Randall Mann Discusses His Use of Form: "It Gives Me Something To Push Up Against"
14H: Many of your poems can be called formal poems, with your use of traditional forms: villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, etc. How do you think these forms influence or affect your work specifically?
RM: I take every poem and the subject matter of every poem individually. I’m grateful that I was trained with the tools to be able to use formal mechanisms. I can’t imagine not being able to turn to subjects the way formal poetry allows you to turn to things, or the way it compresses arguments and reveals new insight.
If you think about one of the most famous formal poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, as you go through her stanzas you know what she is saying, while at the same time knowing that more information is being kneaded out.
In my mortician poem, which is a sestina, we already know what happened to Harvey Milk, that’s not the question. I chose the sestina form because it let me look at this really huge historical moment both in terms of my queer history and in terms of how it changed this city.
But, how do you look at something so well known? Especially when the publication comes serendipitously after the release of the film Milk—now everyone knows him and gets this lesson of what happened—then the question becomes: how am I able to put my stamp on it and say something new? I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in free verse because sometimes I don’t know how to say something fresh or complex without the benefit of form. It gives me something to push up against and I trust those boundaries. They're really helpful to me as a writer.
14H: Do you feel that sometimes the form chooses you or do you have the form in mind for the poem in advance?
RM: I definitely choose the form but I’m cognizant that certain forms might work well. I have a poem in my book called “Career." It’s a bit of a satire about a younger poet sleeping with an older poet for a blurb, that’s told in trimeter tetrameter with rhyme. The music of that formal choice helped to bring out the satire of that particular moment. It shocks you and yet you have the comfort of the movement of form.
I think that titillating subject matter and traditional forms work extraordinarily well together because while there may be a shock, there’s also shock of the recognition of the poem.
Read the full interview on our website: 14hills.net
Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, BREAKFAST WITH THOM GUNN (University of Chicago Press 2009) and COMPLAINT IN THE GARDEN (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and the co-author of the textbook WRITING POEMS, Seventh Edition (Pearson Longman 2007). He lives in San Francisco.
- Daniel Lichtenberg, Fourteen Hills managing editor