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.
According to The Blue Nib
“began writing poetry as he recovered from a disability-causing injury. His poems, essays, flash fiction and articles have appeared in many print and online publications and anthologies. He resides and teaches near Princeton, NJ. His first poetry chapbook is slated to appear later this year from The Blue Nib.”
A link to some of Mike’s poems at The Blue Nib
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started about three years ago as a way to keep my mind sharp and my emotions a bit better under control. I was living in a nursing and rehabilitation home at the time and was having a hard time dealing with my “new normal,” as it were. I was recovering from an injury which ruined my right ankle.
Reading and writing poetry was and still is a mental challenge. Poetry is also an incredibly helpful form of therapy.
1.1 How does it help?
For me it helped me first collect my thoughts, emotions, and frustrations in a coherent way. Then I ordered those thoughts and in so doing came to grips with them and understood them better.
So instead of just having thoughts and emotions roiling about my head, I channelled them onto paper then the laptop screen.
Understand, Paul, I’m not saying talking to loved ones didn’t help; it certainly did. And I am also not saying all (or much) of what I wrote resulted in art. A poem, yes. Something worth others reading? Not by a longshot.
But I am very pleased that some of my earliest writings from the nursing home have been published and in some cases have been published multiple times.
Poetry is a tool for therapy, not a replacement for those with diagnosed issues or for people feeling totally overwhelmed.
2. Which poets that you read encouraged you to write?
When I first started, I picked up the current issue of Poetry magazine and read each poem carefully, trying to suss out the tricks each poet used as best I could.
I knew only a little bit about poetry from rock song lyrics (a very predictable form of lyric poetry in the cases of most songs) and a college course from my undergraduate days, but beyond that, I was a babe in the woods.
As most of the poems I encountered were not at all like narrative fiction, basic rock songs, or nonfiction (which I have a good deal of experience writing and editing), learning the tools of poetry just by reading is like a guitar player trying to learn by ear, not knowing musical theory.
Soon after I bought a poetry anthology that had big figures like Plath, Eliot, Bishop, Hughes, Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn, and many others, so I began to learn not only by working poets but past masters as well.
3. Did you take a form or poem by one of these and try to do the same thing?
No, but I greatly admire poets such as Patricia Smith who can spin their spell on readers using forms in a stealthy way. I’m not that skilful. I think my attempts at form are pretty amateurish and feel forced. But I keep trying to work up a satisfying sonnet (which my friend Ken Allen Dronsfield does quite well), a coherent pantoum or a ghazal that doesn’t read like a madman’s shopping list.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I’d love to say there is a routine to my writing. Like most people, work, friends, and family come first time-wise for me.
My injury has had a few positive aspects on my life, one of which is I do much of my work at home like teaching online. This will change in the future, but for now on a typical day I can afford an hour or two devoted to writing.
I may need to track submissions, hunt new markets for submitting work, work on revising or retiring old drafts, or, when that all-important muse hits, to scribble down or pound out a new piece.
I try to read at least several poems from writers who are new to me by way of Poetry magazine, Rattle, or other publications a day as well as read the newest successes of friends on Facebook. A poet needs to keep reading as much or more than they need to keep writing.
5. What motivates you to write?
It’s probably the same motivation many artists express: we create because we have to.
As children we all create with blocks, with dolls, with clay and crayons, and we all play make-believe. It’s only when we grow up and start earning a living that some of us begin to see such “make-believe” and creative play as time wasters. Our time is equated with money, and most people want as much money as possible. Typically this results in a LOT of work and very little creation for the sake of creation.
As I mentioned earlier, once I start working out of the home more, my creative output will doubtlessly slow down. That happened over much of this summer when I taught five days a week, eight hours a day. It took a lot to send poems out, revise, let alone create new poems.
But, really, I write because I love it. I process both logically and visually, so concepts and themes if not fully-formed passages come to me pretty often. That can be both a good thing and a not-so-good thing.
5. 1 In what way?
So many times a thought or line will come to me as I am half-asleep at night, during a movie, out with friends, teaching, and in other places and at times when I am not able to write the idea or thought down. And once I DO get the chance to write it down, well, the blush has fled the bloom, as it were. The heat, the magic, the timgle of the muse’s tender lips is gone.
Yes, the germ of the idea may last, but it’s very seldom what I’d first come up with and almost never as good.
Yesterday I was at a doctor’s appointment and my notebook was home, my cell phone off, and a great line entered my head. Luckily I was alone in the examining room. I tore off a bit of that thin and crinkly paper that covers the exam table, took the pen from the doctor’s table, and scribbled the line down all before being asked to turn my head and cough.
Ideally a writer is always ready to capture thoughts and images, but life is seldom ideal.
6. What is your work ethic?
Well, always do your best, no matter your job, hobby, skill level, and so on.
That said, today’s best is tomorrow’s not-good-enough.
Far too many writers (or musicians, painters, athletes, and others) get frustrated by failures which are inevitable at all levels, especially when just starting out, then they give up and leave their hobby behind. There are also those who settle in at a certain level of their art or their level of success and rest on their laurels. Both of these fates are, I feel, poor work ethics.
