We discovered the joy of Roy White’s poetry at our sister magazine, The Lascaux Review, where his piece “Improv” snatched the air from our lungs. He graciously accepted our invitation to participate in our long-running feature, Take Five. Three poems follow this brief yet brilliant interview. —CMG, Editor
Roy White: Hi there—thanks for inviting me to talk.
Easy Street: Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us about your writing habits? What are the tools and essentials you need? Coffee? Music? Fresh air? Silence? Are you a scheduled writer or a morning writer or a whenever-it-comes writer?
Roy White: Maybe someday I will have a proper writing practice, as one says; picture me sitting in the woods with my djembe, scratching out words on birch-bark with a charred stick. But being blind, I would not be able to read anything I wrote in that way, so instead I sit here at my computer, and Paul, the voice of my screen-reading software, echoes every word I type.
Once on a trip to Italy, I composed a poem in my head and got my wife to write it down, as Milton used to do with his daughters, but that’s a hard way to go.
ES: Where are you from and where are you now? Does sense of place factor into/inform your writing?
RW: When I was eleven or so I moved from Saint Louis to Saint Paul, and I have mostly remained here. There does seem to be a lot of snow in my poems, but they can be set in any place that I feel an attachment to (Dingle, Rimini, the prairies of northwestern Minnesota where my wife’s family comes from, or a surreal landscape from somebody’s dream).
ES: What are the basics of your process for completing a poem? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas?
RW: I don’t have any reliable process, at least not yet. Sometimes I’ll start with an image or sentence from a dream, or something overheard, and just try to write as much as I can before my internal censor cuts in. I can go back later and look for promising bits to expand on. Sometimes I start with a memory, usually something painful—Wordsworth was on to something with “strong emotion recollected in tranquility,” though I know that mentioning WW will cost me hipster points I can ill afford to lose.
Giving up on an idea sounds pretty drastic; I do abandon drafts, and sometimes if I’m struggling with a new poem I will dredge up my favorite lines from an old one and insert them to shake things up.
ES: What other writers, artists, or even art forms factor into your work? From who and where do you draw inspiration?
RW: Nothing that rattles around in my head is alien to me. A lot of that stuff consists of popular music, from things I’ve listened to over and over (Leonard Cohen, Belle & Sebastian) to random snippets off the radio (“I’ve got a blank space baby,” “I’m wearin’ all my favorite brands”).
Though I’m not always trying to be funny, many of the writers who inspire me are very funny: Kelly Link, George Saunders, Edmund White, David Sedaris. The poets whose words have stuck with me the most are usually those I read a long time ago, such as Hopkins and Heaney, Dickinson and Bishop, Baudelaire and Stevens.
ES: If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending winter in an adequately warm, but nothing-but-essentials-filled tent in Antarctica, which three books would you give them and why?
RW: Adequately warm. Antarctic winter. Tent. Can you still get your money back on that?
As an old programmer colleague of mine used to say, let me answer a slightly different question. I can’t possibly choose books without knowing who they’re for, so instead here are some books I’ve actually given to various people:
Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen. Moving, restrained poems about a brother’s suicide.
Romey’s Order by Atsuro Riley. Sort of the Japanese-American Seamus Heaney of the Carolina Lowlands.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. Link is to slipstream what Jane Austen is to rom-com.
The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. Fabulous old-timey women astronomers.
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Title kind of says it all.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. Something of a nerd manifesto by one of my heroes.
Sir Thomas Browne believed in his own salvation
as he believed in Constantinople,
where he had never been. Today,
my street is a Constantinople
As though I’d failed to pay my bill,
the snow has shut off all connections.
Gone is the shape the world offers me—
the hiss of distant, rustle of nearby
leaves, the hammer’s crack
rebounding off successive roofs, lilac
scent that swells and then dopplers away.
Instead I have silence, cold,
the muffled uninformative
probing of my cane, and now
the scrape, scrape of a snow-shovel.
Hello, I say.
Nothing. The lift and toss,
the powder’s diffuse arc, must be inferred;
Excuse me, I call.
If the shoveler does not exist, it will
be necessary to invent him.
This must be how the dead persist,
bundled in their shrouds
of static, grasping at fragments,
trying to get the attention of a stranger.
First published in Leveler Poetry, December 2015.
Chigger-bit kid who’s it when dark falls,
trotting home through the dense drone of cicadas
and the lightning bugs’ unreliable glow.
You find the front door ajar, all the lights on,
and Mother upstairs watching TV naked,
her lobes of fat seeking low ground on the faux-satin sheets.
You bring up dinner, Stauffer’s turkey Tetrazzini,
Hungry Man chicken with chalky mashed potatoes,
and together you watch All in the Family
or The Dukes of Hazzard.
And you knew where you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men.
As you sit on the side of her bed, she will throw
a big bare leg over your lap or ask you
to rub baby powder into the red and sore-
with-chafing insides of her thighs, and maybe she’ll say
“You’re so handsome. You remind me so much of your father.”
Makin their way the only way they know how—
And that’s just a little bit more than the law will allow.
Later you’ll enter your room, cross the litter
of toy trucks and army men, terrain
impassable to Mother’s tender feet,
climb into bed fully clothed, removing only
your thick concave glasses, and dream of Lisa,
the prettiest girl in Miss Allen’s fifth-grade class,
or of the tiger
that prowls outside the house,
circling, knowing somewhere
there is an open window.
It is not true that the dead cannot be folded.
—Yoon Ha Lee
Now I am become frozen concentrate,
legacy code, a thirsty archive
waiting to unfurl its petals.
Now I am tactical origami,
a love-letter only the lover can defuse.
Now my people bear the ghostweight,
an odd old phrase, the crook
of a gesturing hand, a fractal
coil of synapses, the echo,
that is become of me.
First published in Verse-Virtual, April 2017.