Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Tucker Lieberman

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.


Tucker Lieberman

Tucker Lieberman’s poems are in Asses of Parnassus, Déraciné, Esthetic Apostle, Fruit Tree, Neologism, Oddball, Prometheus Dreaming, and Rockvale Review. He has a short story forthcoming in the anthology I Didn’t Break the Lamp: Historical Accounts of Imaginary Acquaintances. His essays have been published widely, and he wrote a book on eunuch villains. His photos are in Barren, Crack the Spine, L’Éphémère, and Nightingale and Sparrow, and his art is in Burning House. He and his husband live in Bogotá, Colombia. www.tuckerlieberman.com Twitter: @tuckerlieberman

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

The earliest poem I’ve uncovered through home archaeology is: “Roses are red, roses are yellow / My grandfather’s nose got stuck in the Jell-O.” I may have been five. I’ve always been interested in sounds and rhythm, and I began to write rhyming poetry when I was ten. My poems were terrible. In fifth grade, I was invited to recite my tribute to the American flag outside my suburb’s Town Hall for Flag Day, at a microphone and everything. In eighth grade, my English teacher saw some promise in me and asked to work with me one-on-one. I showed her a free-verse poem about a man deconstructing himself by plucking out his own eyeballs and organs, and she sent me to the guidance counselor. I did have a handful of awards and publications in childhood, but that was probably relative to the competition in my age bracket. In college, I realized that I struggled to write poems that were both comprehensible and beautiful and that I wasn’t in the literary echelon I had fancied myself to be in. I turned my attention to essays, majored in philosophy, and got a graduate degree in journalism. In my late 30s, after leaving my IT job, I resumed writing poetry as I finally was able to give it the required attention. I’ve learned a lot during the past year just by reading poems every day, soliciting feedback on my work from other poets, and rewriting the same poems over and over. There’s no age limit for this kind of education and growth. I’m a much different writer now than I was one year ago.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Tales of a Wayside Inn” set in the New England town where I grew up. The Wayside Inn still exists, and we visited it. So I always had a sense of how formal poems could be used to commemorate something. In grade school, we were given contemporary children’s poems to memorize. Probably Robert Frost was in there, too. Inherited from a grandparent or great-grandparent, we had a hundred-year-old set of poetry books—Longfellow, Tennyson, Whittier—and, when I was ten, I opened to a random page and memorized Whittier’s long poem “Derne” about the 1805 Battle of Derna. I had no idea what the poem was saying. I just understood it was telling a story and making a statement. Those word combinations I’ve never heard anywhere else since. In just the first four lines: “city of the Moor,” “white-walled shore,” “ceaseless knock,” “harbor-gates unlock.” Later, I discovered Walt Whitman, which was revelatory. He was a contemporary of Longfellow, but he was doing something totally different.

Most, maybe all, of the poets I first knew were white men. However, in 1992, Rita Dove became the U.S. Poet Laureate, and, when a haiku of mine won a contest, part of my prize was to receive a letter of congratulations from her. The first poetry book that was really mine—a poetry book written for adults, and one that I had obtained because I wanted it—was Marge Piercy’s Mars and Her Children. In my teens, I knew women poets through a local writing workshop and by attending author readings. My high school literary magazine, which I worked on, was staffed mostly by girls.

So I had an evolving sense of who writes poetry, what they do with it, what it sounds like. As I entered college in the late ’90s, the Internet was popping up, and that certainly changed expectations around poetry. I never felt that poetry was inaccessible to me as a reader or as a writer. I did always feel, however, that it was incumbent upon me to learn to write well, to earn my place as a poet.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

My one superpower is that I do not currently have to go to an office, so I devote myself full-time to writing. This is not meant as “how-to” advice, since I don’t assume that others can have this lifestyle nor that they necessarily even want it. I’m just telling you what my day is like.

I wake up with the sun and I read and write all day (apart from outdoor exercise breaks) until I fall asleep. I toggle between a couple dozen simultaneous projects, large and small, as my attention wishes. I let the muse tug the leash. Without a pressing sense that my allotted daily time is scarce, I don’t force a routine. I can select a project more or less randomly. As long as I’m working on something, it doesn’t matter which project it is, and every project will eventually be completed.

Schedules give me headaches. They don’t hasten artistic innovation or the solving of existential questions. A submission deadline sometimes encourages me to finish a project earlier than I otherwise might, but the deadline alone doesn’t help me come up with the idea of what to submit.

