Blas Falconer is the author of The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books, 2012); A Question of Gravity and Light (The University of Arizona Press, 2007); and The Perfect Hour (Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2006). He is also a co-editor for The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity (The University of Arizona Press, 2011) and Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).
He teaches at University of Southern California and in the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University.
Falconer’s awards include a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant, the New Delta Review Eyster Prize for Poetry, and the Barthelme Fellowship.
Born and raised in Virginia, Falconer earned an MFA from the University of Maryland (1997) and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston (2002). He currently lives in Los Angeles, California with his family.
I first met Blas Falconer during the June 2014 Antioch residency. I had not only attended his workshop, but also introduced him as the guest poet for an evening of readings. The night before this interview, Falconer was part of “Without Bridges,” a PEN Center USA poetry reading. I was fortunate to be in attendance.
Rochelle Newman: Do you have a writing ritual or structure?
Blas Falconer: I keep in touch with a few friends from grad school. We usually check in on Sunday to encourage each other. We give each other—give ourselves, really—a focus, a poetic element or device like compression or metaphor, tone, diction, or syntax. Then, we work on our own throughout the week using the focus as a lens to write something new. That keeps poetry in the back of my mind all the time, even when I’m picking my kids up or taking them to swim class or whatever it is I’m doing. Maybe I’m grocery shopping or even teaching, but I can go back to the page whenever I have time. My friends and I stay in contact throughout the week—asking, How’s it going? Are you having trouble? Then, we exchange our work that following Sunday, no matter what, and start thinking about the next week.
We do this for a few reasons. One, it feels great to be writing and just thinking about poetry when everything else in our lives is demanding our attention. Two, it keeps our skills honed while pushing us to try our hands at something new. And three—every once in a while, we get a poem worth keeping. What I realized recently is that because I’ve been dong this with my friends for a while, when I do get a chunk of time to write, there isn’t that painful beginning. You know, when you haven’t written in a while. The muscles haven’t atrophied. You’re right there.
RN: I really enjoyed attending your workshop, “The Finished Poem,” at Antioch this past June. In describing the premise, you quoted Brazilian poet Adelia Prado. She had been asked, as I’m sure you have been many times, how she knew when her poems were finished. She responded (in Portuguese) ‘when they are better than I am.’ You covered great territory in that workshop—from knowing when you’re finished to pushing yourself to the edge of your own limitations. When, for example, do you know you’re finished, and how do you give yourself that push?
When I can call home and not feel guilty, then I know that the poem is done.
BF: You know when your poem’s not finished. You know when you’ve taken an easy out. You just do. One of my professors once said, “Do you want to write one hundred good poems or one great poem?” I’ve never forgotten that. I’m not saying I’m going to write a great poem, but at least I want to aim for it, so I don’t want to stop short. And the other thing is this, when I’m writing, I’m not with my family. When I’m writing, everyone makes a sacrifice. When I go to a writer’s conference, for example, if I don’t really push myself and challenge myself, I’m not only letting myself down, but I’m letting my family down. I’m not using that time well. It would be better for me to stay at home and be with my kids—that would be time better spent. So, how do I know the poem is done? It’s done when I feel like whatever it is that I was desperate to say has been said, in the best way I am capable of saying it at that time. When I can call home and not feel guilty, then I know that the poem is done.
RN: You also spoke a great deal about “turns” or “voltas” in the workshop. How do you help your students to really leverage turns?
BF: Sometimes students don’t think to turn, like I don’t think to turn sometimes. They hit a wall and think that they’re done. But if you just start poking a little bit and start asking questions, you realize that within the poem itself there are clues as to how you can push yourself: maybe there’s a reference to a narrative that you want draw on. Maybe there’s another narrative that can be brought in to juxtapose with the first. Maybe there’s a pattern that’s trying to emerge. If there is a pattern, then you can break the pattern. Maybe it’s metrical, or some sort of rhyme scheme, or even some sort of rhetorical device, so that’s a way my students can turn—it really depends on the poem itself. Once you start to look at it and see what you’ve begun with—the draft invites some play, some possibilities—you may want to counter the idea and undermine the argument you made in the first several lines. What I like to do is ask students to explore. Sometimes the poem is done, and there’s nothing left to do, but it’s always fruitful to consider how you might push the poem before you let it go.
