by Thomas Fink and Molly Mason
Thomas Fink: I find your title poignant. A Poet’s Survivors Manual could suggest instruction about how to keep publishing poetry over a long period of time or informs readers about how to survive economically while writing and trying to publish poetry. If we take the economic sense as primary, Plan A indicates the goal of earning a living by teaching in an MFA Program or literature department, whereas Plan B seems to signify the idea of getting a job outside of the teaching profession. Perhaps I am beginning to adumbrate your book’s purpose, and you can flesh it out, or if there’s a different raison d’être for it, please tell us. And could you discuss the nature and scope of your audience?
Sandy McIntosh: Plan B is a short stand-alone title in Marsh Hawk Press’ Chapter One series. The object of that series is to publish short titles and longer anthologies that share with writers—especially those in college writing workshops and MFA programs—essential information about poetry and the poets’ life that is not readily taught in the classroom. When I was beginning to write seriously in my teens during the 1960s, the poets I befriended such as David Ignatow, Harvey Shapiro, H.R. Hays and Louis Simpson, while they did teach in university programs, regarded the place of poets and poetry largely outside the university—often in opposition to the cloistered life of Academia. As their young adherent, I learned that to understand poetry you had to understand the poet’s life, from the joys of sharing newly created poems with one’s poet friends to the vagaries of making enough money to feed one’s family. Within that gamut exists the corpus of the poet, which naturally complements the classroom wherein is examined the complexities of the poem.
The subtitle: “A Poet’s Survivors Manual” alludes to my earliest publishing: an “underground” campus poetry protest magazine called Survivors Manual. After college, when I was at Columbia University in their MFA program, I used that title as the name of a small press. We published ten or twelve titles, several of which were bilingual Italian-English collections. We also published the last poetry collection of the poet/playwright/translator H. R. Hays’ and a suite of David Ignatow’s dialogues. So, the name has been with me through those years that I continued to write and publish poetry—something like twelve collections to date—while sometimes teaching but mostly working at writing and publishing jobs. This book catalogs the stories of my successes and failures, all of which are, hopefully, good object lessons in what one setting out in the poet’s life, absent the opportunity to teach fulltime, might expect.
Fink: Various autobiographical narratives about your jobs end with “survival tips.” After discussing your experience as a writer/compiler of a Chinese cookbook that grew out of other work in this area, you assert that “the best day job for a poet involves writing” (50) and that just about any form of writing can enable one to improve as a poet. What do you think makes this happen? What would you say to someone who suspects that writing advertising copy or instruction manuals— as in John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” a poem in his first book— would drain energy needed for poetic activity?
McIntosh: Poetry requires deep thought and invention, whereas writing recipes, typewriting lessons (as I did 750 iterations of for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!), and direct mail copy requires a mastery of facts and techniques that define those forms. In a poem, you’re free to invent the world. In a recipe you don’t invent the beef, only the cooking method. Success, especially in technical writing, is determined by the precise use of language that guides the reader to a desired result—for example, ”Cook until livid” may not be a helpful instruction. Only occasionally did I let my creative ideas cross over into a piece of professional writing. At the start of my career as a travel writer I included the names of several poet-friends in a long list of the famous poets of Roman antiquity. I believed I could get away with it because I doubted that anyone would be paying much attention to the interminable travel piece I was paid to paraphrase. (Years later, in a short story, I speculated on what would happen if a travel writer, allergic to actual travel, invented the details of the places he was describing, just made everything up. As it happened, in his own travels he was forced to use the fictional directions he’d given in a guide book, and he ended up in a surprising place, indeed.)
All of us, I believe, have had to decode the sloppy, barely literate instructions on the back of the box of some product we’ve bought. No matter how brilliant the device, manufacturers more often than not, order the user instructions written as an afterthought. They must reason that because they understand how to use the device, its functioning should be obvious to the most meager intelligence. So, it would seem that they hand-off the job to a low-level employee and rarely pay attention to the results. This is why so many end-users complain bitterly.
Writing advertising copy, which I did when I was working for a Chinese cooking magazine and, later, for a computer software company, does invade the territory of poetry because it demands invention. Whereas in writing poetry, invention can be the starting point or something that pops up along the way, or it can provide an ending, in ad writing, the end is to sell a product and invention is demanded to create a story that will lead the readers to the conclusion that they need to buy the product. I’ve written direct mail advertising for Chinese diet tea, computer chess programs and magazine subscriptions. All of these are formulaic. They include various typographic conventions, such as bulleted texts, extensive numbered lists, indented paragraphs, etc. Some of these I’ve brought into my poetry because they offered creative possibilities.
In the end, I’ve found that commercial writing sharpens the knife of poetry.
Molly Mason: You seem to seek out situations where your brain is going to be pushed into unknown territory in your narrative work, including in this volume. I have always been impressed by your brilliant sense of humor and your ability to poke fun at yourself in your writing. Can you discuss how this push for unknown territory influences these qualities in your writing?
