Tim Seibles is a critically and nationally acclaimed Poet as well as the author of five collections of poetry, most recently, Fast Animal (Etruscan Press, 2012).
Note this interview was conducted in May of 2014. Tim Seibles has very recently been appointed Poet Laureate of Virginia for the 2016-2018 term.
He has been honored with an Open Voice Award, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and in 2012 was nominated for a National Book Award. Seibles makes his home in Norfolk, Virginia where he is a professor of English and creative writing at Old Dominion University, as well as teaching in the Stonecoast MFA Program for Creative Writing. He also teaches workshops for Cave Canem. Click here to learn more about or order Tim’s latest collection of work, “Fast Animal.
Featured Fridays: Between Poets is intended to highlight local poets you should know about through candid conversation between two poets in an interview format. This Week: Jeff Hewitt interviews Tim Seibles.
Jeff Hewitt: What are you into now?
Tim Seibles: Well, trying to finish the school year, finish the semester.
What are you..? You’re with the MFA program over at ODU, aren’t you?
Right, but you know you teach other credits too. Like, this semester I’m teaching two undergrad classes, a beginning workshop and then an advanced workshop. The advanced workshop is all poets and poetry, young maniacs, and the beginning workshop is all the genres. You know – fiction, non fiction, poetry and playwriting. So I give them a chance to sample everything and see if some of them might be able to get hooked on something, and some of them won’t. Some of them will just take the workshop and that’ll be it.
[image | John Doucette]
Sophomores, probably. I don’t think there’ll be freshmen, really. Yeah, sophomores. The ones who get hooked on something, they’ll take another workshop more focused, like the next workshop will be just on fiction or just on poetry or just on nonfiction. We don’t have any playwriting anymore. We had a guy for playwriting but the interest was small enough that it didn’t work out. Which is a shame, because playwriting’s kinda… It can be kinda cool. Anyway, whatever. But, um..
Oh yeah, yeah. I know. But you’d think that playwriting was just a natural part of creative writing. You’d think that they would fold it into it. I was a BFA Performance Directing Major, so, uh, they gave us script analysis and playwriting as part of the actual theatre curriculum.
Well, maybe that’s where it’s happening, but it didn’t. We had the guy who presumably came to teach the playwriting, but it just didn’t take off for whatever reason. But, uh, so they get to sample all the genres and it’s kinda cool. Some of them, you know, you run into some kids who are just, really, amazingly just talented.
And there are other students who are less so but maybe they want to work hard. You never know. You can’t tell who’s gonna do anything because you don’t know what’s inside them. But it’s fun. I like to see the young, the youngest ones or the kids who don’t know much at all about what they really want and see them discover something.
See something exploratory going on.
Yeah, well they’re.. I have them reading all kinds of poems, all kind of plays, all kinds of stories and some nonfiction stuff. And most of them, because as you probably know, a lot of the kids now are not avid readers. They’ve never really had to read stuff so they’re like – or they’ve read as little as possible and so sometimes they think, wow ya know? This is beautiful, this is pretty good!
Do you think it’s that uncommon for kids to read now? I mean my child, my daughter – she reads quite a bit.
Well that’s cause you’re her pop!
Well, yeah. But I’m at the point now where I’m having trouble finding stuff that’s… I’ve run out of books, to a degree, that are age appropriate, but…
How old is she now?
She’s twelve now.
Yeah, that’s pretty young.
So it’s, I mean, it’s starting to get to the point…I had no supervision of my reading, when I was a kid. For some reason, my middle school library had a copy of The Shining in it. Stuff like that. I mean, they just didn’t, I don’t know why it is, there wasn’t like the parental watchdogs weren’t there and so there were books. I read a lot of Heinlein, and a lot of adult Heinlein at a point when I probably shouldn’t have been reading it, but it kinda..
It ruined ya, it ruined ya!
Yeah, it might have at that.
I guess you could always take her to a bookstore and let her just paw around until she found something she liked, I guess. I mean, I don’t know, Prince Books has a pretty good young adult section downtown.
But, I don’t have a problem with her reading, getting her to write is like pulling teeth. I don’t know, it’s hard to remember back to that point.. I mean, I know I was writing. I know I was writing poetry when I was like, nine or ten.
Yeah I always liked to write.
Let’s do the biographical stuff. What year were you born?
I was born in 1955 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Where in Philadelphia?
Oh, I grew up in Germantown, Mount Aerie. A town right around that area, cause half the people say, oh this is Mount Aerie and half the people say, oh this is Germantown, so somewhere in there.
1955? So you were a teenager in the 70s?
Yeah yeah, I turned 15 in 1970 so I was 13 or 14 in the 60s. But not old enough to be active in any way in the 60s culture except as an observer.
You came up in the Philadelphia public school system?
Yeah, until the gang thing got so rough and my brother barely missed being shot in the hall at Germantown High School and my parents said, “Yeah.. You’re not going to any more public schools.” So I ended up at Germantown Lutheran Academy. Which was probably a blessing in disguise. I mean, at the time I wasn’t too happy about it. One is not thrilled as a kid to be obliged to be in a religious school. At least, I wasn’t.
Was there a lot of religious instruction?
Well, we had chapel every day. I mean, you had religion in classes, but. They forced it, but not exclusively, but yeah, you spent your time with the hymnals and stuff.
So you graduated from Germantown Lutheran?
Actually I did not. I was not… Um. Not invited back for my senior year.
