Poetry is great and all, but it’s the poets who keep me coming back to it. Tom Snarsky is one of those poets. On Instagram, he posts poet-bites every single day–stanzas of poetry that give me a doorway into magic when I’m stuck in a doom-scroll, their credits in the caption should I want to step through that door. He facilitates Night Light, a digital once-monthly poetry reading series whose earlier incarnation, Performance Anxiety, I’ve had the pleasure of reading for a few times. And of course, he is a poet. Tom writes gutting poems, driven by humor as much as wonder, love as much as grief.
The rest of us poets are lucky that Tom is out there. He’s an avid reader, both of our poetic forebears and the folks writing today. When excerpts from my long poem LONG were published on HAD, he reached out with kind words, including “here’s to the director’s cut of our messiest poems,” and interest in reading the full piece. I’m telling you, Tom knows just how to make a poet feel seen.
Around this time, his latest book, Reclaimed Water, was going to print, and he had just finished another manuscript that included his own long poem, A Letter From The Mountain. I proposed an interview and he requested, instead, a conversation. We shared our unpublished work with each other and chatted on Skype, Instagram, email, and Google Docs over the course of a few months. What follows is a tight edit of our sprawling conversation on LONG, Reclaimed Water, and A Letter From The Mountain.
Hannah Lamb-Vines: Since both of these works, LONG and Reclaimed Water, deal a lot with water, maybe we can start there. Water.
Tom Snarsky: Cool, I love a one-word prompt 🙂 Reclaimed Water as a title came pretty early in the process; there’s a part in the poem “coign of vantage” that talks about always going back to the ocean or the sea. It’s kind of a sad thing—I don’t live anywhere near an ocean anymore. I grew up down the street from the beach on the coast of Massachusetts. There’s something about the Caspar David Friedrich idea-space of being near that kind of rhythm that got me interested in the geographies of the sea, and how one comes to miss them (and also more generally, how one’s life is shaped like terrain, and how, when you leave certain places or jobs or people or whatever, they leave their mark on you). So “coign of vantage” plays around with vocabularies that are on the one hand very specialized (the poem is a true story in that I was learning words like “ria” direct from Wikipedia), but on the other hand, they are just salt and water in different configurations. Erosion. That’s on my mind a lot. And the idea of water as a fundamental circulatory metaphor. There’s a lot in Reclaimed Water that’s unreconstructed Catholicism in some ways, I’m sure, that circulation is both water and blood and all that jazz.
Reclaimed water, in the sense of water that has gone through treatment processes at a plant, goes through all this rigamarole just to be usable again after it’s been fucked with in important ways. (After it has done things like, say, wash us, or carry our waste.) I wanted to sit in that for a little while. The connection to Catholicism here feels like it comes in the idea of sin as something we are washed clean of—the blood of Christ being the ne plus ultra of redemptive fluids, certainly, but there’s also something a little funny in the way “sin” is English’s translation of the Greek and Hebrew words related to missing, not so much marked like Cain as just being off the mark—like Cupid’s arrow gone wide. The water has to circulate to do that work of washing; it has to go away from the “intended” “target” in order to pick up all that junk and sin and imperfection and impurity, etc. I think that kind of wandering is a key feeling for me and for my poems, especially the longer ones: They have to go out and out a bit in order to pick up on the real refuse of being in the world. But I could digress on this forever!
Tell me about your water, as it appears in LONG. The Lao-Tzu moment in LONG was the moment when I sat back and was like, oh yes. Something incredible is happening here.
Wow, thank you for saying that! When I wrote LONG I was reeling from a break-up. It was a really short relationship. I don’t know if _________ would even call it a relationship, but it was obviously really intense. I felt like I was drowning in this idea of manipulation: Was I manipulative? Was I being manipulated? Did I like being manipulated? Did that make me a bad person, a weak person? The Lao-Tzu idea that flexibility is a great strength was so comforting in the midst of those thoughts. It also served as a justification for the way I am—a lot of LONG works that way, as a form of processing the break-up, trying to understand why it had to happen, what role I played, what role _________ played. I was spending a lot of time in the steam room after yoga, sweating, dissolving, crying, thinking thoughts that would eventually accumulate enough I’d have to get out of the steam room and write them down so they could turn into LONG. But like you say, water is such an abundant (overflowing, right?) metaphor because it’s who we are. You can’t get away from it. We think such watery thoughts and see the world in such watery images. Time moves in waves, noise moves in waves.
