How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?
I love telling people that I’m a poet. Just a poet. Not vaguing it up by saying that I’m a “writer” or qualifying it by adding that I’m a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. I think that, deep down, people appreciate the uselessness of poetry, its lack of clear market value and profit potential. “For poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden said in his elegy for Yeats, adding a little later that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.” For just a moment, they encounter something that can’t really be bought and sold, or at least not dearly. Some people feel a bit threatened by that, or indifferent to it, but most are curious, and then a little amazed, as if they’d just met someone who could photosynthesize and therefore didn’t need to spend time working in order to buy food. Of course, the question “How can you live on that?” inevitably comes up, to which I always say, “Prize money.” That way they get the impression that they’ve met a really good poet. And who knows, maybe they’ll look me up.
Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?
I’ve been present at some spoken word performances that were full of energy and proved to be both entertaining and artistically satisfying. But performances are really of the moment; I don’t find they translate well to film, though oddly enough I think that sound recordings of readings can have real force (the way Alan Lomax’s recordings of Southern music from the 1940s and 50s have the power to blow away contemporary recordings with their authenticity and presence). But I believe the written word lasts longer, even if it languishes on a shelf in a used bookstore, and that it generates a dialogue between reader and writer that simply can’t be had in a live reading. And one need only read Shakespeare’s Sonnets to see that the written word is not dead, but alive and awhirl, a sort of quantum cloud of meaning awaiting a moment of attention to fix its meaning before it swirls back up again.
Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
OK, I like to think of myself as a fairly sane, stable person, but I have to admit, even to myself, that I’m obsessed with the number. In Hebrew, the number 18 is associated with the word for ‘life,’ Whenever I open a book of poems, the first page I turn to is 18, or if the book begins on a different page, the equivalent of the 18th page. If a poem of mine is published on the 18th page of a journal, I get absurdly happy. And I’ve just finished a book manuscript of poems all 18 lines in length. I was born on the 18th of October, so I think that’s where it started; it pleases me to no end that my birthday is the feast day of St. Luke, the patron saint of doctors and of artists. “In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start,” says Auden.
Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).
I completed two graduate degrees in creative writing (one at Hollins, one at UVA), and while I’d say I write quite differently from how I wrote back then, I think that those workshop experiences were crucial for me, because they allowed me to accelerate through many styles (and errors) that likely would have taken me a decade to reach, let alone write through. Before that time, I was a bit isolated as a writer (I wasn’t even an English major in college), but I was lucky in the writing books I encountered, and a few have stuck with me. When I began writing poetry in college, a close professor friend of mine sent some of my poems to James Merrill, who was a good friend of his. Merrill sent me some very encouraging letters, along with a copy of John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, which I read religiously for years. Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town was a wonderful practical aid, and Hugo’s wry gruffness made him a good companion during less productive stretches. I’m also truly thankful for my copy of Walter Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, which I delve into constantly, stunned by the marvelous ways our words refer to ‘the things of this world.’ And these days, the book that’s most on my mind is Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry; Bly is wonderful when one doesn’t take him too seriously.
Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?
Well, I have to question the initial premise, which really seems to be the attitude of readers when they are in school (a rather surprising and disappointing failure, don’t you think?). Away from the classroom, there are many non-academics and non-writers who read poetry of all sorts and who respond to it in genuine, acute, and thoughtful ways. I don’t mean to universalize, but I think there’s a basic human need for moving rhythms, surprising language, and sophisticated wordplay, and while it’s satisfied for many of us as children with nursery rhymes and folk songs, it seems neglected when we enter the adult world. While I’m sure there are those who find poetry “elitist and inaccessible,” I also think that they’re a minority and not much of a problem (cranks are cranks, no matter what they’re cranky about). The problem lies with those who dismiss or chasten poetry indirectly or inadvertently, either by assuming that readers aren’t interested in enjoying linguistic sophistication, regardless of the thought behind it (academics), or by assuming that they aren’t capable of such appreciation in the first place (major publishing houses). Because academics and publishers have such market control, I think they’re much more responsible than the reading public for the proliferation of this myth of inaccessibility.
But, ultimately, I think it’s a false controversy, much like the ‘death of poetry,’ and I don’t think poets need to bother with the matter. Like the moon, the popularity of poetry waxes and wanes, but it doesn’t ever go out (Homer, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, etc., still matter). The one thing that poets could stand to do, however, would be to change the way they conduct public readings; it’s surprising how much these resemble the paper presentations given at academic conferences. I don’t mean that they need to create a full-out performance, but they might consider borrowing from revival preachers, stand-up comics, children’s story time readers, and the crazy literature professors they loved in college, rather than from the 20-minute talk by the intellectually anxious and self-defensive graduate student. And major writers might try reading at truly minor venues from time to time, to encourage initiates and to remind themselves of the broader audience they complain they’ve lost.
