Interview with John Struloeff
by Forrest Anderson
You started writing poetry with the promise that you would write a poem a day for a year. What drew you to writing poetry? And why such a fevered pitch?
I began my PhD program at the University of Nebraska in 2000 fully focused on being a fiction writer and with the intent of teaching fiction writing at the college level. By this point, I hadn't spent much time with poetry—just the poetry segments in undergraduate literature classes, maybe scratching out a few juvenile poems every year or two. I decided, though, that I would be selling myself—and my future students—short if I graduated my PhD program in Creative Writing without having at least attempted to better understand poetry. I thought the best way of doing this was to immerse myself in the writing of poetry for a while. In my life, for years at a time, I have studied guitar playing, foreign languages, martial arts, etc., and I knew from those experiences that a daily regimen was the most productive way of learning. So I decided that one year was a good time-frame—and I set about writing a poem every day for a year. Who knew it would end up getting me a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and my current position as Director of Creative Writing at Pepperdine? Without my decision to start writing poetry, those things almost certainly would not have happened, and I would be struggling with so many others in the current job climate.
Was this around the same time that you were working with Ted Kooser—a recent Pulitzer Prize winner and Poet Laureate of the US—at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln?
Yes, around this time, I had signed up for a one-on-one mentoring course with Ted Kooser, who had yet to be selected for Poet Laureate or for his Pulitzer. He was very encouraging and compassionate about my struggles with this new form, and he ended up being very influential in my development. I think if you read his work, then look at poems of mine such as “The Foothills” or “Funeral of Earl Jay, a Logger,” you'll see that influence. I am still learning from him. He is truly a genius, especially with the embedded metaphor.
Was it his idea for you to write a poem a day?
As for my writing project, he didn’t specifically recommend that I write a poem a day for a year, but he talked about his own early morning writing ritual and about how William Stafford and others made poetry writing part of their daily lives. He also recommended that a poet (especially an early poet) read at least ten poems for every poem that he or she writes. So each evening after dinner I would read at least ten poems, always waiting for a spark of an idea—something in the language, some sort of echo of my own experience. When that spark flared, I would set the book aside and write my poem for that day. I kept a special notebook for these poems, dating each page like a journal, sometimes also marking notes in the margins about books I was reading that day or quoting beautiful lines I’d read. I didn’t quite make my goal of writing a poem every single day that year, but I wrote around 300 poems, most of them unpublishable. Oddly enough, about 2 1/2 weeks into this year-long venture I wrote “Loggers,” which would end up being published almost unchanged in The Atlantic Monthly a few years later and would change the course of my life (prompting me to apply for the Stegner Fellowship and so on). By this point, though—just a few weeks into my poetry writing—I was hooked. I found that I truly enjoyed reading and writing poetry, and it was enhancing my fiction and nonfiction writing. My work became more concise, and I gained a better sense of rhythm, echo, metaphor, and structure. I still maintain a dual life of writing fiction and poetry each day, and it’s wonderful.
How many of those 300 poems made it into your debut collection, The Man I Was Supposed to Be?
About eight of the poems from that first year ended up in the book, including the title poem and “Loggers,” along with “Knee-Deep in the Pacific,” “Above the Ravine,” and “Underlife,” which are all very important poems for the book. I didn’t think that I was writing a book until I wrote “The Man I Was Supposed to Be,” which seemed immediately significant. As soon as I finished drafting that poem, I could see how it connected the various threads that I had been following for months, and I knew it would be the title poem of my work, whether it be a chapbook or a full length collection. It’s funny, too—that poem is the only one that has come to me in the middle of the night. I awoke one night at around 2 a.m. hearing the first two lines in my head like a voice. I scrambled out of bed without putting my glasses on and sat at my desk, scribbling blindly these lines that seemed to be composing themselves. It was as if my mind was writing that poem while I was sleeping, and, fortunately, it was polite enough to wake me so I could document the night’s work. As I said, it’s the only poem that has come to me that way, but I see it as symbolic of the strange and magical world of the mind.
The poems in The Man I Was Supposed to Be are largely narrative with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Even the poems formed around images—“Sturgeon,” “The Salmon Run,” and “Table Saw, for example—promise the possibility of a story along the edges of the poem. Why the interest in narrative poetry?
