One More Thing, Recent

One More Thing: Todd Kaneko and Mark Leidner in Conversation

One More Thing is a series curated by Associate Editor Helene Achanzar featuring Poetry Northwest contributors and other writers in conversation. This installment features a conversation between Mark Leidner, author most recently of Returning the Sword to the Stone (Fonograf Editions, 2021) and Todd Kaneko, the author of two collections of poetry. Mark’s poem “Spoonerisms” appeared on the Poetry Northwest website in February of this year, and Todd’s poem “David Carradine” was published last January.

Mark Leidner: Todd, I was very happy to read both “Waiting for Colonoscopy” and “My Father Writes Poems” in the 2021 Winter-Spring issue of Poetry Northwest.

I wanted to begin by praising your articulation of death, and the fear of it, in “Waiting for Colonoscopy,” especially in the context of being in the shadow of a father who passed from cancer. As I began the poem I got scared it was going to make me worry about cancer, which I do all the time, and then it really did do that, but by the end it had traveled through that fear, or sat with it, in such an immersive, imaginative image, that it articulated a big part how I feel about my own father, and I felt slightly less afraid, which is maybe my favorite feeling in the world. The poem made me think of this semi-hopeful thought I sometimes try to have when I feel afraid of death in general, which is that death will be like some kind of mystical reunion with the dead, not in the sunshine and rainbows sense, but in the more mysterious sense. Even if we don’t actually meet the physical forms of our fallen friends when we open that final door, the fact that we will open it as they did—the fact that we will, for better or worse, share that mystery with them, whatever it may be—feels like a kind of communion to honor. I don’t think your poem is about “celebrating” this as such, but in my own mind I’m always trying to reframe death as somehow good, so that when it comes, I can be less afraid. I think one of the things I come to poetry for is its ability to define, illustrate, and walk us through topics like death, to give us load-bearing metaphors and images with which to sit in that difficult spot. Your poem is wonderful for the room it creates to face that moment.

The theme of transference, the idea that death makes us part of everything, or that life and death and the past and present all happen simultaneously, or that our parents are us, too, as we live on after them, or how death in general threads each of us with another—all of these themes I got from the vision in “My Father Writes Poems”—and I enjoyed thinking about them all in the context of your father.

Maybe it was just the title, but it reminded me of one of my favorite short poems of all time, “Amen” by John Phillips, written for Yehuda Amichai, and I wanted to share it:

Today I met my father
on the street.

After all these years,
he was still dead.

I could feel his heart
beat in my chest.

The heart wasn’t mine.
It belonged to his son.

Who I no longer was.

Todd Kaneko: Thanks, Mark, for the nice words about my poems, and for that poem by Phillips. I like that moment of contradiction where he’s at once the son and yet denying he’s the son anymore. It really resonates with my own experience writing poems through persistent grief. My dad passed in 2017 and poetry is the place I can go to talk to him. Sometimes I’m not looking for him but he’ll show up anyways and say what he has to say. And I know this is really just me talking to myself in the poem—his heart beating in my chest and all—but this is something I keep coming back to in poems: poetry has the power to give us our dead back, even if it’s just for a little while, even if it’s just illusory. We need to meet them in a poem—or in the case of Phillips’ speaker, on the street—so poetry allows us to resurrect them for just a minute or two so we can haunt each other properly. 

On the day of that colonoscopy, there was me and the waiting room and that painting. And, like you talked about—the fear of cancer. As the poem took shape in my head, I think it was a sort of communion—with myself, with my father’s ghost, with poetry. And when my dad showed up in that poem, he didn’t want to talk so I talked to my son instead. I see this kind of thing as a major function of writing poetry. Like, the poet writes the poem and the poem talks back, and it’s through that collaboration on the page that the poem actually takes shape. I don’t think I can reframe death as good in a poem, but I do think that poetry can say to a reader, hey, me and my dead are way over here, but we can see you and your dead where you are, and this sucks, right?

I’m sorry to hear about your father, by the way—it seems to be going around my social circles, the loss of our fathers and mothers. Have you written about your father in your poems? Or is that outside of the subject matter you want to work with?

