Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Call of the Whippoorwill
In his blog Mike tells us “I was born in Columbus Ohio, USA, in 1947. I graduated from Ohio State University with a BA in Psychology. I served in both the US Army and the Israeli Defense Forces. I have been writing poetry since I was a student at OSU. I moved to Israel in 1978 and live in Raanana. I am married and have three sons and seven grandchildren.”
1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
I began to write poetry while in high school. That’s about 55 years ago. I remember being immersed in an overwhelming gush of creativity involving mathematics and geometry, drawing and painting, writing poetry and short stories, playing clarinet and saxophone, and composing music. I had also just met my lifelong friend, David H. Rathbun, who was also immersed in a similar gush of creativity and we got caught up in a musical and poetic dialectic, in which we inspired and encouraged each other. My younger sister also inspired and encouraged my poetry. Victoria was Phoebe to my Holden Caulfield.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My mother was a poet. She died young in a tragic accident at the age of 34. I was 13 at the time. I like to tell myself that poetry was the only language in which I could speak to my dead mother. The truth was that the poetry I happened to read spoke to the love and tragedy raging through me in a way nothing else did.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
The poets who burned most deeply inside me were Stephen Vincent Benét, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Yves Bonnefoy, although I’ve picked up many more dominating presences along the way.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
It depends on what I’m writing. When I’m working on a novel, I have the characters and the whole storyline mapped out before I start to write. Then I write the beginning and then the end. Then I start filling the gaps and creating the bridges. The story ends up in sequence, but I write non-sequentially, as I think of solutions to get my characters from one point to another. I can write that way 8 hours a day, day after day, until I finish. With poetry it’s different. I usually wait for inspiration. When it comes it’s a surprise to me. Sometimes I try to push a poem into existence by withdrawing into myself or empathizing with another soul. Sometimes I just put a few words down on paper and try free association. I even wrote an Excel macro which uses a random-number generator to select certain words from 10 different lists and put them together in a sentence. That sentence is usually nonsensical but it can usually trigger a free association that can end up in a fairly decent poem. For more information about it, see my blog post https://uncollectedworks.wordpress.com/2015/05/23/the-flying-poetry-creation-contraption/.
5. What motivates you to write?
Writing is its own motivation. Although I enjoy the appreciation of my readers very much, I would write if I were alone on a desert island. I write what I’d like to read, but can’t find anywhere. I write because some ideas and feelings deserve to exist. Also, I write in order to get ideas out of my head and onto paper so I can start thinking of more ideas. Writing is spilling the overflow of your mind onto paper.
6. What is your work ethic?
Since I retired a year and a half ago, my work ethic is to make time for my family and, for myself, to do the things I love doing. Before I retired, my work ethic was to do what I have to do, in order to be able to do what I want to do.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
The writers I read when I was young influence me like a compass, showing me the depths and breadths that are possible to think and feel. Of course, I would never think to copy their work, but they egg me on to attempt similar depths and breadths in my own soul and my own works.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I admire Sharon Olds and Wendell Berry very much. I was captivated by the originality of Sharon’s perspective. The simplicity of Wendell’s poems and their connection to nature and local history generated similar feelings in me. I read their poetry like other people read novels, page after page, not skipping around, and heavily underlining. I also admire several Israeli poets, among them, Michael Dickel, Sabine Huynh, and Michal Pirani. Michael introduced me to G. Jamie Dedes whom I greatly admire. Michael, like me, is an American ex-pat living in Israel for many years. I found that we shared many of the same experiences. Sabine’s poetic voice is soft and breathless, creating a fragility that you’d want to protect. Michal’s poetry also has a quiet voice and is deceptively simple, masking a depth of feeling behind it. I also admire Joanna Chen’s minimalist writing. Jamie’s poems are uniquely sharp and enticingly alien. The best poet I’ve ever known, however, and one of the best poets I’ve ever read was my lifelong and best friend, David H. Rathbun, who passed away recently from brain cancer. As I wrote in the foreword to our book of poetry, An Extraordinary Friendship, “If I had to guess what guides Dave’s poetry writing, after reading all his poetry, I would have to say that it was to memorize the names of every single flower, plant, tree, forest, animal, person, geological stratum, body of water, weather phenomenon, sight, sound, taste, smell, and feeling around him, to pay attention to everything, and to write about all that is and all that is not. Simple.”
8. Why do you write?
I suppose I answered this question under “What motivates you to write”. I write what I’d like to read, but can’t find anywhere else. I write to get stuff out of my head (and onto paper) to make room for new stuff.