RN: I believe you were once a gymnast, which makes me think of turns and dismounts. Do you think your training as an athlete, specifically a gymnast, plays any role in your poetry or your process?
BF:What an interesting idea. Actually, I have written about it, there’s a section in the prose poem sequence “Another Kind of Music”from The Foundling Wheel where I write about gymnastics explicitly. In the poem, I describe dismounting from the horizontal bar and being spotted by my coach, to convey what it was like to be in the closet and wanting to be loved, and being in love with someone who was straight and who didn’t know. It was about trust, trying to trust. So in the analogy, the coach—when he spots you, he stands below you—you fly up in the air, you do whatever trick you’re doing. Often times, especially when you’re learning a new move, there’s a blur and a disorientation. You’re out of control; you don’t know where you are. As you do it more and more, you can sense where you are in the air, you can spot the ground and land on your feet, but until then the coach is there to catch you, make sure you don’t get hurt. Sometimes he can’t prevent that. So in a way, that is also like writing, I suppose. You do kind of get lost and you’re trying to spot the ground. You’re trying to land. Sometimes you crash, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes it’s fine.
Training could also be a good description of revision, because when you’re learning something in gymnastics, you do it again and again and again, and you fail again and again and again, usually—until it feels right. Then you get it and once you get it, it’s like your body, muscle memory kicks in. The feeling you get when you do a move well, for example, is a little bit like the way it feels when you finish a poem, and it feels like everything is where it’s supposed to be.
Another reason it’s a good analogy is this: there are a lot of parts to an acrobatic move. If you want to complete it, you may have to kick, you need a certain amount of momentum, you need your body to take a particular shape, your arms might have to do something in order to turn or spin. Everything must be timed right. You’re thinking about distance and height, you’re thinking about when you release from the bar, there are all these components that make the move successful. So within a poem, that’s true as well. It’s not any individual device that matters, it’s all of them working together to create the whole experience.
RN:What drives you to the page?
BF: It’s a good question: why do we write these poems? What compels us to “speak?” I think it was Jorie Graham who said, “When I write a poem, I imagine I’m talking to someone who’s walking away.” That’s a really great way to think about urgency in a poem, about what you need to say. One of my professors once said, “Every poet needs to learn how to not write about himself or herself,” but he also said that every poem that he has ever written is somehow about his father. There are several subjects that I keep returning to—belonging, for example—subjects that I clearly feel the need to address, whether I write about them explicitly or not. But also the act of speech is important. I write because the act is empowering and self-affirming. I lived with a secret for much of my life, and keeping that secret made me feel shame and self-loathing, so to speak my truth seems to defy those who would deny me my small place in this world, it is to insist that I am here, as well.
I often return to Heather McHugh’s poem “What He Thought,” where an Italian gentleman defines poetry by telling the story of Giordano Bruno, who had been burned in the square for public heresy. His captors, fearing what he might say to the crowd, placed an iron mask on his face, so he couldn’t speak. “Poetry is what/ he thought but did not say,” the poem famously ends. In that moment, what was Bruno thinking, I wonder, what would he have said? I’m drawn to poetry because there is the potential to say what I can’t say in my life, not even here, in this interview, because of the mask, either self-imposed or imposed by social coercion or by language itself, language’s shortcomings. How lucky, I sometimes think, to have found poetry.
RN: What’s the first poem you remember hearing?
I didn’t know where I was. I was lost, but I was also kind of thrilled about it and I wanted to go back and try it again and again and again.
BF: What’s the first poem I remember hearing? That’s really interesting, because if you think of hearing…you know, with the word underlined…I loved children’s poetry when I was growing up. But the first poem I heard, that I really heard was as an undergrad in a contemporary poetry class. When I heard Sylvia Plath read out loud, I couldn’t even process the words. My ear kept going back to all the rhyme, the internal rhyme, and the class had moved on, but my head was still spinning and before I realized it the poem was over. It was like I was doing that gymnastic move and I couldn’t spot the ground. I didn’t know where I was. I was lost, but I was also kind of thrilled about it and I wanted to go back and try it again and again and again. So maybe that’s it, maybe my first poem was “Lady Lazarus”, or “Daddy” that I really heard.
