NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second part of a craft talk with the poet Tim Seibles. His latest book, Fast Animal, is now on sale via online and brick-and-mortar booksellers. Such as Prince Books – say, those guys are all right.
Seibles is a professor in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m a student on the fiction side.
As with the first part of the talk – click here to read it – this has been edited down quite a bit for length and, in a few spots, clarity. It contains adult language, but it’s nothing you didn’t hear that time in boot camp. No, not that time. Yeah, that one.
This section deals with how Seibles began writing, his love of Jimi Hendrix, and the kinds of societal changes that remain unfulfilled ideals.
We pick up after Seibles discussed how people can come to find poetry, something they may not have known they were missing. Seibles is a captivating, expressive reader, and I asked about that.
Q: Is that one reason you put so much effort into your performance of poetry?
You know, it’s funny that you ask that. Man, from the time I read poems, that’s how I read them. It’s always felt like a physical thing to me. … I’m not just reading some poems but I’m reading from my toes up, you know? So it’s not a conscious thing, exactly. I don’t remember ever thinking I should not be that way. And my favorite poets, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to see … the language was bursting through them.
Q: And people who haven’t seen you read [should know] this isn’t circus stuff.
No. I hope not.
Q: You have this real clarity in your reading. There’s emotion, but there’s clarity. When I read, I get real nervous. It’s letting the words land. Does that make sense?
Yes. And I hope that your sense of it is what most people have, because it isn’t something I’m trying to act. I don’t rehearse my poems. There’s a certain way I hear them in my head. There’s a certain way they come through me. I don’t make any conscious decisions about how I am with them. In part, that poem “Ode to My Hands’ is partly an examination of that, actually. Your hands do live in a certain way. I have no idea why my hands do what they do. Maybe people think I’m trying to do it, but I’m not.
Q: Maybe performance is the wrong word.
But it’s performance. It is performative. It certainly is not rehearsed or choreographed. So it’s different than a dance performance. … It’s not just the language. It’s rhythms. It’s sounds. They demand a physical response from me as a reader. The body just kind of goes with it. Not unlike watching a guitarist, a saxophone player, a pianist. The way they rock back or fall to the side or tilt. It’s a felt thing. The music demands a certain thing of them. Language is very similar to that. English is my instrument, my primary instrument.
Q: You and I have talked about this before, but when I was an undergraduate at Virginia Wesleyan, you came to our campus and did a reading.
It was a while back.
Q: I heard you read, and was like, “Ohhhh.” Not that writers have to read [aloud], but I think that’s something young writers don’t think about – how you read, what you choose to read does something to potential readers. It can either turn them on –
Or off. I agree. I mean, I love poetry anyway, and I loved reading lots of poets before I ever heard them read. Certainly, when you see somebody embody the work a certain way it gives you a clearer sense of the full range of feeling that accompanies the words. Poets and artists are bearing witness to forces within us that are largely not defined and not attended to in the larger society. So when you play the blues and you fall on your knees during the solo, you’re not just saying, ‘Look, I can play on my knees!’ [Laughter.] What you’re trying to say is there is something so much larger than my own thing that I can’t stand up and hold the music in me. … When you’re reading, you hope there’s something similar in the performative moment regarding the voice in poetry. The language is a marker of a certain level of emotion or feeling, but it’s not the whole of it.
I hope people are thinking: ‘Words are amazing. Words do things to people. … I see what they’re doing to him. I see how the words are living in his being and I want the words to live in me, too.’ When I first saw Hendrix on film … I already loved his music. I already was a total Hendrix freak. I was just riveted by what the music meant in him. The way his body bore witness to its power.
Q: I wanted to ask you about mortality. … I keep coming back to clocks, representations of clocks, someone mispronouncing thyme, the spice, and looking at the wall, and people not telling [a narrator] what time does. The poem “Later” – “Early, it used to be early all the time.” And then there’s this really striking photo of you as a young man.
I’m glad they included it, because this book is really about the transition from that young guy to the guy on the back cover. That’s really what this book is. It’s a portrait of sorts, a portrait over time of age sixteen to fifty-six. That’s what the book wants to be. Of course, it’s not an exhaustive portrait, but hopefully the quintessence of being basically a child-adult to being a middle-aged man.
