In The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux write, “Each of us has our own relationship to death, a relationship that starts in childhood with our first awareness of it. And throughout our lives, we experience the grief and loss that another death brings,” offering that writing about death can “offer some solace” (39). They also cite poets like Marie Howe, Tess Gallagher, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, and others who’ve written about death in fascinating ways. I’ve been reading your new book Sheep Can Recognize Individual Human Faces (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014) and your chapbook The Patron Saint of Lost and Found (Lone Willow Press, 2003). Talk about the themes of death and grief in your work.
It’s Saturday night, or well, now it’s Sunday Morning. this is the day that the time changes to daylight savings time, so I’ve already lost an hour out of my life without even trying. I have been spending the last couple hours talking to my baby sister about how our father died, about her experiences with death and dying people, which is a lot of experiences, maybe hundreds, she can’t even count them, and I tell her that the only experience that I have with someone actually dying in my presence is with our father. Technically, legally, I am drunk. I’ve had about 6 or maybe seven shots of Jim Beam, and she’s had several shots of Bacardi. Even though we grew up in the same family and share all the same genetic material we hardly know each other and we’re just starting to know each other. She’s ten or twelve years younger than I am. She’s a nurse who has lots of experience with dying people (she’s the nurse in the poem “Nope” in the Sheep book) and can tell me how I should go about the process of offing myself (take plenty of anti-emetics—you don’t want to wake up in the morning and be embarrassed) and tells me the way to do it to make the least traumatic experience for the people I love. We talk about bridges, guns, pills et cetera. Death isn’t a parenthesis to me, though she thinks that when you die you go someplace, because she is a “spiritualist,” which is what people call themselves who believe in life after death but not in organized religions. They believe that people who are dead are spirits and can talk to the living through mediums. I think that’s all bullshit and have told her and a lot of people that I’m ashamed of myself for having perpetuated the stories that religions foist off on the general populace onto my children. Still, I am a weak man, and afraid of all that lies ahead, and I have come to realize since my parents died that I am mortal. First, my brother was killed in a car wreck when I was 16, and that made me into a poet. Many of my poems, if not all, have mortality in the background of them, even if I am being funny, or smart-assed, or even comical in the poem. Death is the driving force behind poetry, whether all the happy poets admit it or not. In my poems I try to deal with that force when it comes up, which seems to me to be all the time, and to tell death that I know It’s there, give it its nod, and then to say to death that I don’t care, I am going to love the people I love and live the life I live, and do whatever I can this day, and basically to say “fuck you death.” I know that death wins in the end, whatever Jesus purportedly said, and that is a painful thing to admit, but before it does, I want to say the things that were important to me, and cry out the things that made me have pain, and say the names of the people who loved me and who I loved, and tell what we did, and to live those brief moments in a poem as if we were all shining, every second, every day, even in our shitty lives, as if we would never die.
I’ve been reading your chapbooks For My Son in a Motel Room (Sandhills Press). I find myself returning to the title poem and to the penultimate stanza that reflects on patience in parenting and how long it takes to learn that lesson. One thing that strikes me about your poetry is the patience, the way something small like a dripping faucet in The Patron Saint of Lost and Found, becomes an opportunity to reflect on the large. Talk about your writing process and the ways you make time and have made time to write. Does patience play part of this process? After all, you’re a fairly prolific poet who continues to put out new books and chapbooks year after year and it would seem that to create so much means you must lie in wait for poems, often.
I hate to quote myself, but a poem from two years ago “When You Get to be an Old Man” talks about this in the last few lines:
like being tangled in a spider web,
like being the spider on the back porch, in the fall,
her web woven, for all to see and admire,
to wait with her,
to know something stumbles by,
to know you’ll take it.
