Sorting Your Inheritance: Lost in the White Ruins

Sorting Your Inheritance: Lost in the White Ruins

An Interview with William Walsh

by Kayla Haas

 

William_Walsh

 

William Walsh is originally from Jamestown, New York, but has lived throughout the United States.  He lives with his wife and three children in Atlanta.  His books include Speak So I Shall Know Thee: Interviews with Southern Writers, The Ordinary Life of a Sculptor, The Conscience of My Other Being, Under the Rock Umbrella: Contemporary American Poets from 1951-1977, and David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews. His work has appeared in AWP Chronicle, Cimarron Review, Five Points, Flannery O’Connor Review, The Georgia Review, James Dickey Review, The Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, North American Review, Poetry Daily, Poets & Writers, Rattle, ShenandoahSlant, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His interviews, which have been published in over fifty journals, include Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, A.R. Ammons, Doris Betts, Fred Chappell, Pat Conroy, Harry Crews, James Dickey, Mary Hood, Madison Jones, Donald Justice, Lee Smith, Ariel Dorfman, Rita Dove, Eamon Grennan, Ursula Leguin, Andrew Lytle, Marion Montgomery, and many more.  He is currently completing his PhD at Georgia State University.

 

 

HAAS: You moved to a lot of places when you were young, and during this time, you discovered you liked writing at a young age, correct?

WALSH: I did move around quite a bit: Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Kentucky, Memphis, Tampa, and back to Atlanta.  Once we returned to Atlanta in 1980, I refused to move any more.  Then I enrolled at Georgia State University.  By the time I was 18, I’d lived in 14 different houses.  I always thought I would like to be a writer, but as a kid, it was very foreign to me, the entire process.  Plus, I didn’t like to sit down and read.  I would read the newspaper and read biographies, but anything else, I just didn’t have the patience for it, and I didn’t find out until years later, but essentially I was dyslexic.  No one knew this.  As a result, I had a difficult time in school and didn’t have any help with it.  It was just something I ended up growing out of, finally, somehow, and in college I did fairly well.  I had massive amounts of trouble with grade school and high school, and no matter how hard I tried or studied, I simply could not make good grades, even though I studied a lot at times. That made it tough to academically be successful.  To be a writer, I thought you had to be smart and successful in school, but it wasn’t until I was in the 7th grade, living in a suburb of Dallas, Texas when I had a teacher, Kathy Collier (nee Sims)—as an exercise in language arts and English class, she had us write poems and short stories.  It just connected and I went crazy wild writing all sorts of things.  She liked what I wrote and I got praised for it.  It was one of the few things in school I have ever been praised for, and as result, I just kept doing it.  The next year we moved to Chicago where I didn’t write as much, but I still wrote a little, and then I wrote a very small amount in high school; however, when I got into college that’s when I really took off and started taking English classes where I had wonderful professors.  I just said to myself at the time, I want to do this.  I want to write poetry.  I enjoyed writing and I had a girlfriend who liked when I wrote poetry for her.  I tried writing short stories and some very bad novels, but I always kept up with poetry.

 

So even though you moved to a lot of places, it followed you and has always been a core aspect in a lot of ways.

Writing, poetry especially because usually they’re short, is very portable.  You can write anywhere—in the mountains as I’ve done before, traveling to Africa and Europe, wherever.  You can take them anywhere.  In fact, “Spoon River in Uganda” is the poem where I wrote the first four or five lines in Uganda.  I wrote a few other poems before starting that one.  So it’s very portable.  You can take your thoughts and ideas wherever you are going. You can jot them down, write poems, work on them, take a couple of drafts and tinker with them no matter where you are in the world.  Whether you are on a cruise ship, doctor’s office, or hiking in a foreign country, you have accessibility and portability in poems.

Walsh shows children in Uganda their photo for the first time.

Walsh shows children in Uganda their photo for the first time.

 

And then later in life you moved from poetry, or kept with that, but also added interviews as something you habitually do?

That was completely by accident, truthfully. I went to a literary symposium at the University of Georgia that was orchestrated by the then editor of The Georgia Review, Stanley Lindberg.  It was called Roots in Georgia: A Literary Symposium.  I went there for the weekend to hear these writers and listen to them read their work, and I got to meet a few of them.  I didn’t have much money but I bought one book in particular, and I bought it because it was one of the least expensive paperback, but it looked interesting nonetheless.  It was called The Heart of a Distant Forest by Philip Lee Williams.  It’s a wonderful book and I recommend it to everyone.  After I read the book, in one day, I felt compelled to meet the author. That was in May.  The following December I was able to meet him in Athens where I interviewed him for the college literary magazine.  That Christmas, my girlfriend at the time gave me a tape recorder and said, “This is for the rest of your interviews,” which I hadn’t even thought of doing.  I was sort of one and done, but Amy saw something I had not.  From there I decided to interview a couple of other writers.  After awhile, I had a handful of writers under my belt: Harry Crews, Olive Ann Burns, David Bottoms, Raymond Andrews, and a others.  Then I asked James Dickey.  Dickey said yes, and I went down to his house in South Carolina, in Columbia, and I interviewed him for about three hours.

