A singer-songwriter and poet from Atascadero, California, Ephraim Scott Sommers is the author of The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (Tebot Bach 2017). Having received his PhD from Western Michigan University, he currently teaches on the Graduate Creative Writing Faculty at the University of Central Florida.
"The Funeral Pyre of Poetry," an Interview with Ephraim Scott Sommers.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Tonissa Saul. Of the process she said, “Ephraim Scott Sommers’ book of poetry titled The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire is a phenomenal collection. Sommers was gracious enough to expand my questions in his answers and give them the same careful attention he gives to his work. His answers are graceful in a way that I didn’t expect but are indicative of his skill as a writer.” In this interview, Sommers talks about blue collar work ethic, the strong women in his life, and the humility of forgiveness.
Superstition Review: The title of this book is incredible. Where did the title come from?
Ephraim Scott Sommers: Thank you so much for your kind words, Tonissa, and for the space to answer some questions about my new book. I’ve always been a huge fan of the good work you guys do at Superstition Review.
The main reason for the title, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, is because tragically, in the book, kids die (from heroin overdose, from being shot, or from suicide), and I wanted to make it apparent, too, that by placing my friends who’ve died up on the funeral pyre of poetry and setting them on fire, I am memorializing them and praising them and remembering how much they mattered. The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire is a specific action I am taking at a specific time of day to elegize my friends, my town, and my childhood.
A second and perhaps more writerly reason is that while tossing around titles for my poetry manuscript I knew I wanted something that was very specific and that acted as a hook, something that asked the reader a question that they would then have to read on to answer. I had been combing through the poetry stacks at university libraries for several years and had realized that many poetry book titles were general umbrella titles, that is they employed a catch-all term or phrase to try to encapsulate a theme of the entire book. I don’t think of book titles as umbrellas. I think of them as a tiny little pinhole that gives you a small picture of what might be inside. In that sense, I’m urging the reader to pick up the book and take a look at the poems.
SR: Your poems showcase a lot of strong female characters. How have the women in your world shaped your writing?
ES: Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you so much for catching that theme, Tonissa! My mother is a damn warrior who for as long as I can remember worked two jobs, made sure the house and the yard were taken care of, prepared three meals a day for my family, went to church two days a week and taught bible study, and still, after all that, she somehow had the patience and love in her heart to take an hour to read to me before bed every night. My mother is a real miracle who, in her sixties and still working full time, can even now be found on her knees in her blue jeans in the yard pulling weeds on a Saturday afternoon. I also have two sisters: one who is a police officer and a lead singer in a metal band and another who was the MVP of her college softball team and currently runs a lumber yard. I grew up in a small town with strong women all around me.
So it came as a shock to find that much of the literature I was handed in literature classes during my undergraduate studies contained women as side characters, as weak, as if their worth was defined only by their relationship to a man. That depiction of women was in direct contrast to my lived experience growing up in a small town. Of course, as I got older, I realized that one possible reason for this (and I’m generalizing here) is because most of that literature was written by upper class white men from the big city.
In my own art, then, it’s always been important for me to give to contemporary literature realistic portraits of the small-town, blue-collar women who matter to me because they are powerful and ferocious. They can throw a punch. They work harder than and at the same time take care of most of the men. I believe small-town, blue-collar women matter, and their experience should not be overlooked. It should be celebrated!
SR: Your use of contradicting descriptive words struck me throughout the collection in lines such as, “The deaf wedding party listens.” Can you discuss the way you compose these oppositions in your work?
ES: When I lived in San Diego and was walking through the Prado Mission one day with my mother, we had the privilege to happen upon a wedding party made up of people who were all signing to each other silently, and I was fascinated at the way that listening for me became something visual, the way that the bride’s vows became a physical thing carved on the air, speech made of movement. Wow! It was really a holy moment for us, and that’s why I tried to go at that particular moment in the poem you mentioned (“Watching the Deaf Wedding in White City, Mississippi”) so delicately.
