The Exact Opposite of a Faculty Meeting: Jessy Randall Interviews Rob Carney and Scott Poole
Sugar House Review
The Last Tiger Is Somewhere by Rob Carney and Scott Poole is a collaborative collection of news-based poems from the doomsday times of the Trump presidency. And yet it manages to be funny. That last tiger is, sadly, somewhere in the future as we rocket toward the destruction of our planet.
Jessy Randall: The poems in The Last Tiger Is Somewhere don’t include information about authorship. I know from Rob’s introduction that he’s the sole author of the “Jack and the Beanstalk” poem, so naturally now I want to know more about the creation of this book. Did you conceive the book together, planning from the start to publish collaboratively?
Rob Carney: I love that it feels like that: planned. That implies a whole backstory where we’re these two deep thinkers deciding to create a small planet and considering together where it’s best to put some mountains and how many moons to lob up into the night.
But the facts aren’t as cool as that. What happened was I had a manuscript of essays I pitched to Unsolicited Press, largely because I dig their motto: “No Bullshit. Just Books.” They only wanted a query letter and about 20 sample pages, then they’d respond if they cared enough to see the whole thing, and they didn’t respond.
A year goes by, during which Stormbird Press in Australia accepted Accidental Gardens—that’s the title—when out of the blue, Summer—she’s our editor—wrote to ask if they could have it. I had to say no but asked her, “Would you maybe want a different book instead, new work by me and Scott Poole, poems about the news with a foreword and an afterword?” And she said yes about an hour later, sight unseen, and I only asked because I knew what Scott had written for NAILED Magazine and figured we had enough between us to make something good. So I emailed Scott and told him, “Unsolicited Press wants our book if you’re into the idea of putting one together,” and he was.
Scott Poole: Rob had been helping me in the background with my untitled fifth book and knew the poems well. When this opportunity opened up, it was a natural.
JR: I know you two have MFAs from Eastern Washington University, but you weren’t there at the same time. How did you meet? Did you hit it off immediately? Can you put in words why you ended up being friends and/or collaborating? Why Rob for Scott, why Scott for Rob, rather than, you know, most other people in the world?
RC: We met because another poet in Spokane, Tod Marshall, recommended me for Scott’s literary festival. After my reading, Scott said something like, “Wow, if I’d known you didn’t suck, I’d’ve booked you a better place to read than the coffee shop.”
Anyway, I liked Scott and liked his book The Cheap Seats, and we could talk without it being stupid small talk, and our lists of favorite poets overlap, and I think we get and like each other’s styles. We understand what the other one’s up to and going for, you know?
As for most other people in the world, that’s probably a pretty long story, and not being friends with them probably isn’t always my fault because a lot of people, well . . .
SP: I don’t think I can add to that story. I feel that Rob, and another librarian poet that I know in Colorado, understand my work better than anyone. Rob is no bullshit. I feel I’m that way too. If I say something isn’t working, he understands where I’m going. He’s definitely given my writing more punch. And I’ve taught him about shape rhyming and other weird theories of mine. I feel we both like to look for truth in myth. And when you’re writing about the news, I feel that’s a rich line of pursuit because news tries to become myth almost as soon as it happens.
JR: Did you consider giving yourselves credit for individual poems? If not, is that because you have teeny tiny egos? If that’s not why, explain why.
SP: Much as the authors of articles in the news go unnoticed, so will the authors of these poems. I like that. Plus, Rob has won all these awards, so maybe I can ride his coattails.
RC: Honestly, it didn’t occur to me to do that since anyone who knows Scott’s work will already know straight off which poems are his. There’s no mistaking his voice. Plus, we each put our names on the foreword and afterword, and we each mention specific poems of ours in those, so I figured anyone who wondered who’s who and what’s what could sleuth it out.
There’s this great quote by Ezra Pound—he’s not great personally, of course, unless you’re into fascists and total A-holes—but this line of his is great and might apply here. This is me paraphrasing off the top of my head, but it’s pretty close. He said it matters a lot that great poetry be written but doesn’t make a jot of difference who writes it.*
And then there’s just the designer-aesthetic kind of question: Wouldn’t it seem pretty cluttered to have our names popping up all over the place throughout?
JR: Are some of the poems written by both of you, collaborative from the start?
SP: It was only collaborative in that we edited each other.
JR: How did that work exactly? For example, did Scott have to “sign off” on Rob’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” poem before it could be included?