The Dickey interview was pivotal.  It was a watershed for me as a young man and a writer.  At this time I was beginning to think of myself as a poet even though I had not written much with any quality.  Still, I boarded that train.  Once I interviewed Dickey I could call anybody up in the country, essentially, and with that as a feather in my cap, it gave me an incredible amount if capital.  People would allow me to interview them.  Dickey’s reputation and heft as a major poet opened many doors for me.  But that interview probably would never have occurred had David Bottoms not been in the picture.  David was my professor, and had a profound influence on me.  As well, he just happened to be good friends with Dickey.  Since then, I’ve interviewed poet laureates and other Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as two Nobel Laureates, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz.  All of this was completely on a fluke where I bought the least expensive novel at a literary conference and felt compelled to meet Philip Lee Williams and interview him.  Then my girlfriend gave me a tape recorder for Christmas and I found something I was actually very good at.  I didn’t know I was good at, and I needed a lot of practice, but I got better.  Plus, I do a lot of research.

But, also, and this is a great lesson for people no matter what stage of your writing career, these established writers treated me as an equal, as another poet or novelist.  They never treated me as if I was just a student or less qualified because I was young.

 

 

 

 

I read everything.  For instance, with Robert Penn Warren, I read almost every book Warren wrote before I asked him for an interview.  I read everything and then I wrote him a letter; however, he declined because he was sick, and then not long after that he died, but before I asked him, I read everything because my thought was what if I ask him for an interview and he said, “Sure, no problem, come up next weekend,” well, I would have had no time to read everything.  So, I read everything before I ever even asked him.  That interview fell through, which happens every once in a while.  You don’t get to interview every person you read and research, studying like your are taking your PhD comps.  But I’ve enjoyed it.  I’ve met wonderful writers and they’ve all been very kind and generous with their time.  Only one or two have kind of been jerks, but for the most part they’ve all been nice, very respectful folks who want to talk about their writing, much like I am doing here.  But, also, and this is a great lesson for people no matter what stage of your writing career, these established writers treated me as an equal, as another poet or novelist.  They never treated me as if I was just a student or less qualified because I was young.  They were never on some lofty pillar looking down, arrogantly too good to speak to me, which I see with a lot writers when they first begin to taste success—they are arrogant, as if they just wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Kubla Khan,” and are now looking down their noses: “What have you ever done?”  These well-established and successful writers opened the door to a literary world, gave me access, and accepted me into that “club” of writers, even when I did not fully deserve it.  I’m grateful for that, and I try to pay it forward by reading for contests, editing poems, manuscript consultations, line-editing manuscripts, and in general talk about poetry and life with other writers regardless of where they are in their careers.  I am still friends with many of these writers all these days later.  In fact, Terry Kay is reading in town in a few weeks, and I’m going to see him.  About two months before Olive Ann Burns died, and I’m certain she knew she was dying, she invited me over to her house for coffee, where she gave me a signed page from her original manuscript, Cold Sassy Tree.  I didn’t know she was dying, although she had been ill for many years.  In July, while I was away at grad school, she died.  Last year when I was in Commerce visiting Mary Hood, Mary took me to the cemetery, which was just down the street, to visit Ms. Burns’ grave.  She’s buried there with her husband, Andrew Sparks.

 

With that much access to that many writers, have you found that it impacted your writing? Did you pick up any shifts of style?

Well, I cannot imagine meeting somebody, especially for an interview, and not having an influence in some regard to some degree, especially if you are reading and studying their work.  It must seep in.  To what degree?  It depends upon the writer and the student.  Has Robert Penn Warren influenced me more than James Dickey?  No, even though I read more of Warren.  But with Dickey, I’ve continued to read him.  My good friend Julie Bloemeke studied with Dickey, was in his famous last class, and she read at his funeral.  We talk about Dickey all the time, and how he visits us, spiritually and physically with our poetry.  Has Warren influenced me more than David Bottoms?  Probably not; however, what is interesting is that because David has read and studied Warren to such a degree, it has filtered to me.  So perhaps Warren, with Bottoms being a conduit, has been an influence.  I love Warren’s work.  I love the idea of poetic dna.  In graduate school, I studied with Jack Myers.  Well, Jack studied with Richard Hugo, who studied with Theodore Roethke.  Guess what?  Roethke and Hugo are my guys.  There is a literary heritage.  There is an influence without a doubt.

In regard to styles, what I might have learned from them is how to appreciate different poetic styles even when not imitating a particular style.  For instance, when I interviewed A.R. Ammons, a completely different poet than I am—he’s less narrative in regard to a storyline, certainly not the same poet as Fred Chappell or David Bottoms.  Well, I was very much drawn to Ammons’ ideas about the big pictured ideas of life, primarily form and formlessness, which is, of course, “Corson’s Inlet.”  That was an influential poem in my life.  With Ammons and his ideas on form and formlessness, there’s a form in the fact that by existing, an entity must exist with a form.  Form is an antecedent to all things.  His ideas were influential, but I could never write like him.  With Fred and David, it was the narrative.  It was Fred’s ability to use humor that initially brought me to his poetry.  With David, it’s metaphor, what he always called the DHM, the deep hidden meaning.  So, with each writer, I learned form, technique, narrative, musicality, a vast array poetics—something from each—which is why reading a lot is probably the most valuable tool you have at your disposal.  It all plays upon you as a writer, your influences, the stuff you read.  Whether or not it influences your voice or your style—it probably does as you proceed through your developmental stages. If you keep at this long enough you’ll develop your own style, your own voice, your own rhythms and so forth.  No one poet really changed the way I was going to write.  I found my own way, my own trail through the woods, but everyone influenced me along the way without a doubt.  My teachers, as it should be, guided me across that ocean, encouraged me, and helped get me there faster than if I had been left to my own devices.  Each poet will have to find his or her own way.  I found my own way, but it was a long journey.  It really was.  It wasn’t short at all.  Some people find it on a shorter journey—take a poet like James Tate—he was very successful early on.  Some poets take years and years.  A.R. Ammons was not very successful for a long time and then Ommateum was published when he was about thirty.  But it was nearly ten years before he published again, Expressions of Sea Level.  And then he found it!  He began writing and publishing then his career took off.  He has an impressive resume, which is why he is one of the foremost poets of the second half the 20th Century.

