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Interview with David Ebenbach

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Tony Huang: Good evening! I'm going to introduce David Ebenbach to you. David is the author of many books. Among them you may find How to Mars, Miss Portland, and The Guy We Didn't Invite to the Orgy. These are some of the very, very interesting books of fiction he has written. And he's also the author of many collections of poetry. The book that we're going to talk about tonight is his latest book, that is, What Is Left to Us by Evening. This book is going to be published next month. We are so happy and honored to become the first readers around the world to read this book. And we are very happy to invite David here to talk about this book tonight.

David Ebenbach: I'm very honored to be here.

Tony Huang: Thank you so much, David.

David Ebenbach: Happy to be talking to an old friend.

Tony Huang: First of all, I would like to say congratulations. Congratulations on the publication of your new book of poetry. We are happy to find that some of the poems in this collection first appeared in The Hong Kong Review. When I was reading this collection of poems, I was actually wondering how long does it take you to write all these poems in this collection. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about the background of this book?

David Ebenbach: Yeah. First of all, I think everybody works differently. But the way I work, I don't tend to set out and say I'm going to write a poetry collection and then I just focus and write a bunch of poems. I don't really do it that way. I just am always writing poems. And then every once in a while I look at this giant pile of poems I have on my desk and I say, "Well, which ones of these could go together and be a book?" So there's a poem in here from 2009, around 13 years ago, and another one from 2010, and still another one from 2011. Most of them are from 2012 onward, but really over the last ten years. And in fact, in the book that I had come out in 2019, that book of poetry, actually the poems overlapped in time. It's just that those ones went together to make that book and these ones came together to make this book, but they're all mixed in together. So I was writing poems for my last book, at the same time as I was writing poems for this book, at the same time that I'm writing poems for, I guess, whatever my next book will be. So I just like to create a big pile of stuff. And then every once in a while I'll pull out the ones that hold together.

Tony Huang: That's amazing. So that means one of the earliest poems in this collection is actually more than one decade back in history. I can see how tough it is to work as a writer.

David Ebenbach: Yeah, it does take a long time for a book to come together. But the nice thing is, if you're writing a lot, maybe a few books can come out of that same long time period. You know, maybe it is more than one book.

Tony Huang: Yeah, definitely so. Well, while I was reading this book, I did discover some of the poems are more reflective of the time when the poems are created. It is obvious that the writing of this collection spanned some of the very, very challenging time, like the pandemic, the 2020 election, and also all the challenging moments in the past few years. So what are some of the things that enable you to keep going?

David Ebenbach: Honestly, writing poetry is very helpful to me. I write mostly out of a place of confusion. If I feel like I really understand something, that doesn't make me want to write a poem. If I feel like I don't understand something, then I start writing. And as you know, these last few years have been full of confusion and uncertainty and who knew why things were happening or how they were going to turn out. And so writing about poetry helps me to get a little bit of a handhold on the world. That's a really helpful thing. But also, the other things reflected in these poems that help me keep going are natural beauty. We're probably going to talk more about cherry trees. Yeah, and community. So there's a number of poems in this collection about coming together in community. Even if it's virtually like this [having this interview on Zoom], you know, this is still meaningful. And I think about there was that terrible flu 110 years ago when people were just stuck in their homes and they couldn't see anybody because the technology didn't exist to bring people together. So. We're at least fortunate that we can have community in this way. I'm thankful for that.

Tony Huang: Yeah, I remember there is a poem in this collection in which you are having a kind of yard sale or something. I'm very curious about that. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about what exactly that is? We don't really have something like that here. No.

David Ebenbach: Yeah. I will tell you that that poem is fictional. That didn't actually happen. But there are a lot of yard sales in my neighborhood. And people, when they have stuff that they don't want anymore, they think that maybe somebody will give them a little bit of money for it. And it's always like a very little bit amount of money. So whatever you bought it for, you're selling it for 5% of the original value or like 1% of the original value, and you just put it all out on your lawn or in your yard and people come by and they give you a tiny amount of money and then they have your shirt or your book or whatever it is. For some reason I just love seeing those because it's sort of a picture of a family or a person. This is what they used to want. Even if they don't want it anymore, it's still sort of who they are or who they have been. I love that.

Tony Huang: Right.

David Ebenbach: You know, the whole neighborhood walks by and sees it, so everybody sort of runs into each other there, too, which is great.

Tony Huang: Oh, that's amazing. We don't really have anything like that here, though. But the thing that runs the closest to that is probably something like a flea market. That year when I was graduating, I had a lot of stuff that I put together. I tended to sell them, but actually I sent them away to people I liked eventually. It was interesting, things like that, you know, didn't happen that often recently. That is the reason why I'm curious about what exactly that is.

David Ebenbach: The two things that have been sort of positive in this time, a really hard time, are that, first of all, virtual community has grown. And second of all, at least in my area, outdoor community has grown. So obviously being indoors with people is really a risky thing, but outdoor areas have developed around restaurants and outdoor performances have happened because those are safer. And while the weather is good, that's been a really nice thing.

Tony Huang: Yeah, exactly. Talking about the place, I was thinking when I was reading through your poems that there are two places that emerge very frequently. One, of course, is D.C., where you live, and the other is Philadelphia, where you're from. These two cities appear frequently in these poems. So I was thinking how these two places may define your feelings and experience of living in our time, a time that is definitely not the best time.

