Interview with Ash Bowen
Interviewed by Dan O'Brien
Ash Bowen is the author of The Even Years of Marriage (Dream Horse Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Orphic Book Prize. This interview was conducted via email between California and North Dakota, where Bowen is assistant professor of English and teaches creative writing and composition at Minot State University.
I’m always fascinated by a particular poet’s palette of metaphor and simile. In your book The Even Years of Marriage there’s a whole cosmos of meteors, satellites, planets, space ships and astronauts and Ford Galaxie 500s (in my poems the gothic and the supernatural tend to flit in and out). Where does all this come from?
I’ve always found the imaginative spirit of the 1950’s Atomic Age to be quite alluring. The future looked surprisingly optimistic in the face of the Cold War. For me, the planets, celestial bodies, etc., that show up in the book are really touchstones of nostalgia. My father was a product of the Eisenhower years, and when he watched TV, he usually watched reruns of 1950’s sitcoms and movies. Though I couldn’t articulate it then, I felt that he was trying to reconnect with something that he felt he’d lost. A sense of regret that his life—our life—hadn’t turned out like an episode of Leave It to Beaver seemed to trouble him. When I was writing The Even Years of Marriage, a book that trades on loss and nostalgia, those were the images that bubbled up in connection to those themes and motifs.
There’s a wonderful ambiguity as to what might be autobiographical and what might be fictional here. In this age of over-sharing, when I’m liable to be bored by the obviously fictional, and equally turned off by self-exploitation, I’m intrigued by the not knowing in your book. Without telling me what is and isn’t autobiographical: did you give this question much conscious thought?
I didn’t really think about the reception of the book very much, how some might view the poems as autobiography. After a recent reading I gave, a woman approached me and very tenderly expressed her sympathies. She assumed that I was reading autobiography. Raymond Carver used to say in interviews that stories and poems don’t come out of thin air, but I don’t agree with that—not completely. There are poems in my book that are complete fictions. But I think what he was getting it at is that real life often intrudes into stories, poems, and novels. In the case of my book, I certainly have poems where that is true. But I also have poems that, while not factually accurate, are emotionally accurate. One poem in the book has nothing to do with me at all and was written about the experience of a close friend of mine. I also earned an M.A. in fiction before turning to poems, and I think that helps me view poetry as just another form of storytelling.
I’m intrigued by your background as a fiction writer. How did this transition to poetry occur? Aside from the narrative focus in these poems, how else do you see your poetry as a cousin of fiction (if you do)?
I was deep into a novel when my first marriage became a statistic. Part of the marital strife arose from how writing impacted our life. When the writing was going well, things were great. When it wasn’t, nobody was happy. I moped around the house, preoccupied with the writing. I don’t intend to demonize my ex-wife, but she wasn’t particularly supportive of my writing. She saw little value in sitting around and writing words. I’m sure she felt ignored or somehow in competition with the writing. The divorce wrecked me for a number of years. I don’t remember for how long, but I’d estimate that I went five years without writing anything creative. I was in another relationship by the time I started writing again, and when I did, it was poems. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Poetry destroyed that relationship too, but that time I just kept writing.
The divide between poetry and fiction is not as large for me as it might seem to others. I think a poem is closer to a short story than a short story is to a novel. In my own writing, I do try to write an iambic line to keep the poems from falling victim to the prosaic tendencies of free-verse. Many narrative poems that I see coming into Linebreak (the poetry journal that I co-edit) are too much like short stories. They get too prosy for my taste, relying on weak and vapid verbs, as though they’re really just enjambed prose. I suppose you could say that my poems are lyrics with a narrative arc rather than a narrative poem with a lyrical arc. Even my more narrative poems are more invested in emotions than anything else.
I had a similar return to poetry several years ago, when my birth family disowned me. Suddenly playwriting or fiction wasn’t enough. And yes, at times, for long stretches, no kind of writing was possible. Do you feel there’s something about raw emotional states that prime one for the creation of poems?
Raw emotional states prime human beings for creative outlets—if we’re lucky. Such conditions often send us to any number of routes—sex, drugs, alcohol, or food. But back to your question: I’m reluctant to endorse the stereotype of the tortured artist, though admittedly, there are many cases that readily spring to mind. Many of the poems that show up in The Even Years of Marriage were written in a period when the aforementioned relationship crumbled. One poem contains several autobiographical sketches that were pieced together at 3 or 4 in the morning during a single bolt of inspiration after I’d seen my then-ex-fiancée out on a date. I was certainly distraught at the time. So, while I’m reticent to promote the idea of the tortured artist, I suppose that I’m protesting too much.
Shifting gears, how would you describe the formal element in these poems? Even with so-called “free verse,” of course, the poet may have his own private, idiosyncratic, even “hidden” elements of form. Aside from your inclination towards the iambic, what sorts of constraints were you working with?
As a poet, I felt that I needed to have a handle on form and meter just so I could have that in my arsenal of weapons. I didn’t want to feel limited as poet. As a result of trying to master that, I found myself working with received forms. I ended up writing lots of sonnets, some of which ended up in the book. There’s a villanelle. Many of the poems are written in iambics, even if they’re not necessarily closed-form poems.
I suppose that my constraints concern themselves more with language than form. I’m always looking for words that resonate and sparkle against one another and, as a result, create a kind of propulsive power that drives the reader through the poem. My favorite poems don’t lumber; they dash on an explosion of language, and I’m always holding my own poems to that level of expectation.
Workshops love to talk about risk in poems. I try to fill my poems with risk. Sometimes that risk is that I’m perceived to be writing nonfiction/autobiography. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Mostly, I want my poems to share experience, and for that experience to be meaningful, to matter.
I’ve always shuddered in fear that someone would read one of my poems and accuse me of writing navel-gazing poems.
Thank you, Ash. These are brave, accomplished poems.