Talking with Ross White

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LKR interviews Ross White.

How would you describe your new poetry collection?

How We Came Upon the Colony reimagines the early United States as a place where magic is possible and the inevitable downfall of any empire is coded into the founding of any colony. Without naming it directly, the book addresses the idea of manifest destiny, the idea of the virtuous settlement and expansion, the imperative to impose a single cultural view upon a vast and diverse landscape. The book ends up taking on a few of the ideas at the foundation of manifest destiny, like Christian doctrine, the American dream, and the spread of democracy. It challenges the ethical superiority Americans feel when they encounter the rest of the world.

Ultimately, however, the book is a curious love letter to democracy, to the American ideal. Even as it critiques contemporary America, I think the book reveals great reverence for many of the founding principles of our country. I’ve always thought that dissent was as reverent as blind faith, and I question the motives of anyone who shuts down the debate about who we are as a nation and the trajectory we find ourselves on. Most of the collection is a set of persona poems, but I show up in the end; I’m the man who finds himself trapped in Alabama, living a life he intellectually rejects. I’m the Midwestern farmer in the 1950’s, unimpressed with the American narrative but hoping against hope that the democratic experiment has not failed.

How and why did you start Bull City Press (umbrella)? What does it entail?

Bull City Press started when two friends and I got hold of a magazine called blink, which been edited by Robert West. We found the magazine, which consisted only of short poems, and immediately fell in love. We sent in our subscriptions, we wrote to the editor that succeeded Robert an offer to serve as readers. Short poems in the smallest possible package: it was truly a case of form following function in the most beautiful way, and we were enthralled.

When we didn’t hear back after a few months, we finally had the idea that maybe we should start our own magazine, a successor to blink, that would focus not only on short poems, but also on very short fiction. One of the founding editors, Bill Ferris, as a fiction writer, and he was and easy as enthusiastic about short prose as Jeremy Griffin and I were about short poems. So we wrote to Robert West, asking him if he’d be all right with us creating the spiritual successor to blink. We asked if he had any unfilled subscriptions, promising that we would fill them if he’d give us his blessing, and he did.

After we’d solicited for a couple of issues, I got it in my head that if we could make a magazine, we could make books. Bill and Jeremy weren’t so interested in making books, but they gave me their blessing to do it under the aegis of Bull City Press, and ever since then, I’ve been working with some combination of volunteers to produce the magazine and the book series. At this point, we’ve published six chapbooks and two full-length books, and we’ve had a couple other side projects as well. We’re also twenty-seven issues into the magazine, which has established itself as one of the premier venues for very short poems and short fiction in the United States.

How do your writing, publishing, DJ-ing, and teaching enrich each other?

I would definitely put the writing, publishing, and teaching in one category and the DJ-ing in another. I don’t think anybody will ever mistake me for professional DJ, but I’ve been known to find my way behind a soundboard and some speakers with some ridiculous dance tracks on rare occasion. Only at writers’ conferences, really, but in a good year, I’ll find two or three chances to spin some tunes.

Even though I don’t spend as much time as a DJ, I do love it. I love the release that people feel on a dance floor, especially if it’s a group that doesn’t dance much. Clubs don’t do much for me; I don’t care much for Dancing with the Stars. I want to see that moment where the person who hasn’t danced in a year hits the dance floor. That moment is the one that’s closest to the kind of poem I enjoy—it seems unrehearsed, but it knows its own natural rhythms. It isn’t afraid, but it isn’t so polished that it lacks soul. It discovers its agenda as it moves.

We spend a lot of our lives segmenting ourselves, don’t we? I’m debonair in one context, a total dweeb in another. But in our writing lives—the lives we so often feel we need to hide from the general public, because the process is tedious and ugly and filled with the poisonous fumes of simultaneous self-aggrandizement and self-doubt—we get to synthesize the best parts of each of those identities. They feed each other.

Describe a typical day or week. How do you coordinate all your activities?

Most of the year, I’m working two jobs and running the press, which leads to somewhat predictable trends over time but wild variation from day to day. My day job is in distance learning at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, where I oversee online courses, interactive videoconferencing courses, summer programs, and international partnerships when I’m not teaching gifted eleventh and twelfth graders. My side gig is as a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I teach poetry and grammar. In an average day, I might hear about a student’s research with wearable technology in the morning, teach by video to students in rural North Carolina just after lunch, read six student-penned sestinas in the early evening, and then hand-make the new issue of Inch while I watch The Daily Show.

It can be a bit confusing to coordinate, and I’ll sometimes have to put my own writing on the back burner for a month or two, but the joy of working in such diverse environments is that I’m always learning something new. At the day job, I’m around rocket scientists, engineers, geneticists, economists, and historians. I’m as likely to talk about brain research as I am poetry during the average work day. But at night, sometimes I’ll read five chapbook submissions or students’ reflections on contemporary poems. Both make me feel alive. Thinking about science, technology, and education keeps me connected to our future; reading poetry keeps me connected to a centuries-long conversation. And I’m never more present in the moment than when I am writing my own poems.

Does music affect your writing? Does your home, your region, impact your writing?

