In this series, my writing students from Naropa University interview professional writers whose work we’ve read in class. Each student composes one or two questions, which I then send to the writer. While neither this pedagogy nor its publication is unique, the immediacy of online publishing as well as the interviews’ course-specific context is. Because students’ questions are anonymous and reflect their individual concerns as writers and scholars, rather than gauge the interests of an audience, these interviews are simultaneously communal and personal. For this reason, I call the series, simply, Questions for Answers.
In the Fall 2012, I assigned Chris Martin’s Becoming Weather to a creative writing course offered to low-residency MFA students in the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. The course, entitled, “Mind Moving,” explores contemplative practices in prose and poetry. After reading Stephani Nola’s review of Becoming Weather in the spring 2012 issue of Bombay Gin, I felt Martin’s book would offer an ideal juxtaposition with the spiritual texts we were also reading, including J. Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known.
Krishnamurti writes, “To divide anything into what should be and what is, is the most deceptive way of dealing with life.” I assigned Becoming Weather because, like Krishnamurti’s thought, its vision eschews the supernatural, which parses sacred and profane, for a sometimes staggering faith in the integrity of “being here.” Becoming Weather is as much spiritual as it is somatic and philosophical.
In November 2012, Martin generously responded to questions from the class that ranged from concern of craft to contemplative practice to the writer’s life. Jack Kerouac School MFA students Katelyn Rubenzer, Alicia Lewis, Denise Kinsley, Rachel Newlon, Virginia Teppner, Peggy Alaniz, Lara Beaulieu and Bobby Taylor participated in the interview, which took place on November 28, 2012.
Class: What weather pattern would you say best describes the writing process of Becoming Weather? The book itself? The aftermath of the book?
Chris Martin: I can identify six different weather patterns. The first (pre-writing) was a tremendous gusting wind where I had to huff and puff myself clear of staggered tercets. The second (section 1) was a controlled tornado, destroying a little city called “Fantastic Autopsies” only to reconstruct it as “Disequilibrium.” The third (section 2) was dancing weather, a firm and agile breeze leading everyone off the margin. The fourth (section 3) was a blanket of thick fog with gaping holes where we could see each other and confirm that things were nowhere near right. The fifth (coda) was the most pleasant weather imaginable. The sixth (prose sutures) held it all together, like light were a kind of glue.
Class: Can you talk about how you arrived at the idea of “becoming weather”? What does this phrase mean to you?
CM: I am interested in weather as a figure of humility enforcement. Nothing eats us anymore, or at least very rarely, and the only non-human thing tempering our pride is weather. And viruses. But I wanted to talk about weather. And I wanted weather to be inside our bodies. And I wanted weather to be linguistic. And I wanted weather to signal, once and for all, the inherent disequilibrium of existence.
Class: How long did it take you to complete Becoming Weather?
CM: It took me a couple years to write and several more to edit. It’s far from complete.
Class: Do you consider yourself the creator of this work?
CM: I consider myself a portion of a chorus. When you have a name like Chris Martin, you get used to anonymity. I like to think of authorship in terms of conspiracy. Breathing together. I constellate the breath and braid it with my own in this terrific throat we call a book.
Class: How much does serendipitous accident influence both content and form?
CM: Very much. But, as someone once wrote, “the unconscious is not incautious.” I’m on good terms with the accident. I’m on even better terms with the mistake. Mistakes cleave to the real.
Class: Similarly, as you begin to write, is the form present, or is it something that presents itself during the editing process? Do you find several forms present in one poem, forcing you to make a decision between them? How do you decide on line breaks, word spacing, etc.? Do you select the form or does the form select you?
CM: It is abhorrent to me to know beforehand what a thing is to become. Often, though, I have a loose set of instructions. Like, a manual on torn papyrus. A half-manual where I pay attention to what’s missing and let it appear. Energy is what I seek there. Dynamic construct. And I like it to be shapely. Line breaks are maybe the only thing I will never give up. I’ve written some prose. In fact, I’ve written lots of it. But even then, I always want that last word on the right margin to mean something. Or something else. Both.
Class: Do you care or think about whether your words hold meaning for the reader, or do you write solely as a practice/exercise? When did you first start writing, and were there any incidents in your life that compelled you to write? Who are your influences?
