Seattle poet Ed Skoog wrestles with restlessness, loss and migration.
Ed Skoog’s new book of poetry Rough Day (Copper Canyon Press) is a lyrical novel for the modern American. Bursting with landscapes from all corners of the country, the book’s poems traverse the elusive notion of home. We caught up with Skoog to talk about his inspiration, self-imposed rules and the unfinishable nature of poetry.
What’s the story behind the picture of your mother on the cover for Rough Day?
The picture is from 1939 and she’s a little girl. She has her pet crow on her lap. The book is about a lot of things, and one is trying to reconstruct a sense of self after loss. For me that’s the passing of my mother almost 10 years ago. How to rebuild the world after rupture.
One of the effects of being in an uncertain world is restlessness. There’s a thing called zugunruhe. It’s a German word to describe the restlessness of animals before their migrations—
the itchiness to get going, the behaviors before leaving. Birds exhibit it; everything that migrates tends to behave a little differently right before taking off on what might be an enormous or fatal journey. So having a crow on the cover, a pet crow, calmly sitting on my mom’s lap seemed to fit. I feel that restlessness. I feel it as a human who travels from place to place. I don’t really feel like I have a home. I have a lot of different places where I belong at certain times. That fugitive nature is something very central to the nature of poetry and poetic language.
You wrote your first book Mister Skylight in a basement of a museum in New Orleans. Did any particular locations inspire Rough Day?
I wrote a lot of it walking around Washington, D.C. when I was there for a year. The Capitol allowed me to think about the whole country. Everything meets there—my growing up in the Midwest, living as an adult in the South, the Pacific Northwest and California, and college in Montana. All of these different wanderings come together there. I wrote a lot of it at Café Racer, too.
In what ways did you stretch yourself writing the book?
I had a lot of rules for myself. I try not to name places—I didn’t want to locate the book geographically. I didn’t want to locate it interpersonally. And so even though the book is very much about place and people and love and loss, I didn’t want to fall into the familiar way of talking about those. I tried to make it fun. I also tried to make it funny. If a line wasn’t in some way funny, I threw it out.
In “You might have to” you write, I’m practicing the language of unfinishable sentences. Does poetry feel unfinishable?
I believe poems begin long before they’re written. They’re sort of embedded in the possibility of language. The poems we write in some ways exist even before the English language, before the specific language that we’re using, before words even. The possibility inherent in the poem is this massive force that animates the poem, that exists before and after the poem. So I don’t feel like they have a beginning. And, as a result, they don’t really have an ending.
A sentence is unfinishable in a way that it’s unstartable as well. We can—syntactically, semiotically—finish sentences. We have subject, predicate and modifying clauses and they’re finished with a period. Part of what makes language fun is the suspense of what’s going to be said before that final period that makes us consider the whole sentence as a unit. There’s that state of waiting—a suspension we’re in until the end of the sentence—that carries so much possibility and eternity in it. That moves me intellectually. Especially the best sentences: “I love you because…” “We’re going to unplug this respirator because…” A sentence is a living thing and that’s the medium that we work in as poets. When I think of sentences, I don’t just think about grammar and copyediting. I think of the medium in which we prove we’re living.
The Richard Hugo House will host a book launch party for Rough Day on June 13.
Illustration by Sam Alden