Haven’t we done this before?
We have. I think back in 2011. Actually, I know it to be so because I googled it.
Good to see you again.
Thanks. I hardly recognized you.
So what’s new?
Two books of poems, both out by NYQ Books, The Early Death of Men (2012) and Salute the Wreckage (2016).
I noticed your last book has no blurbs. Why not?
I didn’t want any blurbs for my last book. I wanted the writing to speak for itself. I also liked the idea of letting the book be its own artifact without those fake advertisements on the back.
Do you write strictly poetry or do you write other stuff?
I don’t really think of myself as a poet. I think of myself as someone who writes. That can be poetry or fiction or even essays. I’ve never understand the separation of the term “poets and writers” anyway. Like the magazine. What does it mean? Every poet is a writer. And the best writing always has a poetic sense to it. But yeah, I don’t have any genre allegiance. Whatever form arises for a particular idea is what it becomes.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Since I was a kid, I’ve always written stories. I wrote my first “novel” (around 40 pages) when I was ten years old. My dad used to bring home his electric typewriter from work on weekends and I’d sit in my room and type for hours. Wish I had that kind of discipline now. In high school, I wrote a lot of song lyrics and a few stories for the school newspaper. Then I took a break from writing to play guitar in bands for a number of years. Around the age of 21, I started taking writing seriously again.
Do you think being a musician had an effect on your writing.
It most certainly did. As everyone knows, writing is musical. It depends on rhythm. I was never a musical aficionado like some of my friends, so in the long run I went in hoping for a record deal and came out with a better sense of musicality to apply to my writing.
How important is it to be a reader if you want to be a writer?
Have you ever heard of a film director who didn’t like films? A musician who didn’t listen to music? A painter who didn’t like paintings? A chemist who didn’t know anything about chemistry?
As we’ve seen lately, this whole silly American notion that one can be anything they want simply because they feel entitled to it, regardless of knowledge or experience, has been a disaster.
You also worked in a bookstore.
I worked in a few, but the longest was for six years. Looking back now, I think that was the best possible literary education I could receive. Especially since the bookstore allotted their employees $30 credit a month to buy books. I came in a huge reader and come out with a much wider breadth of knowledge. I remember writing some of my earliest poems sitting on a stool pretending to shelve books.
Speaking of which, you recently realized it’s been 20 years since your very first chapbook. Tell me about that.
Yes. Most of those poems were written in the exact way I described above – while pretending to be working at the bookstore. That same year, I’d also gotten my first acceptance of a poem by the Chiron Review and was working the front info desk of the bookstore, when I noticed a chapbook on display there. It wasn’t very good and I took that as a challenge. And of course, with all that beautiful overconfidence of youth, I said, “I can do this and I can do it better,” and then I did. Six months later, it was my chapbook displayed on the info desk. It wasn’t very good either, but it was made from a youthful enthusiasm and confidence I only wish I still had. It also set the course of my life.
Did you go to college?
Yes, but I almost didn’t. For a long time, I was content working at the bookstore, doing my writing. I never felt like I needed a college education. I was even willfully opposed to it. I worked at warehouses, restaurants, retirement homes, retails shops, telemarketing jobs, and construction before I ever got serious about college. I finally decided if I was going to be so heavily critical of something, I should first know about it. Now I’m in a much better position to be critical.
Don’t you teach college now?
I do. I’m an adjunct. So the bottom of the barrel. Completely unessential. The term adjunct is even defined as “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” But it pays the bills.
Does a writer need an MFA?
No. In fact, these days I’m inclined to think the opposite. The main trouble with MFAs is they make more academics than they do writers. People come out of MFA programs as this homogenized group. Their voices are all the same, their politics are all the same, their style is all the same. Then in turn, they become the next batch of professors who select the next group of MFA candidates just like them and you end up with a publishing industry run by all the same type of people. Ultimately, this tends to squeeze out original or daring voices. Art that’s too closely associated with an institution is always compromised. They love to flout diversity in these programs, but diversity is usually only limited to a checkmark on the application in regards to gender and race, but not so much to voice.
Writers need to do other things like work in warehouses, drive cabs, become medical doctors, fly airplanes, work on boats, build skyscrapers, put out fires, fix cars, weld things. It’s no coincidence it’s harder and harder to find anything to read, at least from mainstream publishers.
So I take it you won’t be attending the next AWP?
I met a friend for drinks and attended a few offsite readings when AWP was in Los Angeles a couple years ago. I had a great time getting drunk but that had nothing to do with writing. The last day another friend gave me his pass and I was surprised how everyone was extroverted and young and good-looking. Where were the misfits? Where were the outsiders? It seemed like a fun party that had nothing to do with writing. So my advice is, unless you’re trying to get laid, there’s no other reason to attend AWP. Of course, come to think of it, what better reason do you need?
Is the idea of not “selling out” old-fashioned?
Seems to be. We live in a time when the term “selling out” has become meaningless. Musicians sell their music to ad agencies without shame and consider it admirable. Hell, even Bob Dylan has allowed his music to be in a car commercial. Many artists don’t want to say or do anything that might upset their fan base and ruin their precious careers. But my idealism comes from punk rock and my formative years were the eighties back when “selling out” meant something bad and “alternative” meant something good. The world is backwards now. The good thing about poetry, I guess, is that it’s so far at the bottom it’s very hard to really sell-out. And yet, because of that, it’s all ego-based, and a poet will cut you to get a little attention!
Does any of this matter?
Then what are you going off about?
Sorry. I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee.
You realize you’re the only one here right?
Yeah, it’s pretty weird.
What does matter?