Updated: Jul 19
[With apologies to Poets & Writers.]
1. How long did it take you to write Above the Bejeweled City?
Ten years, though I was writing two other books at the same time. All three books were published by Grid Books and form a kind of skewed triptych: Improbable Creatures, An Amiable Reception for the Acrobat, and Above the Bejeweled City.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Patience is always the challenge. And believing in the work when no one else cares. But there’s a flip side to that—there are no expectations. I don’t have a career or a brand, a serious web presence or even many readers, so almost nobody is waiting for these poems or hoping for anything in particular. It’s always just me and the page. That freedom from expectations is an incredible gift.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write everywhere, all the time. I scribble in notebooks, on whatever scrap of paper is around, in my iPhone notes app or in text messages to myself, on a laptop, and on my desktop. I’ve written poems in chats with friends, in Facebook messenger group chats, in emails. I joke with people that, to me, what’s happening in my mind is always the most interesting thing in the world. But that is almost certainly a symptom of a deeper problem, not a joke. Lately, I wake up early and engage the world outside, memories, contrarian ideas, other poets’ poems, news, and random articles online (today’s is a study about trauma addicts and how trauma reproduces the brain chemistry of drug addiction in trauma survivors) until something compels me to write. Sometimes the writing takes other forms—essays, notes, stories—but most times a poem-like event occurs.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’ll be honest. I’m nearly seventy years old and have apparently reached the you-kids-get-off-my-lawn phase, so I mostly read backwards in time. So Lorca, Rilke, Parra, Plath, Stevens, Levis, among many others. Having said that, I can be found reading around in Arthur Sze’s The Glass Constellation and Greg Glazner’s Cellar Testament, and I just received an ARC of my former student Jennifer Elise Foerster’s new book and will read that. I’m also reading Robert Beverly Ray’s poems that were published in Poetry magazine in the 80s in preparation, I hope, for helping him put together a book. I read my friends’ poems—Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, Dana Levin, Joan Naviyuk Kane. Such lists are always incomplete. Years ago I made a personal anthology of 59 great poems from around the world. I read that often.
5. Which poet, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Every living poet over 60. The lost generations. They’ll get a blip on social media when they die, but are otherwise invisible. A few years ago, to rectify this situation, I proposed an anthology: Poets Over Sixty Not Named W.S. Merwin. No takers, though.
6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I like to think it’s the daily busy-ness of living among other humans—errands, paperwork, dishes, meal preparation, text messages, phone calls, computer problems that need solving, getting the trash to the curb—though maybe the truth is there is no poetry at all without those things.
7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
That would have been over ten years ago, and I don’t really write books, I write poems, so all my memories are associated with particular poems.
8. How did you know when the book was finished?
I wrote a series of dream-inspired poems that seemed to complete whatever arc was awaiting completion—“Waking from Waking from a Dream,” “The Ghost of Denis Johnson,” and “Above the Bejeweled City.” Until these poems arrived, the book felt too earthbound.
9. Who is the most trusted reader of your work and why?
My friend Greg Glazner is pretty much the only one who consistently reads my work critically at this point, though I’ll sometimes foist a poem on Sherwin Bitsui or Dana Levin. There are a handful of other friends who get poems via text who will occasionally say something significant about the poems-in-progress, though there is no expectation or demand. Mostly I just live with the poems, placing them all in a single file that I read daily, top to bottom, revising and adjusting and trying to see anew.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
The poet Chuck Calabreze once wrote, “Poetry doesn’t explain the world, it rescues the world from explanation.” He also wrote, “Never pay a poet by the hour.” So, two pieces.