I’d become too subversive, I suppose. You know, my main, my heart’s blood was football as a teenager. I liked sports in general but football was what I really wanted to do. Um, but I was a pretty mild mannered kid, you know. I was not…
I mean, we’re talking Philadelphia in the 70s.
Yeah, 60s and 70s. Street gangs, corner gangs, more than anything else. Not the drug based gangs that are a lot of places now. They were just corner gangs.
So you’ve gotta have a pretty good memory of like, Jim Crow and stuff like that?
Well, no. That would be my parents.
Philadelphia? Jim Crow? Nah.
Not so much?
Nah. Now, in Mississippi? Yes. I had a roommate in college from Mississippi. He saw Jim Crow up close.
Where did you go to college?
I went to SMU, Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Truthfully? Because I wanted to play football where Jerry LeVias had played football. I played a little, but uh, he was, like, one of my idols and I thought, “I’m gonna be an SMU Mustang like Jerry LeVias!”
And were you writing at this point?
Not really, I mean, I loved being assigned poetry to read but I hadn’t… If you asked me when I was 18 what I wanted to do I’d say, I’ll play football right now. That’s what I would have told you. And then I took a workshop as a sophomore and the guy who was teaching it was Michael Ryan who had – he’d won a big award and was a real lunatic. A great, passionate teacher. And after one semester with him I was like, that’s it! Poetry! And that’s when it started, I was 19.
What was the poetry that hooked you?
Oh man, what he would do is he would read all kinds of people…you know, Edson, uh, Berryman. You name it! He would just read, every beginning of every class he would just read some poems to us, and then we’d do, you know, writing assignments.
Berryman was a contemporary poet at that point?
Well, he was dead.
Oh, was he? Berryman? Hm…
Oh yeah, he was dead. He committed suicide. Yeah, he was gone.
I feel like he lived longer but I must be wrong.
Yeah. Berryman killed himself and his father had killed himself, and that’s what Ryan, he was always talking about that. So no, he was no longer, he might have been contemporary almost but he wasn’t alive anymore. Um, people like Berryman, Russell Edson. Um, let me see, who were the people Ryan read? He read the works of a lot of guys he’d gone to school with, you know, people like James Tate, um, Mark Strand was one of his teachers, you know, so people like that. But I didn’t know very much at all about female poetry except people like Nikki Giovanni.
So most of the stuff I was really familiar with at the time were more contemporary, political edged poems. Now, I was aware of the Harlem renaissance and a lot of the poetry of that era but that wasn’t my era so I didn’t think about it a lot. I mean, it was in me cause my mom made damn sure it was gonna be in me but the stuff that I listened to would have been Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, um, Giovanni’s Ego Tripping, that’s the one poem I remember hearing on the radio, on black radio at the time.
Baraka… Baraka was still LeRoi Jones.
Was he still LeRoi Jones at that point?
He just changed, he’s changing.. He becomes Baraka probably while I’m in college.
It took me years to actually realize that Amiri Baraka and LeRoi Jones were the same person, because I came up on the Beats. When I came up, that was what got me into it.
Yeah, because he was with that. I remember that. But yeah, I read, um, what was it, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and, um, The Dead Lecturer. But up till then they were Jones books, you know. Very strange, difficult poems, I think. I mean, I liked them but then I understood them less. Now I understand them a little more but they’re still damn hard poems. But I discovered them, you know, in college. It wasn’t like I was reading LeRoi Jones in high school or anything like that. A lot of the poets, people that I thought of as poets – you know, would have been hardcore political poets in a lot of respects. Certainly The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, and the one poem I knew by Nikki Giovanni. Political poets, you know.
Nikki Giovanni was fairly, pretty heavily active in activism at that point.
The rights movement, yeah. As was Gil and I’m sure Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets would have all been seen as activists.
Are any of the Last Poets still alive?
I think so. But I don’t know, I don’t know where they are but I think so.
I know they were kicking it with Baraka on a tour a few years back.
Yeah, I think so. I think a couple of them may still be around but I don’t know for sure.
So, you get out of college and then what?
The minute I got out of college I got… I worked as a, first in a… What do they call it? A hi-fi store. I was a salesman at a hi-fi store for a while.
What is that?
You know, when you’re selling like, radios and cd players, hi-fi.
Oh, hi-fi! I thought you said “high five.” Like people just pay you to high five them.
Oh no, no. They didn’t even have high fives yet. They didn’t exist!
So you had those little, the wooden cabinet things with the record player and the eight-track. Okay.
Yeah, yeah, that’s it.
I remember those.
The eight-track was already on its way out then. You’ve gotta remember, eight-track didn’t last very long in the world, um, so yeah, yeah, selling big speakers and all that stuff, but I’m no salesman. I didn’t care about that stuff.
Did you go back to Philly?
No, I was still in Dallas. I’ve never lived in Philly since I left, never gone back. I’ve been back many times but never to live. Um, so yeah, I sold hi-fis for a while, like about three months. I figured out pretty quickly I was no salesman. And I knew. You have to be really into that to be, to make money on commission, you have to be really into it, try to sell people stuff they don’t need. And there were dudes I worked with, man, they didn’t care who you were. If you were 80 years old they’d try to sell you the biggest stereo in the fucking building. And I didn’t have that kind of mentality. I’m like, if you’re an old lady, get this little thing it’s fine. But you have to be kind of cutthroat and all about the money all the time and I just didn’t have that. I just didn’t have that in me really so much. And so then I started substitute teaching, and got paid $24 a day.
It’s not that much more now, it’s like $80 a day.
