Noel Sloboda, November 2009
Read some reviews
Originally from Andover, Massachusetts, Noel Sloboda currently lives in York, Pennsylvania. He has taught both high school and college, and now works at Penn State York, where he has earned awards for both teaching and advising. He serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival. Sloboda’s work on Shakespearean film adaptations has appeared in Studies in the Humanities and in the collection In/Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation (Cambridge Scholars Press). His first book of poems, Shell Games (sunnyoutside press) was published in 2008. Two chapbooks of poems, one inspired by Shakespeare, Stages (sunyoutside press) and another, Of Things Passed (Finishing Line Press), are forthcoming.
Noel’s poem, “X-Ray Vision” will appear in Redivider issue 7.2. this winter.
Some work online:
“Wonderland” and “Mating Dance” from Word Riot
“Features of Yesterday” and “Dream Bunker” from Underground Magazine
Keyhole Magazine interviewed Noel last year
Noel’s Sloboda’s Everyday Dramas
An Interview by Poetry Editor Linwood Rumney (conducted via email October 5 to October 22, 2009)
It isn’t often that you come across a writer like Noel Sloboda who harbors a deep passion for theater and Shakespeare and who seems fiercely interested in producing decidedly contemporary and accessible poems. Whether or not this demonstrates the continued relevance of theater and Shakespeare to poets, and/or the converse, who knows? Whatever the case, the results, as far as Sloboda’s poetry is concerned (I can’t speak for his numerous other endeavors), are splendid.
Reading his first book, Shell Games, reveals a poet keenly aware of his reader. In the tradition of poets like Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver, Sloboda never seems to forget that his reader might actually want to be let into his poems without first acquiring a PhD. But instead of just striving for a condition of accessibility, an admirable goal in its own right in a climate in which poetry is increasingly removed from the public domain, he acknowledges and exploits his readers’ performance as readers.
His best poems, and Sloboda consistently produces high caliber work, place us at odds with ourselves. Our emotional reaction to his work is, in the best sense of the word, complicated. We laugh at situations even as we recognize them as familiar and sympathize with the underdogs (e.g. the unrealistic expectations of relationships in “Pulpy Love”). We feel implicated in laughing at and judging his characters (Sloboda is too sophisticated to write only from personal experience) even though we can’t help ourselves (as in the forthcoming “X-Ray Vision”). Ultimately, the scenes depicted and the situations presented seem a little too familiar.
Sloboda has a real sense of allegory that exists easily and comfortably within the realm of viable though frequently bizarre experience. How about duct taping the cracked shell of a turtle or dropping a new volume of J.D. McClatchy into the toilet to test its worth? These are the some of the situations of Sloboda’s poetry. I’ll leave it up to you to parse out the meaning.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Sloboda via email. We discussed his process, how he balances his various eclectic interests, and life after the first book publication.
Redivider: Your poem, “X-ray Vision,” which will appear in our Fall 2009 issue, is very effective in part because it creates a complex but focused emotional and narrative space very quickly (12 lines). How did you go about crafting this poem? What was your composition and revision process like? How did it compare to the process for other poems you have written?
Noel Sloboda: “X-ray Vision” was a something I had rattling around inside my head for a long time before I set it down on paper. I often need to draft extensively before understanding the direction in which a work is going; I can’t get at the material until I start moving it around on the page. But “X-ray Vision” was different, perhaps because it speaks to the creative process. The poem is, at least in part, concerned with the privileged perspective artists arrogate to themselves—and with the ways in which artists sometimes manipulate people (and reality) in pursuit of their ends—aesthetic and otherwise. So I was able to let the poem gestate while working on other projects, since the process of composition helped me to reflect on this particular poem.
RDR: You probably have to answer some version of this question a lot. In your book Shell Games, I don’t think your interest in theater in general and Shakespeare in particular is self-evident, except in a few biographical references to festivals, etc. How have these interests shaped your development as a poet? And, if you like, how has your role as a poet influenced your interests in dramaturgy, Shakespeare, and scholarly writing?
NS: Work in the theatre has helped me to think about personae. Oftentimes, my poems are about characters, even when cast in the first person. (It’s odd how often people—even those trained in critical analysis—forget the difference between speaker and author.)
While I don’t have any talent as a performer, I have been fortunate enough to work with gifted and highly skilled actors in the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival. And spending time with them has helped me to appreciate the nuances that define characters.
My own writing has made me a better dramaturg, too. Before I became an active creative writer, I sometimes underrated just how much goes into making a script—or any form of literature, for that matter.
As a poet, I constantly have to make choices—not the same choices as actors, but choices about diction, punctuation, and material, all of which significantly affect the interpretation of my work. So, when I look at a script now, I am mindful of the fact that everything there was included for some reason. Or at least this is what I like to presume. This isn’t an intentional fallacy. Instead, it’s a recognition that everything in a play (or a poem or a novel or even an autobiography) is subject to creative license; that is, everything could be presented differently. And it’s far more interesting and rewarding to read with the view that the author made the choices he or she did for a reason than to read with the view that the work is shaped by forces beyond our ken.
RDR: As you probably know, Redivider is graduate run, so there are a few standard questions we always want to ask poets with a first book out. First, what advice do you have for young poets?
NS: As a teacher, I am always keen to give “advice”—maybe sometimes too keen, from force of habit! But at the same time, I think every writer has to find his or her own way. While I try to listen to what everyone has to say about how to approach the craft, I find myself wincing when other writers insist there’s a right way to go. In some fields, one path extends before you. That’s not a bad thing—and for some people, one path is what they need. But in a field that relies on individual vision and imagination, I think you have to take ownership—to declare on your own terms what is called for as a writer. So, if someone says, you need to write a poem a day, or to journal for 90 minutes, or to write in the morning—or to write at night—that’s fine. But it’s just fine for that person. It’s always worth listening to “advice,” but it should not be taken as dogma—or for that matter as much of anything more than a revelation about what one writer has found works.
So, I suppose I’d advocate a trial-and-error approach for younger poets. Go until you find what works for you, applying the advice of peers and mentors, but discarding what doesn’t serve. At the same time, always remain open to new approaches that might work for you.
RDR: How did you go about putting Shell Games together? What do you see as the structure of the book and how did you make decisions about what to include and what to cut?
NS: A major discovery for me was the importance of establishing a frame. Once I knew my first and last poem, sorting through material became a lot easier. That’s not to say I was after a narrative or that I knew exactly how to sequence work once I had the start and close in place. But with those boundaries extant, it becomes easier to run through material, forwards and backwards, until you find the right rhythm and balance.
My editor, David McNamara, was instrumental in shaping the material, too. I had poems that weren’t up to snuff, or that didn’t fit with other works in the collection. And he insisted I pull them. As their creator, I couldn’t have done that; I was too close to some of the material to see what shouldn’t be there. At the same time, David allowed me to add new material that went with what was already there in the manuscript late in the process— and that material significantly enriched Shell Games.
RDR: If we were a fly in the room when you were writing, what would we see? What does your writing process look like?
NS: While I perform some drafting and revising online, I mostly rely on notebooks as I start poems and on marked up paper copies as I shape and refine them. Most of my works go through many iterations. So, a witness to my process would observe me shuffling through a great deal of paper—on, under, and all around my desk.
RDR: Shell Games was published pretty recently (2008), but do you have any plans for another book? What happens next?
NS: I have a number of projects underway. The chapbook of poems related to Shakespeare, Stages, is almost certainly going to grow into a full length collection, at some point. I also have a chapbook, Of Things Passed, coming out with Finishing Line Press sometime this year. And I recently completed a manuscript of prose poems.