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Although the way I became a writer was probably unique to me, I don’t believe that’s the only path. I would say that, above all, you must learn to pay attention to everything that is going on around you and inside you. Then you must develop your own language to describe those things. That language is what poets and writers call ÿour voice. The voice is what the reader “hears”in his or her own head while reading what you wrote. Avoid clichés. Write simply. Sometimes the most powerful writing is that which sounds like it’s not the speaker’s native language, like it comes out of his mouth with great difficulty.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’ve published 5 books of poetry, 3 of my own poetry, one of my mother’s poetry (and my dialogue with her after she died), and one which was a cooperative effort of David H. Rathbun and myself (150 poems each from the period 2000 – 2016). I also published a series of 4 science fiction novels, which I called “The Rational Series”, and one book of essays. I am currently working on a new book of poetry, entitled “Call of the Whippoorwill”. To keep up readership interest in my poetry while working on my latest project, I publish another poem from four of my books every day on the social media networks to which I belong, and I maintain a blog for my essays and to allow readers to look over my shoulder as I write.
10. Why did you call it “Call of the Whippoorwill”?
As one book closes (“Call of the Whippoorwill”, my fourth book of poetry), another one opens (“The Hoopoe’s Call”).
As any multi-generation American can tell you, the whippoorwill (or whip-poor-will) is the bird that most characterizes the American soul. For me, the single poem that best captures that bird/soul is Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill”:
“Born in the mountains, lonesome-born,
Raised runnin’ ragged thu’ the cockleburrs and corn.
Never knew my pappy, mebbe never should.
Think he was a fiddle made of mountain laurel-wood.
Never had a mammy to teach me pretty-please.
Think she was a whippoorwill, a-skittin’ thu’ the trees.”
The hoopoe is Israel’s national bird and has occupied a special place in Israeli lore at least as far back as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
For me, both birds have a personal meaning: the whippoorwill represents the first half of my life, growing up in America, while the hoopoe represents the second half of my life, maturing and discovery in Israel.
My Whippoorwill Years began shortly before I was conceived when my father and mother dropped out of college to elope. Dad was an aspiring writer and Mom was an aspiring poetess. They crossed over the Ohio River into Kentucky where the justice of the peace didn’t ask too many questions before hitching them and that was that. I was born and a few years later my sister was born. We weren’t a religious family although we had a few religious skeletons in our family closet. I don’t remember whether I was happy or sad during those years (most probably a healthy mixture of both); however, I do know that during that time my soul ran wild and free. That is to say, my imagination and my predilections pretty much matched the world around me. Even after Dad divorced Mom, when I was seven years old, although it was a cataclysm of cognitive dissonance for my sister and me, our souls continued to run wild and free. Dad’s family lawyers pressured Mom to give us up, so Dad got custody of my sister and me. Dad remarried when I was nine, this time to a Jewish woman. Ruth meant well and tried to be a good mother to us but she ended up putting our souls in a cage, a Jewish cage. Lest my words be misconstrued, Judaism is neither closer to nor farther from God than any other religion, as far as I know, but my little whippoorwill was caged until the day I finally moved out from under my parents’ roof.
Once again, my soul ran wild and free through fields of love and squalor. I finished university, worked awhile, was drafted into the US Army, sent to Germany for a couple years, and hitchhiked around Europe. I met my future wife (although I didn’t know at that time that she’d be the one) in Israel. After I was discharged back stateside, I married Talma. We had two children in America.
In 1978, when I was thirty-one, we emigrated to Israel.
Thus ended my Whippoorwill Years and began my Hoopoe Years. Talma is a third-generation Israeli, born during the British Mandate before Israel was declared a state, while it was still called Palestine, so she was just returning home. From the point of view of the Israeli government, as a Jew, I was also “returning” to Israel, the Jewish homeland, under the “Right of Return” which is granted to Jews around the world. After three years and three months living in Israel, I was granted Israeli citizenship automatically.
Around the same time, I was drafted into the Israeli Army, in which I served, a few weeks a year, almost until I turned fifty. I also volunteered for civil guard duty once a month in my hometown of Raanana. During my civilian life, I worked in computers as I had in America.
Our third son was born in Tel Aviv in 1984. Our sons grew up, went to college or university, served in the Israeli Army, married, and have their own children. We have seven grandchildren these days. The oldest just turned eighteen. The youngest is one and a couple months. Our oldest son moved his family back to America.
I have lived more than half my life in Israel. There are no whippoorwills in Israel. My soul tried to make the leap of faith from one bird to another but it ended up inside another cage, a cage of dissonance and loneliness, an unrequited love of the Holy Land, the land of broken promises, the hills and valleys, the rivers, lakes, and seas, animals and trees, the people, the language, the poetry, the music, and the skies.
11. How important is God in your poetry?
First of all, here’s a little context to my answer. I am an agnostic Jew; that is, I am not persuaded one way or the other whether there is a God as is commonly discussed or not. Judaism, for me, is a historical narrative and a cultural pattern to which I feel very loosely bound.
That said, God is a potent metaphor in my poetry, whom I cannot ignore given the context in which I live: Israel, the ancient Promised Land. Far from the conventional thinking and definitions of God, I often imagine how I could construct a God in which I could believe with my heart and mind. Sometimes these God-like products of my imagination find expression in my poetry. Sometimes I rant against the conventional patterns of belief in God.