That’s pretty much how I write, or part of the physical process of how I write. To be a writer with the discipline to write every day is the key for me. Now that I am older, I am lazier, and right now I am not writing every day, and my writing is suffering for it. I don’t force myself to sit down each night and write something. Now that I am older, I am more tired at night, or I guess I should say that I feel the effects of being tired, whereas when I was younger, (30’s, 40’s, 50’s,) I would stay up late, get up early, stoke up on coffee, go another day. Now I can’t do that without suffering consequences that are noticeable in my job that I go to every day where they actually pay me money to do the job. I used to be angry at working for pay about 85% of the time; now I know that if I don’t do it there, there won’t be time for anything else because my job is what keeps me alive. Poetry (only) keeps my soul alive, but if I don’t have a body that’s working the soul will go away soon too. So right now I am working to remove all the “clutter” in my life so that I can spend the time I have spent lately on the clutter, on writing poems.
When I was a young poet I would wait until I “got inspired” but that happened all the time, so it wasn’t difficult to wait—it was usually only a couple hours or a day anyway. In those days, all it would take to spark off a writing spree was to sit down and start writing about whatever crossed my mind. In those day, my mind was on fire, and I was reading a lot of poems—which I think is essential to do to be a poet—and something about reading poems would touch off a spark. It was like my mind was a forest filled with tinder, awaiting only a careless poet to come along and toss his burning cigarette. Later, when I graduated from college and (unwillingly) got out into the workaday world, I did not have the luxury of sitting around and reading and writing for hours and hours at a time, and some jobs I had I was so tired at the end of the day all I did was collapse after doing all the family stuff, then reading a bit in the evening. One of those jobs, delivering bread back in 1979, I’d get up at 4 a.m. and not get home until 6 or 7 at night. I’d read a few poems and crash, but I was compelled to write, so once I tried to tape record as I was driving and ran my bread truck off into the ditch driving up the gravel road to a country restaurant, so I quit doing that!
I’ve got probably a hundred notebooks I’ve written stuff in and then abandoned, because usually when I first write something I don’t like it at all. If I get a chance to go back to it, then sometimes I find something that I can keep, and type it up. I think maybe it’s probably better I let it stay there in the notebooks, but I plan to go back through those just for fun when I retire to find scraps that might be good. This practice established my way of writing for forty-plus years: write something, write anything, just write—about the day, the bugs, the flowers, the faces, the houses, the stars, the flies, the people at the store, the stuff we had for dinner, the way I felt about work, something my boss said, my feelings about work, the kids, my neighbors, the trash, the walls, the trees, my wife, the moon—just anything—and then follow where it leads. When I write that way I get into a zone, if I’m lucky, and keep my big crappy censoring self out of it—if I don’t have intellectual control over the words that are coming to me they more or less just happen. Somehow the poem gets into those “large” issues just because it’s busy associating. Looking at that roach running across the floor sometimes makes me realize, though I usually don’t say it directly in the poem, that I am not all that much different than that animal that’s carrying around a very high percentage of my DNA. Seeing the sunset through the trees, sometimes I realize that hundreds of millions of others have seen it too, and many of those have been killed for some stupid reasons. I think it’s something like that drawing technique where you try to shut off the mocking, censorious, judgmental, socially impaired (because inspired by social correctness) part of the brain, and when you get to that point, you do your work by associational leaps. I hate it when I’m writing and the “Boss” side of my brain kicks back in and starts to tell me what I should be writing. Later on when I’m reading back through the poem, I will realize (if I’m reading with my real writing mind) that’s the place the poem ended, and I’ll chop it off right there. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this because it seems like it’s better to let it run by itself than to try to dissect it, as though a poem or the writing of a poem were an embalmed frog in high school biology, and make myself so self-conscious about it that I can’t write anything at all. The short answer is: write something every day, write anything, don’t be judgmental of it, keep it, come back to it—maybe you will find a poem in amongst all the cat litter and the smashed tomato cans and the baby diapers you put out on the curb.
I’ve also been reading your chapbooks when there wasn’t any war (The Backwaters Press, 1987), tables, chairs, wall, window (Sandhills Press, 2000), and Greatest Hits 1975-2000 (Pudding House Publications, 2001). You’re the author of seven chapbooks and several full-length books as well. In terms of genre, what’s the difference for you in terms of putting together a chapbook compared to putting together a book? How do you organize, sequence, and explore themes in a chapbook verse a book? Is it the same or different and in what ways?
