NORFOLK, Va. — Poet Tim Seibles, a member of the Old Dominion University faculty, today was named a finalist for the National Book Award for his recently released book Fast Animal.
Seibles’ work has been recognized with an Open Voice Award and a NEA fellowship, and his work has been collected in Best American Poetry. He teaches in the ODU’s MFA Creative Writing Program in Norfolk and at the low-residency Stonecoast MFA in Writing program at the University of Southern Maine.
Seibles is one of five finalists in his genre. The others are David Ferry, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations; Cynthia Huntington, Heavenly Bodies; Alan Shapiro, Night of the Republic; and Susan Wheeler, Meme. The judges were Laura Kasischke, Dana Levin, Maurice Manning, Patrick Rosal, Tracy K. Smith. Winners will be announced on Nov. 14.
I had the chance to to speak with Seibles at length earlier this year about poetry, music, Fast Animal and its predecessor, the equally-amazing Buffalo Head Solos. It’s a long conversation, but people have been finding the posts again today, so I figured I’d leave another couple of links, and also link to some readings.
But first here’s one quote from Seibles, from our earlier conversation:
If people heard more poems, read more poems, I think they would be far less willing to live without it.
John McManus and Tim Seibles, co-directors of this year’s Old Dominion University Literary Festival.
NORFOLK, Va. – The 35th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival kicks off today with a reception for two visual arts exhibits. Readings start Monday with author, poet and translator Yunte Huang, and the week goes full speed until Friday night, when Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, will write an entire novel while using only adjectives supplied by audience members.
That’s right, Hampton Roads — if you ever wanted to help a best-selling author modify his nouns and pronouns, this is your year.
For legal reasons, I must now explain that Gurganus will not write a novel with your help, but he will be here in Norfolk. Probably to read something and talk about literature. His call, really.
Sorry that lede got away from me there, but LitFest! It is great. There are a host of talented artists who will read and talk and so forth.
I traded emails with Seibles and McManus about the festival this past week. Through the miraculous cut-paste function of modern personal computing, it seems as though I interviewed them together, but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this year’s festival?
Seibles: The main thing I want people to take away from this litfest is a clear sense that language is alive and that poetry, fiction, non-fiction, etc., do, IN FACT, have something to say to and about their lives.
McManus: I hope writers in the audience will go away eager to write in response to the festival guests or in argument with them, and I hope everyone will leave wanting to read these writers’ books and read more in general. That’s what happens to me during and after a good reading: I fill up with a sense of urgency at the sheer number of worthwhile books that I haven’t read yet, and a sense of urgency to sit down at my desk and write.
Q: Are there any specific artists you are looking forward to hearing or seeing?
McManus: I will admit to being particularly thrilled about M.T. Anderson, whose novel Feed I’ve read five times. He won the National Book Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, the first volume in a trilogy whose second book is partly set in Hampton Roads during the Revolutionary War. Two of my colleagues, Sheri Reynolds and Tim Seibles, are reading during the festival; it will be a delight to hear them both. I love both Dorianne Laux and Allan Gurganus. And I’m very excited about Alice Randall.
Seibles: I think all of the guests will be a good rush for the soul, but I am especially excited about Sean Thomas Dougherty, Jamal Mohamed, Robin Becker, and Yona Harvey.
Q: What was I too dumb to ask but should have asked? And will you please answer that question?
Seibles: The answer is ‘we swim in language – we drown or we stay alive in the language we think and speak.’
McManus: You’re a professional journalist and there’s nothing you’re too dumb to ask, but if you’d asked whom we’re bringing in 2013, I’d have answered that I intend to send invitations to famous recluses like Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon and Charles Portis so that I can frame copies of my invitation letters to them and also because why not, and if you’d asked where I find all the smart, modish clothes I wear to the festival, I’d have answered that Dillard’s has an amazing 75-percent-off sale every year in the last weekend of September, which is why the festival happens at the beginning of October.
Woman, Image and Art&Photographs With Teeth: Visual arts reception. 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 30 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some paid street parking nearby. (Further details on both exhibits below.)
Dustin Lance Black’s 8: Staged reading. 8 p.m., Oct., 3-5; 12:30 p.m., Oct. 3-4 @ Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. General admission $20; students $15. Proceeds benefit ODU Out & The American Foundation for Equal Rights.
Author, poet and translator Yunte Huange. 2:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn Fine and Performing Arts, 481o Elkhorn Ave., Norfolk. Near W. 49th St.
Woman, Image and Art: Visual Arts. Runs through Feb. 10 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some street parking nearby. FMI click this link.
Photographs With Teeth: Photography by Yunghi Kim, Cori Pepelnjak, Karolina Karlic & Greta Pratt. Runs through Oct. 14 @ Gordon Art Galleries. FMI click this link.
Please keep your adjectives to yourself – unless they are superlative.
Look, that was just a half-hearted grammar joke. Please do not shout out adjectives at Allan Gurganus.
8 is based upon testimony and arguments from the federal trial in 2010 before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Prop. 8 is unconstitutional. Proponents of the amendment are pushing the Supreme Court to overturn reversals, and there’s a possibility the high court may take the matter up soon.
The play debuted on Broadway last year, but it remains an incredibly timely work.
I traded emails with Bradley J. Bledsoe this week about the upcoming staged reading. Bledsoe, a junior majoring in finance, serves as director of finance for ODU Out. Here’s a quick Q&A:
Q: How did we get the staged reading here at ODU?
It was a combined effort that was initiated by ODU Out. However – with the collaboration of the President’s Office, ODU Theatre Department and ODU Gay Cultural Studies – ODU will not only be producing the play 8, but also hosting a lecture for Dustin Lance Black for the President’s Lecture Series at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2.
Q: Where do the proceeds of the performances go?
Ten percent of all these proceeds will be going to the American Foundation for Equal Rights to help fight the Prop. 8 trials. […] The remaining proceeds will go to support ODU Out: Student Alliance’s mission:
To provide safe and reliable resources to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community;
Provide a voice for the LGBTQ community and its allies on campus;
Educate the University population about LGBTQ issues; and
Work to promote and advance LGBTQ rights within the University community through policy.
Q: Why did you join ODU Out? How has it been meaningful to be part of the group?
