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Energy Corridor looks at economic society through poetry

Energy Corridor
Courtesy photo

“Energy Corridor” is the latest book of poetry from Glenn Shaheen, winner of Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and runner up for the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America.  He is also the author of “Unchecked Savagery” a chapbook of flash fiction. 

“Energy Corridor” is a journey through the economic and psychological terrain of the United States using the city of Houston, Texas, as the focal point of the poems.

I had an opportunity to talk to Glenn in the WGVU studios and he read the poem “Coat” from “Energy Corridor”…

WGVU: You have a looming sense of place in “Energy Corridor” and that place is primarily Houston, Texas.  How did the thematic material come to you?

Glenn Shaheen: Well, I lived in Houston for six years and about half of the poems were, or maybe a little less than half were written while I still lived in Houston. And Houston sort of I felt works as an avatar for the United States as a whole, or at least that’s how I intended it to work.  I felt as I was living in the city and experiencing the avenues and directions that the city’s currents carried me, that’s where a lot of the poems were generated.  And I felt that it worked as sort of a reflection of the United States as a whole.  And I didn’t get maybe a great sense of Houston, or Houston didn’t manifest itself as the center for the manuscript until I moved away, moved up to Michigan to Kalamazoo.  Then I was able to look back at Houston and my time there and think about the ways that…sort of the incredible wealth present in Houston but also the incredible poverty and the…barrier between those sort of two societies in that city reflected that same disparity in the United States as a whole.  And I felt of course like being specific in detail was important to me in my poetry and I felt that I couldn’t just make it a nameless city or some other place that maybe exists or doesn’t exist, just like this metropolis that reflects the United States but wasn’t particular.  Which is why I sort of kept Houston in the book so specifically and particularly.

WGVU: Well, in terms of the way that you write about Houston and other parts of the country…your poetry includes a lot of buildings, glass, steel, there are motifs of architecture in your poetry.

Shaheen: Sure, and of course like those gigantic skyscrapers that are the hallmark of any large metropolis sort of do reflect excess in economics, because of course when you see those big gleaming monoliths that comprise the skylines of wealthy cities…they’re reflections of that wealth, they’re owned by banking companies, they’re owned by oil companies and other companies that do take advantage of the capitalist fabric of the United States.

WGVU:  In particular I’m looking at poems like “Great Southwest” which begins with “Lights are on the Great Southwest, the energy of work trapped in offices of desire points outward…” that’s the beginning of the poem and then you go on for several pages taking a tour of Texas.

Shaheen:  That was a poem that arose from a particular architectural marvel, this art deco building in downtown Houston called the Great Southwest.  It actually has Great Southwest in gigantic story sized letters carved down the side of the building.  It was across from Minute Maid Park and it was sort of like a marvel of architecture in its time and it’s still one of the remaining older buildings in the Houston downtown most of which has been replaced, most of them have been torn down and been replaced with large banking skyscrapers.  And I sort of felt this connection to that old money reflected a lot of the motifs I was going for. 

WGVU:  Then you have the poem “Sugar Land” which starts out about holiday shopping with descriptions of shopping malls and factories turned into luxury hotels. It ends with the line “Ants spilling from the seams of the hotel rooms, cars crowding the lots...”  I see a similar mechanism where you take a wide screen vista perspective in the poetry.

Shaheen:  When you live in Houston it doesn’t have a great public transportation infrastructure, in fact, some would say for as large a city as it is, it has a pretty terrible transportation infrastructure and so…driving around and living in cars is a very large part of anyone’s time in Houston.  And of course a dependence on automobile travel, I mean that’s another hallmark of wealthy cities, sort of ignoring the people who create the infrastructure of it.  Who have to do all the normal everyday jobs, the people who could benefit most from public transit.  So I feel like a lot of the poems in the book were written looking at large parts of Houston from the highway or from cars, sort of large vistas and I tried to reflect in the imagery of the book.

