GREG KOSMICKI is a poet and social worker living in Omaha, Nebraska. He founded The Backwaters Press in 1997 and is currently in the process of passing the operation of the press along to others.
Greg’s own poetry has been published in numerous magazines since 1975, both print and online, including Briarcliff Review, Chiron Review, Cimarron Review, Connecticut Review, Cortland Review, New Letters, Nimrod, Paddlefish, Paris Review, Poetry East, Rattle, Sojourners, and Solstice. He received artist’s fellowships for his poetry from the Nebraska Arts Council in 2000 and 2006. He is the author of three books and 9 chapbooks of poems. Two of the poems from his book from Word Press, Some Hero of the Past, and one poem from his newest chapbook from Pudding House Publications in 2011, New Route in the Dream, have been selected by Garrison Keillor and read by him on “The Writer’s Almanac.” His newest collection, Sheep can Recognize Individual Human Faces was published by Stephen F. Austin University Press in 2014.
He and his wife Debbie, who is also in the social work field, are the parents of 3 children and grandparents of one.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything about Omaha, Nebraska?
Greg Kosmicki: Omaha is a great place. It’s a city of a little over 600,000 people, right on the Missouri River, with great restaurants, great art scene, great poetry scene, with lots of parks, and beautiful old and new buildings and lots of jobs. It’s one of the few places in the United States that didn’t get hit by the recession. You all should move to Omaha, and bring your wonderful cultures with you.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you combine your work as a poet and social worker?
Greg Kosmicki: I write about the things that happen to me in my life, but I don’t write about the people with whom I come into contact in my job because that would be a violation of their trust. When I retire, I will be able to loosely base stories on my work that I do now, but to write about it now would not be possible. As far at the time that it takes to write versus having a full-time job, I work my job in the day, and in the evenings after work, after supper and the dishes, and errands, and taking care of stuff for the press, I spend some time writing at the tail end of the day if I have any energy left. As I get older, I can’t do that as much because I need more rest.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us what you do as a social worker?
Greg Kosmicki: I work for a part of the State Health and Human Services agency, and my job is to go out and visit with adults over age 18 who can’t take care of themselves very well, and about whom we received reports from the public, to see if they are being abused or neglected, and if so, to try to take measures to alleviate their situations.
Geosi Gyasi: Being an editor and publisher of The Backwaters Press, where does your writing fit in?
Greg Kosmicki: As noted above, it fits in less and less, since I am getting less energetic in my 60’s. In light of that, I approached the board that oversees the press and asked that we find a new editor to take over my duties so that I can retire from the press and devote my free time to writing. We are in the process of slowly turning that over to the new editor, James Cihlar, and it is working out very well. He is phenomenally gifted.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of young poets coming out of America?
Greg Kosmicki: It’s really not possible to say—you would need a huge anthology—and there are lots of different kinds of poetry going on now. Contrary to the rumor that poetry and poets are dying breeds, there is an explosion of it all over the US, and in the world. I was in awe when I looked at your blog-site and saw all the brilliant poets coming from your continent. So if I were to say one statement about young poets in America I guess that it would be that there are very many young poets and that they are very good poets.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about The Backwaters Press?
Greg Kosmicki: My friend and mentor, Greg Kuzma, from whom I took poetry writing classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska, back in the early ‘70’s, used to run a little press for which he hand-set the type and hand-printed on a monstrous old platen press he had in his basement. His wife, Barb, suggested the name, “Best Cellar Press” for it, since the press was in the cellar. Seeing him do that got me excited about making books, and I carried the idea with me for years. He also had a little literary magazine called Pebble that he printed the same way. It was very demanding work. Eventually, late in the ‘90s I decided to try it myself, and started The Backwaters Press. I wanted a press that would make books that were more utilitarian though, rather than hand-made, so I have printed only perfect-bound paperback books. Since beginning, the press has published about 100 titles. Many of the books that we published in the last few years were selected by Rich (David) Wyatt, the co-editor, when we had an open submissions policy. He is a very astute reader. The press has an annual contest for a collection of poems by a single author. Our website is www.thebackwaterspress.org
Geosi Gyasi: Is it more difficult to edit than to write?