Yeah yeah, which doesn’t amount to a hell of a lot I guess. But other than that, let’s see, the second year I was subbing, there was a teacher who never came back and that’s how I got my first, my very first teaching job high school.
Yeah, back then you didn’t actually have to do.. like uh, like now – you have to actually get a teaching certificate, stuff like that?
Oh, I was certified, I had all that stuff. I was an English major and I got certified to teach also. Oh yeah, oh god I wish you didn’t have to do it. I didn’t know you had to do it of course until I said, he I might want to teach, and my mom said, do you know anything about being certified to teach in Texas?, and I was like, what could that possibly mean? So I did, I was certified and, so I taught high school for 10 years after that, then I got a fellowship to Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, you know, they have this, it’s an artists’ colony basically, with 10 poets, 10 writers I should say 10 writers and 10 visual artists and they had this little compound in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I applied for one and got in.
So while you’re teaching high school, you’re writing?
Oh yeah yeah yeah, I’m writing all the time! Writing on weekends. All the time during the summer.
Working on a book?
Well, I’m writing lots of poems, hoping that they’ll add up to a book, you know. I mean, I didn’t have a clear concept of that really. My book, let me see, I’m thirty-three when Body Moves comes out so I spent probably all my twenties writing poems, sending them out, getting them rejected, most of them. Some got, ya know bit by bit, some got accepted. But mostly you get rejections and then inch by inch I’m putting books together and sending them to contests. Not winning, I was a finalist, I was a runner-up in some small contest in New Mexico, that was cool.
But I’m glad that book didn’t win, actually. Ya know, I was a young poet and they just weren’t- I mean, there was some interesting stuff going on I guess, but they just weren’t that good. And then I sent a manuscript called Body Moves, which is the name of the first book, to a small press in San Antonio, a guy named David Bowen. He’s long gone now. He had been talking to a friend of mine about wanting to add poetry, maybe do some books of poetry for this press.
He had been doing all these books on adoption, that was his thing, books on adoption. Probably sold really well, whatever. He said, “I’m thinking about doing some books on poems, do you know any poets?” And my friend called me and said, send this guy your book! I said, “okay” fully expecting to have it rejected cause I’d sent it around a little bit already and people’d say, “oh, interesting, but we’re not publishing poetry till, ya know, the year 3000” or “we have too many books already ahead” by.. you know – whoever. That’s just part of it.
So this guy writes me back and says, “we’d like to publish your book” in this letter. But yeah, sure enough, so my first book came out of Corona Press. He screwed up the color on the first cover so it was Good and Plenty pink instead of crimson…it was Good and Plenty pink with a white figure on it and I’m like, “That looks like Good and Plenty, that’s what it looks like.” But anyway, he had made 700 copies like that so we had to sell them. And they sold, ya know? It went into about like, 7 or 8 printings, it was great, lot of fun.
This would have been, what, the early 80s?
From 88, it comes out in ’88 and it stays in print until like, 2002 area.
I wanna say I have a copy.
You might, you could. I mean, now it’s back in print. Carnegie Melon reprinted it as a contemporary classic, which I think is very funny. Yeah, it’s a classic alright. Yeah, so it’s back out now. But you could have a copy. When I first came here it was still in print so I was probably walking around hawking them in one way or another. So yeah, yeah, so that’s where it starts. And then, ya know, I just never thought I’d stop writing poetry. I just figured I would just be writing poems. I was gonna write, and I was gonna read them, for free, whatever, ya know. And that’s what I did for years and years and years, I just read wherever. And, then I got the, I entered the Cleveland University Press. They have a, they used to have it. Every year they’d publish, they’d have this contest and they’d publish three or four manuscripts every year. And I entered that. And again, you think, ya know, I like my writing. And by this time I’d gone to graduate school, so um, this was…I’m finishing graduate school.
Where’d you go to graduate school?
Vermont College. It was a low residential program. I went up there for twelve days every six months. It was great, that was one of my favorite experiences as a student in life! So I was just about finished –
This was for, this would be for an MFA?
Yeah, in poetry, right. And this was just about, just shortly after I graduated. Or, I was almost graduated. Then, I got the phone call, “ Yours is one of four books selected to be published by our press.” And I was with them from 1992 until…they did Buffalo Head Solos in 2004. And they still have books of mine, so I’m still with them, but I’m publishing with Etruscan now because of the guy Dumanis, who had taken over the editors position, didn’t like Fast Animal. “Oh, this book doesn’t work. The work is uneven.”
And I tried to, I wrote him a letter saying, “Well, what you might see as uneven is just, I’m trying to do different kinds of poems in the same book. I’m not trying to make all the poems be the same kind of work. I’m trying to change tones, change shapes…” and he didn’t want it. So, I said, I’m just gonna publish it myself. I said, I’m not gonna wait ten years like some of my friends are. They’re like, “oh I’m just gonna wait until some one wants it…” Hell with that! I’m gonna publish this book. If no one wants it then I can. Cause it was finished, far as I was concerned. But a friend of mine knew someone at Etruscan Press and said to them, “Would you read this guy’s work?” And I didn’t know she was doing this, and she said, “Send me a copy of your manuscript. I think I have a friend at Etruscan who will read it”
And I said sure, I mean, I didn’t expect much. And then they did it and they turned it out in… eighteen months? They put it out. And then that book, of course, gets in the finalists for the National Book Award, which is very funny to me because. Dumanis, you know.. Turned it down.