 

You said in a 2011 interview that whenever you write, it’s mostly for yourself. You don’t have a clear audience in mind. Do you think that’s changed with this collection?

I don’t think that’s changed.  I hope it’s more accessible. I think I have more of a platform for people to sort of find me inside the book, but I don’t know who the people are that are going to read the book.  I wish I did.  My audience is just someone that loves poetry, that loves narrative poetry, who likes to read sort of short stories within a poem, yet there’s something more going on, something more universal, there’s a metaphor running through that develops the poem into more than just a story.  And it’s really not just a story.  There’s a metaphor in there for life’s issues, for the universal, going from the general to the universal.  I don’t know who that person is and I don’t know how anybody knows that.  I mean, there are marketing teams that do nothing but figure out who is going to read a novel.  They go to great lengths to market towards a certain group of people.  I don’t know how you would do that for poetry.  I wish I knew. I just don’t know who it is.  Kindred spirits, like souls, like-minded people who are interested in good writing.  I don’t even think I’m the poet laureate of my house so it’s hard to know your audience.

 

I think in some ways, kind of paraphrasing what was said in that interview, you write for yourself and you want the audience to come closer to you versus maybe presenting yourself to the audience. Does that sound accurate?

I would have to agree with you, absolutely.  I just started a new poem last week, the first poem I’ve written since January when I started putting my manuscript together, organizing and editing it.  I had not written anything new since I got the book contract because I spent so much time finishing Lost In the White Ruins.  I took poems out, tightened up other poems up, and worked very hard to get the book where it is, print ready.  Now what that eventually does is present me, or the speaker, the generic “I” of a persona poem, but the speaker isn’t always actually me—it’s sort of a generic speaker, but uses my sensitivities.  So to answer your question, I write my poems for me with the grand hope that they will find an audience.  For instance, I wanted to write a poem about an experience my mother had, but I wouldn’t want to simply give the details as you might with a non-fiction essay.  There needs to be a greater reason for the poem to exist.  There is an idea behind the poem, an incident, a feeling, something that sparks my interest.  In the poem, “My Mother Almost Becomes Friends with Ann-Margaret,” the idea was this whole sense of loss, grief.  When Elvis died in 1977, we were living outside Memphis in Southaven, Mississippi, and while my mother stood in line to view his casket, she saw Ann-Margaret inside Graceland.  Well, that image from when my mom told me the story has always stayed with me.  It took all these years for me to figure out why that was important and what it meant on a grander scale.  So, my mom looked at Ann-Margaret and then all these possibilities arose, that under these circumstances surrounding Elvis’ death perhaps they could have become friends—two people with completely different backgrounds.  In the end, that doesn’t happen and there’s that loss, and there’s the loss of my mother’s friend who killed herself and her daughter the following year, a different type of loss and grief.  I like to write those things with hopes that when someone else reads it, there’s this “ah-ha” moment when they just see the whole picture open up. The way I try to do that is to pull everyone into the story, the narrative, doing it very poetically, I hope, with sounds, line breaks, enjambment, all the techniques we have available to us as poets.  Hopefully that brings an audience to the poem and maybe someone says, “I’d like to read the rest of his book.”  This is what happens to me when I read a poet, say Marie Howe’s new poem, or a poet I’ve never heard of before.  I love to read the Writer’s Almanac with the Garrison Keillor.   There’s a poem there every day and a lot of the days I’ll read a poem that just knocks me over.  Poetry Daily is another website.  I’ll research that poet, buy their book, and I’ll spend time with them. That’s what I hope happens with my poems, that people will read a poem or two and say “I want to buy his book and read the rest of this guy’s work.”  That’s sort of my audience that’s out there.

My Mother

 

You hear a lot about writers hoping that their writing is more accessible, but reversing that thought, hoping that not only are readers accessing the information, but they are more drawn into it and trying to be invested in it on their own terms.

Yeah, I would think so.  Accessibility, that is the key, because if you’re not accessible to people through the actual work itself and you’re so obscure people can’t access what you’re trying to say, they won’t read you, you cannot reach them. Then they will not look for you on the Internet or your local book store or Barnes and Noble, whichever outlet.  If they will not read you, then you’ve failed, regardless of your talents.  I remember when I interviewed Joseph Brodsky, we talked about some of the many problems writers face, and for Brodsky, it was the transference of information or the availability of books, accessibility.  In the past, most people bought books at a book store, before the Internet really took off. Brodsky felt that if the books were available, people would buy them.  He was right.  It’s hard to think back twenty or thirty years, but we have a different way of buying books now.  Our bookstores are on the Internet, simply browsing from our Macs or i-phones.  Any book you want is there.  The availability of that book to get into the hands of a potential reader, how do you do that? How do you motivate a person to buy a book?  I wish there was an easy answer for that.

