In this month’s Literary Arts profile, we talk to Oregon writer Gina Ochsner. Her new novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., weaves an intricate and multi-generational tapestry of Latvian history, folklore and magic.
The poet Ed Skoog is a force of nature. Not only for his sheer physical stature, but for the weight his words carry. His conversation flows like poetry, each word seemingly crafted from an enormous stock of experiences and places in his memory bank. His first book, Mister Skylight took a poignant look at the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Rough Day, his second book, traverses the wide physical and spiritual landscape of America. His next book, Run the Red Lights, will be out in the coming year from Copper Canyon. We caught up with Ed right after he was given the keys to his new house here in Portland.
ELEVEN: What brings you to Portland?
Ed Skoog: I have family here, and spend a few weeks a year here. There were a few moments when we thought about moving here, in the late ’90s, early aughts. Then I thought, “What would we do? We could go to a dive bar, we could go to the Sandy Hut.” All of the cities I’ve loved have evolved. I’m moving here to be middle-aged, and for family. I like that Portland is Portland, still.
11: You reference a lot of different places in Rough Day, and you’ve moved around a lot. What does being on the move mean to your work?
ES: The places are never named. I took out all the names partly because the places in my mind and heart are, first of all, entirely imaginary. Because it’s art. But the specific places would take too much space to explain. To explain New Orleans, and then they would wonder why am I talking about Kansas and Montana and Seattle and Portland and Washington DC. In the larger context, the significance of these towns is not important. The next book is different, it’s a lot more conversational, and talky.
11: Can you talk about your shift to that style? I remember I saw you read a couple of years ago, and you read a more narrative-focused poem about the tragic shooting at Cafe Racer. Has finding a place you want to be located helped shape that shift?
ES: Part of it is I wanted to do something new. I feel that on Rough Day I had ended an experiment, which started on the second half of Mister Skylight. It required a disorientation which was consonant with the texture of my life post-Katrina. I think beginning with the podcast I started with my friend John, which was just an extension of the conversations we’ve been having for twenty-five years, I saw something I had not been using in poetry, and something that I like as a reader, and like to do as a writer, which is to be conversational and talky. The disorientation, which has a prosody and a calculus to it, turned out to be very quiet, private, and internal. And for the next period of writing which this next book contains, and I think will continue for awhile, is something that is more interpersonal. Some of that has to do with growing, and changing. Some has to do with having a child. I had to change my methods from just going to the coffee shop or the OTB and just writing in a journal for six hours, and maybe finding a couple of sentences from it, months later. I didn’t have that time. I had about six hours a week to write. But my mind didn’t stop writing. My mind needed something clearer to coalesce around. So I could have a poem almost fully composed before I wrote it down. It’s almost just like a nemonic device, or a prisoner building a house in his head. I needed something more solid than just the print.
11: The same way Kanye writes.
ES: I’m a lot like Kanye, in a lot of ways. I’m just starting to understand those connections. And I’m running for president in 2020.
11: And you’re a musician, is that right?
ES: I’m an amateur musician, a banjo player.
11: I noticed a few music references in Rough Day. Does music affect your poetry at all?
ES: It affects it a lot. It affects my sense of composition and possibility, and form. Particularly I play bluegrass, and old-timey music, gypsy jazz and that kind of stuff. Which all have pretty tight, unforgiving forms. I played a lot of after hours stuff with musicians of all different stripes. Jazz musicians love to fuck around with Hillbilly stuff. Hillbilly virtuosos love to tackle the stuff they’re not getting paid for. A poet, or writer, needs to have something that’s not writing to do. The sort of stuff I like to play has so many signals if you put it down in words it can be pretty limiting.
11: There are so many locations in Rough Day that it doesn’t feel settled or done, of one place. You haven’t written much about Portland yet. How much do you think that will seep in now that you live here?
ES: Oh I don’t know…I’ve written about Tillamook, where we spent a lot of time.
11: That’s a very conservative town.
ES: Yeah, it’s like a Kansas town. It’s like the towns I grew up in. I’m looking forward to having all my stuff in one place for the first time since Katrina. But I don’t know if I’ll ever feel settled.
11: Rough Day was about your mother in many ways, and dealing with that loss. Has having your son started a new cycle for you?
ES: Just because I’m with him most of the day. My wife has a real job, so I spend most of the day with him. So the lyric “I” in the poems is very often “We.” The sort of poem about what I’ve done today is what we’ve done today.
11: Can I ask about your use of ghosts? Are you thinking about specific people from your past?
ES: It’s not about actual people. It’s often connected to language, and silence, and the unsaid, and the lurking. I’m interested in dead languages, or ways of speaking that aren’t spoken anymore. So I think that’s often what I’m thinking about with ghosts. Language not of the present. I was reading a lot of Jaques Derrida’s “Hauntology.” He has these essays about ghosts. But he has this theory of ghosts, of haunting. It makes the distinction between the phantom and the specter. The ghost is the unconscious memory of past trauma. Not so much one that happened to you and your people, as those that you’ve perpetrated and have been silenced: your sins, past guilts. Past repressed guilts that are not personal. The Phantom is the memory of your sort of tribal traumas that have been afflicted, and the Phantom is the the figure in your mind that wants to keep it repressed. The phantom wants to keep the secret a secret and the specter wants to show you the secret. They’re two different kinds of ghosts, and they’re both scary. Remember Friday the 13th? How does the main character stop Jason from killing her? She puts on his mother’s sweater, and talks to him. That’s what Derrida says. Talk to the ghost. So that’s a lot of what I have in mind with ghosts, and historical traumas, and recovery. Specifically recovery of people in the Gulf Coast from Katrina. The guilt of the rest of the country in not helping. And personally, traumas of losing a parent and complicated relationships. It’s not resolving all of it, it’s trying to get to the texture of these particular things which are, of course, universal and ongoing.
11: Besides the Lunchbox Podcast, you also help run a literary magazine called Okey-Panky?
ES: It’s an online magazine. We started last January. J. Robert Lennon is the editor. Rhian Ellis is the fiction editor. The great Alice Bolin writes a lot about pop culture.
11: Has that, in the same way that the podcast has, opened you up to conversations?
ES: It’s an extension of ideas and conversations with John and Rhian, and Alice. John and Rhian, I’ve been talking to for twenty years, and the podcast is an expansion of that, a widening of those conversations. And the magazine is a widening of that, a demonstration of those ideas. More of an outreach project from our lunchtime conversations.
11: Do you have anything on the way?
ES: Well I’ve got a poem in this year’s Best American Poems. My first time in there. My next book will be out next year, it’s called Run the Red Lights. It’s from Alex Chilton’s last words. The guy behind Big Star. There’s a lot of music in the next book. There’s a poem about “Kung-Fu Fighting,” which is the saddest song ever. I wrote a lot about the Ghostbuster’s theme. Also a very sad song. »
– Scott McHale