I love what you said about taking time for accumulation and accretion to happen. You know, Reclaimed Water, once I sent it to Mark Harris at Ornithopter, mostly stayed in its final form. I have this thing that happens to me with manuscripts where sometimes I’m changing them frenetically, adding adding adding trying to squeeze one more poem in, but sometimes they’re just done. RW was mostly in that done state pretty early in the process, although there were last-minute additions. One of the imagistic things I noticed was the difference between thinking of water, sound, these things as waves or flows and circulation, and then water as the Narcissus stillness, as reflection. It needs not to be moving for you to see yourself in it, for you to generate something from the image you see. Same is true for a manuscript!
One of the poems that’s really central to the book, “Outer Tactics,” is a bit about music, e.g. Sibylle Baier (the poem’s “main character,” maybe) and other musicians like Stevie Nicks, but also my mom who’s a singer. There were all these ideas coming from what circulation means. I feel like there’s so much pressure on young poets right now, to circulate; get your work out there, be represented and shared and whatever else. But there are all these examples in the history of art and music and stuff that we feel a real connection to that actually really didn’t do that, right? Like, Sibylle Baier’s songs were chilling out for thirty or forty years before anybody really heard them who could produce an album for her. Same with Molly Drake, Nick Drake’s mother. My mom was in a similar boat, where she recorded slowly over years and years, and the distribution of her songs became a matter almost of accident; I have vivid memories of the record box in her old house, where she kept them. That, to me, is closer to the idea of reflection and stillness than the idea of raw circulation—the thing that happens in stillness that allows a kind of new image to form. It’s not like the dentist’s water jet tool, trying to carve little things for itself. It’s doing something different that still is ultimately flowy or circulatory, but almost so slow that you don’t perceive it.
Right. Like looking at mountains and seeing waves.
Exactly, yes! That’s a beautiful way of putting it.
Stillness seems to really come into Reclaimed Water in part two, where there’s a sudden shift towards ice. Am I right about that?
Definitely—phase transition. I was thinking about the idea in chemistry, where if you’re looking at a graph of temperature versus the heat energy that something has, it’s in a certain state for a while, on a nice constant slope. Then, during a phase change, it plateaus a little at its transition point. There’s a different way the energy registers in those moments—not as a linear, quantitative increase (unboiled water getting hotter), but as a qualitative change in the thing you’re looking at (the water changing form, becoming steam). As in Chem 101, so in life.
For me, the inciting incident of Reclaimed Water was the fact that my wife and I moved from Massachusetts to Virginia in 2021. So obviously, COVID had its full grip on the world at that point. I got a job as a teacher down here; I thought I was just going to kind of keep doing the same thing that I’d been doing. I’d been teaching. I was in the classroom for seven years, all told, between Massachusetts and Virginia. Then I had a not-great year teaching here for a lot of different reasons. I felt like I was at that plateau moment where I was sure that some transition was happening. It’s geographical, it’s personal, it’s professional, it’s all these other things. But in terms of the phase transition, it needs stillness to realize or to become intelligible in the sense of being able to put energy into it again and expect a real change. When you’re on the flat part of that phase transition graph, you can’t just go blitz through it expecting that the change itself won’t require some energy of a different kind. You need to give that change its proper attention, like letting the water still in a pond so you can see the leaves from underneath, their reflection.
So the ice in the book was very much in that space of being frozen in one place and thinking, that could have been one way to do my life. It could have gone that I got the same job and did the same thing for forty years, and honestly that was how I thought it was going to go. But rather than the ice solidifying into something permanent, it did the thing that many substances in nature do when they attain that crystalline, solid structure: It broke.
I use fairly short lines in LONG, but you take it really far in “Outer Tactics” with two-word lines. I love the urgency they give to the poem. What led you to them?
Mark asked me that pretty early on. He was like, “Are you married to the two-word lines?” And I said, “I’m sorry, I am.” Because pagination-wise, they kind of suck.
It’s a bit far-fetched, but in those short lines I was thinking a little about water as a molecule. It’s not balanced in its distribution of charge—it’s ionic in nature, which also brings to mind one of the types of classical columns you learn about in school (a poem with two-word lines is inevitably column-shaped). I was thinking too about the needle and the water wheel; the needle on the record player, the thing that drops and makes sense of the movement at this micro-, local, vibrational level, and then the stream or the mechanism that turns a big wheel, macro-wise, rotationally, all powered by a stream. The stream never sees the turning, exactly. It just drops down and keeps going. It’s the continued going down that actually makes something else move, in a Rube Goldberg-meets-Orpheus sort of way. Even though it (the wheel) never sees or realizes that, because the water just falls down into a further stream or something. I was really married to the idea of trying to produce that effect.