Let’s talk about that process a little bit. How does a book… see, I came up as a street poet. There was no submitting. I submitted to Kinko’s. We used to go to Kinko’s at like, 2 in the morning and photocopy. We’d print them out on a laser printer and staple them together and we had these 3 dollar, 4 dollar books.
I did some of that in the 80s. I sure did, before my first book came out! I sure did stuff like that!
And then we’d hit the scene and we’d do readings and we’d be out there hawking our books- “Three dollars! Three dollars! Like that poem? It’s in this book! Three dollars!” And I’d eat on that.
Exactly. We were doing the same thing in Dallas! I didn’t eat on it, but we were doing the same thing in Dallas. Ya know, Xeroxing stuff, saddle stapling stuff, all that stuff.
I mean, the book I have that was technically published was published by a press I ended up being a partner in. So, I mean, I know how, it’s very difficult for me to tell what is a…like, the independent press award thing that they do, what’s it called? The…any independent press can submit, like, a list of names to it…I forget the name of it. Pushcart?
The Pushcart Prize.
But it just seems, it’s hard to tell what is..
Well, Pushcart, man. You can be nominated for a Pushcart prize, I mean. There’s so many people who are nominated! I’ve been nominated a bunch of times, I’ve never won.
And it just, it doesn’t mean anything almost, it seems like..
Doesn’t mean much to me. Like, at first, when you first get the letter “You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart prize.” I mean, I was probably, thirty-five. And I thought, “Wow, that’s something!” Then you realize everybody’s been nominated.
And there’s what, maybe, I think there’s like, eight people on the selection board for that?
Yeah Something like that.
There’s no freakin’ way they read all those books!
No, and there’s no way they read all the – I mean, the Pushcart I’m talking about was for individual poems and there’s no way they read all the poems either. So, I’m sure they probably look for familiar names. And some of them are maybe more serious than others, they may read a lot, but there’s too many poems… too many.
It just seems like there’s so many of these awards out there. But the National Book Award is much more prestigious.
Yeah, at least, ya know.. Well, I mean yes. That’s one of my proud moments, ya know?
How did your book get submitted, did your publisher submit it?
Yes, yes. And they just…you can only submit the books for a particular year. Like, mine was 2012 and so my book went in for that year. And so, it’s like anything else, though. You have five judges, and um, I mean, ya know, only a knucklehead would expect to be a finalist. I just thought, whatever you submit whatever. I like my book. I like my work, I do. I like it. I think it’s fine. Ya know what I mean? You like your work.
Yeah, most poets I know, we’re generally fans of our own work. Cause we wrote it.
I mean, I find old poems all the time & I’m like, hey that’s pretty good!
Yeah -“That’s not bad!” But, you don’t know how people are gonna see your work, so I’m just like, yeah, whatever, submit it or not, ya know. And then eventually…I mean, I was late getting the call because they called me at home and I was out of town. But eventually, I got the call and I was like, wow finalist for the National Book Award? It was very weird.
And do you have someone that manages…do you have an agent?
No. I guess I could have an agent, cause there are guys who probably haven’t published as much as I have without an agent. But I just never really wanted an agent. I mean, for one thing, you have to pay your agent like, 15 or 20 percent of all your gigs? Why would I do that? Why? Well, if you’re suffering without it… I mean, if you have a good agent, then you could, of course, conceivably you could get more work so the money that you’re paying them would be offset by the amount of work you’re getting but I get a reasonable amount of work. I’m happy to have people call me directly or email me, that’s fine, ya know. I don’t need to have someone else doing that stuff.
I mean, maybe if I became super famous. Like if I had won the National Book Award maybe you’d need one then. Maybe you’d have to have someone to deal with it, but ya know. I do okay with it. People want to hear me read or whatever they call me or email me or whatever…and mostly I get the messages. Sometimes I miss them but if they really wanna reach me, ya know, they keep trying till they reach me. And so it’s been fine, it’s been fun. And certainly being a finalist for the National Book Award makes you a little more visible nationally…it just makes you visible.
I know when I was coming up and doing the perfomance-slam-slash-whatever scene, we used to talk about how there were basically four levels of performance poetry, as far as getting paid. There were tiers. First tier was basically going around doing open mics and whatever, second tier is you’re starting to get some readings at your local colleges, you’re getting some regional stuff and you might be starting to get paid. Third tier is where most people are, that’s where your bigger slam poets are, where Saul Williams is. Third tier you’re getting anywhere from $1500 to three grand a reading. And then there’s a big leap to that fourth tier.
Yeah, those are the superstars.
Ya know, your Maya Angelou, your Nikki Giovanni. But you seem to be kind of in between that third and fourth tier.
Yeah, I guess. I’m paid pretty well. But I also, like I just did a free reading in Williamsburg Thursday night. I mean, I’m still doing stuff like that cause I want to do readings. I like to read to people. But yeah yeah yeah, so I can get a nice chunk of change from colleges and some organizations, ya know? And that’s nice, of course.
Did you see a big bump from the National Book Review? The people who maybe hadn’t heard of you maybe?
I do think that’s true.
I mean, you’ve published in places like Rattle, so your name’s out there.
Yeah yeah, so I’m out there. I think what happens is…it’s like with anything else. When your name is affiliated with a prestigious award, even as a finalist, not a winner, even, people just look at your work differently. It’s like when you’re a poet before you’ve published a book and after you’ve published a book. You’re the same person. The poems are the same poems. But people are like, “oh it’s a book now, so you must be real” ya know?
That’s so hard to tell now with self publishing.
Oh yeah yeah yeah, you’re right. That’s a much blurrier line now.
