Interview with Writer & Fly-fishing Guide, Chris Dombrowski

September 8, 2016
Photo: Chris Dombrowski

Photo: Chris Dombrowski

Brief Biography:

Chris Dombrowski is the author of Body of Water, forthcoming nonfiction from Milkweed Editions, and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently Earth Again, published in 2013 by Wayne State University Press and named runner-up for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year in Poetry, in addition to two chapbooks. His first book, By Cold Water, was a Poetry Foundation Bestseller in 2009. Dombrowski’s poems have appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including PoetryNew Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse, and his prose has been published in Orion, OutsideThe Sun, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and many others. Other awards include the Associated Writing Programs Intro Award, two Best American Notable Essay citations, a National Magazine Award Nomination, and a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. He has taught at the University of Montana, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and currently serves as the Founding Director of the Beargrass Writing Retreat based in Missoula, where he lives with his family and has worked for nearly two decades as a fishing guide.

Geosi Gyasi: How young were you when you started writing?

Chris Dombrowski: I was probably 6 when I started writing songs, mostly about scary characters at the apartment complex bus-stop, but occasionally about the moon. When I reached high school, a seminal teacher named Jim Colando ignited my interest in poetry, often via songwriters.

Geosi Gyasi: Which specific genre of writing did you start out as a writer?

Chris Dombrowski: In high school, there were a lot of early “poetic efforts,” but I’m not sure there were many poems–they were shaped like poems, at least!  Perhaps if I dug deep enough, I could find a single redeeming line. I also recall an early essay in college, a narrative about watching a huge cottonwood snap and fall across the river on a windy day. Among other comments, Professor Mezeske wrote the following, which I cherished: “A very nice, moody piece. ++”

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what’s the difference between a writer and poet?

Chris Dombrowski: Here are a few lines by a poet I adore, Alicia Ostriker, from the close of a recent poem, “The Liberal Arts”:
“In the novel they say omit nothing, harvest the entire goddamn world
In memoir they say the self is silently weeping, give it a tissue
In poetry they say the arrow may be blown off course by storm and returned
by miracle”

Perhaps a poet is anyone who writes, in any genre, and allows “the arrow” to be “blown off course” and awaits its return.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you tell me something about your non-fiction book, ‘Body of Water’?

Chris Dombrowski: Yes! BODY OF WATER is forthcoming in October from Milkweed Editions. It’s a work of long-form nonfiction that centers around the elemental life of David Pinder Sr., the first Bahamian bonefish guide, who knew the ways of the largely inedible sportfish-to be decades before it became the industry upon which the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism bases its faith (to the tune of $150 million per year!).  Several years ago, I had the rare fortune of meeting “Senior,” as the folks near the East End of Grand Bahama call him, and our friendship inspired the composition of the book, which also focalizes my own life as a guide, and water’s very lasting ambit and impression.

Here’s a link to the publisher’s description:

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers of the past do you most admire?

Chris Dombrowski: Keats, Basho, Issa, Dickinson, Teresa of Avila. Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Levis. I refuse to call Jim Harrison a writer of the past because he just left us, but I’ve found great sustenance there.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it all about your life as a fly-fishing guide?

Chris Dombrowski: For nearly two decades I’ve earned at least a portion of my income rowing the rivers of western Montana.  The occupation, which has occasionally flirted with being a “vocation,” has afforded me the opportunity to work seasonally, setting aside large chunks of time for writing; kept me in wild places for much of each year; allowed me to spend much of my work-time with good, feral friends, some of which are rivers.

Geosi Gyasi: What time of the day do you write?

Chris Dombrowski: I prefer the morning, starting early before house bustles with its often pleasant distractions; I like working after lunch, after a walk with the dog and an espresso or a cup of strong green tea; I even like mornings after late-night dinner parties, where perhaps I had too much to drink, for editing with an unforgiving eye.
More and more I find value in practicing like a fish in a stream, trying to identify peak-activity periods, the way a trout would during a hatch of mayflies, and attempting to block out all else during said time.

Geosi Gyasi: By what medium do you write?

Chris Dombrowski: For a long time I preferred a roller-ball ink pen on legal pad, but the further I delve long-form non-fiction, the more I find myself typing straight into the computer. When editing, I like a clean printed draft under a good light, and a blue pen with which to attack!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think about prizes and awards when you write?

Chris Dombrowski: No, but I’ll admit to thinking about money when I’m at work on freelance pieces.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you read as much as you write?

Chris Dombrowski: When I’m reading, I binge; when I’m writing I read only to fuel what I’m working on, and usually just in bits because I’m very easily influenced by prose styles and aspects of mind.  I find I can read poetry, though, most anytime.

Geosi Gyasi: How do ideas for poems come to you?

Chris Dombrowski: “Poems are made not of ideas,” the French poet told the inquiring French painter, “but of words.”  Most often poems arrive as sound or image. If the latter, the challenge for me comes in giving audible life to the image; if the former, the task lies in finding an imagistic residence for this sound. Sometimes, too, to complicate things, the sound is an inner one–Robert Lowell talks about this in the Paris Review interview–that arrives wanting a shape or form. The groan, the cry, the exultant yelp. Ad infinitum.


Interview with Cat Dixon, Author of ”Eva”

September 2, 2016
Photo: Cat Dixon

Photo: Cat Dixon

Brief Biography:

Cat Dixon is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2014, 2016) and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She is the managing editor of The Backwaters Press, a nonprofit press in Omaha. She teaches creative writing at the University of Nebraska. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Sugar House Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Coe Review, Eclectica, and Mid-American Review

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get to work with the Backwaters Press?

Cat Dixon: I met Greg Kosmicki, the founder and now editor emeritus of Backwaters Press, in 2005.  I had just started a low-residency MFA program and was looking for an opportunity in Omaha to volunteer with a press. I was lucky that Greg took me on as an intern–I’m very grateful to Greg for mentoring me and allowing me to help with the press.

Geosi Gyasi: What led you to become a poet?

Cat Dixon: I began writing short stories very young–I do not remember the exact age. My fifth grade teacher encouraged me and through the years I kept writing. Eventually I ended up at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where I met Art Homer, a poetry professor who is now retired.   Because of his support and belief in me, I ended up studying poetry in Nebraska’s MFA program.  I was drawn to poetry because I like playing with language–syntax, sounds and repetition. My favorite poets are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D Snodgrass, Alvin Greenberg and John Berryman.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your writing schedule like?

Cat Dixon: I keep a notebook with me at all times and I write whenever I have a spare moment or when an image captures my attention. Before I had children, I thought I had to write late at night after drinking a few glasses of wine. Now I find that early morning works best or sitting at the car repair shop with a yellow legal pad in my lap.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage your time as a teacher and writer?

Cat Dixon:  Most of my free time is spent with my children. Writing time happens in the in-between moments and when they’re asleep. I find that I write more now than I ever did before I was a mother. I cherish my time with my children and the quiet times I actually have to write. I find that teaching creative writing actually generates ideas and images I would never have found without student interactions.

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?

Cat Dixon:  I tend to write about unlikable and unsympathetic characters/personas. Exploring the shadow, the part of ourselves we hide from the public, interests me, and I know that these type of voices also intrigue others. Depending on the collection, I feel that my work would reach mothers, divorcees, and survivors of past trauma. I’m submitting a manuscript right now called The Book of Levinson, which is about Bob Levinson, the longest held hostage in US history. When I was working on these poems, I was writing for Bob, his family, his friends and to any reader to raise awareness of Bob’s situation. He has not received the attention and support that he should have. This new collection is very different from other poems I have written.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about Eva?

Cat Dixon: Eva, my newest collection, explores in persona poems the life and death of Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time companion and eventual wife. As I mentioned, I am fascinated with the unlikable, the detestable and most people would count her up there if they were making a list. Because of her relationship with one of the most hated men in history, she has been labeled and hated. Looking at her background (two-parent home, Catholic school, normal childhood), it is hard to comprehend why she would stay with Hitler. She was depressed and attempted suicide twice. The reader has to decide if he or she will have empathy for Eva, but I wanted to give her a voice because very few of her letters or diary entries survived the war. W.D. Snodgrass wrote two collections in the voices of those in Hitler’s inner circle. Inspired by his work, I wanted to explore the female in that group who had no decision-making power when it came to government and was tucked away and hidden from public view.

Geosi Gyasi: How was the writing process for Eva?