Music is a huge influence. It’s not uncommon for me to use existing music as the score to a poem, and I’m just as happy drawing from contemporary pop rhythms as I am jazz or classical. I like to take songs with which I’m not intimately familiar and construct a poem, listening to just a few seconds at a time then rewinding, matching a musical phrase to a phrase in the poem before I move on. Borrowing a rhythm asks me to make some of the same surprising choices that a form might, and sometimes lends emotional urgency to a poem before I might normally have been ready to inject emotion. Or the music necessitates an emotional choice that the content might not have indicated at that point. Drafts constructed that way don’t always have a strong and coherent logic, but that’s what revision is for. Sometimes the music I used to score gives way to an internal music in the revision process, so the song is a midwife for a different rhythm entirely.

I’ve always been influenced by music but this is a process I’ve only recently been experimenting with as a result of an exercise written by Daphne Athas in the book Gram-O-Rama: Breaking All the Rules. It’s been a great shortcut to getting out of my own way. Too often I find myself overthinking the first draft of a poem, and I’m left with these grand cerebral conceits or a couple of good images, but no real feeling. Working to meet, phrase by phrase, the demands of staccato or silence or a huge symphonic swell ensures that I can’t let myself of the hook.

As a writer in North Carolina, it’d be impossible not to feel the pull of the Southern writer identity. You can’t live here without feeling the remnants of history. One of the blessings of my day job is that I have the chance to visit with and really listen to educators and students across the state. Some days, I’ll be on the single street of an old downtown area, where the brick buildings used to house feed stores and now house a bank and a Pizza Hut. When I ask directions, I sometimes hear more about the landmarks that aren’t there any more than the landmarks that are. When I meet new people, I’m asked not only where I’m from, but who my people are.

My relationship with place is a complicated one, because I feel the tug of regional pride even as I see steady reminders of how much progress we have left to make in our country. How We Came Upon the Colony was born of the impulse to reshape Southern history by creating a fictional fourteen colony, a sort of sideways version of North Carolina where magic was possible, where not all the dangers came from the known world. But when I started writing poems about this colony, started looking at the causes and implications of colonization and imperialism, I found I couldn’t contain that story in a single poem, and it turned out that I’d been writing a number of other poems with similar themes all along. That’s why the book moves from feudal Japan to the end of the Roman Empire to the Polynesian Islands.

Does INCH embody your personal aesthetic?

I think it did at one point. I’ve been obsessed with compression since Michael McFee introduced me to An Oar in the Old Water, a chapbook of one-line poems by William Matthews. It blew me away that a poet could create a whole world in a single line, managing an image alongside an intellectual conceit alongside the suggestion of a vast reservoir of feeling with eight or nine words. I tried like hell for several years to write a good one-line poem. I don’t think I ever managed it.

But I still delight in compression, whether it’s in the sonic play of a poet like Kay Ryan or the deft wit of a poet like Chris Tonelli. I love when a submission to Inch throttles me in just a few lines. But the wonderful thing about editing Inch over the last eight years is that my personal aesthetic had the chance to grow in strange and surprising ways, but there was a stability in returning to the compressed lyric each time I read submissions. It kept me grounded. I had a sense of myself as a poet and a reader, and I could push at my boundaries and then return for a while to a safe place and then push again in different direction.

Ultimately, Inch led me to read against my own established tastes and preconceived notions of a poem. It simultaneously led me to embrace restraint and appreciate its lack. Sometimes I would finish reading a hundred poems in a sitting and want to dive into a messy poem trying to navigate too much at once, an utter rejection of minimalism.

Do you have a new project?

I finished a full-length manuscript, Vs. World, that’s now making the rounds to various publishers, and I’m now about twenty pages into my second full-length manuscript. I’m seeing some ideas emerge as significant, but I’m trying to resist the temptation to write too far into those ideas. At this phase, I worry that would shut down the sense of discovery that I’m always looking for as an editor. I tend to approach books that have a clear narrative or thematic project with a little skepticism. When the author delivers on a silver platter some of the connections that a more free-form book asks me to make as I work through the manuscript, I feel like I’m less willing to embrace a rough edge or a gorgeous outlier. That’s probably my great weakness as a reader, but it’s definitely something that has kept me wary of too tight a narrative or thematic project in a book.

You teach both university and high-school writers. Have you noticed interesting comparisons and contrasts? How do you advise aspiring artists, committed writers?

I’m fortunate to teach in a high school for students gifted in mathematics and science, and they are, in most ways, comparable with college students. I try to individualize every student’s experience in the class, whether it’s by giving them some control over their reading list or letting them set goals around the forms they’ll attempt and the elements of craft they’ll use in their creative work.

My students would probably say that I give them all sorts of advice, but I try to be clear up front that I’m only one voice, and a pretty imperfect voice at that, so they need to be mindful. I ask them to consider at every step that I might be wrong. That’s a little easier for the high school students to do, I think, because they think that if I really knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t be a high school teacher. (Seriously, if one of my friends comes to my high school class as a guest speaker, the students are thrilled to have met a real poet. But I’m clearly suspect.) I try to tell them that if they know, in their hearts, that what I’m telling them is wrong, then it’s wrong. I leave out the bit about how our hearts change as we age. It’s important that young writers develop a sense of assurance about their own work, because at every step, the writing life will batter that assurance.

