A Writer’s Insight: Gregory Stapp

Gregory Stapp’s poem, “Love via a Rube Goldberg Diagram,” appears in the spring 2019 issue of The Southern Review. Here, he discusses mobilizing a Rube Goldberg diagram to write a nontraditional ekphrastic poem, how the “needless complexity” of this machine speaks to a human desire to complicate love, and translating a visual form into poetry.

Rhiannon Thorne: What inspired “Love via a Rube Goldberg Diagram”?

Gregory Stapp: I enjoy looking for other forms for my poems, forms that are directive in the same ways typical poetic forms are but that are atypical for poetry. Having always been fascinated by Rube Goldberg diagrams and how meticulous they are, I wondered what a poem written as a Rube Goldberg diagram would look like. I’m also endlessly fascinated with examining the intersection between object and subject or between objectivity and subjectivity, so I wanted to juxtapose a form that tries to be utterly objective (a diagram) with a topic that’s completely subjective (love). I wanted to know if I could examine the machinations of love.

RT: Your poetry often borrows outside procedural logics and internalizes them. Besides “Love via a Rube Goldberg Diagram,” I’m thinking chiefly here of your poems, “On a Connect-the-Dots” and “Paint by Numbers #4216,” both of which mobilize formulaic puzzle crafts, and, like “Love via,” contrast an imaginative, pastoral world with the elaborate and methodical. Can you speak to us a little about your writing process for these? Where do you begin, and what was unique in your process for “Love via a Rube Goldberg Diagram”?

GS: My writing process in general starts one of two ways: I want to write about a given subject and, in the writing, wonder what form it should take or see what form emerges from the initial drafts, or I want to write in a form because I find the form interesting and begin to wonder what subject would be equally interesting within that form. “On a Connect the Dots” and “Paint by Numbers #4216” both stemmed from ekphrastic writing and a desire to respond to art that is mass-produced, systemized, and formulaic instead of what ekphrastic writing traditionally responds to. Since the image of a connect the dots and a paint by numbers in their untouched state is predetermined, I felt both poems needed to work from whatever form emerged rather than try to mimic the forms of those types of art.

“Love Via a Rube Goldberg Diagram” began with a fascination of the needless complexity of a Rube Goldberg diagram and the style of language adopted by scientific writing. Writing about love seemed like an easy choice since we often wonder at the machinations of love, and the cold objectivity of scientific writing allowed an interesting contrast to the language we usually use when we write about love. Mimicking the form of a Rube Goldberg diagram brought all that together but in its playfulness kept the poem from being without warmth. Also, I love to mine the tension that comes from doing a ridiculous thing seriously.

RT: For me, reading love through the ridiculous whimsy of a Rube Goldberg machine speaks to a very human tendency to complicate love. This strikes me as the perfect moment to ask you how you approach the relationship between form and content. How do you negotiate between the needs of each?

GS: I think people tend to complicate everything, most of all love. Lately, that’s what poetry, and the response to poetry, has been to me: the complication of language and emotion, an acknowledgement of the entropy of both. The relationship between form and content is equally complicated. When I’m writing, I get a sense of both vying for attention. If I’ve started out in a prescribed form, I know that the content is going to get neglected. If I start writing out an idea, I know a form will emerge organically but that it will also get less focus. I’m sure there are writers who can manage attention to both at the same time, but I have to begin with a focus on one and then go back in subsequent drafts to give more attention to what I neglected earlier. Both form and content should have an apparent reason for being as they are within a given poem. I’m often unsuccessful at making those reasons apparent within a poem, but being mindful of both during the writing process, and being mindful of the nuanced ways in which either can affect the writing (and later, the reading), is a must for me.

RT: What surprised you as you wrote this poem?

GS: From the beginning I had decided I would have to include the notation of each part, the way a Rube Goldberg diagram indicates each part in the order of their inclusion in the process. As I began to write and to label each part, I was reminded of Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts,” and how marking and organizing the parts of an event or a system helped substantiate the scientific language I wanted to use for this poem. Some Rube Goldberg diagrams I looked at used letters to notate, so I decided to go with letters, too, because it reminded me of notating a poem’s rhyme scheme (another kind of naming of parts), and I was surprised how often the sound of each letter, when read aloud with the rest of the poem, serendipitously worked in conjunction with the words around it. I was surprised by how much I could get from the simple act of notating each part of the system within the poem. And I was surprised in the end at how warm the poem felt despite my efforts to keep the language and form cold and objective.

RT: What advice can you offer on translating a visual form into poetry?

GS: As with any translation, we have to accept that there is an indeterminate loss, that what we write can never fully amount to the original. But in that given loss is where our writing lives. Let the visual be the context in juxtaposition to what you’re writing. I’m thinking of X J Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and how it responds to Marcel Duchamp’s painting. There’s nothing within the poem that is definitively about the painting—it only seems to be because of the context created by the poem’s title and how it mirrors the title of the painting. And, in a way, Kennedy uses rhyme and meter to maintain a particular distance from the painting, to give the poem its unique brush strokes. A translation of a visual form can only be in the same universe created by the visual. It shouldn’t try, to supplant the visual.

RT: Are there any new poems or other projects that we should keep an eye out for this year?

GS: I’m finishing up a chapbook now called, Venus de Milo with Drawers, that collects a series of responses to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as well as ekphrastic pieces that examine incompleteness. I hope to have it placed with a publisher sometime this year, although, given its nature, it may end up being just a manuscript forever.

Gregory Stapp received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Lime HawkThe Ekphrastic Review, and the Sierra Nevada Review.

Rhiannon Thorne is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review. Additionally, she is the managing editor of cahoodaloodaling, an associate editor for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and President of Tandem Reader Awards. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior ReviewManchester Review, and Midwest Quarterly, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University.


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