A person I count as a poetry-friend of mine, Lola Haskins, wrote a book that The Backwaters Press published called Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner’s Guide to the Writer’s Life. Lola is an amazing poet and an extremely talented poetry craft-person as well. Anyone who wants to get good handbook on “What-it-means to-be-a-poet-and-how-to-do-it” should read this book. It is a book not only about writing poetry but about the Zen of living and writing. In it, she talks in one chapter about constructing your book so that it has an arc, and a story line, so that this poem leads to that one, and these are grouped here to do this and so on. It’s phenomenal, and something that I don’t do and have no inclination to do.
Another brilliant poet, Donald Justice, said somewhere something like: you should just toss all your poems together in any order and because one poet wrote them, they will resonate. I fall more into that camp. Judging by Donald Justice’s poems, and by how careful a poet he was, I guess that I don’t believe that he did that exactly, but maybe he did what to him was something approximating that.
When someone asks me this question, I always say that I just throw them all together in a roughly chronological order of their composition, and the poems will talk amongst themselves and resonate, but I’m probably following some inner process that I don’t recognize and that’s how the manuscripts get arranged. I know that I oftentimes will try to arrange the poems in a full-length book in chronological order of their creation, but I also know that poems get with you and stay with you and that you begin to associate this poem about your daughter picking up a frog with the one about coming home from the war, when they may have been written 35 years apart from each other. Subject matter makes the main difference, and I sometimes realize that I’ve lumped in a poem that I wrote 20 years before with one that was written a year ago because they address the same concern and they feel like they belong together. I know that a friend of mine, Paul Dickey, has poems in the same book that were written years apart, and I think that many do that. People tend to dwell on a few topics and to write about them over and over and over again, although every time you write a poem you usually think that you’re creating this incredible new thing that has never been done before, not by anybody. So that happens.
I do find that when I’m putting a chapbook together that I tend to find all the poems that I can find about one topic/subject and place them together. Because chapbooks are shorter, they force you to leave out the poem about your parents growing old and the one about when Old Shep your dog died if the rest of your chapbook is about all the time you spent in the army smoking dope and lobbing grenades or whatever. A chapbook is more like a short story—you have to have a unified action and everything has to relate to the same theme, all lead to the ending climax, just because it’s short, and you don’t have the space to goof around. In a longer book, you can have a section that’s about your cats and one that’s about your parakeets and it can still be a “collection of poems.” Although nowdays, it appears to me that most poets are following the “story arc” idea that I think Lola talks about (can’t recall if she uses that term), that I think may be emanating out of the writing workshops too—that your poems have a job to do, to get your reader from one place to another, sort of like a novel in a way.
My first book, nobody lives here who’s seen this sky, is actually more like a really long chapbook in this sense, because generally the poems are based upon my life during the time I was a UPS worker and are a reaction to that work, and a record of my struggle to keep myself being a poet when UPS was trying (I thought) to choke that out of me, and to kill my soul so that I would become a UPS automaton that could deliver packages more efficiently and have absolutely nothing else on my mind. I was young, and I wanted to be a poet more than a UPS driver. I wanted to be a poet more than anything. Although I had two children I didn’t care about money. I did write a poem, years after I left UPS— the last poem in the book—purposely to act as a capstone to that book, so that it would have a sense of being tied up and finished, but all the rest of the poems in that book came from that time period. The experience of working for them is still so raw for me that I could probably write another 40 poems about it if I tried. To this day, I still have nightmares about the job; it’s become my default anxiety dream—whenever something, anything, is bothering me, I dream about being stuck in a UPS package car, delivering, not making it, falling behind, lost, late, night, disoriented, pressured, etc. etc.