I joined ODU Out nearly a year ago through persuasion of friends, faculty and advisors to effectively market and promote this crucial organization to not only the student body but to build lasting alliances of local LGBTQ organizations. Through this networking of organizations such as Hampton Roads Pride, Hampton Roads Business Outreach, LGBT Center of Hampton Roads/Access Aids Care and Equality Virginia, I found that ODU Out has built a stronger foundation for the organization to stand in order to successfully implement our mission statement.
Q: How can folks find out more about ODU Out and contribute directly to the organization?
We LOVE volunteers! For anyone interested in finding out more about volunteer opportunities or for more information on upcoming events, sponsorships and donations, we have an interactive website and Facebook page.
Black speaks at 7:30 p.m, Tuesday, Oct. 2, in North Cafeteria at Webb University Center at 49th Street and Bluestone Avenue. Admission for the talk is free. Parking is free for literary festival events. Here is a fairly helpful map.
The staged readings of 8 are at 8 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, Oct., 3-5; and 12:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 3-4 at Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd. General admission is $20; students $15. Parking? Still free, unless you go with a metered spot, which is on you.
Two of the nine cases include high-profile landmark decisions in federal appeals courts – one declaring the California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the other holding the core section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. Whether the court refuses to hear the appeals or takes them, the result will set up another landmark in the LGBT civil rights struggle.
Seven of the nine cases revolve around challenges to DOMA, one concerns Proposition 8, and the ninth is an attempt by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to circumvent campaign reporting laws when it spends money to push anti-gay initiatives.
If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear our case for marriage equality, the announcement can come as early as Sept. 25. AFER’s distinguished co-counsel Ted Olson and David Boies will file written briefs and present oral argument in the spring. A final decision would likely be issued by June 2013.
If the Court decides not to hear our case, the announcement could come as early as Oct. 1. The Ninth Circuit decision that ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional will be made permanent, with marriages starting as soon as the Ninth Circuit issues its mandate, likely within several days after the Supreme Court denies review.
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:
Back already? Great. I first heard Seibles read about 15 years ago at Virginia Wesleyan College, and it was just amazing. I bought a couple of his books, and have been a fan ever since. Here’s a taste of Seibles’ voice, from a quick reading he did on his deck the evening we spoke. This is “Wound” from Fast Animal:
This was a long talk, and it has been edited down quite a bit for length and, in a few spots, clarity. In case Mom figures out that Interweb doohickey, I should note that the following conversation contains some potty-mouthery, which is totally a real hyphenated phraselet, which is, in and of itself, wordish. Maybe I’m not selling this. Point being: language.
Seibles was incredibly generous with his time, which I appreciate. He also may be the tallest interviewee yet. That’s an implied milestone right there. Wicked.
Before we get to the interview, here’s some quick housekeeping. I’ve been wrestling with my thesis the past few months, so the posts have been less frequent. However, I have some talks planned through the spring and into summer around my work schedule. Say, did you know that, if you subscribe, the posts come right to you? In the night, baby. When you really need them.
See how this works? When you provide me with free (hopefully) amusing content, everybody wins. Not after third place, actually. The General Counsel to the Imaginary Board of Trustees want me to stress this. What I mean is almost everybody, but still.
Back to Tim Seibles. This portion of the talk deals, in part, with perceived limitations imposed upon art, writing compelling poetry through personas such as the title character of the comic book and film Blade, and connecting with readers.
Q: You opened the book prior to Fast Animal, Buffalo Head Solos (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2004), with a preface that talks about … your feelings on limitations. I hoped you could just talk about what you feel when people impose limitations on art.
There are the literal limitations of language. There are all kinds of places you probably can’t go with words. That’s why there’s guitar and saxophone and sculpture and painting. But in terms of the culture we live in … I don’t know that the fact that we’re not a wildly, intensely well-read society really changes how I write. It seems clear that you may not reach as wide an audience as you’d like to with poetry, so you’re limited in the kind of impact you might have in terms of sheer number of engagements with people. But I think about some of the great musicians over the years who played Woodstock and other gigantic festivals, and just having lots and lots and lots of people listening doesn’t really add significance to what you’ve done.
I think every writer wants to do his or her best work and offer it as generously and as often as possible, you know, without losing your mind, and let the resonance be what it is to whomever. You don’t know who you’re going to reach or how deeply. You don’t know what they will make of your work if they’re writers. They may write something they might never have otherwise written because of one poem you wrote. …
I guess all writers are, in some sense, composites. The people who influenced me – like W.S. Merwin, certainly Langston Hughes, the Black Arts poets, certainly Gil Scott-Heron, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton … they had no idea what their work was going to do to me. Yet they did the best work they could and they let the impact be what it was. So here I am, just one of their progeny.
Q: You talk in that essay about poets saying some of these things, and that seems almost like a self-marginalization before you’ve even done the art. There are four concerns you talk about in the essay, and one is this idea that poetry shouldn’t be political or argumentative. I can’t think of any way poetry could be other than that.
I agree, but people I’ve had conversations with – some of them have been teachers of mine when I was a younger writer – who have felt that poetry should – capital S – should assume a certain position in relation to the larger society, a more contemplative, don’t-want-to-seem-too-upset kind of position in the culture. Fortunately, I’ve heard all kinds of poets with a huge range of perspectives. Certainly the Black Arts poets were heavily focused on political outrage, for better or worse. That can be a limiting thing, too. It can really put a stranglehold on your subject matter. A writer of any genre has to have room to go anywhere.
Not only do I disagree that poetry has to stay in a particular place or play nice … but I think all of the arts have to have their way of peeing on the rug, as a friend of mine used to say, or demanding a certain kind of attention through rage or even just pure mystical astonishment, I just think poetry, like all the arts, shouldn’t be bound by any particular kind of etiquette. If a poem is rude, let it be rude. All I care about is if it feels like what has been written comes from an honest place. If someone is shocking me just for the hell of shocking me, if someone wants to write ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ 40 times, I wouldn’t care much about that.
Q: I was talking to a friend [who writes poetry] and he said one of the things he forgets to do is write in a way that remembers the word is spoken. I think one of things people who have experience you reading understand, there’s a wonderful ability for these poems to be spoken.
I sure hope so, man. I like to think that when I’m writing I’m hearing the poems. I’m not sure I can explain it exactly, but the lines come to me as spoken things. I hope they have a life on the page, but I’m also thinking about how they might hit the ear, how they might live in someone’s ear.