Your poem “Spoonerisms” is so playful with language and rhyme. It’s cool how it starts with the dance and ends with the psalm. It seems like such an easy-going poem until maybe the meetings and beatings, and then the popcorn leading into the cop porn—the poem gets kind of violent in the middle doesn’t it? Some of the pairs are funny, some are silly, and some are pretty brutal. It seems to me that the poem’s violence comes in the way it forces meaning from some of those paired phrases in this relentless march towards the break, and then makes its way back towards calm. Am I imagining this? Maybe you could talk a bit about this kind of seriously fun wordplay, which I have seen in a few of your other poems, and how language influences a poem for you.  

Mark: So far I have avoided writing about my parents directly, though all my poems are intimately connected to them. I feel like their love and our relationship is a fuel for the vehicle of poetry rather than a subject of it.

I don’t know why this is the case. Whenever I try to write about my father or mother, I feel like I have too much to say, and too much of it is one-dimensional (i.e., I really miss them, and I wish I would have loved them more when they were here, and I long to see them again in dreams or the great beyond). The simplicity of that feeling makes it hard for me to find anything more than that to say. I also feel pain when I revisit memories of them because my parents were so good to me, so it is often too hard for me to dwell on their loss. My poems tend to take me years to write, so I have to really, really enjoy writing them, and if there’s too much pain in them, I won’t be able to take the poem across the finish line because something more fun and less heartbreaking will inevitably catch my attention.

But all of this means that when I read poems like yours or others that deal more directly with parents, I get to experience a kind of raw awe and vicarious connection to my parents that I probably would never be able to access on my own. I see things in other poets’ poems about their dead parents that are true of mine yet are things I would never be able to say out of fear or bias or simply imaginative block. That’s why reading poems about parents who have passed away is one of my favorite genres as a reader.

Your breakdown of “Spoonerisms” seems true to me. I do try to juxtapose the silly and the realistic, the violent and serene, etc. I guess because it reminds me of how life and nature seem to be. Combining these modes often feels more like necessity than choice. When I try to write poems that are just fun, or just serious, they are neither fun nor serious. They just seem fake or inert. For the poem to seem true or alive, it must have both in collision or balance, perhaps because I view these paradoxes as actually inseparable.

This morning I read another poem of yours about your father that more overtly blends the serious with the seemingly un-serious, “Elegy for Han Solo.” I thought this poem was lovely and surprising and, among other things, made me really consider the Han Solo we see in the latest three movies as the same character as in the first three, which is hard for me, the two trilogies being so far apart in time and character. Or maybe I’ve changed. But I liked reflecting how fitting and complex an end Han has . . . given the complex person he is at the beginning when we meet him.

Are there other characters from film or fiction you’ve wanted to write about but never have? What do you think are the particular challenges, if any, of weaving elements from popular stories into your own poems?

Han Solo in Todd’s action figure box

Todd: Thank you for the nice words about that Han Solo poem. The thing about writing characters from popular stories into poems, for me anyways, is that those popular stories from television and movies and comic books have a similar function to the fairy tales and myths of the olden days. They tell us stories about ourselves, and I think that if we trust ourselves to embrace that notion, then we might find incredible layers of meaning in the things that other people think of as meaningless or mindless entertainment. So it follows that the poems I’m writing for my father have ended up being populated by a whole cast of characters from other media: Mr. Spock, Spider-Man, David Carradine, The Lion King—writing poems about grief kinda sucks because I end up reliving those feelings through the writing of the poem. Thank goodness I have cartoons or sitcoms or pro wrestling to use as the vehicle for those feelings because poetry would get kind of miserable to write. For me, anyways.

And I get it: the relationships of the past being a better fuel for a poem than the subject matter. The poem’s spark doesn’t have to result in a fire specific to that spark. But I dig what you’re saying about juxtaposing fun and seriousness because I’ve written my fair share of fake, inert poems too, and there’s nothing like looking back at the poem you’ve been laboring over for days and realizing that it’s just not a real thing after all. That’s often where the turn towards popular stories comes in for me—I’m looking for something serious to discover in whatever fun thing I’m writing about (or vice versa) in order to give the poem an avenue to happen. So how do you remedy the fake, inert poem when you discover that’s what you are doing? Are there other ways you combat this? Or do you manage to head the fake ones off before they get started?

