B.J. Best is the author of three books of poetry: But Our Princess Is in Another Castle (Rose Metal Press, 2013), Birds of Wisconsin (New Rivers Press 2010), and State Sonnets (sunnyoutside, 2009). I got off the train at Ash Lake, a verse novella, is forthcoming from sunnyoutside in 2015. Visit him at bjbestpoet.wordpress.com. His poem, alas, poor mr. lighthead, appeared earlier this year. Steph Spector speaks to B.J. below.
Congratulations on your forthcoming verse novella, I Got Off the Train at Ash Lake. Talk about the story as well as the differences between this project and your prior work.
Well, it’s a verse novella, which is very different from anything I’ve ever done before. It’s comprised of about 100 little individual sections, about 10 lines each overall. None of them stand on their own, though, so it’s really one piece divided.
The story moves over the course of a summer, set on a lake based on where I grew up in West Bend, Wisconsin. It takes place somewhere between 1900 and 1920. (Generally, lakes in Wisconsin at that time were becoming a popular resort station for the summer.) The narrator here is very matter-of-fact, but the things that happen in the story, weirdly enough, are surreal.
Your poem, alas, poor mr. lighthead, is a seamless blend of narrative, sound, and image. When you write, do you begin with an idea for one of these elements and fold in the rest? Or do you find that the three come to you at once?
It depends on what I’m writing about. Personally, I like project-based writing—I like to write a bunch of pieces around a central idea. My last book, for example, was a collection of prose poems about video games.
[alas, poor mr. lighthead] is from a long series of poems. My wife had breast cancer last year, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was talk about it. Writing a poem was my way of dealing with things. I started forming lines in my head—kind of like in a journal, just bad poetry—but then I decided to structure it as an Italian sonnet. Once I had the form established, it was just a matter of finding what exactly to say.
And so that tends to be the way that I work. I find a form, I find a subject, and the rest of it falls into place.
In a 2006 interview with the Cream City Review, you talked about being a member of a poetry group that meets every six months in Racine County: Mead Lake’s Most Wanted. Do you still meet with them? How has writing with a group affected your poetry?
We do still meet, but it’s changed pretty drastically. We’re a band now!
Up until about 2011, two times a year a bunch of us would go to my best friend’s parent’s cabin in North Wisconsin and write. The environment was very cool. Everyone was in their own little world, but we were all up until 3 am working hard on our typewriters—jazz or classical music on the stereo, beer by our sides. There was an energy. Lots of encouragement all around to keep us going. Obviously, having a group of people around you while you write gives you access to advice and criticism, and that’s not something you have when you’re writing at your desk at home.
We’ve tried different genres—poetry, fiction, playwriting—and then on one trip, we decided to try playing music. When we started, only one of us really knew how to play something, and now we’ve all learned, and in the past year have played our first few gigs. I kind of play whatever they tell me to. I’ve played the banjo, accordion—I’m a swing musician. I love being able to pick something up and learn it anew.
So, no, we don’t really do poetry anymore. But there’s still a strong group dynamic. We call each other brother and deeply care about each other.
On your website, you call “sandhill cranes” one of your favorite poems. What do you like best about it?
I think I like that it’s a poem that doesn’t quite rhyme, but is super conscious of sound. Lots of important words in it have echoes that show up in a line or two lines later. It feels very tight that way. And I like how it keeps moving forward, how sound forms the meaning of the poem, and how the final word, weather, locks the poem shut. And, of course, that it’s a love poem for my wife.
Given your background in actuarial science and your current occupation, have you observed a relationship between math and art?
Definitely. I think math is present throughout all of the arts. Likewise, I think art is present in math. Like, a sonnet, in this case—there’s a form to it, you need to follow a certain pattern to create it. There’s math in that. Even in free verse poems, there’s an order and a logic to the poem. And, often, on a deeper level, a mathematical sense of completion with the right repetition of sound or syllables.
Music, too, is highly math-based. Counting patterns, scales, formulas determining why a note sounds the way it does—and in photography, the basic rule of taking a photograph is to divide it into nine equal squares . . .
I have advisees who are absolutely terrified of math. They’ll suffer through one math course and never want to talk about it again. But there are plenty of beautiful things about it. My favorite formula is Euler’s identity: eiπ + 1 = 0. It has all these weird mathematical numbers, and yet all you do is add one to make it equal zero. It’s amazing.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
I suppose it depends on the project. What I’ve been most conscious about recently is that I think it’s really easy for a poem to break your heart. Ash Lake is probably the darkest thing I’ve ever written, actually, but I’ve been trying to focus more on the positive side of things.
So I write light poems. Like ones about playing Legos with my son. There’s still value in writing love poems, or writing about your kids, or joy. My most recent chapbook, Yes, kind of summarizes that theory.
All writing is tension, and it’s harder to find tension when you’re happy. But I enjoy challenging that cliché. I get tired very quickly of poetry that’s all broken. I want poetry about being whole.
What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?
I hate to say I don’t have an answer, but I don’t know. I don’t have any grand statements to proclaim at the moment. Maybe I’ve just had the fortune of talking with some very good interviewers!