An Interview with Tony Trigilio

Credit: Jacob S. KnabbTony Trigilio is a professor of creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago and also co-founded the poetry journal Court Green. He has published several collections of poetry, two books of criticisms and chapbooks. His newest additions include a book-length poem White Noise and the poetry collection The Complete Dark Shadows (of my Childhood) Book 1. Along with being the recipient of many grants over the years, including the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry in 2009, he has published critical essays about the Beat Generation, articles and book reviews. On the side, he plays in the band Pet Theories and hosts the podcast Radio Free Albion.

Alyssa Walker: When and how did you decide you wanted to write as a career? What sacrifices, if any, did you make? How did your original path toward journalism influence this?

Tony Trigilio: While in school, I had fourth grade teacher Miss Omark, who had us do creative writing exercises all the time. When I was writing, I got this thrill that I didn’t get from anything else. One time, she had me write up a poem I’d written and put it on a poster board. She taped it up to her desk, and, now that I look back on it, I realize it was my first published poem.

As an undergraduate student at Kent State, I started working toward a degree in journalism. Even after I had switched into English and graduated, I was doing some freelance journalism. I transitioned out of journalism because I found thatthe field placed too many constraints on language and ideas. Journalism taught me discipline in my writing, and I’m grateful for this. But the boundaries it imposes on what a writer can say and think were too much for me, and I had to leave. I had to make a leap of faith, especially when I left the journalism field and was leaving behind a defined career path. I had to work extra hard and be disciplined if I wanted to succeed.

I think “sacrifice” is a strong word. There is of course my music career, and I did eventually have to make a choice between this and my writing career. When I went on tour with my band after a brief period of unemployment once I’d received my M.A. from Northeastern University (Boston), I realized just how hostile the American environment is to art-making. Happily, I’m playing music again, though, with the Chicago-based band, Pet Theories. I realized I needed to be back on stage—needed to be using a part of my brain that doesn’t work when I’m writing. I’ve finally gotten back to music and know what I was missing during that period when I had to leave. It’s not a problem to balance music and writing now.

AW: How would you describe your writing process–time, medium, aims, brainstorming, etc.? Does it change by genre or style?

TT: If I had to use one word to describe my process, I’d say“organic.” As we say in Zen Buddhism, I like to have a “beginner’s mind” when I’m working on a piece of writing—or, as my Zen teacher calls it: “I don’t know mind.” I try to start with as little preconceptions as possible. Start with an image or sound. Generally, I start in a notebook by hand and then go back and forth between hard copy and computer. I’m also an obsessive journal keeper and I’ve learned to put the editor who lives inside my your head outside the room when I’m working on a first draft. You have to be okay with first drafts. And there’s lots of revisions—and that’s when you need the editor in your head, during the revision process.

AW: It seems that all writers have a kind of fixation on a point in their lives that they tell over and over again. Tell me about a childhood memory or life-changing moment that has stuck with your during your writing career.

TT: There is the first time I got published in fourth grade, in Miss Omark’s class. That poem was about tornadoes, which scared me tremendously. I remember on television they would always say go in your basement during storms, but I didn’t have a basement.

In my earliest years, as a toddler, I would watch the soap opera Dark Shadows with my mom. As I got older and continued to write, a part of me was always trying to write about that experience, and this finally led to The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), a gigantic experiment in poetry and autobiography. Book 1 was just published in January 2014.

AW: Nobody talks about titles. What is your philosophy on them? How much value do you put on them? Does your attention to them change for single poems, books of poetry and criticisms?

TT: Everyone feels differently. I like titles a lot. Titles propel me into a poem. I do understand that some poems might feel like they need to be untitled but I push myself a little further if I start to think that. With books of poetry, the title has to reflect the core of the collection and the collection has to reflect the title.

With books of criticism, or any books like like that, the title has to forecast what the book will do. You’re working with a different audience and different tone when writing criticism, and the title should portray that.

AW: How do you know when you’ve collected enough to create a book of poetry?

TT: I write until I’ve exhausted a narrative arc. I work on one poem at a time, then look back and see if there is something there to suggest a collection of poems is forming.

AW: Talk about your process of finding a publisher: Who did you seek out first? Who gave you a chance? Why did you choose the route you did? How did the process change for you when publishing poems to when you were publishing books of criticism?

TT: With individual poetry, I sent my work to literary magazines I liked to read. All I want from editors is to read my work carefully. I also would look at the acknowledgements in the books of poets I love and send my work to those that published them.

My first book, I was a perfectionist. I was very gun-shy about sending it out into the world. When I finally started sending it out, it was to every contest and publisher I felt I had an aesthetic connection to.

AW: What other jobs do you have? How do they hinder or enhance your career as a writer? Do you consider yourself a writer first?

