When did you know you wanted to be a writer? And a poet specifically?
Writing and studying literature & philosophy seemed to be what gave me the most pleasure and what appeared to be the best fit for what I was good at. There were hints of the pleasure and competence in high school, so I went in that direction in college. After college, I thought I should study something to earn a living, but that interest didn’t last long—three or four years—during which I kept writing until I finally started applying to graduate programs around the country.
Which poets inspire you the most? Do you have a favorite type of poem?
Maybe the strongest influences are the early ones. Wordsworth in college, and then in one course I read all of Faulkner. I think he’s why I’m more a poet of the sentence than the line. Then came the imagists and T.S. Eliot and then Robert Morgan and Archie Ammons, who I studied with at Cornell, and then John Ashbery. After that, it’s pretty much anybody and everybody. I’m very impressionable and enjoy appropriating voices. Originality is a myth I would think by now everyone has sufficiently outgrown. Who doesn’t sound like someone else? On the other hand, I also think you can’t wholly sound like someone else. If you find yourself inspired by someone, few if any will recognize the source of your inspiration because something of you will likely shape the language.
I don’t think I have a favorite type of poem, though there’s something about discursive writing I like, the rhetoric of argument. The rhythm of current and countercurrent. Maybe this is true, maybe that.
You use Dante’s Divine Comedy as a framing device for the format of A Long Slow Climb and reference it in many of the poems. How did this idea come to you?
I’m always dipping in and out of the classics, to study the history of our ethos, reaching for continuity with the past, culturally and personally—with past cultures as well as with my own experiences. Dante’s poem fits the bill. I was raised Catholic and though I’m atheist now I have internalized those tropes. Culturally and religiously, his poem has provided the theological and emotional scaffolding for Catholicism for centuries. He died 25 years or so before the plague, but his intimacy with Florence’s early Renaissance capitalism makes him a great source of wisdom regarding the human frailties caused by that system, the corruptions endemic to religious capitalism. That’s the U.S. all over. The past is not the past.
So he was a guide for me in thinking through my feelings about what we’re experiencing. The Inferno reveals how prescient he was. The word quarantine derives from the Italian quaranta giorni, 40 days, a reference to the ships arriving in Venice from infected ports during the plague. Without intimating that the victims of disease are to be blamed, I want to say that it’s as if—with his depiction of hell and the suffering there—he foresaw in Europe’s new globalism its viral consequences, unfortunately more for the poor and oppressed, and that’s the sin of it, or sin’s secular equivalent, the spiritual corruption in our leaders and enforcers of the status quo and the corruption of the system we find ourselves in—land clearing, global warming, mass animal slaughter, all factors that increase our chances of spreading disease. Why did Trump lie about the virus? He thought it would help him maintain power.
And then there’s the subject of redemption. What does it mean to strive for salvation in this context. Haven’t we all done something for which we seek redemption? Have we not, many of us, enjoyed aspects of modern capitalism that has spawned this pandemic? Dante’s poem brings this complex inquiry to the surface—I’m simply riding its coattails.
The ongoing pandemic also plays into several of your poems. How do you think COVID-19 has affected you as a writer?
I tend to kneel at the feet of Thanatos. It’s an ancient tradition. Perhaps all poets do. Keats said all poetry is prayer, and in Buddhist literature there’s the story of the monk who’s asked how we can find happiness in a world that’s always changing and he holds up a goblet and says “See this goblet? In my mind, it is already broken.” I’m attracted to poetry whose prayer is an homage to our demise. It’s not healthy to be always grief-stricken—we don’t want to incapacitate ourselves, but it’s best, I think, to keep our chops up in that regard. Covid has broken the goblet right in front of our noses.
Do you have a writer’s block remedy?
When you’re not writing, consider yourself simply doing research. The world will survive without another document. Let ideas and feelings percolate and have faith that soon you’ll jot down a few words, hammer out a line or two, and you’re off to the races. There was no block.
What do you enjoy doing most when not writing?
I like encouraging students to pick up the poetry writing gauntlet. It’s a pleasure to write a good poem and I like sharing the joy. Same goes with good thinking, a thing of beauty, as Keats might say. Other than teaching, I take walks and car rides with my wife, read books & the news, watch movies and sports. Love to exercise: martial arts, bike rides when it’s nice out. In the summer I make jam from local fruit. Garden a little. Try not to think too much.
What subjects do you enjoy writing about most?
Like I say above, many of my poems are meditations on death. I like to play a lot on the page, to toy with what happens there. My students tell me I laugh at things that aren’t funny. It’s because tragedy is so over-the-top that it tumbles into humor, so to speak. The novel Catch-22 describes a tragedy, but the book is hilarious. Tragedy is quite ticklish, we might say.
I’ve been writing essays in the past ten years, mostly on subjects I’ve created college courses for: the pursuit of happiness and problems with hyper-individualism, for example. A Long Slow Climb is my foray into social and political poetry. I was pleased that Dave Smith in his blurb mentions journalism as one of the fields the book ventures into. Philosophy is another, but I’ve been writing philosophical lyrics for so long that it was refreshing for me to come down and breathe the air of the political moment. Not that naval gazing isn’t relevant; it’s just that social and political critique are as well. Of course, it’s never an either/or. How much existential angst did Trump inspire? I remember Ammons responding to the question why he doesn’t write more political poetry saying something to the effect of “Excuse me, I’m trying to overturn the Western mind.” I think that’s been my project as well, but I’m nonetheless pleased to think of this book as an homage to our journalists, whom I admire no less than I do our writers in other creative genres.