First Cut: Interview with William R. Soldan

The second book in the First Cut Poetry series, So Fast, So Close by William R. Soldan, was released one year ago. To celebrate, I’ve had a chat with Bill about his brilliant poetry collection, what he’s been up to since its release, and his plans for the future.

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Tell us about So Fast, So Close?

The title is meant to reflect my growing up too fast and all the close calls that occurred along the way—the brushes with violence and the law and death, how by all logic I simply shouldn’t be alive. I continually shake my head in disbelief that I’m still here, to be honest.

I guess the book began when I was in grad school. The second section, which is the title section, started as something I intended to be a hybrid poetic memoir told in the 2nd person. Eventually I began toying with a collection of travelogue poems, which ended up being the first section. And being a new father, who as a child lived a pretty rough life at times (as is reflected in section 2), I found myself writing a number of poems from the parent perspective, seeing my son and praying I do right by him, that I teach him the right things and give him a life free of the instability and uncertainty I experienced during my formative years.

These three seemingly disparate projects eventually came together to form So Fast, So Close. It wasn’t the initial plan or vision I had, but that’s what makes it all the more meaningful to me, that it came together as if by some freak accident, which is how I view most of my life when I look back on it.

Sum up the main themes in your collection in 10 words or less.

Restlessness, search for identity, addiction, loss, grief, childhood, parenthood, anxiety…

Your favourite poem(s) in the collection and why?

It’s a toss up between “Where You Might Have Been While They Took Their Last Breaths”—a poem I really felt accomplished what I was trying to achieve at the time, conceptually and lyrically, even though it’s unfortunate I had to lose so many people from my life in order to write it—and two of the fatherhood poems, “While We Were in the Sun”—which I think is also lyrically quite nice and expresses certain apprehensions while also being a bit lighter in tone than most of the book—and “On Bestowing an Unwieldy Inheritance.” This last one is probably the shortest poem in the collection, but I think it conveys some of my anxieties and hopes for my son pretty damn well in very few words. And I think it’s effective beyond my own personal attachment to it, too, because it’s one of the poems that readers seem to have really connected with as well, particularly readers who are also fathers of young boys.

On Bestowing an Unwieldy Inheritance

If I could ask
one thing
it would be
that he bear
the best of me
and not the rest,
for him to be
spared,
and should his
doubts or sorrows
grow too unruly,
his rage,
may he
tame them,
may he know
when to steel
and when to yield
against their weight.

© William R. Soldan / So Fast, So Close (2020)

What are your writing habits?

My answer to this question, which I’ve been asked countless times, is never what I think others want to hear. My routine is the antithesis of a routine. Even at the best of times (which is rare), I write when I can, where I can. Virtually everything I’ve ever published started as scribbles in a notebook or on scraps of paper.

My recent published novel, Undone Valley, was drafted sloppily in several composition notebooks. The circumstances of that drafting were probably as ideal as I ever could have hoped for, and the closest to a daily routine I’ve ever had. I had the summer off from teaching and was only taking one graduate course at the time. And I only had one kid then. I was able to really focus and crank out about 10k words a week. I’ve yet to find myself in such a conducive situation again, though.

So I take it where I can get it, and sometimes that means a line here, a paragraph there. They say you should figure out when you do your best work, when you’re most focused and motivated and efficient, and work then. Unfortunately, my golden hours or whatever you call them happen to be late morning through late afternoon, which is when I have to work my day job. And all too often when I get home, I have other responsibilities. Sure, I could get up before dawn, but I’m not that writer. Believe me, I’ve tried. I simply don’t get enough sleep as it is, and I can’t afford to lose any more. And sure, I could write when the kids are finally in bed, but by then, as I’m sure many parents can relate to, my brain is absolute mush, so my output would also be mush. So yeah, it’s rough sometimes. Most of the time. But I manage.

Name 3 books: 1 book from your childhood, 1 you’re currently reading, and 1 you’re looking forward to reading.

My childhood book is always the same when I’m asked: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Warner Chandler. Orphan siblings living in an abandoned boxcar. Like the children’s book version of something I’d probably write now. It became a series of mysteries a la the Hardy Boys, but the first book was more just a story of these kids trying to survive, which I really connected with as a kid.

One I’m currently reading? I’ve got about a dozen going right now, but the short novel-in-stories We the Animals by Justin Torres is one I just started the other day and goddamn it’s fantastic. A lyrical coming-of-age story about three brothers and their eccentric parents just navigating the world the best they can. It’s beautiful.

And one I’m eager to start is Bonnie Jo Campbell’s first story collection Women and Other Animals, which I’d never been able to track down until recently. She’s in the top tier of my favorite writers in the Midwestern working-class/grit lit/rural noir vein. One of my favorites in any vein really. And that she’s utterly humble and charming in person just reinforces how much I adored her prior to meeting her.

Now that I think about it, there’s a bit of linkage between all three of these books. Huh. Weird.

