BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Recently, poet Denver Butson’s chapbook the sum of uncountable things was published by Deadly Chaps Press in May 2015. In this interview, we ask him what his obsessions are, why he writes, why he loves coffee so much, and what influences him. After talking to him, it’s hard for us not to have the biggest poetry crush on Denver. We’re sure you will, too.
JC: Your chapbook is a long poem in different parts, often weaving between various moments in a dreamlike state. Talk about your structure–what was your intention?
DB: the sum of uncountable things, when I sent it to Joseph in manuscript form, consisted of separate poems, each on its own page. It’s funny because I often say that I like to think of my work as all one poem or pieces of a few poems, I didn’t ask Joseph to structure the book this way with space on the page rather than full page breaks, but that’s how he did it, and it works for me. I did ask him to insert those symbols, faintly, on the page to mark the different poems or sections, but I’m happier to have it read as a single, if disjointed, long poem rather than a book full of individual poems.
Outside of other poetry, what influences your work? I noticed the chapbook as a whole has a huge visual aesthetic, from the typography to the structure itself.
What influences my work . . . music, art, food, walking, gardening, napping, eavesdropping, mis-hearing, mis-reading, coffee, wine, garlic, Arvo Part, coffee, Miles Davis, coffee, Nina Simone, coffee, Tom Waits.
I have grown tired of poetry that looks like poetry, poetry that sounds like poetry, poetry that is read like poetry. Tired, but not spiteful — it’s still poetry and not something destructive or simply part of the destruction. I would like to take the lead of individual poems or collections of poems and follow it with the way it looks on the page. With this book, I want the type to be very light, the poems or sections to all be fully justified and uniform in look. I want the reader to experience it visually as well as verbally. My teacher (the very dear and sadly departed) Theodore Enslin talked about the poem being a score for the reader, that the reader should know how to read a poem simply by the way the way the lines and words are spaced on the page. I like that notion and also like that the lightness or darkness of the font (both in terms of shade and in terms of structure) should reflect the words themselves.
I feel like these poems are about fleeting time and memory and I like the idea of the uniform structure and lightweight and lightly-colored font reinforcing that. It was Joseph’s idea to move the poems to the far left on the left page and to the far right on the right page. I love that too, because, again, the poems don’t look like “poems” and the white space allows for even more lightness around the poems.
Memory comes up a lot, whether it’s through the dreamlike structure or something the speaker is remembering, especially noticeable in the lines: “whatever the sky is. the sky is blue. in your memory.” How would you say memory functions in our lives?
I don’t think that I’m qualified to answer that. But I will say that I think that memory and the absence of memory is as much a part of the present as it is the past and as much not a part of them both as well. The camera that the great photographer and camera inventor, Cedric N. Chatterley, made as a portrait of me is called camera amnesia and it’s got all the right stuff in it— a non-functioning cuckoo clock with a wingless bird, an empty print drawer, horse blinders. I think that that says more than I can about how memory functions in our lives.
There are a few repetitive images, particularly cars, oceans, sleeping, bodies (& body parts), and the use of ‘we’ or ‘you’ instead of names. Why is this? What was your goal in doing this?
I repeat myself, even when I try not to repeat myself. Sometimes it’s birds, rain, fire, bellies, necks. Sometimes it’s scarecrows. Sometimes it’s structure, openings of lines, whole lines. I don’t have any intention when I do it, other than that I intend to write that poem. As for “you” and “we,” the only thing I can say about that is that I find that using such gives an immediacy to the poems and also allows the poems to move freely through time and space . . . it’s also a good way to write about people from the past or present without their knowing it.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
Oh my. Two big questions in one. I don’t know what part of me writes my poems — the early morning part, the part of me that has to have a lot of coffee, the part of me that has only recently left the dream world, the part of me sometimes with music in my headphones. I’m tempted to say the part of me that is really me and not the part of me the rest of the day which is not really me. But I don’t know if that’s true.
Right now, I would like to not bore you with my list of obsessions, except to say that I am obsessed with getting closer and staying closer to the part of me that is writing the poems because that’s when I feel like I am doing honest and good work, even if I don’t always feel like I am getting there or having time to stay there. And, I’m obsessed right now with birds, scarecrows, and rain. And trying to always be available and loving to my daughter, who astounds me everyday with her good, true self. And I’m obsessed with coffee. Did someone say coffee?
About Denver Butson, Billy Collins wrote “Here is a poet who is wild, frenzied, and refreshingly mad. His imagination unlocks for us the cells of reason and sets us loose in a world of dizzying possibilities.”