Q: I wanted to ask about the third thing [in the essay] which is poems that are “too imaginative,” and that this is a complaint some might have. I think people pick up your book, they’ll see the form of the poem on the page. Some are lean and some our stout and some move and change … but also within the words sometimes you write the word not the way it appears in a list in a dictionary, but in a way that you want the reader to feel the word – or that the character would say the word. Could you talk about why you do that?
For the most part, I use the language in a relatively conventional way. Now, what I say may not be conventional, but in terms of syntax and meaning for the most part ‘green’ in a Seibles poem is that color of grass. When I’m bending things or trying to tilt the language a little, I’m hoping it will jar them just a little bit, enough to make them kind of snap out of the trance of normal thinking. I’m hoping that with a particular bend in the language that you can pull someone up short and make them attend in a different way.
It’s the same thing, for example, with the use of similes and metaphors. You’re hoping for a kind of heightened moment that really reestablishes their attentiveness to the text. I don’t think a poem can be a shock and a surprise every second. I don’t think any art does that. You want there to be enough unpredictability, surprise in a piece to keep a reader or a listener on edge. …
I know, for example in Buffalo Head Solos, no one is expecting to hear from [the persona of] a cow. … I want to invite people in with a tempting promise and then I want to sustain their interest by rewarding their attention with fresh ideas, word music, etc.
Q: Especially the ‘persona poems,’ it’s about you giving the voice to something that doesn’t have a voice and talking in a lot of ways – I keep coming back to marginalization, but you talk about creatures that are used, that are consumed, or consume so little, and are punished for doing it.
I hope to be giving voice to things that often have no voice, but also playing out my own strange sensibility. I would never work with a persona that had nothing to do with me. Whatever it is, whomever it is – cartoons, cow, virus, whatever – if I’m trying to develop a persona, that means I’m finding certain aspects of my own voice within that voice. Certain things just compel me. What would a cow say about its predicament? How is the predicament of a cow like the predicament of a person. … My inspirations are necessarily connected to my life as a human being. I don’t have any reason to speak in the voice of, you know, a doily. I’m not moved to speak as a doily. A doily does not know pleasure or suffering.
Q: They’ve got it rough.
[Laughs.] We concede this, their struggle. In terms of persona, I’m drawn to certain characters – animate or inanimate – because they allow me to chew on a predicament that concerns me. I have that poem [“Ambition: Virus Confessional”], which is trying to get at a kind of insidious and secret consumption of life. Culture – it doesn’t matter what culture you’re in. All cultures want to use their members to propagate and promote the culture as it is. That’s why radicals are not welcome. That’s why people who don’t bow to the imperatives of the culture are often marginalized.
So when I’m writing in the voice of a particular persona, I’m often trying to get into territories in that, if I were to try to address them strictly in my ‘own’ voice it would seem maybe too – It wouldn’t be naval gazing exactly, but it would constantly wrestle with certain issues as though my predicament was the central issue. … No one cares about my alienation, you know? People who read poems are more interested in how my sense of alienation or marginalization or joy or erotic insanity speaks to their own fascinations.
Q: Let’s move to Fast Animal, where you have poems about Blade. You read recently at Prince Books in Norfolk, and talked a little bit about some things that were going on around 2007, 2008. What was going on with you then?
I thought 2000 to 2008 was the most disturbing era, socially and politically speaking, in my adult life. As a young man, of course, the 1960s would have been wildly volatile, but in the ‘60s you had people actively engaged in trying to overturn a repressive and generally fucked up society. There were heads butting and people yelling, challenging complacency in the face of what was considered a really well organized evil – racism, sexism, militarism are bad for humanity on a massive scale.
Q: And poetry was part of that.
Q: Even from The Black Panther newspaper to –
Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.
Q: – to “revolutionary art.”
Yes. ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ by Gil Scott-Heron.
Q: Which you reference.
Yes. ‘Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni. That stuff was all about ‘Hey, you can not hold us down, goddamn it.’ You know? What I found most difficult about the Bush era, was that the administration was clearly unethical but people just played along. It’s not that people didn’t care. I knew plenty of people who cared, but it felt as if all resistance was being overrun, carried in the current we hated.
I thought Bush and company were just bloodsuckers of a kind, a psychic kind. Blade, you know … When I saw the first movie, I thought he had a certain purity of intention, a recognition that there are certain evils that cannot be tolerated, that must be confronted directly. … I mean, there had to be some place I could go with the kind of anger in my gut. And with that first poem, ‘Blade, The Daywalker,’ I thought, ‘Yes, this is the mind I can step inside that will allow me to say what I mean with a kind of controlled fury.’ I mean, I am not going to kill anybody.
Q: At least, don’t put it on tape.
[Laughter.] Right. But Blade will, Blade has, and knows exactly why. I don’t want to promote violence. Violence doesn’t seem like a great help. At times, perhaps it’s necessary, but to be avoided if possible. … When I was using Blade as a persona, I wanted to get at a certain kind of anger that I couldn’t articulate otherwise.
Now there’s a poem in Buffalo Head Solos, that poem called ‘Really Breathing.’ That’s in a voice that people might consider my voice – that is certainly not a persona. That poem also is about a kind of rage. It’s got playfulness, as well, but it’s a really stormy voice that is complaining and pointing fingers and taking names. The Blade poems allow me a kind of purity of voice. He kills vampires. There are no literal vampires in the world, but we are consumed. We are fed upon in various ways by ideologies and institutions that are not especially humane.
Q: Blade is an outsider, as a character, but Blade is a very successful comic book that was turned into a very successful movie with, at the time, one of the biggest stars in the country. Made a lot of money, sold a lot of popcorn. And it is a piece of pop culture. It’s an entertainment. It’s to be consumed. But what you’ve done is taken that figure and used it to express something else, and I think that’s interesting.
I hope so. There was a kind of clarity of purpose in that character. I mean, even if I just wanted to run around and punch everyone I thought was evil, I’d either be dead or in jail in a few minutes. But Blade could develop a life around fighting evil. Does Blade have a job? No. Blade doesn’t have rent due or credit cards to deal with. Blade is someone who fights evil. That’s what he does. Blade doesn’t have vacations. He doesn’t say, ‘Boy this is getting old. I think I’ll go to Six Flags this weekend.’ [Laughter.]
Even if there’s no way to defeat an enemy, you still have to fight. That’s the way I feel about it as an artist. You have to sing your song, whether it’s to one person or a thousand. At times, I try to use poetry as a shield and as a blade.
Q: I was trying to think of things I see repeated in your poems, because I’m simple that way.