Cat Dixon: I have spent years researching the Third Reich, and Eva, her family and World War II. I had a few poems written in her voice when I left my Masters program, but was uncertain what to do with them. I was reluctant to share them at first–I did not even tell others that these particular poems were in her voice. Eventually, after I published a few and had feedback from friends and readers, the stream of poems flowed and for a few months I wrote every day–very early in the morning and late into the night. I did not face any kind of writer’s block.  All of the poems were read by my close friend Clif Mason who gave me priceless feedback. My writing group also read many of the pieces. The chapbook Our End Has Brought the Spring came first. I sent the manuscript to one place–Finishing Line Press–and it was accepted. Yet even when the chapbook on its way to the printer, I had more poems coming–all the time–so I kept writing.  The finished result is the collection, Eva. 

Geosi Gyasi: What has been the reception of Eva?

Cat Dixon: Positive for the most part. I was nervous at first. I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting Nazism or anything that Hitler did. I do not. The atrocities and pain the entire world had inflicted on it cannot be overstated. Yet, like Snodgrass, I believe we need to acknowledge that people who committed these heinous acts and decreed the laws were in fact human. If we say that the Nazis of the 1940s were monsters, (thus picturing scary-looking folks easy to spot) we will not be able to identify them in our own societies of today. The men who worked at the concentration camps often had wives and children. “Monsters” have lovers. “Monsters” walk among us. It isn’t until a “monster” comes to power that we uncover what is really hiding beneath. Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil is a book I return to again and again.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about poetry readings?

Cat Dixon: I like organizing readings. I like attending them. As for reading at them, I do often, but I much more prefer to be the promoter rather than the promoted.

Geosi Gyasi: What is too heavy to carry in “Too Heavy to Carry”?

Cat Dixon: Regret. After going through a divorce with two small children, I felt lost and depressed. I had been cheated on and lied to and was holding onto anger and sadness–sadness that my home was broken. The book explores the journey through dark times and the light at the end of the tunnel.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

Cat Dixon: I write with pen and paper. Then, usually once or twice a month, I type up my scribbles. The challenge is that my handwriting is horrible.

Geosi Gyasi: As an editor, do you edit your own work?

Cat Dixon: I do, but I always want a second pair of eyes on a poem before I send it out. I have an excellent writing group that meets once a month and from time to time we will workshop via email. I would be lost without them!

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

Cat Dixon:  Yes, in the past, but now I keep many projects going at one time and that seems to help. Right now I have a completed manuscript that I am sending out while working on a collection of poems about working in a restaurant, a collection of prayer poems, a collection of poems about working as a church secretary, and a collection that explores relationships of all different kinds. If I am stuck on one poem, I bounce to another poem or an entirely different group of poems.

Geosi Gyasi: What books are currently on your reading table?

Cat Dixon: Stephen King’s Lisey Story. I have been reading King since junior high.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes.  Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.  

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind sharing with me your most recent poem, whether published or unpulished?

Cat Dixon: The manuscript I am sending out that I mentioned above is a collection of poems about Bob Levinson, the longest held hostage in American history. I spent a couple of years learning about Bob’s case and contacted his family and received feedback from his daughter, Stephanie, and emailed with other family members.  Some of the poems in the manuscript are written in his voice, some are written in mine. This poem “The Haunted House–October 2014” is one where I am writing in my voice reflecting on Bob’s plight.  The poem is up here:

Here’s the poem:

Cat Dixon
The Haunted House – October 2014

I squeeze my husband’s hand as I follow his black coat around dark corners. Cobwebs stick to my hair, middle-schoolers push my back, hurry, hurry, the floor slants up and we stumble, catch ourselves against plastic axes, skeletons, giant wire spiders. Hallways lead to rooms—one, with a grown woman in pigtails cradling a decapitated baby doll, dozens of doll heads hang from the ceiling. Another room, a butcher in a blood-spattered apron cuts the air with a cleaver, rubber intestines ooze on the counter. Down the hall, carnival music squeals as a demented clown chases us to the stairs that lead to another scene. The man in an orange jump suit chained to the wall, his white hair and beard covered in dirt, moans. I thought of you. An actor dressed in black approaches the prisoner, screams in his face, wielding a chainsaw. The white beard hangs his head in mock despair. I had to look away. I thought of you and wanted out. We had paid to enter this place.

To learn more about Bob Levinson, please visit: http://www.


Interview with Wendy Barker, Winner of John Ciardi Prize

August 28, 2016
Photo: Wendy Barker

Photo: Wendy Barker

Brief Biography:

Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, winner of the John Ciardi Prize, is One Blackbird at a Time (BkMk Press, 2015). Her fourth chapbook of poems is From the Moon, Earth is Blue (Wings Press, 2015). An anthology of poems about the 1960s, Far Out: Poems of the ’60s, co-edited with Dave Parsons, was released by Wings Press in 2016. Among her other books are Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of co-translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your book, One Blackbird at a Time?

Wendy Barker: I’ve taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio since 1982. During the fall of 2007, I was assigned an unusually rigorous course load, with three heavy-prep literature classes, including two dealing with 19th Century British and American novels. One of these courses I’d never taught, and another I hadn’t taught in many years, so I didn’t have a spare moment for poems of my own—it was all I could do to keep up with the reading for these courses. Though I enjoyed reading the novels and preparing for class (and I always love meeting with the students), I was starving to get back to my own work. In December, as the semester finally came to an end, the poem that became “On Teaching Too Many Victorian Novels in Too Short a Space of Time During Which I Become” just burst out. And from then on, between 2008 and 2012, the poems came burbling forth. Of course, they all took enormous amounts of revision, even after the manuscript won the Ciardi Prize. It was as though my experiences of teaching for all those years insisted on being voiced. Sometimes a poem would come from a recent incident in the classroom (as with “Waking Over Call It Sleep“) and sometimes a poem would deal with an experience from earlier years (as with “Why I Dread Teaching The Sun Also Rises“).

Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised when One Blackbird at a Time was chosen for The John Ciardi Prize?

Wendy Barker: Flabbergasted! I was in the Dallas airport with my husband Steve Kellman on our return from a week in Belize, during which I hadn’t once checked my messages. But at DFW, I finally checked my Blackberry (yes, in 2014 I hadn’t yet changed over to an iPhone) and couldn’t believe what I read. I showed the message from Ben Furnish, Managing Editor of BkMk Press, to Steve, to make sure it was real. Needless to say, I was elated. And honored. And thrilled!

Geosi Gyasi: At what time of the day do you write?

Wendy Barker: Whenever I can. When things are working, poems are always wandering around in my head, phrases, images, and I try, whenever I can, to write notes. Sometimes a word or line will come when I’m driving—so I’ll wait till I’m stopped at a red light to jot it down on the notepad I always keep handy. Sometimes when I’m watching a movie an idea will come, and even then, I’ll try to write down at least a word or two so I don’t lose the notion. So I guess I’d say that, unless what Emily Dickinson scathingly called “Real Life” is too demanding at the moment, I’m always writing. However, I do try to carve out good blocks of time when I can concentrate at the computer, try to save as much time during the week as I can to focus on developing and fine-tuning a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?

Wendy Barker: From the time I learned to write letters, I was always jotting things down. Kept diaries as a girl. Wrote what I thought I’d develop into short stories in my teens and twenties. Always writing. Kept little bits of notes in the drawer beside my bed. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, in my late twenties, early thirties, that I realized those little bits were germs of poems. And that I wasn’t wanting to write fiction, but poems.Took a couple of poems to the brilliant Sandra M. Gilbert at U.C. Davis (where I was working on my Ph.D.), and she was most encouraging. I began taking her workshops. She brought visiting writers to her classes: Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, and Alicia Ostriker. Later, both Ruth and Alicia became nourishing friends, and Sandra has continued to be an enormous help. Ruth, of course, is now gone, and I miss her. But Alicia is there, and I cherish her incredible example and generous, big-sisterly support.

Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read as a child?

Wendy Barker: I was a lucky kid in that one of the few interests my parents shared was poetry. From the time I was a baby, they read A.A. Milne’s poems out loud to me (from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six). Also Babar, and others. By the time I was three, I was reading on my own. Loved Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and a series of novels my English granny sent by the British novelist Grace James, centering around a little boy and girl growing up on a farm in England. And later, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the books of those series.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about From the Moon, Earth is Blue?

Wendy Barker: Somewhere between 2003 and 2007 I was writing poems about colors—where they came from before we created them chemically, what we associate with them, what metaphoric significance they’ve had in various cultures. And I was also writing ekphrastic poems, poems meditating on a work of art. Most of these poems had seen publication in journals. Around 2014 I began thinking that they might work together as a chapbook, along with a few other miscellaneous short poems I’d published in little magazines. So—I organized them into a chapbook manuscript, and was delighted that Bryce Milligan, the indefatiguable, wonderful publisher of Wings Press, was happy to publish the collection. He did a gorgeous job, too—hand-stitching the chapbook with brilliant blue thread.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your work habits or routine?