There’s a lot of cats that I see who have made a career and, as far as I can tell, maybe I’m just not seeing something, but cannot write their way out of a paper bag.
Yeah, you can do that. When I was coming along this was before all that self publishing.
They’ve got a collection of haiku and I’m like, “Um.. This isn’t haiku…”
I know, I know.
Those aren’t haikus. Which you will see me on Facebook, like once a week I’m telling somebody that they don’t understand what a haiku is.
But yeah man, so I just figure, ya know, people, once you get anointed in some way by some-in some official way, people just look at your work differently. They’ll read your books in ways that they wouldn’t have before, they’ll reread your books because “he was a finalist in the National Book Awards, shit there must be something going on.” So it was great. I sold a lot of copies of Fast Animal…I mean, for a poet. Not for a novelist!
And what does that, what is a lot of copies for a book?
That would mean like, in that year, the year that I was nominated, it was fall of 2012…between fall of 2012 and probably April 2012 I might have sold 2,000 books, which is unheard of for a poetry book. For me.
That’s great. If I sell a hundred copies of one of my titles, as far as through the press, if I sell a hundred to two hundred copies, that’s a successful – that’s financially successful because of print on demand where you’re able to do that, but that’s a financially successful poetry book. Two thousand copies is fantastic.
And plus, you’re talking about a mid-sized press, They probably have a lot of offers. But it’s a mid sized press so it’s nice to make some money for them.
So who’s buying the books?
Well, people who heard about them. A lot of people just hear your name on that list, see your name on that list. Those five finalists? People just go buy the books. They just buy all five finalists’ books, they just buy them. That’s part of it. And of course, traveling to readings, hoping you make some converts or inspire some interest by your readings and your presence. Yeah, so you have that. You have the students who are listening. Or if you’re in a cultural center or you’re doing a thing that’s not in a college scene, hopefully there’s some people there who really dig it and they’ll buy books. But a lot of the sales for Fast Animal came because people saw my name on the finalist list and said, “oh shit, something must be going on here.” So it just sold a lot. It’s still selling because of it!
Typically…I’m always interested in who it is that’s reading poetry books. Because it seems to me, in this day and age, that it’s mostly other poets who are reading it.
A lot of poets. If they’re not poets they may be writers of other genres but they also read poetry.
Right. At a reading when I sell a book it’s generally other poets who are buying the book, younger poets that are –
Yeah. Or older people.
Yes. There’s that. Truthfully I don’t have a clear sense of my demographic, but yeah. I think many, many people who buy all books, but my books also, are either aspiring writers themselves, older people who dig poetry, who have dug poetry for a while, and then, you do run into people, and I have, who just like poetry. They’re not writers or anything, they just buy books, ya know, which is always wonderful to me.
Those are God’s children.
It’d be really weird if only musicians bought records of music, if only musicians bought CDs, that’d be bizarre, right?
But you see that a lot now, I mean, especially with the whole desktop publishing revolution, ya know. Again you see, you see how poetry sells. A best selling book of poetry might sell three, four, five thousand copies.
Unless you’re Billy Collins. In which case it’s seventy thousand copies.
Get out of here.. Does he sell that many?
Yes. It’s crazy!
But still, I could walk into MacArthur Center with a bagful of rocks and throw them all day and not hit somebody who knows who Billy Collins is.
You are right! You could stay there all day and throw rocks and not hit anybody! But there are enough. Americans… There are 300 million Americans.
If I can just search on Google for poetry, I get something like, 150 million hits.
So where is the disconnect between people who are writing poetry…cause everybody writes poetry, right?
Many many people do. Some do not. I’ve run into my fair share of people who wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. But most people I find, if you talk to them, most people I run into, they’ll go, “well I wrote a poem once.” They used to write, yes. I thought you meant as in, ongoing. I guess most everyone has at least written a couple poems. But many, as you know, most people are not serious about it.
Where is the disconnect between people who wrote a poem and people who read poetry?
Well, for me, the problem is the way poetry’s taught. I think we’ve probably talked about this before but yeah, the way poetry’s taught. Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s just that many, many people who teach English themselves do not love books, they don’t love books in general, they especially don’t love poetry or they’re intimidated by poetry because they themselves never quite got it, so they teach it like, “We’ll do this quick unit and them we’ll just move on.” Ya know, they don’t teach it in such a way that the students can learn how to love poetry.
What are the poems that get taught in schools now?
Now, of course, I haven’t taught high school in a long time, so I would be the wrong person to ask.. but I would imagine you’re still gonna get the standards. You’re gonna get, ya know, “O Captain, My Captain.” You might get, what is it, “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Yeah, you might get that.
You think they’re teaching Tennyson now?
God knows…I’m just thinking.
I think that I was taught that. There was Tennyson, there was probably some Ben Johnson…one of Shakespeare’s sonnets…you get some Langston Hughes.
Yeah, my impression is that not much has changed in all the years. I could be wrong, now. The thing is, I haven’t taught high school in a long time.
I’m just thinking back to what I got. I mean, granted, I’m having to separate cause I actually took a World Literature class, which is where I actually got introduced into the beats. Donna Conover was my teacher. And she was like, an unrepentant hippie. And so she made sure she taught- and I don’t know how the hell she got this book into… She had this little, like, mimeographed book that she had put together, and there was some Ferlinghetti in there, I think there was some Ginsberg, um…John Gardner’s Grendel, which I’m like, “how the fuck did she get Grendel into a high school English class?”
