Wednesday 15 February 2023

An Interview with Seth Thill

Seth Thill is the author of Cover, Recover, a chapbook that combines poetry and printmaking, and which draws from his recent work as artist-in-residence at the Hartman Nature Reserve in Cedar Falls. He is also an assistant editor at the North American Review

Thill will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on February 23 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Seth Thill takes the stage at 7:30. Thill’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link.

Interview conducted by Hannah McConkey.

HANNAH MCCONKEY: I know you’ve worked at Hartman Reserve as their Visiting Artist recently. What kind of work did you do there and how do you think it affected your writing?
SETH THILL: What I loved about my time at Hartman is that it really gave me my chance to kind of do my best impression of the American Romantics (without all the self-reliance stuff) in a way that I hadn’t had the chance to previously. The whole lakeside poet solemnly meditating on the sound of birdsongs and the rustling of fauna and all that good stuff—that schtick, a la Thoreau or Emerson. Having the funding through Hartman afforded me the privilege to connect with my writing and with nature in a very raw, but quiet, calm, and open way, and that’s not something I’ve had the chance to do really since I was a kid. I wanted to seize that opportunity by taking a very observational approach to my writing. By passively taking in what I see and sense out in the Reserve and by interpreting and reinterpreting the various happenings in the plainest terms I can. 

But, of course, I am not Thoreau or Emerson, and we are not in the 1800s (all things I am glad for, to be clear). So while I was afforded this tremendous privilege, the one thing that could never be possible was total disconnection. The Romantic ideal of going completely off the grid with nothing but my finest quill, or whatever those guys had going on, could never be what I aspire to. While I was writing these poems, I was trying to focus on the natural world around me, but I still work full time, I still have bills, horrible things are still happening in the world, and I still walk around with a computer in my pocket. So I can’t write the poem about hummingbirds that isn’t also about a dead friend or the poem about the river that isn’t also about my bank statement. The chapbook I wrote in my time at Hartman, Cover, Recover, is twenty or so poems where all of those things collide with each other at various intersections. And the great thing about not going full Self-Reliance mode, is that I got to share my work with so many wonderful people through the events and workshops run through my tenure as Visiting Artist. It allowed me connection, and to me, that is much more interesting than disconnection. 

I am a first-generation college graduate from a working-class household, and no one I grew up with gives a shit about poetry. And I think that is partially because poetry gets this rap as some mystic endeavor led by the muse, a misconception no doubt fueled by often all-or-nothing veneration of figures like those Romantic Poets. But those were just some guys. I don’t write poetry because some magic force compels me to. I’m just some dumb guy who spends a lot of time thinking about Alf. My time at Hartman and the programs we put on during it gave me my proverbial rooftops to scream all my demystification talk from. And that demystification became kind of a secondary mission of the project as a whole, and had and continues to have a real impact on my writing. I never want to feel like I am writing for lit mag editors but not for people who just need to feel something on their lunch break to keep them sane. 

HM: You have a very unique form of medium when it comes to your writing by working with prints. When did you first start to discover this was the way you wanted to present your writing and how did you get into it?
ST: Thank you! Visuals have always been really important to me in my writing. I have always focused very intently on the imagery in my poetry. Images (and other sensory experiences) give the reader something to latch onto, and so that something to latch onto should be interesting. To me, poetry is just throwing a bunch of images at each other on the page and letting someone look at ’em and go “huh, that makes me feel something,” and then the person can do whatever they want with that feeling. And even beyond the written representations of imagery, the actual, literal look of a poem on a page has always been important to me, I have done some work on and have published some experimental, visual based poetry in the past, so the idea of actually representing my poetry through visual art, and specifically through printmaking was really exciting to me, and I am super grateful to everyone at Hartman for giving me the chance to explore more on that end. 