RC: That poem’s a good example to ask about because I had what I thought was a final draft and recited it on the radio on a show here in Salt Lake called “RadioActive” (KRCL, weeknights at 6 on 90.9 FM). Lara Jones is the host and producer, and she liked “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Ugly Duckling” but wasn’t sure about “Jack and the Beanstalk” and asked me, “What are you getting at in that one?”
Now, if someone’s confused, that’s like sending up a Revision Time Bat Signal, so I revised, and to be sure it was done this time, that I’d solved the problems with it, I sent the revision to Scott, and he told me it was good. He’s put up with me sending him poems for years now, and either given suggestions or a thumbs up. There are about 10, for instance, in the middle section of Facts + Figures (Hoot ’n’ Waddle 2020) he did that with, and the same is true of The Last Tiger Is Somewhere.
I know that’s not quite what you were asking, sorry. It’s a bit tricky to answer, I guess, because I wouldn’t call our collaborating and co-editing anything formal. We emailed ideas back and forth and worked on the table of contents, talked on the phone, gave input to each other about wording or phrasing sometimes, and reasons for our suggestions, but mostly we just agree with each other, so it’s nice. It’s the exact opposite of faculty meetings.
JR: Did you ever meet in person, or did you do everything by email or some such? (I ask because I’m remembering the convoluted, insane program Daniel M. Shapiro and I used for a collaborative book of visual poems in 2014. Believe it or not, we used . . . PowerPoint.**)
SP: Just emails back and forth. For a couple of weeks I was a man of letters. Felt good.
RC: If we lived nearby, it would’ve been meeting in person, but we don’t. But I’m sure it helped that we knew each other already and have been able to hang out a decent number of times over the years and also that we saw each other in Portland twice in 2019. I told him he needs to build me a loft cabin across the water from him at Loon Lake. We could volley curse-poems and boast-poems back and forth because the acoustics are good and Loon Lake’s not that big.
JR: Is “70s Summer” a true story and if so can someone please call the mom and find out the answer? I bet she knew right away whose butt it was.
SP: It was my mother and the whole poem is true. Usually I lie my ass off in poems, but this one is rare. My mother doesn’t remember this at all, but of course she wasn’t the one embarrassed.
JR: As you put the book together, did you have any arguments?
RC: I had to talk him into keeping his poem about George Zimmerman. I forget why. I think he wondered if it was too dated. God, I wish. How many gun-wielding white guys—cops and non-cops—have killed how many unarmed Black Americans since Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin?
JR: I notice that many of the poems include the word “fuck.” I think these are Scott’s poems, and I don’t remember Scott using this word in his other books anywhere near as much. Scott, did this change occur because of our current (in August 2020) president?
SP: You caught me. Guilty as charged. While writing news poems for a year, it gradually got worse with each passing week. Too much tragedy out there. We left out one of the poems that I wrote after the Snowden NSA story broke that had over 30 F-bombs in it. So what’s left seems relatively minor.
JR: “Should I just keep asking questions ’til you answer?”***
RC: Ha. Good one. I’ll leave it to Scott since you’re quoting his robot.
SP: That poem was about a robot named Quobo or something that the Japanese developed so you wouldn’t be lonely in space. Didn’t anyone watch 2001: A Space Odyssey? I was tickled by the idea of a hunk of plastic, without the fear of death, trying to keep a human happy. That was a fun poem to write.
JR: How much longer do we have to wait for the hilarity?****
RC: Probably until Godot comes. He’ll always come tomorrow.
SP: When the internet jacks directly into the brain. It will be back to square one, sitting under trees in saffron robes, except we’ll all have leveled up and we’ll all be giggling like beautiful children.
JR: Are there lines in the book that you no longer remember who wrote them? That sentence seems ungrammatical but I defy you to improve upon it.
RC: I’ll see your bet and raise you a comma between the two independent clauses and before the coordinating conjunction. But I guess the answer is, sort of. Not in The Last Tiger Is Somewhere but yes in poems like “If You Want to Make the Alphabet” in Facts + Figures. Scott told me the draft he saw needed better verbs, and now it has them. Did he suggest a couple of the better verbs specifically? I don’t remember. But I do remember that he gave me a rewrite of the two closing lines, and I might have taken that rewrite—or almost—word for word.
JR: Some of these poems have last lines that are like punchlines. Do you ever wish they didn’t? And/or, do you wish more of the poems were more joke-like? Compare and contrast poems and jokes.