To live is to evolve. One can only evolve by taking risks and learning new things. So my ethic when it comes to all sorts of work is to evolve. I must continually evolve as an instructor if I hope to teach effectively. In like fashion I must evolve as a creator if I hope to reach ever-larger audiences.
One other aspect of evolution and change in art and in work is knowing how to accept criticism, both from peers and the audience. Most of this criticism is of help if the artist is willing to listen with objective ears. Too many of us are too protective of our poems.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
When I was young (a boy of 5 to about 12) I read very many comic books like Spider-Man, Superman, and Captain America. So I learned pretty basic good vs. evil morality and more, the power of hype from the tone of the comic books and the ads found in them. Morality comes up in some of my writing and I do realize the power of hype in spreading the word about my latest successes.
From about 15 or so I got deeply into rock ‘n’ roll, joining a band, learning songs, then later on writing lyrics. The nature of song lyrics with hard end-stopped rhymes and syllabic patterns is so ingrained in the minds of pop and rock music fans that it takes effort for them to the write outside those familiar constraints.
What most influenced me three year ago when I began to actively read poetry is the sheer variety presented in the world of poetry. Anything is an option. Take risks.
To most inexperienced poets who are not immersed in modern and current writing, taking a risk might be writing about some “naughty” or political topic. News flash: it’s all been done before. The risk a new writer should try to pull off is to offer new tries at form or new line break methods.
With such incredible variety in current poetry, risks need to be attempted.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I enjoy the work of Patricia Smith, Charlie Bondhus, Jee Leong Koh, Ted Kooser, sam sax, Shirley Bell and the works of many of my friends from publications like Ariel Chart and The Blue Nib and the Princeton-based poetry group of which I am a member, the U.S. 1 Poet’s Cooperative.
Why I admire each poet or group of poets is the sheer difference of vision and voice each poet brings to their public writing.
Patricia Smith does amazing work from a pretty urban landscape while Charlie Bondhus focuses on the world through the lens of a gay man. Shirley Bell offers up a mature voice full of quiet yet aching loss. My friends from the Poets’ Cooperative can write about dreams or dead foxes or irises or a trip to an Italian crypt or wedding vows – anything at all – and each does something in a special way that I could never do since it would never occur to me to do so.
We are all unique souls. Good artists can let what is unique to them shine through their art despite the subject.
Look at all the love poems, all the poems about heartache, alienation, hatred, anti-Trump themes, etc. So many of these poem we see posted on Facebook and other social media outlets are virtually copies of each other because the writer has not been able to let their own unique soul shine through. They may contest this, to which I would respond then why does your poem read like every other one out there on Facebook about how alone you are or how you love your mother or somesuch.
I hope not to come off as harsh, but I admire each poet I named above because none of them read like anyone else but themselves. They are each utterly unique in ways over 90% of current poets I have read are not unique.
9. Why do you write?
I write to get ideas and images out in the open. I can’t not think in a poetic or fictive way.
While at an outdoor jazz festival today two lines and a title for a poem or a short story came to me. I lost the music, lost the crowd, lost everything else by gaining these lines – the first and final one of the piece – and the piece’s title. I must write this out, must figure how how we get to that final line. And the piece must make sense within the confines of the title.
I create best by talking and by writing.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
And this is how one becomes a writer. They just come up with a title or a line and explore.
There is no such thing as writer’s block in my life. Cripes, the opposite is true! I have too damn many ideas to capture!
I give my students, from 9 year-olds up to senior citizens, the same exact prompt: they must list 6 words off the top of their heads as I read things off like “a color,” “your favorite holiday,” “your best friend,” and so on. From those 6 items they must form a story. It can be silly, sad, whatever. They have a good deal of fun.
And when it stops feeling fun, we feel blocked.
So go write something fun. A love letter to yourself. A hate letter to your boss. Mr. Trump’s shopping list. A recipe from Mars. Just WRITE!
Look, Paul, you know as well as I do that not everything we write can or should become art.
Not every lap a runner runs is part of a race. 99% or so of her laps will be practice or warm-ups for the race itself, a pretty short and rare event.
So if you, the poet, get a dozen or so damn good poems written in your life, you’ll have maybe 12,000 attempts which will range from pretty good, okay, then down to utter crap.
We need to feel okay to write utter crap now and then, practice, write just to run laps. That’s all it takes to be a writer.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Thanks for asking about my projects. My first chapbook, Bloodline, will be released very shortly by The Blue Nib. It’s such a good feeling to have Bloodline come out from Dave and Shirley of The Blue Nib. I see only a bright future for them and to be part of that future is thrilling.
My second chapbook, New Paths to Eden, is being shopped around and I hope to have it produced and available by mid-2019.
Gearing up for a third book, but I need to see a theme come together firmly first. Bloodline is a collection of various themes and styles while New Paths to Eden is a more cohesive collection of poems dealing with the good and not-so-good aspects of love.
For my third book I may focus more on some of my darker, moodier pieces or ones dealing with injury, recovery, and the process between them.
We’ll see what feels best.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions, Paul! This was both an honor and a pleasure.