"West Texas is strange as all get-out, and that’s part of what I like about it. I suppose I have some advantage not having grown up here, so I can see what others might take for granted."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Poch, your new poetry collection is Texases, described as “a kaleidoscope through which to view your home state and its geography and people, its past and present.” Poet Grace Schulman describes it as an "ethereal" experience to enter into "poems visited by angels and biblical cadences and scriptural tones." And poet Patrick Phillips pronounces Texases to be "a kind of psalter, full of graceful and moving love songs to the land."
Please tell us about your new collection.
John Poch: Patrick and Grace were very kind to over-praise these poems. It’s my fifth collection and it’s all about Texas and the complexity, beauty, and difficulty of this place. I’ve lived here for twenty-one of the last twenty-two years (one year in upstate New York), and though a few of my other poems in other books approach the Texas landscape and culture, this book makes a conscious attempt to get at the heart of who we are (and I am) here. I wasn’t born here, but now I’ve lived in Texas longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and perhaps I’ve earned the right to make a claim upon the language of who, what, and where Texas is. But the reader ultimately will determine that. I’ve had some hard-core Texans read my poems and tell me I might be an honorary Texan, and that makes me feel pretty good.
"The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader"
By John Poch
When the Cowboys cheerleader cheers
for a body it is her own in blue and silver
like a dove thrown into the sky fleeing gunshot
successfully, arcing her torso into a holy spirit.
Her athleticism is nearly unimportant.
She is the reason they make lipstick
into the shape of a bullet.
LSLL: Your Twitter bio notes that you are “true to form.” Image magazine said that one of your many skills is the long narrative poem. Texases is a mix of forms: prose poems, formal poems, free verse. What does true to form mean for you and how do you decide which form a poem should take? Do you have a favorite?
JP: “True to form” was something Beto O’Rourke said in response to Ted Cruz at one of the debates last year. It thought it was a humorous rejoinder. And I’m happy we’ve got a Texan such as Beto running for president; we’ll see what shakes out. But for me, yes, it applies to poetry in that I’m always deeply concerned with the form of a poem, whether it’s a sonnet, free verse, or a prose poem. The form of it must be connected with the function. I don’t break lines randomly. Every word, rhyme, and image has its place on the page in the same way every part of an engine needs to work in concert with the others to move the thing. I love the strict sonnet. It’s the greatest traditional form in English for poetry. Nothing comes close.
LSLL: You were born in Erie, Pennsylvania, earned an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Florida and a PhD at the University of North Texas. You’ve taught at Texas Tech University in Lubbock for eighteen years. You’ve made Texas home yet you also call yourself “a stranger in a strange land.” What is it about Texas that inspires you? In what way “strange” and are we all, to some degree, strangers in a strange land or do some of us inhabit the land we call home more effortlessly than other people?
JP: Right before Moses has his encounter with God speaking from the burning bush, he and his new wife have a son, Gershom, whose name means, Stranger in a Strange Land. Moses himself is in exile far from where he’d grown up, but this place is where he encounters the holy. I can identify with that. See the first epigraph in Texases. On a more secular level, West Texas is strange as all get-out, and that’s part of what I like about it. I suppose I have some advantage not having grown up here, so I can see what others might take for granted. Buddy Holly was not just another high school kid. We all want our kids to behave, but we also need to give our kids some creative freedom. Buddy did things his own way, and I like to think that the best of Texans have this independent rock-and-roll spirit. Lyle Lovett’s got it. Terry Allen’s got it. Amanda Shires has it. I’ve got a song, too, but no instruments. I like to joke and say that when I was a kid I used to play on the linoleum. I think a lot of Texans have it easier than me here because they have extended family. All my family is back East and in England. It makes one feel a little lonely not to have a deep sense of family around. That’s a struggle for us.
LSLL: The land features prominently in your work. You’ve written poems about the Llano Estacado, about mesquite and coyotes and cotton farmers, about Paducah, about water. Why the land? Do you think the physicality of the landscapes in Texas shape the place and the people more than in other places or merely differently?
JP: A lot of poets write about land and place. I think the effect in Texas might be the same as anywhere else. But no, Texas is just more intense: the size and variety of what we have here is outrageous. Texas goes on forever, it seems. The sky is beastly. Some years ago, I saw two tornadoes at once. Have you ever driven from El Paso across the state to Texarkana? That’s eleven hours if you don’t stop. I think we’re nearly the size of France, right? That’s pretty crazy. A lot of people miss what’s going on up close in the land because there’s so much of it. I guess as a poet I want to slow down and look at a turkey feather snagged on a mesquite branch and say, what is this beautiful thing in the midst of all this expanse and sky? I want to praise the horse crippler because everybody else seems to just pass it by or curse it and try to kill it, and to me, if I get right up on it, it’s like encountering a tiger or an alligator. The extremes here are undeniable. If you can’t hack it, I suggest Italy.
LSLL: Time and melancholy also feature prominently in your poetry. In your poem “God in the Shape of Texas” you write that “no one here speaks of centuries.” In “Sonnet on Time” the melancholic feel is strong, the passage of time not necessarily a good thing. In “The Iberian Muse” we get a distinct atmosphere of time immemorial, of history celebrated as such. What do you think of when you consider the clock and millennia?
JP: I was just yesterday talking to my graduate class about my obsession with Time. Shakespeare was obsessed with it in his own way. Every poet cares about it, but I can’t help but come back to it again and again because Time is such a great mystery due to God outside of it (and in it!), relativity, repetition (if that’s even possible at all), memory, and prophecy. If you want to see what I really think about time you’ll have to read the poems and the introduction in Between Two Rivers, which is forthcoming with Texas Tech University Press next month. The river is the most obvious metaphor that helps us understand the problem of time. I’m obsessed with rivers because there aren’t any around here! Put me in front of a river, and I start to cry. I literally start crying sometimes in the summers when I get to Taos and step into the Rio Hondo, and not just because the snowmelt is brutally cold. I’m a real goofball that way. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” is one of the greatest lyric poems about time you’ll ever read. The clock dominates the poem, but the river runs on at the end of the poem.
