In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—William Reichard
Your poem “Still Life, with Pomegranates” in Volume 23 is rife with such visceral colors and imagery. This poem contemplates so many things: fruit, hibernation, solace, beauty, and art. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind it?
I’m a visual thinker, and all of my work begins as an image in my mind, an image that stays with me for a few days. The act of writing about the image is a kind of translation, my attempt to make sense of the image in some greater context, and in a way that opens the image up to the reader. This poem was written in the winter, when there is so little color here in Minnesota. Something bright, something obviously not from here, like a pomegranate or any other piece of tropical fruit, can be a lifeline in the winter, a reminder that things won’t stay frozen forever.
I’ve always been really struck by this line in the poem: “It’s always worth the cost and the waste” because it reminds me of a line earlier in the poem: “This is a fruit too beautiful to eat.” In terms of writing, what are some craft elements that you feel are worth the risk of trying out? How do you know if you’re successful at pulling it/them off?
I think it’s always worth trying out anything when you’re writing a poem. Poetry sits at the edge of what does and doesn’t make sense. We use language to try and understand what we can feel but can’t yet comprehend. I constantly play with line length, line breaks, coining new words to describe something for which there is no word in our language. Some poems take a very long time to finish, because I never know what each poem wants to do when I start writing. Sometimes I find the form and the language quickly, but more often, I write the poem out in a very rough form, just to get it on the page, and then work with it over a series of days or weeks or months. I know I’ve been successful when the poem feels finished, and ready to share. The real reward, and the final signal that the poem is successful, is when I hear from a reader that a poem resonated with her or him, that someone else has found meaning in my work.
You’ve collaborated with composer Timothy Tikach who has worked several of your poems into musical compositions. What is it like to hear your words in song? Has this influenced your writing or creative process in new ways?
I have a lot of musical people in my life: composers, musicians, singers. I love music, and often, it’s the musical quality of a piece of work that draws me to it, as both a writer and as a reader. I feel like composers and poets have a lot in common. We’re speaking two dialects of the same language. Sadly, I’m not a musically gifted person. I can barely read music, and I don’t play any instruments. However, I constantly hear music in my head, pieces of songs or symphonies. They’re always swirling around in my brain, along with images and ideas. It’s chaos. But it makes sense to me, or, I find a way of making sense out of the chaos. Working with Tim has been wonderful. We first met when we both participated in the Nautilus New Music Composer and Librettist Workshop in 2013. It’s a week-long program that puts together five writers, five composers, and five singers. Everyone works with everyone in a round-robin style workshop. Tim and I felt connected from the start. I think it’s our shared love of horror movies and death ballads. I’ve written several lyrics for him, and hearing my work come alive in his music is incredible! It opens us a whole new dimension of the written word, makes it come alive in a way that only live music can achieve. Tim usually commissions work from me. He’ll have a project he wants to do, and we’ll discuss what it’s about, what he wants to achieve, emotionally and intellectually. I’ll write a draft and share it with him. Then we begin to revise. Tim gives me his impressions of the text, lets me know if I’m on the right track. It’s a collaborative process. He doesn’t write the text, and I don’t write the music, but he works with me until I’ve come up with a text that satisfies both of us. Most writers don’t get the chance to collaborate with other artists, at least, not when we’re writing, so working with Tim has offered me a chance to stretch myself, and also a chance to look deeply at what does and doesn’t work. He’s not a harsh critic, but he’s very honest and clear about what he wants and needs in order for his composition to succeed.
We’ve been privileged to publish your work in previous issues; clearly our readers love you! I’m curious—who are some writers you admire?
This could be a very long list…I’ll try to keep it short: I read widely, both poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. Some of my favorite writers are W. G. Sebald, Alice Munro, Louise Glück, Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, B. H. Fairchild, C. D. Wright, Julian Barnes, Steven Millhauser, Jeanette Winterson, Frank Bidart, Jenny Erpenbeck, Jack Gilbert, Adrienne Rich, Truman Capote, James Wright, Anne Carson…
You recently published your seventh book of poetry, Our Delicate Barricades Downed (Broadstone Books, 2021). What advice would you share with a poet working on a manuscript? What is something you wish you had known while you were working on your first book?
My best advice: don’t rush it. You’ll know when the manuscript is finished, if you’re honest with yourself, and don’t let it out of your hands until you know it’s ready, and can stand on its own. I wish I’d known how the publishing world works, what an author can realistically expect once a book is published, while I was working on my first book. Like a lot of first-time authors, I had a lot of big expectations going into the process, and these expectations were not always very realistic. I wish I could have seen that my first book was simply that, the first book in a series of books, not the summation of my existence or a validation of my person. Then again, I think these are lessons you must learn on your own, and that’s never an easy process. Discovering the differences between dreams and reality can be heartbreaking, but that’s life, isn’t it?
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
When I’m not writing, I’m often making visual art. I take photos and make cyanotypes, I make handbound books and collages. Lately, I’ve been making cyanotypes of flowers; extreme close-ups of the details of petals and stems. I know that I’m doing this because of the hugeness of the pandemic and violence and unrest in the world. I can’t control those things. I can speak about them, and protest them, and work for that larger change we all want, but I’m one very small part of this movement, and such change takes so much time, longer than my lifetime, I’m afraid. So I focus on smaller beauty, lesser beauty, things that often go unrecognized. I do this in my written work, and I do it in my visual work. Maybe it’s my attempt to find some balance?
Finally, what projects or pieces are you working on right now? Are you savoring the time between books, or are you already at work on something new?
I’m working on new poetry, but on individual poems, not on a book. The book will come in time, once I’ve written enough new work, and can look at it and see if there is some kind of pattern. I’m also writing lyric essays, or fragmented memoirs, or a hybrid of both. As with my poetry, I’m focusing now on generating new material. Once I have enough, I’ll see if it adds up to anything.
William Reichard’s seventh book, Our Delicate Barricades Downed, was published by Broadstone Books in 2021. Reichard is the author of six previous collections of poetry: The Night Horse: New and Selected Poems (Brighthorse Books, 2018);Two Men Rowing Madly Toward Infinity (Broadstone Books, 2016); Sin Eater (Mid-List Press, 2010); This Brightness (Mid-List Press, 2007); How To (Mid-List Press, 2004) was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; and An Alchemy in the Bones (New Rivers Press, 1999) won a MN Voices Prize. Poems from This Brightness and How To have been featured on NPR’s “Writers Almanac.” He has published two chapbooks, As Breath in Winter (MIEL Books, 2015); and To Be Quietly Spoken (Frith Press, 2001) and edited The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s: A Gay Life in the 1940’s (Univ. of MN Press, 2001). Reichard’s anthology of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice, was published by New Village Press in April 2011. You can learn more about him and his work at his website.
[The featured image comes from Therese Brown’s portfolio “This is What I See”, which you can view here.]