November 1998

Neal Bowers

Neal Bowers Neal Bowers has published three volumes of poetry (most recently Night Vision), two scholarly books, and a nonfiction memoir, Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist.  His poems and essays have appeared in Harper's, Hudson Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, Sewanee Review, and other journals.  He lives in Ames, Iowa with his wife, Nancy (also a writer), and their five cats. This is his first appearance in an Online Magazine.

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J. M. Spalding: What are you reading right now?

Neal Bowers: At the moment, I'm reading (and re-reading) Sharon Bryan's 1996 collection of poems, Flying Blind. By fits and starts, I'm trying to finish a novel titled The Hoax, written by Sophie Masson, an Australian writer. And I'm on deadline to read an as yet unpublished nonfiction manuscript for a press that asked me to evaluate it.

That's the particular answer to the question. The broader answer is that I have never been a voracious reader of books. Most of my time is spent with journals like Poetry, Sewanee Review, Hudson Review, and Shenandoah.

The conversation I hate most at a social gathering is the one that addresses the latest "hot" book that everyone has read or that at least one person in the group insists is a "must" read. It's usually something identifiable by type, and the narrower and more unusual the type the better—like a novel by a dyslexic Venezuelan who overcame adversity and learned to paint with one hand while word processing with the other, thereby producing novel art. To me, this is tiresome stuff. I'd be much happier returning to Faulkner

How do you avoid rhetoric in your poems that address the political sphere?

I almost never consciously address political issues. I mean, I'm not on record with any observations about the Lewinsky business, for instance. The last poem I wrote for distinctly political purposes was an anti-Gulf War piece that was published in a little anthology in California that didn't actually make it into print before our desert exercise in murder was over. Actually, I don't think I'm opposed to political rhetoric, as long as its original. It's just that most of it has been masticated to pulp.

You've had a relationship with Poetry and Shenandoah for some years now. What is it about those magazines that does it for you?

I am on record in a number of places with the opinion that Poetry is the best poetry journal on the planet. Feeling that way, I naturally like to publish there. Also, I think Joe Parisi is the ideal editor. He's not a poet himself but knows poetry inside out. These unique qualities permit him to avoid being corralled by one camp or another, which results in a wonderfully eclectic journal. You find people on facing pages in almost every issue of poetry who wouldn't be able to stand one another face to face in a room. To my mind, that's exceptional editing.

Shenandoah is similarly eclectic in editorial taste. I was drawn to the journal during Dabney Stuart's days as editor and remain attached to it under Rod Smith's stewardship. It's one of those journals that gets read. I never fail to hear from people—usually from non-poets—when I have something published there. Like Poetry, Shenandoah is a journal that matters and that people read. I can't think of better reasons to want my work to appear on its pages.

Could you talk a little bit about some other magazines you like?

For a great many years, I've done my best to subscribe to many magazines and to vary my subscriptions (spreading the monetary support as much as possible). Among the journals that I simply cannot give up are Sewanee Review and Hudson Review. George Core and Fred Morgan (and now that Hudson has entered its 51st year, Paula Deitz) are consummate editors. They are among that rare breed that is committed to literature. They are unafraid to define and defend their standards (in an age when standards have largely been discredited and thrown away). I also love Free Lunch, Ron Offen's little magazine, because of its avant garde flavor and because of Offen's open-mindedness.

What are your feelings about "Tenth year elegy" taking into consideration the time that has passed since (perhaps giving you a more "mature" reflection, though I use mature very loosely) and the ordeal with the plagiarist?

Honestly, that poem and "RSVP" are tainted beyond purification. They have the stench of David Jones about them. For a long time, I thought I would put them away and try not to think about them. But when I was putting Out of the South together, I realized that the best way to reclaim what was mine was to bring it out into the open. So both those poems appear in the manuscript, where they rightfully should.

In an unexpected and bizarre way, Jones has invaded not just my poetry but also my private past. Almost every thought of my father evokes thoughts of Jones. That's the thing for which I can never forgive Jones.

Getting to the ordeal of your work being plagiarized. Is it still something you think of much?

I think of it more than I would like, simply because people ask about it all the time. Of course, this is the price I pay for publishing a book about the case. Still, I'm glad I wrote Words for the Taking. It was the right thing to do.

In the book "Words for the taking" Did you want to be somewhat objective about describing Jones/Summer?

