Interview with MARC J. SHEEHAN
Split Rock Review: Tell us about your writing process. How do you begin writing a poem?
Marc J. Sheehan: Although I’m pretty disciplined when I’m working on prose, for me writing poetry is more a question of waiting for lightning to strike. Usually a phrase will kick things off. When I can’t get it out of my head, I know I need to get it down on paper. The very first poem in “Limits to the Salutary Effects of Upper-Midwestern Melancholy” is an example of that. I really did have a yellow Monza that broke down on me with frustrating regularity. I’d had it in the back of my head for years to write about it, but nothing concrete was there. The first two lines finally came to me one day. I liked the rhythm of them, and I was off.
In a nuts-and-bolts sort of way, I also write differently when I’m working on poetry as opposed to prose. With prose I work almost exclusively on the computer from first draft to last. With poetry, my first draft is almost always done with pen and paper. I like the tactile quality, and it makes me feel things are more fluid and open to associative leaps. After that first draft I’ll usually work on the screen unless I get stuck – then I’ll print it out and go back to marking it up in my absurdly bad handwriting.
SRR: Who or what are your literary influences? What poets do you continually go back to? And, why?
MJS: I’m very drawn to that generation of mid-20th century poets who came into their own largely during the 1960s – James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Etheridge Knight, and others. Many of those poets, including Wright and W.S. Merwin, made the transition from formal verse to open forms. A sense of place was very important for Wright and Hugo, and that has had a big influence on me. It was a generation that embraced world literature through their work translating. I first read Neruda, for example, through the translations of Wright and Robert Bly.
Of course, as a native of Michigan, Theodore Roethke is an important poet for me. Both because he’s a great poet of place, and because he wrote in an extraordinary range of styles, which he nonetheless made into a seamless whole. Michigan also produced the great Robert Hayden, and Jim Harrison. John Woods and Herb Scott – who were both my professors at Western Michigan University are perhaps not so widely known, but were remarkable writers. Michigan poets of my own generation who have had a great impact on me include Keith Taylor, David L. James, Laura Kasischke, Jim Daniels, Lee Upton, Dennis Hinrichsen, and Diane Seuss, among others.
SRR: What do you hope readers will take away from Limits to the Salutary Effects of Upper-Midwestern Melancholy?
MJS: The Australian poet Les Murray has these great lines in his poem “Poetry and Religion”: “Religions are poems. They concert/our daylight and dreaming mind, our/emotions, instinct, breath and nature gesture//into the only whole thinking: poetry.” I love that phrase “only whole thinking.” Beyond anything else, I suppose, I hope a reader might come away with the feeling that the poems reflect an engagement with the world that comes from that “whole thinking,” which is a combination of head and heart.
Otherwise, as I put the collection together I discovered I wanted the poems to be mythic in some way – although the myths of the Upper-Midwest are more subtle, I think, than those of other cultures. There’s a certain emotional reticence that I experienced in my family growing up, for example. But then, overcoming that, trying to make a connection with others, is universal. I hope that comes through in the poems.
SRR: What advice do you have for writers that are thinking about submitting their work to a chapbook contest?
MJS: I think generally judges and publishers like work that’s cohesive – that cohesion could be thematic and/or formal. Chapbooks can make a real statement despite – or perhaps because of – their length. Pablo Neruda’s first book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, was really a chapbook. It’s exactly what the title says it is and it made him instantly famous.
SRR: Has your idea of poetry changed since you began writing? How so?
MJS: When I was younger and just starting to write poems I was drawn to anything that was weird: Richard Brautigan, French and Spanish surrealist poets, Christopher Smart, and plenty of others. I still love Smart, especially the famous “For I Will Consider My Cat Geoffrey” section of Jubliat Agno. However, over time I found myself drawn to poets who could express great emotion in part by being reserved, or playing off of that reserve. Poems like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” just knock me out.
SRR: Are you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc.? If so, how does it fit within your writing life?
MJS: I have a real love/hate relationship with Facebook. I have to keep it from being too much of a time-suck. However, it has allowed me to keep in touch – and in some cases re-connect – with a far-flung community of writers. Because I have to keep myself from staring at a screen too much I’ve kept away from other forms of social media.
SRR: What's next for you? What are you working on now, and what can we anticipate in the future?
MJS: For a while now I’ve been working more in prose than in poetry. I’m close to finishing a draft of a novel set in West Michigan, and I also have a collection of mostly “flash” fiction that I’m shopping around. The short stories often have an element of the absurd in them while the novel is more realistic. I do want to get back to writing poems. I think one of the problems I have right now is form. For a long time I wrote mostly in a sort of loose blank verse. Some of the poems in “Limits,” such as “Nostalgia for the Chevy Monza” and “Folk Religions of Michigan” are in that form. I also like prose poems and there are some of those in the chapbook. But I’d like to find other ways of having a poem appear on the page. Right now I haven’t quite found a way forward that seems to open new possibilities for me, but I’m working on it.
Marc J. Sheehan is the author of two full-length poetry collections - Vengeful Hymns from Ashland Poetry Press, and Greatest Hits from New Issues Press. His chapbook Limitation to the Salutary Effects of Upper Midwestern Melancholy won the 2016 Split Rock Review poetry chapbook contest. He lives in Grand Haven, Michigan.