Accessibility, that is the key, because if you’re not accessible to people through the actual work itself and you’re so obscure people can’t access what you’re trying to say, they won’t read you, you cannot reach them.

 

 

 

 

 

I found your book really accessible. To me, a lot of the poems are snapshots of events, but when you put them all together you get a whole image.  Or even, if you don’t get the whole image, there are conclusions you can draw into it.

It’s interesting you say that because it was not designed that way.  I never wrote one poem and then the next poem in sequence.  Each poem just came to me at whatever time in my life, sometimes one or two poems at the same time or three or four, or one poem.  Out of that new group, maybe one of two made it all the way into the manuscript.  There other were poems that never took off.  Maybe some will be finished in ten years.  When you look at poems about my dad, you might think those poems were written in a three month period as a group, but the truth is, one poem was written one day, one was written five months later or three years later, and in between I wrote other poems.  Somehow when they came together, with thematic elements, if just by coincidence.  If you look at my collection or any other collection of poems, there are things in a poet’s subconscious that seep out and are revealed, not just my book, but any poet’s book.  I didn’t do this on purpose, it’s just there.  I didn’t realize this until the very end of proofreading, but there’s a line in the very last poem, “lost in the white ruins of anonymity”—I realized that’s what the book is about.  It’s about identity and not wanting to be anonymous.  All of us want to be recognized.  No one wants to be anonymous.   It’s rare that a person does.  That ended up being one of those hidden gems that I didn’t realize was in the book until the end, sort of a self-discovery moment.  There are themes that are in there, but not always by design.  It’s just what comes out of the subconscious.

 

A lot of them seem so strongly connected that I wondered if it was a conscious decision, but I know unconsciously things work themselves in on that level. Have you ever reread your poems and almost feel like you’re trying to answer the same question each time, maybe the same question of identity?

I’ve never personally felt that way. It just worked out as it did.  In fact, if you look at the manuscript chronologically, the first poem in that book is “A Hero with a Thousand Faces”—the Joseph Campbell title. That book, I read as an undergraduate, was very influential—the myths and masks that each of us wears—and all it has to do with is identity.  How are we identified?  How does somebody else identify us?  What is your job?  What is your family? Are you a baseball player?  Are you a cellist, a pianist?  All of this stems from identity, and that poem, because it talks about my name, which is a rather generic name, not as generic as some, but the speaker who is really me, wants something beyond the generic name.  He desires more of an identity.  He wants to change, to be somebody he is not.  That really set the stage for that book, but I didn’t know that at the time.  The poems weren’t written deliberately with that idea in mind.

 

Another thing I noticed, especially at the beginning, there seems to be the desire to escape—escaping from the past, but seeming nostalgic about the past at the same time. But also escaping into people to sometimes get away from something.

Wow.  Okay, I have to tell you, I have not thought of that, but you just said escaping the past. That’s wonderful—that’s a wonderful phrase you came up with.  I like that.  And, I suppose that’s probably true.  The past, everybody has a past, obviously, and some of them are very pleasant, but we all have parts of a past that are painful.  In fact, “Snazzy Pants on Valley Road,” is exactly about this idea.  My grandparents took me out to a department store to buy me some clothes, to the Sunshine Department store where people shopped who couldn’t afford to shop at K-Mart.  I’m thinking great, new clothes, but instead of getting blue jeans, Levis, which is what everyone else was wearing and what I wanted, my grandparents thought it was snazzy to buy these horrible plaid pants, old polyester type pants that old golfers wear.  My grandfather is like, “Look, I’ll buy you a pair of these white shoes with brass buckles and have your initials engraved on them just in case they get mixed up in gym class.”  Well, there’s not a kid in the entire school who would get caught dead wearing those ugly old man shoes, yet, here I was!  So that instance is a very painful narrative, but you write through these things in an attempt to escape that past, escape those painful moments; however, now they are interesting because they’re dramatic. If I wrote about the past being completely beautiful and so forth, it’d be dreadfully boring, say, like some of the Romantic Poets. Things that are painful typically have a dramatic element to them. . . and drama is everything—that’s the name of the game, being dramatic. Not only dramatic, but dramatic enough that it’s interesting.

Yes, you are absolutely right, I’m escaping the past.  Marion Montgomery, a wonderful scholar and writer called it, sorting your inheritance.  I use that line in a poem.  Each of us has to sort through our family inheritance, not necessarily monetary inheritance but family inheritance—your past, what baggage comes along with your mother and father.  What baggage comes along with your aunt and uncle or your grandparents? There are things that embarrass us about our parents and grandparents, things we work through.  Sorting our inheritance is another way of saying escaping the past.  The nice thing is, we get to pick and choose typically what we want to escape from.  Not all of it.  Sometimes you don’t get to choose and that’s where I think a subconscious level filters in.

Marion Montgomery, a wonderful scholar and writer called it, sorting your inheritance.  I use that line in a poem.  Each of us has to sort through our family inheritance, not necessarily monetary inheritance but family inheritance—your past, what baggage comes along with your mother and father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was reading this I was also thinking “escaping into someone.” Poet Richard Siken said this line, “everyone needs a place, it shouldn’t be inside someone else.” And I think that’s a very human thing to do, we look for solutions in other people and especially in the beginning of the collection it seems like this speaker is trying to rescue these women, but also I think he’s trying to escape into them to try and forget the past in some way—to push forward.

