Poet Edgar Kunz discusses the central themes and narratives of his debut collection, Tap Out.
In your collection, the storytelling feels organic. These traits remind me of Robert Creeley’s “I Know A Man,” which operates at breakneck speed—until it doesn’t. In your poems “Again,” “Franklin Free Clinic,” “Blue,” and “Graduation,” the reader and the poet seem to move in unison, as if witnessing something fixed from the backseat of a moving vehicle. What do you hope is accomplished in rendering these events as poetry?
I love that Creeley poem! Incredible to hear him read it. (There’s a good recording on the Poetry Foundation website.) He leaves a real pause at the end of each of those hard-enjambed lines. It’s jerky, breathless—exactly how you might feel in that erratic car.
When you’re a kid, you have almost no control over your days. You go along because you don’t have a choice, and eventually, you come to this burgeoning sense that grownups might not always know what they’re doing or why. And then you get a little older and realize, yeah, they definitely don’t know. Then you become an adult yourself and you think god I have no idea what I’m doing. These poems are, among other things, trying to be true to that progression. They move from childhood to adulthood without losing, I hope, that sense of bewilderment. Who the hell is driving this thing?
A teacher told me once that to be alive is to be at sea, to be grasping around for mooring and not finding it. Poetry can open up that space in people—a good poem sends us reeling. I love prose, too, but I’ve found poetry to be best for the kind of efficient, unsettling work I want to make. I have something to tell you and I’m not going to waste your time.
I’m hoping you can speak to some of the concerns that your poem “Graduation” seems to raise: How is it possible to go through life unscathed, and how do we find healthy ways to express our “desperate, / public struggle for happiness?”
I don’t think it’s possible to remain unscathed. If you’re living a full life, you’re getting burned over and over. If you’re lucky, those burns are soothed by friends, lovers, books, long walks, good drugs. And you draw on your courage, your stubbornness, to keep going. The problem with the father in “Graduation” is that he’s convinced of the specialness of his own pain. He’s consumed by his addictions, sure, and also by his narratives. You can see it in the poem “My Father at 23, On the Highway Side of an Overpass Fence” most clearly: There’s a story [the narrator] tells himself—a story of victimhood and helplessness paired with a poisonous masculine ideal—that derails and ultimately destroys him. Of course, he’s also a product of an economic system predicated on the oppression of an entire class of people. The longer I live in the world, the more I feel like I can understand how he came to be the way he is in the book. For everything else he is, he’s also a man at the mercy of this churning machinery—chemical, narrative, economic—utterly beyond his control.
The use of the central image of hands seems to function as a physical indication of experience and worth in these working-class environments. As a poet, working largely from memory and feeling, what is the definition, or the sign of experience? Is this book offering an alternative image or marker for masculinity or adulthood?
You can tell a lot about what kind of life a person’s living by looking at their hands. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side ran a woodworking business together in Upton, Massachusetts. Their hands were callused, scarred, thick with muscle. In his working years, my father’s were, too. These days I’m a teacher, so my hands reflect that. There’s a poem in the book, “Natick,” that addresses this directly—the father and son are riding together in the father’s work van and the father holds up his hand and tells the son to press his palm to it. It’s a scene of first recognition. The father tells the son he has “piano hands” and the son is ashamed—by his own gracefulness, his difference. I’ve always hated that writing poems isn’t more physical. My sweetheart and I bought a tiny 100+-year-old rowhome in Baltimore this summer, and she jokes that we got it so I could have a never-ending source of projects. She’s not wrong. I’ve internalized something about work—that it has to be physical, it has to leave you sore and out of breath. I’m starting to understand that writing poems can be like that, too.
It seemed to me that the book was wrestling with how much we discard of what our parents show and teach us, and how much we then work to define these things for ourselves, even at the cost of failing in our ways.
I think that’s the central question of the book: Is it possible to entirely leave behind where you come from? And if it is, what will it cost? As a kid in a chaotic house, I became obsessed with escape. First, it was into a girlfriend’s house at 17, [then] taking classes at community college, then enrolling at a far-off college I applied to because it had a pair of beat-up Chucks on the brochure. These decisions weren’t fully-formed, but they kept me moving, and they kept me studying literature. It’s taken a long time to build a life that makes any kind of sense to me, and these poems chart that trajectory. They move from a troubled childhood to a troubled—and lucky—adulthood.
A big difference between the rich and the poor is that the poor are one failure away from ruin. One possession charge, one missed loan payment, one blown head gasket—stuff that folks with wealth or access to wealth can shrug off will leave a poor person stranded. I’ve never had much of a safety net, so I’ve been very lucky to dodge any major setbacks. If I weren’t white and a man, I don’t know where I’d be. I’ve fought for my chances, but I’ve also been told time and again—in language, and also through opportunities offered, breaks cut—that I’m worthy, that I deserve success. A lot of folks are told the opposite.
In your collection, instability is caused by a variety of things, chief among them—alcoholism, drug use, depression or some amalgam of these. Could you tell us more about the estrangement, loss of clarity or the deterioration of mental health that the narrators of these poems experience?
I think most artists feel estranged from the world: it’s this distance that allows the world to come into focus. For me, writing poems is an attempt to see clearly, to make connections in a reality that often seems totally incoherent. The poems reach toward meaning, and they mostly don’t find it. They settle for articulation. When I sit down to write a poem, I have some level of control over what enters and how the elements are arranged—which is to say nothing of the will the poem exerts on me, or how disparate elements snap together like powerful magnets, or how a memory or idea will enter suddenly and disrupt everything. That’s part of the pleasure, too. As the poem begins to reveal itself, the seemingly random fragments of experience start to cohere. When it’s going well, it’s totally unlike everyday life. It’s exhilarating.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tap Out.