a busy last few years, with the release of the anthology and now, Fruit. Are you already working on something new? Is there something that’s been keeping you excited that you can speak about?
BS: I’ve just finished a draft of a new manuscript, a book-length poem called, “Threshold.” It’s about brotherhood, addiction, religion, sexuality and, of course, Indiana.
PV: And lastly, what are the non-writing world related activities, you’d say, that are integral to your process?
BS: Listening to music has always been important to my process, especially old Country and Western. I love Hank Williams, The Stanley Brothers, old Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, and so many others. There’s something wonderfully regional, stripped down and pure in some of this old songwriting that I find inspiring. It’s full of heartache, melodrama, and great storytelling. I also do some quilting, which—like poetry—is a kind of pattern making, but it’s tactile and bodily, which can offer a relief from the abstractions of language.
Thanks for spending so much time with Fruit and for all your great questions!
Photo credit: Todd Follett