This comes directly from my long-standing fiction writing experience. I grew up in a storytelling community in northwestern Oregon, a small section of the Columbia River valley where Raymond Carver was born. Carver’s family was from Arkansas, and they were part of a large influx of Southerners who came to the area for work in logging campus during the Great Depression. I attribute much of my storytelling impulse to this cultural influence, which is still present there. My father, too, offered me wisdom about life through stories. This played out initially in my short story and novel writing (my dissertation was an historical novel, Spirit Wrestlers, and I have drafted two other novels). When I turned to poetry, I was naturally drawn to narrative-based poems. Because of this, I love the narrative poems of Philip Levine, William Stafford, Robert Frost, Ted Kooser, Elizabeth Bishop—and I also really respond to poets whose poetic lives are connected with nature—Mary Oliver, John Haines, and many more. My taste goes beyond that, too. I appreciate a very broad range of styles and subject matter.
The way you answered that question—with your region’s history, your relationship to your father, and your personal experience—strikes me as characteristic of your collection. You seem interested in examining the relationship of past generations to the present in an almost naturalistic way. I’m thinking about your poem, “Becoming,” in which the sons of the poem grow up to become their fathers. Or, “Tattoos on the Son of a Fisherman,” where the character preserves his father’s memory and attempts to escape him. And, in “The Radio,” a man preserves an artifact from his past but hides its meaning from his family. The collection seems ambivalent about the past, almost simultaneously disavowing it but yearning to preserve it.
You’ve hit on some of my most important themes—or the ones I’m most conscious of, anyway. I can’t help but be aware of the way the people I’ve known, the places I’ve lived, and my experiences have all shaped me. I tend to look at all of my writing holistically. Even with works that I expect to stand alone, I see the ways they interconnect with all the other things I’ve written. Like Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, the overall body of work keeps growing, building on the foundation set in earlier work, reaching out to future work.
Yet, there seems to be very little ambivalence about the damage your characters—loggers and fisherman—have inflicted on the environment of the Pacific Northwest. This seems especially prevalent in “Fishermen” and “Old Growth Photograph.”
Yes, a necessary evil, I guess. Destroying in order to rebuild. When you tie someone’s profession to a natural resource, then advance the technology they use to extract that resource—larger, faster, more efficient—you’re going to inevitably face a challenging balancing act. I respect what most of these guys are doing on an individual basis, but the large-scale effects can be frightening. As one of my editors said to me, “This is news that stays news.”
Let me backtrack a little bit. I’m glad you brought up Raymond Carver. I read your poem, “Fisherman,” as an allusion to his short story, “Nobody Said Anything,” and the opening of your poem “Becoming” as an allusion to “Bobber.” Also, in your poem “Logger, 43, Divorced” I detected a little bit of “Flyboys” by Tobias Wolff. How much of an influence have Carver and other writers of the Pacific Northwest been on your work?
These are sub-conscious allusions, but I’m sure you’re on to something. I’m a big fan of both Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff and have re-read their books many times, internalizing, I’m sure, some of their themes and ways of shaping sentences and stories. They are (or were, in the case of Carver) both very concise, careful story writers and both fans of poetry. Carver spent as much time writing poetry as he did writing fiction. I know from my time around Toby at Stanford that he reads and studies quite a lot of poetry. This is apparent if you read their work and think about the overall concision, the powerful images, and the way their lines resound.
While we’re talking about influence I’d like to ask you a bit more about what you said about Southerners migrating to northwestern Oregon and William Faulkner. Do you closely identify with Southern writing as a reader and as a writer?
Yes. The Southern tradition in US literature is just amazing. It speaks to me much more than “city-fied” writing. I’m long-time fans of Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and many others, and have studied their work on a craft level. I first drew the concept “local mythology” from reading Taylor’s The Old Forest and Other Stories. The sense of surrounding mystery in O’Connor’s stories. The massive exploration of a single literary terrain in Faulkner’s work. These concepts have all influenced me as a writer.
