Interview: John Casteen

by April Manteris

531-John_Casteen.pngJohn Casteen is the author of For the Mountain Laurel (2011) and Free Union (2009), part of the VQR Poetry Series from The University of Georgia Press. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry. He teaches at Sweet Briar College, where he founded and directs the Sweet Briar Undergraduate Creative Writing Conference. He lives in Earlysville, Virginia, and serves on the editorial staff of Virginia Quarterly Review.

Casteen has contributed prose on gun policy, professional ethics, and environmental policy to, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other magazines and newspapers.

Read his poem “Rhythm and Blues”



Q: Nature, particularly the local landscape, seems vital to your poetry. What is the relationship, for you, between nature and displacement?

A: Nature is the same as any other ostensible subject matterthe city, the suburb, the farm, the factory.  Landscape and place are a way in. The real subject matter is cultural and/or internal.  I’ve been in my own landscapethe Blue Ridge mountains and Piedmont region of central Virginiafor most of my life, so it turns up a lot in the poems. Place may be omnipresent, but it’s never the whole story.

532-casteen_bookcover.pngQ: In the summer of 2008 you taught for and traveled with Semester at Sea. Did that experience, being removed from your native, familiar place, affect your current book, For the Mountain Laurel? How might that experience affect your future writing?

A: I wanted to travel overseas because I was aware that my adult perspective on the world had become somewhat parochial. I imagined that most other places were more or less like the US, and they aren’t. For reasons of money and time, I hadn’t been abroad since I was in college, and SAS was and is a great way for my family to learn and compare other cultures.  We’ll be on the ship again this fall, visiting four ports in Africa, five in Asia, and three in Central America. I don’t expect to write much while we’re on the road, but I do expect to work it out for a long time to come.

Like many Americans, I had and probably still have an inadequate sense of world history and a tendency to over-generalize from my own experience. Good writing is based on specificity and directness of firsthand knowledge, so finding out more about the world has been instrumental to my own growth as a writer and teacher of writing. In terms of material and maturity of approach, Semester at Sea gave me more in one summer than I’ve learned anywhere else since graduate school.

Q: Both of your books devote a number of pages to insomnia poems. What keeps you awake?  What about that time drives your creativity?

A: It’s mostly a former problemwaking up at two or three, full speed. I licked it with exercise, cutting back on sugar and caffeine, and worrying less. But for the many years that I was a regular insomniac, those small hours were a quiet and usually pleasant melancholy time for reflection, reading, and writing. It’s a good opportunity for composing new work and organizing little bits and pieces, but not much good for revision.

Q: In the poem, “Three A.M., Walking the Dry Creek,” the speaker is “Awake again, and out/ of options…[hoping] to die/ with eyes wide open.” A sense of urgency, of racing against time and death, pervades many of your poems.  What is your relationship with mortality?

A: I don’t think about it very much. The topic probably ends up on the page more often than it occupies the forefront of my mind. If it comes across as a source of pressure in the poems, though, I guess I’m glad about that.

Q: There’s a kind of squaring off in your second booka need “to put it right,” (“Self-Portrait as a Younger Man, Pissed Off in the Shop”) to carry “a gun in [your] pocket” (Self-Portrait in Response to a Rhetorical Question”) that isn’t as present in your first book. What did you grapple with in the second book? Did you suffer while writing it?

A: Some of the subjects I was working out in those poems come from private life, and I didn’t want them to be part of the writing on the page. They come from duress. Probably a lot of intentional writing does. I dislike and distrust confessional poetry in general, and so I never wanted to ask the reader to believe that the poem is more powerful or meaningful because the event that precedes ita real event in my real life, or anyone else’scommands sympathy. Some bad things happened in my own life, and some bad things happened in the lives of people I know well and care about; all of those experiences end up in the writing in one way or another, but not, I hope, front and center. Also, my own hard times aren’t very hard relative to other peoples’ hard times.

The photographer Uta Barth was very instructive to me in this regard, incidentally. She makes these photographs whose subject is absent; the image is all context, no object to stare at. That’s the relationship with autobiography I wanted for the poems in the book: it could have been there, but it isn’t, and the poem is what lies in the wake of what was real. It’s an artifact. I don’t want to ask the reader to identify.

Q: What was the greatest surprise for you in writing your book?

A: I didn’t expect the process of writing the poems to be as efficient as it was. I took about fifteen years to write the poems in my first book; in that time, probably three or four fell out for every one that made its way into the final manuscript. I was learning how to approach the work, making a lot of missteps, and experimenting in every direction I could come up with. The poems in For the Mountain Laurel were written pretty much in order, beginning to end, one by one. And I think in the five years I worked on the book, I began two or maybe three poems that didn’t survive the process. So I was surprised by the sense of purpose and urgency that I felt, all the way through.

It was also a very pleasant surprise to discover that other people were interested in reading the poems. I have three really spectacular colleagues at Sweet BriarJohn Gregory Brown, Carrie Brown, and Dave Griffithwho are attentive to and supportive of my work and one another’s. And the poems seem to have found dedicated readers, some of whom are people I know and some of whom are complete strangers. Or incomplete. It’s a surprise to find the poems living out there in the world, away from me and what I thought about them. I like that.

Q: Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?

A: No. I do have one writerly habit I’d like to keep, which is that I tend to ignore or forget anything that bothers me enough to interfere with the work.

Q: Which poets do you find yourself continually going back to, and what do you learn from reading their work?

A: I tend to return to Hopkins, Stevens, and Strand a lot. And James Wright. Denis Johnson.  I read my teachersDebra Nystrom, Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, and Jim Galvinbecause returning to their work helps me remember the scope and depth of everything they had to teach. I love them. But I learn the most now from photographers, I think, and from other poets who are roughly my ageRachel Zucker, Mary Szybist, Doug Powell, Randy Mann, Chelsey Minnis, Spencer Short, John Beer. People whose work would be hard for a reader to connect to mine in any obvious way, but who are navigating the same general time and place I am. People of my generation are probably the last to have personal memories of the old worldthe pre-information-technology, modern but not postmodern worldand the first to have come along in time to get access to everything that’s new.

Q: What is the first poem you committed to memory?

A: “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang.

Q: Is there a poet out there whose work is currently making you jealous? Or how about a poet whom you wish would just disappear?

A: No, and no.

Q: How do you define success for a poet writing today?

A: Humility and generosity of spirit. In America right now, a successful poet makes the art matter by making his or her own life useful to other people. The only genuinely successful writers I know have gone well out of their way to do specific and tangible good for othersother writers, readers, people in their communities, people in their personal lives. People they didn’t have to help, or people for whom they raised the bar, or made something new possible. I don’t have much use for a person with a showy, self-promoting public side and an empty or self-satisfied life off the page. Success is in one’s ambition for the happiness and well-being of others.

Q:  What’s your relationship with rejection like?

A: Intimate and longstanding. Actually, I don’t think about it. Poems go out in the mail, and later they mostly come back in. I would rather figure out how to write better than watch the mailbox.

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April Manteris was born in Louisiana and grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia.  She has an MFA from Florida State University, where she also received the Ann Durham Creative Writing Thesis Award.  She is currently a PhD candidate and instructor at Florida State University.