From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Poet Charles Jensen

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?

Along with writing poetry, I am an off-and-on arts administrator, an editor for a small press, a writing teacher, managing editor for a sporadic online literary journal, an arts advocate on the local and national level, and a consultant to small arts organizations. I wear a lot of hats, but I don’t necessarily consider them mutually exclusive from being a poet. Being a poet makes me a more meaningful arts advocate in some ways–I can speak to the power of writers in the schools, for example.

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 don’t like the limiting writing into discrete genres that are then put into opposition to each other. I think writing is most effective, most meaningful, when it cribs from many genres and traditions at once. To touch on the next part of your question, one book that had a profound effect on me and my writing was Claudia Rankine‘s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which explores toxic culture, grief, and racism in America–but from a very personal, subjective perspective. If you’ve ever seen her read/perform from that work, you know it’s a multimedia experience with video, with her voice adding a significant layer of meaning to the work. How we can divide those impulses into camps? I prefer to look at the tools available to me and then choose which ones are essential to whatever project I’m completing.

I have written a lot of work about the American experience of gay people, partly in an effort to establish some understanding of difference. Is it effective? I don’t know. But it was work I felt called to do. On the flipside, not all writers need to take on this kind of burden–there are many stories to be told, many ways to tell them.

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

I’m pretty sure none of them are secrets. I love some aspects of “low” culture like trash pop music. I aspire to find ways to sew that into my work as a poet somehow. I am also really connected to film, both as a narrative art and as a form. Physical aspects of film are closely related to the work of poetry for me. I give extensive thought to sequencing, montage, collage, and narrative. Any two things placed in juxtaposition create a narrative. There’s a great story of the Kuleshov Effect, wherein an audience’s construction of narrative changes when the same photo of a person (mostly expressionless) is interspersed with a shot of soup or a shot of a baby, for instance. In the soup narrative, the audience describes the man as looking hungry. In the baby narrative, he looks happy. That effect of context is something I carry with me–how do individual poems, individual lines, individual images speak to each other?

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 think it’s hard to find good poetry manuals because so many of them use floofy platitudes to describe the work: “The poet is the person who hears the elephants coming and makes the graves!” “The poet must plug in the lamp and make it sing!” Etc. That’s why I think it’s more effective to look further, at other art forms. The language of design–line, color, etc.–were very instructive to me in thinking about the physical presence of a poem on the page. Film theory, as I alluded to above, was important too–ideas of subjectivity, the lens/the eye/the I, “suture” (editing theory)…

I think everyone should read “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson. He is brilliant and his enthusiasm for writing is entirely palpable in this how-to “manual” that deconstructs his writing of his story “The Governor’s Ball.”

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 itself is none of those things. It is the attitude of the reader that determines what poetry is. The only way to dispel the myth is for people to encounter poetry on their own. I always liken it to television. If you had never seen television in your entire life and then one day turned it on, only to see Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, you might say, “Gosh, I hate television.” But most of us realize that television is a multi-dimensional form with various strategies aimed at different audiences. If you watch television long enough, you will find something that speaks to you. This is true, too, of poetry. But because the poetry world has a reputation of being closed, or because it is taught in high school as a “symbolic” art practiced by dead white people, it loses a lot of its contemporary allure. I think now, more than ever, poetry strives to be egalitarian in a lot of ways–people just need to look.

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 almost never listen to music when I write. I have basically no routines or rituals, either. There is a great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert in which she describes how the poet Ruth Stone explained her inspiration to write, that she could hear it coming through the fields like a train rushing at her, and she would run into the house and grab paper and a pen to get it down before it passed. That is similar to my experience of writing. It’s not as loud or as obvious as a train, but I am sensitive to a change in the way my interior monologue sounds, and that moment is the beginning of a poem. If I write it down, I am generally rewarded with a complete poem. If the moment passes, it can’t be recaptured (not always a bad thing, in my mind, as many of those I do catch end up in the “circular file” anyway). I do tend to revise poems for a very long time, though–often for years, and I often work best on revision once the work has been placed in the greater context of a full manuscript.

