Open Alphabet welcomes Michael Diebert and his new book Life Outside the Set,
published by Sweatshoppe Publications (ISBN 978-0615795676).

Michael Diebert

Michael Diebert's poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Crab Creek Review, The Meadowland Review, Rattle, Southern Poetry Review, The Pedestal, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Sections of his poem Summer: Atlanta were anthologized in Texas Review Press's Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia.

Michael holds degrees from the University of Tennesee at Knoxville and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He is the poetry editor at The Chattahoochee Review and teaches at Georgia Perimeter College.

The book would have us believe
we barrel through childhood with helmets on,
graduate, grow up, get hitched,
get burned in the south of France,
grill streaked meats on boat docks,
join clubs, commence nesting, drop off the radar.
And this, friends, is why leisure is a bitch.
Too much time to think about the knots
on my head. Too much time to allow
how alien I must seem, sober or drunk, how maybe
I aim too straight, dress things up
in rather plain paper.
-- from Brandon in Accounting

Open Alphabet: You have published most of these poems previously. What precipitated the urge to assemble them into a book? Life Outside the Set

Michael Diebert: I am relatively late to the game. I took creative writing courses as an undergrad but none in grad school; I shelved poetry concerns until my first full-time teaching job in 1996. I wrote a disconnected mess of poems from the late ‘90s through 2003. A few got published, most did not. Then I thought I had the makings of a chapbook, perhaps in 2004-05 — maybe 20-30 poems that would fit well within those confines. All along, I kept writing, sending, workshopping, reading, and I slowly started to assemble a track record. Around 2007-08, I decided to push through to book length — maybe vanity, maybe hubris. Definitely I thought I might have a larger statement to make, and definitely I relished the challenge. Fame and riches, of course, never entered my mind — or not very much.

OA: Life Outside the Set is the title of a poem in which you, your brother and your father figure. How did the title of this poem come to be the title of the book also?

MD: My wife, Rosalind Staib, serves as the muse for much in my life, and she gets full credit for seeing that the book title was in one of the poems. Much about the book changed in the time I consciously worked on it, but the title stayed the same. It’s a good title, I think. Intuitively, it reflects the book’s major crosscurrents: family, manhood, work, sickness, anxiety. And of course, it took someone other than me to see that.

OA: You teach at Georgia Perimeter College. Do you approach teaching any differently now that the book is out?

MD: Most of my teaching load is composition, but our second-half composition course includes literature as a major component. Lucky for me! I now teach poetry a lot more conscientiously, for sure. My students don’t generally have much experience with poetry, and if they do, it’s often negative. I try to make it alive, a living breathing thing, as best I can.

Bart Edelman has a really good, approachable, and teachable poem which I use called Chemistry Experiment. It always gets great incisive response. I think it helps students see that a poem doesn’t have to be a museum piece or a corpse to be cut up and dissected. I’ve brought in Retail (from my book) before, and they’re pretty spot-on with their analysis. They’re also very kind.

OA: What was the biggest challenge in putting the book together? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?

MD: One, how long it took. Two, how much I had to work through doubt and uncertainty — believing in myself and my work when it seemed no one else would. If I call 1998 through 2013 the gestation period for the book, it was 15 years in the making. I wish I could say that every day of those 15 years was spent making the work better, but a few times, I put the manuscript away—just filed it away and called it a day, didn’t think I could do any more. But I always came back. I am impatient when I can’t grasp something easily. When I was learning saxophone in sixth and seventh grade, I would yell and throw music books against the wall, so it’s a minor miracle I pressed on with this unwieldy beast.

OA: Who do you see as your poetic influences? Who is in your literary family tree?

MD: There is a fine line between one’s loves and one’s influences. I don’t know that my work sounds like any of these bright lights, but some crazy confluence of Elizabeth Bishop, Larry Levis, Richard Hugo, Philip Larkin, Mark Halliday, C.K. Williams, James Wright, John Berryman, Rodney Jones, Andrew Hudgins, Thomas Lux, Anne Sexton, Charlotte Bronte, and William Faulkner sounds about right.

Stupid American, from the book, is an attempt to write a Larkin poem. Berryman is especially near and dear; the Summer: Atlanta sequence tries to emulate his spirit. The Dream Songs is just a fascinating body of work. It hits about every emotional note possible. It’s one of our few contemporary epics — perhaps Remembrance of Things Past is another work that genuinely realizes a complete universe with all its tangled complexity.