To extend the metaphor of poetry as images dumped on a page in some sort of Rorschach configuration, the visual art is simply something else to dump on the page. I have long worked in multiple mediums, and quite frankly, I just think the more mediums you can cram together, the better! I love the fullness of experience someone can get from reading a poem, but also seeing what I think that poem looks like. Or for instance, I made a playlist of songs that I was listening to when I wrote Cover, Recover, because it is fun to me to read the poems and think about how the songs might have seeped in. So, essentially the idea of mixing visual art and poetry has just been something I’ve always done, but doing so with linocut printmaking was a recent decision that simply happened because that was the medium I was interested in at the time. There’s something really compelling to me about how with linocut, every decision you make is, to some extent, final, but even when you have the piece done and carved and exactly how it will always be, there are a million chances to invent and reinvent that carved block. That theme—of reimagining the cards we are dealt, of having the generosity to embrace what can’t be changed, of making the remains beautiful—became really huge in the writing process as well. 

HM: A lot of your recent work is connected to nature, but that hasn’t always been true of your writing. What led to this development?
ST: Yeah, absolutely, so before this past summer, I had never really considered myself a nature poet at all. I think a lot of what we learn, or at least what I learned, about poetry growing up is predicated on the idea that nature and poetry are connected in some way. Haiku for example, is one of the more accessible and taught poem types and more often than not happen to be nature poems. Those Romantic Poets like Whitman or Thoreau are often touted as “real poets,” the implication being that their connection with the literal world around them gave them some nebulous authenticity. I kind of indiscriminately rebelled against that then, in my own writing for a lot of my earlier years. I refused to reach for that archetype by instead focusing on things that maybe aren’t what people generally think of poetry to be about. I wanted to be authentic to my experience, and while I always have had a valued relationship with nature, I steered away from it. I pretty foolishly adopted the idea that authentic writing had to be about exactly what your life is like on a day-to-day basis. The crappy work days and emotional swings and the movies you’re watching. Particularly, I wrote a lot about pop-culture in grad school, because that’s something that’s always been important to me, and I think it’s not always understood that those are things you can write poetry about. It felt like a tiny little way to rebel against Poetry’s stuffy preconceptions, or if nothing else, a niche. But I think eventually, I realized that now I was just arbitrarily deciding what is “Real Poetry” or not. Poetry can and should be about everything. From the big feelings you get staring out into the ocean to the buzz in the car with friends on the way home from a concert to that ear infection that’s like, mostly gone, but it still is throwing you just kind of a little off. All of it. And so, allowing myself to venture fully into the world of nature poetry not only allowed me to explore these wells of inspiration I had never paid attention to, but to have the sense to bring all that other stuff with me. 

HM: Coming back to the art of printmaking, what made you decide to use that type of media for your writing rather than another such as digital art or drawing?
ST: I have a weird and long, yet collectively brief relationship with printmaking. First time I learned about it was in middle school art class, where I did some linocut of, like, Axl Rose, or something and it got chosen to be in some art show or something. But I didn’t do anything with the medium for a long time after that, just went to the gallery, had approximately one free soda, and went on my merry way. Then in college, my roommate/best friend was an art major and he was doing a linocut project and I thought, “hmm, I remember liking that. I should try it again sometime!” Alas, I did not follow up on that thought for about 6 or 7 years. Last year, I saw an ad online for a starter kit and went “well, I’m bored and have 20 dollars.” So I got it, and as it turns out, I like doing it! I mentioned this idea a bit earlier, but I like that it is both unforgiving and forgiving. If you make a mistake, you can’t undo it, but you can almost always make it look cool. It feels like a medium that rewards imperfection, and I am very imperfect. I make a lot of mistakes, both in my sports betting (I really thought the Lakers would be having a better year!) and in my art. I like drawing and painting, but I have never had a super steady hand. Printmaking helps me kind of cover those mistakes. It cannot, however, get Russell Westbrook enough assists to cover the spread. (I only hypothetically bet on sports with friends, so I hope I used “the spread” right). 

One last thing: you can find me (and my book) at! Thank you so much for your time and for your thoughtful questions.