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interview with

Anthony Borruso

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Thank you again for letting us feature not one, but five of your poems in last summer's issue. I also loved your poems "Murphy's Law" in The Florida Review and "Cubicle" in Canary. As usual, such great hooks as the first lines: "30 rabies shots, my uncle got" and "No tie noosed round my throat, no," respectively.

 

Well, first of all, thank you for featuring my poems! It was an honor to see them in Bicoastal’s first issue and it’s been a joy to see the great poets you’ve published since. But yes, the first line is something I mull over for a long time as I’m writing. When you have a strong first line that’s musical, tonally intriguing, vividly imagistic, or some combination of these qualities, it can do so much to build the momentum that you need to carry you from line to line. Think about, for instance, Berryman’s quirky and contradictory opening to “Dream Song 14” where he proclaims “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” In just ten syllables, he manages to establish a speaker who is wildly elusive by making a grandiose statement about “life” that is quickly undercut. Not only is this line funny, but it serves as a warning to the reader not to settle into the logic of any particular line. Then there’s Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” which begins with that mysterious claim of achievement: “I have done it again,” which is simple in its diction, but does so much in terms of putting the self on display for the reader. I think Berryman, Plath, and many of the other Confessionals provide great models for how to create that kind of lyrical momentum that I aim for.

In the two lines of mine that you pointed out, I think sound is doing a lot of the work. That rhyme between “shot” and “got,” the heavy alliteration of “no” and “noosed”--when I hit on lines that sound as good as these, they tend to make what comes next much easier to write. At the same time, the first line can also establish the voice and diction of the poem as well as stake out its linguistic territory. I want the reader to wonder how it is I’m going to find the beauty or lyricality inherent in something as unpoetic as a “rabies shot” or a working stiff cloistered in a cubicle. I like the challenge of conjuring language from unexpected realms and I also like how this tends to open up the poem, allowing for, in the case of “Murphy’s Law,” the coexistence of referents like “lobotomies,” “Web MD,” and “spring-loaded cheese.” To help with finding these verbal collisions, I should add that I am an avid word collector. Every day, whether I’m teaching rhetoric in the Williams Building at Florida State or leading a creative writing Workshop at Gadsden Prison just outside of Tallahassee, I am constantly on the prowl for language that I can smuggle into my phone notes. When I sit down to write, I often highlight ten or fifteen words from those notes and challenge myself to bring them into a poem–the more outlandish or seemingly disconnected from the poem’s subject, the better.

 

Two of your poems in Bicoastal Review are "Ode to Bad Movies" and "Tilda Swinton." Your poem in Thrush is "Love-Sloshed Cinema." How has that ekphrastic preference, or the role of film in inspiring you to write or make sense of the world, evolved or become more pronounced over the years to today?

 

Movies were my first love really. Before I started reading and writing poems, I wanted to be a director and developed obsessions with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, and Martin Scorsese. When I was in high school, I remember going to the New York Public Library and taking out seven or eight movies at a time and then watching them throughout the week. Occasionally this meant paying heavy late fees if I didn’t return them on time, but it was worth it and still much cheaper than using a rental service. It occurred to me recently, that when writing a poem, I get to live out that early fantasy of being a director in a way. Thinking about perspective, how images progress and interact with one another, and how language is framed within the poem or a particular line, this isn’t so different from building a film, though it is much less demanding in terms of time and resources. In my collection, Splice, which I am currently sending to publishers, the persona sees the world through the eyes of a cinephile, translating famous scenes from the silver screen to the poetic line, treating moments from their life with directorial scrutiny. You can see this cinematic framing in a poem I published in Frontier called “Another Dusky Sonnet” which begins, “We open immediately, a delicious Dali nightmare, black / and bleak, blinking eyes. A tempered smell of sulfur.” Slightly sinister yet almost cartoonish with those luminescent eyes popping open, this poem starts as an elevator pitch but develops texture through its sensory descriptions and surreal progression. A few lines later that darkness turns erotic as I obliquely reference Tarantino’s notorious gimp scene from Pulp Fiction: “...a​ ​cliché ​meets another / cliché in an alleyway, bounds and gags it, drags it to a leather- / skinned sex dungeon.” In that poem, and in “Tilda Swinton,” where I try to pin down the power and singular nature of the great actress's performances, the cinema provides a common referent for writer and reader. It’s almost like a shortcut–if the reader is familiar with a film or scene or a character that I write into a poem, then all of their associations with them can come into play. There is suddenly all of this additional texture when, in a poem like “Tilda Swinton,” you realize that it is wrangling together films like We Need to Talk About Kevin, Orlando, and The Dead Don’t Die, among others. Similar to dreams and the imagination, appropriating images from film (whether consciously or unconsciously), can situate the poem in an alternate realm, a place that doesn’t need to follow the rules and logic of the real world. These poems strive to depict the hallucinatory and magical worlds that filmmakers have been fabricating since Méliès Trip to the Moon and Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou.