RN: What about the first poem you ever read? And I guess read can have a few meanings too—read in a book or read aloud.
BF: So if I had to say hearing, I would say Sylvia Plath, from that class. And reading, I would say Lucille Clifton because Quilting is the first book of poetry that I bought. And I was so thrilled to have it and to read it through. That was probably the first poet I read thoughtfully.
RN: You’ve mentioned that the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa can really move you. How are you inspired by other art forms—music, painting, photography, sculpture, for example? I found a poem you wrote based on a photograph of zinnias and it made me curious about the role of these other influences.
BF: When I listen to Mercedes Sosa’s voice and when she’s singing about something profound, you just listen to it, it’s kind of like when you’re around someone who is in a very profound emotional state. You can’t help but feel it. When I was a young child and I would see someone cry—I mean grieve—even If I saw someone struggling to hide the grief, holding it back, I would burst into tears. I could not control myself. And I think that when you are in front of an artwork that is emotionally engaging, if you keep being present with it, eventually the boundary between you and the work starts to blur. You start to feel whatever it is…something. That work speaks to something I want to say.
The emotional register helps me to articulate something. So for example, with the poem that you’re referring to, it’s from the Harvey Hix ekphrastic project, Inquire. Harvey gave me Bruce Checefsky’s photograph of three zinnia elegans. The photographer used this technique that blurred the blossoms. My son had been, my older son had suffered from febrile seizures, and there was this moment in particular when I watched him have a seizure—he was about one and a half years old. It was hard to watch because you can’t do anything, there is nothing you can do. I remember my husband Joseph running to the bathroom to get something and I was like: That’s not going to help. It’s kind of like, go boil water. I’m going to sit here with him. I spent a lot of time looking at this photograph and I didn’t know what I was going to write about, but finally I got this, the feeling I had when I was watching my son’s body shaking and it was like it was blurred, time blurred, and I thought it was like these white blossoms, they were on fire…they were like fever. So I was just looking at them and it was through the emotion, somehow they tapped into this experience I had and the emotions behind it, when I watched my son have a seizure.
In that poem I was able to bridge those two experiences—looking at the image and saying that was my son—how else do you describe that? I mean there are probably many ways, but that was the best way for me. I guess that’s what I—it’s kind of like a way to get underneath everything and behind the brain, or around the brain, and get to the more emotional center of whatever it is you’re trying to write.
RN: Do you believe that a love for poetry starts in the womb, or does it have to be introduced and reinforced?
BF: In my older son’s case, it seems to be the latter because he has expressed very little interest…but I am determined. At bedtime, after reading one or two of his favorite books, usually something to do with superheroes, I say, Now, we can either read these nursery rhymes, or you go to bed. He groans and complains before eventually caving. Sometimes, we read one or two before he’s ready to sleep, but other times, he keeps asking me to read the next and the next until we get through the whole book. What begins as an attempt to stay up really late sparks some interest, I think. He still prefers reading about Power Rangers, but he seems to be more open to poetry.
RN: Where do young people get connected to poetry today?
BF: You’ll have to ask them. I don’t know. Probably from many different places. From music, from slam, performance poetry…many performance poems go viral, they’re very powerful. From the classroom, from the Internet, people are posting them on Instagram. Also, there are a lot of organizations that do a great job of making available lots of great poems and helping people access them. Poetry Foundation has a really great website. PEN Center USA and Poets & Writers, which put together last night’s reading, and a lot of other organizations all over the country are working to create a presence in communities.
RN: Can you take us back to your childhood—Hunters Wood Elementary School in Virginia and then to Puerto Rico—and share some perspectives on how your poetry has been influenced by your duality, or perhaps I should say plurality of identity?
BF: Plurality. My dad was of German and Scottish descent. My mom was Puerto Rican. I don’t know how much of this sense of duality is because my mom was Puerto Rican and we were in Northern Virginia, or because we would go to Puerto Rico and I was, then I was very, not Puerto Rican—
RN: Or Nuyorican.