SP: Frost says, “Anyone can start a poem, but it takes a poet to finish it.” I would just add, “or a comedian.” Jokes and poems are very similar: setup and something to walk away with, a new way of looking at the world. However, a joke is like blowing into a jug and a poem has the range of a grand piano.
But I feel a poem has to at least satisfy the requirements of a joke before it can achieve more. Ever notice how many poems without a point end with birds flying off into the distance? And how few jokes? At least in the joke, the duck on the guy’s head sticks around to tell the psychiatrist to “Get this guy off my ass.”
RC: That’s it exactly, at least according to my brother. He asked me on the phone once if I ever watch Seinfeld’s show where he talks to someone in a car while they both drink coffee. Sounds good, but it isn’t on any of my TV channels. Anyway, Colin tells me Seinfeld said something like, “I don’t get it with poetry. Poets work hard at it, and they craft the language, and they try to get the arc of it and the timing just right like comedians do when we’re writing, but then that’s it. Poets are like comedians who aren’t funny.” Which is funny and also right. But it’s also not right because sometimes some poets are funny, and laughter isn’t the only kind of catharsis.
JR: The poems at the end of the book take the form of test questions. Do people ever try to tell you these aren’t poems? If they do, do you feel a frisson of excitement at the prospect of setting them straight? Or are you more like just *shrug*?
RC: I see it as a single poem in 13 parts, and yes as a poem. In fact, as a “formal” poem. There are all of these great forms people forget about because they had a quiz once on “What’s a pantoum?” Forms like lists, lost-and-found lists, fables, creation stories, new myths, psalms, catalogs, persona speakers and monologues, old fairy tales you break apart and then mosaic back together in another way, and even those story problems from math class and the GRE; and I write in all of those forms, plus a gob of sonnets, and also prose poems sometimes.
Someone started emailing me once—I forget who and why, but it was about writing. I didn’t reply a third time because the third time was him stating As! Fact! that prose poems aren’t poetry and anyone doing that was talentless or lazy. And there are theorists, of course, who like to talk about whether prose poems are or aren’t, but I prefer them to do it a long way from me.
Instead, I’ll just say this: I had a question years back from the managing editor of Isotope, this great journal out of Logan, but one day Utah State University decided to up and axe its funding, and that was it. Anyway, the piece was called “Story Problems”—it’s in the same form as this poem that you’re asking me about—and she wanted to know where to group it in her table of contents, with prose or with poetry? I told her she should put it with whatever genre paid more.
SP: I just want to add one thing to what Rob said. Half the time, after a reading, people come up to me and say, “I liked your stories.” Are they stories with line breaks? Is it poetry? Does it matter? Maybe, my next book, I’ll just call it a book of stories. Then maybe people will come up and say, “I like your stories, they’re so poetic.”
JR: What was it like releasing a book during a global pandemic? Was it super fun?
SP: I was proud. People will want to look back and see art from this time. I’m glad we did it. Unfortunately, most of our sales will be in 2047.
RC: Maybe not quite super fun. I mean no one’s thinking about books right now, and we can’t gather anywhere, so no readings. Readings are the good part, assuming that a crowd does come.
But I don’t know if anything can be fun anymore. We’re being head-dunked in quicksand by a Dunker-in-Chief, or by his turd minions like Stephen Miller, Bill Barr, and this rich jerk who isn’t just a porch pirate, he’s stealing the whole US Postal Service.
At least the thoughts and words that Orwell gives to Winston and Julia are amazing, and at least the menacing and Newspeak-sabotage of language are well written. Our own dystopia isn’t. Ours is one part Barking Elephant Seal and one part Rabid-Lemur Jabber That Never Ends. Sort of a downer, I know, but just look at what’s happened: We can’t even say simple things like “fun” anymore because we’re under siege, and so our words have to call injustice out and keep on talking back against it.
Hopefully there can be some fun again after that.
Reprinted with permission from Sugar House Review
* “It is tremendously important that great poetry be written, it makes no jot of difference who writes it.” Ezra Pound, “A Restrospect: Some Do’s and Don’ts,” first published 1918, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts.
** Jessy Randall and Daniel M. Shapiro, What If You Were Happy for Just One Second (BOAAT, 2014), https://boaat.squarespace.com/pdf
*** A line from “Listening to Your Robot Companion in the Coldness of Space,” The Last Tiger Is Somewhere, p. 24
**** A reference to “Waiting for the Hilarity,” LTIS, p. 68</small