It was nice to have that image too, of the needle dropping down on the record, and thinking about the thinness of that shape. There are some CA Conrad poems that have that effect, albeit with a more jagged contour (I am, for better or worse, mostly a left-justified poet). Ben Mirov has some poems that he calls knifeforms, collected in his wonderful book ghost machines, that do that, too, where the lines just snake down the page. I like that shape a lot. It’s a fun one to see.
It’s really cool to think about it as falling water, because it does have that same momentum. In a poem with lots of line breaks, you would imagine there’s a lot of time for breath. But when I read it, I’m so caught up in it, there is no breath. It’s just falling and falling.
A poem in the back half, the Paul Blackburn poem, also has those two-word lines. I didn’t remember when I was writing the Blackburn poem that I had written in two-word lines for “Outer Tactics,” but when I had them next to each other, I was like, “Oh, okay. There’s a fun little balance thing happening here.” That felt nice with the idea of the two-word line as ionic, both balanced and not. The number two also gives me that sense of intimacy of address. One and the other, I and you, that sort of thing. So whether it’s talking to a “you” of the poem, or trying to talk to a particular poet, for example Paul Blackburn, that was a fun thing to play with. And it was fun to play with Paul’s oeuvre while writing that—first off because we share a birthday, but second off because, speaking of unreconstructed Catholicism/classicism, Paul is all over that in his work. He writes somewhere: “Hermes, keep my song / from the dull rhythms of rain . . .”
Speaking of balance, I noticed you have a couple of other forms that repeat in the first and second parts of Reclaimed Water. For instance, “Pierrot lunaire” and the poems for Mark seemed to take the same form. I have this personal fear of returning to the same form, and just wringing it dry of all its essence, especially if I feel that I’ve been successful with it before. Like, how can I meet that without doing the exact same thing? How do you approach doing the same thing differently?
That’s a really cool question. I like that question a lot. One of the forms that perennially I go back to as a reader and a writer is the sonnet. People can think of sonnets almost like frames of a film or something, or like paintings in a gallery. They have this serial component, but they also are each in their frames, right? They each fit in that same box. There’s something about the idea of the form almost as a substitute or a symptom of a sort of obsession. Sonnet sequences do that a lot. When I read a sonnet sequence that’s about the same thing, or even something like Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” it’s trying and trying again to get at something, almost to kind of encounter it again for the first time. You can’t do that, we never really will do it, but we’re trying in some way. That means something interesting, I think.
When I was writing the “Pierrot lunaire” poems in particular, I was really interested in the idea of seriality. Not necessarily development—like, it’s okay if it doesn’t develop, per se, in series, but it involves meeting something in a new way or in a new set of conditions. The poems for Mark were like that, too, where they were all going back to Mark Kirschen’s book Pier’s End, the one book that he had published in his lifetime before he died. It had to be serial because it’s a lot of repeated encounters, but I don’t feel a development in that relationship, exactly—at least not in the sense of getting to know a person better. I come to Mark Kirschen’s poems or François Villon’s Testament or the music in Pierrot lunaire or the Shenandoah River or the moon and see them from these different angles of my own life, with details from which I stain the encounter.
I love the idea of the sonnet as frames or scenes in a film, or different angles of the same scene. It makes me think about the differences and similarities in repeated forms and/versus long poems. One is maybe a series of sprints, one is more of a marathon. Both speak to, or are driven by, obsession, right? What obsessions drive Reclaimed Water? What drives [your unreleased long poem] A Letter From The Mountain? Do you find yourself returning, across manuscripts, to the same obsessions?
This is a beautiful question! In many ways, it’s the dream question for a poet to be asked, I think. I don’t remember where this quote is from but it makes me think of something a philosopher said, about philosophers really having one idea or insight that they work through their whole lives. I think poets, some poets anyway, are not dissimilar in how they go back to old themes. I think this probably also comes out in my reading: I love poets like William Bronk (who also appears in “coign of vantage”), who returned incessantly to the same ideas, differently each time.
One obsession that I think many of us can’t help is our economic being: the brute fact of money, of trying to reproduce yourself in the world so you can keep writing and eating and everything else. I think this obsession, which is maybe more of a neurosis, came out in Reclaimed Water in the parts about my job changing from teaching to not-teaching, the attendant uncertainty of starting over. In A Letter From The Mountain, it shows up much more directly, I think, in the facts of debt as they are actually lived. Speaking of latent Catholicism, sometimes I think about how, generationally, one of our most surefire common experiences is being in debt. It’s communion, but instead of with a benevolent personal God it’s with an impersonal set of institutions that are profiting handsomely off of their ultimate indifference, if not to you as an economic entity (they need to care about your money!), certainly to your overall well-being. That is maybe a whole other can of worms, but it is on the brain so much that it really can’t help but enter the poetry.
