by M. J. Chrisman
Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana tells pieces of Indiana history through vivid imagery and detail, often through the eyes of characters and perspectives the reader wouldn’t normally expect. Throughout the book, he describes elements of life after death through several interspersed poems titled “Afterlife,” each one displaying a new viewpoint and containing its own separate, but powerful, descriptive elements.
Snider is the author of The Year We Studied Women (2003), which won the Felix Pollack Poetry Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press. Similarly, he was the winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd poetry prize and Paradise, Indiana (2012) was published by Pleiades Press as a result. He lives in San Fransisco and currently teaches at Stanford University.
Why did you emphasize Indiana as the theme of this book?
When I was first coming out in college, I took a course in the literature of rural America and was struck by the fact that there wasn’t a single gay person in anything we read. Even outside of class, most of the gay writers I was discovering wrote almost exclusively about cities (usually New York or San Francisco) or about gay resort communities like Fire Island and Provincetown, so it seemed as if my own life and experiences as a young gay person from rural Indiana were as invisible in American literature as they had been in my home town. For years I’ve wanted to write something about what it was like, at least for me, growing up where I did. Of course, I hope Paradise is a lot more than that, but that’s how it began. And in that sense, especially in the way that it’s trying to address certain longstanding silences in American literature, I see it in conversation with such American classics as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, both of which use town names (invented, in their cases) for their titles. I also see the book as coming out of a tradition of American literature, and particularly gay literature, that’s fascinated with the idea of the lost paradise. These books, of course, are by their nature elegiac. I’m thinking specifically of some of Mark Doty’s books, My Alexandria and Atlantis, as well as Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance.
You have a number of poems with the same title, “Afterlife.” Can you elaborate on the significance of that sequence?
The “Afterlife” poems actually emerged from a writing exercise that I do sometimes with my friend, the poet Shara Lessley. We give each other a line or an image, some bit of “seed” language, from which we have a strictly timed hour or two to write a poem. We often use these “sprints,” as we call them, as a way to warm up the writing muscles each morning. A couple of summers ago, I was visiting her in North Carolina and I ended up producing a series of fragments from our sprints that would eventually become the “Afterlife” series.
At that point I’d written a number of poems about Nick but none in which the speaker was confronting Nick’s absence in the immediate present of the poem. I was interested in capturing that raw, stunned, strangely lucid quality that grief can bring, particularly in those moments of waking when you feel as if you’re discovering the loss all over again. In the earliest drafts, I called each of the poems “Mourning” (and published some of them under that title), but in the context of the whole book, that title seemed to state the obvious. I eventually came up with “Afterlife,” which was originally the title of a very different, failed poem that never made it into the manuscript.
A poem’s form and the process by which I discover it are different for each work, but I always try to keep in mind Oppen’s observation that a poem’s form is an extension of it’s content or, as Denise Levertov rephrased it, a “revelation” of its content. Whether I’m writing a closed form poem or a free verse poem, the writing process always includes (if I’m doing it right at least) a back-and-forth between the poem’s formal elements and its content. Each helps determine the final shape of the other. I don’t know that I ever feel like I “decide” the poem’s shape exactly, but I do find that I reach a point where form and content seem to support and even resist resist each other in meaningful ways. That’s when I feel like I’m done.
I understand you grew up in Indiana and you use a narrative persona with a confessional tone. Are you aware of any impact the book has had on your hometown?
I don’t know that’s it’s had a big impact, but I have gotten several letters from people in my hometown who’ve read Paradise and have been supportive, one in particular from a gay woman I knew growing up (though she wasn’t out then). She thanked me for writing the book, because some of my experiences mirrored hers.
What new writing projects are you working on?
Right now, I’m working on a new book tentatively called, “The Hall of Human Origins” and it continues with some of Paradise’s themes, but is less autobiographical as a whole.