Six pieces from “Leafmold” are poems by F. Daniel Rzicznek published in the winter 2018 issue of Orange Quarterly (OQ 6), released February 17, 2018.
What inspired you to write this series of poems?
These pieces come from “Leafmold,” a poem in 365 parts inspired by the two-way solubility of mind into world and world into mind. At the time I began “Leafmold,” I had come to feel caged by my own style and process. My poems rushed to closure, struck polite and pedestrian postures, and came out feeling like parodies of their own intentions. I wanted to try something bigger, woollier, more open-ended, and, above all, inclusive. I knew I had more to say and that my poems at the time did not provide a viable space for that speech. “Leafmold” allowed me to reimagine my relationship with the page. I remember hearing rain rolling off of tree branches after a storm had passed and being struck by the efficiency of that. That was the beginning impulse and image of “Leafmold.” I have tried to extend the poem outward from that point, and in as many directions as possible.
Why do you make art, and why write poetry in particular?
Difficult to say. I started as a failed musician and then a failed painter—I say failed because I lost interest and abandoned both—but poetry came naturally to me, almost immediately. I was very lucky to have several good teachers recognize and encourage my talent. My grades sucked in college, except for my English and creative writing courses. I took that as a very clear message from the universe. Writing is a compulsion for me at this point; reading, too. I also listen to music for 4-5 hours a day, sometimes more. Art keeps me out of trouble. As for writing poetry in particular, I think I enjoy the malleability and fluidity of language combined with the invitation to song and incantation that is central to genre. I like how words sound and what they do to my mind, the images they create, the emotions they evoke, the challenges and limitations they explore/express, the messes they make. Also, there’s a certain satisfaction to writing a poem that you feel surprised by and happy to have written. I can only think of a handful (seriously, only 3 or 4) of poems I’ve written that performed this, but it’s a feeling I still chase. It keeps me coming back to my notebooks with new ideas.
What do you like about reading or performing your work for an audience?
To be candid, I’ve lately felt a little disenchanted with reading for audiences. I didn’t know it until recently, but the poet Frank Stanford refused to give readings of his own work. I’m not aware of his rationale for this stance, but for me, I’m no longer sure of how well the poem comes across read aloud. Part of it is that my intention while composing is always for the work to be read quietly to one’s self. Why drag it out of its natural environment? What’s more, for me to stand in front of an audience and read the work out loud signifies a sense of ownership that has made me uncomfortable the more I dwell on it: listen to me read my poems. They’re not my poems—they’re the reader’s! The very act of reading in public props the door open for the ego to enter, and this can be bad for the work. I haven’t read my work in public for about a year and a half. It’s been a nice break, but I will be interested to try it again sooner than later, and to see if my feelings have changed.
In what ways do you think art and poetry are vital to society today?
Poetry, specifically, is vital for me. Music, too. I won’t speak for anyone else. But I do believe Art is vital for everyone. Whether “low” or “high,” or “mainstream” or “indie,” or “cheap” or “fine,” all humans require exposure to aesthetic pleasure to be fully human. Whether they get it from the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or a rerun of South Park doesn’t really matter. Our brains are wired for it. It’s one of our unique qualities as a species, and sets us apart from our animal kin. Yet, we are easily made afraid or threatened by art. It’s there to challenge our worst beliefs and most absurd faiths. It asks us to embrace multiplicity of meaning, and, especially in the case of poetry, to listen openly and innocently. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, so we shy away. Push and pull. Balance within this tension is vital to culture and society. I don’t think that balance is ever really achievable, but it remains something to work toward.
Who are some of your favorite poets, writers, musicians, filmmakers, or other artists?
I could fill pages in response to this question. My favorites are always changing. I’m a crazy music nerd, and my tastes are as wide as I can stretch them. Miles Davis and Frank Zappa would both be at the top of my list, mainly because of their consistently interesting and risk-staking outputs. Neither of them made music with pleasing the critics in mind. Someone like John Zorn would fit in as well, despite his dizzying catalog. Then you have Jerry Garcia, who was able to put his foot on a crack where four or five musical traditions all intersected: blues, folk, country, jazz, rock and roll, etc. For poets, I think James Wright and Larry Levis are my favorites. Like Miles and Zappa, these two also kept rethinking style, approach, and process, but their voices and touch are always evident in the work. Sylvia Plath has also been a very important poet for me. Jim Harrison is probably my favorite writer across all genres (he did it all), but not necessarily “the best,” if that makes sense.
Who was your biggest influence coming into your own as an artist?
I would share this between Larissa Szporluk and Amy Newman, both incredible poets under whom I had the good fortune to study with during the completion of my MFA. Larissa urged me to push my imaginative capabilities to a higher level while Amy challenged me to also weigh logic (lyrical logic!) in regard to those imaginative forays. Finding the balance between their voices led me to many years of steady writing. Also, they both, through example, taught me how to teach poetry: with patience, compassion, generosity, and incisiveness. They set the bar quite high, so I hope I’m living up to those expectations for the poets I have the privilege to instruct.
What are you working on next, and what excites you most about the future?
You could say I’m currently in between projects. Writing a little bit, but mostly polishing poems written in the last few years with an aim toward two manuscripts. I also started a long poem last spring that is tentatively called “Headwater” but it’s very loose and wandering at the moment. Not sure where it will end up. I come back to it every few weeks to add a line. “Leafmold” arrived in many fevered rushes of writing. “Headwater” is sort of a sibling, but moving at a much slower and more deliberate pace than “Leafmold.” We’ll see what comes of it.
What most excites me about the future is the direction of contemporary American poetry. Lots of exciting poets writing right now, and I’m excited to keep reading.
F. Daniel Rzicznek is the author of three poetry collections, Settlers (forthcoming from Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press), Divination Machine (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press), and Neck of the World (Utah State University Press), as well as four chapbooks, most recently Live Feeds (Epiphany Editions). He is co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press). His recent poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, Willow Springs, Colorado Review, 32 Poems, TYPO, Terrain, The Collagist, and elsewhere. Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.