I can see that.  That’s probably true to some degree because we are trying to push forward, we’re trying to move away from who we are into someone who is a better person.  That poem about the thousand faces is, essentially, the speaker saying, “I want to be somebody else.”  I want to have flowing hair.  I want to have the pecs and abs of Adonis.  I want to be completely different.  I want to change my name—change everything about me.  All that is true.  We are never satisfied with who we are.  At least I am not.  We are always trying to move forward into somebody else that is bigger and better than who we are, the Hollywood version of ourselves we would like to project to the world.  Of course, at some point you have to become content with who you are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep fantasizing about being better and being different. We always want to be a better person without our bad habits.  Like the poems says, I want to be Paul Newman.  Well, okay.  Is that a bad thing?  It depend upon where reality and fantasy collide.  That’s why we have t.v., movies, and books, to escape, to become the hero for that moment where we can be he hero riding side by side with Redford and Newman, riding a bicycle with Catherine Ross on the handle bars.  Or, Tony Stark, flying in an Ironman suit, saving Gwyneth Paltrow.  Yeah, I’m up for that.

 

You have a lot of old Hollywood references. You have Marilyn Monroe, Ann-Margaret, William Holden, all these old Hollywood references to people that didn’t have their own identities at the same time. Marilyn Monroe and Ann-Margaret, they changed their physical appearance and adapted to the cinema screen in some ways. So there’s a juxtaposition between a speaker that isn’t sure of his identity comparing himself, more or less, to these old Hollywood types that were kind of void of identity—they had a public one, but privately there’s a discrepancy there.

It’s interesting because they have these public identities. I’ll take Ann-Margaret and William Holden.  The poem about Ann-Margaret, here’s this beautiful woman you think has everything in her life, it’s peaches and cream, rosy, everything’s wonderful—Elvis loves her and she loves him, and they dated for a while, and apparently he wanted to marry her and so forth—but then you find her in the most vulnerable position, sitting on the bottom of the stairs, crying.  In the movies, you don’t get to see the real human person, you see the actress, you see her in all these different roles.  It’s all make-believe.  I tried to make her more human. I like that because when I have had the opportunity to meet movies stars and sports stars, they are just like everyone else.  They feel pain.  They are not immune to life’s problems, yet the public sees them as god-like.  William Holden, a lot of his contributions went unnoticed in his life; however, he had a lot to do with game reserves in Africa, trying to save the animals in Africa.  So here is his other life he has outside of acting we never see.  We only see his move life, which is what we see in the poem, a cinematic short where the speaker desires the woman across the street even though he knows she’s a train wreck.  To me, William Holden with that wonderful smile, as well as Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, and Tom Hanks, are sexy men, quintessential modern man, who are creative, sensitive, good-looking, know what they want in life and go get it, and woman love them.  There are other men who fall into that category, too.  Now, what young man wouldn’t want to be like them.  But there is that part of them we don’t see, such as Holden dying alone.  He had a drinking problem and was intoxicated when he slipped in his apartment and cut his forehead and bled to death.  He wasn’t found for four days.  That is a very lonely end for a man who was loved by millions.   So, what does this have to do with the poem?  Well, I always like William Holden and would watch those old movies late at night when I was a kid and suffering insomniacs bouts.  Breezy, as a kid, was my favorite Holden movie, with Kay Lenz.  It’s not a great movie by any stretch, but enjoyable, and it was also directed by Clint Eastwood, who in my opinion is one of the best film directors in the world.  Somehow all of that came together in the poem and it seems that the speaker’s life and desire was like the Holden in Breezy or his other movies where he is the sex symbol.  The speaker simply feels as if he is in a Holden movie. I find it very interesting the way the character in the poem almost becomes different in the roles as the speaker.  I hadn’t really thought about this until you mentioned it, but in a way it’s possible that these generic speakers in the book, the “I,” is a different role each time.  Each poem could be considered to be a movie with each character in it, or a little snippet of a film.  I didn’t write the poems just to put movie stars in there—they evolved that way.  I have a poem with Lucille Ball and my grandmother.  And, of course, the movie-star in the last poem whom I never name.

 

In the poem that appeared in MOJO, “In Celebration of Roy Orbison’s Birthday,” it appears at the end of the collection, and there’s a realization of how the father-son dynamic works and how that can lead toward something regretful later in life.

We want our fathers to be Super Heroes, to be bigger than life, and most importantly, without character flaws.  But that simply doesn’t happen.  The list of complaints bothering me, was, as a kid, very long, as well as seemingly unforgivable.

