The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Chris Tonelli

Chris Tonelli’s second full-length poetry collection, Whatever Stasis, is just out from Barrelhouse Books. He is a founding editor of the poetry press Birds LLC, the co-owner of So & So Books in Raleigh, North Carolina, from which he runs to So & So reading series and edits So & So Magazine.

1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?

I’ve always had an impulse to document/record the event of a feeling or thought. I guess it started with diary/journal entries. Then I think it moved to pictures/photographs. But it makes total sense that I settled back on language…my folks read to me all the time as a kid—Mother Goose, etc.—and I loved listening to their records and 8-tracks and all the weird lyrics…and I listened to a ton of their comedy records too. I just liked how the language elicited physical reactions in me—surprise, laughter, fear, wonder, mystery, embarrassment.

Also, I just love talking. The Beastie Boys have this line: “The gift of gab is the gift that I have.” But not just my own gabbing…I love hearing/listening to other people gab. My favorite thing to do is sit with friends and family and colleagues and talk. The movement of minds in a conversation as manifested in language. But also the physical aspects of language—accents and syntaxes and dictions and rhythms.

Why I still write is more complicated than that. No one ever says, well…I’m up to my eyes in MFA school debt…I’m not going to not write that’s for damn sure! But that’s certainly a thought I have not infrequently.

But also, because I just really love it…in a variety of ways. In the “take the top of your head off” way of course. But also just feeling kind of useful and productive. Some friends and I joke around that, “someone’s gotta make the poems.” Like that old school Dunkin Donuts commercial, “Time to make the donuts.” But it’s true…someone does have to make the poems. It’s pretty much our job.

I know it’s kind of a romantic notion, and I don’t mean it that way at all, but I also write because I “have” to. Meaning, I’m kind of miserable and miserable to be with if I’m not writing regularly. I don’t feel like a person if I’m not writing. If I’m being consistently a bummer for a stretch, Allison will be like, “Are you writing enough?” Meaning, quit being a jerk and go write.

It’s also religious/spiritual for me…for a lack of better terms. It’s how I engage with the universe and explore my place in it…why we are here…our role. How to treat one another.

2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?

The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Bill Knott who was like…what artist do you know who wakes up and is a different artist every day? He was always calling me a dilettante…which was true…but also kind of ok for a young poet trying to figure it out…trying on voices, etc. Anyway, he asked me who my favorite artist was, and at the time I think I said Susan Rothenberg, and he said, right…she wakes up every morning and paints minimalist horses. She doesn’t wake up one morning and do Jackson Pollack paintings and then another morning Picasso paintings…she wakes up every morning and makes Susan Rothenberg paintings. You need to wake up every morning and write Chris Tonelli poems.

As for bad advice, I think just maybe the classic workshop mantras/refrains…show don’t tell and stuff like that. Rules like that are hilarious to me because there a gazillion examples of great poems that break them. Another form of bad advice is what you’re exposed or not exposed to. Sometimes I bemoan the fact that I was exposed to such a narrow sliver of poetry…of what poetry can do and what it can be. That maybe I could have “found my voice” so much sooner and gotten to the real work so much earlier. But then I wonder, would the work I now love (though I do still love that other stuff) have made as big of an impact on me had I not come to it on my own or through poetry friends? Hard to say I guess.

3. How did your new book come into being? 

The form is basically an extension of the final section of my first book, but I intentionally avoided/resisted a trope/theme…which that final section had and adhered to pretty closely. I wanted to see how versatile the form was…if it could be applied to any subject…so I could explore anything that came along. It took some getting used to…not having that crutch. Maybe that’s why it took 8 years. That and moving and having kids. : )

In terms of the physical book, it’s been a pleasure working with Dan Brady of Barrelhouse on the editorial side and Shanna Compton and Tony Mancus on the cover and interior designs.

4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?

None of this was true in grad school/before we had kids, but now my alarm goes off at 5am, I snooze one or two (or three) times, and then sit down at the laptop. Now that I’m used to it, it’s kinda nice. The house is dark, it’s still dark outside, I tiptoe to the kitchen and make some coffee, maybe read or watch some poetry or poetry-related stuff…an essay or video or something…then open the draft and see what there is to do.
If I’m really stuck, I’ll draft on a typewriter. For some reason my internal editor is less strict when using a typewriter, which makes it easier to, as a friend puts it, waterfall.


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