Writing all day is a luxury that few people have, especially people my age (I am thirty-nine). It’s also a kind of work, though. It feels incorrect to say that I don’t work. I work all the time. These days, one can’t make a living as a freelance writer, but that doesn’t mean that the writing itself is any less work. It just means I rarely get paid for my work. This is a difficult point to drive home because of the assumptions that if you’ve produced something valuable then you should be able to convince people to pay for it and if you don’t receive the payment then you haven’t worked. Those are really hard assumptions to crack open.

4. What motivates you to write?

A vague urge to make the world a better place, which often diminishes to the more realistic hope that I can improve someone’s day. I want to say things that haven’t been said before. I want to say old things in new ways. I want to help people find the material. I want to hear a reader say, “Hey, I learned something,” or, better, “Now I can move forward with my life,” and then I’ll know I did my job well. I want to scratch the hard-to-reach places, pull out hidden answers, and help people get unstuck. Otherwise, if I’m just going to be cranking out the world’s hundred-millionth poem about a sunset, I’m not interested. It wouldn’t hurt anyone, but it’s not what I’m here to do.

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

There’s no single writer I consciously try to emulate. There are, however, certain phrases or scenes that pop up from my memory. A few days ago, I thought of the scene at the end of Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves which won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature. The girl sees an airplane spraying bullets at the wolves with which she lives. It’s implicit that this is not a fair fight, and she is frightened and sad. They kill a male wolf. She yells that the hunters must be seeking a fifty-dollar “bounty” for the wolf’s left ear, but, moments later, after the airplane flies off, she corrects herself: “They did not even stop to get him! They did not even kill him for money.” I still remember these lines thirty years later. It occurs to me now that the scene was so effective because the girl had a sudden realization about how men think and act, and that moment was slowed down just enough that we could be part of the unrolling of her thought process. I suppose I am most influenced today by passages I read in childhood that were complex and that I’m still unpacking at an unconscious level.

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

I admire what Gabino Iglesias is doing with the direct look he takes at violence on the US/Mexico border and the way he weaves Spanish and English in his work. He’s actively publishing and reaching a lot of people, it seems to me. I also admire Margaret Atwood’s activism. I just read The Handmaid’s Tale, and the next day I attended a talk she gave in Boston about the book and the precarious political situation we face today. She wrote a book that’s had staying power since 1985, and she enhances its power by continuing to speak about it as she approaches her 80th birthday. That’s an example of how one can create a book that plays a role in the world. It’s not just about printing words, but about the energy with which we surround those words.

7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

For me, it’s been a lifelong compulsion, so the question presents itself to me as “How do I write well?” rather than why write at all.

In my technology career, I focused on software design and testing and data analysis. That’s something else I know how to do and did for a decade. Beautiful and ethical IT design is also a way to communicate information, improve people’s lives, and make them happy. It involved very little writing.

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

I recommend working in a variety of genres. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction. On a printed page, on a webpage, in an eBook, at a microphone. In a classroom, for a boss, or shared with friends. For sale and for free. You begin to learn how different style choices work in different environments. A brilliant essay might make a boring speech, or vice versa. The more you can anticipate what you’re trying to do and whether it will fly, the better off you’ll be.

As one example, here’s my evolving understanding of “concise” writing over the past twenty years: My philosophy professors said they valued brevity, yet they asked for a minimum word count. There was no rush; we had all semester; we had to make an argument. My journalism professors, by contrast, asked for a maximum word count. They wanted us to get the scoop and begin with the conclusion, as most readers don’t care about the explanation under the first paragraph. My corporate bosses didn’t even want a story at all. They wanted me to email them only my conclusion and entirely omit my substantiation. And, these days, when you’re designing a website for customers, you don’t write a single word at all if you don’t have to. Customers’ attention is measured in milliseconds; you just have to persuade them to press the button.

The takeaway is that there are many different potential audiences and contexts. Each genre has its own standards, and those standards may be improved when they cross-pollinate. Until you learn more than one way of writing, you can’t see the flaws in the way you’ve always done it.

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

I’m wrapping up a biography of an early 20th-century man. He was an unpublished writer, and part of my book is an exploration of why he couldn’t finish writing his own book. I also recently finished a chapbook of poems about grief using the imagery of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both of those are seeking publishers.

I’ve got a psychological horror novella on the burner, but it’s a bit too early to talk about it!

Recently I put out a blank journal with some words of wisdom as prompts at the bottom of each page. It’s called Flip the Finger at Despair, and it’s geared to help people write about trauma and regret. I pulled it slowly out of specific slots in my memory and I think it may be useful to others.


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