1. You have said that when you first write a poem, it's a mess. When you go back to rework it, do you take time before, or do you dive right in? What techniques do you use to make sense of your "first writes?"
I have an elaborate system of putting things in notebooks and pulling them out at random. Sometimes I cheat and work on a draft right away; other times it may take years to surface.
I look for what’s good in the draft, try to save that, get rid of the rest, and go from there. My goal, with every draft, is not to make it perfect—only to make it better than it was.
2. What role does pop culture play in your work and how does this comment on the role of pop culture in the poetry world?
Pop culture gets into my poetry the same way weather, flowers, news stories, my family, baseball, cheese graters, and nuclear physics does. If it interests me or obtrudes on me in any way, it may wind up in a poem.
The role of pop culture in the poetry world varies from poet to poet. I find that pop culture enters into my own poems quite a lot. What does that say about me?
3. You recently joined the world of Facebook. How do you see this and other technology based forums, like blogs, playing a role in the poetry community?
I like the fact that my poems can be read by many more people than could/would ever read them if they were only in printed books. I like that, if people are so inclined, they can find my upcoming readings on the web, or see me reading my work on Youtube. I want my work to give readers some of the pleasure and insight that other writers have given to me. The more, the merrier.
4. You recently gave a panel on the role of humor in poetry. For those of us not lucky enough to attend the AWP, can you share a few of your thoughts on the subject?
Here, lifted straight from my notes:
Hazards of using humor in poems
1) Not being funny.
2) Trying too hard. The best humor, like Shakespeare’s “quality of mercy,” is not strained. It rises naturally from the humorist’s view of the world. Better no humor than the forced kind.
3) Temptation to look for the joke in everything, becoming predictable, and false.
4)Temptation to go for the cheap laugh versus the valuable one. (Note, though, that the fart joke is always serious, in that it undercuts human pretentiousness.)
5) Facing an audience with no sense of humor.
6) Being devalued as a “serious” artist because I use humor. Humor, as that jokster T.S. Eliot said, is a way of saying something serious.
Benefits of using humor.
1) The ability to see the humor in things is one of the great forces of redemption in human life. Monty Python’s song in Life of Brian, “Always look on the bright side of life,” as sung by convicts on the cross.
2) A clear, accurate, and appropriate way to deal with post-modern concerns, and not drive the audience catatonic.
3) Comedy is ideally suited to capture the absurdities enormities and pathos of modern life.
4) The ultimate subversion is to laugh.
5) Not to use humor would be to deny my own perceptions of the world, and to impoverish my understanding, and my voice.
5. You did not start out as a writer, you have a PhD in Psychology and you were a rock musician for years. Can you recall your "a-ha" moment when you knew you were a poet? Did your previous passions influence your turn to poetry? Was there a moment when you completely doubted yourself as poet?
Actually, I started writing (outside of school) about the time I started playing guitar in a band—something about the need to express strong adolescent emotions and to do whatever I could to impress girls.
I never had an “Aha, I’m a poet” moment. I never thought I’d be a poet, and would still be unconvinced except for the evidence of all those poems. I see myself as a writer whose favorite form, to his astonishment, turned out to be poetry.
This happened, I think, because I delight in language, and poetry attempts to use language to its maximum capacity—to get the most possible communication-per-word out of it.
6. What's the most important thing for you when you chose the title piece for a manuscript or book? Is it your best poem? Most intriguing title? What do you look for?
I look for a title that will interest readers, but that also has some sort of relevance to the poems in the book. I could call a book Sick Sexual Practices of All Your Friends, and get everyone interested. But, not knowing all those friends, I wouldn’t be able to deliver. Good writing makes a promise, and keeps it.
7. You have often said to your classes that you are a writer, not a scholar. How does this difference influence your writing and teaching style?
I’m interested in writing as Art, not as an opportunity for me to expound my ideas on social justice, politics, etc., profound and compelling as those may be. I’m interested in how writers do what they do, and how it works emotionally on me. Being stuck with only one (severely time-limited) life, I want to have as many interesting vicarious lives as I can. Literature lets me do that.
I’m at least as interested in making things up as in researching them. I have a poetic license, and I’m not afraid to use it. If facts don’t fit, I can change facts. If I can’t find a quote that says something I want to say, I can either say it myself, or say it myself and invent a fictional expert who “said” it.
I’d much rather read a poem and make sense of it myself than to rely on “secondary sources.”
If my students borrow from others, they have to cite their sources, but I don’t worry much about the form of their footnotes. I have to look up the right form myself.
8. After you have worked on a poem, toiled over it's syntax and diction, the line breaks and overall composition, how do you know when you are done? How do you know that you've got a great poem?
I agree with the saying, “A poem is never finished; it’s abandoned.” Any poem could always be better; I just don’t (for the moment) see how.
I’ll declare a poem—provisionally—finished (ready for abandonment) when I read it several times, over a period of a year or so, and I always like what I read, and never want to change anything. I’m completely willing to change a poem after it’s published, if I’m convinced that I can improve it.
No one can know if he or she has written a great poem. History determines that. And History keeps changing its mind.
9. Your latest book, Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, is a fabulous collection from all of your books and most recent work. There is a wide range of styles and subjects. What is your favorite thing to write about and why?
I do admire your choice of words. “Fabulous,” in this context, has a very satisfying feel.
I don’t think I have a favorite thing to write about. Turtles come up a lot in my poems, but so do a lot of other things. I write about whatever interests me at the time, and try to let my poems go where they want to go. I also try to constantly expand my interests, so that I don’t become known as “that crazy turtle guy,”
10. Many of Formaldehyde's followers are just starting out in the world of poetry. In order to help inspire some of their work, can you share a few exercises that you use in order to get the poetic juices flowing?
I’ve got several exercises—and so have many other poets—in The Working Poet (edited by Scott Minar) from Autumn House Press.
A great thing to do is to act like a visual artist with a sketchpad. Just take a notebook and walk around, writing verbal sketches of anything that interests you. Good writers develop an inner Geiger counter that starts clicking in the presence of interesting things. The writer can then start digging, and see what turns up, being always aware that the best material is often buried, and requires a lot of skillful digging to bring it up.