 

Do shifts in the film industry (as in politics) from year to year affect your writing life? Do you see any such threads as trends in the submissions you help to select as Poetry Co-editor at Southeast Review?

 

I think they do. At least in the sense that I spend a lot of time reflecting on the films that I’ve watched and enjoyed each year and often find that their themes and concerns find a way into my writing. For instance, Barbie and Poor Things offer up really interesting feminine iconography and beautifully textured worlds that would be exciting to translate into lyrical form. Oppenheimer and Zone of Interest are two other films that affected me deeply–not only because of their ruminations on unprecedented atrocities and the people who perpetrated them but also because of their intricate use of sound. Both movies are fascinating in terms of their soundscapes and Zone, in particular, has these brilliant moments where the background noise, which contains the horror and suffering of Auschwitz, manages to push its way into the foreground, forcing the viewer to confront it. I’ve been wondering recently if such an effect could be achieved in a poem–could a subtle dissonant chord be made to swell to a point where the reader can no longer deny its presence?
 

As a poetry editor for Southeast Review, I notice that film, like other cultural products and social phenomena, has a huge effect on what is sent to us. I do find though, that it’s tougher for work about hyper-topical subjects to make a lasting impression. A couple of years ago, it was just one poem after another about Covid–and as an editor, it was a real slog–it’s not that I have anything against writing about that, but so many of these poems felt like they had not been sat with long enough. There’s this passage in Sylvia Plath’s diaries where an editor tells her that after a big rainstorm, poems about precipitation come flooding in. It was a little like that. That’s why I generally avoid anything that feels too topical or like “low-hanging fruit”–the bar to say something interesting just feels so much higher. For me, the work of writing is more fun and manageable when I’m taking on a subject that is strange or esoteric or seemingly unpoetic–I’ve written about a state senator who shot himself on live T.V. named R. Budd Dwyer, the roles of actor Ron Perlman, experimental films like William Morrison’s Decasia. I’m not sure if they always work, but at least no editor is going to feel that these are poems that have already been written to death.

Anthony Borruso is pursuing his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Florida State University where he is a Poetry Editor for Southeast Review and co-host of the Jerome Stern Reading Series. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a finalist for Beloit Poetry Journal's Adrienne Rich Award by Natasha Trethewey. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Spillway, The Journal, THRUSH, Gulf Coast, CutBank, Frontier, and elsewhere.

Interviewer: Marina Kraiskaya is a Ukrainian-American writer and editor of Bicoastal Review. In 2024, she won the Markham Prize, second in the Joy Bale Boone Prize, and was a finalist in the Mississippi Review and Driftwood poetry prizes. Find her in Poetry International, The L.A. Review, Southeast Review, Zone 3, Reed Magazine, The Shore, EcoTheo, Deep Wild, Leavings, and more. To get in touch, visit mkraiskaya.com or email theeditors@bicoastalreview.org.

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