So much would escape us if not for the moorings of the senses, and of our children, who come to us with our histories held in their hands like artifacts unearthed from the garden–a rock, an empty shell, a shard of broken glass.

– excerpt from We Were in the Sun,
© William R. Soldan / So Fast, So Close (2020)

What’s one poem you wish you’d written?

This is one of those questions I could obsess over forever and end up giving you a list a mile long, so I’m gonna just say the poem “For O’Donnell, Out of Work” from a poet named Steve Abbott in his collection A Green Line Between Green Fields. I couldn’t locate a link to the poem published online anywhere, so I’ll just type it out here:

For O’Donnell, Out of Work

Beneath the moon he sniffs

the back yard’s unkempt air,

ponders the ruts where his truck

rusts with chrome knives exposed.

He wants to break his knuckles

on the face of God. On every block,

a lot for sale and another parcel drowning

in its dream. Each intersection twists

shadows of street signs and dead trees

into gallows. In the river he used to fish,

bluegills are silent below the narrow

bridge he crossed with dawn at his back,

fields unspooling the commute to work

like a soft hand moving over the world.

They have no interest in one bank

or the other, the eddies a dark refuge below

the shimmer of a surface offering

no suggestion of depth or flow.

His toolbox is a dented coffin.

When we find him, he is still breathing.

I happened upon a copy of the book a few years ago, and while I enjoy the whole thing, this poem is my favorite of the bunch and hit me like a smack to the face the first time I read it. And I just so happened to pick it up again the other day. Still as powerful as I remembered it being. The line “He wants to break his knuckles / on the face of God” is in the running for my favorite line ever. A line that makes me jealous as hell.

Tell us about your future writing plans.

I’ll be vague because I don’t want to inadvertently derail myself by saying too much in terms of specifics, but I’ve got several projects in the works. A mostly finished poetry collection that I hope to get organized soon and out making the rounds.

I recently untrunked a crime novella/short novel that I originally intended to be a longer novel when I started it a few years ago and abandoned due to my inability to devote time to something long form again after revising Undone Valley. I dug it out a few weeks ago and think it’s good, better than I remember and worth returning to, but I want to condense my vision into something sub-200 pages.

I’ve also decided to take another novel idea I’ve had for a while—about a teenage drug dealer/grifter and his fucked up family—and doing it as a novel-in-flash, which is something I’ve been wanting to try, and I think this might be the story (or stories, I guess) for it.

There’s another novel I’ve done some planning for, too, but have been putting off because…well, there are only so many big projects I can give my attention to at one time. Hell, at the rate I’ve been getting things done, it’ll likely be a long while before anything but the poetry collection see the light of day.

Goals? To simply get more writing done than I did this past year, which has been minimal on that front, despite releasing two books in 2021.

Career? Modestly, I just hope to publish some more books that people enjoy as much as they’ve seemed to enjoy my others. In the meantime—and this might sound a tad grim—I’ll probably just continue grinding down my bones for a shitty wage and hopefully not become completely immobile before my kids are grown. Honestly, nice as it could be, I’ve no illusions of getting some big publishing contract. Even if I did, I don’t have the time or energy to play the game necessary to get my work in front of a publisher who could make that happen: querying agents, pitching my work as the “this meets that” or “this + that with a twist of blah blah blah” or whatever. Maybe that’ll change, but for now, I’ve got no interest in trying to package my work in masquerade garb so someone with influence will give it the time of day. I had my experience with some agents, even one big shot who’s coveted and launched some pretty impressive careers, and those brief experiences just exhausted me. My time is limited. I’d rather be writing what I feel compelled to write, not trying to pimp myself to someone who’ll most likely try to mold it into the book they want to write.

Beyond that, I’d sort of like to teach again, but there’s zero demand for creative writing teachers in my area, and after three years of teaching composition at the university level, they couldn’t pay me enough (nor would they even consider paying me a fraction of enough) to step foot into that hellscape again. At least not at my alma mater, where adjunct instructors not only get exploited (that’s everywhere, though), but also have no freedom to design a class that students might actually enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I had some good students on occasion, but teaching rhetoric wasn’t my bag. The creative writing environment, though—if that kind of opportunity ever presents itself, I might just give the college classroom another try.

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soldan

About the poet

William R. Soldan is a fiction writer and poet from Youngstown, Ohio. He is the author of the short story collections In Just the Right Light, Lost in the Furrows, and Houses Burning and Other Ruins, the poetry collection So Fast, So Close, and most recently, the novel Undone Valley. His work has been published widely in print and online, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions, and has appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories (published 2017, honorable mention 2018). He’s got some college degrees, but more and more he thinks of them as firstline fire starter should the gas company ever shut off his heat. You can find him on Twitter @RustWriter1 if you’d like to connect. williamrsoldan.com

 

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Get your copy of So Fast, So Close.

Read my review of So Fast, So Close.

Check out the other books in the First Cut Poetry series.

Follow William R. Soldan on Twitter: @RustWriter1

Follow me on Twitter: @HLRwriter

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