 

 

 

 

In a way that’s sort of an apology poem, a poem of regret to my father. Again, it comes back to how you sort your inheritance. In the poem, I travel along this path, being there at night working when the electricity goes off, the computer doesn’t work, and all of a sudden the DJ says at three a.m., it’s Roy Orbison’s birthday.  It’s as if I am the only one listening at that time of morning to this lonely disc jockey and his information is geared exclusively towards me, especially when he says Roy’s age, which is the same as my father.  All of this then reminds me of my dad, who at the time was in the hospital dying.  Then there’s a litany of things that I’m pissed off about that my dad did over the years.  You know, yelling at my mom, smoking too much—that kind of stuff.  We want our fathers to be Super Heroes, to be bigger than life, and most importantly, without character flaws.  But that simply doesn’t happen.  The list of complaints bothering me, was, as a kid, very long, as well as seemingly unforgivable.  As some time as children we begin to see our parents’ flaws and are embarrassed by our parents for so many reasons.  Of course, we love them.  We all love our parents, but there are things our parents do that embarrass us, things we don’t want them to do, especially around our friends.  We say, “Well, I’m not going to do that—I’m not going to be like that—I’m not going to be like you­—you’re not like me, and I’m not like you—when I grow up and I’m older, I am never going to be like you.”  That whole thing all of us have gone through as children, especially as teenagers.  That’s where you’re trying to sort through your inheritance. For me, “I won’t be like that. I won’t smoke and drink. I’m not going to call the English and French assholes all the time”—whatever the list I have, which every person has, it comes back to the speaker, in the instance, realizing how wrong he have been.  In this poem it is actually me.  In the end, the speaker realizes this after his son is repeating the speaker’s apparent flaws, “You’re out of shape and you need to make more money”—all of that is haunting as the family history is being repeated.  The speaker realizes what he did was hurtful to his father because what his son says to him is hurtful.  Then he has his regret and the thought is, “I never heard a train go by and didn’t wish to be on it.”  Those are the speaker’s feelings and his attempt to escape his past once again when his son has been castigating him.  He really wants to be on a train, going somewhere, anywhere, least not there having his son talk to him in that manner, and being angry at him, and putting him down.  We all have that kind of regret in our life.  For me, that’s how I handled it in the book.  It’s an apology to my father, while he was dying, because there was that huge regret for the things I said or did throughout years, which the son is now doing to the speaker.  No doubt, this will probably continue with my son twenty years in the future with his children.  If you notice, the poem following this apology is “Homage: For My Father.”  It’s really a funeral poem.  I’ve tried reading it, but I can never get through it, so it’s off the play list.

 

What I’ve noticed in some of your poems is that you have a type of lens, a photo lens, and you get close to the speaker at times with these very intimate details, and then it fades back into these big abstract ideas and feelings before zooming in again. Is that a conscious decision or does it seem natural to look really closely at something and then pull back in that way?

It is a very conscious lens.  I am, among my many jobs, a professional photographer.  What happens, as you work through the poem and start to find where the poem begins, is to search for its reason to be, it’s necessity, why does it need to exist, and for me, that begins with the visual—what I see and what I want the reader to see.  It ends up with the speaker’s point of view coming through.  I am very cognizant of this.  When I studied years ago with Jack Myers, he was always talking about the cinematic technique in poetry, whether your point of view is bird’s eye point of view, or whether if it’s a huge landscape, a panoramic view, or whether you’re zeroing in on something, microscopically, which is what a poet like Eamon Grennan focuses on, the close-up.  I always remember Stephen Dobyns, in one of this poems describing a tea cup, and my visualizing this teacup in a girl’s hands, a very minute detail.  And, of course, it pulls back to reveal more of what’s going on.  Whether it’s physically what’s going on in the scene or whether it’s internally within somebody’s mind, that can be an internal struggle or a joyful moment.  I’m very aware of that visually, but I don’t always sit down and think “This is where I need to be focused, intently on this item and then I need to pull back.” After all these years it sort of just comes together.  There are times when you recognize the poem needs something else, but you don’t know what it is until three months later when you come back to the poem and you realize you need to work on this portion of poem, an angle, a point of view where maybe pulling back to reveal a wider horizon is all you need.  Some times you know immediately.  Or, you may need to have a bird’s eye view, or a microscopic focus on one item.  You sort of find that as you work through the poem, the editing process smoothing things out.  When it doesn’t, for me, most of the time the poems isn’t working.  Poems don’t always work.  I have a pile of poems that have not worked and aren’t finished.  Editors and the readers only see the ones I’ve finished.  There are a lot of poems I have where I just can’t get to that point where it’s finished.

 

Did some of these poems come practically fully formed in some ways, or were many of these years in the making?

Most of them took a relatively long period of time.  The “William Holden” poem took about twenty years.  The only portion from the original draft of that poem that ended up working out is about four or five lines.  Most of the poems, were written over the course of the last six to eight years, having gone through various stages.  Some of them have came quickly, which for me is about two or three months.  Maybe six months later I felt the poem was finished.  Some took a few years.  I’m a picky editor.  When I first started out, I used to write a poem a day, but nothing was very good.  I began working on quality instead of quantity, and guess what?  I became a better poet.  There is only one poem in the new book that came in one sitting.  I changed very little in the poem, “Hunting Mule Deer.”  I was actually sitting outside a man’s house who was tutoring my son in what’s called “Theoretical Math,” and as my son was being tutored, I sat in my car on the street just listening to the football game on the radio.  For some reason he and his tutor ran over in time, and as I sat there, waiting for my son, the first line came to me.  I turned the radio off, wrote the line down, and within one half an hour I had the entire poem written.  It was a gift from some long dead poet channeling me, I suppose.  I tweaked it a little bit, but I probably did not change more than ten to fifteen words in the entire poem.  I just kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly be ready.  It never happens like this.  Poems are never handed to me so I was skeptical of the entire process and poem.  I almost felt like I had a visitation from another poet from another dimension, coming through and saying, “Hey, here’s a poem I forgot to write when I was alive.  You’re going to write it for me.”  It was just handed to me.  I didn’t do anything except transcribe what came through a sort of telepathic receiver.  How that happened, I don’t know.  It happened one time with the first book, The Conscience of My Other Bring—“Tyburn Tree.”  In regards to this collection, that was the only poem it happened with.  I wish it would happen more, but it just doesn’t occur very often.