No. In this book, you may have noticed it, certain phrases recur in different poems, in different contexts. I’m consciously trying to knit the book together. It’s really built [the collection] to make certain patterns emerge, certain thoughts and arguments between the poems.
Q: I keep thinking about, you know, it’s meaningful what’s on TV and you come back to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” And then it strikes me, there’s this idea in your previous collection [Buffalo Head Solos] in “Visions.” It’s a poem about a man and a conversation with his cat, and then in the end he’s killed.
He’s killed intellectually, spiritually.
Q: And they find him. The TV’s on.
Basically he’s paralyzed staring at the television, and the nonsense that’s on.
Q: So what do you think of TV?
I think its purpose is distraction. I think people are invited to watch television so they will be less aware of the things that are chewing up our lives. It can also be a legitimate source of entertainment. We cannot attend to the difficulties of the world every waking second. Our heads would just blow up. I do think for most people it’s a substitute for actual thinking and feeling. …
This kind of idea that we can just consume the world, and we’ll always have more stuff to build and buy and sell to other people, there’s just a fundamental wrongheadedness about that approach to our lives. [TV] is constantly saying, ‘You will find meaning by consuming. In fact, the only real meaning is consumption.’ I think that’s a terrible way to subvert human beings and the impulse – the better impulse – of the human heart. …
You hope, because it seems that we have the potential for a certain kind of compassionate attentiveness that we have yet to find the institutions to support it, enact it. I like to think that poetry is a vehicle for compassionate attention. It matters that we feel grave despair and great delight and great longing and that we’re stunned by beauty, that we’re not just paychecks and car loans and mortgages. We’re these complex creatures that can do better, see more clearly, live more heartfully, and hurt each other less.
This is not a culture where people are beating themselves up to get to a gallery or read poetry or hear jazz or Bach. This isn’t a culture where people are killing themselves to get to a reading, you know? Most people don’t know that poetry can be something that triggers a larger grasp of the world they live in. …
If people heard more poems, read more poems, I think they would be far less willing to live without it.
The Tunnel Traffic reading series shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a Johnny Cash reference in which "shot" means "gathered writers to read a poem or whatnot" and "just to watch him die" stands for "just so people listening have this realization, basically, a kind of epiphany about the world." See? This cutline is totally not libelous, right Travis A. Everett, founder of the series? Photo by John Doucette.
NORFOLK, Va. — The Tunnel Traffic reading series returned last month, and it will continue this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.
The reading prompt, recently announced by series founder Travis Everett, a poet and and ODU student in the MFA Creative Writing Program, is say something “nice” about New Jersey. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m also a student in the program.
The next Tunnel Traffic is at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, at Borjo, located at Monarch Way and W. 45th St. in Norfolk. There is nearby metered street parking and some garage parking. Plenty of drinks and eats.
Here’s a video from the last one, and a brief Q&A follows.
Here’s the Q&A with Everett:
Q: The topic/prompt is “say something ‘nice’ about New Jersey”? Why is “nice” in quotes?
We’re just following an old typographic “convention” for providing additional emphasis, John.
Q: New Jersey, as in the state, yes?
The Wikipedia disambiguation page for ‘New Jersey’ informs me that there’s a Bon Jovi album, and two battleships by the same name. Our fault, for introducing the ambiguity. If you have something ‘nice’ to say about Bon Jovi’s New Jersey or either iteration of the USS New Jersey, please do.
Q: We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Anything to add?
I have a lot of “nice” things to say about glam metal.
And that’s the whole interview. As a wise man, his guitarist, and Desmond Child once wrote:
You get a little but it’s never enough.
Show up Wednesday. Maybe Tico Torres will show up to sign autographs, though I am legally obligated to tell you he will not. Anyway, if you want to rock the mike by reading the lyrics to “Bad Medicine,” don’t do it all ironic. Rock the mike with sincerity, baby.
Writer and editor Tom Robotham, hard at work at the Taphouse in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.
NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second half of a two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham, a columnist in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine. He was the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly.
It comes up, you might say.
Part One of the talk ran last week, and it can be found at this link. It discussed, among other things, Robotham’s recent return to school as a student via the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Robotham also teaches at ODU.
We’re friends, and I used to string for PortFolio, among other things. So, you know, those are my conflicts (this time) for those who believe in objectivity, angels, and compassionate land barons.
Why don’t you ever call me, Columbia Journalism Review? I’m waiting, sweet baby. Damn, girl.
Q: When I got here (in the early 1990s), the sense I always got was that PortFolio wasn’t like the vision you had for it of it being a mini-Village Voice. It was more of a what’s-going-on-at-the-Oceanfront kind of pub.
When I interviewed for the job I pitched them on turning it into a real alternative weekly with hard news, edgy humor, think pieces, and even to the extent that we had resources to manage it, investigative pieces, which I’m proud to say we did a fair number of. I think they regretted hiring me almost from day one. How I stayed for 10 years, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. But I had the advantage of having a lot of – once I demonstrated that commitment and that vision … I got the attention of a lot of former Pilot people. I used to joke that people graduated from The Pilot to PortFolio because I got virtually ever great writer from that golden era of great writing – (Mike) D’Orso, Lynn Waltz, Bill Ruehlmann –
Q: Joe Jackson.
Joe Jackson did some really long, in depth pieces for me.
Q: He’s a guy that still intimidates me. And I’ve met him. He’s a wonderful guy, but he’s just done so much stuff.
He’s so humble and so soft-spoken and just tenacious as a reporter. …
Q: I think probably most people know you from your editor’s notes.
I had taken my inspiration from Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper’s magazine. He wrote a piece called ‘Notebook’ and I just admired that so much. He adamantly refused to dumb down his writing, even though there’s a lot of pressure to do that these days … I did try to write in a very philosophical way. I made reference to a number of writers, especially Emerson, who probably ended up in every third column of mine. I wanted it to be more than ‘Hey readers, welcome: here’s what’s in this issue!’ I wanted it to be an essay that used the contents of the issue as a jumping off point but went beyond that.
Q: And that’s the thing, I think, an opinion writer really should do. I get a little frustrated when I read columns or essays that basically regurgitate the facts of the news report and just give it some one liners. We’ve talked over the years. I didn’t always agree with everything you wrote, but you were writing it. Can you talk about how you started off with your “Editor’s Notebooks” (in PortFolio) and how they evolved?
