Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
From the first grade until I was a sophomore at The Ohio State University, I wanted to be an actor. In the first grade, I coaxed my teacher into letting me produce and direct a production of The Wizard of Oz. She consented, and I had the entire class at my disposal. The production took place on a Friday afternoon, and those kids who hadn’t been cast in major roles became munchkins. The play was a success.
While in high school, I acted in a summer-stock production of Life with Father and also played a delinquent, leather jacket and all, on a local television show about actual court cases.
During sophomore year, I acted in Macbeth and Androcles and the Lion. It was during the latter, while waiting to go on, that I realized I didn’t want to be part of the show business world any longer. Facing fierce competition to sustain a livelihood was not a future I hoped for. I dropped out of the play and vowed not to return to the theater unless I went back as a writer.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
The first poem I ever wrote featured a deer in a forest, was seven stanzas long, and rhymed. Miss Wells, my seventh grade English teacher, was so impressed that she read it to the class. I was so proud of my accomplishment that I carried the poem in my pocket for weeks. I think my poem still exists in someone’s drawer somewhere.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
Actually, I have two recent books: Rough and Why Dance? Rough is the follow-up book to A Human Saloon. Both Rough and A Human Saloon were inspired by a relationship I had with a heroin addict. The relationship changed my life because it was very traumatic. As I always say when I’m caught in a distressing situation, at least I got a poem out of it. In this case, I got two books.
Why Dance? was published in the early 90s, but the publisher died in an automobile accident. Consequently, the book didn’t get much publicity or distribution. Venetian Spider Press just released a new edition in hardcover. I’m extremely happy that William DeVault, the publisher, liked the book enough to bring out a new edition. Though the book is over twenty-five years old, I believe some of my best work is in it. Moreover, every poem in it has a magazine publishing credit. It is a very solid book.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I’m a very prolific writer. Not infrequently, I’ve written five or more poems in a day. I don’t wait for inspiration. I simply put words down, and away I go. It took me about six months or less to write Rough, because I worked on several other projects at the same time.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I never use blue ink, always black. Before I developed a new routine, which I’ll get to in a minute, I wrote on a legal pad with black ink. I don’t think that is very unusual. Now, however, and for the last several years, I dictate poems into a phone, email the poems to myself, then copy and paste the poems into a word processing program. In other words, at the editing stage, I start with a literal block of words and carve my poem from them. It is a tedious set of steps, but I write with a pen too slowly to keep up with what runs through my mind.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
When my first book, Cafes of Childhood, was published, a few family members became hostile about family facts which I mistakenly included in one particular poem. Their behavior upset me so much that I gave up writing for over thirty years and turned to photography which I have loved since I was twelve. I have never gone public with my photos, but friends and family have encouraged me to do so. They claim my photos are worthy of widespread sharing. I’m not a good judge of either my photos or my poems.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
In high school, I read Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Thomas Gray, a pre-Romantic poet. I’m not just a Romantic at heart. I’m a Romantic in every part of my body. I have to keep that particular inclination in check, or it would creep into my writing, and this is not the age of Romanticism. I memorized every word of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Need I say more? In truth, I belong more to the Graveyard School of Poets.
My next stopping off point was to gobble up the works of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robinson Jeffers. I am primarily a narrative poet, and these two poets greatly effected my inclination toward narrative poetry. I used to lie in bed at night during high school days and read until dawn. Their work meant everything to me at the time. I love telling stories. I think I’ve brought my interest in telling a story through acting, to telling stories through poetry.
