Jeffery L. Bahr: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

April 22, 2011

Poet Jeffery L. Bahr

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 have been in love with computing for almost 45 years, back to a time when I could go to a large social gathering of 1000 people and be the only one involved with computers. I’ve studied every facet of computer science, been a professor and been in the industry all my adult life. I’ve only written poetry the last 12 years. I think there is tension in my poetry between the analytical and the mysterious.

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 was never all that enamored of spoken verse. I supposed I’d rather hear a poem in my head with my own cadence and emphases. There are exceptions I can think of, however. I love hearing Plath readings of her own work.

As for writing helping humanity: I supposed it depends upon what is written and read, but good writing or informative writing helps anyone with the courage to listen and be changed.

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

The only thing I’ve ever truly been obsessed about were a few women in my life.

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 a bookshelf filled with books on writing poetry (e.g., Triggering Town (Hugo), The Poet’s Companion (Addonizio), . . .), but the most valuable experience that actually made me a better poet was my years of running and participating in online poetry boards, including Alsop Review, QED, and others. I got lots of feedback when I needed it, and in return learned how to critique poems, and how to appreciate disparate styles.

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?

Poetry can be quite excellent and still span a very wide range of aesthetics. Some of those aesthetics take time to understand or acquire a taste for, and some are more readily accessible. For example, I think Bob Hicok, G. C. Waldrep, and Mary Jo Bang are terrific poets, but a “lay person” is probably going to connect more quickly with one of Bob’s poems. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about this, and the same phenomenon takes place everywhere in the arts (music, visual art, sculpture, . . . ).

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 can’t do anything while listening to music more difficult than balancing my checkbook. The only rule I used to have was “write first drafts inebriated, then edit while sober”, but now I just write poems when I feel like it. I also used to write with pen on paper and type it all later, but increasingly, I just compose while in Microsoft Word.

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 dozens of friends, some very close, whom I met through poetry. I probably know of or have emailed or blog-commented to/for/with another hundred poet buddies. Some of my poet friends I’ve known longer than a decade, chatted on the phone many times, and still not yet met in person. Some I’ve met finally at AWP or while traveling near their home town. These days, I keep in touch with email, Facebook, and my weblog ( , which many of my poet friends read to keep in touch. It is strange because in my personal and professional life, I have a completely different set of friends with completely different world-views and personalities. Some are even, God forbid, Republicans.

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

Well, I quit smoking and joined the Y. As a working software engineer, I’m in front of a monitor a lot (like 60+ hours a week), so I’m not worried by the sedentary nature of writing, I need a way get out of my chair periodically anyway (like taking a 15 minute break on my treadmill).

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?

I have over 100 cookbooks and like to cook, so it’s hard to get down to one favorite food, but I can probably get the number down to two dozen (see Whimsy’s Cookbook on my weblog). When I have poet’s block, I try to figure out some new source of inspiration, like an art or history book I haven’t read.

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

Like a lot of poet, ideas come unbidden at all times. I once wrote a poem about Lucie Brock-Broido meeting Steven Segal at a museum because I was reading LBB when Under Siege came on. I write very quickly and don’t edit a lot, so a poem can come from anywhere and at any time really. Anyway, I suppose what I was getting around to was: I don’t have a writing space.

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

I have finished a manuscript of poetry that I think represents the arc of my life in the last decade. I will tinker with it and submit it to lots of contests and cross my fingers.

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

Walking Reliquary

Primitive, and so, face
of stromatolite, glottal-stop
cilia, pre-Cambrian gut.

Derivative, and so, grackle’s
nest mate, jackal’s familiar.
Nose like a nocked arrow,
eyes like a lemur’s, only lonelier.

Fatuous, and so, bag of bones,
old bones, some close to broken,
others opposable. Scot organs
and pipes, blood of a Choctaw,
stretched skin of a Norse war drum.

Inattentive, and so, collapse
at the waterhole, hair growing
gray like the seat
of a prayer bench.

Ebullient, and so, grief
of a treed raccoon,
arms like a starfish. Grin
like the wolves
at a timberline.

Acquisitive, and so, Isles
of Langerhorn, rings
of wild cypress, rings
of dead Popes.

Transitory, and so, brain
of an ocelot, brain
of a cockatoo,
mind of a lilac.

Heretical, and so, postprandial
half-life, quarterstaffs
for thighs, three-fourths
of a pumpkin’s DNA.

Incorruptible, and so, knuckles
like gambling stones, shroud
of a leper, eggs like a fossil find.

Redeemable, and so, water-logged
flesh, airborne ash, sedimentary compression.

–The title is taken from a line in G. C. Waldrep’s “Confessions of the Mouse King”

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