No, I don't think I had any interest in being objective at all. I wanted simply to chronicle my (and my wife's) pursuit of the man and to tell, as honestly as I could, how we felt at various points along the way. While I considered myself bound by the facts of the case, because I was writing nonfiction, I did not feel I had to disguise my point of view. To do so would have been false.

When did you first start writing?

In high school, I had a minor reputation as a limerick man. The poems typically incorporated names of my classmates, usually in some semi-obscene context. They made people laugh, which was my first experience with the power of language. A few words arranged in the right way could actually make people react. That was an amazing revelation for a 17-year-old.

What were you trying to do?

In those limerick days, I was heady with the power to embarrass the subject of my poem. It was my adolescent way of affecting people and grappling with the larger issue of audience.

How much do you defend your work in the midst of a critique?

One thing you can count on if you publish anything is that someone will come along and pick at it. I've been lucky, though, because 90 percent of the reviews and commentaries dealing with my work have been kind, even downright generous. The few reviewers who have sunk their teeth into me have been fairly easy to forget. I give them their space and their right to be as nasty as they like. My work will ultimately stand or fall on its own merits.

What about when you first started writing?

Maybe I should point out that I don't like to be criticized and that I don't take criticism well at all. In fact, any negative remark makes me mad. It's just that I've trained myself over nearly 30 years of publishing to let the snarly remarks go. Why brood on the one weed in an otherwise lovely field?

You said in your book that your wife is your greatest critic... I wonder, since she is so much a part of your life, how does she remain objective, or does she?

I have no idea how she does it, but I'm grateful to her beyond expression. She is absolutely, utterly (maybe even ruthlessly) honest. When she doesn't understand something I've written or thinks it's not as good as it could be, she tells me so. She doesn't give a hang for my sensitive ego and lets me mope around as long as I like. Almost without exception, I come to understand her reservations and criticisms. If I have an edge over most other writers it is Nancy and her honest critique of every word I write.

You write a great deal about your father... could you quote a few lines from something of yours that you think sums up how you feel about him today?

This is a tough request. Maybe I should begin by saying that my father was a very quiet man, a man of the rural south. For him, words came hard, but when they came they mattered. His sudden death nearly 20 years ago was one of my life's formative events. Although we had a very good father/son relationship, I never felt that I knew him privately, because he was not given to extensive conversations about himself. In some respects, I suppose my poems are often attempts at conversation with him, even now, after all these years.

The best I can do to illustrate what I mean is to offer these few lines from "Out of the South," the title poem of my newest collection (as yet unpublished):

Whether a dream portends anything
depends upon the need for dreaming.
Mine comes as I curl on limestone
and is formed by the wash of the river
giving the sensation of motion,
though I can feel the steady rock
cold under my hip and shoulder
as I go under, and longer,
a numb, dead presence
standing on my shadow
while I stand at an open door
to see my father typing.
He doesn't notice me, even when
I move into the room to look
over his shoulder at the empty page
he tries furiously to fill with letters
the way a child pretends to type
or play piano on the edge of a table,
his hands lifted high
and falling like sparrow hawks,
the keys clattering and jamming
and dropping back into their slots,
everything he has to say colliding
at the brink of expression.

Neal, you haven't written much prose in the past, how did you get interested in writing a novel?

After finishing the nonfiction book telling the story of the plagiarism case, I was in a narrative mode, I guess. Anyhow, it just seemed natural to keep on writing in paragraphs; and I was lucky enough to hit on a plot-line that intrigued me.

I think every writer probably wants to write at least one novel, even if it turns out bad and resides forever in a storage box in the attic. Mine is circulating among editors at the moment, so its fate is yet undetermined. Whatever happens, though, I'm glad I wrote it. The experience taught me a great deal and probably will have a long-term effect on my poetry.

How did you begin the actual writing?

I started with 30 pages of really bad stuff—highly autobiographical, self-indulgent maundering disguised as fiction. Breaking free of such an awful beginning was hard as hell. In fact, the entire first draft (about 65,000 words) was so crippled by my inability to revise the beginning to any good effect that I spent another year revising and re-writing whole slabs of the manuscript. When I finished, I told myself I would never try another novel; but within six months I was off and running with a new manuscript. There's something addictive about having characters whose lives aren't entirely under my conscious control. Looking in on them daily is a kind of deific voyeurism. They do the most astonishing things, just like real people.