I do admire Jacob (from the Old Testament) who wrestled with the angel, some say, or with God Himself. I like to say that I am still wrestling with God.
12. Yes, there is a searching for answers in your poetry, a need to make the unseen seen, the invisible visible.
Thank you for your observation, Paul.
Yes, there is a difference between those who think they’ve found the answer and can stop thinking about the question, and those for whom the question remains open, unanswered, but still demanding to be answered. With respect to God, I’m more like the latter than the former.
13. Why do you associate your cultural experiences with birds?
For me, different birds represent different souls. Don’t look for a logically consistent philosophy here. While I’m writing poetry, I allow my mind to freely associate and I encourage it to leap when it feels like it. I’m much more logically consistent in my science fiction novels. Back to your question: I’m not so original in using birds to represent the soul. The Hindu Upanishads compare the two souls (the soul and the Super Soul)) in each body to two friendly birds perched on a branch of a tree. One eats the fruits thereof while the other looks on in silence. The Super Soul is the Atman, if I remember correctly, the God-principle in each of us, while the “soul” is more like our individual ego. The image stuck with me over the years.
14. Your relationship with Daisy is a recurring motif in these poems.
Daisy was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and the prognosis at the time was 6 months to a year, so every day with her, every day she loves living and is not cowed by pain, is an unexpected blessing. She’s twelve and a half years old which is pretty old for a boxer. I’ve loved dogs, especially boxers, ever since I was a kid, although we never had a dog while I was growing up. I got the dog-loving gene from my father telling me stories he made up about dogs. I was so used to not having a dog that when I grew up, moved away, and got married, I didn’t think about actually getting a dog of my own, but I kept up the tradition of telling my father’s dog stories to my three sons. When my youngest son turned thirteen, he was bar-mitzvahed (when a Jewish boy becomes a man) and wanted a boxer for his gift. I was beside myself with joy. My wife reluctantly agreed. We got Chewy whom we all (including my wife) loved fiercely. Chewy was a recurring motif in my poetry at the time. Chewy lasted only eight and a half years and died of cancer. We tried to live without a boxer for a year but my wife couldn’t stop crying. We got Daisy and life for us seemed to pick up where it had left off. Now we have to face the fact that Daisy’s days are numbered, that it’s only going to get worse for her. I won’t let her suffer.
I had read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (about a young man who became a cockroach), a collection of his short stories. Included in the collection was his “Investigations of a Dog”. I liked that story and it stuck with me. One day the Daisy muse inspired me to write my own version of Kafka’s story which I called “Investigations of a Kafkaesque Nature”.
I think I’m more inspired by people and animals that don’t talk a lot. Daisy’s a natural as a muse. She’s mostly silent. She prowls like a panther. She’s muscular. She has sad eyes. She’s as protective of me as I am of her.
When she goes, we won’t get another dog.
15. You have a distinctive style of telling a story and ruminating on its meaning, often citing Biblical stories.
What you call “a distinctive style of telling a story” I would call “a writer’s voice”. I think it’s not enough to write well; one must also write uniquely.
As I said before, I write what I like to read. What I like to read are rambling stories that start out somewhere, meander along, and end up somewhere else that turns out to surprise me as much as it surprises the reader. I’m not sure, but I think that what you call ruminating on its meaning, I would call ouija-style free association. That’s part of the process of coming up with those surprises.
It’s hard for me not to cite Biblical stories, even though I’m not a true believer. In America, unless you are raised in a God-fearing Bible-thumping family and/or religious school, you may know most of the Bible stories from Saturday or Sunday school or highly summarized picture books. For the non-religious the Bible is mythology. In Israel, whether you or your family are religious or not, by the time you’ve graduated high school, you’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least three times. You can quote chapter and verse in the original Hebrew. Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is history, your history. You can walk around in most of the places mentioned in the Bible. I envy native-born Israelis’ knowledge of the Bible, mostly because of the metaphors they know and use in modern Hebrew. When I cite Biblical stories or references, it’s mostly in irony.
16. What do you hope the reader will come away with after reading this book?
The poetry in this book reflects the unique perspectives and experiences of an American in Israel. The book is a smorgasbord of descriptions, empathies, wonderings, and questionings. “Promises” describes the secret promises, some kept, some broken, in the Promised Land. “As Your Face Guides Me Home” transforms a lover into a constellation of stars and then into a goddess. “Zen and the Art of Dying” describes death as a kind of meditation, not as frightening as one might think. “There Will Never Be Another” is a wake-up call for those who would deny global climate change, to consider that the rainbow they see today may be the last they’ll ever see.
I suppose what I’d like the reader to come away with is feeling some of what I feel, loving what I love, and worrying about the things I worry about. A shared vision is easier to bear.