Interview with Collin Callahan
Collin Callahan’s debut poetry collection is Thunderbird Inn, winner of Conduit Books’ third annual Minds on Fire Open Book Prize. Poet Matthew Rohrer describes Callahan’s poems as “dark, end-times poems that Bashō could have written” and he writes that “there is a magic to [Callahan’s] close observation that redeems what is often squalid, like a contemporary American Georg Trakl, with just as many drugs.”
I was pleased to have the chance to talk to Callahan about his debut book.
Josh Luckenbach: Though, on the one hand, many of the poems in Thunderbird Inn offer descriptive scene-paintings, there’s also an immediacy to the poems that I think partially results from the book’s heavy use of present tense. In poem after poem, I’m impressed with the way in which you generate momentum by piling short sentences on top of one another. I notice the prevalent use of sentences that begin with the main subject and verb (as in the poem “Stardust Bowl,” for instance: “Richard snorts,” “I spray,” “Meteors shrivel,” “The league thins,” “The gameroom blinks,” etc.). In the hands of some writers, relying on straightforward constructions could feel repetitive, but when I read your book, they make me feel a sense of urgency and presence. Can you talk about your use of both present tense and this subject-verb structure—how these choices came about and how you executed them? There’s something that reminds me of O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems here.
Collin Callahan: I want to drop my reader into the world of the poem and let them, ideally, be swallowed by it. I use the five senses and narrative for the most part—and enjambment. I do hope that as the collection progresses there is a slight unraveling of narrative structure and standard syntax—an increased uncertainty of place and time and person.
Oh, and the old subject verb. I was told in workshops, many of them, to avoid that sort of obvious, amateur sentence construction. But when someone is starting to write (starts to write) the most important thing is to establish a definitive voice. Personally, and initially, that tense and construction felt the best, immediate—cinematic instead of still-life. But also for sonic texture, rhythm, and concision of image. The past tense necessitates extra syllables.
Circling back, the urgency is enjambments. Or a lot of it. The poems wouldn’t click if the tempo wasn’t off-kilter, meant to make you stumble in darkness toward the garden where we dig up the rabbit skeletons. The images unfold / complicate / collage / superimpose / etc. depending on where the line breaks.
Speaking of O’Hara, I had a poem (“Deerfield Crossing”) recently featured on The Best of American Poetry website for this blog series “The New York School Diaspora” by Angela Ball—so you are not the only one to make the O’Hara connection. But yeah, she described the poem as an example of vigorous enjambment. Which is a way to haunted house-ify your poem—or make the actions (and images) unsuspected and or surprising. I hope, that is.
JL: Because these poems all feel so richly seen and described, I’m curious to know how a poem usually begins for you? Does it start with an observation? A moment? Is the poem’s tension something that you usually find within the scene itself or something that you discover while writing?
CC: The first line, or sentence, has to instill curiosity. I operate under the assumption that nobody cares about my poem, or any poem, unless you make them. Trick or goad them into it. Carrot or fishing worm or whatever.
Richard snorts more horse tranquilizer, what next? Like the first line of whatever nose drug, you hope the reader will lean down again, and again. And squint and get close to the page and concentrate.
Or it (the first line) sets the stage. My go to is usually an image or action, or both. A greyhound race quickened by an electronic squirrel.
The tension, I think, is something I stumble into and then light on fire while I huff the gasoline rag.
JL: I’m always a bit jealous of poets who are good at metaphor and simile. Metaphor doesn’t come easy for me. Your book is so rich with figurative language though. The metaphors/similes often take center-stage too—they’re frequently stated outright in short declarative sentences: “The dial is a Ferris wheel” or “My tongue is a garden slug” or “Outside, the cars shine like salmon.” It seems to me that you really have to trust the impact of a metaphor to let it stand on its own, the way you often do. I wonder if you can speak to how you incorporate figurative language? How does close description lead you away from the object at hand, into something else?
CC: I love metaphor. I want to curl up and die inside the cosmos of them. I think the biggest mistake is overexplaining (or over-specifying) the metaphor, which can result in a loss of momentum. Too much clarity can be distracting. Oftentimes, simple is best.
I also think about violence and contrast—regarding sound, image, and expectation. Also, tangential leaps. The metaphor as a brief highway exit ramp.
Also, there is perhaps a lack of interiority in the book, or at least the outright admissions of emotion are muzzled. The images and metaphors are the doorways inward—or maybe not. In the titular poem, Richard and the narrator are paranoid, for example. I hope the metaphors and or actions in the poem make that obvious.
JL: Speaking of metaphor, you make frequent use of “to be” verbs throughout Thunderbird Inn—sentences that begin: The [noun] is [something]. I love how this construction starts to blur the distinction between what is literal and what is metaphorical. For instance, in the poem “Candlelight Motel,” I’m unsure if the line “Each wall is a mess of cuckoo clocks” is figurative or not. The book brings me so deeply into the speaker’s perception that it doesn’t seem to matter. I am reminded also of the speaker’s drug-induced statement “I am the refrigerator” (which comes at the end of the poem “Richard and I Split the Last of It”). That’s meant literally by the speaker, but the speaker is in an altered state of consciousness—a place where I’m not sure that “literal” even exists. Can you speak to how the literal and metaphorical interact in this collection? Is this even an important distinction to make?
CC: I like that you mentioned “Candlelight Motel,” because that is one of the more “literal” poems in the collection—strangely enough—in that it is based on real-life people and an actual place—an apartment complex in Arkansas but the motel name sounded more interesting as a title. But most of the details are real—the man in the electric wheelchair, the sunflower, the doodle shitting in the garden, the walls of cuckoo clocks, and Brian.
