The Sleeping House: An Interview with Daniel Rattelle
by Woody Woodger | January 2018
Daniel Rattelle’s second chapbook, The Sleeping House, exists in the brieff shades, small pirouettes, and mud flaps, the coyote’s paw prints in the snow, that we all somehow come to believe composes a life. Rattelle’s book should be eternally commended for trying to do the impossible: to tease that we’re all just one cracked beer can away from epiphany. This interview was conducted by Woody Woodger over email and has been lightly edited for clarity. Dan is originally from Easthampton, MA, in Hampshire County.
Woody Woodger: So much of The Sleeping House is dedicated to exploring, obviously, the home—its life and stories, its death, its history, all its little nooks cobwebbed with frost. Your manuscript really seeks to upturn the most poetic moments in the mundane. Why explore things so familiar?
Daniel Rattelle: Well, I don’t get out much, so basically I can only write about my limited experience, and what I read in books. But I’m also interested in the interconnectedness of things. The way our lives are entangled with the lives of people whose names we may not even know.
WW: Your book mention your kids, a new wife. How has your home and life changed for you with the addition of new people and how has it changed your writing?
DR: I named the book The Sleeping House because that’s when the poems were written, with few exceptions. I got into the habit, the ritual, of staying up late and writing. The quiet of the house. The space that, during daylight hours, belongs to others, which now belonged to me. (I did write the draft of “Here’s Drink—I Drink to Thee,” with my daughter sitting on my lap.)
I, perhaps unlike other poets, do not write every day, I have other commitments. But, I have a long commute to work, during which I draft new poems in my head, or work out solutions to problem poems I have sitting at home. It’s a struggle with time.
WW: When you get the time, can you tell me a little about your process?
DR: I have certain ideals: having a dedicated space for one, also I love aesthetics of writing by hand. The truth is, though I have a walk-in closet with a desk (no chair), it’s full of clothes and empty beer cans. I also can’t write by hand.
I often think of my process as transcription. Generally, I think a poem through before I write anything down; choose the form, set parameters. It usually begins with something I notice in my surroundings and the first thing that comes to mind to describe it. Then, I’ll shuffle that phrase around to make it metrical, which sets the meter for the poem. Later, I’ll write down what I have. I go stanza by stanza, doing little adjustments, until the poem has passed. Then I’ll let it sit for a while, think about it casually while I’m doing other things, dishes, driving, then edit, then submit. I also always like to be working on a larger project. So right now each new poem I write goes to my full-length manuscript and/or a new chapbook.
So much of my writing is receptive; being open to what’s around me and inside me. Call it inspiration—I’m a bit shy of that term. It takes time. It doesn’t happen every day. I always have music on when I write.
WW: As you write about your wife and a daughter, I also can’t help but notice your writing suggests a deeper recognition and appreciation for the feminine.
DR: I should mention that I wrote many of these poems before my son, Ezra, was born. And I think you’re right. In my experience, with notable exceptions, women have been more stalwart, dedicated, and simply better than the men I have known. I think this gets reflected in “The Contra Dance,” where Rex’s wife, though unnamed, unrecognized, is certainly the better person.
WW: Would you mind telling us some of those other stalwart women, and do you see them showing up in the book through some of the female characters?
DR: Sure. My grandmother for one. She had her first child (of four) when she was fifteen. Her husband was in and out. She’s not perfect, and I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars, but she was present. I based the longsuffering of Rex’s wife on her.
Then there’s Lauren Cuthbertson, the ballerina after whose performance as Juliet in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet I wrote “Here’s Drink— I Drink to Thee.” Her body, full of strength and effort, constitutes her art, and is contrasted with me swilling beer and sitting at a computer.
WW: As you been afforded further exposure to the feminine, have you personally begun to perceive or preform your masculinity differently?
DR: So I think I question my role as protector in “The Riverbank Road” where I give my daughter room to explore, even if it results in her harm. I try not to sentimentalize my role as father-to-a-daughter.
I often wish I could use my body in service to my family to the same degree my wife did when she carried and bore our children. I suppose in another time that would have been—oh hunting, or defending the city or something like that.
WW: If so, how has that affected your writing and /or the direction of this manuscript?
DR: I hadn’t thought about gender at all when I wrote these poems. But another one of the tragedies of—call it what you like, capitalism, industrialism, etc.—is that men are forced to work outside the home, outside of the context of family. While I do still have to punch a clock to make a living, one of the joys of writing is that I get to do it at home, which is where I feel I most belong.
WW: So many stories and arts and histories intersect in your home and your world. Sonnets will mutate into Schumann, give way into Hamlet, to only later dissolve into an obscure painting in a library. All this to make a point about a blue-collar fisherman and the bass he can’t keep in his boat. All this swirling culture—It must be exhausting. What draws you to classical allusions and what purpose do you see them serving in your poetry?
