03/16/2012

Research Notes: American Poet

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jeff Vande Zande recounts the connections he made while working on his latest novel.

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The Unexpected Gifts of Doing Necessary Research for American Poet

My new novel American Poet was recently released from Bottom Dog Press. Denver Hoptner, a graduate of the University of Michigan with a BFA in Poetry, is unable to secure an assistantship for graduate school. He resolves himself to move back home to Saginaw, MI to live with his estranged, widower father. Denver struggles to find work and struggles to come to some understanding with his father. He struggles with writing poetry. Eventually, he learns that there’s been a fire in the boyhood home of the poet Theodore Roethke. When others seem ready to give up, Denver commits himself to trying to save the house. It’s a working-class novel of writing versus activism, fathers and sons and, of course, Theodore Roethke.

Quite frankly, it’s also a novel that wouldn’t exist without my having done research. Some of the research was really basic, like looking up Saginaw’s history in old newspaper articles, which I mainly got from MLive.com.

Cleveland Beat poet d.a. levy also figures into the book, and I read d.a. levy and the mimeograph revolution (Bottom Dog Press) to get the facts right. I happily learned that levy didn’t believe in copyright (calling it “copyrot’) and so I was able to incorporate a few of his poems into the novel, which I couldn’t do with Roethke’s. Research suggested that Roethke’s poems are still quite restricted.

I also did primary research. There’s a section of the book that describes contract negotiations between a UAW local and company management — and the role Denver’s father played in the proceedings. I needed to know if I had represented the procedures correctly. I contacted a professor who specialized in labor relations, and he let me email him the pages in question. He wrote back to tell me that my depiction was believable. My first instinct had been to contact an actual UAW local. When I called them, however, they wouldn’t talk to me. They were in negotiations, and they didn’t quite believe my story of being a writer in search of authenticity for his novel. They suspected I was either a reporter or someone from management. Either way, they made the suggestion that I contact a professor.

There was a great deal of research like that mentioned above… research that either added to the texture of the novel or simply verified that I was getting the details right. As I wrote, I turned up so many questions to which I needed the answers: How is Fordite made? In what city is the Ragdale Writer’s Retreat? How is shark cartilage used to treat cancer? What are the opening lyrics of “Cheeseburger in Paradise”?

Every novelist has practical research to do. Some of the research I did, however, lead to much bigger gifts than I could have ever anticipated.

Theodore Roethke figures prominently in the book. To be accurate about the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, I read Allan Seager’s The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. In fact, I read it twice. On the second reading, I highlighted facts from Roethke’s life that I would later work into the novel. Interestingly, I further learned (by researching Seager’s bio) that Seager had been a novelist. Being so indebted to his biography on Roethke, I felt I owed him at least a look at his fiction. Currently, I’m reading Seager’s out-of-print novel Amos Berry, which I believe is a shamefully overlooked piece of American literature. Had I not been doing research for my book, I never would have discovered Allan Seager’s wonderful work.

Some of the most fruitful research came out of my need to know more about the Theodore Roethke House itself. At one point in American Poet, Denver goes inside Roethke’s boyhood home. I tried to fake my way through this by looking up photos of the house’s interior online. I know, I know… pretty lazy research on my part, especially with the actual Roethke House only twenty minutes from where I live. In hindsight, it was serendipitous that I eventually emailed Annie Ransford, President of The Friends of Theodore Roethke, a non-profit organization that works to preserve Roethke’s home and legacy in Saginaw. Annie offered me a personal tour of the house. Interestingly, some of the conversations between she and I became conversations between Denver and Abbie Waters, a fictional representation of Annie in the novel.

As we talked and I told her more about the novel I was working on, Annie suggested that I take a Saturday and write in the house. A few days later, she did one better on her offer and suggested that I spend a night.

I took her up on her offer and eventually worked through the last fifty pages of my book on the same second floor porch on which Roethke had worked on his own writing. If that wasn’t enough, additional good came out of my overnight stay… from a different kind of research. While exploring in Roethke’s boyhood bedroom, I discovered a guestbook and found an entry by poet William Heyen. It turns out that he, too, had spent a night in the house back in 2001. I contacted him by email to tell him that we had shared a unique experience. He replied and was very gracious and even offered to read my novel once it was finished. The upshot? William Heyen wrote a beautiful blurb for the back cover of the book.

My research through The Friends of Theodore Roethke has lead to a great deal more as well. They are very excited about my novel and what it might mean for bringing attention to the Theodore Roethke House. In fact, they are hosting me in the Roethke House for the book’s release and first signing. They are doing the marketing, and they’ve even made t-shirts based on the cover of the book. As an author with a book out from an independent press, it’s wonderful for me to have people excited about it and wanting its success. Usually the group excited about the release of one of my books consists of me and my mom. Not this time — not with the Friends of Theodore Roethke behind me.

They are among the many pleasures I had and friends I made while doing the research necessary to write American Poet.

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Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College and writes poetry, fiction, and screenplays. His books of fiction include Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press), the novel Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press), the novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press), and Threatened Species and Other Stories (Whistling Shade Press). His poetry has also been collected into a book, and one of his poems was selected by Ted Kooser to appear in Kooser’s syndicated newspaper column, American Life in Poetry. His most recent book is a novel entitled American Poet, which won the Stuart and Vernice Gross Award for Excellence in Writing by a Michigan Author. He maintains a website at www.jeffvandezande.com.

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