Q: When you thought it was early all the time, what did you think you would do with your life?
I think what I’m trying to get at, in that line, is the idea that there was a certain kind of open-endedness to one’s life that was felt at a certain age that is no longer true. Of course, I hope to live until I’m eighty or something, but to me I’m twenty-four years from being eighty and that feels to me like a pretty clear finish line. A year is a long time. It doesn’t feel like a long time, but a lot can happen in a year. … But there’s a sense that there are certain decisions that I have made that have shaped my life. Thinking certain thoughts, imagining the world in certain terms … and it has made my life a particular thing. Earlier in life, I felt I could be almost anything. There are things I loved, football, music. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll be a guitarist, a football player. I’ll be a novelist. Maybe I’ll just travel the world and have a beautiful lover in each country on earth. [Laughter.]
Q: By the way, had my guidance counselor mentioned that one to me …
As one of the options? Amen.
Q: I didn’t do well on standardized testing.
Me neither. [Laughter.] But that’s what I’m trying to get at – there was an open-ended sense of things that I no longer have. That’s not to say I feel like I’m finished. I don’t. But there are certain choices I can’t make any longer. I have great faith in the possibilities of self-transformation at all stages, but there’s a certain level of anxiety I seem to live with now that I didn’t have as a young man.
Also, there was a certain abiding faith I had in human beings that I don’t have exactly any more. That’s not to say I think everyone is fucked up or anything. I’m not that kind of cynic. You just realize there are people who are a certain way, and that’s what they are. It’s not like they’re trying to be mean. It’s not like they’re trying not to be attentive. They find themselves in a life that has shaped them a certain way, and that’s what they are. I think realizing that as a man in my forties for the first time, I thought, ‘Wow, man, you can’t really fix the world exactly.’ …
Something it’s just people who do not know do not know that they do not know. … People who think, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m going to buy the biggest car I can because there is no global warming.’ Because it’s inconvenient to think about global warming.
Q: Tim, we’re never going to run out of dead dinosaurs.
[Laughter.] Exactly. Why didn’t I see that?
Q: We’ll make some more dinosaurs. We’ll melt them down.
In many cases evil is not being perpetrated by people who are trying to be evil.
[A mild digression ensued.]
Q: Following this interview, we’re going to go over a list of things not to say while a tape recorder is running.
[Names deleted] – I will never punch them in the face.
Q: And, to my wife, I do not want a lover in every country.
I’m sure you have other questions.
Q: Actually, this part of my notes is “wander way off field.”
[Laughter.] Okay. We’re doing exactly what you want.
Q: When did you know you wanted to write?
Even as a little kid, I wanted to write. I still have some little notebooks filled with stories I wrote as a little boy. I was unaware that was not normal.
Q: Your dad was a scientist though. Did you think you were going to be a science guy?
No, I didn’t. He took me to the laboratory. He was a biochemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He took me to the laboratory a couple times and showed me stuff that was going on there. He showed me an early computer as big as this room. … He always wanted me to be my own boss, quote-unquote. ‘Be a lawyer. Be a doctor. Be an architect.’ … My passions as a kid were ultimately football and writing. I really discovered writing seriously in college. I took a workshop.
My mother read to me and my brother, and she was a great reader, very dramatic. She gave each character a different voice. I have no doubt that the way I read is wrapped up in her voice. I think my interest in literature in general came from her reading to us. She used to read the “Billy Goats Gruff” and do all the voices. And, you know, Little Black Sambo, The Three Little Pigs. I have no doubt that that was when my heart first opened to words.
I thought everyone loved stories. I found something in writing I couldn’t find anywhere else.’ The freedom of it was something I always loved. You could say whatever you felt like saying, you know? These were not stories I was assigned. I wasn’t turning them in. Mainly, no one saw them.
Q: What would be a story?
Science fiction. They were all science fiction. Robots from Venus. The grasshoppers that took over the earth. You know, the giant ants visiting Jupiter. I would come up with all these crazy things. Some of them were like six, seven pages long. Some were like 20 pages long. Handwritten, not typed.
