In March & April 2021, I was interviewed by Thomas Whyte for his ongoing series, Poetry Mini Interviews. Five questions, one each week for five weeks. You can find them all here: (one, two, three, four, and five) or collected all in one place, here.
Each answer went through a number of drafts, and there was some fun stuff that didn’t fit into my final answers. I’ve gathered some discarded snippets below.
Bob Dylan’s lyrics also helped me see poetry as a collaborative process, where the listener/reader helps finish the work. Part of the connection I felt toward Dylan’s songs was the sense of accomplishment after deciphering them to my own satisfaction, and relating them to my own life experiences. And my decipherments and interpretations didn’t have to be within ten city blocks of what Dylan “meant,” for them to feel valid and meaningful. They became my songs.
Fun little story: While I was in a band in college, I wrote lots of songs. One in particular was very abstract — indeed, bordering on the nonsensical, because I had chosen sentence fragments solely for their syllable count and their hard sounds that could punch out above the loud guitar. It was little more than a few sharp images (clouds the color of coffee, glass) paired arbitrarily with several curious verbs (count, spin, dance). Two short stanzas.
A few years later, my bandmate said, “I really like that song about the couple walking after midnight.”
“You know,” he insisted: “that song where the couple is out walking after a rainstorm, and the city lights are reflecting in the puddles, which all look like broken glass, and they’re jumping over them almost like they’re dancing, and the city lights are lighting up the low clouds overhead? C’mon, it’s a great song, I can’t believe you don’t remember it!”
He finally mentioned the title and I realized what he was talking about. Believe me when I tell you the lyrics mentioned no people, no cities, no rainstorms. My bandmate had filled in all these details. He had made the song his own, and felt a powerful loyalty to it that went way beyond anything I had put into it. I sometimes wonder if his version of the song is better than mine, since he loves the song dearly while I think of it as a tossed-off piece of fluff.
It occurred to me that our loyalty to, and love of, art is the result of feeling like there’s something there for us to do. Art literally leaves something to the imagination. In this way, Tolkien was right that the opposite of art is propaganda, in which absolutely nothing is left to the imagination, in which the meaning is simple, and loud, and overpowering.
(Propaganda has its own appeal, of course. Thinking for ourselves can be so exhausting. It’s hard enough to decide what to have for dinner, can someone please tell us who to vote for, or against?)
Some people get upset if you suggest that a hot dog is a sandwich. Other people get upset if you suggest a hot dog is not a sandwich. But the important question, of course, is whether you’re hungry, or a vegetarian, or allergic.
Something in the introduction to Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems has stuck with me since I read it sometime in college: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.”
This idea that a poem is something you build, and that any materials that don’t work in one poem can become elements in another — this was huge. It made me realize that I could build a poem out of anything, and that even discarded scraps might be kernels for new poems.
It opened up for me, for the first time, the idea of poetry as a dynamic, expansive, sustainable, life-long engagement, not merely a self-obsessed outcry, love letter, diary entry, manifesto, anthem, rant — although it can be all those things, too. It contains multitudes. It’s the bottle and the syringe; the elixir and the patient; the laboratory and the scientist, alchemist, shaman. It’s the listener and the speaker; the song and the singer. Sometimes it’s even the message, with a surprising adjective you would never have thought of yourself.
All art is manipulative to some extent, of course — we hope to elicit a reaction in our audience — but we can never be absolutely sure that it will be the reaction we intend.
This all probably sounds like I’m setting the bar pretty low. I am. There are millions of other things you could be doing with your time. If you choose to spend a few minutes reading one of my poems, the least I can do is not make you sorry you didn’t trim your fingernails instead.
Everyone may still laugh at the joke, but each for their own reasons.
V/O: But it also implies that there is a dangerously fine line between art and paranoid delusions like QAnon, in which adherents help tell the story by “discovering” clues and billing in — filling in the narrative… Bluh bluh bluh, sorry.
V/O: Seeing so much more: look not when it’s done, but— What? Sorry!
Seeing more: don’t look when it’s finished— Ugh.
Seeing so much more: don’t look— Why can’t I stop laughing?
V/O: A poem is part of the community of poems, so it’s done to the extent that it… What? Dammit! Okay.
A poem is part of the community of poems, so it’s finished to the extend — Fuckitfuckitfuckit.
V/O: Other art forms can create a strong intimate bond, obviously, but—
(Boom in shot. Laughter.)