WGVU: You have a lot of references to pop culture in your work, whether it’s movies, music or video games… how does pop culture influence you as a poet?

Shaheen: Well, I read a lot of poetry books as any poet ought to and I read some fiction books too, but we are irreversibly changed by all art that we take in, and I listen to a lot of music and I watch a lot of movies and in “Energy Corridor” I felt that the kind of movie that reflected the economic disparity that I was trying to go for were horror movies where there is this sense of dread and fear that pervades that artistic medium.   And I’ve always felt that when you’re writing that nothing is off limits.  Like there’s sort of this idea that some people have that when you write, well, you’ve got to write about Greek Myth, you’ve got to write about a painting that you saw in a museum, but poetry should be all encompassing and if we are people who engage with pop culture on a regular basis as most of us are, then that should find its way into our poetry as well…even if you watch a really bad movie it enters you and changes you forever.

WGVU: You also write poems about hockey…

Shaheen: I was talking to somebody about this book and I said “I think there are three hockey poems in there…” and then I realized there are like five or six hockey poems in this book, or at least poems that maybe just reference hockey here and there a little bit…I’m a big hockey fan and not enough people write poems about hockey in my opinion…but hockey is also a sport that carries, I mean it’s graceful because you have to be graceful to move quickly on skates but it’s also highly violent…but yeah, so I think hockey for me and this book really represents this… I don’t want to say duality because there are many more than two levels to American society but at least exemplifies the juxtaposition that I often see between beauty and brutality in the United States.

WGVU:  You also explore the difficulty in modern society for people to make connections with each other.

Shaheen:  Sure, that’s one of the other elements of the book where I wanted to frame, the idea that the wealthy creating this disparity between themselves and the middle and lower class, I mean that is a failure of connection.  But also on an individual basis it seems extremely difficult to forge actual personal connections as well, and so while I have these sort of big ideas from a personal stand point, this speaker who represents some version of myself sometimes…I have difficulty making connections with people as we all do…nobody has it easy as far as that goes, but it is important to know that every individual we meet is a fully realized human being with complexities and desires and dashed dreams and failures and emotions and all these different things that make them complicated individuals.

WGVU:  What is your approach to sequencing in the book, choosing which poem follows another?

Shaheen:  Well, the form of the poems does play a part in sequencing and I don’t always like to put poems have similar structures on the page next to each other, especially if they’re poems with one long stanza because I feel that sometimes that doesn’t really give the reader a chance to breath, metaphorically breath, of course.  But ultimately the way that I try to structure the book was from this inability to connect to maybe…embracing more of jubilation or more celebratory motion behind the scenes maybe as the book moves on.  Typically when I’m parsing these poems out I do like to…I spread them out all over the floor, I’m sure many poets probably do this when they’re putting their book in order, just so I can look at them, so, the look of the poem does matter too…you can move things around in four or five poem sequences without drastically affecting the emotional arc of the book.

WGVU:  You begin the book with “Community Trust” which sets the stage for the overall thematic material concerning Houston and then it ends with “Museum of Public Relations” which was inspired by the Tylenol murders in Chicago in 1982, and the public relations success that Tylenol received.

Shaheen:  I didn’t mention Chicago particularly in the poem itself…I didn’t necessarily intend it to be in Chicago, that one’s more of the faceless metropolis type thing that I mentioned earlier…I don’t mean for the book to necessarily leave Houston or leave the city in which it’s located or leave the idea, so I felt that this is the kind of thing that could’ve happened anywhere, it happened to take place in Chicago of course, and it was a tragedy… it’s more of a tragedy that people remember it not for the individuals who died or for the fact that they never caught the murderer, but they remember it more for the public relations coup that it was.  But I think that was the kind of tragedy that could happen in any city, really.

Poet Glenn Shaheen…he has a new book out from the University of Pittsburg Press “Energy Corridor”…here is Shaheen reading the poem “Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left Of Them?”