M. E. Silverman: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

March 29, 2011

M.E. Silverman is a bit camera shy, but we do have an interview and a sample poem. Perhaps we can sketch a picture of him in our minds that is suitable given his answers?!

1. 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 am a Dad first and often introduce myself as Vice-President of Isabel Inc. I actually once had someone inquire in these tough economic times about a job opening there, and if he wasn’t so serious, I might have continued the joke.

2. 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 have never found spoken word to be enjoyable outside of the environment they are being performed in, usually a bar or coffee shop. When I was in Philadelphia, I went to a couple of these back in the 90s, but have not followed the movement since. As far as “power” goes, it depends on the meaning of such an abstract word. What is power to a garbage employee working 9 to 5 or to a white collar exec? I do not think that writing can equalize anything in today’s age and while it had a powerful force at one time, even influencing politics, I think it has fallen into the folds of the Ivory Tower. Those in college, whether a student or teacher, are probably the most exposed to words, to language, and thus, poetry is unable to spread its wings beyond that.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

When i come across a good poem, I copy it and put it in this giant 5 volume binder. It is getting out of control.

4. 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 have taken several online workshops from 32 poems with Deborah Ager to Mid American Review with Craigo and I find them all helpful and inspirational. I tried the Dnzanc one on one critique but found it less than helpful. Kooser Poetry Home Repair Manual by far is one of the best how-to books, but also Triggering Town and Cleave’s Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. I could not put down either Kim Addonizio‘s how-to books nor Padgett’s The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Of course, there are many anthologies I also enjoyed just to get exposure to other writers, including Chang’s Asian American Poetry, Collins Poetry 180, Yale Younger Poets Anthology, Feinstein’s Jazz Poetry Anthology & The Second Set Vol 2, Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of New Formalism, A Formal Feeling Comes ed. by Finch, A Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen Poetry by Seaton, the KGB Bar Book of Poems, American Poetry Now (Pitt) and the Copper Canyon Anthology. Also, there are quite a few portable workshop books but by far the most enjoyable is Jack Myers Portable Poetry Workshop.

5. 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?

I think one of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to introduce very modern sounding, very contemporary poems that resonate with students even in the freshmen comp. level. Clear meaning and beautiful language are possible in combination together. I have found poems that do not sound too “poety” to go over well and open their eyes to the possibilities of language and writers that are available. This can be anyone from Brooks to Levine to even lesser known writers like Amy Fleury. Li Young Lee and Neruda do wonders in a classroom setting as the “next step” in my experience.

6. 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?

I find strong violin sax and trumpet to be the most inspiring instruments. Naima by Coltrane is a beautiful sweet song. Clifford Brown Portrait of Jenny with Strings. Any Miles Davis but I love the album Seven Steps to Heaven. Who could resist writing with music and a title like that? Nina Simone is a goddess of the vocal chords. Occasionally, I will go to Norah Jones but mostly it is Beethoven, Telemann, Vivaldi.

7. 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?

I have lost track of many friends over the years. I am really bad about that like the beasts in Hitchhiker’s Guide. If I cannot see you, it is out of sight, out of mind.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I eat Hostess Cupcakes and chug soda! Oh wait, you are serious. I exercise and to keep the brain fit, I read and read. I find myself reading outside of my genre, going from Chandler to Beinoff’s City of Thieves to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

9. 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?

If someone knows this answer, point me to the way. I don’t drink anymore so I can’t say wine but a fine chilled soda in an expensive crystal cup with Peanut Butter M&M’s or Peanut Butter Cups will be very engaging in front of the computer. You know, I think it is the peanut butter because a good PB&J sandwich is also a brain boost, for me!

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I should mention how it has changed. I use to write as a stay at home Dad when Isabel was very young and still napping. The trick was to write and read carefully as she slept on me in the day time, so there I’d sit with her and a book, pen, and notepad. It was warm, loving, and inspiring all in one package. She no longer naps and I find myself writing in front of the computer, which has its problems. You cannot see the previous drafts, the changes, the poem shaping and growing. A change is very permanent and often there is no going back. I know, I know, save multiple drafts but who really does that successfully?

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I would love to find someone capable of putting together an anthology of contemporary Jewish poets because there does not seem to be one and I bet that would do very well in the synagogue circuits and in the scholastic world. I am currently working on two projects: a collection of stories about a neighborhood filled with monsters: The Monsters Amongst Us. And I am completing my manuscript Toward the Ark We Imagine We Built, a collection of poems about longing and family centered around Judaism and of all things, farming.

Thanks to M.E. for answering my questions. Please check out his sample poem:

Bubbie’s Kitchen Secrets

We cooked in her kitchen,
a small square room
with a large double sink.

The refrigerator zapped
its electric ache
and like an old noir film,

the lights flickered in response.
For herbs, she had me climb onto the counter
and open the one window,

to reach the basil, the thyme,
the sunflowers potted on the fire escape,
a hazardous garden

the whole building used.
Two or three steps were lined
with mason jars full of cucumbers,

for pickles crisp from sunlight.
On this particular Sabbath,
I did what I always did, helped her make

the kugel,
a pudding made of noodles and eggs
with a dash of her secret:

the caramel color from sugar burnt,
not too little, not too much.
We were finishing up

when we smelled the cigar smoke
and heard heavy boots
pounding down the fire escape.

Then glass breaking,
a curse, that curse!,
quick and sharp

in gun-shot German.
Bubbie screamed. Scared,
I ducked under the table.

She whispered one word
before feinting:

Her war from long ago. Startled,
the man stepped back,
slipped and fell

to the pavement,
dying in agony.
Later,  she told me

she thought she saw
the guard from the camp.
The guard who gave the orders.

She told me this
as we huddled on the linoleum.
No one discovered how it happened.

I should have told somebody
when I read the paper and learned
he was just a student,

a young boy, like me.
I never did.

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