Still Something Rattles
As a poet and spoken word artist, you could say that storytelling is in Terence Degnan’s blood. But it does not end there. Degnan, a former Carnegie Mellon University student who studied creative writing, is also interested in how the world around us makes us who we are.
Playwright Erin Courtney called Degnan’s writing in the new book, “language [that] crackles, sparks and flies when you read it out loud.”
He recently sat down with Dietrich College News.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I was an art student in the 1990s and was pursuing painting, when my brother, Sean, came home from college with a bag-full of books and read poems aloud from a beat-up comp book. For many years, poems were our way of communicating with each other in a safer medium than conversation. We would sit on his porch and drink whiskey until “the wee hours” reading early, unpublished poems about growing up, about failed relationships and about being two Irish Catholic middle class ex-pats trying to stumble into adulthood without the standard loafers or correct dance shoes. Back in those days, instead of flying to Florida with my schoolmates on a break, I was buying Greyhound tickets to New York to sign up to read at the Nuyorican and The Bowery Poetry Club, hoping to crash on some poet’s pullout.
What do you hope readers take away from “Still Something Rattles?”
The book is broken into the three chapters mentioned above. In order to stretch my “voice,” I decided to write from three perspectives, simultaneously. I gave myself the homework of writing three hundred poems to get to the ones that eventually made it into the book.
The first chapter, “Letters From Purgatory,” draws heavily from the voice from my first book, “The Small Plot Beside the Ventriloquist’s Grave,” but has less Catholicism and youthful angst. I imagined that the world we lived in now was the fabled “Purgatory,” and that I was its historian. Every book of poems, no matter the era, is already a glimpse into the time in which it was written, and because these days seem more dystopic than ones of my youth, I wanted to capture the dark hours in a bottle, in hopes that some other generation could pull it from the sea.
The second chapter, “Unicorn,” is a series of impossible poems written with my daughter in mind. I wrote them as homage to childhood. Several of them are still melancholic, but I made sure that I followed the rule of “impossibility” throughout.
The final chapter, “Rome,” is about the American tailspin. The chapter seesaws between longer form poems and ridiculously shorter pieces. One poem simply reads, “Rome was not destroyed overnight.” I haven’t really written political poems since the Bush years and am not prone to do so, but the societal woes we are currently experiencing reawakened some of those old thoughts, and I felt it was necessary to get them down. In the words of the Propellerheads, much of the third chapter is inspired by the notion that “It’s all just a little bit of History repeating.” “Rome” is inspired by the disparity we often feel by our lack of influence on the powers of inertia.
I hope the poems break hearts.
While a student at CMU, you won a Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award. What was that experience like?
Strange. When I was at CMU I had three jobs; I was a student, I worked at a local restaurant and I helped manage a mentor program on the North Side. The third job is why the award felt strange, and, for the record, I didn’t get first place. I don’t believe that I have a savior complex, or I surely hope that I don’t. I believe that it’s the job of folks who are given opportunities like studying poetry at CMU to help find folks who aren’t given the same opportunities (outright) and show them the ropes. The poem I had written, which was only ever published in the award handout, was about a woman I had met in Oakland who was helping me with the bus schedule. My car must’ve been in the shop, so I had to catch the bus very late at night in Oakland, which is the neighborhood where CMU is located. She was an older black woman, and I would’ve been lost without her. She knew the bus schedule like the back of her hand. I was forever grateful to her for helping me get home, and very responsive to the truth that I had never ridden the bus in Pittsburgh. I wept when I got home and wrote about the experience later. I felt weird for winning that award, because most of the students in my program in the North Side were black, and nearly none of my schoolmates were. One of the largest goals of our program was to help students work their way into getting into local colleges. I felt that the MLK Jr. Writing Awards should’ve been received by more black students, and felt awkward receiving recognition for the poem. I work part-time in publishing here in Brooklyn, and it’s memories like that one that help inform my decisions in the publishing world. One of my priorities is making sure women, also, are being noticed as often as men. I don’t think that deserves any awards, as I am a published white dude, afterall.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Remain curious of yourself, and read often. Read every medium. Experience your poems, and do not write for recognition. Send hundreds of your poems out, even when acceptance letters only trickle in. Trust your voice, and break it from time to time. Trust writer’s block, too. It’s the wasteland, and you can return from it. Find a day job that will not eat your soul.
What is one thing that your readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I am not the person in the poems. I write them, but I contradict myself. When I write about shitty things in the world, I use harsh language to describe them, but I’m not the person who subscribes to the shitty dispositions. I am dumber than any of my published work. My published work is me hitting on all pistons. That might kill the magic some, but sometimes I just want to have a beer with a mate and forget that I am a writer at all. I am still afraid of the word “whom.” Those are several things.
What do you miss the most about CMU?
By Shilo Rea