A book that came out almost concurrently was How Things Happen that was a hand-set letterpress book on beautiful, fine paper from bradypress, and it was, though shorter, more of a miscellany of poems, because the editor of bradypress, Denise Brady, chose 15 poems from a longer manuscript that she liked and wanted to set. Some of the poems were in both books, but they had a very different feel. Most of my chapbooks were collections of poems that centered around one topic—the kids (For My Son in a Motel Room, Marigolds), my mom’s sickness late in life (tables, chair, wall, window), but then, The Patron Saint of Lost and Found was more or less just a chronological collection like a full-length collection. New Route in the Dream was a hodge-podge of old and new poems. Until my last book, Sheep Can Recognize Individual Human Faces, I never actually determined where a poem should go except by chronology as I could recall it—In that one, dealing mainly with coming to terms with death, I put a poem about my mom dying at the beginning and one about my dad dying at the end, like bookends, but that was also chronological. My only real rule in putting together a manuscript is to not lump all the poems that are on one subject one right after the other so as not to become utterly boring. I’ll scatter them throughout the book. My thought is that since the poems were all by the same poet, and written more or less in the same period of that poet’s life, they’ve got to be talking to each other somehow, and I’ll let the reader figure it out.
On the other hand, if you have hung with me this far, and you are looking for advice on how gather a collection together, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, for all of my publications, I think, have come about by accident, chance, knowing someone, and dumb luck. In the end, I have no advice for any poet serious about his or her career, because in the end, I have no career as a poet. I work as a government functionary, more like Franz Kafka than Billy Collins. Few people have ever heard of my poems outside of a small circle of friends. I am locked out of the mainstream of American poetry (as are most poets) measured by any real measure of success in the poetry-biz: prizes, awards, winning contests, jobs, tours, appointments, speaking engagements, grants, etc.—I’m not complaining, just stating a fact. There are thousands of poets out there doing the same thing that I do. (That you do). I only write because writing poems, plus my family, is what keeps me alive, but I couldn’t win a contest if my life depended upon it. Listen to somebody else, study other poets who have poetry careers, because this poet can win no contests, nor tell you to do anything anywhere nearly as important as what your own spirit can say to you when you are writing a poem.
How do you define chapbook? A short collection usually composed of thematically closely-related poems, (nowdays fiction too) usually about 15 to 25 pages long, usually folded over and stapled, or “saddle stitched,” but not necessarily so. Often hand-made, on more expensive papers, with hand-set type— oftentimes more art-quality printing that a standard paperback. Usually, limited editions of a couple hundred maximum.
What makes a good chapbook? I get it—this is a trick question. Good poems?
What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I still draw inspiration from the chapbook series that Greg Kuzma did back in the 70s at The Best Cellar Press. He did all the typesetting by hand on beautiful papers. He published such poets as Albert Goldbarth, Wayne Dodd, Ted Kooser, Wendell Berry, Richard Shelton (whew! I just noticed—all guys!) and many many others. I still get a kick out of Don Wentworth’s itty bitty Lilliput Review that’s filled with tons of itty bitty poems.
What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Barry Macdonald’s The Pink House from the Best Cellar Press.
What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? To have all the poems related to the same subject or theme.
How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m stuck in the way I write. I don’t think I’ll ever get better. Maybe by accident. Maybe I’ll fall and hit my head and become a poetry savant.
What’s next for you? Keep writing, mainly. I’m putting together a short collection that will be a short book but too long to be a chapbook, of poems about my brother who was killed in a car wreck when I was 16. These are poems written over the course of 40 years. I guess that his death and my relationship to that is one of the themes that is found in my poems frequently. It’s called The Sun Has Stayed Where it is. I was awaiting for a lost poem from the center of it (center chronologically and psychologically) that my sister, thank you Jesus! had kept for the last 20 years that was the only copy of it I know of. I also have a short collection (but longer than a chapbook) of poems from the last couple years called “It’s as good here as it gets anywhere,” that I have out to a couple presses and contests. Actually, I’m thinking of maybe pulling some poems out of it if the book doesn’t get accepted and publishing the ones that are similar to each other as a chapbook—so there you have it—my chapbook technique!
Number of chapbooks you own: 150 approximately. Maybe more—they can blend in a bit.
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 150 approximately. Maybe more—they can blend in a bit.
Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Aw heck, I don’t really have a community. Is there someplace I can retire to where all they do is write and publish chapbooks? Sounds fun—let me know!
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: You are funny!
Your chapbook wish: I wish I had the time to start another chapbook series at The Backwaters Press, but I’m retiring from it so I can spend more time writing so that wouldn’t make sense. I wish that the press had done more with chaps, because they are fun and cool, but one can only do so much.
Residence: Omaha, Nebraska
Job: Human Services