Wow. I bet she wasn’t really goin’ into the principal’s office, saying, “Hey this is what I’m teaching. Is that fine?”
I don’t know what the hell was going on. I’m sure she wasn’t, but it was awesome. Do you think that those poems- your Whitman, your Tennyson – do you think those poems should be being taught now?
I think you can teach any poem you want, but I think they should be taught in conjunction with contemporary poets. Because the students are gonna identify with voices that sound familiar long before they listen to poets whose diction and whose vocal gestures just sound foreign, ya know. They’re just not gonna hear them very well. So that would be my approach always, to teach contemporaries and then go backwards and say, “well look at the influence between.” For example, Howl and some of the shit that’s in I Sing the Body Electric. Look how these things are in various ways related.
Oh sure. Ginsberg is absolutely a devotee of Whitman.
Yeah. And that’s how you would, just as an example, for me that’s how I would introduce them.
Although Howl is a little dated, now.
Oh now? Yeah.
Once you get past like, the first 20 or 30 lines, it becomes, it starts to become a little bit…
But there’s enough wild shit in there that students are still astonished at that it could be a poem, ya know? And so then you try to link, like Ginsberg, for example, to Whitman. I mean, that’s how I would do it. I would teach from the present backwards, not from the past forwards. Because you’re gonna lose a lot of students given the timing. Now, a hundred years ago, I don’t know, maybe people were just into reading because there wasn’t 83 other kinds of entertainment all around. But now, you’re gonna have to do something that hooks students. For me, I think you have to hook students kind of quickly. So, you could teach e.e. cummings. There’s some wild & crazy shit that he’s written. He’s not a contemporary but he still has some wild stuff.
Cummings is far enough out there that I think he’s kind of timeless.
Oh yeah, he’s a strange one. Hughes you can always toss in, yeah. You can toss some Hughes in there, toss some Sexton in there. I mean, there are people you could teach that are “established” that I think would still have some allure for the younger guys and girls. And then you can say, “But check out what Ben Johnson did. Check out what Sappho wrote. Check out, check these things out and then start to… And then also, if you approach poems as communal meeting places as opposed to thing you’ve gotta get right. “Do you understand this poem? If you don’t, you probably need to understand that symbol means this and iambic pentameter is that…” No one cares about that shit. What you want is for the people, the students to feel that in some way they can talk back to the poem.
Do you think that form has a place now?
Oh sure, why not? I mean, if you can make it sing, man, everything has a place! Long as you can make it sing. If you wanna write really rigid, stiff forms, it’s probably not gonna move that many people. Who knows. I mean, I love villanelles, but of course I’m trying to infuse them with blues in a certain kind of way. That’s my thing. But I think, whatever people can hear, if people can hear their own voices to one degree or another in something, they’ll talk back. If they can’t hear it, they won’t!
I mean, think about Ashbery. Now, he’s free verse, but most people don’t know what the fuck Ashbery’s trying to talk about. And in fact, I would go so far is to say that at times, he’s intentionally not talking about shit! And so, for me, it’s really annoying because people who don’t know anything about poetry run into someone like Ashbery- and there are other Ashberys out there- and think, “oh, poetry. It’s too weird. I don’t understand it.” And I’m like, but there are all these other poets who are actually trying to talk to people, or talk honestly about life.
It seems to me like the preponderance of contemporary poetry is prose poems.
Yeah, and it’s really, I think, more approachable with regard to content.
I mean, I love Ashbery because of the sound play.
Yeah, well that you can love that about him. But as I said, a lot of the time I’m annoyed with him because I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, truthfully.
To be fair, I don’t think Ashbery cares, and I don’t know that that can be laid at his feet.
Well I’m just saying it’s troubling to me because of the ways in which people may judge poetry in light of such work. But he can do whatever the hell he wants. He’s WAY more famous than I am. I’m just saying for me, what makes poetry relevant, and what I believe will make it matter more in this culture is its accessibility. And if you’re writing shit that people don’t understand, they just turn away.
Yeah but more often than now now, if a person’s going to… a contemporary American is going to run into a poem on a stage more likely than on a page.
I agree. And that’s the spoken word scene, absolutely.
I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Not enough spoken word poets.. You know.. necessarily understand what they’re doing?
I have mixed feelings about it too, but ya know, there are bad spoken word poets. And there are bad poets on the page. Ya know, you’re hoping that people run into the good stuff, that’s all you can hope for.
It’s generally more obvious on the page.
Yeah, yeah it can be more obvious on the page. Of course, we know who’s reading because if you don’t know what the hell you’re reading you don’t know what’s bullshit. But yeah, I mean, that’s all you can do is hope that the people run into the good stuff because there’s plenty of crap out there. I don’t care, even people with “names,” I’ve seen books and I’m thinking, “unless you knew somebody, there’s no way in hell this book would have gotten published!” You know what I mean? They had to be friends with the publisher or some shit.
Well, with the self-publishing, there is no barrier. There’s no barrier to entry anymore.
There is self-publishing. But even with professional publishing, where you are paid for your work, there’s still stuff out there that I think is just not very good, ya know? So what I hope – I mean you hope.. to not be a part of what’s not good. That’s the first thing. But secondly, you’re just hoping that the general populous, insofar as their interest is in poetry, they hear good stuff. They hear you, rather than some spoonhead on the mic. Or maybe they hear somebody like.
