The Usonian Interviews, No. 9: Poet and Nonfiction Writer Andy Butter

On the delicate balance between poetry and nonfiction

In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with poet, writer, and educator Andy Butter about his writing process. Butter’s recent essay “Prayer Sketches”, discussed below, can be found in the Southeast Review.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

THE USONIAN: You’re a poet and a nonfiction writer. How do these different genres interact in your writing life?

ANDY BUTTER: I don’t think of myself as a poet, but that’s a statement. I don’t know if many poets feel like actual poets. It seems like a designation that has to be given to you, like being a good dancer, a priest or something.

I have a less clear relationship to poetry than I do to nonfiction, which feels straightforward. I have my beats that I want to write about, and I have a much clearer grasp on form in nonfiction and voice and all these things in which I don’t second guess myself as much. Sometimes I feel like I patter away into nonfiction; it’s a refuge away from poetry when it’s freaking me out, or not a good way to be in the world.

There’s a pretty stark line between poetry and prose. Poetry to me is more aligned with music, sculpture, and painting, art forms other than the written word.

I don’t see my nonfiction style crossing the line into poetry, but I do see poetry and the attention to language being brought over into my prose writing—because poetry in a really general sense is attention to language to the nth degree, right?

TU: Describe your writing process.

AB: As a beginning poet, you have these grand notions of being this romantic hero or something. You’re like, I’m just gonna be struck by brilliance. And I’m gonna sit down on my way home and write this this amazing poem, and that’s gonna be it.

But really, it’s work. Like, 95% of it is sitting down and being miserable. It’s a matter of putting hours in. What I have capacity for now is two hours a day, often in the morning. There’s something beneficial to wake up and have been a little closer to dream worlds.

The difference to me between poetry and nonfiction is how the ideas arrive. A poem never arrives fully. I’ll get a scrap of musical language or some rough idea that I encounter in the wild and it takes developing and cutting apart. Poetry consists of constantly abandoning things and mashing poems up from five years ago, trying it with a new one. It’s a constant rock tumbler. It feels so much more up to chance.

TU: What made you want to be a writer? And what have been some formative moments in your development?

AB: At Northland College, I took poetry and nonfiction classes with professor Cynthia Belmont in undergrad. I wasn’t a poet first. Or a nonfiction writer first. It’s always felt as if they’ve coexisted.

Years later, I was working at a job in Seattle. At one point, my boss had just gotten married. And we were talking. And she was like, Andy, at some point, you just have to pick one [spouse], and go for it and see what happens. And I was like, Oh, I think that’s what I did with writing.

TU: Are you working on any projects that you’re excited about?

AB: Hopefully a book I can publish. Back to your nonfiction–poetry relationship question, I really have this sense of, once I get a book of poems published I’ll abandon poetry—like, I did the thing! Now, I’m going to do something else.

If I ever do get a book published, I’d be interested to see what my reaction will be. Because often I have an antagonistic relationship to poetry, which is probably good.

I have always had in the back of my mind some sense of a larger nonfiction book project that’s still very much in the dreaming phase.

And then weirdly, I’ve wanted to write a collection of short stories about transportation. If you want to be poetic—[transportation in terms of] the poetics of the human body through time and space, or trains and boats. We’ll see. I’ll be off on my own baby burden in the world.

TU: Who do you consider as influences as a poet or as a writer?

AB: The writer that really made me want to be a writer, at least in nonfiction terms, is Annie Dillard. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when I was a sophomore. I read it once a year.

In terms of poetry, I’m really all about poets that are coming in. Heather Christle is one. James Tate, sometimes Matthew Zapruder, so that kind of strange stuff. And a mix of super lush eco-poetry. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

Those two types of poetry are mostly how I feel all the time—everything is strange. And everything is mostly beautiful if you look at it, so I like to read poetry about that.

TU: Let’s talk about “Prayer Sketches,” your (sort of recent) essay in the Southeast Review.

AB: [“Prayer Sketches”] is a series of thematically related vignettes, but out of time and out of place.

I had these two moments I was thinking about in particular—there’s a scene of my friend chasing off a bear while we were camping, and shouting after it. And then this other scene, immediately preceding it—that of falling asleep on my then-girlfriend’s chest, a very sweet moment; one that obviously stuck with me for a while.

I was thinking about bumping those moments together, they resonated with me for so long, happened years and years ago.

My friend was literally trying to scare off a bear, and my girlfriend’s singing was an act of intimacy, without any intention of any larger meaning. These two seemingly disparate moments in my life seemed to draw towards how I was thinking specifically about the embodiment of the human voice.

Then I was like, what are other moments I’ve come across? That’s how I saw the piece.

TU: Do you have any advice for people who want to get into poetry or nonfiction? Maybe things you tell your students?

AB: Like to put page numbers on their work? Step one!

There’s a paradox to advice—the more general you are, the less useful it is. But, I’m a baby writer, the only thing that I would hope to convey to people is that the life of writing, of art-making, is worthwhile.

Andy Butter is a lecturer at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he recently earned his MFA. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from Sierra Magazine, National Geographic Explorers Journal, Passages North, Southeast Review, and elsewhere.