An Interview with the INDY's Resident Poet
The Indy sat down with our very own managing editor, English honors and creative writing senior, Derek Engen, to discuss his new manuscript, Thus We Bow. Thus We Bow is a nearly seventy page collection of thirty-nine poems that, as Engen writes in his artist statement, act as an “elegy to a childhood lost.” Comprised of autobiographical and lyrical poems, the manuscript serves as means of meditation and reflection for both the reader and Engen himself.
Reading Thus We Bow was a really emotional experience for me, even from the start of the first poem “Sheepshead.” When you were writing these poems, what was your emotional state? How did you feel reliving the memories and feelings you explicitly or implicity talk about?
I would say that it’s not as emotional as you probably would assume that it is, because it makes the experiences approachable, having them mediated through language and focusing on craft. Writing a poem, in a lot of ways, is a way to work through it that works for me.
When you were writing the poetry, was it helping you through the experiences themselves?
Kind of. Part of the reason that I did it was just because I felt like it was something that I needed to do, just to tell my story for other people, more than to work through it. But I think that it definitely did––having a lot of distance from it in time was also good.
Compared to your poems from two years ago, which were more surreal and chaotic, this project takes a very different approach to poetry. How did your style evolve so much and how did you hone in your specific style?
Yeah, back then, I was writing mostly surreal and romantic poetry. When I joined the Lannen Fellows program and started working with Professor Forché––her stuff on poetry and witness, also––it was really important to get more in touch with contemporary poetry and personal experience and things like that. So I was trying to find a way to make myself contemporary without losing my style, and that’s how you get the mix of still a lot of lyrical poetry, but there’s a lot more real life in it that embodies the poetry.
You discussed your use of caesura and enjambment in your artist statement, and it’s prevalent throughout your poems. How did that come to be such a highlight of your style and how do you chose when to incorporate such techniques?
A really big influence on a lot of my form has been William Carlos Williams. Some of the poems were originally written in field poetry, over the whole page, but it became impossible to read. Using caesura was a way to get the effects of pauses and enjambment––the lines would be so short––without having poems that look like they’re written on a prescription pad.
I want to talk more about the format of the collection, and its punctuation and capitalization. What was your inspiration for this kind of format, and how did it come to be how it is now?
There’s almost no capitalization, except for the “I,” which originally wasn’t either, and that’s mostly a stylistic choice. I’ve read about how it makes every word equal, but the manuscript is centered on the “I,” so Professor Forche would not let me leave those “I”s uncapitalized, and so I didn’t. A lot of the punctuation is me just thinking about how you’re going to read it, so that’s why some of them don’t have any punctuation—it just creates a different reading experience.
What’s the process like for titling your poems?
A lot of times it starts out as a random word. I almost never have the title come before the poem is done, and then I usually slap a title on and change it a few times. A lot of times, it’s just trying to capture whatever is in the poem, or also to lead you to think something, have a mindset that you’re going into the poem with, that leaves some room to play with what the reader is going to think and feel as they go through it.
What about editing? Did “a sonnet for something lost (edited)” start out in its current form or did it get changed to this cool edit?
That poem, originally, was a real sonnet, but now it’s an edited sonnet because there were a lot things in it that weren’t strong enough for the poem, so I just cut them out. Sometimes, you lose things you can’t replace, and that’s kind of the point of the manuscript. Generally, a lot of my editing is really, really small things to make sure that the rhythm and the music of the poem is there and make sure that the words are right. I also try to make sure that the poem carries the original feeling or idea as far as it can.
In “elegy for el dorado”—one of my favorite poems in the collection—you go off on two tangents that you then claim were “not the story you wanted to tell.” Tell me about how you wrote that poem. Did you plan something like that, or did the writing just flow out and become something as you wrote it?
It’s a pretty long poem, I think it’s like six or seven pages, and it was all pretty much written in one sitting. It was originally from a writing prompt to put yourself in a place, to describe that place and the feelings of that place, and let the poem carry you. So that poem was just a journey through memory. One of the realizations that I had while writing that poem, which came to inform the rest of the manuscript, is the difficulty of going back through memory; it’s not something that you can do perfectly. That’s why it works in poems, because you make the memories as you write the poem.
What about other poems? Do they also come out of this flow where you’re building the poem as you’re writing it, or are they more planned out and meticulously crafted?
Most of the ideas that I have before I start a poem are based on form or craft. Generally, when I read, I pick out words or short phrases that I like, so when I’m ready to write a poem, I’ll have a list of five or so of those words and build a poem around that. Most of the poems are carried by bits of language that guide the poem as it goes.
In “elegy for el dorado” and “this is just to say,” you address the reader directly. How did that come about?
In a way, I was hoping that someone else would read it. I think it’s mostly a cliche or a trope now to address the reader and use that metatextual style, but in those poems, I wanted to acknowledge the reader so that the reader would see me as a real person. In those two poems in particular, I think I’m the most myself.
Throughout the collection, you also present different kinds of poems, like the 6 page surreal “there’s this odd thing I’ve been meaning to tell you” and the 9 line metaphorical “genesis.” How do you approach these two different modes of poetry when you’re writing?
The longer ones come when I’m the most ambitious, so I stick with something for a longer time. A lot of the shorter poems were a little bit longer and then got cut down because the inspiration of the poem reached its endpoint more quickly. That’s probably one of the most difficult skills–– knowing when a poem has reached its natural end.
We’ve talked a bit about my favorite poems. Which poems are your favorites, the ones you the most proud of, the ones that mean the most to you?
I really like the last poem in the collection, “I know you will leave me,” another poem addressed to the reader, because it used to be two poems that I spliced together, and I think they were both really meaningful. I really like “horses,” which is a surreal, kind of ghost of a poem. It’s really hard for me to judge my own poems. A lot of my feelings about my poems just come from how I felt when writing them and what was going on in my life at the time.
highway 61 by Derek Engen
with its gaudy opal tongue
the skeletal moon licked wet
every dustless pocket of air.
the tired hum of the highway.
neon lights pierced the curtain
of night's hazy theater.
love flirted with jealousy
as I watched you
whisking fish ghosts
into your creel throat.
genesis by Derek Engen
at the ache of dawn,
a mouse runs across
eternity's foot &
into its little mouse
the tail in its snake
belly dance, carves
awake through a
floor of dust.
You can listen to readings of select poems and Engen’s own commentary on his beautiful project at the English Honor’s symposium in Copley and White-Gravenor Tent on May 3rd. Check out more of his poems on our website.
Mitch Rimerman is an executive editor and is a senior in the College studying Math.