Poet Ace Boggess on His Favorite Authors, His Favorite Sounds, and Advice for Writers
Andréa: What’s your favorite sound? Why?
Ace: A kitten purring because 1) it’s the sound I imagine as being the exact opposite of hearing the President on TV and 2) it’s a kitten purring—if you don’t like that sound, seek help.
Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry—Misadventure, I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, Ultra Deep Field, The Prisoners, and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled—and the novels States of Mercy and A Song Without a Melody. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, River Styx, and many other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. His sixth collection, Escape Envy, is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021.
Andréa: What’s your process? More specifically, can you describe how you begin and how you know when you’ve completed the poem or collection of poems?
Ace: I don’t have a process, per se. More of a pattern. Usually, I have an idea in my head before I sit (or these days, lie) down to write. Then, I like to read for about half an hour before writing to get my mind in the right focus. Once I start writing (longhand), I let my brain do the rest and just try to get out of its way. As I type up whatever I’ve written, I rework the piece until it’s what I think I want. Then I submit it. If it’s gets rejected, I edit it and submit it somewhere else, never letting anything hang out in limbo. As for when a piece or book is done, I let publication be the judge of that. I keep tweaking, twisting, and tightening a work until it’s either published or it snaps. It’s the same with the manuscript for a book.
Andréa: You’ve published several collections. How did you come to choose the poems in those collections? How did the cover design emerge?
Ace: I’ll start with the easy one. The covers took different routes into existence. For some books, I had an idea of what I wanted, and the publisher worked with me to achieve that vision. For others, the publisher chose something, and I just said Okay, go with it. My favorite cover, the one for Ultra Deep Field, involved weeks of discussions with the publisher, Brick Road Poetry Press, before the editor Keith Badowski took over and just used my vision to create the image himself.
Okay, how I decide what goes into a book is a lot more complicated. Sometimes a book builds itself around a style I’m playing with: the unpunctuated couplets of Ultra Deep Field or the question poems of I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So. Other times, it’s a theme: life in prison for The Prisoners or life after prison for my forthcoming book Escape Envy. Either way, I take what I believe to be my best published poems and whittle them down into a manuscript. For that manuscript, I’m using what I like to think of as that three-chapbooks approach. That is, there are three sections in my books, an each one thematically or stylistically could be a chapbook by itself. I believe this to be an effective way of ordering things.
Andréa: What advice do you have for young writers? Are there mistakes you made or things you’d have done differently?
Ace: Advice for young writers: live, so you’ll have something to write about.
Of course, there are mistakes I’ve made. Many. But I wouldn’t change any of them or I wouldn’t be who I am. If I had to do one thing differently, I would take my own advice for young writers. I spent way too much time afraid of life. My regrets are more about things I didn’t do than the things I did.
Andréa: I’ve heard it said there are two writing philosophies: One is to wait until an idea comes on its own. The other is to sit down and write each day even if you have no ideas. Do you have a tendency toward one or the other? Do you think daily writing is necessary for everyone?
Ace: Both work for me. Often, I know what I’m going to write about before I begin. Sometimes, though, an idea will come to me while I’m doing that thirty minutes of reading before writing. Nostalgia often comes from that.
As to the question of daily writing, I’ll say what I always say: Nothing is necessary for everyone. Figure out what works for you and do that. For me, writing every day is important. It keeps me focused. But if writing once a week or once a month is what works for you, go with it.
Andréa: Who influences you?
Ace: It’s not just one person. I read way too much. I’ve consumed so many books in different styles and genres. All have influenced me, even though I can’t remember most of them. What I can tell you is that there are two books that I’ve read repeatedly that, while I’m reading them, I can actively feel the tone of my own writing changing: The Evening Sun by David Lehman and Without End by Adam Zagajewski.
Andréa: Which of your books do you believe best represents you as a writer? How about as a person? (which are not the same thing)
Ace: As a writer, it would be The Prisoners. It’s not just that I continued to write, submit, and publish from prison, but that I took everything in, even the horrible stuff, with childlike fascination and described it as best I could, often with irreverence.