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

I find teaching is an essential way to stay engaged with writing on a level that is very enriching for me. For example, I confessed to a student recently, “I just don’t understand why people write in syllabics.” Four days later, I was experimenting with syllabics in a new poem. I said the same thing in a workshop but about iambic meter, and for three months wrote nearly every poem with an iambic meter–and really enjoyed it! In a lot of ways, teaching forces me to embrace and/or interrogate my own assumptions about poetry as I strive to encourage my students to make their own decisions and determinations. And oftentimes, our discussions help me see work in new ways, and for that I’m very grateful.

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 don’t get writer’s block. If I seem less inspired to write poetry, it is my creative brain telling me it is either time to revise old work or read books. Reading generally prompts me to write, and so does going to art museums (the Portrait Gallery is one of my favorites).

I cook dinner almost every night, which I suppose might be one of my few rituals. I have really come to enjoy it after years of feeling at sea or underprepared to complete new recipes. It has become a meditative time for me, and also a time when I become aware of the “physical making” of something, the hands-on work of bringing together various ingredients to develop flavors. I try to connect this to the practice of writing.

I also work out five days a week–a combination of yoga, cardio, and weightlifting. It’s a gift to myself, about an hour a day when my brain gets to check out while my body does the–forgive the pun–heavy lifting. That, too, is part of my writing practice. While my body exercises, I train my brain to associate and go off on its own to wherever it lands.

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

It is always a total disaster–I would change that! My apartment is very small and my desk is very big–about 30% of my living room. The window is behind me. The room gets almost no natural light. It is absolutely not my ideal writing space. In Phoenix, I had a loft apartment with 20′ ceilings, 17 feet of which were windows. My desk sat up in the loft area, overlooking the living room, facing all the windows and light. That was an amazing place to write. I miss it every day.

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

I have a lot going on! I’m putting the finishing touches on a new manuscript of poems and have been writing a few kinds of fiction–a novel for adults, a YA novel, and I recently finished a YA short story that will appear in an anthology for GLBT teenagers. I’m also very slowly writing new poems, but I feel like now would be a better time for me to read, so I have a big pile of books all ready to go!

Thanks to Charles for answering my questions. Please do check out a sample of his work below:

IT WAS OCTOBER
–for Matthew Shepard

I was love when I entered the bar
shivering in my thin t-shirt and ripped jeans
and I was love when I left that place, tugged along at the wrist
as though tied, with a man I did not know.

I was love there in the morning
when our sour kisses bore the peat of rotten leaves,
fallen October leaves. And it was love that we kissed anyway, not knowing each other’s names.

I was love in that bed
and I was love in the hall and down the stairs and into the freezing rain.

I was love with hands punched deep
into the pockets of a coat.
I was love coated in frozen rain.

Back home, I was love stripped of the cigarette-stung shirt, love pulling the stiff jeans from my legs.
I dried my hair and I was love.

It was October. What did I know of love that year,
shuddering in my nervous skin. Miles away, the boy was lashed to a fence and shivering.

Where that place turned red and the ground soaked through
with what he was, I was love.

What did I know of love then
but that it wasn’t enough.

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Poet Kathleen Winter

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 love living in the country, being outdoors. After growing up in Texas, I shipped out to Massachusetts after college, then to California and lately to Arizona to get an MFA at Arizona State University. My favorite job ever was night-shift in a Brookline bookstore, working with lots of other writers. I love the Pacific. I’m not religious; yoga is about as spiritual as I get. I’ve worked as a baker, tech editor, lawyer and writing teacher. I’m a sloooow reader. The last time I had a TV was in 1989–can’t take that stuff. Also, I’m looking for a teaching job! Within two hours drive of Glen Ellen, California.

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?

Poems can bring us into other people’s brains, so poetry can help enhance our empathy, tolerance, interest and understanding by helping us realize how much we have in common with the strangers who surround us. Also, reading poems can connect us to writers from the past, giving us a sense how they were similar mentally, although they lived hundreds or thousands of years before us and probably on different continents. That realization can make us more aware of ourselves as part of the project of the species, and the species and life on Earth as a continuum, and therefore, with any luck, make us more interested in acting in ways that will help folks in the future.