Greg Kosmicki: Do you mean edit other people’s work or my own?
Geosi Gyasi: Yes, your own work?
Greg Kosmicki: I don’t edit mine a lot—I’m pretty much one of those “First thought best thought” types. As far as editing other’s work goes, I don’t spend a lot of time going over people’s manuscripts, telling the poets what to cut, etc., because I think that if someone has gotten to the point that they have put their poems into book form, they think that the poems are finished. I will read the manuscript and if I don’t like the poems, then I don’t publish it. That doesn’t mean that the poems aren’t any good, it just means that I don’t like them for some reason and I don’t want to publish them. The only time that I will do line-by-line edits is when a poet I know asks me to do so, but they’ve got to know me pretty well, because that’s asking a lot. That’s difficult work! If someone I don’t know insists that I read something and edit, I charge for it, but I don’t like to do that. Too much other stuff to do in my life, and it’s time-consuming.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to complete “How Things Happen”?
Greg Kosmicki: I’m not really sure. The poems in that collection were part of a longer manuscript that I had submitted to Harry Duncan, who used to run Abbatoir Press, a fine letter press at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. He said that he would like to publish it, but that he had so many projects to do he was afraid that he wouldn’t get them all completed—by that time he was in his 70’s. So he passed the manuscript on to a former book-making student of his, Denise Brady, who runs bradypress in Omaha, another fine letter press. She selected about 15 poems out of the longer manuscript that she really liked and published those as “How Things Happen.” I’m surprised you know about it—it was a very limited, hand-made edition of about 150 copies. But the poems weren’t written as a book, but rather, like all of my books, the poems from many years were collected together into a loosely arranged book manuscript. The poems in “How Things Happen” which was published in 1999, I think, were written in the time period from about 1977 through about 1987 or so. Another book, which contains many of the poems that are in “How Things Happen,” but that is about 120 pages long, titled “nobody lives here who saw this sky” came out less than a year later from Missing Spoke Press in Seattle. Those books are very rare too, because the press only published about 250 copies and then went out of business about 2 years later.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about “How Things Happen”?
Greg Kosmicki: The book itself if a work of the book-makers art, being printed on fine papers, and with covers made of handmade paper that has cornstalks and coffee grounds in it. Denise Brady is a meticulous craftsperson and the book is beautiful, with each book hand-sewn by Denise, as well as all the typesetting and printing done by her by hand on a Van de Graf proof press. It’s gorgeous! The poems are all based on the poet-as-storyteller, talking about what’s happening in his life. I have always thought that because we are all human beings, that we will relate to each other’s lives if the writers talk about what is going on in them, and that will form a bond somehow between you and me when you read my poems, and with that bond comes understanding of each other, and when we understand each other, then we are less likely to follow the idiots who run countries and go out and kill other people, because we understand each other. That’s always been my justification for all the time that I spend with writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Where and when did you write “We Have Always Been Coming to This Morning”?
Greg Kosmicki: The poems in this book were written over many years. The first section reprints some poems, up through “History,” from a little chapbook I self-published in 1988, called “When There Wasn’t Any War.” Those poems were all written from the time when I was a student at the University of Nebraska circa 1974 (Eating Supper, Watching the News) to some that were written when we lived in Alliance, Nebraska, and I was working for United Parcel Service, from 1981 through 1988. The remainder of that section are poems that were written between 1988 and 1991 when my wife and I were living in and working in a group home in Omaha, with six developmentally delayed young men. Section 2 is comprised of poems written after we moved out of the group home and into a tough part of town, while I worked for an agency as a case manager that provided services for homeless mentally ill people, and my wife was in administration at the company where we both worked before. That neighborhood is reflected especially in the poems “4-17-94,” “7-8-94” and “Packing.” We moved to a quieter neighborhood in 1995 when I got my job with the state, and the poems in section three are from that time period, from about 1995 through about 1998 or so, though some of them are reminiscences, rather than being based on events of the current day that the poem was written. Several of the poems from the 3rd section about our youngest daughter Briana were collected together with other poems about her and published as a chapbook by Black Star Press in Lincoln, Nebraska, under the title Marigolds.
