To hear an interview with Ron Block of the Writers' Roundtable at WGLS, click here. To read the first part of my email interview with Tim, look below:
Tim, I love the title of your book, Fault Lines, and identify with its earthquake connotations, as we live here in central Illinois on the New Madrid fault, and my brother lives in Santa Cruz, California, very near a fault line there (and previously in a house on the fault line, designed to resist a major earthquake, as it did). Your poems go back and forth between central Illinois and California. Can you explain the title Fault Lines, in terms of the geography, geology, and central metaphor of this book?
I grew up in several small towns north of San Francisco, and the lore of the 1906 earthquake was part of my heritage, as was an occasional quake. So the figure is partly literal, a matter of geography and geology, but it’s also partly figural. We shape our reality by setting things aside. We can’t inhabit everything at once. We filter things out; we operate in terms of structures that are necessarily partial. From time to time that wholeness we’ve so carefully constructed and has come to be reality fractures. In a geological sense, the ground is never fully stable or permanent; neither is the psychological (or the social, if that’s more what it is) “ground.” Sometimes we remember or bump against what we haven’t included. It’s like a child who falls and breaks an arm. Sometimes the arm heals stronger, sometimes not, but we each time the ground shifts, the terrain is not quite the same.
I love the light in this book, its variations. I love how you set up that there are kinds of light in “The Language of Light,” a poem for your son, who sees these differences. How does he like this poem? And can you tell us more about the importance of light in your poetry?
John is both a visual artist and a writer, and his comment quoted in the poem evokes both his eye and ear. That of course is really the poem. I think he likes the piece well enough. At least he’s been very good natured about my co-opting his line. We lived on a ranch in the White Mountain Desert of eastern California for several years. In the high desert country, light is a part of the landscape, not simply a backdrop. It’s part of the landscape’s language. That’s true everywhere, but that became clearer to me at Deep Springs, and John’s comment helped me realize that. It’s a matter of listening. We live much of our life indoors and in constructed environments. Those environments are rich and meaningful, but it’s also important to step outside, to step aside. Light, it seems, can help us do that.
“The Language of Light” for me connects to Prescript (Poetry) at the very beginning of the book, where it sits like an epigraph for the whole contents. So, two questions:
1) Is there an actual name for that kind of pre-poem?
Not that I’m aware of. The poems in Fault Lines (as with many first collections) were written at different times from varied perspectives. That was a poem I wanted to use, but it wasn’t fitting elsewhere in the book. Then I hit on placing it as a kind of preliminary or introductory piece, which is when I added “Prescript” to the title.
2) Is this prescript poem your ars poetica, or statement about the nature of poetry?
I mistrust the notion that poems say something, and I especially mistrust the notion that they are complicated codes for saying something simple. My sense is that poems are often ways we attend to things that matter but that don’t fully resolve or allow themselves to be reduced to statements that we can file away under various tabs. If poems were statements, Spark Notes paraphrases would not only suffice, they’d be better than the poems. To the extent that that piece reflects this sense of things it could, I guess, be seen as a kind of ars poetica, but a partial one. My hope, though, is that the piece might function more as an ars readica.
To be clear about the connection I see here, Prescript (Poetry) includes a memory, precise and clear, of light on a puddle of water, and is about the sensibility of someone who would indeed notice and remember such a thing. In “The Language of Light,” the small boy speaks of light in a precise way, and one senses he must grow up to be a poet or artist because that’s the way he sees.
Right. The world is fuller, richer than our understandings of it, which necessarily are entangled with the ways our awareness is filtered through our cognitive adaptations. When we see something intensely, clearly, we sense both our connections to this fuller reality and our inability to completely comprehend it. Our consciousness is both heightened and we are taken beyond consciousness. Poems can do and be many things. One thing they can do is enact a kind of witness to things that outstrip our ability to express and contain.
You and I have a similar aesthetic sense, I think, in that we believe simplicity of language can express complexity of thought, ambivalence in feeling, and mystery or paradox in meaning. Is that correct?
Yes. Complexity of perception, not complexity of expression.
There are several family stories in Fault Lines, and some elegies. Two questions here: are you ever hesitant to expose too much about a family member, and how do you handle privacy issues like this? My second question is a version of one that editor Michael Latza asked me, in Willow Review. How do you avoid sentimentality in family poems?
Family is another word for history and region. The poems in Fault Lines that draw on family material are, by and large, less about psychological foibles or eccentricities than they are attempts to explore how we relate to region and time through the lens of family. Urban life opens certain kinds of awareness, but rural and small town life open others. As the urban and digital domains become more and more the only worlds we know, I think there’s some value in attending, also, to this other terrain. The sense of space, of time, of connection, isolation are different in the hills than they are at the El stop or the megamall. Seeing the fire burn the mountain is different than sound bites and video clips on the evening news. Knowing how people can struggle with their interconnected histories is different than the exhilaration and emptiness of feeling as if one has no history. Family is one way to access that, engage that. As to “sentimentality”: that’s a matter of perspective. Some people seem to think that feeling and responsiveness are “sentimentality.” If the emotional dimension of a poem is an escape rather than an engagement, that’s a problem. But poems aren’t simply thought acrostics. I stopped worrying a long time ago about being sentimental. If my relationship to the world is sentimental, the poems will be, as well, and they’ll suffer for it. But that’s a risk one has to run.