But the fact that I write poetry at all is due to a Gary Gildner poem called First Practice, which I first read long ago as an undergraduate. That poem came to me when I first thought poetry might be something I could become tolerably good at. That poem’s voice, perspective, play with line and rhythm, message: brilliant. And so natural and unaffected. It did what I thought I might want to do.

OA: You seem to be equally at ease with free verse, the pantoum, rhyme (internal, end, slant, identical), irregular or regular stanzas or no stanza breaks at all. At what point in your creative process do these and other structural features of the poem emerge?

MD: For me, form and content are inextricably linked, as I imagine they are for most. Early in a poem’s gestation, I don’t know if it will be a sonnet, pantoum, ballad, or whatever else. Usually I start with a line, or a phrase, or an image that I can’t shake, but form takes a long time to arrive, as does content.

Right now I’m struggling with a poem in rhyming couplets. The end rhymes are as close to identical rhyme as I can get. So “prove it” is in a couplet with “soundproof it”; “apparent” goes with “a parent,” “breezin’” with “breeze in.” So I’ve painted myself into a pretty tight corner. My original impulse was to write a rant, but it’s been hard to pull off; the poem is becoming less rant-y and isn’t letting me off the hook. I’ve tried it in free verse. I’ve tried it in quatrains, and that’s not really flying. It feels like it belongs in a formal setting, though — more parlor than poolroom.

The tug of war, now and always, is between sound and sense, between the desire to write something sonically satisfying and the desire to say something meaningful that hasn’t been said 100 times before. I often feel like the speaker in Rodney Jones’s poem The Masters: “everything in the dump [has] been put / on paper and thrown into the dump / under other papers covered with the same words.”

OA: Thematic threads haunt the poems this book, appearing and retreating and reappearing. I am thinking of cancer, the office party, college classes, father, travel, television and others. What does the interleaving of these narrative threads bring to the book, beyond the contribution of the individual poems?

MD: If nothing else, these threads reveal my obsessions, the itches I can’t stop scratching. At one point, the manuscript had two sections, then three, but after much advice, I decided to remove them and go with the river motif: currents, ebb/flow, the appearing/retreating you correctly nail. It makes for a more fulfilling experience, I think. And the poems aren’t really mine anymore once they’re published. Readers are free to create their own associations.

OA: What is on your desk at the moment? Who are you currently reading and why? Michael Diebert's desk

MD: I got brave the other day and checked out the Fagles translation of The Iliad. It’s not due until late June. We’ll see if my ambition translates to action. A couple of years ago, I finally read Fagles’s Odyssey and just loved it — muscular, musical, and very modern-sounding — and have now decided to give The Iliad a shot. Last week, I brought home my old Norton Critical edition of Paradise Lost — I’ve taught three books before but have never read the whole thing. So you could say I’m trying to plug a few holes in my education.

I’ve been reading a lot of poets whom we’ve recently published in The Chattahoochee Review, too. Martha Zweig, Jessica Piazza, and Kerry James Evans, to name a few, all have fine, fine collections.

OA: Is there anything that was left out of this book that we can expect to see in the future? What is the next stop for your poetry?

MD: About 22-23 poems didn’t make the final cut, but I can’t say anything was really left out; Life Outside the Set represents a version of Michael Diebert which I’m pretty happy with. Those 22-23 poems will stay uncollected, and probably for good reason.

I seem to be writing less in forms lately, and I’m always trying to work against what I’ve done before — trying to find a way through that’s both more conversational and more ideologically honest. Gregory Orr writes in his essay Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry that a successful poem “must fuse a limiting impulse with an impulse that resists limitation,” and I think that’s my ongoing project. Underneath it all, of course, I’m fighting off the usual uneasiness that I’m writing the same thing over and over — but in this I know I’m not alone.

The next stop? Hard to know. Lately I have a bunch of Richard Hugo-esque “dream” poems which have been tons of fun to write. I’m also working on a sequence which revolves around Tennessee Eastman Company, my dad’s employer for 32 years, and its complicated relationship to me and east Tennessee. For the first time, I’ve been doing research for poems: reading history, looking at old photos. It’s a real eye-opener. Overall, I’m just trying to stay in practice, keep an iron in the fire.