McIntosh: Thank you for the compliments. Pushing myself into unknown territory is probably a symptom of a troubled childhood with a narcissistic mother who was always heading me off at the pass. To survive, I had to out-fox her, if I could. Hence, my early love for dangerous behavior. Or perhaps it was the fear of boredom. For example, after my MFA I could have stayed at Columbia and entered a more traditional PhD program, which might have led me to a safe career in academia. Instead, I enrolled in an experimental PhD program that let me study both the history of poetry and the evaluation of poetry programs, such as Poets-In-the-Schools, in which I had been teaching, looking at their place in literary history. I found this study fascinating and worthwhile, though English departments looked at it with suspicion. Similarly, in my writing I’ve been prone to solve intellectual and emotional complications by casting them into sometimes absurd situations, which I then try to deal with seriously. This amuses me when it works, and hopefully it amuses others.
Mason: There are intimations of a profound comic novel in your acute observations of the eccentricities of the human species because you’ve been tethered to being the landlord of a complex of homes in Nassau County—which is also your home— for decades. This sparkles in various sections of Plan B. Have you ever contemplated writing such a novel?
McIntosh: I’ve published several episodes about my tenants, including the three in Plan B. Only one of these strayed into fiction because the real life ending wasn’t what I thought the written story demanded. Other than the one piece, I’ve never seriously considered a fictional treatment of my rental experiences because I find a careful (careful, that is, according to my own lights) delineation of the facts to yield a more satisfying story than if I untethered my imagination. In fact, I’ve enjoyed writing about my experiences with all manner of tenants over the decades simply because “You just can’t make this shit up.”
Fink: In your various jobs, you faced sizable difficulties; none of these experiences seemed to be easy rides. What enabled you to overcome the obstacles and to make sure that these struggles didn’t prevent you from focusing efficaciously on your poetry?
McIntosh: None of the jobs that I worked through, even the most financially successful, ever tempted me to switch my allegiance from poetry. This is probably true for most poets working in a job that demands that they temporarily put aside their imaginative reflections between 9 am and 5 pm. Stevens and Williams had careers which had nothing to do with poetic composition, and everybody knows their struggles, defeats, and triumphs. Even when I was teaching for long periods I still had to concentrate on the teaching. Teaching creative writing is a collection of demanding techniques. It has its own satisfactions, but they do not necessarily end with the creation of a poem.
Fink: What do you consider the most significant advantages of a career like yours that has featured diverse forms of employment over one solely ensconced in academia?
McIntosh: A friend of mine, a retired English professor, inspired the writing of Plan B: at a barbecue by interrogating me for hours about my career. It was a wonder to him that I would, in his estimation, take so many chances making a living when I could have done what he did and worked at a tenured job for most of my life. But even if I had been offered tenure, I don’t think I would have been happy. Toward the last days of my most recent six years of university teaching I had gotten increasingly antsy and even desperate, feeling caged, trapped, as if a sad ending was rapidly approaching. When I was offered a writing job at MTV it seemed a logical next step, and I left teaching without much regret. Apparently, it is my nature to relish new challenges. Certainly, a chance to make more money was part of it, but each job I’ve taken represented an intellectual opportunity. After grad school I worked as a graphic artist. That led to my interest in publishing. Learning how to advertise a cooking magazine, products such as Chinese diet tea, and a Chinese cookbook led to creation of a best-selling computer software program—which led to the creation of an even better selling program, and so on. Now and for the last twenty years as publisher of Marsh Hawk Press, I’ve been able to utilize everything I learned during the previous decades for the success of the press. I’m tempted to look at history backwards, from effect to cause, and declare that my Plan B was really a Plan A all the time. But the truth is, I stumbled a great deal and had to run to catch-up in areas that I declared my forte but of which I knew little. The rest, as Henry James puts it, is the madness of art.
Sandy McIntosh’s books include Plan B: A Survivor’s Manual, Lesser Lights: More Tales from a Hamptons’ Apprenticeship, Obsessional, Poetry for Performance, A Hole in the Ocean: A Hamptons’ Apprenticeship, Cemetery Chess: Selected and New Poems, Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways To Escape Death,), The After-Death History of My Mother, Between Earth and Sky (Marsh Hawk Press), Endless Staircase (Street Press), Earth Works (Long Island University), Which Way to the Egress? (Garfield Publishers), and two chapbooks: Obsessional (Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry) and Monsters of the Antipodes (Survivors Manual Books). His prose includes Firing Back, with Jodie-Beth Galos (Wiley), From A Chinese Kitchen (American Cooking Guild), and The Poets in the Poets-In-The-Schools (Minnesota Center for Social Research, University of Minnesota) His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Politico, NY Daily News, Newsday, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere. His original poetry in a film script won the Silver Medal in the Film Festival of the Americas. He has been Managing Editor of Confrontation magazine published by Long Island University and is Publisher of Marsh Hawk Press, Inc.