When I first started out, I used to write a poem a day, but nothing was very good.  I began working on quality instead of quantity, and guess what?  I became a better poet.

 

 

 

The thing about poetry is the struggle to break through and find the truth the poem is asking you to write.  For me it’s like politics—I don’t care what the truth is, good or bad, just give me the Truth.  In poetry, I only want the Truth.  But discovering the truth is the ordeal.  You have to sit and work it out, editing the poem until you can’t stand to look at it any longer. That’s what we all do.  It can be a long process to find the truth.  “Hunting Mule Deer” came in one sitting, just sitting in my car so I feel as if it was a complete accident.  I ended up liking the poem enough to put it into the book and make it the first poem.  I wanted everyone to be compelled by the characters, the story, the theme running through it, and then, of course, at the end, the humor.

 

That poem is interesting to me because it’s one of the only poems to have a strong sense of voice when it comes to your father and his friend.  It has a lot of dialogue in it. But it is also one of the only poems where the speaker is not an active participant—he’s an observer.

That’s true.  I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right.  He is the observer, telling the story of the two men.  He’s only a participant in the fact that they brought him along. I hadn’t really thought about that, but that’s actually true.  I don’t write short stories—I like narrative poetry but I don’t want to tell just a story because I want the poems to be more universal, have a deep hidden meaning.  I want them to have a deep metaphor for what’s out there in the world, beyond the surface level, which does occur in “Hunting Mule Deer.”   I was cognizant of that fact the poem could be a short story, but I wanted the poem to be more than that, to have a deep meaning with the father-son relationship but also the admiration the boy has for his father’s friend, as if the father has allowed the boy into his adult world.  And then the funny ending.

 

What draws you to the narrative form? Is it because you get to tell these stories and also make it more universal and applicable, or is there something else about it? 

To me, storytelling is a wonderful insight to man’s soul, whether it be the myths Joseph Campbell wrote about or simply storytelling for the pleasure of a good tale.  What I like about narrative is the fact it’s not lyric poetry.  I’m not against lyric poets or lyric poetry, but it’s not my thing.  I’ve studied and appreciated many lyric poems, but I have not been enticed by it the way I have by the narrative.  You can have musicality and lyric tonal qualities inside a narrative, which is what I hope to strive for.  I just have to think of Dickey, Roethke, or Sexton.  I wouldn’t call these three lyric poets but there is a wonderful musicality to their poems, a lyric intent, especially Roethke.  Of course, I don’t know that I would place Sexton and Roethke in with the narrative poets either, but for me, within Sexton’s confessional poems and within Roethke’s imagery and introspection, I find a deep narrative coursing through, whether it be loss of oneself or nature.  There’s a story inside those poems.  Personally, I strive to use language—the right language—and the right sounds within the poems to enhance the made thing.  Sometimes I fire on all cylinders; sometimes not.  But strict lyric poetry doesn’t do anything for me.  And, it’s probably because I haven’t come to it, yet.  Maybe I will.  While many people love it and it’s what they like to read, it’s their thing they like to write, however, for me, it doesn’t advance a universal message, generally speaking.  For some people it resonates.  For me, not too much.

That ability to advance ideas, to advance thoughts, to advance the imagery I want, I get that with a narrative.  With a narrative you can infuse language, character, dialogue, metaphor, and so forth, and I guess you can do that with lyric poetry, but I never found that to be the proper vehicle for how I wanted to write.  That’s why I’ve been drawn to this type of poetry: James Dickey, Ed Hirsch, The Beat Poets, Dorianne Laux, Rita Dove, Tom Lux, Stephen Dunn, and many more.  As well, David Bottoms—who was my professor—has been highly influential in my life.  There are volumes of poets who’ve influenced me who are not narrative poets: W.S Merwin, A.R. Ammons, Eamon Grennan, Plath, Sexton, Sharon Olds, although Olds I guess is a narrative poet, perhaps indefinable and in a genre of her own—just a mighty tough voice with power to destroy or beautify through words.  She’s in my top ten.  But Dickey, Bottoms, and Fred Chappell, southern poets who escaped the enclosed region to resonate world-wide are very important.  Another poet I admire is Marie Howe, a wonderful poet, who I believe is from New York.  She has narrative running through her poems, too.  I’ve been drawn to that type of poet primarily, but not exclusively.  I’m comfortable writing in this manner because it provides the ability to use a lot of poetic techniques within the scope or the poem.

 

And narrative doesn’t always have to be longer lines and have that dialogue. You have the poem “Blackbird” in here, which is super thin, skinny, short lines, but there’s a narrative in it. It tells a story in small spaces.