And hey, while we’re on the subject of other poems, I came across one of yours the other day on Twitter—the Poetry Society of America republished your poem “Having ‘Having a Coke with You’ with You” from your book Returning the Sword to the Stone—and man does that poem do a lot of work. I admire how you recreate the experience of falling in love that the speaker in the poem has—we get that story about the poem and wonder where it’s headed, our expectations for what the poem is about changing throughout until we get to the end and the speaker has that realization of his feelings, and in that moment, we’re like, oh of course: this was a love poem this whole time! It’s really a lovely and remarkable poem. Is it out of line to say I like it better than the O’Hara poem? I hope not because I think I just did. I mean, I like the O’Hara poem just fine—but the way that your poem winds down in the last seven lines or so is really awesome. Love poems are hard but you make it look easy.

You talk about “Having ‘Having a Coke with You’ with You” at length on the PSA website, but you say this really interesting thing there: poetry “has a will that resists our narrow human understanding—except in fleeting moments when it reveals its patterns to challenge the pathetic barriers we (who as poets ought to be the most open to its forces) put up against it out of arrogance.” You’re talking about how readers come to poetry in that sense, but does this hold true for you at all as a writer of poems? In the writing of “Spoonerisms?” Of “Having ‘Having a Coke with You’ with You” or another of your poems? 

Mark: I love your abundant engagement with pop culture icons. I guess because part of me grew up on the “no pop culture references in your poems if you can help it” mentality. I never took that very seriously, but I also never embraced the opposite either. I have woven a few pop culture references into my poems, but you straight-up blow right through that sense of propriety/delineation by co-opting so many so overtly. It seems very honest to me, as well as fun, because so many of our beliefs about the world really are shaped by famous stories and characters. I know mine are. It’s freeing to have read some more of these since our last exchange.

As for remedying poems, I try not to fix poems that don’t seem very alive. Sometimes I do end up pouring hours into that doomed endeavor. When I was younger, time seemed less valuable, so I would endlessly retool poems that were probably never going to work. Now I try to curb the fixing impulse as soon as possible. Plant many seeds and ignore what never sprouts. 

I do keep everything, though, and once in a while I’ll scroll through a list of old, bad seedlings and find a random line or image that isn’t as dull as I thought it was. I guess time is the main sorter, for me, of whether a poem is living or dead. I think sometimes we write something good but we’re not yet ready to see it as good, and vice versa. But time slowly clarifies that sort of thing.

I’m of course happy you liked my riff on the O’Hara poem. Such a biographical poem is unfamiliar territory. I wrote this as a love poem to the person it is about and all I was trying to do was explain what that actual moment was like on my end. It’s rare when you love someone and they do a thing that perfectly captures why, and even rarer when they do it at the very moment you are deciding whether you want to try to be with them yourself. So I feel like I just got lucky in life, and then, in the poem, got lucky again, in that all I had to do was describe the event in my normal discursive style. Of course, behind this poem is a sprawling graveyard of 10,000 tedious or otherwise inert love poems that never got published.

As for the idea that poetry has a will that we resist to our own detriment, it certainly holds true for me as a writer. For a long time I thought being a poet meant exerting your will on the form, or blasting your vision into the empty space where poetry waits to be born. Maybe that mentality motivated me to get better at craft. But it seems to me now that the best poems I’ve written have come only after I’ve failed to force a particular longed-for meaning or failed to articulate a prized idea and finally surrendered to (or simply seen for the first time) the poem’s own innate formal need. This is a simplification; I don’t think poems have a pure Platonic form that poets should strive to fulfill. But I do think they have a wide variety of formal “final states” that only reveal themselves after we have given up on our own ego-centric determination of what they should be.

I’m curious if you’ve ever had a poem you were trying to force one way because the idea excited you… only to suffer through endless revisions that never worked . . . before finally surrendering to some unexpected route the poem seemed to have always wanted to take . . . and then it became a good poem you were able to stand back and be proud of or satisfied with?

And one more thing I wanted to ask about your poems about characters from pop culture stories—are there any characters you’ve always wanted to write about or have written about—but never felt like you were able to pull it off? Or characters or stories from culture you wished you could write poems around/about but haven’t yet found the right form or approach?

