My first chapbook, *Death of a Frog Prince,* was published in 2004 by FootHills Publishing. It didn’t create much of an impression on the outside world — for example, I don’t think it was reviewed anywhere — but it did confirm, at least for me, my identity as a poet. It contains poems that are quite different from what I’m writing now. There is a kind of tentativeness in the conventional language and structure of the earlier poems. Ironically, getting those poems published as a chapbook gave me the confidence to push out from my comfort zone and start writing with more daring.
2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I never wrote fiction. When I decided to become a writer — I was 14 or 15 at the time — the kind of writer I decided to be was a poet. This was, of course, a decision of colossal stupidity. As the title of one my poems puts it, *There’s No Money in Poetry, Someone Said.* And yet I have persisted. I can’t even say why for sure. Maybe it’s because poetry, with its simultaneous emphasis on economy and depth of expression, seems to me the most challenging kind of writing one can attempt. Maybe it’s because there are truths that can be expressed in poetry that can’t be expressed in other literary forms. Maybe it’s because I can’t write fiction.
3. Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you?
Sometimes a poem will spring from an immediate experience. About a week ago, while driving on a back road, I startled a turkey buzzard feeding off roadkill — I turned the encounter into a poem. Sometimes a poem will be inspired by a fact I
discover in my reading. For example, I have a series of prose poems called “Pig/Iron” that germinated from something I read — that pigs have orgasms that last 30 minutes (I know, lucky pigs). Most of the time, though, a poem begins for me with an image or phrase that flashes into my mind and that I transfer to the little notebook I always carry for later consideration.
4. Do you employ the device of public readings? Do you feel they aid your work?
I only recently began doing poetry readings. I have done three so far this year and have another scheduled for August. The idea of reading my poetry in public used to scare the crap out of me. But I realized that if I was ever going to sell any of these zillion chapbooks I have published, I’d better swallow my fear and get out there and read. And it’s been the right decision. Not because I’ve been selling a whole lot of books — I haven’t — but because of the wonderful connection I have felt with audiences at my readings. They have laughed or sighed or been stunned into thoughtful silence at all the right spots. I’ve come away from the readings emotionally exhausted, but artistically renewed.
5. What kinds of questions are you usually trying to answer for yourself during the course of any given piece of work?
I think I’m trying to pose questions in poems, not answer them. Or maybe not even pose questions, just ponder
them in an open-ended way: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? Is love enough justification or compensation for the agonies of consciousness? How does the weight of then past shape or misshape the present? Where will the next word or line lead me?
6. How do you feel the writer contributes to society at large? Where do you think the writer fits into global perspective?
One of my literary heroes is William Carlos Williams. In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” he writes: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” That sums up for me what poets — if they’re any good — can contribute to society. On the other hand, if poets are bad — inept, insincere, inflammatory — they just contribute to the noise, the dissonance, we’re already drowning in. One of the effects of a good poem is to clear away the clutter of inferior poems.
7. How do you feel about working with editors?
I have been amazingly fortunate when it comes to editors. Dale Wisely, founding editor of Right Hand Pointing and Left Hand Waving, has been a great support to me, not only in publishing my work, but also in discussing drafts of poems that are giving me problems. Justin Runge of Blue Hour Press, which put out my digital chapbook *My Heart Draws a
Rough Map,* took enormous care with the details of editing and designing the chap. Other editors have also shown me
great kindness — Coop Renner of elimae, Barry Graham of Dogzplot, Joseph Quintela of Short, Fast, & Deadly, Cynthia Reeser of Prick of the Spindle, Lori Huskey of Dark Sky, Frank Hinton of Metazen, Scot Young of Rusty Truck. I wouldn’t have prospered as a poet if I hadn’t had editors (and that includes you, Amanda Deo) who cared about my work practically as much as I did.
8. What is one quote/piece of advice/song lyric you can’t live without?
Bob Dylan: “Started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff.”
9. Do you have a writing routine?
I write every morning if possible. Usually from 8 till noon. If I waited for inspiration, I’d get very little written. The comings and goings of inspiration are just too damn unpredictable.
10. Do you prefer a certain type of setting to write?
I write at our oak dining room table, an antique with lion-claw feet. I sit at the head of the table. From there I can look out through the picture window into the woods behind our house.
11. David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Journalism. In the long ago, I worked as an editor on newspapers in Michigan, North Dakota, and North Carolina. Directness and conciseness are among the defining characteristics of the mainstream journalism I did. My poems are usually concise constructs, and their language is often direct — it’s rare that I use a word of more than two syllables. That may be the fatal legacy of the thousands of headlines I wrote working on copy desks.
12. What writing or writers do you feel are essential for your own writing or just your life in general?
I think the writing one finds essential changes over time. When I was younger, I was devoted to poetry by Stephen Crane (he described his poems as “bitter little pills”), Kenneth Rexroth and the Beats, Neruda, Robert Bly (particularly his prose poems in *Morning Glory*). The poets I go to now include Williams, Charles Simic, Franz Wright, Donald Justice, Jack Gilbert, and Bukowski. I also read a lot of histories and biographies. At the moment I’m in the middle of a thousand-page biography of Harry S. Truman. And it’s already provided me with the basis for a poem — about Hiroshima.
13. Laptop VS Pen: Where do you stand?
Laptop for composing, pen for note-taking — and doodling.
14. What would you like to do in your writing life that you have not done yet?
Does achieving literary immortality qualify as an answer?
15. Do you have another occupation? Do you write full time?
I’m a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz. I feel like I write full-time as well. The two “occupations” are thoroughly intertwined. As someone who teaches writing, I wouldn’t feel morally justified in giving advice and instruction about writing if I weren’t writing all out myself.
16. How natural in the craft of writing for you? Was it something you picked up gracefully from a young age or has it been a lot of blood, sweat and tears to mold a talent into something significant?
Writing is work for me, but I wouldn’t do it daily if it weren’t also at some level enormous fun, a form of imaginative play that exists in opposition to everything that is dull and stupid and death-dealing in contemporary life.
17. What was the last great book you read?
Tom Drury’s novel “The Driftless Area” has remained in my head.
18. What are you currently working on?
I have two chapbooks in progress. One, “Hello, Darkness,” was by invitation and will be published by Deadly Chaps in July. The other is called *Disaster Mode* and needs a few more poems to fill it out before I can start shopping it around.
Thank you Howie for answering all my of many questions! You are truly a gem and I will continue to follow your work.
I hope you, dear readers, like the interview series I’m trying to do here. It’s enjoyable for me.