As far as modes of delivering poetry, what I’m most familiar with and practice is the written version, or the written version read aloud in a fairly non-performative way. But I heard Patricia Smith recite her poems in a performative style a few years ago and she was terrific, so maybe I need to get out more. I just heard singer and guitarist Michael Zapruder (Matthew’s brother) this month at Gulf Coast’s off-site AWP event, performing poems by some of the Wave Books poets, and I loved that show.

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

I’m obsessed with swimming, dogs, reading and writing. Also with trying to find, enhance, extend, maintain, and understand fluidity and human interconnections. Also, with getting rid of every single billboard in California, starting first with the ones on highways. (We’ll start there and then move east across the country.) Also, frozen yogurt and Tarkovsky movies.

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’m a junkie for school, so I’ve loved being in an MFA program, and all the workshops, classes, readings, conversations that involves. Before going back to school I was in several workshops with poets in Sonoma County, Calif.,  and at Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Those experiences helped keep poetry at the forefront while I was working as a lawyer.

The essays in Stephen Dobyns‘ collection “Best Words Best Order” and Jane Hirshfield’s “Nine Gates” have helped me to better understand what I want to accomplish technically, and how to go after it. Maybe more importantly, I find that reading good non-fiction can inspire me to immediately want to write. Donald Hall’s anthology of essays by poets, “Claims for Poetry” is useful but frustrating, because Hall includes far too few women poets and far too few poets of color.

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?

Since poetry is joy, knowledge, power, beauty, news (and entertainment), I think helping more people find poetry–either to make it themselves and/or to enjoy reading and hearing poems–is an important mission for poets. But that doesn’t mean we have to or should write in any certain way. I guess volunteering is the means. Making yourself available in communities where poetry doesn’t abound yet.

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 listen to music while I write or edit poems–it interferes with my ability to compose and to hear the rhythms, sound qualities of the words. If I’m reading, I prefer music without words, especially jazz, baroque, or ambient music. Favorites are the Impulse recording of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, the “Passages” CD by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, and anything connected with Jordi Saval.

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?

Many more writers now. ! Halleluja !

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

I swim, walk a dog, and try to eat green things in between the tortillas.

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 write when I’m seized by the energy of inspiration. For me, “inspiration” generally means intriguing words, sounds or phrases that came to mind (lots of times this happens when I’m trying to go to sleep, or have woken up in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning). So I think I start lots of times with the music of language. A bit less frequently, an image or idea or possible “subject matter” will occur to me and get me started. Sometimes running or swimming will kick me into the writing zone. Food usually doesn’t work (too distracting!)

I’m not so great about overcoming writer’s block . . . I guess I just wait it out, in hope and faith that the poems will start again. I’ve noticed over years of writing that my periods of writing are very cyclical: weeks or months of intense creativity, followed by a fallow time. So far, thankfully, the words have always come back, eventually.

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

Now, while I’m finishing up the last semester of the MFA program in Tempe, I write in a rented room in a house that’s two states to the east of the house in California where my partner and dog live. So the ideal writing space is back in Glen Ellen with Finnegan lounging next to me in the ratty dog bed. My desk right now is two filing cabinets with a board across them; I’m looking at drywall. Back home I often write in bed, and look out through the windows at douglas firs, toyon, and madrone trees.

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

I’m trying to publish my first full book manuscript, “Nostalgia for the Criminal Past,” which is free verse lyrics with a few prose poems mixed in, and maybe four or five poems (loosely) written in form. The second book I’m working on now has a double crown of sonnets and then a lot of experimental (at least for me) style poems, so I’m trying to figure out if all these poems can live together in one book.

Thanks to Kathleen for answering my questions. Please check out her sample poem:

Wrong Sonnet:  Multiplicity

My husband asks Why don’t you write a poem
about why you like Virginia Woolf when
nobody else does.
The excruciating detail of a marriage
is what I like, I say, the drifting
in and out of Clarissa’s mind and into Peter’s,
how they notice the flow of London traffic
as a living animal, how they feel
themselves distributed in sub-atomic
bits into each other and over the city’s squares
and towers, out into the hedgerows, the waves.
But Clarissa wasn’t married to Peter
he would say, if he’d read it, she was
married to Richard. And I’d say
maybe she was, maybe she was.

–Previously published in The New Republic.

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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 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 […]

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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 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 […]

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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 […]

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