Interview with a Poet: Andy Thorstenson
Andy Thorstenson lives in Hot Springs, SD, with his wife and two children. He was born in Vermillion and began writing poetry in college.
I have gotten to know him through the Write Now! Writers Conference, which was held in Hot Springs in March. He was one of the event’s organizers and, being familiar with this blog, invited me to give a presentation about how writers can use blogs, social networking sites and other online venues to get their work out into the world.
Andy’s book of poetry, “crossing the 100th meridian,” came out last year. It is imbued with a definite sense of place attributable to the author’s travels in exotic locales around the world. Andy reveals a close connection to the landscape through his astute observation and keen interpretation of the surroundings.
After Long Busyness: The first time I read “crossing the 100th meridian,” I was struck by how connected the poems are to the natural landscape. When a poem has a person in it, he or she has a small role. Was it a conscious choice to keep people out of your poems?
Andy Thorstenson: The book itself was intended to be a collection drawn primarily from a sense of place, beginning with the title. So I attempted to make landscapes and natural events central to the inspiration in these poems. In so many instances, I find the inspiration for poetry comes not from human elements but in natural occurrences. This is not so much a conscious choice but reflects where I am most attuned and where my descriptive skills reside.
Oftentimes the person in the poem is me because I write primarily from personal experience. I have been fortunate to visit fantastic places and witness phenomenal events, the result being poetry highlighting the grace, beauty, and wisdom of nature with me as the astonished chronicler.
ALB: At times, you have a somewhat technical/scientific vocabulary in your poetry. I’m thinking of lines like: “the upper mandible adorned with/a reptilian protrusion,” from “pelicans.” Where do word choices like that come from?
AT: Some words come straight out of field guides or technical references for plants, animals, or geology. Many of these words have Greek and Latin roots and have typically been limited to use in science. But they have such good sounds and can often be deduced from context or their relations to other more common words. I hope that they don’t carry along their academic baggage but instead give readers or listeners a sense of fine, descriptive detail. Poetry is the place to expand the boundaries of language and, in doing so, expand the opportunities to imagine the extraordinary.
Certainly I am guilty of using adjectives from science as descriptors for nontechnical subjects. “Tannic” for instance, is usually used to describe an acid, but that should not preclude the term from being used as a color to describe “turbid tannic bubbles.”
In some ways, my hope in writing is to create readers who will take the message to observe more critically and to consider thoughtfully the words they use. To discard mundane figures of speech and reconsider preconceived or cliché descriptors. Finding an unusual usage of a word by making a verb of patina, an adjective of flora, or an adverb of rhythm makes words unusual but still understandable. Taking the common word “unraveled” and unnegating it makes it “raveled.” This causes a reader to pause and decipher its meaning.
ALB: When I have heard you read your poems, they come to life, revealing a dimension that’s not apparent on the page. How much do you consider the aural impact of your poetry when you write?
AT: The impact of crisp words, sounds that play with adjoining sounds, and phrases that increase the tempo of spoken words are critical to poetry. Cadence, inflection, and tempo add immensely to a poetic work. I don’t have a completed poem until I am satisfied with the way it sounds aloud.
Reading my work aloud is an integral part of the writing and particularly the editing process. New words emerge in this process, content becomes clear, and syntax carries the piece to its natural conclusion. I want the spoken poem to underscore the emotional root of its meaning. The literal content of a poem can perhaps be best understood from the printed page, but its essence can be best felt from the spoken word.
A friend heard an early version of the orchid show and laughed upon hearing the phrase “a mate for pollinate” — this in a poem where rhyme is virtually absent. That one small laugh opened an amazing door for me to explore the possibilities of using sound to deliver more than the words alone are capable.
Another aspect of spoken word is the theatrical part, the performance. Compare the printed sheet music of any inspirational song with a live performance of that same piece and that should apply to the printed page versus a poem performed aloud. The author has an entirely new set of tools to deliver the content of a poem. Increase the tempo for drama, highlight the interplay of sounds for humor, emphasize the critical words to enhance their impact and poetry becomes a living creation.
And here’s a poem from Andy, reprinted with his permission:
Who could expect them to be so primeval,
their eyes close-set and
rimmed in a striking vibrant yellow,
their bills garish orange.
the upper mandible adorned with
a reptilian protrusion
that would be the envy of any
jurassic pterosaur flashing for a mate
designed undoubtedly at the dawn of flight
flying like tankers on
broad wings with bulky bodies
slow, level and steady
on the water so swanwhite and graceful
as they are doubled in reflection
on the windrippled mirror of the lake
seven of them,
bowing in near-unison,
heads, long necks and beaks submerge and
arise to toss back some equally ancient fish
quivering in the orange folds
of their pouchy throats
as it passes.