When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?
Most days I write very early in the morning (around 4am), before my wife and daughter are awake. I don’t listen to any music then, because I rather like the silence in the house, and I like listening as the morning comes alive with bird song. When I’m revising, however, I’m more apt to listen to music, though it usually can’t have any words. I especially like heavily patterned instrumental music, so Bach’s often on the list, but I’m also keen on modern and contemporary classical, so I listen to a lot of John Tavener, Philip Glass, and Arvo Part. One of my favorite contemporary pieces to revise to is Eleni Karaindrou’s Ulysses’ Gaze, which is very somber and haunting, but reassuring, too.
In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?
Because I’ve been in academic settings for most of my adult life, I’ve had the chance to meet and know a lot of writers, so I don’t think I’ve made any more or any fewer friends since I committed to poetry. I’m friendly with many poets, but most of my close friends are ‘non-writers,’ i.e. normal people.
How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
I run (rather slowly these days), and whenever I’m stalled on a line, I do push-ups. Eat well, etc. Try to stay away from booze, but coffee’s another story.
Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?
Can’t think of any inspiring foods, though I love fresh figs. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as writer’s block. There’s only the refusal to think up new ways to trick yourself into writing. When I need a boost, I like to visit workplaces that have their own tradition-laden vocabulary, a separate language for “all their gear and tackle and trim.” Places like riding stables, bait shops, butcher’s stands (there’s the inspirational food, I guess). Or I read through field guides and ask my wife (who’s a botanist) to tell me about wildflowers. If I’m really, really stalled with work of my own, I copy other poets’ poems into my journal. To see one of Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore sonnets in my own hand?—now that’s inspiring. I might even come to forget that I didn’t write it, and then my confidence soars and I’m back on the path.
Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
I’m not particular about my writing space anymore, although I used to be. These days, the kitchen table or the sofa in our living room are enough. Once upon a time, I needed a big desk, a wall with no window or pictures, and a shelf of books and dictionaries close at hand. Now it’s enough simply to have a quiet hour or two to draft. I guess if I had a genie’s wish, I’d take an old Dutch-style farmhouse, with whitewashed walls, low ceilings, dark corners, big hayfields, and a distant woods where I could go walking when I needed.
What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?
I’ve recently finished a book-length manuscript of poems in a form I’ve come to call the blyzal, a form that Robert Bly developed in two of his recent books of poetry. (Bly is a guilty pleasure of mine; the title of my book, in fact, is The Trouble with Iron John). The poems are in a modified form of the classic Persian ghazal, a form I’ve always found a bit fussy and prim, in spite of its alleged disunities. When I read Bly’s versions of the ghazal, however, I got excited by how the longer stanzas allowed for a fuller range of associations, subjects, and imaginative leaps. The three-line stanzas just seemed bigger, shaggier, messier than what one usually sees with ghazals, and since they were each eighteen lines in length, I was hooked. The poems have been well received by journals, with acceptances by Virginia Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Albatross, Kennesaw Review, Barnwood, The Humanist, storySouth, and 32Poems. Since it’s the final poem in the collection, I think I’ll end with the one that appeared in 32Poems. Thanks so much for inviting me to write on the blog!
A Psalm Before Healing
A bowl of noodles with oil and sesame on a drizzly night,
A mug of scalding coffee, a braid of chala from the neighbor,
These small services uphold the firmament of stars, selah.
Never forget that the dove grieves but won’t share her story.
The hunters never understand. When she bolts skyward,
She is the skiff the exile rows through morning rain, selah.
How lissom the homerun swing of the left-handed catcher,
As if his bat had caught a comet’s arc and made it shine.
He shall never read this poem or know his own grace, selah.
With its notched legs, the Jerusalem cricket can’t help but sing.
The Alps can’t help but storm. The corn can’t help but grow.
The world is a second language we can’t help but speak, selah.
Once healed, the blind must be taught the ways of vision.
Diamonds in a green cloud are sunlight showing through leaves.
They learn, but dream of seeing in the dark once more, selah.
Just when you think you’re coming to the end of these poems,
Of your life, of a bowl of noodles, there’s an unexpected sweetness,
A last trace of oil you can sop with a handful of bread, selah.