Mark’s revision process

Todd: I grew up on the “no pop culture” rule too, but then I also think that rule is gatekeepery and more than a bit classist. Like, it’s okay to write about Icarus and Persephone over and over, but an X-Men poem is somehow off limits? And I guess when someone tells me not to do something, my immediate response is to ask why and then listen to the answer. If the answer is dumb, like it’s ephemeral or pop culture isn’t relatable or it’s shallow material, then I’m going to go ahead and do it anyways and show them how dumb those answers really are. Because so many poets like Gary Jackson and Jeannine Hall Gailey and Sally Wen Mao and others have been wringing really great poems out of pop culture for years, too—and by pop culture, I really just mean the culture that surrounds us every day.

Plant as many seeds as you can. I love the metaphor of the poem growing from what you plant, and that has me reading your poems with this new lens. “Spoonerisms” as a patch of ground where the words grow in dangerous pairs. “The Jeansed Horse” as a meadow sown so the horse can put on his pants and gallop the meadow into the universe (that poem is so amazing and epic and lyrically surprising, by the way). And your “Having a Coke” poem is this unassuming plot in a community garden with the most beautiful flower at the center of it. Maybe that sounds weird, but as a writer, knowing more about someone’s writing process often helps me better understand the beauty of their words on the page. 

I have a lot of poems that just go nowhere after hours and days and weeks of staring at them until I figure out how to let the poem do what it wants. I always think that sounds hokey but it’s true for me—part of writing a poem is getting it to tell me what it wants. For example, the last poem I wrote for my book This Is How the Bone Sings was called “Loyalty Questionnaire” and it was in a question and answer format. I labored over that thing for months until I figured out that the poem wanted to go in a totally different direction and it became this list of impossible questions for the reader to answer. I was watching the opening sequence to Blade Runner where the replicant is being interrogated, and the form just came to me. I completed it the next day in one sitting.

That makes me wonder though: your poem-writing process seems so exploratory, your poems are a product of that conflict between the seeds you plant and what you actually cultivate, but you are also a movie maker. I saw that interview you did on Publishing Genius where you say that poetry and movies are different spokes of the same wheel for you—what does that mean, precisely? I mean, I understand the metaphor, but what turns that wheel? What does the cart look like? Or more pointedly, how do these two seemingly very different artforms coincide for you?

Characters I can’t pull off? So many. The biggest is probably this long sequence of poems about a team of super-powered paranormal investigators—about thirty of them. It’s like the Fantastic Four if they were on the TV show Ghost Hunters, a comic book in verse of sorts. It’s such a stupid idea but that’s why I’m interested. I’ve got about half a manuscript but I abandoned it because I don’t think I’m good enough to write it yet, which feels like something a poet isn’t supposed to say in public like this, but it’s true—I haven’t figured out how to make the thing work, in part because I think there is something about writing poems that I have yet to figure out. Maybe I’ll never figure it out and I’ll just have to live with that failure. I’m okay with that though. I have to be. Failure is part of the game we both play, isn’t it? How are we supposed to take ourselves seriously though all of it? 

And hey, one more thing—you have kids, right? How are they through all of this past year, with COVID-19 ravaging the country and all? And how are you, a writer with kids here at what is hopefully the other side of the pandemic?

Mark: I feel like your response to the no pop culture rule is thoughtful and legitimate. Thank you, too, for so generously extending the horticultural metaphor in describing those poems of mine.

I rewatch Blade Runner maybe once a year. The moment I read the first line of your poem, I thought, “Oh this is like a Voight-Kampff test.” It’s a powerful form. And in general I think a great question is often more interesting than a great question and a great answer. I like how patterns build within your list of impossible questions. Things become steadily more impossible to answer until the naked assumptions of violent exclusion and patriotic identity are laid bare. My favorite question is #27.

Your long sequence about 30 separate paranormal investigators is giving me nightmare flashbacks to the epic catastrophes of doomed poem-ideas I used to spend years on. LOL. But like you point out, the stupider the idea, the greater the gravitational pull sometimes. Maybe the purpose of those types of poems is to teach us how to be comfortable with failure, as you say.