The last line of that poem may be my favorite in the book, “her beauty obscures my reasoning.”  That was the first line of the poem, which came to me one day driving down the road.  How many times in our lives have we been infatuated with someone?  Their beauty just obscures all reason. . . in our life and actions.  We do stupid stuff just to sit closer to that person.  We try to get them to go out on a date, or whatever the chance may be just to be a part of their life.  We’ve all done that, been obsessed by their beauty, a beauty that may only be in our eyes and no others.  In that particular poem, I had finished it but it just did not look right.  The texture of the poem did not work for me when the lines were long.  As an exercise, I played around with it one day, breaking the lines up into sort of smaller, choppy segments, which slowed down the reading of the poem considerably.  Each time you have a line break, it momentarily slows the reader and slows the poem so what’s actually occurring it’s slower.  It makes you take more time—two people are actually sleeping when the speaker finds them in bed, in rapturous sleep, where they, and then the reader, is just sort of relaxed.  You get that with the slower lines.  That’s how that came about.  I didn’t like the longer lines which is what you might expect with a narrative poem.  I worked on it for a long time, months and months, to get the lines the way I wanted.

How many times in our lives have we been infatuated with someone?  Their beauty just obscures all reason. . . in our life and actions.

 

 

 

 

That poem, and a lot of poems in that section, “When Beauty Obscures Reasoning,” are poems where I would get to the last line and that last line was always very sharp. The poems in that section are sharp—they hit hard. How do you decide or when do you feel like a poem ends?

It takes a lot of work, of course, trial and error and failure along the way.  You’re always trying to find where the poem ends.  “Betrayal” didn’t originally end the way it does.  I sent a copy of the poem to Stephen Dunn, thinking he’d like it.  He wrote back saying “Yes, it’s a good poem, but change the ending.”  I looked at his suggestion.  Guess what?  He was absolutely right.  The way that poem ends is now is how Dunn told me to end it.  He was absolutely right, and that’s why he’s Stephen Dunn, a brilliant poet.  I never saw it.  And, by the way, a really nice guy, incredible pleasant.  He’s in my top ten: Dunn, Dickey, Olds, Bottoms, and Roethke. . . not in any particular order. I studied Between Angels inside and out in my MFA program—a highly influential book for me.  I was too engrossed in my poem to actually see I had a stronger option for an ending.  When someone like Stephen Dunn gives you a suggestion, take it.

But, you just keep working through your poems and working around it.  You don’t always have the right ending.  Every one of those poems, I’m sure at some time, ended completely differently than they do now.  It’s all about working through it and finding that image or line that leads to the exit door.  I know that when I was in my MFA program, Jack Meyers, Mark Cox, and David Wojahn talked about eastern endings, where like a bell ringing the sound keeps on ringing and ringing, ringing and ringing, out onto the countryside, metaphorically speaking.  It resonates.  It just keeps going.  They were insistent that the endings had that construct to it, like that bell, resonating, so you will remember that image, that idea, or the notion of what happened at the end, whether it’s a sound or an image.

 

So the objective editor is essential to making these poems sometimes—the fresh set of eyes?

Oh my goodness, it’s amazing because as a poet you have an idea of what you’re doing and you know what you want to do, but you can’t always get there.  Sometimes you just need to talk to your buddies, talk it out to find the answer.  I always tell students one of the best things to do is find one person they respect, who’s opinion they respect, who they like and get along with, who you can sit and talk to about life and poetry for two or three or four hours—talk about poetry or not about poetry—go hang out with that friend, have fun with them, read their poems, have them read your poems.  Give each other good solid advice.  I like to say intelligence, candor, and good will.  Be smart.  Be authoritative.  And, be kind.  You can get to the heart of the matter without being mean or vindictive.  Just hey, this isn’t working.  Sometimes you can offer up suggestions, “This is working.  I like this stanza, but this line doesn’t work at all.  I don’t understand what you’re doing.”  As a poet, you can take a step back and look at your poem.  Keep editing.  You know it’s not ready most of the time anyway, but you don’t always know what’s wrong.  Friends can help.  A good editor can give you some advice, but it’s still up to you to go back and fix it.  You don’t have to take their advice, but most of the time when someone says, “This needs a little work” there’s something valid in their opinion.  It will usually benefit you to at least take a look at it.  You’ll come back with something better, I guarantee it.

 

I think networking is really important in the writing community.

It is.  None of us get to the mountain top by ourselves, thinking and writing poems in obscurity, unless perhaps if you are R.S. Thomas, who is a wonderful Welch poet who lived in an unheated cottage with his wife.  It’s not as though when you hand the poem to somebody they take ownership of it and it becomes part by them or that it was co-written.  They read it and gave some advice, and likewise, you give feedback on their poems.  It very symbiotic.  You go back to your solitary place and your work on your poem.  I think that’s a wonderful way of doing it.  Early on, for years and years, I didn’t have that person who I could hand poems to, who I felt would give me the advice I needed, or simply proof read it.  I had a couple of friends like I’ve described, but it didn’t work out as I had imagined.  That dissolved away.  Now I have two wonderful friends who read my drafts, and it’s reciprocal: Henry Hart and Julie Bloemeke.  If you can have one or two friends like that, you’re golden.  Don’t let them get away.

 

 

Kayla Haas (Public Relations Manager) is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at Wichita State University. She received her BFA in creative writing from Stephen F. Austin in east Texas. She currently serves as Assistant Editor at Gingerbread House Literary Magazine. Her work has appeared in Gigantic SequinsThe Story ShackBlue Lyra Review, Psaltery and Lyre, and is forthcoming in NANO Fiction.