And “paradoxical description” is a strategy I learned from many of the poems in Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil. Even his title, itself, employs the use of that strategy in such a lovely and complicated way. What he’s doing is what I like to call using both mud and sunshine in the same place at the same time, the low and the high, the dark and the light. I’d like to think life would be much easier, though perhaps less interesting, if we experienced emotions clearly and one at a time--all happiness or all sadness--, but that’s not really what our emotional makeup looks like on a daily basis. Emotions are messy, they move around, and I think at any one second we’re holding many different emotions in our heads, so that’s why I like to employ both registers in my descriptions and poems throughout the book. For me, it offers a more realistic portrait of our everyday lives. How might we make our happy moments a little more filthy and vice versa?
SR: In “The Hardest Thing,” you talk about being “almost ready to shake the hand of the man who drove a crowbar through my girlfriend’s chin.” This speaks to the reality of familial violence. What kind of process did it take for you to capture this in your poetry?
ES: Say you grow up in a small town, and you’ve been brought up with the ethos of always getting even, of an eye for an eye, of answering violence with more violence. Then say someone you love has been the victim of such violence but has learned to do the impossible thing, to forgive their abuser. I think the most difficult thing in any relationship, for me at least, is to learn to put someone else’s feelings before my own. Of course, most boyfriends or girlfriends where I come from would want to kick the shit out of the person that hurt their lover, but the divine thing, I’ve found, is in learning that my response in that situation isn’t what’s important. What matters most is how my lover chooses to respond and that I support that response fully. That’s a damn difficult lesson to learn, that’s why I chose that title, and that’s why the poem ends in uncertainty. The speaker still hasn’t forgiven the father but has gotten closer.
I saw the poet Jane Hirshfield read once, and she said that if the poem she’s writing doesn’t change her life, then it’s a failed poem. I think my process is similar in that in poems such as “The Hardest Thing,” I try to ask myself the most difficult question about my life, and the poem acts as one possible answer, or at the very least, an attempt at one. Of course, sometimes there is no answer, and the poem becomes a clearer illumination of the question.
SR: How did growing up in the blue collar town of Atascadero influence your writing?
ES: In so many ways, Tonissa! I mentioned strong women and that ethos of getting even above. There was also a lot of violence, addiction, and tragic death that I saw growing up, so it makes sense that that kind of subject matter also found its way into many of the poems in The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, but A-Town has also influenced me most in my work ethic. Growing up, I saw hard working men and women breaking their backs day after day on building houses or pouring concrete or digging trenches, and they were living a damn good life because of it, all of them good people too. And look at me, I’m a weak little poet with no upper body strength, so it was clear to me and I think my parents pretty early on that I have never been tough enough to hang drywall for a living.
But I think the work ethic of blue-collar people is one that academics and creatives would do well to adopt, and it’s definitely one that because of my background that I have tried to adopt in my own life. I believe that whatever we do, either in building the back deck or in writing a poem, we need to put everything of ourselves into it, and I think, sometimes, let’s be honest, more than a few people see themselves working in creative fields because they really don’t want to work hard and by that I mean every single day. But every artist worth their salt knows that those who do well in any field are the working stiffs, the nine-to-fivers, the studio rats. Whenever I don’t feel like getting the work of writing done, I think about my parents and how hard they worked to help get me through school. It’s a different thing if you think about a dollar physically, like my father changed this many tires to help me pay for this class on creative writing. It becomes much more valuable, at least to me.
The writer Rigoberto Gonzalez and I had a conversation about this topic last month when he came to read at UCF. He is such an intelligent human being and a workhorse who applies this same blue-collar method. I mean the guy has like twenty books out! He has taken his parents’ work ethic and applied it to his creative life. That’s exactly what I’m after!
SR: What is your process for organizing your poems into collections?
ES: I believe that you have to write hundreds of poems way before you begin trying to collect those poems into a book or else you can get into trouble. Miles Davis used to say you have to play a long time before you end up playing like yourself. After my MFA, I started thinking more about “the project of a book” and less about the individual poems. I wanted to be sure that each poem said something about the larger theme, and for a year or two, I fell in love with a metaphor I couldn’t get away from. Maybe it’s because metaphors are so sexy or maybe it’s because of the pressure on poets to have a published book, but it was to my detriment to try and write a project book. It was extremely limiting.
