Steve Healey’s volume of poetry, 10 Mississippi (Coffee House Press), has been well-recieved with glowing reviews. Veteran author Dara Wier says, “This is a powerful book, a great book of urgent knowledge. What art does to us when it tells us awful things in ways so beautifully made creates a rip in our spirit where deeper and real truth can get in. Healey brings together children’s games, survival tactics, reports of war, reports of violence on the Mississippi River, various instances of hide-and-seek, tensions between hunter and prey, in language tuned up to exquisitely arresting and inevitable wavelengths. I love 10 Mississippi.”
So it seems Coffee House’s track record of showcasing brilliant finds like Lightsey Darst (Find The Girl), Akilah Oliverv (A Toast in the House of Friends), and Donna Stoncipher (The Cosmopolitan) is still in fine standing. Healey is the author of Earthling. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle and Rain Taxi, and his poems have appeared in the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century and the journals American Poetry Review, Boston Review, jubilat, and others. He received his MFA at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and his PhD at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis and has recently taught at Michigan State University, Macalester College, and the University of Minnesota.
Via e-mail, he answered questions about his craft.
What moved you to pursue poetry as a profession?
As a white kid growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in the 80s, I latched onto post-punk music as my form of freedom and creativity. I played drums in bands, and I was a DJ for my college radio station. I loved how a lot of post-punk music by bands like Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, and Throwing Muses was both shocking and artful, and in my fourth year of college, I signed up for a poetry writing class to see if I could create those post-punk effects in poems. Since then, I’ve grown more interested in communicating to my audience rather than simply shocking them, but I think that post-punk energy will always be in my poetry.
What has proved most rewarding about it?
The money! Just kidding. What I love especially is the process of making something, building poems word by word, line by line, as if they were little sculptures on the page. For the poem to work well, I need to keep looking for the right relationships between all the parts, the most interesting connections and collisions between images. My mind tends to work slowly but precisely, and I think I was attracted to poetry because it can benefit from this thinking style, so I felt as if it were something I could do well. It can certainly be frustrating to spend a whole day moving a few words or lines around on the page, but when it works, there’s nothing more rewarding for me.
How pleased are you with 10 Mississippi?
I’m never fully satisfied, but I’m really excited about what this book tries to do. I think of 10 Mississippi as a kind of collaboration between my imagination and all kinds of other texts I found in the writing process. I appropriated motifs or language from lots of other sources found in literature, pop culture, folklore, news and information, history, social theory, film, advertising, overheard conversations, etc., and in most cases I manipulated that outside material somehow to recontextualize it and encourage readers to see it in new ways. What I’m doing really is a kind of sampling, and I’ve started to find sampling in lot of art forms, not only in music, but also film, poetry, and so on. I think many artists these days are redefining what it means to be “original,” not seeing what they create as self-contained, and I hope my new book can add to this collaborative energy in interesting ways.
The poem “10 Mississippi” is, to say the least, dark. What do you experience, working on a such a piece? How do you feel when it’s done?
That poem focuses on dead bodies pulled from the Mississippi River, most of them homicides or suicides, and this is certainly a dark topic, but especially creepy for me is how these deaths are presented to us in the media with certain formulaic gestures. In composing this poem I sampled language from many different news reports, and while doing this research, I was disturbed by how all the reports begin to sound the same in their robotic, standardized tone, so the poem tries to go even deeper into that news-speak and call attention to the absurdity of it. I think when I finished that poem I felt a bit dizzy and disoriented, but also exhilarated about having found a way to make that dead language feel more alive.
Are there any particular poets you’ve admired over the years?
I first encountered the poetry of Wallace Stevens over 20 years ago, and he has been my hero ever since, although I think I’ve only recently let him fully influence my poetry in 10 Mississippi. I was immediately attracted to his weird way with language, as in poem titles like “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” But it took me many years to understand how much control and precision his poems have. Meanwhile, I’ve learned to admire many different kinds of poets. For example, when I first tried to read some other American modernists, like Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Elizabeth Bishop, I couldn’t appreciate their simple language and narrative impulses, but now I embrace the power of their poetry. I think it’s important for poets and other artists to have a big tent of those they admire, to allow themselves to be influenced from many different directions. There’s nothing sadder than a curmudgeonly critic who’s convinced that there are only a handful of great poets who conform to his narrow aesthetic definitions.
What’s next for you?
I’d like to keep exploring these appropriation and sampling techniques I discovered while writing 10 Mississippi. This summer I’ve been doing a collaborative creative project with two other writers and a visual artist—we’ve set a number of due dates to send new poetry or art to each other electronically, then what we create for the next due date somehow responds to the previous submissions. It’s been an amazingly generative experience, in part because we’ve sort of given up the burden of “owning” what we create. We can borrow any ideas or text from each other, and I want to keep discovering different ways to make “unoriginality” a new kind of originality.