David Ebenbach on his book We Were the People Who Moved
I discovered David Ebenbach’s poetry through editing Sweet—I picked some of his wonderful poems out of the “slush pile” because of their strong voice, and because they did what good poetry should: make the familiar seem strange, and new. Then I happened to see on social media that David had been in the same little ice cream shop in the D.C. area as President Obama, and I knew that shop because I had been there myself, so for fun I decided to share his experience on social media with the rest of our readers. I like the quirky, oddly intimate relationships that come about between editors and writers, between readers and writers. And I like David’s work because he writes about talking refrigerators and werewolves and the angst of job interviews—no topic is brushed aside as not being “literary” enough, and therefore the whole weird world is both skewed and made sense of through his words.
Katie Riegel: Consider the statement: If x and y had a love child, it would be We Were the People Who Moved. Who would you imagine your “poetic parents” to be? Who would you wish they were?
David Ebenbach: One of the parents is probably the book American Diaspora (edited by Virgil Suarez and Ryan Van Cleave)—it’s a whole wonderful poetry anthology about home and displacement and movement, and I wrote a lot of poems while I was making my way through that book. The other parent is maybe some mix of Jane Kenyon and Stephen Dunn. (I’m not claiming their talent—only their influence.) When We Were the People Who Moved is serious and lyrical and trying to reach significance, that’s in the Kenyon family; on the other hand, when the book is funny and musing and trying to reach significance, that may be a touch of Dunn.
KR: Is there a particular poem in the book that you considered cutting from the manuscript—or actually did cut, and then put back in? Why did that poem give you difficulty, and how did you finally decide? (pro/con list, Tarot reading, asking your cat…)
DE: There was a moment when I decided to rethink the manuscript in a pretty big way. I changed the title from We Were the People Who Moved to Visible Cities and made it less about the people making the journey and more about places. (I’d already been sending the manuscript out for a little while, was waiting for someone to say yes. I think I had a crisis of faith; was my journey really worth reading about?) The revamp meant adding new poems and cutting something like a dozen poems, too. Soon after I reshaped the manuscript into Visible Cities, though, I found out that my original We Were the People Who Moved had won the Patricia Bibby Prize. I did have freedom to revise the manuscript before publication, so I probably could have sent them Visible Cities as my final draft, but I reread the two manuscripts and decided that I was actually happy with the original version—maybe the prize restored my faith—and so the cut poems (which included poems that I now consider pillars of the book, such as “Birds, et Cetera,” “What We Write About When We’re Not Writing Poetry,” and “The Poem is Interrupted”) went back in and the newer poems mainly got removed. Luckily those jettisoned Visible Cities poems have found a home in my new manuscript, What’s Left to Us by Evening, so it all worked out.
KR: I was struck by the title of the collection (I would be, since I published the title poem in Sweet). But mostly its aptness occurred to me after I read the collection, which mentions Jewish traditions and heritage. The “we” of the title becomes, for me, multiple groups, including the Jewish people, historically. Do you want to talk about that? What other groups did you have in mind for that “we” to represent?
DE: It starts with my family. My wife and I have moved seven times in the last fourteen years, and our son has been along for five of those journeys. That’s a lot of moving, and it turns a family into a tribe, a nomadic tribe where the only constant is one another. So, first and foremost I was thinking of that little tribe. But it’s true that being Jewish is in there, too. I didn’t do that intentionally, but you’re right: Jewish history is movement. Which on the one hand has been a terrible thing a lot of the time—Jews were often on the go because they were being chased—but on the other hand was also amazingly generative. When you go from one place to another, you carry ideas and traditions and things to a new context, and lots of creative collisions happen. (According to one friend of mine, eggplant parmesan came into being because Jews came up to Italy from the Middle East, bringing eggplants with them, and eager for meals that had dairy in them and no meat.) The same was true for me and my family. Unexpected job opportunities sent my wife in unexpected career directions, my son met all kinds of people, and my writing absorbed and wrestled with all the experiences in the way that writing does.
KR: What’s one of your personally favorite poems in the collection, and why?
DE: That’s a tough one, but I’m going to say my poem “Looking for a Job.” I feel like a lot happens in a small space there—personal struggle, mythology, social commentary—and I think every word is pulling its weight; none of them are just coasting. In that respect, I especially like the lines “But the elevator hauls/you to another unstoried floor, another/hard carpet trod by the many.” As a result of these weight-pulling words, it’s kind of an intense poem, which is okay with me. It came out of a pretty intense place.
KR: There’s a great deal of personification in these poems. Tract housing is surprised; the buildings speak; the sun is afraid. In one of my favorite examples, “the refrigerator lurches into sound, / calling out, perhaps, for another of its kind.” How and why do these objects gain emotions and agency in your poems?
DE: What a cool observation! It’s not something I do intentionally; I don’t think to myself, “Hey, I need a talking refrigerator here.” Instead I think it’s something like what the writer Charles Baxter calls “talking forks.” He writes, “In an age of violent emotions, objects become as expressive as the people who live among them.” They absorb that emotion and radiate it themselves, though really it’s what Freud would call projection. The tract housing is surprised because the speaker is surprised, whether he realizes it or not; the sun’s fear is the speaker’s hidden fear; the buildings and refrigerator speak and call out because it’s what the narrator wishes he could do.
KR: One of the poems I love here is “Candidate,” in which the speaker mis-hears his wife on the phone and ends up “wondering about / myself, whether I was, really, such a good candidate, / for being alive” and considers “all the / years I’d put in by then.” The speaker comes to no conclusions about what it takes to be a successful or worthy candidate, only recognizes “what it takes to declare your candidacy, and to pursue / it: every morning, again, the arduous and infinite nature / of the application process.” I loved that this resonated for me as a writer and as a person who seeks meaning. Every writer will make so many applications—to be published, to get awards, to get jobs—and yet these applications are not as important as we think. There’s more at stake than merely career. This is one of the hard knots of the writing life: how to make writing and reading do its important work, its real work, the work of the soul, and yet also “make a living” as a writer. How have you and do you deal with this difficulty?
DE: One of the very first poems I ever published was one called “Statement of Purpose,” and it was supposed to be something like the cover letter of a person begging a panel of judges for a prize or a grant or some recognition as a writer. It was not a great poem, but it expressed my gnawing desire to “succeed,” not just on the page but out in the world. I still have that desire; I want to be published, get awards, get jobs. I want to reach people. And I pursue all those things, sending my work out to magazines and publishing houses and so on—but it can definitely be a distraction. You can lose time and enthusiasm and sleep to it. Meanwhile my writing needs me. And maybe someone out there needs my writing; certainly I need it. Which means I have to get down to business and write. Sometimes I deal with the distraction by pouring the desire directly into a piece of writing, like “Candidate,” maybe, or “Statement of Purpose,” or my story “Everyone Around Me”, which are about this struggle. Other times I just tell the longing to be quiet so I can get back to the page—because, as Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird, “Publication is not all that it’s cracked up to be. But writing is.”
KR: What question do you wish I’d asked you about this book?
DE: I have one question that I wish you’d asked me about this interview, which would be “What was your favorite question in this interview?” in which case I would have said “The one where I had to talk about the poems I almost cut from the manuscript, because that question made me squirm.” A question about the book, though? Maybe “Would it be okay if I arranged for your book to get a Pulitzer Prize?” In which case I would have said “Yes. That would be okay.”