My kid is doing fine. He’s young enough to have no frame of reference for non-pandemic times, so as far as he knows 2020 was perfectly normal. Lucky for him. I’m doing fine, too. I’m lucky in that I get along with my family and get to live close to them, so I haven’t felt as isolated as a lot of people have. Also lucky that no one close to me died. My heart breaks for all those who had to say goodbye to loved ones via their phones, or didn’t get to at all. The pandemic horrifically disrupted lots of people’s lives, and didn’t greatly affect others. I was very lucky to be counted in the latter, as we both work from home and our kid was basically too young for daycare, so the daily structure of our lives would’ve been pretty similar pandemic or not.

How about you, Todd? How’d you and your kids manage pandemic times? Are they excited to have what will hopefully be a more normal summer?

Todd: Ha! Yes! An epic catastrophe that is doomed. That’s a good description of what all my poems are, but even though I might not ever figure out how to make those poems work, I’ve learned so much about poems by writing them. I learn about writing poems every time I write a poem. Sometimes I feel like if I’m not learning something, the poem is probably not going anywhere.

My son is five now, so he remembers how life used to be: grocery shopping, playgrounds, children’s museums, the mall food court—all those things he and I used to do together until the pandemic hit. I think we went and saw a movie for the first time right before lockdown and then bang, everything shut down. It’s been rough on him because he is very friendly and very social, and I know he can’t wait to get back out there and be part of the world again. I mean, he’s back in preschool so he gets to see his friends, and now that our friends are all getting vaxxed, we are starting to see people in person again (which still feels weird, to be honest). But I’m really proud of him and the way that he’s managed to put up with all the inconvenience of living in isolation with no one but his family around.

Plus, we had babies during the pandemic, so our house will never be what it was pre-pandemic. We didn’t plan for twins, but we now have two nine-month-old boys who are threatening learning to crawl. One of them has started doing this terrible pterodactyl scream as of just a few days ago and the other has an awful case of full body hives that is just now getting better (steroids, Benadryl). And they are teething. The five-year-old goes back and forth between adoring them and asking me to remove them from the room because they are too noisy for his cartoon-watching. And I have only just last month figured out their sleeping rhythms, which means that my only writing time really happens between 2 and 4 a.m., which means that writing happens less often than I really want it to. 

I guess my last question for you is this: what are you working on now? And how does being a parent fit into your writing life? Or does it? I mean, I am writing a book of poems about my late father (thus all the elegies of mine online) and that manuscript kind of split into two unexpectedly, so now I am also writing lots of poems about raising biracial children in America. And to be honest, I don’t know where I am going to find the time or energy to write more poems outside of that 2-4 a.m. window I described. I know I’ll figure it out, but it all seems so far away right now.

Mark: Whoa. Your parenting situation sounds wild. 2-4 a.m.! If we lived in the reality of In Time (bad movie but cool concept), I would give you an hour of my own if I could. Actually, this is good. Thinking about your hectic baseline will help me stay humble when our next kid arrives later this year. Thank you, Todd.

One thing I envy, though, is you getting to take your son to the movies. I love movie theatres and every day it’s a battle not to try to get my kid to watch my favorites on TV even though he can’t sit through five minutes of anything. But I very seriously can’t wait to take him to his first movie. I vividly remember my dad taking me to mine. I feel like I have so long to go before he can sit through any movie, though, let alone any good ones. Something to slow down and look forward to.

Right now I’m writing a murder mystery novel. I’ve been reading/audiobooking every detective series I can, trying to learn from them. And watching every detective show I can after the kid goes to bed. On full days, I balance freelance writing and teaching with my own writing, usually about 2 hours of “fun” writing time early in the morning. On days when I watch our son, I try to squeeze in what I can during his nap. So far parenting has made my writing and thematic concerns deeper and broader than they previously were, which I wasn’t particularly expecting. I find myself simply more sensitive to every possible tragedy that could occur to anyone, and to the tiny forgotten joys of daily or momentary life, and my writing is more about those heartbreaking fears and ephemeral joys, at least as far as I can tell. Parenting doesn’t really affect my process except to shrink my time so that I have to squeeze the same amount of writing into fewer hours. Not as tough as 2-4 a.m., but similar in principle.