BF: Yes, exactly. I wasn’t even Nuyorican. Then on top of that I was gay—within— almost always within a straight environment that created a big internal world, an internal life in which I was always considering how I was being perceived. Am I being straight enough? Have I just given myself away? So just having that at a very young age, you know, you have to develop a very strong, or I developed a very strong imaginative world. For me, writing invites a similar turning inward—toward that private voice, which I became attuned to at an early age because of that plurality, I suppose.
RN: Your first collection, A Question of Gravity and Light,explored the challenges of moving between cultures and specifically underscored the cultural tensions inherent in being a gay man, particularly one with maternal ties to Puerto Rico. You have connected ‘solitude and sensitivity’ with your poetic drive. Are solitude and sensitivity still what drive you? Or, is your need for poetic expression driven by other characteristics at this stage of your life?
BF: The subject matter is only one component, of course, in what drives the poem. I wrote the first book and I was thinking about these larger issues of identity, but the second book—
RN: The Foundling Wheel.
BF: Yes. I was just writing about what was happening in front of me, my son’s adoption, my father-in-law’s death, my husband’s absence. There was an immediate and constant drama or tension in my life that I was trying to capture. In both cases, the sense of solitude and sensitivity are there because, when I write, I want to be as quiet and alert as I can be, so I can hear the poem. That’s where the work comes from. Now, I’m writing new poems, some of which have little to do, or anything to do explicitly, with my personal life. Yet what I’m describing or witnessing is still my perspective—they’re still coming from that same place—that stillness, so I think they often still convey that sense of solitude and sensitivity.
RN: You’re one of the editors of Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, which I personally found very accessible and inspiring for writers, whether they are poets are not. In addition to that book, craft-focused or not, what should poets be reading?
BF: I think they should read what excites them, and I think they should read what frustrates them and confuses them, and I think they should read what doesn’t sound like them, and what sounds like them. I want to read poetry that is very different from my own because it challenges me to think beyond my own aesthetics or themes. Often, I turn to poetry that’s very different from my own when the skills or techniques I’m most comfortable with aren’t enough for me to write the poem that I’m trying to write. Someone once told me to think of poetic devices and modes as keys on a piano. If you rely on only a few keys, you’ll have a very limited repertoire.
RN: And what about how should poets be reading? Is there a how?
BF: What I do in my workshops is I often have—we read a poem out loud—and I just want students to be sensitive to the way they are responding. Be open and alert to the way they are responding physically, emotionally, to the experience of the poem. I think that’s the most important thing. Intuitively they can often grasp the poem and they grasp what might be working or what might not be working. And they just sense that this is not quite right, or I’m drawn in right here, but I feel pushed out over here. So I guess I want them to do that. I ask them to do that with poems that we read together and if they’re confused and frustrated, ask themselves, why? Why is something challenging? In the end, when composing their own new work, I want students to look to themselves, to trust their judgment, and I’ve found that this is an effective way to help develop that confidence and to help them start thinking about what they want to say and how they want to say it.
RN: You mentioned out loud. Is reading a poem out loud an important “how” for a poet?
BF: Absolutely! It’s necessary. Sometimes I just read my students’ poems back to them, and have them read them to me, and have somebody else read them. But also it’s when the poem comes alive for me. I love reading on the page too, because you can see more clearly how it comes together, how it’s working. But the music of the poem is as important as any other element, if not more important.
RN: As you know, I saw you read at a PEN USA event just last night. You are an excellent reader of your work, but not all poets are. Any tips for the reluctant reader?
BF: When I read now, I try to embody the speaker of the poem. I just want to—I don’t want to pretend like I am that person, I want to be that person. And I want to speak as though I am speaking these words for the first time and speaking them to someone in particular.
RN: At that same event, you made it a point to read some of your newest poems. But days old new, I think you said. I believe the idea of always reading something new was advice you once got. Can you talk more about that?
BF: It was Paul Guest who said it. I was reading from my first book a lot. I was reading the same poems over and over again, and so when he said that he tries to read something new every time, I thought, yeah, I should do that. It’s very good advice because it creates a little bit of fear—there’s immediacy, there’s a freshness there. The risk and the fear you feel about reading the new, the vulnerability comes into the voice, doesn’t it? And that’s what it is that I’m trying to get at—the vulnerability. I mean not every poet is aiming for that and that’s fine. I guess that’s what I’m aiming for.