poems and personal essays about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany appear in his memoir Echoes of Tattered Tongues. He is also the author of the Hank and Marvin mysteries and a columnist for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America. His most recent books of poems are Mad Monk Ikkyu and True Confessions.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
A bunch of different things, over the space of about 35 years.
First was a poem. “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. I first read it in 3rd grade and fell in love with it. I memorized it and recited it and recited it and recited it. I think that idea of Kilmer saying that nothing he wrote could be as beautiful as really grabbed me. And the way he described the tree with the nest of robins in its hair. All of that lit me up. I could see it and it was so clear and so beautiful and so smart. I spent the next two years writing poems, all of them following Kilmer’s model. I loved that poem.
Then there was the Beat writer Jack Kerouac, who I first read when I was like 18. Kilmer froze me into a particular kind of formed, formal poem. Kerouac freed me with his idea of “spontaneous bop prosody.” Here he was telling me not to think when I wrote, not to rhyme when I wrote, not to follow Kilmer or anybody else when I wrote. He was telling me to just listen to whatever the hell was inside of me and spill it out on the page, spin it out on the page. And I did. I started writing poems and prose poems that began in one place and ended someplace else that I would never ever have been able to predict, all shaped in language that was inventing me at the same time I was inventing it. I was Beat for about 7 years.
The third inspiration? My parents. I was in grad school and one day I was sitting down at a desk grading a paper or writing a paper and I thought about my parents. I had moved away from them about 6 years earlier, left them and all their troubles, all their PTSD. They had both been in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and I wanted to get away from all that “camp shit,” as my mom called it. And I did get away from it. I never thought about it, never let it bug me, and then one day I was sitting at a desk and I thought about my parents, and I wrote a poem about what had happened to them in the war. And then I wrote another and another another and another. And here I am 40 years later still writing about them and their war, and how all that war has affected me.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
The teacher who introduced me to “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer? I don’t remember but I do remember the poet who was the most profound influence on me and my writing. That was Paul Carroll. He was a Beat poet who taught creative writing at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He really introduced me to poetry – both as something you read and as something you live. He taught me that a poet spends his life writing. It doesn’t matter if he gets published. It just absolutely matters that he writes and writes. He also taught me that all poets were brothers and sisters, a family whose purpose here on earth was holy. As poets, we were here to show people what truth and beauty and wisdom and holiness really were.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
When I discovered poetry, I discovered poets, and I read poetry and loved poetry and poets. The older poets? My brothers and sisters. Whitman and Dickinson, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, TS Eliot and Pound, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, Milosz and Szymborska. They were family. They were my older brothers and sisters teaching me how to play with words and make them sing.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I’m retired now and have been for 15 years so my routine is pretty much devoted to writing. I sit down at my desk around 10 in the morning after breakfast and exercise, and I write for a couple hours. After lunch, I put in another 3-4 hours. But that’s not all. As a writer, your brain is always turning, putting words here and there. When I’m not sitting at a desk, I’m looking at clouds or thinking about some image or hearing a voice that says something and asks me to take it down. It happens when I’m awake and it happens when I’m asleep. I’m always hearing things. And here’s the important thing, I always try to write them down because I know that if you let even a minute go by without writing that inspired word down, you will surely forget it.
5. What motivates you to write?
One of the things that has motivated me for the last 40 years is the story of my parents. I write about them all the time. I’ve written 5 books about them. I think it’s important to have their story and the stories of other concentration camp survivors told. But that’s not my only motivation for writing about them. Writing about them keeps them with me. My dad died in 1997, my mom died in 2006. They’ve been gone a long time, but still when I write about them and when I read my poems about them at a reading, they are with me.
That’s a strong motivation. Another thing that motivates me to write is that writing is a pleasure. It’s fun to see where words take me. I write a word down and often I won’t know where it’s going but I let it lead the way. Every word in a line opens me up, shows me something I wasn’t expecting. That’s fun.