There’s a poet I like named Mark Halliday, you might know who he is, ya know, hear him rather than John Yau, who is interesting but really hard to understand. And I’m thinking, that’s what you hope, that people are gonna have more experiences where the words have some meaning to them, or have some resonance, whatever that might mean to them, rather than running into more poetry that they don’t give a shit about. That’s what you hope, right? But there’s no way to stop bad shit from being printed. Or performed. There’s no way to stop it.
Well, I mean, there’s a thing I’m watching…I quit performing. I was just bored with it. I pretty much…I found myself writing to the audience and I was writing to their reaction instead of writing to write. Instead of exploring whatever it was I wanted to explore, I was writing to perform. And again, I’m a theatre performance major. I’m a trained actor. I can read a cake recipe on the stage…
And make it sound exciting.
Exactly. Doesn’t mean it’s any good.
It just felt like, after a while…so I stopped. I mean, to me- and this was amusing to me- the quickest way to enter semi-retirement as a performance poet is to start charging. Suddenly people stop asking you to read. And so I went from doing…I went from reading every weekend to doing three or four readings a year. Where I would only do readings if it was somebody I had a lot of love for, a charity event or something like that, or someone was paying me. And I’d get a couple paid gigs here and there, but for the most part, after a while you start to disappear from the scene. Nobody knows who I am anymore.
Well some of us do. But I know what you mean. You mean, “out there.” I gotcha.
Yeah, the scene goes on. I went out to The Venue, I guess…what, maybe two months ago, and I heard Jorge Mendez. Do you know Jorge? You should meet George. You’d like his work, yeah. He’s the host of V35 right now. He’s very good. But the open mics… It’s tricky. I hosted open mic for over ten years and I was burnt out.
That’s a long fucking time. That’s a long time, man.
I heard so much bad poetry! But the open mics are the area where the people who maybe aren’t so good get a chance to put some training wheels on and get some feedback and maybe start to write.
Absolutely. Yeah, I have no beef with open mics. You just assume that the quality’s gonna be…you know.
There might be…see, I’m shocked by the quality at V35. I went out, just kind of randomly, heard about five or six poets and I was like, wow.
Is that the one on Granby?
It’s on 35th Street. Near the corner of 35th and Newport.
Not “The Venue?”
Yeah, “The Venue.”
The Venue! That’s what you’re talking about! Oh yeah yeah, I’ve been there! I’m sorry, I thought you said something else.
And I was shocked by the quality of the poems that were coming out of there. I mean, some of them are kind of in that intermediate stage where they’ll hit a good line and you’re like, “okay, well, they’re growing.” But there’s some heavyweight.. good writing going on in there.
They’re going somewhere, right.
But you do see- and Ashbery is kind of, to me Ashbery is actually kind of indicative of this- where, because poetry education has been so bad for the last 20 years…
More than that, my man!
Sure! But especially bad the last two decades. cause I look at what I was given, and I look at what my kid’s being given as she starts to enter that area…and my child’s in an advanced studies program, so they’re giving her the hard stuff.
So she’s getting the good stuff. Theoretically the hard stuff.
Well, what they think is the hard stuff. That you’ve got…see, I’m a fan of form in the…I feel the English language was built, using the building blocks of poetry, and that’s our tool. And if we’re gonna work with this tool, then we need to know how it works. Meter…all the stuff feeds into how free verse works.
Amen. Absolutely, it’s all connected. Free verse does not exist outside, beyond, like separate from formal verse.
And so…but you have a generation of poets who have no experience with anything other than spoken word.
That is correct.
They hear a little bit of hip hop or they might see…they might have heard the big Gil Scott Heron recording that’s out there.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Yeah yeah. They might hear….and then they start writing, with no connection to everything that’s gone before. It’s like the blind man describing the elephant. And so you have this weird thing that’s happening with poetry where it’s disconnecting from everything that went before. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Well, I mean, it’s both. Ya know, sometimes maybe you get some, you can maybe stumble into a great new kind of territory that way. But of course, a lot of times what you’re gonna be doing is reinventing a wheel that doesn’t work. That’s what you’re gonna be doing! Because you’ve gotta use what came before.
I mean, you see, like a disconnect between- and it’s always kind of been there but it seems more and more- between your MFA poets, which are writing in a…it’s not form, but it’s formal free verse…almost.
Yes. Well, they know…they understand lineation, they understand stanzas, they understand imagery…they have some basics, the building blocks. They have some basic understanding. Some understand meter, some do not. But they are aware of the line as a unit. So there’s that. Yes. And then you have these poets that aren’t getting any of that. And you’re seeing economic avenues where the poets that aren’t getting any of that go into slam or performance poetry and they start doing features…
I started going around to different places around here and I’m always shocked at how liberally features are handed out these days cause it didn’t used to be that way. Which is cool, I guess. It is what it is, as they say! I mean, that could be contributing a little bit to what you were talking about as far as people having bad experiences with poetry. Whereas, the MFAs, they’re going to teach.
Yeah, most of them, many of them are going to end up in the classroom themselves, which also gives me some hope about the future cause a lot of them do end up teaching high school. Or middle school. cause they’re not all gonna be teaching in colleges, let me tell ya! And so when they do teach poetry, they will know something about contemporary poetry and they’ll approach it as though it were a real and useful tool in the world. They won’t teach it like, “Oh, here’s a poem. Let’s all look at it and scrunch our noses.”
They’ll teach it like, and this matters to me and this is why. So I have some hope about recovering some of the intelligence about poetry as these MFA students- because there are so many MFA programs in the country now, for better and for worse- but that will certainly turn out a number of good readers. And they’ll turn out a number of competent, solid writers. And then they’ll turn out some really, really good writers, of course! But most of them will end up teaching younger people about poetry.