CM: I care deeply whether my words hold meaning for the reader. I’m in constant turmoil on that front. Because here’s the difficult part: I also care deeply whether words hold meaning for themselves. I want words to have a double life. I want them to exist independently, to arrive on the page so forcefully that any meaning they make is secondary to their presence there. I also want them to be in conversation, and to do that they need to make meaning for others. As for practice/exercise, I can only tell you that I find immense joy in writing. It’s where I feel I am me. Sometimes I also feel I am me when I’m talking. Or when I’m rapping. I feel I am those/these words somehow.
Class: Your word collections are flawless and memorable. How do you find your words? Are they always present or does it require an extensive amount of editing? How do you decide that a specific portion of writing belongs in a section all its own?
CM: I tend to fly my flaw flag high, but if the poems appear that way to you then I’m thrilled. I find words emit certain energies and frequencies. It changes over time. For years a particular word will hold sway in my life and then it will be spent. When I’m editing I find words that overpower a line or the whole page. Other words need to keep their distance. I love when my mind (I actually think it’s my body) suggests a word to me and I find I don’t actually know it well enough to be sure. Then I look it up and roll it around in my mouth/ears/eyes and it’s exactly the one. There are some words I will never know the exact meaning of because I won’t let myself know. I want the mystery more.
Class: Considering the difficulty focusing on a project and seeing it through to completion, what supplied you with the desire/adrenaline/hope to complete your book, Becoming Weather (or, more generally, any book)? Did you find inspiration in the idea of a press publishing the book, or were your goals more open than that? Can you talk a bit about that process of seeing the project through to completion?
CM: I think having published a book pushed me toward conceiving of my writing in the form of a book. That may sound obvious, but I think there are different rhythms of writing, each dependent on the weight that work must support conceptually within a larger framework. There is that breezy, terrifying sabbatical between projects, where you just write. Not toward a project or a particular audience, but just for the act. For me, it’s easy to see a project through to completion. What’s hard is keeping the rhythm light. But I believe in lightness, so I try.
Class: How do you handle the press that surrounds your poetry? Poetry seems to be a personal form of writing that not everyone will understand or feel attached to. Do you feel the need to defend your writing? If so, why? If not, why not?
CM: Like Bobby Brown said in his great rap about “The Ghostbusters,” too hot to handle and too cold to hold. Lots of “press” these days is on blogs and the FBook. And actually, I like that kind of press. Affiliation, exuberance. It’s no secret that Becoming Weather received one of the worst reviews in the Times (The New York Times, that is). I would have been devastated had the review itself not been cut from such poor, unstudied, inconsequent cloth. As it is, I just had to mourn this lost occasion among strangers. I thought it was a great, strange opportunity for a book that many consider challenging. And before I could make the mistake of responding, Ben Mirov utterly destroyed the review on HTMLGIANT. You want to defend a book because it’s kind of like an orphan once it leaves your computer. But you learn that others will defend it far better than you could. When someone like Geoffrey G. O’Brien says a few deeply thoughtful and kind words about your book, it’s time to become a good amnesiac.
Class: How do you prepare yourself to write? Do you perform any type of meditation beforehand? Do you consider your writing to be a spiritual practice? (healing?)
CM: I try to exploit the state of hypnopompia as much as possible. I stumble downstairs, make coffee, read difficult and generous words and start writing. Fuck yeah it’s spiritual. Healing I’m not so sure about. I think it might be communion, the way I practice it. Again, conspiracy. I breathe some Jared Stanley and then write. I breathe some Stephanie Gray and then write. I breathe some Eigner, some Coletti, some Lauren Levin, some Chatwin, some Irigaray, some Anselms Berrigan and Hollo. If I’m lucky I breathe some Dana Ward or some Mary Austin Speaker. And I write. That’s all pretty spiritual to me.
Chris Martin is the author of American Music (Copper Canyon, 2007) and Becoming Weather (Coffee House Press, 2011). He is also the author of several chapbooks, including How to Write a Mistake-ist Poem (Brave Men, 2011), enough (Ugly Duckling, 2012), and the serially released CHAT (Flying Object, 2012). He is an editor at Futurepoem books, where he curates the response blog Futurepost. He lives in Iowa City with his wife, the poet Mary Austin Speaker, with whom he co-wrote the play, I AM YOU THIS MORNING AND YOU ARE ME TONIGHT.