They ended up growing, for one thing. The space I took up the first year was less than it was, you know, say midway through my tenure and beyond. I started out sharing reflections. I’m hesitant to say it, because it later became a slogan at Landmark [which owned PortFolio and The Pilot], but long before those fliers went around, internal rah-rah fliers, I like to think I was good at connecting the dots. (Laughs.) I would kind of meander in my essays. I probably got that from Emerson and more so from Thoreau, who celebrated wandering both physically and intellectually. I always tried to come back to the point where I began.
Q: I think what you always tried to do in your essays was to return to your original point, but the path you’ve taken gives you another way of looking at the original point.
I guess I would think of it as a helix, where it seems you’re circling around the point, and if you’re looking down on it you’re coming back to the same point but if you look at it from the side you’re hopefully on a new level of understanding. At least, I felt that I was. All my essays were personal essays. I always wrote in first person. I wrote about my own life experiences and how they related to the subject at hand. Really what I was trying to do was say to the reader, ‘I’ve been thinking about this lately; come with me and let’s explore this idea.’ Really, I was writing in a way to myself, trying to work through this idea, hopefully in a way that appealed to other people. A lot of people seemed to like it. … I would get people who would say, occasionally, they didn’t like the first person stuff. They thought it was egotistical. I used to quote Joyce Carol Oates. She said, ‘The individual voice is the communal voice.’ … I always felt we have so much in common … that my experiences would be universal in some sense.
Q: (Recently for Veer) you wrote about NPR and right-wingers, very specifically. The feeling I had was that was a column that would appeal to people such as me who feel public broadcasting is important, but I didn’t think it would appeal, or be persuasive, to people who disagreed. Is there a need for a column or essay to try to persuade? Or is preaching to the choir enough sometimes?
Well, no. I would like to think I’m not just preaching to the choir. I think that’s a waste of time. I always felt like I was being reasonable, and I would admit when I stumbled and fell into the same kinds of things I hate on the right, which, you know, just these easy shots at people or clichés, stereotypes. I tried to ground those kinds of essays in logic and evidence. I think the only reason – I think you’re right about that column, but I honestly don’t think it was a flaw in my column. I think it was a reflection of where we are in our society.
Q: We’re just so polarized.
We’re just so polarized. I remember watching, when I was a kid, William Buckley’s firing line. He had Allen Ginsberg on there. Obviously, they were never going to agree, but they had an exchange, a civil exchange, and I think Buckley did grow and change over time. I think he was open to listening to people with whom he disagreed, and thinking about those things because he was a true intellectual. I think any open-minded, anti-NPR person could conceivably come read some of the points I was making and said, ‘Okay, that’s a good point; I still philosophically disagree with NPR, but maybe I’ll give it another listen; maybe it’s not as liberal as I think.’
Q: But when it runs with a headline like “Why right-wingers hate NPR,” or whatever the headline was, isn’t that the kind of thing that turns you off when you see it?
The headline may not have been the best choice. Headlines, I think, have always been designed to grab people by the lapels. I guarantee you that got a lot of right-wingers reading it, just like I listen to Rush Limbaugh. I know that I had a huge number of right wing readers over the years at PortFolio.
Q: You’ve written extensively about music. I loved reading about that, about jazz, about what you thought jazz said (in columns). How has jazz influenced your writing? Or has music influenced your writing?
I think jazz has influenced my writing a great deal because I improvise when I’m writing. I don’t know where I’m going, particularly when I start an essay. Most writing, I guess, but particularly when I’m starting an essay. Like a jazz musician, I start with an idea. With a jazz musician that would be the chord changes, right? And the rhythm and so on. And then I play the melody, i.e., I lay out the idea. And then I start to riff on it. I start to improvise. … A good jazz solo can’t just suddenly jump right back to the melody. It has to organically find it’s way back to the melody. That’s what I do with my essays.
Q: Do you write to music?
No. I tend to like music so much that my mind is pulled apart. No, I always write in silence. … Now that may seem like a contradiction, as I often write here at the Taphouse (a restaurant and bar in Norfolk where the talk took place).
Q: Maybe not when a band’s playing.
Right. I do like writing with white noise. I like writing in coffee houses and bars and things like that. That’s background noise. I like the energy of people around me, but I can put myself in a bubble in that environment.
Q: I can’t.
We all have these different sensibilities. Every writer has a different kind of environment. I write a lot at home in silence. Sometimes I put on music to take a break.
We spoke for a while about when Robotham left PortFolio, laying out some details of his departure in his last Notebook. The publication was later shuttered.
Q: Without dwelling too much on PortFolio, I think we have missed having a vital weekly alternative publication. PortFolio had a vision and a voice, and that went away.
They wanted a commodity.
Q: And it died.
And it died. And I think – well, they killed it. It didn’t die. They murdered it. And I think that – put this in a pull quote – I think that was one of the stupidest decisions that I’ve ever seen in my 30 year career in publishing. …
For one thing, they missed it. They tried to keep it alive and started it up again as Pulse (an insert to The Pilot) or whatever. They didn’t realize the importance of PortFolio to the community, but the viability of PortFolio as a business – much more viable than The Pilot. Daily newspaper are dying because that kind of information is best delivered online. More thought – magazines with more thoughtful, in-depth pieces, not breaking news. You know, ‘Navy SEAL memorialized at vigil’ or something, which is fine. That stuff now belongs on the web. There’s an experience people still crave, and I think the success of Veer is a testament to that. That suggests to me that publications like PortFolio when I was editing it are still very viable. That’s demonstrated by the fact that the best ones like Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., which is one of the best in the country –
Q: News is the issue. No one is doing the kind of alternative reporting (here) that makes Willamette Week significant, that makes the Boston Phoenix significant, that makes The Village Voice significant. Even Style (in Richmond, Va.) –
And even the Voice, sad to say, is backing off of that.
Q: But that’s something important that I don’t think AltDaily and Veer have quite figured out how to – not ‘figured out how to do’ – can afford to do yet.
I think [Veer publisher] Jeff [Maisey] would love to do that. I also think he’s trying … to run a business. One of the problems of course is that when you’re doing hard-hitting news, let alone investigative pieces, you have to have enormous resources behind you. You have to have some good lawyers. One lawsuit could shut you down and then some. That’s one reason I lament the abdication of responsibility by a lot of daily newspapers with the exception of The New York Times and to some extent The Washington Post, and even they’re not what they once were. Apart from the fact that they’re probably terminal as papers, not necessarily as news organizations, it seems to me they have a responsibility to do that kind of thing. In part, because they’re able. They have lots of money behind them.