As a person, it would be novel States of Mercy. That book took everything I had in me, including different ways of looking at my whole philosophy of existence. I wish more people would read it.
Andréa: What would you say is your secret (or not so secret) talent?
Ace: Finding laughter in bleak times. Passing that on.
Andréa: Has COVID impacted your writing at all? How much would you say your daily life has changed as a result?
Ace: For a while, my writing probably tripled. I was obsessed with news and chaos and ugliness and worry. I just channeled all that into poetry. It’s slowed down (back to normal) now. Things still suck out there, but I don’t watch as much news.
My life hasn’t changed that much. I mean, I’m terrified to leave the house, but I’ve always kind of been terrified to leave the house.
Andréa: If you could be a profession other than author, what would it be?
Ace: Rock star. Why? Because it’s still properly abnormal.
Andréa: What’s your favorite word?
Ace: Right now, probably ‘ensorcelling.’ I’ve used that word too much in recent years.
Andréa: What is your favorite place to write? If you have one?
Ace: A restaurant/bar called Calamity Café, sadly no longer in existence. So, these days, I do most of my writing in bed. A made bed—what kind of heathen do think I am?
Andréa: What author or place influences your work most?
Ace: It would probably be David Lehman because of the book I mentioned above. Honestly though, every author I read influences me.
I find a lot of my inspiration while standing outside smoking a cigarette, watching various wildlife meander through the yard. I never thought of myself as a nature poet, but I’ve written far too many poems about deer, squirrels, and rabbit recently. But even the more philosophical poems often come to me while I’m in that exact moment. So much calm.
Andréa: Do you believe it’s true we are all born artists of some sort and society beats it out of us by the time we’re adults?
Ace: No. I think we’re all capable of art. If anything, though, we create art in spite of society. I started writing, honestly, as my way of coping with society, or creating a bridge between it and my anxieties.
Andréa: How do you continue to write during tragedy? If you know someone who wants to know how to do that, how would you instruct them?
Ace: You have to be open and honest. That’s the most important thing. If you’re writing about your experience of tragedy, you can’t just try to give other people what they want to hear. You have to tell your story, hopefully in a way that others can understand it and connect with it. Also, it helps to be fascinated by your own misery, to love your own sadness, and then to find lightness in it. Maybe you will write something great. Even if you don’t, you feel a lot better when you’re done.
Andréa: Virginia Woolf and other writers were great walkers who took long walks while thinking of writing. Do you have an activity that helps you think?
Ace: Smoking and pacing. See above.
Andréa: If you could teach only one class the rest of your career, what class would it be? And why?
Ace: I’ve only ever taught one class, and it was a one-person class. At SUNY back in the early 2000s they had this weird choose-your-professor thing, and a friend asked me to teach a class on the existential novel (which is something I dearly love). Got paid for it, too. So, yeah, that would be my class forever.
Andréa: Could you name some of your favorite books? How about those works which have influenced you as a poet?
Ace: The two I mentioned above. More recently, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon, Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, anything by Billy Collins. Oh, and Stephen Dobyns’s Velocities. When I first got to prison, that was the only poetry book in the library, and I must have read it twenty times. Also, I love every volume of Best American Poetry, even the ones I don’t really like all that much.
Andréa: Agents are often asked "Who are your dream clients?" So, tell me, who is your dream agent? Why should someone sign you? And how can they reach you?
Ace: I had my dream agent. She was personable, kind, strategic, and helpful in her suggestions. She represented both of the novels I currently have in print. Unfortunately, she couldn’t sell them, which led to me sort of losing my mind for a couple years. Now, my ideal agent would just be someone who can sell my books. I don’t care if that person is deranged, drunk, or even a Republican. A specialization in poetry and short stories would be more helpful these days, I guess. As far as how to reach me, well, I’m not hard to find.