6. What is your work ethic?
Three words: Always be writing.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
They are in every line, every stanza. I can show you a recent poem of mine like “Why Do We Age,” and I can point to a line that was inspired by Whitman and a word that came to me because somewhere there’s a similar word in Dickinson.
And more importantly perhaps, they are in the way I see the world, see other people, see the troubles that face us and the solutions to those troubles. These writers I’ve mentioned taught me how to look at the world with curiosity and hope.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I don’t think we have enough time for me to tell you all the poets that are writing today that I admire. There are hundreds.
Why so many? I think part of it is the internet and social media. There’s a world of writers around me and they are writing every day and I’m seeing them every day and loving what they say.
I remember back in the early 1980s. I was the editor of a poetry journal called Karamu. I had magazine exchanges with a number of other poetry journals. I would send Karamu to the editors of those journals, and every couple of days I would get a journal back. I would read the poems in the journal, and then when I was finished another journal would show up in my mailbox and I would read that.
There was a steady stream of poems coming in for me to read.
That stream has become a flood. I read dozen and dozens of poems every day now in online journals. Terrific poems. Outstanding poems.
I really think we are in probably the greatest period of poetry in the history of this country. So many great poets, writing and publishing and sharing their work online.
9. Why do you write?
It’s fun. It’s inspiring. It’s important. It’s loving.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I wrote a poem about a dozen years ago answering that very question. I had been invited to speak to Mary Ann Miller’s creative writing class at Western Kentucky University. Here’s a poem I wrote to that class:
Advice to Mary Ellen Miller’s Poetry Writing Class
First, listen carefully to the advice of older poets, like me.
Some of what they say will be the most important thing
you’ll hear about poetry. Some of what they say
will be useless. How can you tell the difference?
You can’t right now, but you will in five or ten years.
Second, find someone who believes in your poetry,
a wife, a lover, a friend, and believe what they say
about your poetry, the good and the bad both,
and keep writing, writing all the time, writing emails,
letters, notes on the backs of books, term papers
about Dostoevsky and the rise of realism, write jokes
about mules that speak only French and teachers
that wear red ties and white wide-brimmed hats,
and writing like this, you’ll find you’re writing poems,
all the time, every day, everywhere you’re writing poems.
Third, write a poem every day, and if you can’t write one
everyday write one every other day, and if you can’t do that
write one every third day, and if you can’t do that
write one when the muse hits you – when two words
explode in your head, appear from out of nowhere.
Whatever you’re doing when that explosion hits,
stop, and write down the sound of that explosion
because if you wait ‘til later it’s lost–absolutely.
Fourth, find a muse. I’m not kidding. Mine is a mother
of two who died in the snow outside of Stalingrad,
shot in the forehead by a German foot soldier
from a little town in Bavaria. She comes to me
when I’m busy grading papers or talking with friends
and she begs me to remember her children, all the children.
What will this muse do for you? Ask her, she’ll tell you.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have too many.
In the last 3 years, I’ve published 2 more books of poems and 3 novels.
The two books of poems True Confessions: 1965 to Now and Mad Monk Ikkyu. The former is a series of autobiographical poems about my life from 1965 when I was a 17 year old Beat/hippie to my life now when I’m a 70 year old guy writing about what old guys write about: Aging, family, dying, the summers that seem to end too soon, the beautiful trees that are never as beautiful as the poems we write about them.
The Ikkyu book is about a real-life Buddhist monk in 16th century Japan. He was known as the mad monk. He was a Buddhist with a wicked sense of humor. This book deals with a journey I imagine him taking from the ocean to a temple in the mountains. What I like about Ikkyu is that he’s silly sometimes and smart sometimes and the world can’t seem to decide which is which.
I’m also working on a series of noir mystery novels featuring two Chicago detectives who are working my old neighborhood in Chicago. The first three books have been published and received terrific reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Right now I’m working on the fifth novel in the series. What I like about the books is that they allow me the chance to take what I’ve learned about poetry and apply it to fiction. One of the reviewers in fact mentioned that what he liked about these mysteries is the “lyrical anxiety” my writing expresses. That made me happy.
Other projects? Don’t ask. I’ve got a million of them!