David Ebenbach: Yeah. No, I don't think anybody would call it the best time. Philadelphia is a tough one for me because it's just so deep in me. It's just home. It's part of who I am. I think I'm spending my whole life just figuring out everything that I feel about Philadelphia. I love that city. It's a wonderful place. And so it shows up everywhere. It shows up in my fiction and shows up in my poetry because it's like my air and the blood in my veins and so on. It's just the foundation for everything. So that's always there. And then Washington, D.C.--I've lived there through the last 11 years. It's a strange place to be. It was a very different place when Obama was president, and it was a very different place from that when Donald Trump was president. And all of whatever's going on in the whole country, you can feel it times 100 or times 1000 here in D.C.. Everything is amplified. Everything is bigger and more intense. And so you pointed out the United States' elections over the last few cycles. We had a really tense election in 2020, a really tense election in 2016, or even the elections before that. There are some poems about elections in this collection that are actually from all the way back to 2012.

Tony Huang: I thought they were only about 2020 because it was really intense.

David Ebenbach: Yeah, I included them because I think they attached to that election. It feels like they're part of 2020. There's a poem in there called "City of Sides" where for Halloween a kid dresses up as the president and he's actually dressing up as Obama because it's all the way back in 2012. But the poem reads really differently now because people think, oh, maybe that's Donald Trump, and it's a very different effect. So I like it for that reason. But living in D.C. is hard because everything is so much bigger and more intense. At the same time, the natural beauty of this city is incredible. There are so many green spaces. There are so many cherry trees here in the spring and in the summer. Everything blooms. There are flowers coming out of the ground. There's flowers on the trees, there's flowers in the bushes. They're everywhere. And so even that's more intense also. So it feels like a place where the volume is turned up on everything in the world. The pandemic, which was everywhere in the world, was being talked about so intensely here because this is where the policies were happening, that we're going to decide how our country was going to handle that pandemic. And some of those policies were really stupid and terrible and some of them were helpful. But all of it's happening here. And yeah, this is really a book about D.C. in a lot of ways.

Tony Huang: Yeah. Does it make it a little bit easier for you to live on campus? I know that you're living on campus of Georgetown, right?

David Ebenbach: Well, I live near Georgetown. I live about a half hour walk. So I walk in every day and there's a lot of beautiful trees. The neighborhood is beautiful all along the way, and I love that. I'm glad I don't live right near the White House and all of that stuff. I'm a little bit further out. In fact, our apartment building backs up against a national park. We have the building and then we have the parking lot and then there's a national park right at the edge of the parking lot. It's a forest. There's a poem in the collection about Election Day where deer are in the streets. It was happening on the day of the election here. There were just deer everywhere and deer in the neighborhood. And I love that because they don't even know it's Election Day. They are just trying to find some leaves to eat. And something is reassuring to me, you know.

Tony Huang: Yeah. For me, this appears to be so surrealistic. I can't imagine onElection Day we're going to see deers on street here.

David Ebenbach: It's crazy, right? I went out to vote. This time was actually not Election Day because we can vote early in D.C. Maybe it was a week or so before the election and I was going out to my car in the parking lot to go vote, and there was a giant male deer there with huge horns in between me and the car. This was in 2012. So I thought, is this a deer that hates President Obama? It is trying to stop me from voting for President Obama? Is this a Republican deer? Am I going to be able to vote? And so we just each edged a little bit to the side until we had traded places. Then I was nearer to the car. Then I got in the car and I was able to drive off and go vote. It was quite a strange encounter.

Tony Huang: Yeah. This is such an interesting story, I love it. In the narrative you just had, you mentioned very frequently about the blossoms. Indeed, in this in this collection of poems, I think I counted, or probably I miscounted, the number of times you mentioned the blossoms of cherry trees. I think there are more than ten poems in which you have included the cherry trees, and I was wondering why cherry trees, such a kind of popular, interesting and prevailing image might appear throughout the poems. Why the cherry tree, especially the blossoms, the petals, why they are are so mesmerizing, and, at the same time, why they are so inspiring?

David Ebenbach: Yeah, you see, that's the question. You know, they came to D.C. because of some particular relationships that the United States and Japan had, a lot of cherry trees came here from Japan and were gifts from Japan. And those are not just in this one area of D.C. called the Tidal Basin where they surround it in a ring, but they're also in all of the neighborhoods. They're everywhere in front of my kid's school. So, first of all, it's just a very common tree in Washington, D.C., but the question is, what is so amazing about them? And I've been asking that for 11 years living here in D.C.. Every spring they come out and for some reason I find them, they take my breath away. I find them dazzling. When I get underneath one, the whole sky vanishes and you just have these white or pink petals overhead and maybe they're starting to rain down a little bit. So you have a few of them just floating gently to the ground. I find them stunning, and so I've been spending 11 years writing poems trying to figure out why I'm so affected by them. I think I'm still working on it. I don't think I totally know. They seem to transform the world so completely that--I think that's part of it. I mean, I'm used to dark things in trees. Leaves, you know, leaves are sort of dark green and they are so light up there. All of a sudden they're like clouds, but they're right down with us. And then they're so temporary. I mean, the blooms last just a couple of weeks maybe, which is amazing. And you never know when they're going to be. Every year in Washington, D.C., they have a cherry blossom festival. But it takes a lot of planning, so they have to plan it years in advance and they always get it wrong. The Cherry Blossom Festival always happens when the cherries haven't come yet or they've already gone because you can't predict it.

Tony Huang: I thought they always come out in April.

David Ebenbach: They come out in March; they come out in April. But when exactly In those two months is hard to tell. It depends on a lot of things about the weather, and the weather, of course, is very unpredictable these days. So I've been spending so many years trying to figure out what's so amazing about these trees, but I feel okay about it because the great Japanese poet Basho spent his whole life trying to figure it out. That's one of the other reasons I like cherry trees, because there's this long tradition of poetry around them. Beautiful poems about these beautiful trees. Yeah, I don't have the answer for you, but I'm working on it still.

Tony Huang: Yeah, well, definitely, the cherry trees are just beautiful. And the description of it is beautiful as well.

David Ebenbach: Oh, thank you. I hope so.