Geosi Gyasi: You are a 2000 and 2006 recipient of the Nebraska Arts Council’s Merit Award. Why do you think you were given this award?
Greg Kosmicki: The award is given to people who live in Nebraska who submit poems to the Nebraska Arts Council to be judged by an independent panel of judges. The Arts Council awards are cyclical: one year is for plastic arts, one year for performing arts, and one year for writing arts, in rotation. The Arts Council sends the submissions to the judges, who are recognized poets from another state, and they judge the writing without knowing the identity of the poet who submitted it. Each poet can submit up to 5 poems, and the Arts Council has the latitude to give out the awards however they deem fit, based upon the statements of the judges. For instance, if the judges think that all the award money should go to only two poets, then they will each get a fairly large sum, around $7,000 apiece. Usually though, they choose several poets to get smaller awards, such as $1,000 to $2,000, and one poet to receive the highest recognition with a $5,000 award. The money comes from state tax funds, so the Arts Council is extremely scrupulous about ensuring the integrity of the process.
Geosi Gyasi: Do we have a defined way of life for writers?
Greg Kosmicki: Starting in the late ‘50’s in the US, poets and fiction writers began to get hired by English departments at major universities to teach “creative writing” as a sort-of “side salad” to a serious English Literature degree. Then a few universities realized the potential for these programs and started offering creative writing degrees. The first in the US was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I think, followed closely by Stanford University’s program. The concept grew slowly, but steadily, until today there are creative writing majors and minors at practically every college and university in the country, and now it appears that we have a glut of “certified” poets and writers in the country—so I’m guessing that many of them, most, probably, can’t find full-time employment teaching writing in creative writing programs, and are forced back into the workaday world doing other jobs, while writing furiously away on their novels and poems before and after work. There have also developed a huge system of prize-giving and awards and grants, so that if you’re lucky to have entered one contest or another and won it, you can win a fair amount of money and recognition through those. I’m not in that field—teaching—only because I couldn’t find work in it back in 1978 and gave up on it since I had to feed my family, so I really can’t say that I know if for a fact, but if you do the math, you come up with a lot more Master of Fine Arts graduates than there are teaching positions in the country. So I suspect that I was just ahead of the curve at least in that respect. (Not finding work with my English degree with a creative thesis.)
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “April 2, 2013” sounds like one written out of an event. Was it written from a personal experience?
Greg Kosmicki: Yes it was. Most of my poems are based on my personal experience in one way or another.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do many drafts?
Greg Kosmicki: I don’t really do much re-writing at all. I got in the habit when I was younger of writing at breakneck speed, trying to hang on to get where the poem was taking me. Some nights 40 years ago I would stay up for hours and write numerous poems—sometimes as many as ten. Most of them didn’t turn out well, so I’d write some more the next time. Once in a while, years ago, I would spend a lot of time, reading and re-reading a poem to try to get it to say what I thought I wanted it to say, especially when I first started writing. But later, I got in the habit of not going back much—now maybe I re-read, change a word here or there, and abandon it, because I figured out (after 20 years or so) that I should let the poem figure out what it wanted to do, not me with my big dumb ideas. Months later I will find them in my notebooks and see that some of them turned out OK if I just clip off, say, the last stanza or two, or the last line or two. Usually I try to let the poem take over so that I’m not in charge of it, and when I get back in charge, then it usually goes sour, so I stop there. Those are the lines/stanzas that get clipped off. Then, it might not be finished, but I rarely go back and work on something, because if I don’t finish it in the first sitting, I’ve lost the thread and I usually can’t get it back, so I don’t try. I just write another poem. I do go back through poems sometimes and cut out words that aren’t necessary to the poem, to tighten them up a bit—I look for “the,” “and,” “and then,” “that,” “then,” and other words like those that don’t contribute much and make the poem flabbier. Sometimes you need them, but often not. I try to keep those words off the ends of lines, unless they are pivoting the poem in a pretty important way somehow at the end of a line.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult part of writing?