Changing the subject, an increasing number of poets are getting tired of workshops, yet continue to conduct or (as Billy Collins put it) "insinuate" them. How does one accommodate their skepticism about the value of the experience, in this case, you?

During my years in school, I took only two workshops, one at the M.A. level and one during my Ph.D. program. Although the instructors did their best, I got very little from either class, simply because I don't need to socialize the process of writing. I work best alone, away from other people. As the years pass, I grow more insistent in this regard and spend less and less time in the company of other writers.

Of course, some people need that feeling of support. It's kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous— "Hi, my name is Victor, and I'm a poet." If the workshop does any good at all, it's in the area of "community" (a word I use with caution, because it is mis-used by many people when talking about the larger population of writers, where there are enclaves and cliques but no embracing community).

I tell my students up-front that the best thing they can expect from the workshop is a supportive environment where honesty coupled with civility may help them see their work in fresh ways. I do my best to lower expectations that I have anything profound to divulge or that just being in the workshop will transform anyone.

With the race to attain tenure, the goal seems to be to rack up as many publications as possible. Are academic institutions placing too much value on a poet's list of publications these days?

The academy has been the refuge of the arts and also their ruin. I say this as a poet who came in through the back door, bearing a literary Ph.D., hired originally to teach technical writing. Almost everything produced by academics is exclusive, meant only for the insiders who weigh and evaluate bibliographies. To the extent that universities have become incestuous, breeding their own writers who will win awards administered by universities and publish books at university presses and then end up teaching in a workshop where the cycle begins again, poetry has been severely damaged.

Almost daily, I suffer the knowledge that I am part of a system I find seriously flawed. Being inside, though, gives me the chance to do some small good (I hope). With every class, I teach the value (even the downright need) of resistance. My best advice to any aspiring poet is to go away and write.

You mentioned two things to me recently. You mentioned "standards" and "fundamental values" and briefly, how the academic world seems confused about them. Could you expand on that?

Well, I'm bound to generalize when I answer this question; so hold onto any exceptions that come to mind. Even here in the hinterlands, at the Iowa State University of Science and Technology, my colleagues in the humanities seem confused about the world around them. They sometimes speak of it as a "text" and expound upon how the "text" is invented in the act of reading. In other words, no objective world exists, which eliminates the possibility for what some of them refer to as "foundationalism" (a pompous substitute for "values"). They argue that history is subjective, resist any attempt to label something good or bad (including works of art), and happily engage in what they used to refer to as the "deconstruction" of the curriculum.

The results of this solipsistic view of the universe have long been showing up in our students, who complain about not knowing how one thing relates to another. They have no overview of literature because we have collectively decided overviews are subjective and therefore invalid. When they read a plainly bad poem or story in a canon-expanding anthology, they are discouraged from passing judgment on it. Everything is good in its own way, or bad. Take your choice. The instructor smiles in his sphinx-like way.

Right now, we are struggling with decreasing enrollments in our literature courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While various remedies are being proposed, I'm unaware of anyone who has said, "Let's first revise our own philosophies." Such a substantial change will take time.

What is an M.F.A. worth, in your opinion?

Because I teach in a program that offers the M.A. with an emphasis in Creative Writing, I'm biased, of course. The relative absence of literature from most M.F.A. programs deprives them of substance, of a foundation. Having a "studio" program in which students come to class when they have something to show and saunter off when they don't isn't my idea of the discipline of writing. Again, I'm generalizing, and can think of exceptions to my own blanket condemnation. Some M.F.A. programs are better than others, but I'm happy to be teaching in none of them.

When asked how fiction and poetry differ, Ruth Stone said "Prose and stories are more objective. Poems are emotional opinion." Having written one novel and having begun another how does this hold true for you... or does it?

I'm not sure I understand what Stone means by "emotional opinion." If, by "objective," she means to say that prose depends more on the intellect and less on emotion, I disagree. And if she means that poetry is largely void of intellect… well, I can't accept that, either.

I think the writing process is remarkably constant across genre boundaries. For me, the process is primary. I do my best to make myself available to language, to follow whatever comes. Things work essentially the same in prose as in poetry, at least for me. To know too much in advance about what I'm doing and where the writing is going would bore me into silence. There's no point in writing if I can't surprise myself by winding up somewhere I never expected to go and couldn't have gone if I hadn't sat down to write. Of course, the harder work of revision comes in after the fact of composition.


Neal Bowers: Interview by J.M. Spalding
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FiveThe Cortland Review