Oof! Ouch! Undoubtedly. I love these lines in A Letter From The Mountain which really get at the intrinsic link between poetry and (a lack of) money:
n’ignorait what, but the wedge driven in
to poetry is poverty and ink
is expensive so maybe we will wait
Thank you! I would love to hear how this question of obsession connects to your writing in LONG, especially what you mentioned earlier about manipulation. One way to ask this question I have might be to say something like: I think poetry is a really useful tool for stepping back from the give-and-take (of paying one’s loans, or of a relationship, etc.) and trying instead to dig, to investigate, to ask questions or basically sniff ourselves out (e.g., what am I doing here? What am I saying I’m doing? Do I mean it? How often?). Is that how it happened for you with the question of manipulation in LONG? Was it something you had to write to get to the bottom of?
You know, there’s something so clarifying about heartbreak. It shatters you, but with that shattering you get an opportunity to see all these different pieces of yourself with a more profound clarity. So, LONG is a bit of an investigation, in the sense that I was seeing these pieces of myself, picking them up, and wondering how they fit together. My particular contradictions, patterns, and artifices. But I wouldn’t say I ever got to the bottom of anything. It felt more like I had to get through. I definitely wrote obsessively, for weeks, and then I couldn’t anymore. The pieces had come back to the whole, the clarity was gone, and with it so was the question.
I was—I can’t say “inspired” by, because this wasn’t so much a work of inspiration but of necessity, but I was deeply influenced by Ariana Reines’s Coeur de Lion when writing LONG. That’s another long break-up poem that expands out of the particular grief of the break-up into the full grief of life. A little over halfway through that poem, she writes that “it hasn’t even / Been a week, you aren’t very clear / In my mind at all and I have no idea / What I miss or what I want”. And that was very much my experience, that the intensity of the heartbreak was sublimated by the writing about it. So the poem had to end whether or not the question had been answered.
I think that like heartbreak and grief, fear can also create a kind of clarity. Fear is probably my most visceral reaction to debt. A Letter From The Mountain reads like a reckoning with the fear of expenses and not being able to pay them. But parallel to that runs this beautiful and clear depiction of the mountain and the creatures that inhabit it. I’m thinking of buzz phrases around the climate crisis, like “borrowed time,” or “time to pay up,” and how capitalism and climate change are so entwined. Was that relationship something you set out to show, or did it fall into place naturally?
Oh wow, that’s really good. What you said about the poem sort of falling off, how it came obsessively and then suddenly it didn’t—that was exactly my experience with A Letter From The Mountain. I had that ten-syllable line I was using to measure everything I wrote and put in it, and then suddenly life opened out on the other side of that line and it wasn’t the governing principle anymore. Like living through a straw. (A Letter From The Mountain is also very strongly influenced by Cody-Rose Clevidence’s amazing book Listen My Friend, this is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, which I think had a similar durational quality: I believe Cody-Rose was writing it for like a year and a half.) I knew I wanted A Letter From The Mountain to taper, to have that long first part and then successive parts get shorter, be almost pyramidal that way, but your question is the first time I’ve ever thought of that as being in a kind of parallel with natural history: like there are millions of years with no humans, then there are humans and in a timeframe that is like an eye blink geologically we have the bomb. What to do with that!
Your question also makes me want to think about this in terms of the heart, of heartbreak. Of the climate crisis as a very particular macro kind of failing to love back. Back to the latent Catholicism for a moment: There’s a poem in Reclaimed Water whose conceit is Gethsemane, the idea that an infinitely merciful god sees us truly at our worst, our most broken—there is a really excellent Sebastian Castillo tweet for this—and loves and forgives us anyway.
I imagine the climate crisis as a version of Jesus’s vision in the garden, but funhouse-mirrored through a Spinozistic god coextensive with everything there is. We are just pummeling this entity (which is also, ultimately, ourselves) with bad decision after bad decision, failure to organize after failure to organize, and hoping our framework of unearned mercy will hold. The wakeup call, both obvious and not, is that Nature’s criterion is not love, but duration. What can continue.
And hence, the long poem. The long poem really continues, whether we want it to or not. (There were times when I wanted to end A Letter From The Mountain, some of which still bear traces in the final version, but it wouldn’t be ended except on its own time.) Then suddenly, it stops.
Hannah Lamb-Vines is a writer, editor, and library worker in the Bay Area.
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