TT: I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years. Teaching is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. I consider myself a teaching artist. The writing I do finds itself into the classroom and exercises, and what we do in class finds its way into my writing. I come home inspired by my students every day. Students come here as apprentice writers; they see you as a model.
Possibly the job that surprises folks the most was that I was a shoe salesman for a while right before college. I learned how to be communicative and clear, making sales pitches and anticipating the responses of my audience (while trying to get them to buy shoes!).

AW: What tips, quotes, books, tool, etc., have stuck with you as a writer? Do you still refer to them from time to time, such as with writer’s block?

TT: John Daido Loori’s Zen and Creativity, Chogyam Trumgpa Rinpoche’s Dharma Art. My favorite poems that remind me of why poetry matters to me and that help me regain a spark if I feel I’m losing one: George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” Harryette Mullen’s “We Are Not Responsible,” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.”

AW: As per your extensive work with the Beat Generation, specifically Ginsberg, how do you personally see that influencing your writing? Do you think all poets or writers in general should have an influence like that?

TT: Yes, it is inevitable. It gives you permission to be yourself. As for Ginsberg, there’s an experimental spirit in his work, and in all the Beats, that inspires me—they wanted to break apart mainstream writing and make something new. It made me trust my unconscious—reading poets like Diane di Prima, William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Elise Cowen. I edited a collection of Cowen’s poetry (Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, published in 2014 by Ahsahta Press), and seeing her writing process at work definitely helped me with mine.

AW: Do you see your poetry as “fragmented, oulipian, chilling,” as other as said?

TT: I like all those descriptions. I’m very influenced by conceptual art, which has an oulipian essence as you said. I also do a lot of project-based writing. I try as hard as a I can to be vulnerable, even when you can’t find “me” in my poetry, like in White Noise.
I hope my poems are fun, too.

AW: With White Noise you explain how you were inspired by Bernadette Mayer’s ‘x’ method (from her poem, “X on page 50 at half-inch intervals.” Do you see this method of ‘cutting and pasting’ as unethical as a writer? As plagiarism by using Don DeLillo’s words? What did you do to keep it original but still invoke the message and feelings from the sources?

TT: The key to making it ethical for me is that I’m transforming the original work into something new—which is also how appropriated art stays legal, via transforming rather than sheer copying.. You have to sculpt the original into new work. The hardest and most satisfying part of White Noise was sculpting the methodically generated material into a new piece. That’s what made it feel like I was creating something.

AW: What is a question you would like to be asked in an interview? The answer?

TT: I’m probably asking other poets the questions I want to be asked in my podcast, Radio Free Albion. The interconnections between editing, publishing and teaching, which we already talked about, are important to me, and I like to talk about this with other poets who teach and/or edit. I also like to talk about the stories behind particular poems.

AW: I actually brought a poem with me that I was hoping to ask you. Being totally honest, I don’t fully understand your poetry. It’s cerebral in pure image. Can you talk to me about your poem “Evidence”? I’m not sure how we go from evidence to liability waivers. It seems as if that the evidence at the beginning is more of the conclusion to the poem and the beginning comes after.

TT: I think that’s a good close reading of the poem. The poem originated in a hike I took about 10 years ago in Colorado. This was the first time I’d ever been in a high-altitude setting. I’d always been told that high altitudes affect the body, but this was the first time I actually experienced this. After hiking up just the smallest of hills, I had to take a break because I could feel my heart almost trying to punch itself out of my chest. I’m in good shape, so I knew that this was an effect of the high-altitude. I’m not a nature person. I’m generally afraid of nature, so it was kind of bizarre for me to even be hiking in the first place. I prefer urban life. As my heart was pounding in the high-altitude, I thought about the liability waiver I’d signed about cougars before going on the hike. I began to regret the hike and its high-altitude discomfort and threat of cougars. I wanted to get out of nature as fast as I could and back to a city. This got me thinking about the collisions of civilization and nature—the liability waiver, for instance, and just the general presence of human beings in these wild nature settings. All of this was rattling in my head as I wrote the poem. The poem is my exploration of the evidence of our presence that we leave behind in nature, and the evidence of nature’s presence in us.

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Alyssa Walker

Alyssa Walker is currently a second-year student at DePaul University where she is studying English, French and Philosophy, along with dabbling in anything else she can think of. Outside of school, she enjoys attending concerts of all kinds, where she puts her love for event photography to work. Her free time, and time that should be used for school work, is spent reading and finding television series to obsess over. She has most recently hopped on the Game of Thrones and Doctor Who bandwagons. As for her writing, it has appeared in her coveted journals and slips of paper that end up in the bottom of her backpack. She lives in Wrigleyville with two roommates and her cat Toby.

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