Writing the Family: Barrelhousing with Caleb Curtiss

Caleb Curtiss is the author of the chapbook, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us (Black Lawrence Press), which Roxane Gay called “an elegant chronicle of grief, of the sprawling bonds between brothers and sisters, of bodies in this world, of the power of language when so artfully arranged.” He was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and has published his poems, essays, and criticism in numerous literary journals such as New England Review, TriQuarterly, International Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, The Literary Review, Passages North, The Southern Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, DIAGRAM, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. In recent years he has worked as a high school English teacher and Instructional Coach, served as founding director of the Pygmalion Literary Festival, and edited poetry for Hobart. An alumni of the University of Illinois’ Creative Writing Program, he is currently studying poetry at Vermont College of Fine Arts.    Caleb’s online poetry workshop    begins February 10 - spaces are still available.

Caleb Curtiss is the author of the chapbook, A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us (Black Lawrence Press), which Roxane Gay called “an elegant chronicle of grief, of the sprawling bonds between brothers and sisters, of bodies in this world, of the power of language when so artfully arranged.” He was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and has published his poems, essays, and criticism in numerous literary journals such as New England Review, TriQuarterly, International Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, The Literary Review, Passages North, The Southern Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, DIAGRAM, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. In recent years he has worked as a high school English teacher and Instructional Coach, served as founding director of the Pygmalion Literary Festival, and edited poetry for Hobart. An alumni of the University of Illinois’ Creative Writing Program, he is currently studying poetry at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Caleb’s online poetry workshop begins February 10 - spaces are still available.

Can you tell me a little about how you came to this topic of writing poems based on family?

I think I came to this topic for the same reason and at the same time that I came to poetry in a more general sense. Unlike a lot of poets and writers I’ve met, I was well into my twenties when I first tried my hand at writing poems. The primary force that drove me to it was the sudden and unexpected death of my sister several years earlier. At the time of her passing I was working third shifts at a gas station and had already dropped out of community college. Eventually I made my way back to school, and when I did, I found myself in a poetry class where I slowly began to learn how to read poems.

Not long after that I found myself writing in my spare time and sharing my work with my professor. Before long, my writing got serious enough that my professor started pressing me to understand what I was actually trying to do. As it turns out, I was trying to understand my upbringing, my connection to the people who raised me and the people I was raised with. Now, when I look back at my writing—the very early stuff, the work I’ve published, what I’m working on right now—I find that almost all of it is either directly or indirectly concerned with family. I think that was true even before I knew it was true.

So I’m sure something you’ll talk about in the workshop, and that people would be wondering, is: does writing about family make you nervous? Do you ever worry that your family will see these poems and maybe misunderstand them or be hurt?

I do worry about this, and if I’m being honest, I’ll say that this issue can really fuck with my process. It’s not something I’ve gotten over and it’s not something I think I will ever completely get past. There’s so much to this question and I’m really excited to have a broader discussion about it as part of this workshop, but in a general sense, my take on it is this: as writers, poets specifically, it is incumbent upon us to tell our truth. If we don’t do that, then—seriously—what are we really doing? That’s not to say that how we tell that truth, or to whom we tell that truth, doesn’t matter. It does. But for God’s sake, at least start with the truth.

Who are some other poets who work in this area and do it well?

You know, it’s funny. I think there are quite a few poets who write family incredibly well without always being recognized as “poets who write about family.” The first person who comes to mind for me is Henri Cole. Throughout his career he has engaged with some of the more difficult questions related to family, sometimes more directly than others.

A lot of his earlier work, for example, deals with the direct fallout of being estranged from family members because of his sexuality. That theme of estrangement carries through much of his work that seems otherwise unconcerned with family. Later in Cole’s career we see poems, such as “Self-portrait in a Gold Kimono” that document seminal familial experiences and link them to the broader themes of his work. So, in my mind, Cole is a major figure in the contemporary poetics of family, but you rarely hear him talked about in this light.

As you might imagine, there are plenty of others who might roughly fit this description; poets who write about childhood memories, loss, trauma, reconciliation, all that stuff. Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec engages some pretty enormous questions around family, cultural, and mental illness, and Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture is one of the best books on familial loss I’ve ever read. But honestly, I think you’d be surprised. Once you start looking at contemporary poetry through the lense of family, you’ll find that there’s actually a pretty robust discourse out there, hidden in plane sight.

What are you hoping folks will get out of this workshop?

I think the poemst that we will produce in workshop will be great, but the big thing I hope everyone leaves with is an increased capacity to think and write about their family experience. This can be such a tricky subject to approach head-on, but the reward for doing so is a clearer voice, a stronger heart.

Lightning round: Note you do not have to answer these and I’m not as funny as I think.

Fucking poets, man. Am I right?

We’re really the worst. Such big feelings, such broody affects. We’re almost as bad as fiction writers!

What’s all this bullshit with spacing?

Are you referring to line breaks, or to the use of white space within the line? You know, it’s a little complicated, but not too difficult to understand. The best way to learn about these things, I think, is to experiment. This digital resource from poets.org is a good place to start. You can also check out this rad Dave Housley poem, which I think uses the line with a great deal of care and economy.

Rhyming?

So long as you have good timing! Rhyme is just another way that sound and even music find their way into a poem. Don’t close any doors for yourself.

Are you wearing a casually rakish hat right now?

I wish. I live in Dublin where everyone wears those old-timey peaky blinders hats. I was rocking one for a while, but since I am the kind of person who always loses his hats, well, I lost it. Pretty sure I left it in a restaurant. Damn it. Anyway, I’m rocking a Detroit Tigers hat for the time being. Until I lose it. Which I will.

Fucking Hobart, am I right?

Fucking-A Hobart! I actually had a dream a few nights ago that I got a second (that’s right, I already have one) Hobart tattoo on my neck. The first and real one is just on my arm, but if I were to get a third, I’d probably get it between my eyebrows, alá Lil’ Pump.


What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

Wait. Is he the Russian guy who fights Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV or the guy with the cleft chin in Overboard? [rustles through some papers] Oh wait! You mean the guy from that Keanu Reeves surfer-cop film from the early 90s, don’t you? Patrick Swayze, of course! Okay, um, favorite Swayze movie. Hmm. [thinks for very long time] Okay, probably the one where he plays the role of a humble artisan who defies his own death, transcending space, time, and the spiritual inertia of his metaphysical state so that he might continue to make his beloved clay pots alongside his business partner and close friend, Demi Moore. I believe Whoopi plays a role in that film as well. Yes. Definitely that one.  

Caleb’s online poetry workshop begins February 10 - spaces are still available.