1. Are you a mentor at Antioch this semester? I'm in the program, and live in Long Beach too. It would be cool to have a mentor so local. -Daniel Romo
Hi, Daniel. Yes, I’ll be a mentor at Antioch this upcoming semester. Swing by my office after the Meet the Mentors panel and say hello.
2. I love the imagery of your work; it's always just right and adeptly illustrated. How long do you live with a poem before it's ready for the world? -Joey
Hello, Joey. It depends on the poem, really. I often work on a single poem for two weeks, maybe three, chiseling away at it until I think it’s complete. I don’t ever ask myself, “Is this poem ready for the world?” The question is more like, “Am I happy with where the poem is now? Can I walk away from it?” Sometimes the answer is “Yes,” but months later I find myself making additional edits. Which is to say I rarely feel like a poem is just right.
3. You opted to not jump into an MFA program but rather inundated your life with reading every poet you could get your hands on, or so that's how your wife, Lisa Glatt, describes it. Can you discuss why the MFA wasn't the right course of action for you? How did your internalization of your development help you as a writer?
I decided not to pursue an MFA right after Cal State Long Beach because I felt like I had been trolling around campus for a decade. I was an art major, had almost completed my degree (I believe I only needed 6 more units), when I decided to switch my major to creative writing. I was basically starting over again, so by the time I received my BA I needed a break from school. So I decided I’d just work and write on my own. And read, of course. I was a voracious reader back then. Not just poetry collections, but literary magazines as well. I was also writing a lot during this time, and whoever I read definitely informed my writing. Simic, Sexton, Hass, Boruch, Hicok. I learned a great deal from all of them simply by immersing myself in their work.
4. Your last book of poetry, Always Danger, is an extraordinary book filled with glorious, dark, astounding imagery that is so uniquely yours. I can't tell you how many lines and images I have underlined throughout! For me personally, it has been a book that deeply inspires a darkness in my own work. Can you talk about how you access these dark images?
I think we have to talk first about the modern world, which—despite being beautiful—is cruel and violent. One would have to be a hermit in a cave or drunkenly optimistic not to recognize this. Perhaps the things we read about or see on the nightly news affect my psyche more than others. I don’t know. Or maybe all the HP Lovecraft and Stephen King I read at an early age contributed to my dark sensibilities. But truthfully, it’s all a mystery as to how and why I come up with the images that I do. I’m thinking maybe it’s the other way around: the dark images access me.
5. Your upcoming book, Hoodwinked, is expected out in 2011. How does this differ from Always Danger? How has your writing style changed, if at all?
Well, I don’t think it’s as dark as Always Danger. I made a conscious decision to shift from writing about violence or death so much. It wasn’t a 180 shift—more of an acute angle. There are more whimsical poems in the new collection, and perhaps more sonically rich poems. I learned some valuable lessons on crafting a poem at UCI, and I think that’s evident in Hoodwinked.
6. Can you talk about your writing method? What's your process? This could even be talking about what elements you need or time of day, what works for you? Does the poem all spit out at once or is it a slow process? I know this is a generic question that so many writers are asked, but as a blog dedicated to the preservation of the art form, I think it is important that we continually analyze our methods especially from those who are successful writers like yourself, a platform many of us strive to be atop of.
It’s a slow, slow process. That’s because I edit as I write, and do a lot of pondering with my hands resting lightly on the keyboard. Little finches perch on my fingers and I have to shake them off. For me, the poem never spits out all at once. I start in the morning (after coffee, of course), and if I’m lucky I get twenty lines in one sitting. It’s always a struggle. There are approximately 74 cogs and wheels that make a poem work, a half a dozen hairsprings and barrel drums, there are no directions or blueprints available, and you have to put the whole thing together with your mind, heart, and breath. It should be a struggle. Or else, why bother?
7. Do you find that there is a particular poet you are constantly turning to for inspiration, alive or dead? Is there anything else you generally do to get those juices flowing when they just aren't coming?
Wallace Stevens does it for me. My work is nothing like his, but there’s something about the strangeness and lyricism of his poems that fires me up. But that’s not always a guarantee. Sometimes nothing will bring the words to the page—and that’s okay. If I try to force something to happen, frustration will inevitably rear its ugly head. At that point, I would rather do anything else. Read, listen to music, tend to my tomatoes in my backyard. If Lisa’s stuck as well, we’ll go to the movies. I write because I enjoy writing, not because I feel like I have to do it all the time.
8. As I ask of all our writers, would you mind sharing some of your favorite exercises with us? Be as specific as you can if you don't mind. As beginning and continually learning artists, exercises can be some of the best advice we can get.
One exercise that I like to give my students is an exercise on repetition. It’s sort of like a sestina with training wheels:
• Write a poem that repeats the same 3 words
• The poem must be at least five tercets long
• Each line must contain a word that’s repeated in each successive stanza (abc, abc, abc…)
• The repeated words can appear anywhere in the line—beginning, middle, or end
What I like about this exercise is that it pushes my students to write poems that are not about actual experiences, which can sometimes eliminate some of the mystery of writing a poem. Your mind is already thinking, “Okay, this happened, then this happened, and then this happened. What parts should I write about? What should I leave out?” The nice thing about a writing exercise is that it makes you focus on the present tense. The mind at that point is thinking, “This is happening now. What next? Where to?” From my experience, that’s a more fruitful headspace to be in for writing a poem.
9. Many of your poems seem to directly connect to your personal life, such as your poem titled Lisa, which is the name of your wife. Without giving away too much about whether your poems are fact or fiction, how does your personal life influence your work? Do you find it better to safe guard fact from fiction or do you give your personal life free reign?
My personal life influences it a great deal, but I’m not just mining my life for material. If that were the case, I’d have a sequence of poems about cleaning the litter box.
Seriously though, whether or not a poem is fact or fiction shouldn’t matter. A piece of writing that is factual true can still sound inauthentic. In the end, the poem should resonate for the reader, regardless if the poet had written about an actual experience or not. It should feel true. That’s the litmus test.
10. Now for the toughest question of all... :) would you mind sharing a poem with us from your latest book? Can you discuss this piece like how it developed or it's inspiration, anything at all.
Sure. This one was published in Gulf Coast a few years ago. It was inspired by actual maggots and poor vision.
Because the plump bags of trash slumped
beside the house like black pumpkins.
Because eleven days passed and the bags
were still there, sun-baked, fly-mobbed.
Because they sighed as I dragged them
down the driveway. Because one was torn
by a crooked nail jutting from the fence.
Because the bag grew a mouth and yawned.
So dozens tumbled onto the concrete,
minute and white. So I thought, Rice.
So they wriggled over the pavement
and I thought, Not rice. So the knotted bag
of repulsion opened in my stomach.
So I uncoiled the green hose and made
a river with my thumb, made the water
push each one under the wooden gate
and into the flowerbeds. Where they writhed.
Where in the muddy earth their spongy
and pale bodies writhed. Where marigolds
nodded yes to every come-and-go wind.
Where brown-winged butterflies mingled
and ladybugs spotted yellow petals
like flicked paint. Where nature pulled
long satin gloves over her many warts.