Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Alan Toltzis

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers 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.

49 Aspects Cover

Alan Toltzis

is the author of two books of poetry, 49 Aspects of Human Emotion and The Last Commandment. He has published in numerous print and online journals including, The Wax Paper, Hummingbird, IthacaLit, North of Oxford, and Right Hand Pointing. Find him online at alantoltzis.com and follow him on Twitter @ToltzisAlan.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

In college, I took a course on modern poetry that was taught by the Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella, and I was hooked. I’m a learn by doing kind of guy and once he taught me how to read and understand a poem, I wanted to try my hand at writing and took two creative writing courses from him.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

When I was a kid, my grandmother loved poetry. Old fashioned, rhyming kind of stuff that was in a black leather-bound volume that looked more like a bible than a book of poems. That was probably my first association with poetry. But as I mentioned above, I got my start with Thomas Kinsella. I had no idea how lucky I was. He really taught me that poetry was very specific and precise and that the best poems stand up under in-depth analysis, providing the reader with more and more with each close reading.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

The first poets defined a society’s culture, its norms, its ethos. The poems themselves were part history and part theology. As for the “dominating presence”—just think about sections of the bible that are written in verse that people still read and use in their lives today. The psalms are ancient poems that are read/recited by many people even today. We don’t always think of this as poetry but that’s exactly what it is.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t separate reading from writing in my routine. For me, it’s always part of the same process. My reading is a combination of poetry and religious texts that I use as a way to think conceptually about the world and my place in it. It becomes a lens through which I experience the world. It’s a meditative process for me that allows me a way into my writing. The connection between my finished poems and how it started isn’t always easy to discern, and it is not at all necessary for the reader to know it to fully understand the poem. The beginning and having enough of an idea or image or words to work with is the hardest part for me. From there, it’s an intense writing and editing process (which I think of as more of the mechanics of writing the poem) and many drafts until I’m satisfied.

5. What motivates you to write?

Writing seems like a natural outgrowth of observing the world, how it relates to me, and how I relate to it. I also try to write in books and themes so I have a set plan for extended sequences of poems, which give me an incentive to move forward through the process.

6. What is your work ethic?

I try to be very disciplined about my work. Spending anywhere from 3 to 6 hours reading/writing daily. And I always make sure I finish the poem I’m working on before moving on to another. It’s a way for me to get the poem done and not be left with fragments.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I have my favorites who I have learned from and always go back to. The two that I depend on are John Donne and Theodore Roethke. I loved the precision and pacing of Donne’s work. His willingness to lay out the logic of his thinking for the reader. You see it very clearly in the metaphysical conceits in his work. He won’t rush. As for Roethke, I am very at home with his imagery and how he connects his inner self with nature.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I love reading Christian Wiman for the intensity of the language and how he uses faith in his work. As soon as I started reading his poetry, I realized how much it felt like a modern-day Gerard Manley Hopkins. The language is always intense and precise and the emotion gut wrenching. Wiman also has the ability to use rhyme so deftly that it can go unnoticed while adding to the complexity, meaning, and beauty of the poem. His language pushes his poetry to its extreme so that he can wrest as much meaning and emotion out his work as possible.

9. Why do you write?

The desire or need to write flows naturally. I am able to lose myself in my writing/reading providing me with the most intense, meditative, and focused experiences of my day.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

One word: Read. Once you’ve read enough and deeply enough, you’ll know what to do when you have something to say.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

My second book, 49 Aspects of Human Emotion, was published in August and I’m working on a book of poems loosely inspired by blessings—not as a way of showing thanks in the traditional way, but as a way for me to understand the many blessings we all have in the world and their meaning. I’ve written about 40 in the series so far and 15 have been published in literary journals.

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