Q: I still want to option one of them.
I was like all about, ‘The grasshoppers went there, and they ate all the people, and then they went there. They knocked over a building. …’ Man, I was into it.
Q: I like that grasshopper one. I think it’s got legs.
They were pretty fierce, man.
Q: When did you know, ‘I’m going to be a poet?’
The first workshop. The first part of the semester was fiction. The rest was poetry. I went into the workshop thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to write novels.’ I love novels and short stories. Then, ‘Poetry sounds cool. I’ll write poetry.’ I didn’t think one way or the other about it. So we were doing the stories, and it was cool, and then the other part of the semester was poetry and the guy teaching the class was a poet. He was Michael Ryan who won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. And he’s reading these poems, man, these wild-ass poems, these daring poems, sexy-ass poems, and I’m like, ‘You can do that shit? I think I want to write poems.’ And I couldn’t write worth a damn. I could speak English, but I couldn’t write poem worth a nickel. But man, it didn’t mean I didn’t have the fever. I had to make myself stop writing poems so I could do my other homework. I had the fever. I wasn’t doing much good, but it had me. I was about nineteen. That was all because of Ryan. I wanted to be that emotionally present.
Q: What did your folks think?
Well, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders. My mom was an English teacher, of course, so she said, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ But did they think, ‘You don’t really need to get a job; try poems?’ My father was saying stuff like, ‘Well even with a BA in English, you can still go to law school.’
But my parent’s dreams, especially my dad’s, died pretty hard. Being a black man of that era, they had many kinds of limitations. He, like many of the black folks of that particular age, killed themselves to make a fucking statement about their capacities and their worthiness. So I think he was thinking that the next step would be have sons that would be doctors, build buildings, you know, be great lawyers, famous all over the country. …
Ultimately, I think they find some satisfaction in my success as a poet. My father reads all of my books, cover to cover. Not my mom, who is an English teacher, mind you. My father, the biochemist, reads them cover to cover.
Q: He’s probably really proud.
I think so. I think they both are. But he’s the only one who is willing to read them cover to cover. My mom is afraid she’ll find something that is too erotic, too off. It gets her nervous. My father, he’s also the one who said, ‘Son, this is jazz. Check this out. Listen to this. This is Yusef Latif. This is Wes Montgomery. This is Les McCann … This is classical music. Peter and the Wolf, you know. This is the blues.’ He had artistic impulses, I think, but he … suppressed them for the sake of practicality. I think he wanted to be practical. Get a job he could depend on. …
You may have noticed in Fast Animal a number of references to consciousness. … Consciousness itself has been heavily infringed upon by the imperatives of the culture. What we might imagine ourselves to be has been sharply limited, shrunken by the imperatives of a business culture. You ultimately want just full human liberation. … Someone has to say yes to a larger idea of our lives. William Stafford said ‘I’m the one to hum until the world can sing.’ That may sound melodramatic, but in the context of the poem it is not at all.
Q: Do you feel at some point you’re just running out of time to express what needs to be expressed?
[Laughter.] Not yet. My parents are both still alive in their eighties, and unless I get hit by a car or shot or something I think I have some time to say other things that I’d like to say. But I imagine, unless I’m really lucky, that I will die with poems still left to write.
Q: I didn’t mean to say I think you’re getting old. It just seems like there’s so much to do.
Oh yeah. Do I feel squeezed all the time. Oh man, I’m battling tooth and nail for oxygen to write in. All the time. This four-hundred line poem I’ve been working on for the last four months. Maybe more. I mean, that jam took a lot of time. At first I’m thinking, ‘Just let it flow.’ Then the writer in you kicks in. ‘I’ll do a couple of revisions.’ The next thing you know and you’ve revised it over and over and over. It takes a long time to go through 400 lines. …
There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make room to write. For two reasons. One is I love to write. The second is, if I don’t write, I start to go crazy.
Here’s an encore of Seibles reading “Wound” from Fast Animal:
And thanks to rocking Virginian-Pilot scribe Mike Gruss, a friend of the blog, for turning me on to this reading, and for recommending the poem at 5:25 or so:
And, playing us out: