Bookstore MFA




This conversation took place over the phone and on Google docs.

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PAUL LEGAULT: Portland’s a great place to write, right?

CARL ADAMSHICK: Yeah. I love Portland. There seems to be an inordinate amount of writers here. I find that helpful.

What’s one of your favorite parts of the city?

Well, Powell’s is awesome. I collect first edition books. When I visit a city I visit their bookstores. Powell’s (sometimes I forget) has the largest poetry section ever. It’s my university. I didn’t go the MFA route. I’ve sat in that poetry aisle for many, many hours learning the craft. I have fond memories of reading poems out loud to friends and having friends read poems out loud to me right there in the stacks and then talking about their unbelievable nature. Actually, it’s two aisles.

I love that idea of the bookstore as a university. I spent most of my time in grad school getting coffee and going to bookstores.

There’s something about shopping for books where you’re open for anything. You’re faced with a wall of books, and you don’t know anything about most of them. At some point, it’s just you and the poems. You haven’t been told to read a poem, you haven’t been assigned a poem to critique, you haven’t been told a book’s really great, so you’re just picking up books that either speak to you or don’t. You’re just looking through book after book after book trying to find something engaging. It’s a whole different process then being told or being assigned.

You search for first editions — what kind of responsibility do you feel you have to the legacy of the literary relics you come across?

I just have a real love for books. I find them comforting in lots of ways. I don’t know what my responsibility is, but one reason Tavern Books was started was to reprint books that have gone out of print. We exist to publish, to get books into the cultural fray, to make them available, and to get people talking. A tavern is a public house. I like to think of the press that way. We are open to the public and you can come to us when you want to sit and read and think about the immediate world.

Do you feel that having the physical book helps you connect to the literary work, or can you have that same experience online?

I think you can. I don’t. The book exists, and every book has its reading experience. You can have an illustrated version of Moby-Dick, and that’s a reading experience (it’s on expensive paper.) You can also have a really cheap version of Moby-Dick with tiny print printed almost to the edge of the page, and that’s a different reading experience. It’s a matter of differences. I personally don’t get on the internet and read poems. To be fair … I do look poems up every once in a while, and I do go to the internet for general information about poets, but I don’t often go, and when I do it’s not what I would call pleasurable. I go to books for that feeling.

What was the experience of receiving your first book, Curses and Wishes, in the mail?

It was a miracle. Obviously, I had wanted to publish a book for a long time. And I wrote poems in hopes that I would have a book. When that actually happened, it was unbelievable. When you publish a book, you don’t really know anything about publishing. It’s a weird dichotomy you never think about. You’re sitting there, and you want to write a book. You write a book, and then you want to get it published. And it takes years and years. But you really don’t know — as poet, by and large — a thing about publishing or how it works, what it entails. Publishing works on a different calendar than writing poems. It’s fascinating to see how and when they coalesce.

Had you already written the manuscript for your second book, Saint Friend? Or did you begin working on it after your first had already come out?

I had been trying to get a book published for over a decade. So that was written. I mean to say, I had poems for a second collection, and when Curses and Wishes was out for a month or so, I was sitting around, and I thought, “Oh, I have to write another book. I have to find a publisher.” The practical, business side never stops. So I went about making a new title. I was reading work that was longer in nature, and I was drawn to their looser, conversational tone. I had a little vision that I wanted a short table of contents. By and large, Saint Friend is all new work, but scattered throughout its pages is older writing.

What works were you reading that were more conversational or longer that made you think: “Hey, I can do something like that”?

It was maybe not so much that I was reading them, but it was something that I wanted. Mark Strand has that lovely book The Story of Our Lives. It’s just longer pieces. I’ve always admired that book.

Do you think longer poems are more difficult to write?

Oh, I think they all have their challenges. Writing a really brief poem that is 10 lines, five sentences — that’s got lots of hurdles. Long poems have a way of looking easier, because they have that sort of talky urgency of a friend late at night relating a personal experience. But they also have their challenges: getting the right movement and transitions and all that. I don’t know what’s easier.

In the book’s first poem, “Layover,” you write: “I’m confident / there are different ways to think within my own thinking.” How is the thinking in this book different than that of your debut, Curses and Wishes?

In Saint Friend I wanted to write longer poems. I wanted to talk. I wanted to keep talking to see what would be said. So, the thinking is different. I didn’t try to match up ideas and images. I didn’t try to construct or build. I just tried to be there to witness something taking shape.

So, who is Saint Friend?

Well … there isn’t a Saint Friend. Saints are dead and friends are living. You can have dead friends, but you can’t really meet them at the bar. I like opposites and I think Saint Friend holds a few of them. Maybe “opposites” really isn’t the right word. The book has a lot of family and friends sometimes hyper-present and at other times super-absent. It has families leaving families to start new families, and it has friends banding and disbanding; it has a lot of travel and a lot of people moving, starting new lives and ending old ones; it has, basically, people in a state of being between, in transit.

According to the Pope, St. John is the patron saint of Friendship. He’s also the saint of Printers, Editors, Authors, Book-Sellers, and Protection from Poison. If you were canonized, what would you most want to be saint of?

Naps, or I guess it would be “nappers.”

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Paul Legault is the author of two books of poetry, The Madeleine Poems and The Other Poems.


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