by Tera Ragan, former Poetry Editor
TeraRagan, poetry editor of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review 16.1 and 16.2, sat down with Randall Mann after he read some poems at an event we hosted. Let's jump right in.
14H: Where and how did you begin to write poetry?
Randall Mann: I started writing poems, or what I thought were poems, when I was 9 or 10, when I started playing around with words. I wasn’t brought up in a literary household but we were encouraged to read. I read Robert Frost and I discovered Keats early; I always knew I wanted to play around with words. I had the sense from the beginning that I wanted to be a writer. When I was a senior in high school I had a teacher who encouraged me; I showed her my poems. It was really
important to have someone to sound off ideas with. Immediately, when I went to college, I started taking poetry workshops and I went from there.
14H: What or who were your early influences in writing?
RM: Early it was Frost and Keats, and then I started reading Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Marianne Moore, and translations of Neruda. The Neruda, especially his odes, was important, because it showed me how one could write about common things. Reading poems in translation very early in college gave me the sense of the possibility of poems across the divide of translation.
14H: Do you feel things can be lost in the translation of poetry?
RM: Absolutely. The skeleton of meaning is brought across but the true sensibility of the writer often is left in the initial language. But I think one can still get a sensibility.
14H: After completing your MFA at University of Florida and then moving to San Francisco, did you find the artistic communities different?
RM: Sure. Here, in San Francisco, it’s broader and richer, and there are more performative aspects. It’s much more diverse and engaged more with the urban landscape. Certainly, that had an effect on my writing. My new book’s backdrop is the city. I used the city as a kind of foundation for what I was going to write—as a kind of infrastructure. The poems don’t talk about San Francisco, per se—I don’t concern myself too much with about—but the poems are grounded in a very real place and I think it’s important to my aesthetic.
14H: In your new collection (which is called Breakfast with Thom Gunn), the poems are reactions to San Francisco’s “messy” history. As a place that is constantly changing and renewing itself, do you feel San Francisco changes writers? In moving here, do you feel that the city has transformed your writing at all?
RM: I would like to think that there was a growth, but I think there is a combination of a different landscape and me just getting older and perhaps exercising more possibilities in the written word, in seeing if there were ways to talk about this place in ways that I hadn’t talked about Florida. I hope that I have advanced as a writer. There is so much to work with here. There are so many characters. Even on the streets you hear phrases; it’s an endless supply of material. I find that the engagement with the people and the cityscape has such a profound influence on me and at this point I can't imagine not being engaged with an urban setting. But who knows.
14H: In both collections, Complaint in the Garden, and Breakfast with Thom Gunn, there is a familiarity with the places, the smells, the sounds, and people in your poems. How do you achieve that familiarity when dealing with the political and historical subjects? How much of that comes from your own personal knowledge and information and how much of that was done by research?
RM: I think it’s a combination of both. When I was writing about Florida, I researched specific locations in Florida and talked about the state’s history, colonialism, and empire. In Breakfast with Thom Gunn, I have a poem called “Election Day,” which talks about the 2003 election between Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez and the whole scandal of the ballots in the bay and everything that went with that. I guess my research is really just sort of living in the political moment of a city so rich and twisted and dispiriting and shocking: there is just so much to work with. The challenge is to figure out how to write about it.
14H: Many of your poems can be called formal poems, with your use of traditional forms: villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, etc. How do you think these forms influence or affect your work specifically?
RM: This is an age of free verse, and though more often than not I do write in free verse, I often turn to strict forms, for their compressions and revelations. When I wrote my sestina about Harvey Milk, in Breakfast with Thom Gunn, I chose a sestina, because the form, like history itself, turns back, and turns back again, to events, yet each time a turn is made there must be a justification for it. I didn’t feel comfortable writing this poem in free verse because sometimes I don’t feel like I know how to say something fresh or complex without the benefit of form. Form gives me something to push up against, and I trust those boundaries. They're really helpful to me as a writer.
14H: Do you feel that sometimes the form chooses you or do you have the form in mind for the poem in advance?
RM: Well, I always, in the most literal way, choose the form, but if a reader reads a poem and is fooled into thinking the form chose me, then the poem is a success.
14H: I read your post on The Rumpus about the poem you loved by John Casteen called, “Regret.” The Final stanza reads: “I had to throw away someone I loved./ The thing that I said at first, about the conductor?/ Such a man has no cause to expect redemption./ Fine. So I’ll never understand anything./ So this life, it’s never going to explain anything.” Have you ever had to throw away a piece that you loved?
RM: Yes. I threw out a long poem that was in an earlier version of Breakfast with Thom Gunn, and I wasn’t happy about it at first (my publisher didn’t care for it). I have salvaged a few pieces of it for my next manuscript, but I now see that it doesn’t work well as a long poem. Also, when my first book was taken, David Baker, who selected the book, told me to take out one villanelle, “Complaint,” which I thought very witty and wild, which had first appeared in The Paris Review. I resisted at first, but now I look back at that villanelle and can see the flaws in its craft. Just because it was published in The Paris Review doesn’t mean you have to collect it.
14H: Do you feel like writing should explain what we can’t explain?
RM: Not at all. I think the best poetry resists explanation and lingers as part of that resistance.
14H: In today’s society, do you feel that there is a certain responsibility of the writer as artist? What will it be in the future?
RM: The only real responsibility for the writer is to hunker down, shut up, have humility, learn the craft, learn the tradition, and recognize that the literary canon didn’t begin the day she or he was born.
14H: How about a few fun questions. If you were shipwrecked on a deserted island and you could only bring one thing, what would it be?
RM: Collected Shakespeare because, one; I haven’t read all of Shakespeare, and two; it would continue to nourish me in ways that I can only imagine.
14H: If your house was on fire, what would be the first thing you grabbed?
RM: My laptop! Definitely my laptop.
14H: What are you currently reading?
RM: Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin; At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, edited by Joshua Weiner; and Selected Poems by Michael Hofmann.
14H: Boxers or Briefs?
Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, Breakfast with Thom Gunn (University of Chicago Press 2009) and Complaint in the Garden (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and the co-author of the textbook Writing Poems, Seventh Edition (Pearson Longman 2007). He lives in San Francisco.