Greg Kosmicki: Waiting. Getting started. Writing when you think “I don’t have anything to say.” Writing when you don’t feel “inspired.” Just writing at all—it’s a discipline, and there are about sixty-eight million trillion distractions out there, waiting to jump all over you and keep you away from the page where you belong if you are a writer. Nowadays, with cell phones, I-pads, music everywhere, TVs everywhere, computers everywhere, the distractions are as ubiquitous as mushrooms on the forest floor after a month of rain. Those distractions will kill you as a writer if you don’t abandon them because they are sucking away the two elements you need to write: time, and quiet time in your mind.
Geosi Gyasi: When you write, do you care about style?
Greg Kosmicki: I wanted to be a smart-ass and reply “Do you mean that it’s not obvious from reading my poems that I don’t care about style?” but I guess that I do care enough about it that I write in the manner that I do— that’s my style, I guess—rather than in some other manner. I don’t sit around and think about it though, I just write and try to get from the first line that appeared on the page that night to the one that feels like the last one, based upon what the first one was. I guess that my style is to more or less meander around on the page until the place where I’ve meandered to feels like the place that I was going to when I started out not knowing where it was I was going to. I guess that if I have a style, it could be called “conversational.”
Geosi Gyasi: Does writing come easy for you?
Greg Kosmicki: Yes, it does in some respects. At least, I feel like it does once I get something finished, but when I was a young writer, I was furious, I was mad to write, I had to write, and I wrote all the time. Now I don’t agonize over it, but I don’t feel good generally when I don’t write. I don’t feel good because if I’m not writing, I’m not connecting with the world. The most difficult part for me is having the discipline to sit down and do it, and the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get back into it, and the easier to let distractions take over. When I do write, I just spew and whatever comes out builds a little step-stool for me to climb onto to see where I’m going next. Then I go there and see where I can go to next. It’s not something that I think about consciously. If I think about it a lot, I get self-conscious and then my brain intrudes and tells me what I’m writing is dumb and I should stop. So I try to ignore that and keep going. Sometimes when I go back and read the poems a few weeks later, it appears that my brain was right sometimes, but sometimes not. Sometimes the words have a spark that seems right. But I have a hard time telling with my own poems because I’m too close to them, which is why I like going to the writing group I go to—The Poetry Warriors—they can tell me where it looks like a poem went off track, or if it stayed on.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most interesting aspect of writing?
Greg Kosmicki: I think that it’s the little surprise that comes at the end of a poem sometimes, (all the time in successful poems) that lots of times I don’t even recognize, I just feel like I’m giving up on this poem, I quit, it’s not going anywhere, and then later when I come back to it, I see that the poem ends right here or right there, and its done something that I didn’t realize it was doing. Then I feel really smart for a minute! But I know that it’s the poem, it’s not me, I’m just taking it down and it’s writing itself out, and I’m the lucky one who gets the credit for it.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s your plan for your readers in the foreseeable future?
Greg Kosmicki: Right now I’m collecting together all the poems that seemed to have worked out as OK poems about my relationship with my older brother and me. He was killed in a car accident when I was about 16 years old and I became pretty self-destructive for a few years after that and I think that his death is probably why I ended up writing poems. I guess that was my introduction, or one of my introductions, to what life is all about. When I was in college I wrote a couple poems about it and one that I wrote, “Letter to a Dead Man” was one that I thought was pretty much the definitive poem about his death and my relationship to it, and that I was all over his death, but then I have been revisited by poems about him for the next 40 years. It seems that the dead never die as long as someone is alive who knew them. So I want to get those together. If I can get them all together, I’ll try to find a publisher. It will be called “The Sun has Stayed Where it is” which is also the title of my Master’s Thesis. And I’m continuing to write in the nights, and I’ve about got a collection-sized group together that I think I will call “It’s as Good Here as it gets Anywhere” from a line in one of the poems.