We first met Carl Adamshick wandering around the poetry shelves at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where he lives. He had circled the books for hours, occasionally pulling out one slender or fat volume after another, and the stack in his arms grew and grew. Finally, we had to say something. Who are you?
Many years and emails later, Carl sent us a poetry collection called Saint Friend. It’s a book that melds the explosive lyrical power of Tomas Tranströmer or Walt Whitman with the plainspoken precision of Lorine Niedecker. It is a book that can make you laugh, wince, swoon, see more clearly. It is a book about friendship and human love and trying to live and die well in the modern world. Carl runs a small poetry press himself in Portland called Tavern Books, and the company’s office, where we imagine he sat typing some of the responses to our questions, is housed in an old brick train station.
— Jesse Nathan & Dominic Luxford
McSWEENEY’S: Do you hang out a lot in bookstores?
CARL ADAMSHICK: Yes. When I’m in a city I have to go to its bookstores.
McSWEENEY’S: When you pick up a book of poetry, what keeps you reading? What causes you to pick it up in the first place?
CA: I pick up books for all sorts of reasons: the title, the color of the title, the font used for the title, the color of the book, the colors used in association with the color of the book. I pick up hardback books with a greater frequency than paperback books. It really doesn’t take much … it could be an irregular size that causes some intrigue resulting in the need to hold it and turn it over in my hands. Two things always keep me reading: clarity and mystery.
McSWEENEY’S: How did you first become interested in poetry?
CA: I came to poetry in my early twenties because nothing else was interesting. It was the last place I looked. I had no idea what was in store for me! Poetry engaged me deeply and made me feel life differently. I wanted to write it and read it all day everyday. I didn’t want a job. I just wanted to read what others wrote when they knew they were writing poems.
McSWEENEY’S: What about Saint Friend, what was the genesis?
CA: I have a pretty simple mind. And the idea for Saint Friend was to write a book with a short table of contents. I thought the poems would have to be long, so I set out to write longer poems. During its writing, I thought maybe the poems should have different formats so the reader isn’t lulled to sleep.
McSWEENEY’S: Why did you want a short table of contents?
CA: I just really had an urge to have a table of contents that was clean and concise, pleasant, non-threatening, and not even remotely overwhelming.
McSWEENEY’S: Our favorite poem in the book (at least today, at the moment) might be “Layover.” How long did it take to create that one?
CA: Tough to say. It’s a real collage. Most of the writing is new and was written while sitting in an airport for a ridiculously long time. Other writing was cut from older abandoned poems and glued in and on and over the new stuff. But, I would say from the moment I actually heard Kenneth Koch’s name in the concourse to calling the poem finished was three months. It might be good to know that I don’t write every day either.
McSWEENEY’S: There’s another poem in here that’s a sequence of journal entries. Whose voice speaks these? Or is it voices?
CA: Yes. I view there to be many voices in “Near Real-Time.” I also view the sections to span an enormous swath of time.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you listen to music when you read? When you write?
CA: Not when I read, but often when I write I listen to music. Always something wordless and minimal like Arvo Pärt.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you write poems in all moods? Is there a certain feeling that overcomes you, or sneaks up on you and then … a poem appears/starts/escapes?
CA: I write, mostly, from a sense of loss and with a desperate need to connect with humanity.
McSWEENEY’S: What is your editing process like?
CA: It’s pretty much all editing. It’s the part I love. I maybe don’t have drafts. I have the initial idea, set it to paper, and immediately begin moving things around and changing words.
McSWEENEY’S: Are there things about books—the physical objects—that you find singular? Or, do you read on a Kindle?
CA: Books are a thing of wonder! I love the physical book. The paper. The ink. Every book holds its own reading experience. Reading a poem in a fine-press chapbook is different then reading the same poem in a mass-produced collected poems. Reading a staple xeroxed pamphlet has a pleasure all its own. We have been printing books for more than five hundred years, and a lot of those first produced tomes are still around and you can turn their pages and look at the string of symbols printed and be transported. There is nothing better! I suppose Kindle has its own reading experience, but I don’t know what it would be, or how it would make you feel.
McSWEENEY’S: Where in the world do you want to go before you die? Why there?
CA: Krakow, Poland—for its poetic history.