DR: First, I love the Public Library. And the poem you’re alluding to, “Chiaroscuro,” hopefully does a couple of things. I wrote it as an homage to anonymous art, those little paintings by random people you see at libraries or wherever; just like you don’t know the name of the person who caught the fish you ate last Friday. But also it is an attempt to understand the relationship between making art and doing physical labor. I don’t have an answer to that one yet.
WW: By invoking classical voices are you saying something about the world today?
DR: I think of my invocation of the classical as a little rebellion against what I call the Tyranny of the Present Moment. I don’t believe in a teleological view of history. I don’t believe, with Hegel and Marx, that society is marching toward something. And we, the people who live right now, are not somehow better than those who came before us. Mind, I also don’t believe we are worse. I don’t think there was ever a utopia, but I do think there are think certain artistic, or even political ideas of the past are worth exploring again. Time is one of my big anxieties, and in the imaginative space of my poems, I can erase it by bringing Schumann on a walk with me, or interrogating Hamlet at Amherst College. I think, because of the gift of imagination, certain dead (or fictional) people are more real to me than some of the newsmakers of today.
WW: What about the sonnet? It’s a form employed so much in The Sleeping House. What drew you to it and how do you see it as an element of your book’s project.
DR: The book actually began as a manuscript of twenty one sonnets. These were of several different types, English, Terza Rima, Spenserian, even one or two non metrical. The manuscript was called Iconostasis and was supposed to use the sonnet, traditionally an argument, as a way of exploring the nature of beauty. However, as I completed the manuscript I thought it was a bit too project-y, and wanted something a bit more open. So I scrapped much of it, kept the best sonnets, and added some of the other stuff, the blue-collar stuff, and came out with something much more interesting.
Writing Iconostasis was a learning experience about the sonnet, which I’ve come to understand as the normative fixed form in English. I think it simply works better, more often, than say, the sestina. I also think the strict rules compress the lines in a really exciting way. You have roughly 140 syllables to work with, so you had better add as much to each line as possible.
WW: Seeing as every poem in the collection uses some kind of “blue-collar” character, as well as some unmistakable Western Mass pastorals, I can’t help but think those things are important to you. How has the rural, working class aesthetic influenced your voice?
DR: Well, my earliest exposure to poetry, I think I was nine or ten, was Robert Burns, and I think he’s been a huge influence on how I handle rural matters. The pastoral, going back to Virgil’s Eclogues, is often about dispossession. What has the modern rural worker been dispossessed of? Well, the farm, for one. The traditional farm has been swallowed up by Capital. What I mourn most though, is that working class culture does not exist. Nobody, except ethnomusicologists, know about the songs Burns drew from to write his verse. Today, culture is mass produced and sold to the proletarian just to keep him working. Television, movies, beer, sports, furniture, music, whatever it is, the proletarian does not make it herself, her agency to create something meaningful is taken from her.
WW: Is it ever a struggle to strike a balance between your blue-collar subjects and your interest in the classical, and/or do you see them as compliments?
DR: It happens so organically for me, they have to be compliments. I don’t think Shakespeare necessarily has to be part of the working class culture I’ve been longing for, but he certainly was to the 17th Century Londoner. And back to the Public Library, it’s not like a worker doesn’t have access to classical texts. Indeed, I do believe Homer is easier to understand than—oh I don’t know. One of my poetic heroes is John Keats, who, as you know, writes in an elevated style, even for his time, but was cockney. He had no Latin or Greek (like myself) and describes a moment of awe in his poem “Upon First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” that is, an early English translation.
WW: The Sleeping House seems more personal than your previous attempts. You said it’s more “heart-on-your-sleeve” when we talked before. While I’m not sure “heart-on-your-sleeve” is how anyone would describe Daniel Rattelle. You’re basically, if a tumbler of Lagavulin came to life. But I’m curious as to how you think your poetry has evolved emotionally.
DR: Lagavulin happens to be my favorite whisky. I actually said that about my first chapbook Let Us Sit Upon the Ground, which I don’t much like anymore. While I’m much more emotionally available in The Sleeping House, I think of it as a full range of emotions, including irony, fear, anger, things I used to hesitate to use. A lot of what I do now resists the romantic impulse. Ultimately, though, I hope the new poems direct the attention away from myself, and onto the subject at hand.
WW: Parting question: Daniel, you almost always sport a lush, lumber-jack-of-the-city beard. Do you have any advice for a peach fuzzy-duddy like myself? Any grooming tips?
DR: I’ve always thought your beard was charming. A beard takes time and patience. If it gets wiry, there are several conditioning products one can use. I sometimes use a eucalyptus balm called Honest Amish. Don’t wash too much.
Daniel Rattelle is a poet and arts journalist based in Northampton. His second chapbook, The Sleeping House, is forthcoming from Eyewear publishing. He can be reached @danielrattelle.
Woody Woodger’s first chapbook postcards from glasshouse drive is currently forthcoming from Finishing Line Press and his poetry has received publication in Barely South, Exposition Review, 2 Bridges Review, Soundings East, and (b)OINK, among others. He will attend Western Washington University’s MFA program in Fall 2017 and was a graduate of the Salem State Poetry Seminar. He currently resides in New England.