Wendy Barker: I work on poems whenever I can. I’m unlike many other writers in that I don’t have a set time I sit down at the computer. I try to cross chores and miscellaneous professional demands off the list so I can clear the decks to work on poems. I might be in the middle of folding towels and a line will come—and I’ll leave the towels and go to my study and write. The towels can wait. But, as I mentioned earlier, I do try to make sure that I have several good long blocks of time during the week to concentrate on developing and revising poems. However, at times, ensuring those luxurious blocks of time can be tricky.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do many drafts on a single poem?

Wendy Barker: Hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds. And hundreds. I’m currently struggling with major revisions for a poem I started in 2011. I still can’t make it work. I keep drafts in file folders—sometimes there will be two or three folders one or two inches thick with drafts. The poems in One Blackbird at a Time went through numerous revisions even after the book was chosen. In an earlier book of mine, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), I talk about the revision process in detail, and even show drafts of poems with comments.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

Wendy Barker: Of course. And although I shudder to realize how many trees have been cut down to provide me with paper, I print almost every draft so I can easily compare them. Sometimes I’ll realize that a change I’ve made doesn’t work, so I’ll go back to an earlier draft.

I also jot down notes on little pieces of paper, in my journal, anywhere there is paper handy when an idea or phrase or image pops up. I’ll place the notes in file folders as I begin to see that certain poems are “building”—and then, when I can, I can begin to arrange the notes from a particular folder into a draft for poem.

Geosi Gyasi: What makes a good poem?

Wendy Barker: How to answer this question! We all have different literary tastes, for one thing. A poem that moves me to tears may leave my close friend cold. And brilliant poems, of course, can be utterly different in their manner of brilliance. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are both among our country’s greatest of poets, but their writing seems to come from different worlds. Wang Wei, Pablo Neruda! Roethe, Plath, Rich—so different and yet each of these artists can change our lives.

As T.S. Eliot said, “If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something, perhaps something important to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless.”

But I guess one thing all great poems share is some sort of play with language, with delicious sounds, some sort of music, a particular rhythm. And imagery.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing is not going well?

Wendy Barker: I reread and reread, let a poem sit a while. Go back to it. Over and over. Send a poem out to one friend. Wait for her comments and suggestions. Then tinker. Send the revised poem out to another friend. Wait for his comments and suggestions. Tinker, revise again. And on and on. When several of my fiercest editor/ friends (including my writerly husband) “sign off” on a poem, I’ll let it go, consider it done. Only then will I send it out to journals, hoping an editor will like it. But then I may revise a poem again even after it’s appeared in a journal. The excellent copy editor at BkMk Press, Michelle Boisseau, had dozens of suggestions for the poems in One Blackbird at a Time; it took me two months to address those before sending a final, final manscript (gulp) back to the generous, efficient, patient Managing Editor of BkMk Press, Ben Furnish.

Geosi Gyasi: Does your family read your work?

Wendy Barker: Though none of my family members other than my husband reads my work before it’s published, both my son and my sisters are extremely supportive of my poetry. They understand that my writing is my life line and are often there for me when I need to talk through problems or stages in the development of a project. My husband Steve is an excellent reader for work in progress, though I don’t show him drafts until several of my great friends with whom I regularly exchange poems have weighed in.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me something about where you come from and how was it like growing up as a child?

Wendy Barker: I was born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1942, but my parents moved our family to Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1940’s. My mother was from England, and on the rare occasions when her parents and a cousin visited us, they seemed like exotic creatures from another planet. I was fascinated by the way they talked and the way my mother’s accent changed while they were with us—suddenly she was speaking with a British accent. (Actually, I think she never lost the British pattern of intonations, and I think, since I learned to talk from her, my speech is still somewhat characterized by that pattern.)

We moved frequently within Arizona—from Phoenix to Tucson and then later, back to Phoenix, living in a succession of cramped tract-houses in various working class neighborhoods. I attended thirteen different schools in twelve years, partly because my mother always felt there’d be a better house somewhere else, and partly because my father was moved around for his job, and partly because, though technically I don’t quality as a baby boomer, I was part of a huge population growth in Arizona in the late forties and fifties, so new schools were constantly being built—one year we’d have double sessions at an old school, then the next year we’d have to go to the newly built school, and so on and so forth.

Geosi Gyasi: Give me a brief synopsis of Between Frames.

Wendy Barker: The poems in this chapbook were written between 1998 and around 2005. In 1998, I’d divorced my husband of thirty-six years, and joined my life with my long-time colleague, the critic and biographer Steven G. Kellman. So these poems include meditations on the pain of divorce and the joy of beginning a new, healthy, nourishing relationship. Since Steve during those years was active as a film critic (now he concentrates more on reviewing books and plays, as well on his own book-length projects), we frequently attended screenings of movies, and several of the poems in the collection focus on the experience of viewing films. The final poem in the chapbook, “Wedding Crashers,” combines a reaction to the movie of that name with my joy at our own wedding.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any specific goal as a writer?

Wendy Barker: At the risk of sounding obnoxiously pretentious, I want to write poems that touch people deeply. I’d like my poems to touch poets whose work I admire and to touch people who previously may not have been poetry aficionados. I’m always overjoyed when someone comes up to me after a poetry reading and says, “I loved your poems, and I never liked poetry before!” I want to write poems that move readers, listeners, so they feel them, to quote that genius of a poet W. B. Yeats, in “the deep heart’s core.”


Interview with Bunkong Tuon, Author of “Gruel”

August 23, 2016
Photo: Bunkong Tuon

Photo Credit: Nicole Calandra

Brief Biography:

Bunkong Tuon is a writer, critic, and professor at Union College.  He has published scholarly articles in Comparative Literature Studies, MELUS, Mosaic, Children’s Literature Quarterly, among others.  His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Quarterly, Ray’s Road Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, The Más Tequila Review, Nerve Cowboy, Misfit, among others. His first full-length collection, Gruel, was published by NYQ Books in 2015.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me how you started out as a writer?

Bunkong Tuon:  In the early 90s I found myself one morning in a public library in Long Beach, California, and I picked up a book by Charles Bukowski. I was moved by what I read; then I picked up another book by the author.  Once I exhausted Bukowski, I turned to other authors.  Writing, for me, began with reading and, then, a desire to make sense of my experiences and tell my own stories.

Geosi Gyasi: Sorry to bring back memories. Tell me about the time you lived in refugee camps in Thailand?

Bunkong Tuon:  I was too young to understand anything.  All I remember was the freedom of roaming around the refugee camps, while my uncles and aunts were busy worrying about our next meal, finding work, and getting sponsorship to the U.S. or any place that would take us.  It was fun for me, but most likely hell for the adults.  One evening, I remember, I was returning from playing outside when I found my grandmother weeping while tending to the bruises on my uncle’s body.  He was caught by the guards for leaving camp to go fishing at night, so that he could supplement the meager food ration for our family.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write about your personal experiences?

Bunkong Tuon:  Yes, my writing is based on personal experiences.  But, I would argue that even the most fantastic, absurd, surreal work is, in one way or another, autobiographical.  For example, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is quite personal, psychologically honest, and very autobiographical.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you differentiate teaching from writing?  

Bunkong Tuon: Teaching is working through an idea with other people.  Writing is working through an idea by myself.

Geosi Gyasi: Where do you write best? 

Bunkong Tuon: I write best at home, usually early in the morning or late in evening (i.e. when my daughter sleeps), with a good cup of coffee and a silence so strong you can hear the grass breathing.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the main underlying purpose for why you wrote, “Bukowski Would Never Do This”?

Bunkong Tuon:  The message is to write from the heart.  No matter what happens, write about things that matter to you and that keep you awake at night.  Forget the critics, other writers, and readers.  Write what moves you and nothing else.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, ‘Gruel”?

Bunkong Tuon: I completed an autobiography called “Under the Tamarind Tree” one summer in graduate school.  It got rejected by a university press, but I did get a section of it called “Cambodia: Memory and Desire” published in the Massachusetts Review.  After that experience, I turned to writing a series of poems based on that autobiography.   “Gruel” is simply an autobiography in free verse.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the response of “Gruel” when it first came out?

Bunkong Tuon:  The reviews have been favorable so far, but nothing that will put me on the map of American poetic landscape.  What’s important to me is that I finally got to say what I had wanted to say for such a long time.  There was this big sigh of relief running through me after publishing that book.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to complete, “Gruel”?

Bunkong Tuon:  “Gruel” is about my life, so it took me a lifetime to have the materials for that book.  The writing took me about a decade.

Geosi Gyasi: What are some of the most challenging themes you’ve ever written?

