Interview with Marc Rahe and Danny Khalastchi

Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates Marc Rahe and Danny Khalastchi will be reading from their new collections of poetry at Prairie Lights Bookstore tomorrow, Tuesday April 21. Rahe will read from his second book, On Hours, from Rescue Press, and Khalastchi will read from his second book, Tradition, published by McSweeney’s. Before their reading, we wanted to sit down with them and ask a few quick questions, to prepare readers and listeners for their work.

1. Could you describe a few of the driving forces/themes behind your collection?

Marc Rahe: The poems in On Hours are sort of meditative, and preoccupied with observation; attention to the moment, and immediate experiences. Also the almost uncanny presence of nature in domestic spaces - a squirrel on a sidewalk, say, or a spider in a bathtub. And the aftermath of experience: loss, nostalgia, regret, memory. Which, I think, is another kind of experience. The experience of having had an experience.

Danny Khalastchi: Tradition was written in response to my own experience attempting to navigate the difficulties of interfaith/inter-cultural relationships (both romantic and familial). The poems in this book combine elements of love, loss, religion, family dynamics, and historical uncertainty by placing them together in a surreal and darkly humorous landscape. Many of the poems in Tradition involve a nameless male speaker on a bizarre journey to impress a family that is more observant than he is, and a character known as the “conversion Rabbi” who sets out (through a series of odd and somewhat disturbing interactions) to highlight what he believes to be the strengths and advantages of Judaism. Aside from religious tradition, poetic tradition is also questioned in these poems—the book includes a series of broken “sonnets” that abandon natural form/structure, as well as a handful of pieces that borrow their titles from well-known pop songs (substituting the word “you” with the word “Jew”: “I Want Jew So Badly,” “Jew and I Travel to the Beat of Different Drum,” etc.). In the end, the poems in Tradition consider what it means to be "a believer" by suggesting there is as much to be gained from investigating and committing to a particular faith as there is in turning away from it.

2. How is this collection different from your previous work?

MR: On Hours and The Smaller Half seem similar to me, in that On Hours is a continuation of those preoccupations of attention. The same practice and methods were used in writing the poems. I don't really write projects, so the book is a collection of 'stand-alone' poems arranged to make a kind of whole. I do think these poems are a little weirder, less framed, than those in The Smaller Half. These poems are more comfortable following a thought simply away from it's start, rather than toward a conclusion.

DK: That’s tough. If anything, I’d say that this collection feels more personal. In my first book, I was interested in addressing larger political and social issues by forcing the reader to engage with grotesque and disturbing images. Though both collections are perhaps rooted in the absurd, Tradition sharpens the focus by examining human-to-human interaction more closely. One way I hoped to achieve this was by adding more dialogue to my poems, and I found myself returning to a handful of fiction writers (Roberto Bolaño, Etgar Keret, and Leonard Michaels, to name a few) in order to study the ways in which active conversation between characters can help locate a reader and bring the urgency of a given situation to life.

3. Do you have a specific "set list" of poems that you will read at Prairie Lights? How do you decide what pieces to read for an audience?

MR: I will have a prepared list for the reading (probably nervously re-arranged at the last minute). I usually try to vary the emotional tone, have a laugh here and there, plus, of course, some gloom. I try to be conscientious about choosing poems that a listener will easily be able to follow without having the text in front of them. Basically, I aim to show people a good time. And gloom.

DK: I haven’t yet picked the poems I’ll read at Prairie Lights, though I’ve certainly been thinking about it. That said, any time I give a reading, I try to imagine that I’m feeding a sleuth of bears. In order to keep the animals satisfied, I have to give them something good up front to calm their curiosity, something to snack on in the middle to keep them occupied, and something they can really chew on at the end to ensure they are fully satiated (and to act as a tasty distraction while I turn and run the other way). I don’t know exactly what I’ll choose to read, but here’s to hoping I find something that people don’t mind gnawing on for a bit.

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Marc Rahe's second collection, On Hours, is out now from Rescue Press. In this stunning book, Rahe reveals himself as an occasionally grave and often humorous master of observation whose poems note the natural in the mechanical and the wild in the wonder. Rahe is the author of the poetry collection The Smaller Half, and his poems have appeared in Gutcult, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, jubilat, Petri Press, Sixth Finch, and other literary journals. He lives in Iowa City and works for a human service agency.

Daniel Khalastchi's second collection, Tradition, is out now from McSweeney’s. These wildly imaginative poems bring to life a speaker struggling to find balance between familial pressure and personal identity, religious faith and recognition of the world’s calamities. Khalastchi is the author of Manoleria, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Prize, and his poems have appeared in journals including Colorado Review; Denver Quarterly; Forklift, Ohio; iO: A Journal of New American Poetry; jubilat; Kenyon Review; and MAKE Magazine. He lives in Iowa City where he is the Associate Director of the University of Iowa’s Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing and a co-editor of Rescue Press.

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