In these latter years, I am greatly influenced by the work of Mary Oliver, James Wright, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Michael Hathaway, and William Stafford. I love their accessibility and the stories they have to tell. Their writing is so clean, unadorned beauty right their on the page. These poets have taught me through example to be more truthful about myself. I’ve never been so honest about myself as I have been since I started to read the work of these poets.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I am a little over ninety per cent finished with a collection entitled A Feast of Losses. This is the first time I haven’t evolved my own title. I owe Stanley Kunitz. I recently finished reading his complete poems, and I latched onto a group of words that led me to that title. In other zones, I have two new books, Dark Guitar and The Sanctity of Seasons on a publisher’s desk. I await his decision. Also, on yet a different publisher’s desk sits two chapbooks, The Only Country I’ve Been Dead In and Gods of Disharmony. Again, I await a decision.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
I think about the profile of my readers with every poem that I write. I want my poems to be accessible. That is very important to me. I don’t want my readers to need reference books to enjoy the poem. Of course, there have to be some exceptions along the way. Not everyone is knowledgeable about mythological or biblical allusions, so, yes, there are some times when a person has to do a little research. I am mostly talking about abstract and unapproachable poems, the kind that, after reading the poem, makes the reader ask what the poem was about. I don’t object to a reader having to peek into a dictionary occasionally.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Yes, First, do not pass your poem around to too many people for advice. That will mostly confuse a writer. I think the ideal arrangement is to have one or two people whom the writer can rely on for objective, intelligent, informed help. Yes, I’m talking about the mentoring situation. A writer is very lucky to have a mentor. I’ve almost always relied on one or two other people to critique my work, but sometimes I finish a piece and pass it off to a magazine without anyone else looking at it first. I once joined a writer’s critiquing group comprised of very fine writers, but it didn’t work for me. I do better with one on one or no one. Second, learn not to take rejection personally. That’s a hard piece of advice to follow, because the first reaction a writer usually has when a poem is rejected is to take the rejection personally. The editor’s job is a subjective job. I recently had a poem accepted that had been rejected eight times. Don’t give up. Don’t let rejection deter from writing the next poem. Third, write every day. Do not wait for inspiration or the momentous event. Write about the familiar. In other words, write about what you know. Don’t wait for time to write. It hardly ever comes. Make time for writing. Steal it, if you have to. Mostly, keep in mind that all good writiing is rewriting.
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
Write about what you know is the best advice about writing I have ever heard. Even so, I have, at rare moments, ventured off into unknown territory to write about Geronimo and famous people I’ve never met. The most influential moment to affect my writing came one autumn afternoon in the only poetry writing course I ever took at Ohio State. I had written a poem called “Song of Emily Dickinson” which won the university’s annual writing award. That afternoon, the professor read my poem to the class and commented about the line, “Doubt is what she sang as she descended the stairs.” Then he raved about the music of the line. Until that moment, it was just one of the random lines from the poem, but I then took a closer look at the line and learned almost everything I needed to know about sound in a poetic line. Of course, I generalize, but that line became a touchstone for teaching me how to put music in my poems.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I read about twelve books a year that aren’t poetry. I really enjoy mysteries, but when I have time to read, I prefer to write. I do read every book of poetry that I get my hands on. I believe that some of the best writing today is coming from people who write mysteries. This is not to say that we don’t have some brilliant writers of general fiction, too.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
I would like readers to see my effort to make something beautiful from words. I would be happy, if readers discover one of my books someday in a dusty attic, read it, and find that the book helped them get through a difficult life. Reading helped me survive a tough childhood. I can’t imagine a world without books. At my age, however, I am trying fast to get it all said, all the stories, all the attempts to engender a little bit of beauty, and I profusely thank all of the writers who have shared with me their reach for beauty.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
It is much harder to get published today then it was thirty years ago when I finally went public with my work. Their are many more people writing, and that makes it tough to strike up a relationship with an individual publisher. It still happens, but I think it is rare. The movement from physical books to online publication is more than a trend. It is a transition period now, but the end result will surely be that the majority of poems will only be accessible online. That change gives publishers an opportunity to publish more material more often and gives writers more chances to be published. Most publishers are overworked and deserve all the credit they can get. I don’t, of course, know if the physical book will disappear altogether. I hope not. I’ve grown used to seeing my poems published online, but my nostalgia wants to hold the physical book, also. I didn’t think I would ever replace record albums, CDs, and DVDs with streamed content, but now I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Change is inevitable. As a friend once told me, life is not about change. Life IS change.
Photos by Henry Coleman