Bunkong Tuon:  Any work that explores parent-child relationship is difficult for me to write, teach, and read in public.  For example, poems about my parents and grandmother, as well as poems about the suffering of the Khmer people, are very painful to me.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the term abroad studies in which you bring your US students to study in Viet Nam?

Bunkong Tuon:  In fall 2015, I led a group of students from Union College and Hobart and William Smith College to Viet Nam.  We went everywhere—from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hmong villages in the north.   It was such a wonderful learning experience for all of us.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “Gruel”?

“All my life I told myself I never knew

suffering under the regime, only love.

This is still true.”

Bunkong Tuon:  For me, it’s all about a specific love—the love of a grandmother who shielded her grandson from the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge and how that love continues to shine through to the present and future.  I wouldn’t be here—alive and doing well with my life, being a father, husband, and professor—without that grandmotherly love.

Geosi Gyasi: What have you been up to in recent times? Are there any future projects in the pipeline?

Bunkong Tuon:  I’m working on a collection of poems based on my experiences leading a term abroad in Viet Nam.  It has three narrative strands: (1) visiting my father’s village for the first time; (2) taking care of my students and missing my daughter and transferring some of that paternal feelings to students; (3) exploring the relationship between the tourist and the local people.


Interview with American Writer, Timothy Brennan

August 12, 2016
Photo: Timothy Brennan

Photo: Timothy Brennan


Timothy Brennan was born in Milwaukee, studied jazz piano at the Wisconsin conservatory of music, was a frequent contributor of op-eds to the daily newspapers, and worked as the director of an artists colony (The Summer Street Studio).  After graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where he studied with the social historian, Harvey Goldberg, he moved to New York’s Lower East Side where he lived for twenty years. Before attending graduate school, he worked with political prisoner support groups, immigrant communities in the Bronx, covered the last great miners’ strike in the late 1970s in West Virginia, and worked in an auto plant in Metuchen, NJ before getting a scholarship to Columbia University. There he studied with Edward Said in the 1980s, getting his PhD in 1987.  In recent years, he studied classical piano with Woobin Park, one of the students of Lydia Artymiw.

His work has been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, the Christian Science Monitor, the Independent, the Jerusalem Post, the Times of India, Critical Inquiry, American Book Review, and other publications. In 1989, he received an award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals for his special issue of Modern Fiction Studies titled “Narratives of Colonial Resistance” (1989). Professor Brennan is a recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the McKnight foundation, He was Director of the University’s Humanities Institute between 2002 and 2004, and has chaired the Sociological Approaches to Literature Division of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and currently is a member of the MLA Delegate Assembly. For five years, he was the editor of a book series at Cambridge University Press: “Cultural Margins.” You can find more about him here:

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific genre of writing you are often associated with?

Timothy Brennan: I suppose “criticism” or “cross-over non-fiction.” But I am interested in ideas that fit specific situations. Genres are just a way to allow people to find their way around ideas in a familiar frame whose rules they know, even if the ideas themselves might be new. Given the occasion, I have written in a number of different genres that include translations of poetry; CD liner notes; op-eds for newspapers; visual/text collaborations with artists, dialogues, and signed essays for encyclopedias.

Criticism is primarily an attitude and a social function more than a genre, really. The critical attitude, I think, is one that holds that all ideas derive from material and practical experience, and that the “real” must be one’s starting point — that it cannot be invented or wished away — but also that reality can be more than it is, can be refashioned, and that we have a choice.

Geosi Gyasi: The synopsis of your book, “Borrowed Light”, states that, Borrowed Light makes the case that the 20th century is the “anticolonial century.” How should one interpret the term, “anticolonial century”?

Timothy Brennan: The usual portrait of the 20th century is rather grim. It is typically billed as a horror show: the rise of fascism, Stalinism, two devastating world wars, nuclear weaponry, new technologies of media manipulation and surveillance, the petro economy’s ecological devastation – one long nightmare. Instead of being taken as a sensible caution, this drum beat of negativity has just made most feel hopeless and overwhelmed, which is perhaps why it takes this form, and why so many liberal scholars and media experts continue to embrace it.

But this picture is very one-sided. The early 20th century, after all, saw revolutions in Mexico and Russia that changed immeasurably the ability of Europe and the United States to dominate the rest of the world. They were followed, mid-century, by revolutions in China and India, and later throughout Africa and other parts of Asia and Latin America. The Mexican and Russian revolutions sent shock waves throughout the world, prompting popular movements in the periphery, who were directly, and enthusiastically inspired by both. Nothing like this anti-imperial spirit had existed anywhere before this period.

It is true that we find individual voices of conscience, perhaps, in early centuries protesting the colonial enterprise: De las Casas very famously, the Abbe Raynal, Eduard Douwes Dekker, R. B. Cunninghame Graham) but it was only in the 20th century –and the revolutions I mentioned were defined by this very feature – that we find a full-fledged anticolonial sentiment programmatically expressed.

It was only then, in the creation of international organizations, that we find intellectuals and activists from the periphery meeting Europeans as equals, sharing ideas, developing programs, and laying out strategies in a common cause.   By the mid-1960s, let us not forget, almost three quarters of the globe was nominally socialist, and there was not a single intellectual anywhere, right or left, who did not suppose that socialism was anything but the likely form of a future world.   This socialism was really just another name for the development of former colonial territories as independent polities (such as India, Tanzania, Vietnam) and semi-peripheral states as newly autonomous ones (such as Russia, China).

Many of the atrocities of the 20th century that make up the “horror show” portrait above were after all the result of this challenge to European and American dominance. The horrible excesses marked the hysterical response of the pitiless major powers actively reasserting their dominance. How else do we understand the dropping of the atom bomb, the carpet bombing in Southeast Asia, the genocidal slaughter in Europe first perfected in the colonies, not to mention the systematic murder – often the work of trained assassins by the CIA or U.S.-trained paramilitary units – of literally millions of people in Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and China in order to exterminate the Left? That the murdered were poor farmers and students struggling for economic and political independence is largely lost in the cacophony of official history, just as is the epithet “communist” which was used to justify their killing is left unexamined. This justification, and its double-edged ironies, are a largely underplayed feature of the illusory (but much touted) victory of the market at the “end of history.”We might mistake my argument above as implying that the term “communist” was a slander, since these were just local peoples fighting for control of their land and resources. But that is not what I mean. I am suggesting that they were communists, and that the term actually means black and anticolonial in the 20th century once one clears the air of Cold War smoke. The fear and loathing of the “communist” is the fear and loathing of non-white peoples demanding their independence from Western rule. We have to ask, had everyone been allowed to choose, what their choice would have been. I think it is obvious that the world would now be socialist or at least social democratic, not neoliberal.   Arguably, then, the 20th century did not just witness a major challenge to the colonial system; it is defined by it.

Geosi Gyasi: As a child, what books were you often found reading?

Timothy Brennan: I can’t really remember all of them – a lot of everything. I do remember the first books I read: Big Tracks, Little Tracks and the more sophisticated Adam of the Road, but there were lots of other things. There were many books around us, because my dad (a lawyer) loved to read. At age 10 or so, I mainly read biographies — the big print 100-page biographies of the heroes of Americana (I remember the volumes on Babe Ruth, John Wannamaker, Knute Rockne, Jim Thorpe, Ty Cobb, and Lucretia Mott). I adored A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals, but found the Hardy Boys boring.

My parents – who are not intellectuals or academics – had serious books on their bookshelves in the living room – Mann’s Magic Mountain, Camus’ The Fall, a Joseph Conrad Argosy, and a signed copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (a large, leather-bound limited edition with uncut pages, given to my Irish-American grandfather – a complete philistine). In high school, I began to read them. My high school was exceptional. We had a demanding teacher named Mary Ellen Ladogiannis, who introduced me to Homer, Dostoevsky, Rilke, Tolstoy, Hesse, Kazantzakis, and others I cannot remember now. I was steeped especially in poetry by senior year, and read all of the American poets I could find, especially John Berryman, Leroi Jones, e. e. cummings, Allen Ginzberg, and Sylvia Plath. Later, reading Lorca and Neruda, I began to study Spanish. I read the Bible closely – especially the New Testament – and was disappointed by what I found. I read the Notebooks of Leonardo. I read a lot about the history of science, especially physics.

Geosi Gyasi: As an adult, what kind of books are you likely to be caught reading?