I love your elegies and got a lot out of those I’ve read, so I’ll be just as excited to read the ones about raising biracial children in this country. For whatever it’s worth, I hope your future 2-4 a.m. poems will come as easy as they can while still being as meaningful as they can. 

What movie or movies are you the most excited to watch with your 5 year old once he’s old enough? And if you have a favorite murder mystery book, show, or movie, I’m always looking for more of those . . .

Todd: Congratulations on the new little one. I hope this baby ends up being really good at sleeping and digesting, and that it can diaper itself in the middle of the night. 

I think having kids has been at once the best and worst things for my writing life. On the one hand, being subject to the kids’ schedules is really rough, especially now with the twins. But on the other hand, being a father to my son has made me a better person, a better human being, and in turn, I think I’m a better writer for it. Like you, I’m keyed into the anxieties of all the bad things that might happen—guns at school, bullying, racism—there’s so much and I will never be able to protect him from all of it. But also, I am more keyed into the world in general because now the stakes are raised at my house. And yeah, the 2-4 a.m. thing kinda sucks right now, but I am hopeful that as they settle into more normal sleeping rhythms, my time will open up a bit more.

Re: movies: I have designs on watching Star Wars with my son soon. He knows the characters and loves Darth Vader. (He has lately started trying to crush my larynx with the force. He can’t do it. Yet.) But like your kid, his attention span is so short—he lobbies hard for a movie night and then in the middle of whatever it is that we are watching, he announces that he is done and wants to watch Captain Underpants or whatever. It’s maddening, but it’s the nature of being five, right? So Star Wars might be too boring at times, and then too violent at other times. I can already anticipate what happens. He gets scared when the Tusken Raider shows up, gets weirded out in the cantina, and then is bored before we ever make it to the Death Star. I’m planning on trying to keep him still with snacks. 

A murder mystery! How awesome. What is it about? I’m imagining the conversation we could have had about prose writing projects. You on the murder mystery. Me on lyric essays about pro wrestling. We’ll have to wait until Prose Northwest hits us up to talk, I guess! On the screen, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of mystery is probably Twin Peaks? Broadchurch? My favorite mystery novels are probably the Asimov mystery novels: Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn—and then the robot detective from those novels goes on to appear in his Foundation series. John Gardner has that thing he says in The Art of Fiction—everything novel in literature stems from the ingenious crossing of genres, and that is now something that I dig in a book, in most media, actually. But I dig how Asimov honored the genre by doing his best to play it straight: no magic boxes or surprise mystery technology to get in the way of the detectives. It’s been many many years since I read those books. You have me wanting to go back to them now.

Anyways, Mark—I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to get to know you a little bit through this exchange, and to get to know your poems better too. I’ll look for the mystery novel when it comes out. Or your next book of poems, whichever comes first.

Mark: Haha. Thank you, Todd. My novel is still in the early stages, but it has a sci-fi element, so your Asimov recommendations are helpful. I think Gardner is right on that big point, so it will be interesting to read how Asimov subverts the ideal of crossing genres (while, presumably, also fulfilling it). Your cautionary tale about sharing Star Wars too early is also great advice for me.

It really has been wonderful writing back and forth to you. I love the wisdom, wit, strangeness, playfulness, and unflinching seriousness of your poems. Learning a little more about your life, your perspective on parenting, and your writing process has made me even more excited to read what you do next.

Mark Leidner is the author of two feature films: the sci-fi noir Empathy, Inc. (2019) and the relationship comedy Jammed (2014). He is also the author of the story collection Under the Sea (Tyrant Books, 2018), the poetry collection Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow, 2011), and the book of aphorisms The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator, 2011). His most recent collection of poems, Returning the Sword to the Stone, was published by Fonograf Editions in 2021.

W. Todd Kaneko is the author of the poetry books This is How the Bone Sings (Black Lawrence Press 2020) and The Dead Wrestler Elegies (New Michigan Press 2021). He is co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic 2018), and Slash / Slash, winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Chapbook Prize. A Kundiman Fellow, he teaches at Grand Valley State University and lives with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.