A few weeks after Thunderbird Inn was printed I got a message on Facebook from him. He asked, “is that me in the poem?” Brian is little older, and like my parents’ random “call me now” texts there was a sort of ominous or uncertain quality to the message. And I felt bad—assumed he felt insulted—so I call my friend, Brian’s neighbor, and ask him if he can tell Brian the poem was a fictional re-creation, I didn’t mean to paint him in a negative light, etc.
So a few minutes later I get a call back. And he’s like “Oh, Brian loves it. He just wanted to make sure it was him.” I usually would have changed the name, but I guess it was better I didn’t.
Literal doesn’t really matter, though. I will sacrifice the “truth” or memory or who gives a fuck for the image or the lightning strike every single time, always. Poems are cloud playgrounds. Time and movement and person and place shift when necessary.
JL: Many of your poems work in several registers—I’m thinking especially of the poems with an element of humor to them. The first time I read “The Bus is Late Again,” it made me chuckle because after the speaker hears an ambulance in the distance, he jumps straight to imaging the wreckage of a bus crash. I know that’s something that has crossed my mind many times as I’m waiting for someone. But on the other hand, the poem made me ashamed that I’d laughed because there is an emergency going on beneath this scene. Readers may only see the violence that the speaker imagines, but meanwhile, the ambulance is out for a reason, and, regardless of what happened, we get the sense that the threat level is real—the gasoline seeping toward the “fallen telephone / lines spitting electricity.” How do you see the role of humor in your poems? Is achieving a tonal balance (between humor and gravity, or otherwise) something that’s important to you?
CC: Yes, an emergency. I am glad your toes feel that in the abysmal undercurrent. There is violence in the distance, for all of us. I wonder about imagination as a coping mechanism.
We all have obsessions in our poetry. And mine is death. Blood glistening at the edges of the combat arena. So I feel the need to lighten things up.
Profound sadness followed by maniacal laughter, that is the one two jab uppercut to the chin. The dream, of course.
Though, I think being funny in poems is super difficult. I try my best and fail almost always.
JL: Your poems often adopt narrative constructions—that is, they proceed in present tense, one action or image following another, in an ordered fashion. Though there are narrative poems here, there are many that I wouldn’t describe that way. I’m thinking of the poem “I Hummed Her Address Until It Existed in Front of Me.” The second section takes the form of a narrative, but the narrative itself is almost a setup for a (surreal) punch line (“I respond by continuing to focus all energy / on my inner-goldfinch. / I have been perching / for this bird-acting gig I picked up / a few years ago. / My calves are watermelons. / They call it method acting.”). I also think of the poem “Horizontal Tuxedo,” which, again, is not surreal per se, but does make use of what appears to be a narrative construction for what is ultimately quite a lyric poem. There’s also “L Stop” which describes a physical fight with “the word Mildew.” Can you speak to the interaction between narrative and lyric in your poems? Are there specific poets who have been an influence on you in this regard? What is your relationship to the surreal?
CC: I have the manifestos of surrealism tattooed onto my eyelids.
André Breton claimed surrealism “acts on the mind very much like drugs do.” I like that. Especially because there are a lot of drugs in this book. For shock-value, sure. But also, drugs alter perception and bring the narrator’s reliability into question—which can be useful.
This is perhaps antithetical, but I wanted a more accessible, or tangible surrealist landscape to set up camp. Like a dream—or nightmare—there is a disjointed narrative we follow, or are pulled along by. Clickity clock. Little death cart of skulls.
Each poem is a tiny world. Full of dangerous people.
Or generous, goofy people. One of my biggest surrealist, or pseudo-surrealist, influences is James Tate. He is godlike in his world (or town) building. I love how funny he is and how he leans on narrative and the absurdity of social interactions.
JL: Lastly, what poets and/or books of poetry are you currently into? And where are you turning for inspiration?
CC: What I like about the poetry world is that it is so small. A friend of a friend compared being a famous poet to being a famous mime. I am not a famous either, but I did send my book out to a few poets and have received a few responses. Thanks to the postal service.
As I am typing this on my back porch, I know this seems all too convenient but, the mailman just handed me a package. I scissor it open to find a book (Familiar) and a lovingly chaotic, typewritten note from Matt Hart. He was the first editor to publish me and a poetic cannoneer of celebratory incantations—tightrope artist above the void—so I am smiling real big.
In a similar vein, my electronic correspondence with the author of Bad Summon, Philip Schaefer, has evolved from trading poems to collaboration—little monster tadpoles in unlit aquariums. Which is a nice change of pace because writing poems can be a lonely, isolated venture.
And influences, or recent inspirations, of course! Just to name a few: Adam Fell, Devon Walker-Figueroa, David Tomas Martinez, Zachary Schomburg, Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Ross Gay, Joe Wenderoth, and Michael Earl Craig.
Thanks for the questions and have a goof day.
Collin Callahan was born in Illinois. His first collection of poetry, Thunderbird Inn (winner of the 2022 Minds on Fire Open Prize), is now available from Conduit Books & Ephemera. His poems have appeared in Granta, Denver Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the 2021 Bat City Review Editors’ Prize in poetry. Collin holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Florida State University, where he currently teaches. You can find his work at collincallahanwrites.com.
Josh Luckenbach is a poet whose recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Nimrod, New Ohio Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA from the University of Arkansas and his BA from the University of Virginia where he graduated from the Area Program in Poetry Writing. He serves as Managing Editor for Iron Horse Literary Review and as Web Editor for the Coalition for Community Writing.