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.
PORTSMOUTH, Va. – There are less than two weeks left until the entry period ends for the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest, so if you haven’t sent your submission(s) via email to firstname.lastname@example.org yet you’re missing out on a chance to win copies of some terrific books.
This year’s prizes include the following books. Most of them by authors featured at the blog. Each book is autographed by the author.
Norton Girault’s short story collection Out Among the Rooster Men
Dana Heller’s Hairspray, a study of the film by John Waters
Connie Sage’s biography Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel
Two copies of Tim Seibles’ new poetry volume Fast Animal
Wells Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
The first place winner picks three books. Second place picks two of the remainder. Third place gets what’s left.
I’m hoping to add a few additional prizes. I hope you’ll enter as often as you like. I’ve enjoyed reading the entries so far.
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.
Breaking the Silence, Speaking for Peace, a poetry reading to raise awareness of the struggle against sexual assault, will be held Monday, April 11, at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
The reading features several ODU poets, including Luisa Igloria and Tim Seibles. They will read poems that speak to survivorship, peacemaking, healing from trauma, or the struggle against sexual assault.
By way of full disclosure, I’m an MFA student at ODU.
Igloria, director of the MFA program, said via email that she had been looking for an event to commemorate National Poetry Month. Wendi White, graduate assistant with the Women’s Center, approached Igloria about holding a joint project.
White works with the center’s Sexual Assault Free Environment, or SAFE, an educational program on sexual violence and relationship issues. She’s in her first year with the MFA poetry program.
White, via email, said the poetry event will help raise awareness about sexual violence and help people prevent it – with attention, of course, also paid to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Regarding the connection between poet and audience, White added:
This is a very powerful transaction that can transform how the reader sees the world, and therefore, the world itself. … (P)oetry can create empathy for survivors and lift up the possibility of peace in a way that moves people to action.
Serving the Old Dominion University community since 1976, the Women’s Center is the oldest center of its kind on a Virginia college campus. Our programs and services address the special challenges and opportunities women students encounter as they pursue their academic goals. Also, recognizing the critical role that both women and men play in creating a world that is free of gender bias, our goals include promoting healthy relationships and a safe and equitable environment that is free of barriers to all persons.
When folks hear of either one – poetry, or women’s/gender issues – I think that it may still very well be the general perception that these are ‘fringe’ types of topics but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. …
This reading event is open to the university, as well as to the general public. Folks can participate by being part of the audience and coming to hear great poetry read, or by reading one or two short poems. It can be either their own original works or by another poet, as long as the poems selected address the general topics of violence against women or our struggles in general to create peace in our world.
It may seem like this is a broad umbrella, but I think this makes it possible for different voices to participate in the activity.
Featured readers include Til Cox, Tyrice Dean, Travis Everett, Jennifer Graham, Igloria, Renee Olander, Noah Renn, Seibles, Marion Charlene Thomas, Cesca Janece Waterfield, and White.
For more information or to participate, reach White via email@example.com or (757) 683-4160. Members of the public who want to read must contact White before Wednesday, April 6, to sign up.
Igloria wrote that she’s still determining what she’ll read.
Thinking about and preparing for it makes me think of how very central and very important language is in shaping the realities of our lives, globally as well as where we are; and I think poetry has this capacity for making us aware of the effects of language, and for speaking very intimately to us as well as addressing concerns that are universal.
When I listen to (or read) a poem, I feel very much in the presence of a very human experience; poetry makes me feel like a witness to human events that are important and real, no matter how ‘small’ they may be. Perhaps that’s why I recently ranted (a bit) about the way National Poetry Month is being ‘celebrated’ in some popular venues.