Q: You’ve got to think locally, is the thing.
The other thing aside from lawsuits is reporting. Good reporting takes time and very few seasoned reporters are going to do it for free. You have to pay them.
Oh, I think so. Yeah. I agree with you, as I understand your position, that that’s the way to go. Non profit. … That’s why I’m such a big supporter of NPR. They do good news reporting. They do great opinion reporting. For the record, it’s not all left wing. … NPR makes an incredible effort to be – NPR is the fair and balanced station, not FOX News.
Q: But NPR, with all due respect for our local affiliates, is not out there covering city council.
No. I was looking at The Pilot yesterday and going back to my experiences at The Advance. You know, ‘Man killed on I-64.’ …
Q: But that’s only a partial look at what The Pilot does. Because The Pilot does the fly ash stuff, and they do the great stories that Meghan Hoyer –
They have done – I’m not dismissing what they still do, but they do very little of it.
Q: I guess I’m amazed that they’re still doing as much of it as they are, and that’s a testament to the reporters they have there and the editors. The concern I have is about newsgathering capability. I would love it if Veer or AltDaily got some sort of non-profit grant to establish a reporting team. I just think it’s a risk for a publication to do. News is really hard. People don’t like news, even when it’s important – especially when it’s important.
Maybe another way to go, as if I’m writing an essay right now – I don’t even know where I’m going with this – you could have an advertiser sponsor a reporter. Bear with me. I know that sounds like a –
Like a blatant conflict of interest. But theoretically, it’s no more a conflict of interest than, you know, Scripps Howard sponsoring somebody. It would only be a conflict of interest if, say, Norfolk Southern sponsored that –
Q: And it was about Norfolk Southern.
Just like a judge has to recuse himself in some circumstances.
Q: We got far afield there. Let’s talk about TReehouse. You started TReehouse very shortly after you left Landmark. (I was a TReehouse contributor.)
I had a woman come to me, Shannon Bowman, who owns a local advertising agency, I think it might even have been the night I was fired. She said, ‘I think you need to start something else.’ We talked about starting up just a new alt weekly. It morphed into a website. She had the technical expertise I don’t have. I had the content and the name in the community. So I did that for a few years. She decided she had too many other things going on, so we parted ways. Now that is in hiatus because I can’t manage it myself. I’m not sure I want to be an editor anymore.
Q: So TReehouse is gone?
I don’t know. I recently renewed the domain name. I don’t know. I haven’t made that decision with any certainty. I am in a place in my life right now – I love teaching, second only to writing, and that’s really what I want to focus on, my teaching and my writing. Or my writing and my teaching.
Playing us out is Charlton Heston reading the Bible, which you will not get unless you read part one. Thanks to TR.
NORFOLK, Va. — This two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham covers a lot of ground, including the state of journalism, local alternative media, and the art of writing a coffee table book with Charlton Heston.
Robotham, a columnist locally in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine, may be best known as the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly, where, among other honors, he earned the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Leadership in the Community.
Almost just as impressively, he recently was featured in a Belligerent Q&A here. One of the reasons I wanted to do a longer talk was that Robotham recently went back to school in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. Which is awesome.
As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Additionally, Robotham and I are friends, dating back to the days he edited my sweet, sweet copy for PortFolio, no doubt drawing little stars and happy faces atop the print outs he absolutely and really then placed into a special folder marked “The Awesome File,” kept in his personal safe along with family heirlooms and an autographed publicity still of Kip Winger.
Absolutely and really, I say.
Robotham, while a student, is also an educator at ODU and the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.
Q: This is your first semester going back and you’re enrolled at ODU?
Correct. I’m only taking class at this point, a non-fiction workshop. I’m officially enrolled in the MFA program, but, because I’m teaching four classes, I decided I’d dip my toe in the water with just one since I haven’t been a student in more than two decades, let’s say.
Q: Why did you want to go back?
One, I wanted to get a terminal degree because I really love teaching and I’m hoping in this second half of my life I can – hopefully the second half and not the final eighth – I can get a terminal degree so I can get a full time gig someplace.
Q: Did you come here for PortFolio?
I came here six or seven years before PortFolio. My wife at the time and I were living in Manhattan and we had our first child, my daughter Sarah. That was in 1989. We moved to New Jersey for a year … I knew I didn’t want to do that commute. … I kind of wanted a stronger sense of community for myself and my kids. I was getting my master’s at the time in American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University, and I’d read this book called Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985). The subtitle is ‘Individualism and Commitment in American Life.’ It’s by Robert Bellah, a sociologist, and a whole team of people from other disciplines. It was a study of how our emphasis on individualism in this country has in recent decades fragmented communities, because people are so transient. And even when we’re not transient, we tend to hide behind our stockade fences with our huge garages in the front. So I’d started visiting here because this is where my (ex) grew up. She had this extended family, which appealed to me because I never did have that and it just seemed like the kind of place where you could really settle in and build a family and build a sense of community.
I freelanced for six years, traveled back and forth to New York City regularly. I had been working for Hearst Magazines in a division that produced books and videos related to the magazines. They kept me under contract, flew me up there on a regular basis, but finally that started to get old, getting on a plane once a week, pretty much. So I took a year off from any kind of job because I got a contract with this book publisher I knew who wanted to produce a book called Charlton Heston Presents The Bible. It was a companion to – don’t laugh.
Q: I’m laughing a little.
He did a TV series on A&E, a four-part series, and it was a really good series. It’s unfortunate that Charlton Heston became such a cartoon character because I got to know him and he was a really nice guy and really well read.
Q: And well armed.
(Laughs.) Well armed, too, but I didn’t see that side of him. He talked about Shakespeare and The Bible as literature. This was not a religious initiative on his part. He was interested in The Bible as literature and the historical aspects of The Bible. So each episode, he’d go to some site like Mt. Sinai, and talk about that, and then he would do these dramatic readings. So they wanted a coffee table book to go with this and they hired me to produce this whole thing. … That carried me for a year, and just as that money was running out I saw an ad for the PortFolio job. That was in 1998. I applied and I got it. I did that for 10 years.
Q: And that’s how most people in Hampton Roads know you.
