From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Poet Terri Witek

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 prefer not to say anything “about” myself in such instances, especially if people really are hanging there (which is very kind of them). I’m deeply suspicious of the desire to ingratiate myself. I feel instantly tempted. Yet no one’s desires will be assuaged by any autobiographical material, no matter how sweet or how shocking it is. Oh good—I didn’t tell you/sell you/sellout. My resistance kicked in! Fortunately, the time between the two responses is shortening.

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 love ephemeral creations, and as I have been working with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes since 2005, have become more and more enamored of doing things that disappear—words and images (he uses photographs and video), sound pieces. We did some ipod voice pieces for an installation and I loved that…watching people lean into the rooms to catch fragments, etc. Of course I still love words on the page. But I really like staging “events” with him where we switch out—it feels unexpected, even when I know what’s going to happen, as I do now with the day you left, a 50-minute piece we’ve done several times. Actually, I find collaboration deeply mysterious and satisfying. I make no larger claims for it except that it puts you right into someone else’s technical stuff in a way that seems pretty magic. Is this equalizing? More that to play together in the same space feels temporary and precious. Maybe world peace would feel just like this.

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

Well, I’m completely enthralled by museums, galleries, and contemporary art sites. I now go to Miami Art Basel every year. I have had some of my very best moments in the presence of great art—-sometimes even not great art that just catches me in a certain way. Fill in your own amazing experiences with such things here.

But mostly something just sorts of presents itself and then I follow it without trying to think too much. For example, last summer in Brazil I slept in a pouso in Ouro Preto where it turns out Elizabeth Bishop had stayed. I felt such a hit from that room I’m going back alone this year to try to write in the room. We’ll see what this is about—I have a few mini-stirrings, but am ignoring them, as it’s early days. But I have the plane ticket, and a folder that says “Ouro Preto.”

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 love writer’s workshops. Of course I teach them, which is a great joy—both at writers’ conferences (this summer at West Chester) and at Stetson, where I run the creative writing program. But I take them whenever I can—In the last two years I’ve been in workshops led by Terese Svoboda, Brenda Hillman, and Jericho Brown. I live 40 minutes from the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Always incredibly interesting. I about died in Terese’s—didn’t realize it was a fiction workshop. I’m the one who left the drunk on the sofa in the group story. But why stop being a student?

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 we have an obligation not to treat people like they are stupid. As a first year student once said to me after a Mark Strand reading: “okay, I don’t understand it but I get it”. Everybody “gets it.”

Can we dispel anxiety? Only by not-dumbing down. Reading only non-fiction prose (the bulk of our educational materials) may inspire a certain lack of confidence in newcomers, and I’ve taught a few undergrad classes which seemed to be poetry re-hab for smart students who’d been treated poorly elsewhere. But act like we all “get it” because at some level we do. No explanation. No apology. Last night in “Reading the Lyric” A firefighter had gotten her fire station friends (who likewise claimed to hate poetry) to find a sonnet for her online. It was about penguin/human parenting…she had us read this as a class to her 5-month old baby. Don’t tell me I couldn’t ask this class to read the Waste Land out loud without notes. Baby Samantha gets the Thunder lines.

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 listen to music in the car and in the cardio room—usually only playlist rule is that it has to be in Portuguese. But my husband Rusty made a playlist of R&B hits from the year of the Civil Rights Act (1964) that Cyriaco and I used in an installation, and that’s now completely internalized.

But not when I work—I get the rhythms mixed up. My husband works with music, so I hear it in the distance during the day and evening. But I write early—before 9am—so it’s bird cacaphonics for the most part. School busses. Trash pick-up. The girl who crosses the lawn to the bus stop talking to friends on her phone.

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?

Well, I really am grateful for my friends who are writers and artists —as Lynn Chandhok said of AWP 2011: some days it’s “one loving face after another.” I like that we are so spread out but close via facebook, etc—have been reading Lowell’s and Bishop’s correspondence, and it sounds so familiar….and yet what a job it was for them to get letters to each other! I love the casual way we can pick up again—and rejoice at each other’s successes or feel envy. I love when someone get us to really re-think, as in Claudia Rankine’s recent call. Clan recognition. A happy thing.

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

Well, I have become a strength-training addict and go to classes 4 times a week. I have walked on the beach with a friend several times a week since 1994. The early morning or late afternoon beaches are never far from my poetry—all the blue and gold musing.

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?

You sound like a gym rat yourself—and maybe a CSA member! Rusty is a great cook and as one or another of our kids is usually a vegetarian he’s very resourceful and skilled. Loves doing it, thanks goodness, as I’m impatient and inattentive (bad kitchen combo). Ost of our local friends are foodies so I just let them do it. My contribution is putting fruit in different colored Pyrex bowls

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

I have the best—big chair, light coming in over a shoulder from a wall of window, and Florida outside.

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

Alison Granucci and I are working on a collaboration from my new book, EXIT ISLAND, due out in 2012—she dances, I read. Pretty interesting so far. Cyriaco is designing an artist’s book version of this book, and I’m thrilled—he has amazing ideas. Plus we have a piece due this summer and maybe something else in the fall.

But poetically I’m in a start-up stage again. I’ve been writing a little under the heading “social art” too early to say what these are yet. Maybe the Bishop/Ouro stuff is connected—and the hits of 1964.

Thanks to Terri for answering my questions. Please check out a sample of her work from her 2012 publication, Exit Island:

Ale’m

q. Where am I?
a. Ale’m (Beyond)
q. What am I tripping over when I try to wake up?
a. Rock underwater
a. Rock awash at any stage of the tide

Given that one eye, the forgetting one, plays it close to the vest, stays small. Given that from here no mar with its fault line horizon, no broken tide of the mouth.

No greeting but green. Fanned (given) but no veil, no dingy velvet curtain yanked to burlesque in a banana hat, Tem Banana na Banda. The ship depends on frapping line, flares, buoys, subjected people. Today’s left eye, opening first, depends on palmetto, the understory, what can be eaten without collapsing into some telenovela loop of how the bus left Arlington without her. How the man said my puppy’s in the car. A palmetto, one or more handed, fibers by the brown millions curled at the base. Green motionless wavings. The lid palpitating a little–not in memory’s exhaustive enumerations (palmetto), not in surprised-in-sand lanterns (palmetto), but in green (verde, verdade) the truth.

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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:
Nazis.

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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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 used to be more of a full-time poetry person than I am now – I wandered away somewhat to go to law school and spend […]

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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? Where is this crowd and how do I convince them to follow me around from reading to reading? I’m a poet because that’s what I went […]

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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’ve participated in enough poetry readings – on both sides of the microphone – to recognize what an act of generosity it is for anyone to […]

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