Timothy Brennan: This is hard to answer. I assume you don’t mean the varied and regimented sort of reading one does for research and teaching, but the more aleatory things one reads out of pure interest, or precisely to be taken away from the obligatory.   So let me give you an example of the delightful, if obligatory, vs. the aleatory. Last semester I taught a course for the second time called “Poets of Commodities” about economics and literature. It features people like Adam Smith (on “moral sentiments”), Hegel, Marx, Simmel, Veblen, Bataille, Arendt, Debord, Bourdieu, and J. K. Gibson-Graham. So, first off, I had to re-read them, and really pore over them taking many notes. Then, in the name of further preparation, I found myself having to read many people not found on my reading list but highly relevant to the theme, just to expand my horizongs: like Samuel Pufendorf, Karl Polanyi, Christian Marazzi, William Pietz, Deirdre McCloskey and others. But, on the other side of things, I read for pleasure, when I have a little free time, classics.   I’d much rather read philosophy or social theory than novels, either popular or serious.   Some of these recently have been Hazlitt, Tacitus, Lucretius, ibn Khaldun, and Simone de Beauvoir’s fantastic travelogue, America Day by Day. At times I feel guilty for not keeping up with novels, so I read those too when I can (Knausgaard, De Lillo, Perec, Couto, Ghosh, Foster Wallace, but honestly I find it hard to finish them). My favorite poets are mostly not American — Vallejo, Cavafy, Neruda, Faiz, Brecht, Joaquin Pasos, and Julia de Burgos.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have a hand in the making of the front cover of the book?

Timothy Brennan: Very much so.   The press wanted veto power over the cover of my book, and all I could so was accede.   But when it came down to it, I presented my idea to them and they took it.   It was not me, though, really, but Keya Ganguly – a professor of film and my wife – who discovered the painting on-line and suggested it. We both knew the work of the artist very well, Abanindranath Tagore, whose paintings we have long admired when visiting India. We managed to track down a descendant of the artist, Saranindranath Tagore, now teaching in Singapore, and he happily consented. I worked with the press on the design and color of the lettering.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your main research areas as a writer?

Timothy Brennan: Whatever else it is about, my work is about the colonial imagination and imperial culture – especially the traces of imperial culture in metropolitan intellectual practices.   I am interested in the “margins – especially suppressed, misunderstood, or slandered political (rather than racial or ethnic) identities. The academic field I am associated with, I suppose, is postcolonial studies, although I’ve always found it hard to fit in with its doctrines, which seem to me both derivative (discounting or ignoring its predecessors), or carrying ideological baggage that its predecessors were largely free of. Within that field, at any rate, I have argued for the literary vulgate rather than modernism, to the still untapped novelties of “realism,” and to the philological emphases of Mikhail Bakhtin, Edward Said, and the traditions of critical theory based on the Italian humanist, Giambattista Vico.

A lot of the work I do is meta-critical, and is based on intellectual history. I believe it is urgent to think of political belief-cultures as belonging under the category of “identity” and to recognize that the state is not an obsolete form under globalization, but still one of the most meaningful arenas of political potential.   My work often resembles a sociology of the public academic intellectual in that sense, penetrating the contradictions of the humanist in an unforgiving American political milieu.  So I have written, for example, on the economics of literature, and on the uses of the “literary” in business circles and in neo-liberal commentary: basically, on the affects of the humanities on public life.   My turn to the “vulgate” (as I put it above) takes the form, in one case, of a stress on peripheral aesthetics, which can be found in my writing on neo-African popular music of the Americas, which is involved in part in showing how music bears on literature.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you spend your time as a professor and writer?

Timothy Brennan: Reading and writing, often wildly in a process of multi-tasking, takes up most of my working day.   There is no mystique about writing for me.   It is labor and, in my case, mostly constant trial and error. I love when the first draft is down on paper, and I can then work and rework the prose, cutting and dicing. The first draft flows in a torrent. And only then does the work begin. For that reason, I can write anywhere – in a doctor’s waiting room, on a plane, in a cramped hotel room, it doesn’t matter.   I just need a stretch of time, and for no music to be playing (or birds chirping – I find writing in nature impossible). My days are fairly routine, though, in other respects – the usual family time, vacations, housework, swimming.   I have a very large family (not only my own, but my wife’s extended Indian family) and therefore we have constant visitors or obligations to visit others.   My life is not all writing and reading, then, obviously.   In fact, I stop work every day at 4:00 to play piano for two hours. And my wife (who is also an author and an academic) and I have a strict rule that all work stops at 6:00 so that we can talk together, make dinner together, have a drink, live. We entertain a lot.   And we are constantly traveling – usually some combination of professional speaking and vacationing; or temporary teaching posts abroad.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary influences?

Timothy Brennan: If you mean writers that I see myself in and through, or whose sensibility I share, then Hazlitt, Paine, Gramsci, Baldwin, McCarthy, Lefebvre, de Beauvoir, Said.

Geosi Gyasi: The last time I heard from you, you were in India and then later to Baltimore for a conference. How much impact does your travels have on your writing?

Timothy Brennan: A lot. The rhythms, the type of news in the media, the modes of conversation, the levels of immediacy of experience – they are all so different from country to country, even now in so-called globalization (which has always been exaggerated). It is so easy to be uninformed without even knowing one is uninformed if one never travels. But also, since my travel is usually to give a lecture, what I learn from those exchanges is invaluable, and a large part of any future revision.  I know many find travel distracting, but as I said earlier, I am able to write on the road, in airports, and so on. To be honest, I find being present in another space very liberating.   My ways of thinking and expressing myself might become rote at home. So, working on an essay or a chapter, I find myself cramped and stymied in my prose, like I am fighting myself, and keep stumbling about, unable to say clearly what I mean. Then, after a long flight, I find myself in a temporary apartment in Berlin, say, and something about the sounds, the light coming in through the windows, the quality of ambient speech – whatever – frees me up, and suddenly I know how to put it, and the words just flow out, as though I could see all at once how to explain myself.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?

Timothy Brennan: I wrote my first book in New York at a typewriter, entirely between the hours of 10:00 pm and 3:00 am. But that was just to get away from the sounds of the day in a tenement apartment without air conditioning (whose windows therefore had to be left open).   Now it’s different. If I am working over a stretch of days on a piece of writing, which is always painful, I usually force myself to begin in the morning – around 9:00 or so – but invariably there are false starts, impasses, and wandering attention, and I get very little done. In practice, I get most of the actual writing done between 2:00 and 4:00 – after all the procrastination and failures have subsided because of my shame and anxiety at getting little done, and since I know I must break off in only two more hours.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your book, “Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz”?

Timothy Brennan: I moved to New York in 1977 at the height of the salsa’s popularity which was also (and significantly) exactly the time that rap was first stirring in the Bronx. I lived on the Lower East Side for over twenty years – a primarily Puerto Rican, and then later Dominican community whose streets were filled with licuado vendors and traveling disqueros (transient disk jockeys) who would carry huge baskets of old vinyl records around on bicycles with sound equipment and set up little dance parties on the outsikirts of baseball and soccer games on the East River Parkway a few blocks from my apartment. Being surrounded by Latin music made me want to get to the bottom of it.   I did a lot of research in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, of course, New York.   So the result was Secular Devotion. It’s main argument is that popular music in the Americas is popular in part because it is heavily influenced by neo-African religious practices. That religious dimension survived slavery, and expressed itself as an alternative to the dominant religions “of the Book” and in protest against the disciplinary rhythms of modern industrial labor. Not all popular music is neo-African, of course, but a disproportionate amount of it is, even in genres where it is not obvious – like disco, ballroom, and Broadway.

The other argument coursing through the book is that jazz is not a uniquely U.S. form (although it of course took on uniquely U.S. styles and modes in the 20th century); it is rather part of a much larger Latin complex of neo-African forms, and that American critics, white and black, deny this, preferring to believe that it sprang out of nowhere at the turn of the century. There is a sort of patriotic sublime surrounding jazz that is filled with paradoxes: the fact, for example, that the very music of an oppressed racial group then becomes the major international boast of the country abroad about its freedom, vitality, and equality. Jazz is “imperial” in very specific ways – first, that it is the result of early jazz artists like W. C. Handy and Willie Cornish visiting Puerto Rico and Cuban during the American occupation there in the Spanish-American war; or the mass migration of French-trained musicians flocking to New Orleans at the end of the 18th century as a result of the slave rebellion in San Domingo. Jazz was a major weapon of ideological war as early as WWI, when James Reese Europe was enlisted to form a military band to popularize jazz in Europe. So these, and many other stories, are what I explore in the book by looking at youth subcultures in Cuba, the vexed concept of “world music,” the affinities and contrasts between rap and salsa, and the war of literature on music that is part a larger race conflict. What holds all of these cases together is what I call “secular devotion” – the neo-African religious outlooks that signify as secular in their arenas of reception – namely, popular or entertainment music.

Geosi Gyasi: I am not sure if “Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right” was your first published book?