Yeah. While I was doing my own thing, and especially since I was gone a whole lot, I always felt like I had just one foot in the community. Very quickly as I was editing PortFolio, a lot of people got to know me. I had a voice in the community. I became a very active public figure going to different functions and things like that, being a kind of spokesman for the magazine. I enjoyed that aspect of the job. That was kind of a culmination of my vision of wanting to be part of a community.
Back to your original question, of course, after 10 years and two months, I was fired. I’d always been at odds with management over editorial direction, but I managed to stay on my feet, to use a boxing analogy. A friend of mine once told me, ‘Use your jab.’ Which I did successfully for 10 years. But, you know, that was a function of (Landmark, owner of the PortFolio, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and others) wanting to sell off the properties and everything. As a result, more closely scrutinizing the editorial direction of the paper. So we just came to blows about that and they gave me the boot. I immediately called folks I knew at (ODU) and asked whether they had any adjunct work. Within about five minutes I had another job. Not a full time job, but something.
Q: You mentioned a second reason to go back to school.
The second reason was I had always done, I’d written a lot of essays, a lot of feature stories, quite a bit of hard news, though that was never my strong suit. … I wanted to develop my long form narrative writing, and I felt that would (A) impose discipline on me, because I have to write to get grades and (B) help me polish my craft in a dimension I hadn’t worked at before, i.e., writing literary nonfiction with the techniques of a novelist – scene-setting, dialogue, all of that. So those two reasons – the terminal degree and the desire to be more disciplined with my writing. I’m working on a memoir now.
Q: We’ve talked before about how when I went into the (MFA) program, how little I knew about writing. As a journalist, you tend to develop a lot of tricks, especially for deadline writing. … I think what I found was a lot of my tricks weren’t really serving me very well. Do you feel that way with any of the work you’ve done? Do you feel you’ve fallen into habits that you want to work around?
I do. I would say those tricks work really well for newspaper articles, but newspaper articles are very different from books. Obviously, in terms of length but also in terms of that narrative that reads like a novel. For instance, this past Literary Festival I worked with Claire Dederer, the author of a best-selling memoir, and I showed her a feature story I’d written on martial arts, which I got into in 2005, and she said, ‘Obviously you are a very strong feature writer, but I want to encourage you to write more in scenes.’ And she went through my piece and said this could be a scene, that could be a scene. So, yeah, absolutely. I feel like I find it very easy to turn out a feature story. Now I’m struggling with a whole new kind of writing which I’ve attempted before but never seriously.
Q: But you’ve written books.
I’ve written books but they’ve all been, by and large, history. It came out of my American studies discipline. … Not academic, because I hope I write in more general-interest prose, but they’re not creative nonfiction, as we use the term. It was more ideas. I wasn’t telling a lot of stories. They were almost more like book-length essays.
Q: You didn’t feel you were telling stories?
No. There were stories sprinkled throughout, but by and large what I was doing was writing, I guess, what they call in the newspaper business ‘think pieces.’
Q: You worked in New York as a reporter.
I started out at The Staten Island Advance.
Q: What were some of the beats you covered?
I started out, like a lot of people do, on the night shift, the police and fire beat. I liken that first year or so to boot camp for journalism. One of the stories that stands out most was at a bout 2 a.m. when I was getting ready to knock off, because I worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, a report came over the police scanner that there was a five-alarm fire up in this poor section of Staten Island. So I raced up there, and it was raining … bleak, a lot of puddles on the ground, cold … stood there for like three hours to people from the building, mostly Spanish speaking people … After they finally put the fire out, I went across the street, did two shots of tequila, and went back and wrote my story. … I think like five people died, and there were dozens of people who were homeless, all poor people. …
So then about a year later, I started covering education (as a substitute) and the education reporter left and that became my fulltime beat. They also gave me a music column. That was great. Those are two of my favorite subjects to write about.
Q: When you’re at a relatively smaller paper, you have a lot more opportunities.
Yeah. Just as The Pilot wants to focus mostly on South Hampton Roads, The Advance … wanted to focus primarily on Staten Island. But as a music columnist, I had complete freedom. I interviewed people like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. You know, I could go to New York City jazz clubs for free. The perks of that gig.
Q: Music writing is the best scam in journalism. (Laughter.)
I loved education reporting, too. I used to get into a lot of the philosophical issues, too. The push for the so-called ‘gifted’ was really strong at the time, and I got into that conceptually, as far as interviewing people about whether that was really just a scam for affluent parents to get their kids into the best setting or whether that was legitimate. Stuff like that. I left there after about four and a half years. …
I still had to do general assignment pieces (sometimes) and the editor had subscribed to this widespread complaint that newspapers only report ‘bad news.’ So he started this daily front page column called ‘It’s Good News.’ It would be stories like somebody lost a wallet and somebody returned it with all the money in it. … It was just the goofiest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Q: Was it worse than doing a weather story?
Those I hated, too. I’d gag everytime I heard a reporter use the term ‘the white stuff. We’re going to have more of the white stuff this weekend.’ It was like, ‘Just say snow, for Christ’s sake.’ (Laughs.)
Q: At the time, they were probably referring to cocaine.
(Laughs.) I don’t think so, though it was the height of the cocaine boom. … Sure, there’s bad news, but most news in newspapers is either good or bad depending upon your point of view.
Q: I think that you had an opportunity with PortFolio, and continuing with the writing you’re doing now for Veer, to use writing to talk about thinks you care about. I wonder if it’s at that point you were already thinking, “Maybe I want to try another form of writing … where I can write about social issues.”
I was, and I wanted to get into magazines for that reason. … When I was still working for The Advance, I went back to a five-year college reunion and a friend said, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I said, ‘I want to be editing The Village Voice.’ I’ve always remembered that conversation, because I ended up doing that in a way. Not The Voice, but something like it here. Long before that, I got a temp job at Esquire … and then got a fulltime job as an assistant editor with Esquire Press, a book imprint. I really got sidetracked from my goal writing for magazines. I couldn’t break in. … Hearst bought Esquire. … It took me pretty far afield.
Two things got me back into writing. One thing, I had gotten pretty familiar with the magazine archives. Hearst owns all those (Varga) pinups from World War II. … Some book publisher came to us and wanted to license those images for a coffee table book, and asked, ‘Do you have anybody who can write this?’ … So I wrote that book, and I established this relationship with the publisher. I was getting my M.A. at the time, and had the opportunity over the next four or five years to do these other coffee table books. The other thing that got me back into writing is I was sitting there one day thinking how far afield I’d gotten and I’d let people convince me that if I wasn’t doing it by now, i.e., my late 20s, I’d probably never do it.
