When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I grew up in a household that cherished books, not poetry so much, but certainly literature and history. My dad especially loved the wall of shelves he put up in our cramped little den, to make it that much more cramped, that he called his “library.” Early on I hankered to write on account of that reverence I had noticed. It was a little like growing up in a religious home and wanting to become a priest. That wasn’t yet poetry though. The ID card I made for myself out of an index card and wallet print of my second grade school picture listed my profession simply as “author of books.” There was a novel about a brave sea captain from about that time.
In my teenage years there was some flirting with the idea of rock and roll stardom. I bought a bass guitar because it had fewer strings more widely spaced than those other guitars and I thought it would be therefore easier to play. I made crude noise in my basement with a friend of mine and together we took a couple of stabs at writing songs. I’m sure it was dreadful, dreadful stuff, but perhaps that edged me closer to the idea of poetry.
Then there was Mrs. Ligon’s English Class, freshman year of high school. She’d given us some poetry to read and respond to and she was having a not unusually hard time teasing out a class discussion. Dylan Thomas’s ‘Refusal to Mourn’ —I was called on, I’d raised my hand I think, and I just suddenly found myself testifying, almost speaking in tongues. That startling revelation of a poem, that entire sad and majestic universe unveiled between “the least valley of sackcloth” and “ the grains beyond age… secret by the unmourning waters” —I don’t think I can or should even try to offer the exegesis now that I did then, in Mrs. Ligon’s class, but I remember the look on her face when I finally yielded the floor. Something had truly dawned on me and she’d seen it happen.
I think I’ve been scraping at it ever since. I’ve always had my notebooks, jottings, language that comes to mind, my tries at short stories, essays; there is an unfinished novel somewhere on my “library” shelf. Poetry is of the essence though — just finding words that seem worth holding out, holding on to, beholding, bespeaking a moment, a notion, something somehow worth notice, possibly sacred.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I truly wish I did have a deliberate routine, one that I had chosen for myself or designed, a more disciplined practice. I can’t claim that I’ve managed that just yet. I write when I can. That turns out to be early mornings before I’m off to work most of the time. Annually, Catholic that I am, I set myself the task of writing at least one haiku every morning through the season of Lent. These can be excruciating exercises, or exorcises —when the clouds don’t seem to have parted to let the light shine in, but they do give me a window into what’s going on inside me. I’ve looked back across these dailies to gather larger themes I might be trying to digest without knowing. You might notice a few pieces in ‘Odd Numbers’ that are in the form of these haiku, sometimes threaded together into a longer work.
The rest of the year I rely on inspiration to tell me whether or not I’m writing that day and where it’s going to happen, not a habit I recommend actually.
This past year I had the good fortune to be invited in to a group of poets on a mail list who were all sent a writing prompt each day the month of April. These were sometimes, prescriptions as to form, or an idea, or a device. Like my Lenten haiku there was a daily discipline aspect. I really enjoyed these and quite a number of them are included in ‘Odd Numbers.”
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
There’s a poem in ‘Odd Numbers’ that ends with the line “This is the ache of a song before it is written.” I think I was wrestling with this question of where from in that poem. There’s talk in there of seeking clarity, seeking language. This seeking is all about answering that ache, even if it is only ‘the dark witness to the dark/Dreaming itself…”
My poems most often come from a need. I console myself, or offer praise, or pray on account of something that needs to be named, and if it’s already been named, that needs to be further articulated —at the very least for my own sake.
There’s that old turn of phrase “to get it off your chest.”
I remember a poem I wrote called ‘Michael’ (from my previous book ‘Instead of peace’). I’d come across a news story about a small child who had been abused and finally killed by his parents. He was three years old. His story was so shattering. I wrote that poem one word at a time, like I’d entered somewhere blind, each word was a single struggling step forward, without any sense or assurance of where I was traveling. I only knew I was holding ‘Michael’ and needed to offer this grieving witness. Michael wasn’t the name his parents had given him. I gave him that name.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I’ve already mentioned Dylan Thomas from early on. I actually listened to Bob Dylan for the first time because I’d heard he took his name from DT. Encountering Dylan’s music was another major threshold crossed and influence I would have to cite. He was a gateway for me to both folk and traditional music and the beat poets, like Kerouac, Ginsburg and Snyder.
I think Gary Snyder still sticks with me as an influence, if not in an obvious way I can point to in my own work. He projects an awe and wonder and reverence at the very idea of language that still seems to resonate for me. He gets down to the raw and most immediate elements and at the same time reads history in thousand year increments. ‘Axe Handles’ is a favorite collection of poetry and his book of essays ‘The Practice of The Wild’ should be mandatory reading for membership in the human race. I love the discourse you find between his work and that of Wendell Berry. They both offer poetry and essay as a kind of ethical testimony that could be seen as an obligation of conscience if it weren’t also joyous.
Then there’s Mary Oliver. I worship the ground she walks on almost as much as she does. When I talk about seeking a clarity of language, she is often the ideal I am holding in mind, avidly reverently observant, courageous, honest and utterly without affectation.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
‘Odd Numbers’ arrived as a title late in the game as I was assembling this collection. I came across the haiku, which I’ve used as a kind of frontispiece for the book, as I was culling through my work of the last couple of years. My habits in writing haiku aren’t conceptually all that faithful to the disciplines of the form, I know. I’m conscious of doing a number of things I shouldn’t do. I mostly count syllables and occasionally enjoy the slight play of a double meaning. With ‘Odd Numbers‘ I liked the notion of “numbers” like you will sometimes hear a song referred to —like ‘here’s a saucy little number’— played off against another kind of counting, prayer beads or days reverently observed. I thought that nicely typified what I had going on in the collection of poems.
In the last couple of years I’ve watched my children grow into adults –one even graduated college and moved to California; I saw my oldest brother die suddenly and found myself dealing with the grief and emptying the house I grew up in; I found myself struggling to make sense of our working model of a civilization and my place in it; I’ve found myself ever more in love with, and amazed by, my wife.
I can’t claim to have a whole lot of perspective, or strategy in mind, or command of the ‘over-arching themes’ that come through in my poetry or in this particular collection. The only thing I am certain of, as a common element, is my own experience. That’s the only unifying theme. There is a quote from Simone Weil that posits attention as a generosity and a form of prayer. All I can really promise about these poems I’ve gathered is that I have tried to pay attention. I’ve tried to pay as generously as I could.
Read Message here:
I dreamed of you, my brother,
Together we found careful footing—
Coarse and blue squarish slates
In amongst the tall sharp grasses
On the steep slope we climbed
To your mother's house.
You laughed at the gifts she had waiting
For us both. For you there was a small
Musical instrument that sang
Of Africa in your hands.
You complained, still smiling,
That she had chosen heavy strings.
For me there was the easy talk and the feast
With its ministries of spice and recollection,
Proud names and storied objects all
Sheltered and sunlit the same—
Quiet and resounding
In that warm place her voice described.
I only thought I should tell you this now.
As the wind just stirred a chimes nearby.