No, actually I had published three before that.   My first book, Myths of the Nation: Salman Rushdie and the Third World (Macmillan, 1989), for example, was a study of a group of third-world novelists writing for the metropole, a look at book markets and the politics of taste where writing from the periphery had become, I argued, a kind of political exotic. This was the first biographical and critical study of Rushdie’s work in any language, and a book that appeared before Rushdie was widely known.  The next was At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Havard, 1997), a sprawling concept book on the meaning of cosmopolitanism, especially the downsides of that appealing idea in a period of American imperial resurgence. In this book, I laid out the now-flourishing debate over cosmopolitics in literary circles, charting the ways that an emergent world literature reflects the values of the imperial center, and creates an attraction for “otherness” that resembles the literary modernism of the American book markets.  I then did a book-length translation and edition of a Alejo Carpentier’s classic study of Cuban music, Music in Cuba, for which I wrote a very long historical introduction. I explored there the Latin American left intellectuals’ presence in interwar Europe, the way they used the new technology of radio, and their interest in, but also contempt for, surrealism which they took to be a belated return to what they had already invented.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your writing habits?

Timothy Brennan: I’ve sort of spoken to this already, but maybe another way of putting it is that I see writing and reading as belonging to one another. I am always doing both, and at the same time. I can’t “read” a book without writing in the margins of it, or taking notes on it, or writing something related to it that does not always directly address it. As a result, my essays and books find their origins first in disembodied paragraphs that come out more or less spontaneously from my response to something I am reading.   These paragraph are later developed, expanded, spun out; or they are taken wholesale and interlarded; or they are stitched to something else.   I have huge files filled with “notes” of this sort – stand-alone prose paragraphs waiting for future use, or long quotations from others that I admire (along with my reactions to them in my own voice).   Again, that “response” is not necessarily a critical commentary on what I am reading (although it can be). It might just be something that occurred to me from a wholly different context or occasion, now prompted by they way the author I was reading had expressed herself, or himself. When I wrote my first book at a typewriter, I was forced to move on to the next sentence only after the previous sentence was completed to my satisfaction, since it would be too cumbersome in such a practice to go back for major revisions at the end. It would involve too much retyping.   So it was, more or less, a “single take” kind of writing, and it managed to work.   But now, composing at a laptop, my practice is completely different.   I only really feel the writing has begun in the midst of revisions, and in my case, there are a lot of them, always. I put things through many drafts, and love that process of revision after the painful setting-down of the raw initial text has been completed. I am always working on two or three things at once.

Geosi Gyasi: Has anything changed about your writing over the years?

Timothy Brennan: Yes.   I mean the patterns I have described above are constant, so in that sense, no.   I write a great deal, but always have, even though I always feel like I have not done enough, that others had come out and said less well in print what I could have said (or did say) a decade earlier. But the big difference is that at the beginning I was discovering the areas I most wanted to address, and the original ways I wanted to do so.   Now it is more a question of having the time before I die to express fully what I have already discovered, what is already mapped out, as it were, for me to say, and whose points I already know I want to share.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it come easy for you in finding publishers for your books?

Timothy Brennan: Yes, thankfully. So far at any rate.

Geosi Gyasi: What legacy do you want to leave behind as a writer?

Timothy Brennan: Another way of seeing. A criticism that hurts. Mostly, to be read.


Interview with Jamaican-Canadian Poet, Speaker, & Entrepreneur, Dwayne Morgan

July 31, 2016
Photo: Dwayne Morgan

Photo: Dwayne Morgan


Dwayne Morgan began his career as a performer in 1993.  In 1994, he founded Up From The Roots entertainment, to promote the positive artistic contributions of African Canadian and urban influenced artists.

In 2014, Morgan received the Renaissance Planet Africa Award for Career Achievement, and was acknowledged by the Ontario Black History Society as a Community Trailblazer, following up on his 2013 Scarborough Walk of Fame Induction.

Morgan has published 8 books, most recently his first children’s book, Before I was Born, which followed his memoir, Everyday Excellence (2013), Her Favourite Shoes (2011), The Sensual Musings of Dwayne Morgan (2010), The Making of A Man (2005), The Man Behind The Mic (2002), Long Overdue (1999), and chapbooks, The Revolution Starts Within (1996), and Straight From The Roots (1995).

Dwayne’s work ethic has taken him across Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Trinidad, Turkey, Bermuda, Barbados, England, Scotland, Belgium, Budapest, Germany, France, Norway, and Holland.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet, speaker and social entrepreneur. Which of them came to you first?

Dwayne Morgan: Poetry came to me first when I was 18 years old. By the time I had turned 19, I had started my own business, putting on talent shows, so that my friends could have a platform to perform. My experiences over the past 23 years have given me the lessons that I draw on when I speak in front of audiences.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you know as a child that you would one day become a poet?

Dwayne Morgan: I never saw poetry in my future. I have always been a shy introvert, and would never gravitate to anything that involved speaking in front of people. This came out of the blue and is a reminder that the universe will use us for what it needs us to do.

Geosi Gyasi: What are the prospects of becoming a poet? Is it all that lucrative?

Dwayne Morgan: It definitely isn’t an easy path as a poet, however, I have found a way to live off of my art for over two decades. I believe that that requires a good understanding of what is happening with people, a good understanding of self, and a lot of creativity. My career has afforded me everything that I want, and has allowed me to see the world in ways that I never imagined that I would.

Geosi Gyasi: I am particularly interested in your roots. Where do you actually come from? Could you tell me a little bit about your heritage?

Dwayne Morgan: I was born in Toronto in 1974. Both of my parents are immigrants from Jamaica. My sister and I were the first members of the family born outside of Jamaica. It is strongly believed by many, that our Jamaican ancestors would have come from Ghana.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to set up “Up From The Roots” entertainment?

Dwayne Morgan: Up From The Roots was started as a platform to create opportunities for young artists to get on stage and perform. The name was inspired by the Jamaican hero, Marcus Garvey, who said that “a people without knowledge of their history, is like a tree without roots”. The vision was to create a business that was self-sustaining and not dependent on government funding to survive. Thus far, I’ve managed to keep the formula going for over twenty years.

Geosi Gyasi: Has the aim for which you set up “Up From The Roots” been achieved?

Dwayne Morgan: I would say that I’ve achieved the goal. At present I produce about twenty shows per year, for audiences of 25-500, depending on the show, and shining the spotlight on dozens of artists per year.

Geosi Gyasi: What factors influenced your first children’s book, “Before I Was Born”?

Dwayne Morgan: The story of ‘Before I Was Born’ came to me while on the way to a Kanye West concert. I ended up writing the first draft in the parking lot at the arena. As the father of a daughter, I loved the fact that the story affirmed girls, and put the spotlight on positive relationships between them and their fathers.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to write your memoir, “Everyday Excellence”?

Dwayne Morgan: I decided to write ‘Everyday Excellence’ to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my career. When I first began, there was no-one who believed that I would still be doing this after two decades. Most people have no idea how I’ve managed to live off of my art for as long as I have, so I decided to write a book that shared my life philosophies, and how I’ve managed to achieve the things that I have.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you differentiate between a speaker and writer?

Dwayne Morgan: A speaker is one who has something to say, and gets in front of people to share it, while a writer is simply one who communicates their ideas through typing or writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any fond memories of the day you performed for the former Governor General of Canada, Honourable Michaelle Jean?

Dwayne Morgan: I can’t say that there were fond memories per se. It was exciting to have the opportunity to present my work in her presence, and with that came a lot of nerves, but I learned very early that people are just people, so I reminded myself of that and was able to relax and execute.

Geosi Gyasi: You are the founder of the Roots Lounge open mic and Poetry Slam, as well as the Toronto International Poetry Slam. Could you spend some time talking about Poetry Slams?

Dwayne Morgan: Poetry slams are competitive poetry competitions that have exploded in many parts of the world. The competitions can be individual or team, and are judged by members of the audience. The slam was created as a way to get the audience involved in the show, and make poetry readings more exciting and better attended. I have been instrumental in cultivating the poetry slam scene in Canada. I also have a partnership with one of the local school boards, that has me working with 45 schools, each of which has a poetry team, and the kids write and perform their poems in competition against other kids.

Geosi Gyasi: Having written and produced eight books and six albums, do you see yourself writing more books and/or producing more albums?

Dwayne Morgan: The answer to that would be yes, as I am now up to nine books, and my next album is almost finished being recorded.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the work you do with photography?