I remember reading Cosmopolitan one day, one of their magazines, and I’d gotten to know Helen Gurly Brown, one of their legendary editors of Cosmo, and I went, ‘I may not be Faulkner, but I can do this.’ (Laughter.) So I went over to Helen’s office and she referred me to their managing editor and he said, ‘Sure, give it a shot.’ So I wrote this feature article […] about job burnout. Young women, five years on the job, experiencing job burnout. … So that’s how I got back into writing after taking, it must have been, seven years without doing any writing other than promotional copy writing.
Q: Safe to say you didn’t want to write again so you could write about young women having job burnout.
No, though I must say getting $1,800 for an article that took me two days to write wasn’t too shabby. (Laughter.) And, furthermore, there’s a certain amount of ego – at least for me – involved in writing, especially back then, when you’re younger. Having my name for the first time in a national magazine was pretty cool. But, of course, I was far afield from my dream of being editor of The Village Voice or Paris editor for The New York Times. But that continued to eat at me. I didn’t think I was doing anything really important or meaningful. I kept that dream alive in the back of my head. When I got the PortFolio job, I felt the dream had been realized. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I felt it was really important work.
I sent Valarie Clark, managing editor of Barely South, some email questions this past week — what the pub is looking for, where it may go as it evolves, etc. The poet Luisa Igloria, director of the MFA program, also responded to the first question via email. So here’s a quick Q&A about a promising outlet for writers and artists. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: What are you looking for in submissions?
We want the best stuff people have, regardless of whether or not it’s considered ‘traditional’ or experimental. If someone’s written a lovely ‘modernist’ short story, we’ll consider it. If we got some funky postmodern stuff that lacks a linear timeline or a typical narrative thread — if it’s well-written and appeals to our editors — we’ll consider it.
We have a wonderful opportunity to take stock of our regional and geographical positioning in the ‘south’ — with its rich history and traditions — but also recognize that such markers can mean many things to many different people. We are drawn to works that have a strong sense of their own relevance in time and place, but that are not afraid to take risks or interrogate the sense of limits, in genre and in other areas.
We are looking for works that speak to our own desire to find riveting expressions not only speaking to place and identity, but also bringing these conversations to new levels.
The following responses are from Clark.
Q: What genre would you like more submissions for, if any?
Of course, we’re happy to see all kinds, but we’d love to see more creative nonfiction. We’re talking about essays especially. If people want to send us part of their memoir, that’s great, as long as it can stand alone, apart from the greater work. The submitter can’t think to herself, ‘Well, I don’t need to explain that because it’s somewhere else in my book.’ Well, we aren’t reading your entire book. Make us want to, though, by sending us some terrific piece that can exist on it’s own.
We’re also now accepting art — photos, drawings, even small animations if they’re meaningful. We don’t want a bunch of GIF files of folks from Jersey Shore. That’s what message boards are for. But a GIF file of a political figure that makes a statement of some sort by using the animation —we’d consider that.
Q: Would you talk about the themes of the issues this year and how work might address them?
We’re still working on hammering out themes, but we’d do a special call for them if we decide to go that route, and editors are considering establishing themes for issues in 2013.
Q: How has Barely South done so far? Where does it go from here?
Not only are we seeing an increase in submissions already this year — including an increase in nonfiction — but one of the nonfiction essays from the inaugural issue in April 2010 was nominated for a Pushcart by a member of the Pushcart Prize panel. Many publications nominate their own content, and we’re thrilled that someone from that prestigious contest read our humble literary journal and found quality there. And what a thrill for the author!
In the immediate future, we’re shooting for having the journal put into a downloadable PDF file that people can put on their e-readers. We hope that happens as soon as the January 2012 issue. That means we get to flex our creativity by designing an issue as if we were sending it to print — choosing layouts, fonts, all that good stuff.
We’d like to be able to do some print issues in the future, whether that’s just for ‘special issues’ like the January literary festival craft interview issue — which we’ll be doing again for 2012 — or maybe it’s a ‘limited run’ kind of thing for each issue. This is the year where BSR is starting to plan for the future and how successive ODU students are going to leave their mark on the journal.
One of the most important things for me, as managing editor, is to make sure that BSR is not only a quality publication that keeps up with changing technology trends and how the public wants to spend their time and money, but I also want the experience of putting BSR together to be an amazing one for the students. The staff is made up entirely of students in their second and third years, with some administrative assistance from first year students. This is an outstanding opportunity for the staff to learn not just how to read critically, but how to make choices about what works well together, how to make tough decisions regardless of the biography or the name associated with the piece. Soon they’re going to need to learn all the deign aspects of a print journal as we move to the PDF format.
And in the future we’d like to move to our own separate website instead of being dependent on a blog-type platform that restricts our creativity somewhat. That means we’ll have a constant need for a wide range of talents, and students who are good with technology can find a place alongside those who are more comfortable with traditional journal formats. So far this year we’ve made some terrific decisions together that are already reaping benefits — such as the choice to start accepting art as a regular type of submission.
Wow, submitting to this whole Barely South deal sounds wicked great! What do you think, Vinny?
What are you thinking of sending, Vin — a chapter from the memoir?
Maybe it's true that you can indict a ham sandwich, but prosecutors are busy with this guy. Photo of former state Del. Phil Hamilton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The next Tunnel Traffic open-mic reading is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 4, at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
The event is open to the public.
Tunnel Traffic is a topical reading series, meaning writers write to a prompt in advance of the reading or read something that aligns to the prompt. For tomorrow’s event, the prompt is “anything with the word ‘test’ in it,” as per series creator Travis A. Everett.
Perfect end-of-the-semester topic. Ode to my Classical Rhetoric exam?
Yo, St. Augustine
you freewheeling scamp
rhetor of God
the hippest of Hippo
linguistic test of faith
holy multiple choice
you KO my GPA …
Really writes itself from there. Unlike the second essay question. And let me mention how I’m not in the poetry program.
I’ve started keeping track of some local arts events at this page, so please check it out if you are so inclined. Send events for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org. Mostly I’ve tracked Tunnel Traffic, ODU readings, and stuff my pals are doing, but I’ll list other stuff, too. In exchange for a job at your organization. Just kidding, U.S. attorney’s office!
Additionally, this blog’s new homepage address is www.jhdoucette.com. Bookmark or avoid as religious doctrine dictates.
People accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. Even former state lawmakers.