LSLL: As you mentioned, Between Two Rivers, a collaboration of photographs and poems about the rivers and landscape between the Brazos and the Rio Grande, for which you provided the poems and Tech’s Jerod Foster provided the photographs, is scheduled to be published this month by Texas Tech University Press. Please tell us about this project and how it came about.
JP: That’s a crazy long story, and I’d need a couple pages to do it justice. Suffice it to say that Jerod and I met in Junction, Texas about fifteen years ago, and we both grew to admire each other’s art over the years and wanted to collaborate. The time finally came around, and I had all these river poems, so this became our project. I’m pumped about the book. I think it’s going to sell like twenty thousand copies because it’s so doggone beautiful. It might take a few years, but if you see it, especially if you’re from New Mexico or Texas, you’re not going to be able to walk away from it without wanting to have a copy in your house. It’s not the same as Texases, in that no one will probably sit down with a big coffee table book in their lap and read all the poems. Your legs would fall asleep. But one is likely to leaf through, looking at Jerod’s beautiful photos, and stop to read a poem or two, and that’s good enough for me.
LSLL: You are a co-founder and longtime editor of 32 Poems Magazine and the series editor for the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize at the University of North Texas. What do you look for when choosing and editing poetry? What is your advice to aspiring poets hoping to be published and win prizes?
JP: Poems have to please my ear, eye, heart, and intellect. There are so many varieties of poems that I have to keep an open mind, and I surely don’t want to choose poems that only sound like what I write. I’m always looking for a poet who knows how to write a beautiful sentence, use lines like a good surgeon uses a scalpel, and give me an architecture of fresh images which create a world of meanings and possibilities. As for publishing: it’s important, as this is the way we share our work. You can go around handing people your poems or reciting them aloud, but it’s kind of special when others go around handing people your poems for you. Aspiring poets probably shouldn’t think too much about prizes, but they likely help bolster your confidence to get you writing more. But they can also give you a satisfaction that gets in the way. Stay hungry, whether you win the prizes or not. Stay hungry. Don’t try to always satisfy or feed your hunger. Admire your hunger. Turn it over in your mind like desiring your beloved. Hunger is power. Meditate on the ache of it. And prize rejection, because it will give the poems time to get better with revision. Time is the greatest editor. That’s a hard truth.
LSLL: How did you decide—or did you decide—that poetry would be your life’s work? Which poets do you most admire and why?
JP: I was supposed to be an engineer, but poetry found me and it called me. I wanted to be happy every day, and poetry brings me deep joy and satisfaction. Working out formulas stopped exciting me at some point, and I had to take a big risk to let that go. Most people were like: you’re going to do what? How does a poet make a living? Well, we teach, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach back then, but I knew I was going to write poems the rest of my life. And stories. There are too many poets whom I love to name just a few, but I’ll say one: W.S. Merwin, who just died, seems to me one of the last great poets. There are a lot of good poets, but he was a great poet. I can’t believe he never won a Nobel. Bob Dylan won the Nobel. What a shame. Bob Dylan, great song-maker that he is, can’t hold a candle to Merwin’s accomplishment. Don’t believe it? Fight me.
LSLL: Please tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for you.
JP: I’m working on a collection of essays about deeply spiritual poems by poets such as George Herbert, W.H. Auden, Victoria Chang, Alicia Stallings, Geoffrey Brock, Emily Dickinson, and a host of others. It’s a book geared mostly toward the Christian reader who cares about words and The Word but might not know enough about poetry. I have a collection of short stories that just won a big prize, though it hasn’t yet been published as a book. I need to revise it one more time and try to get that out there to some publishers, but I just don’t have the time … because I’m writing poems, too, toward a couple of different collections. One is a book of love poems, another a book of poems about my travels in Spain and Italy, and another I just started on more theological themes. I’m pretty prolific, but only so because my wife is a stay-at-home mom who opens up so much of my time because she works so hard doing everything else. We’re a pretty good team, I think. Her generosity astounds me.
LSLL: Which books are on your nightstand?
JP: Like by Alicia Stallings, The Wild Flowers of Baltimore by Rob Roensch, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey, Paradise Lost by Milton, The Geneva Study Bible (NKJV) by God, edited by R.C. Sproul.
John Poch teaches at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He was the Colgate University Creative Writing Fellow from 2000-2001 and was the 2007 Thornton Writer-in-Residence at Lynchburg College. In 2014 he was a Fulbright Core Scholar to the University of Barcelona in Spain.
His next book, Texases will be published in April 2019 through WordFarm Press. Between Two Rivers is a photography/poetry collaboration about Texas and New Mexico rivers and landscapes with Jerod Foster and will be published in 2019 by Texas Tech University Press. Fix Quiet won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. Dolls was released in 2009 with Orchises Press. Two Men Fighting with a Knife (Story Line Press 2008) won the Donald Justice Award. His first book, Poems, was published by Orchises Press (2004) and was a finalist for the PEN/Osterweil prize. The Essential Hockey Haiku (a poetry/fiction collaboration with Chad Davidson) was published by St. Martin's Press in fall 2006. A limited edition letterpress/art book Ghost Towns of the Enchanted Circle was published by Flying Horse Editions in 2007. Poch was a recipient of the “Discovery”/The Nation Prize in 1998. He was a founding editor of 32 Poems Magazine.
Visit him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jpoch.