Dwayne Morgan: Photography has always been a passion of mine. My writing is very visual, and when I can’t find words, I pick up the camera and try to tell stories through pictures. I am self-taught with the camera, and now have a few exhibits under my belt.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve won several notable prizes like the Young, Black, and Gifted Trailblazer Award, Planet Africa Award, Scarborough Walk of Fame Induction among others. Which of them do you feel most proud of?

Dwayne Morgan: I am most proud of the ‘Scarborough Walk of Fame induction’. I grew up in Scarborough, and to have the city honour your contribution in that way, is remarkable and humbling. In the middle of cities major shopping mall, is a star in the ground with my name on it; that will outlive me, and will serve as a reminder to my daughter of what my life and contribution meant.

Geosi Gyasi: Looking into your career as a poet, speaker and social entrepreneur, do you feel fulfilled?

Dwayne Morgan: I am very fulfilled. I have lived a life beyond my dreams. I have traveled the world. I have touched lives. I have taught, and I have learned. I feel blessed to do what I do, and to have had the experiences that I’ve had.

Geosi Gyasi: This summer, it would be your first time coming to Ghana and your second in Africa. Could you tell me about your expectations and what you already know about Ghana and Africa in general?

Dwayne Morgan: I am very much looking forward to coming to Ghana. I don’t know what to expect, and I learned long ago to live life without expectations, as that saves you from disappointment, and allows you to be in the moment and savour each life experience for what it is. I am both scared and excited to visit the areas where my ancestors may have touched the continent for the last time, before reaching the caribbean. I know that everywhere in Africa is different, so I am not expecting a similar experience to what I had on my visit to South Africa. My plan is to soak in as many different experiences as possible, and bring them back with me. Many of my supporters will never experience many of the things that I am privileged to experience, so I will be taking as many pictures and videos as possible to share the trip with them.


Interview with American Poet, David Shumate

July 26, 2016
Photo: David Shumate

Photo: David Shumate


David Shumate is the author of three collection of prose poetry published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Kimonos in the Closet (2013), The Floating Bridge(2008) and High Water Mark (2004), winner of the 2003 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared widely in literary journals and has been anthologized in Good Poems for Hard TimesThe Best American Poetry, and The Writer’s Almanac as well as in numerous other anthologies and university texts. David is poet-in-residence emeritus at Marian University and a lecturer in Butler University’s MFA program. He lives in Zionsville, Indiana.

Geosi Gyasi: What is a prose poem, if I may ask?

Dave Shumate:  The prose poem is a poetic form that employs many of the poetic techniques of a traditional poem, minus the line break.  In discarding this usually distinguishing element of poetry, a poet accepts the challenge to transport the reader without resorting to the imposition of white space after the line break.  At its worst, a prose poem can be simply mundane.  At its best, it can produce unexpected magic.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you share the views of critics who think that it is easy to write prose poems?

Dave Shumate:  Jim Harrison used to call the prose poem “the most difficult of poetic forms,” and I quite agree. Discarding the expected line break can be like juggling with one hand tied behind your back.  The best prose poems keep all the balls suspended in the air, defying the laws of poetic gravity.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the first prose poem you read?

Dave Shumate:  Probably one of Juan Ramon Jinenez’s prose poems translated by Robert Bly.

Geosi Gyasi: “High Water Mark’ was your first collection of prose poems. Were you surprised by the success it achieved to the extent of winning the 2003 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize?

Dave Shumate: Yes.  Like most poets, I write in the solitary confines of my study as an exercise in dreaming while awake.  After a few years I look to see if I can shape a book out of a small portion of the many poems I have composed.  High Water Mark came about in that way.  I was delighted to find that Ed Ochester found it worthy of Pitt Press’s series.  Delighted.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write with the aim of winning a prize?

Dave Shumate: I write with little aim at all.  I enter each writing session with almost no sense of where a poem might take me that day.  I am usually surprised to find where I end up.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you respond to the label, American poet?

Dave Shumate:  I haven’t thought about that much.  I suppose I am an American poet in the same way I am an Indiana poet or a Kansas poet or a New Mexico poet.  I don’t think it matters much where you are from.  The poetry I am most drawn to is quite universal, regardless of the time and place in which it was written.  After fifty years of reading them, I am still drawn to the Tang Dynasty poets of China, so that makes them Hoosier poets, from my warped perspective anyway.

Geosi Gyasi: How long, roughly, does it take you to write a single prose poem?

Dave Shumate:  Some prose poems tend to appear on the page as if they are writing themselves and then go through days and weeks, maybe months of revision, polishing.  Others are assembled in a more laborious fashion over days and weeks, very much like line break poems.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you mention any contemporary prose poets you most admire?

Dave Shumate:  Charles Simic.  Louis Jenkins.  Jim Harrison.

Geosi Gyasi: What are the technical details you consider in writing a prose poem?

Dave Shumate:  If by “technical details” you mean formal elements, I am highly conscious of the sonic elements in my work as well as its rhythms, its pacing.  But mostly I am traveling in the wake of the poem rather than leading it along. I remember hearing Michael Ondaatje quoting the old Chinese adage “follow the brush,” which to me means to respect the will of the poem and not try to impose my conscious will too much upon the direction the poem might want to take.  In truth, writing a poem feels like witnessing a subtle negotiation between the intellectual and the intuitive components of my being.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain this line from your poem, “In the Next America”: In the next America only the descendents of slaves will perfect the art of levitation?

Dave Shumate:  Much is yet owed to the descendants of slaves.  The ability to levitate would be a small down payment on that debt.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been the relationship between you and readers of your work?

Dave Shumate: I hear from readers from time to time, by email or at readings, and always enjoy their responses.  A while back I gave a reading at a retirement center in Kansas to about a hundred residents and was delighted that they connected with my poems so deeply.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that the art of poetry is dying?

Dave Shumate: I don’t think so.  It feels to me like it is more pervasive, more accepted in our culture than fifty years ago when students might have been ashamed to admit an interest in poetry.  Now the genre feels more mainstream, relevant.

Geosi Gyasi: At what time in the day do you write?

Dave Shumate: Early morning.  Later in the day I tend to do some editing, but morning is where the wonder resides, at least for me.

Geosi Gyasi: Does Zionsville, Indiana, provide a good home or environment for your writing?

Dave Shumate:  Yes.  But I also spend time in New Mexico, and that is equally conducive.  Almost anywhere with a comfortable chair and a lot of silence will do.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any other forms of poetry that interests you?

Dave Shumate:  All other forms.  And I write in other forms as well, but most of what I have published so far has been prose poems.  I write fiction as well and publish some of that, too.

Geosi Gyasi: To be honest, which of your poems do you regard as your best?

Dave Shumate: Very hard to say….  In my first book I included a poem, “A Nazi in Retirement,” which feels quite, quite right.  In my latest book, Kimonos in the Closet,

I feel like “Bringing Things Back From the Woods” and “Between Dogs” also get to the deepest heart of their subjects. I try not to publish anything that doesn’t feel like it glows in the dark, but that’s a rather high standard to set, so I fudge a bit.

Geosi Gyasi: What keeps you writing and writing?

Dave Shumate:  I write to return to that coherent, quite state of mind that gives rise to poems.  I find it enticing.  The poem is the by-product of that state of mind.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you say to journals, which state as part of their submission policy that prose poetry is not welcomed?

 Dave Shumate: I have never encountered such limitations, but if a journal doesn’t find prose poems suitable for their audiences, I certainly respect that.  Some people eat pasta.  Others go in for ceviche.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more prose poetry books in the future?

Dave Shumate: I am working on another book now, along with a long piece of fiction.  I hope to have the prose poem book completely edited by the fall, and the fiction finished sometime in the spring.


Interview with Nigerian Writer, Chikodili Emelumadu

July 25, 2016
Photo: Chikodili Emelumadu

Photo: Chikodili Emelumadu


Chikodili Emelumadu is a Nigerian writer, broadcaster and blogger living in London. She has a BA in English language and literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka and an MA in Cross Cultural Communications and International Relations from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Apex, Eclectica, Luna Station Quarterly, Omenana, One Throne and Sub-Q magazine. She was a 2015 Shirley Jackson nominee.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the inspiration behind your story, “Jermyn”?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Umm…I don’t know. These sorts of questions are always difficult to answer because there is no right reply. It might have been something which I wasn’t even aware was influencing me. All I know is, I finished work for the day, shut down my computer and went to bed. There I was trying to sleep and this dog was howling in my head. I had to bring out my phone and write the story! I did around 2000+ words before it let me sleep.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Ever?! No way. I’ve been writing since I can remember (I’m sure it’s the same old story with a lot of writers, people are probably sick of hearing it.) But I have not always done the same medium. When I was a kid, I read a lot of plays so I started writing those first. For some reason, the format appealed to me. It was all ‘Exit stage left’ and whatnot even before I’d ever seen a staged play. Then I moved on to poetry for a bit – a period that coincided with my teens. Ah, such beautiful, angst, AWFUL poetry. Then novels and novellas, and I have finally ‘settled’ on short stories. That being said, I was in Nigeria recently and found a novel I started when I was thirteen or so, about a protagonist named ‘Jade’ who had green eyes. Oh boy. Cringe-worthy.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Light and Light”?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Erm…I cannot recall. I just heard this woman’s voice in my head – superior-sounding — so I started writing down what she was saying. Then she signed it ‘Superintendent Mrs Adachukwu Godschildson’ which cracked me up so I followed her home to see what she was about. I did not like her house very much, let me tell you.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your story “Soup” as published by One Throne Magazine?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Well, ‘Soup’ tells the story of a girl, Akwaugo, who bonds with a very gossipy fish she’s supposed to be preparing for the soup pot. Her mother has just died and Akwaugo is beginning to realize that in a way, maybe, she is dying too. The story is about what she does next.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a Nigerian and broadcaster living in London. Could you tell me about your childhood?