That’s not to say that developing writers are always right—but when a teacher or peer begins to infect them with the idea that there is a single correct path to the next poem, that’s dangerous. When young writers mistrust the advice of a teacher, it means they’re hearing that advice. They’re letting it make them uncomfortable. Ultimately, the advice may be sound, but in the moment, it may be opposed to what the young writer is trying to do, is trying to become. Let the writer figure that out. Reflection is a very powerful thing, and any young writer worth his or her salt will do the reflection. Sometimes too much of it.

I also advise young writers to get as many different voices looking at a poem as possible, and to have as many teachers as possible. I’ve noticed that, while they’ll occasionally fall in love with a book, young writers don’t always think of their favorite authors as their teachers. They assume that they have to interact with someone to be apprenticed to her. I can’t always sway them from that conviction, so I settle for begging them to seek out many teachers, to work with as many established writers as they can.

As an editor, how do you coach writers?

That’s a role I try to approach differently each time, because I feel like each manuscript I’ve worked with has needed something different. I don’t tend to coach in the sense that I do much developmental editing. In my years with Inch, I’ve rarely suggested any changes to a poem at all. If the poem isn’t quite working within the nine lines—even when I feel like it’s only a word or two that isn’t doing service to the whole poem—there’s usually no easy fix. Replace that word or two, and another element of the poem will find its way out of balance. Short forms are unforgiving like that.

With the chapbooks, I’ll take a more hands-on role, but I’ve never accepted a book that I wouldn’t publish as presented. The role I take always depends on what the collection needs in order to be fully realized. I’ve worked on books where I made some suggestions about the order and I’ve worked on books where I made relatively in-depth suggestions at the line level. More often than not, I like to ask questions rather than break out the green pen. The best editing relationships are conversations; I offer some thoughts on how I’m reading something, or how I believe it might be read, and try to figure out if that’s where the author was aiming or if that reading is in the best service of the larger intention of the work. The intention of the work is always the guide.

Where did you live as a boy?

In several cities in North Carolina (Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Raleigh), as well as five years in the DC area. I still remember what a curiosity I was when I arrived in DC because of my Southern accent and what a curiosity I was when we moved back to Raleigh because I’d lost the accent. “I can’t tell where you’re from when you talk,” a classmate told me, “and I don’t like it at all.” We moved just enough during my adolescence that I had to find some coping mechanisms for being the new kid; luckily, I fell in with a bunch of improv comedians in the early 90’s, and comedy was a big part of my identity for the next sixteen years. Which horrifies me now, because when I mention my background in comedy, people immediately say, “Tell me a joke.” This is the opposite of what happens when I mention I’m a poet. Instead of saying, “Recite one of your poems,” I’m far more likely to hear, “Oh, I wrote a poem once. Would you like to hear it?”

Please tell us about your life and study at Warren Wilson.

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson had a profound transformative effect on almost every aspect of my life. I find when I try to describe the program, I am reduced to a quivering pile of superlatives: smartest, most amazing, the greatest. Which probably doesn’t do service to the program, which prides itself on, you know, actually helping writers articulate themselves.

But I have yet to find adequate expression for the gratitude I feel toward that program, its faculty, and the peers who provided limitless encouragement during my three years there. I worried when I enrolled in a low-residency program that I might miss out on feeling a kinship with a cohort of writers, but I came away from the program with my closest friends in the literary community. My closest friends anywhere.

I had the good fortune to study with C. Dale Young, Mary Leader, Heather McHugh, and A. Van Jordan for full semesters, but the strength of the program is that faculty in fiction and poetry are engaged with students from across the program. While my semester supervisors guided me through significant projects, I also count Ellen Bryant Voigt, Charles Baxter, Charles D’Ambrosio, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Victor LaValle, Brooks Haxton, Jennifer Grotz, Martha Rhodes, Peter Turchi, and Robert Boswell among the great influences of my graduate career. And they constitute just a fraction of the faculty lecturing, teaching classes, conferencing with students, and leading workshops during the seven residencies I attended. I sometimes chat about MFA programs with friends who attended residential programs, and when they mention that they worked with three faculty members and fifteen or so peers, I feel elated. My MFA program was a diverse experience, and while I’ve never worked harder in my life, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The wonderful thing about Warren Wilson is that the alumni stay very involved. We have an active listserv, and once a year, alumni gather for a conference somewhere in the US. There are no faculty, just a week of readings, classes, and workshops conducted by alums of the program. I don’t think any other MFA program has an alumni base that remains that involved. When I started Bull City Press with Bill and Jeremy, I leaned heavily on the presses and magazines that Warren Wilson grads have founded or currently run—Four Way Books, in particular—for guidance, and their support was invaluable.

Please tell us something about your love of music.

I have a secret love of metal—Deftones and Black Sabbath and Anthrax. I have a secret love of pop—Justin Timberlake and Duran Duran and Britney Spears. I will often feign embarrassment about this, but let’s be honest, I just shared it with you. How embarrassed can I be?

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