I’ve never really considered that. I’ve thought about the glut of MFAs… But really they’re not all going to teach college, are they?
No, no. I feel very lucky that I came through when I did, because it was like, ya know, there were a few MFA programs in the country and now, there’s probably gotta be a couple hundred in the country. So of course, there’s no way. A lot of them will only teach high school. And some of them, of course, won’t teach at all. But many of them going into teaching will teach high school, or junior high school…middle school. So that’s gonna change the discourse a bit about pop culture and poetry in this country.
Doesn’t mean there’s not gonna still be bad performance poetry or bad poetry on the page. It just means that the general body of knowledge from which many people will work will be a little bigger, and have a little more understanding of the idea of a line, or a stanza, or what does image do…they’ll have some idea of that because their teachers will have written and thought about that shit a lot. And that will be helpful in the long run, in terms of making poetry a more viable…force is a pretty strong word to use, but a more viable force in the culture.
Well, I think it’s many roles, actually. I mean, there are poets who may really imagine themselves strictly as word entertainers. That’s fine. People can enjoy poems. Like, you dig Ashbery’s music, and I think that can be fine. I’m grateful that that’s not all poetry’s doing, of course. And there are poets who really are mystics, ya know? You run into them and you read them and you’re like “this guy clearly on a wavelength that’s not like other people’s,” ya know? He, or she really is seeing something that other people don’t see. And there are ways of…and I think that can be useful because of course, like all the arts, poetry at least is in part about expanding consciousness.
I mean, of course it is! I’m not writing poems so I can say the same shit everybody already knows! I mean, that’s not why we write! We try to, at least, surprise people a little bit about their daily lives. At the very least, ya know? And then beyond that of course, if you have a vision or something, yeah that can be in a poem too. You can be a seer and a poet, you can be! So I think poets can do lots of things… whether or not the general audience is ready for seers as poets, I don’t know. There are poets that I think write some amazing things. How many people can read them or listen to them and feel like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” The whole idea of it, that poetry can be an invitation to like, a new avenue in your head … I mean, it depends on who’s ready for that.
Like, I want new neighborhoods in my mind, I do. I want that. Not everyone does. Other people are like, “I’m in this little box, and I like this box. Anything that makes me step out of this box makes me uncomfortable.” It just depends on who’s listening. But I think poets can be really powerful figures in this society. Not so much, far as necessarily inciting..well, who knows…maybe they could. Depends on who’s writing. And what the audience is and what they need at that time.
What’s interesting to me is that you tend to see…whenever it is I see that a poet is arrested, of course it tends to be in a place like Saudi Arabia…
Oh yeah, other countries take it way more seriously!
Yeah. It seems like where maybe freedom of speech is oppressed is where those voices tend to become much weightier.
Absolutely, because everyone knows you’re speaking at risk of your own person. Now here, you can say almost, almost anything and nothing’s gonna happen to you because many many people aren’t paying attention to poets. Now Saudi Arabia, that’s a different story. Nigeria, that’s a different story.
You say the wrong thing, someone might kill your ass. So it’s different, and I think the general public understands that in those places. So when someone dares to break the silence, people are like, “oh, what’s this person got to say?” I think there are voices that are certainly mesmerizing and well worth listening to, but people do not assume if you give a reading or if I give a reading that you’re risking being imprisoned to say what you believe because that’s generally not the case, ya know?
This is not the same. One may write something or say something that gets the notice of some of our surveillance, that certainly is quite possible, but it’s not like we’re gonna be imprisoned for poetry. Which, of course, I’m grateful for. I don’t wanna do time for poetry. On the other hand, if there was that threat, poetry would be read very differently or heard very differently in our culture.
So no, I’m not gonna ever vote for poets being imprisoned or poets being shot or hanged because of what they say. But yeah, it’s difficult. I just did this reading at Split This Rock in DC two weeks ago, really interesting mix of people, very interesting. You name the pigmentation, you name the nationality, everybody was there. And it was a pretty powerful scene. Now of course, people may think, “oh, that’s just preaching to the choir” but I’m thinking, I don’t know.
I’m not sure many of us have had the experience of being in a room that’s that diverse, or culturally complex, and feeling like, “yeah, this happens all the time…like, last week when I did this…” I’ve never seen a room like that. I’ve never seen that many people- gay, straight, black, Africans, Americans, black Americans, white people, wealthier, poor…it’s like everybody was in the fucking audience. And it’s like, this means something. I don’t know exactly what it means but it means something, that poetry festival. And these are all poets. It’s not like these were novelists…all poets.
That kind of audience, many of whom paid to be there. Ya know, there’s something afoot. So I feel that poetry certainly has some kind of useful place in the culture. Even insofar as the way poetry changed my own life. I mean, poetry obviously can change things because I’m proof of it, ya know? And I would be a different person if I didn’t read or write poetry. I’d be someone else… I might be a nice guy, I don’t know.
It changes the way I imagine myself in the world, it changes the way I imagine my relationships to other people, certainly to the planet itself because it’s about a certain kind of consciousness, a certain kind of attentiveness…and to me, that may be the fundamental lesson of poetry, man. Pay the fuck attention, ya know? Whatever that is. Be it to yourself, be it to what’s happening to your neighbor down the street, be it what’s happening to animals, whatever.
But pay attention to something, don’t just run around with your head up your ass. So to me, to the extent that poetry can do that, it’s useful. It has a place of some use, of some real use in our society. And that’s the faith I’m gonna teach you.