Chikodili Emelumadu: I was born in a little village here in the UK called, Worksop and grew up in Nigeria with five siblings (eventually). I returned to the UK at 21. My parents are both in the medical profession so for a while there was the hope that I’d end up in that same place. It was all done in love, I suppose. Parents want the best for you. But as our people say: Everybody has a different chi (guiding spirit/personal destiny). Maybe if I’d gone into their profession, I might have been the kind of doctor that kills people for fun, like, proper Hannibal stuff.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any major difference between a writer and broadcaster?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Yes. I guess both industries revolve around telling stories (yours or other people’s), but writing deals with the written word as a method of reaching people while broadcasting is audio/video.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you make money from writing?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Not as much as I’d like! Thank God Indomie noodles are cheap, is all I’m saying.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about the literary scene in London?

Chikodili Emelumadu: I’m not very active on the London literary scene. I used to be, as a journalist, because my work required it. I’m a bit reclusive; write, read, rinse, repeat – in between other IRL activities. Most of my interaction with the literary scene here nowadays is virtual/online. London is vibrant in every way, even online.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

Chikodili Emelumadu: I hope to be better. I never want to rest on my (perceived) laurels. I want to keep going, challenging myself, meeting people and being in situations that will always inspire me to do more, faster, better. I want to do what I do to the best of my ability.

Geosi Gyasi: You have the opportunity to end the interview?

Chikodili Emelumadu: Everything I’ve just told you is a lie.


Interview with Poet, Simon Perchik

July 7, 2016
Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik

Brief Biography:

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from the past: You served in the Army Air Corps as a pilot. How did you get involved with piloting?

Simon Perchik :It was a poster of a young pilot looking up at the sky and the words, “Learn to Fly” written on the poster that was placed in the army base I was sent to when I was drafted. I applied, passed the interview and was sent off for training. Got my wings about 8 months later and soon after that was off to England. Flew 35 missions (as co-pilot) then sent home and discharged. From beginning to end it took a year, year and a half out of my life and yet it has taken such a hold that I can’t shake the experience. It dominates my poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your decision to go to Law School just after completing a B.A in English?

Simon Perchik: The G I Bill. I had enough points to get all that education free. Took me five years, including summers. Law seemed a good way to make a living so why pass it up.

Geosi Gyasi: What would you say to young budding writers who venture into writing from the very beginning of their lives? Would you encourage them to take a ‘well-paying’ job before they even think of venturing into writing?

Simon Perchik: No. I would advice them not to take anyone’s advice on that. But not to forget something has to feed the writing and the experience of earning a living is one source. Writing in an “ivory tower” deprives the writer of the material he or she needs to get the job done.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get involved with poetry?

Simon Perchik: I wrote poems in grade school and never stopped. Must give credit to my High School teacher (Mary Bell) for encouraging me.

Geosi Gyasi: Did Mary Bell hear about any of your publications? Besides being a teacher, was she a poet too?

Simon Perchik: She died long before anything of mine got published. No, she was not a poet. Just a good teacher. I owe her much and want that there be a record of it. Himmm. Is that why I write!

Geosi Gyasi: How do you define your role or vision as a poet?

Simon Perchik: I don’t think I have any role or vision. I’m writing my way out and it helps me. If others are helped, I’m happy but I have no cause to champion.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me the story about being the first Environmental Prosecutor for Suffolk County Long Island?

Simon Perchik: I’m very proud of those five years. Lots of frustration (No help from the administrative agencies County, State or Federal) but did get a few things done and the DA kept the office open after I left..

Geosi Gyasi: Who were your early influences when you began to write?

Simon Perchik: Baudelaire of course. Paul Blackburn was a very big help and got me to give up rhyme. Much influenced by Pablo Neruda and Vicente Aleixandre.

Geosi Gyasi: What are some of the technical things you consider with your craft as a poet?

Simon Perchik: Tension is a primary concern. Also, as my work becomes more and more abstract (my subconscious talking to the reader’s subconscious). I have to be careful to provide the reader with concrete images to allow the reader a place to touch down now and then.

Geosi Gyasi: Is “I Counted Only April” your first published book?

Simon Perchik: No. I self published a small collection. Done with a rented typewriter and a rented mimeograph machine. Called “Bomber Moon”. Couldn’t give it away. Now I can’t find any copies.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard “Touching the Headstone” much of a success as compared to “The Autochthon Poems”?

Simon Perchik: I don’t regard any of my books a success. The only book that sold was “Hands Collected”(Pavement Saw Press) which went into a second edition.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you keep a dictionary beside you when you write?

Simon Perchik: Glad you asked that. I don’t keep a dictionary but do keep a Roget’s Thesaurus. But not solely for the purpose you may think. Of course some words are more handsome than others and writers want the best they can find. I’m no different. But I also use Roget’s Thesaurus to get ideas. Mainly to get ideas I would never in a million years thought of.. Very often a word will suggest something 90 degrees from where I was heading. Sometimes 180 degrees and the entire poem takes off in that new direction. My hope is that any writer reading this will explore what I just now said. It works!

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a full-time writer?

Simon Perchik: Yes. I wasn’t always but since my retirement in 1980 I write full time. I just exploded. Still am.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you use a computer to write or write longhand?

Simon Perchik: I write in long hand with a fountain pen. Need ink to flow out my hand.  Although the poems are short lyric bursts it takes 20, 40, 90 pages to get those 12, 14, 16  short lines.

Geosi Gyasi: Does the beginning of a poem matter to you at all?

Simon Perchik: Yes. Very much so. I work the marrow and a good, strong first line helps break open the bones.

Geosi Gyasi: How about the ending of a poem. Do care so much about your endings?

Simon Perchik: Yes. I try to avoid the mistake most poets make by not stopping in time.

Geosi Gyasi: Do your children and grandchildren read your work?

Simon Perchik: No. Most people I know would sooner drink iodine than read a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your essay, “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities”?

Simon Perchik : Wanted to tell others how I get my ideas and how that method may be of help to them.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you justify the thought that ‘poetry is not a tool for everyday use by everyone’?

Simon Perchik: Because it’s true. Poetry revives us. At a funeral we need John Donne. At a party we don’t.

Geosi Gyasi: You seem to make clear the difference between prose and poetry but my question is, are the two vastly unrelated in anyway?

Simon Perchik: Yes. Prose tells you it exactly while poetry alludes to it and you do the rest which includes a ton of unrelated references.. And this is so for prose passing itself off as poetry no matter how wide the margins are on both sides the page.

Geosi Gyasi: How about music? Is there any close relationship between poetry and music?

Simon Perchik: They are one. Both inform the listener/reader of what cannot be articulated.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it always the case that, ‘prose is a telling of what the writers already know”?

Simon Perchik: Yes. And when they tell us something they don’t know, it’s poetry they’re making.


Essay: Magic, Illusion and Other Realities by Simon Perchik

July 5, 2016

Photo: Simon Perchik

                         Photo: Simon Perchik

About the Author:

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review,The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013).  For more information, including free e-books, please visit his website at


Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader.  To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction.  Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning.  It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, James R. Elkins, Editor (Pleasure Boat Studio Press. Also, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138. describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty.  If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 am I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife

Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth?  Sorrow?

Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words –bricks and mortar

Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,

building the ant hill,

not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished

it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought  impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract so my subconscious can talk to the reader’s subconscious, much the same as an artist abstracts the paiting so the viewer’s subconscious can listen to the artist’s subconscious. There will be nothing anyone can point to and say, “That’s why”. Exactly like music, the most abstract of all the arts. Thus, for each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling”, with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.


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