You are also a successful short story writer and a novelist. Your collection of short stories, Animals, was a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award. When you sit down to write or when you have that initial cusp of an idea, do you know if it’s going to turn into a poem, a short story, or a novel?
Generally, yes, I do know which form it’s going to take. I think it might come from my sense of the level of compression involved, and this is something I usually know immediately. Poetry is highly compressed. There is more of an expectation for each word and stanza to carry a great deal of weight. With novels, I can tell that the story is mammoth, that it will require a series of scenes and simultaneous threads. Stories are a hybrid of poetry and novel, in a way—balancing compression and expansion.
What do you have planned for your next project? What can we expect from you next?
Wow. Lots going on. I’m writing toward at least one new collection of poems. Recently I’ve felt I have two collections in the works, but we’ll see. I’m writing more history-based poetry, which has been interesting for me. I probably won’t have a book draft until at least this summer or sometime next year. My poetry writing has accelerated, though, since I won the NEA. I also have a novel that I’m circulating and am drafting a new history-based novel about part of the life of Leo Tolstoy. I plan to visit Russia this summer to research sections of this newest novel.
Name a writer whose work is currently making you jealous.
Philip Roth. I just finished reading Everyman and wish I had written it. It speaks to a number of things that are haunting my life these days, including the major heart attack and subsequent coma of a close family member. Another novel of his that I admire is The Plot Against America, which I used in a course I taught at Stanford called ‘Writing Historical Fiction.’ He effortlessly and wisely wrote about that historical era in our country’s history (the years leading up to and including WWII) while also fracturing that history with a single speculative leap: What if Lindbergh (with his Nazi sympathies) had become President during WWII? Wonderful. And he pulled it off! I’m also a big fan of Goodbye, Columbus. Can you imagine publishing your first book at age 26 and then winning the National Book Award for it?
What kind of child were you?
Silent. Observing. Bright. So the family lore goes: I didn’t speak until I was four years old, and by that point I could already read. Everyone describes me as very quiet but intelligent beyond my years. I do remember starting school already knowing how to read, write, and do mathematics. Of course, intelligence at that age often comes with a price. I got beat up by the not-so-bright boys for a few years until I learned how to fight.
One writing-related thing I can say: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing stories. I remember writing stories in first and second grade. In third grade, I wrote a book (including illustrations) called The Bee, and the librarian asked to keep it. A proud moment for me. I didn’t start writing poetry until Junior High when every single part of my life was destroying me every day (which will give you a sense of how bad those poems were).
What’s your relationship with rejection like?
Up and down, of course. Sometimes it stings, other times I don’t even blink. About ten years ago, when I was trying to place what ended up being my first published story (“Uncle Walt” in Other Voices) I simultaneously submitted the story to five literary journals. Each envelope I opened with excitement, only to have my heart ripped out. By my fourth rejection, I had decided I would quit the business. Then a few depressing weeks later I came home from my job and had a phone message from the editor of Other Voices waiting for me. A joyous moment—one that may have saved my career. When I first sent out poetry, I sent one poem (“Knee-Deep in the Pacific”) to one literary journal. It was accepted. I officially had a 100% acceptance rate in poetry! I joked that I wasn’t going to submit any more poetry, just to keep a perfect record. Since then, I’ve racked up over 1,000 rejections, but it’s gotten a lot easier to take. I find that if I keep a lot of poems and stories circulating, I can almost ignore the rejection. (Almost.)
What poem do you feel you suffered for the most? How?
I think “Knee-Deep in the Pacific.” That one can still bring me to a very intense emotional space. I read it once during the presentation phase of one of my job interviews, and those old emotions caught me off guard—I had to work to keep my composure. I bet most writers have pieces like that, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. Regardless of what anyone else may get from their reading experience, I feel a powerful sadness when I read that poem.
Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?
Too many to document here. The primary one is “The Internet,” which I will use as an umbrella term for those hours every day that I waste checking and re-checking email, ritualistically visiting my list of ‘Favorites’ sites (Poetry Daily, etc.), Googling various phrases or names, re-checking email, checking Facebook, etc. Just think how many stories or poems I could have written during those wasted hours! Novels! But, as Vonnegut said, So it goes. Will I ever be free of habits that will detract from my writing time? No. And still I go on.