When I began my PhD at Western Michigan University, the poet William Olsen told me to breakup with my lover (the metaphor) and refocus on coming to each individual poem in a new way. He believes a book of poems can be just that, a book of great poems. Then I saw Philip Levine read before he died, and something just clicked, not only his blue-collar subject matter, but his no-nonsense tone and his use of the long sentence. I started writing poems about friendship, my family, and my hometown. Because I had made the mistake of doing the same thing over and over again in a group of poems (a controlling metaphor), I wanted to make my first collection vary in every way, both in style, in form, in emotional tone, in subject matter, and in setting. If I hit you with a longer narrative poem, I tried to follow it up with a short lyrical one, and I also made sure to sprinkle poems about the same person throughout the book so that the book has several narratives of a few different people working at the same time. Though the book varies in all those ways, I employed an overarching narrative of darkness to light. That comes from Rilke, “The great poetry begins in elegy and ends in praise.”
SR: You’re also a musician. Could you describe some of the differences for you between writing poems and writing songs?
ES: I’ve been thinking a lot about this question for the last few years, especially after Dylan won the Nobel. I was predominantly a songwriter before I came to poetry. The major difference for me is that my songwriting has three parts: the music, the vocal melody, and the lyrics (in that order), and my poetry has one part: the lyrics. In my opinion, speaking from my own experience, and I know this will be unpopular: it is a little more difficult to write a song because, again, in my opinion, songwriting is a hybrid form (words and music).
The other major difference is that I can compose poems pretty much anywhere because it’s a quiet practice, but when I’m writing songs, I must be in a place where I’m allowed to make noise, or it won’t work. My fiance has been extremely understanding with me about these two mediums, but I think she secretly prefers to hear me writing poems rather than practicing the same section of a chorus to a song over and over again in our living room. :)
The poetry world is small, and I can see why people want to defend it so vigorously, but it’s more fruitful, in my opinion, to look for ways that music and poetry, or poetry and other arts like film, can inform one another, or can work with each other in the same space to create all sorts of new possibilities. Recently, I’m more interested in smashing mediums together rather than keeping them separate. The former is an opening up. The latter is a closing off.
SR: What is most important to you when titling your work? What elements of your poems do you try to capture in their titles? How does that extend to naming a collection?
ES: As I said earlier, a title is a pinhole and a hook. It should be compelling and interesting! It should make people want to read the poem, like the title of a salacious newspaper article. If you go to the Verse Daily archives, they have a really awesome format where you can read the title and the first line of every poem they’ve ever featured on their website. If you look at a bunch of poems in this way, you start to see what titles and what first lines stand out. I believe poetry should entertain, and I want my title and my first line to invite you inside. Consider these two titles and ask yourself which poem you’d want to read. Poem 1: “Anxiety.” Poem 2: “Dry-Humping in the Back of the In-N-Out Burger.” One is general. One is specific and sexy. A title is the first thing people see, so it better look good.
SR: How has your experience teaching at University of Central Florida shaped the way you write?
ES: The students at the University of Central Florida are diverse, intelligent, and fierce in every way. Many of them are first generation students, and they are hungry to create. They are energetic. They are socially conscious and politically active. Each of them comes with their own compelling story to tell, and they are unafraid to tell it. This is the future of literature, and if you aren’t down with that, then get out of the way because they’re busting through the doors and blowing a whole lot of much needed fresh air into the academic state of things. One of the current students in my class named Isis just wrote a poem titled, “I Am a Fucking Melting Pot.” I consider it an honor to work with the students at UCF because they challenge me to stay sharp, motivated, and active not only as an artist but as a human being.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
ES: I don’t have any one specific place where I prefer to write, and outside noise doesn’t really bother me, so I can write anywhere. Right now, my writing space is an unmade bed overlooking the pond and the fountain outside my apartment window. Right now, it’s spring in Orlando, and I’m about to take a long walk.