The poem featured here in TNB, “Catch,” like much of your work, involves childhood and parent-child relationship. You’re on in years, but still preoccupied with childhood it seems.
Yes, and it’s fair to use the word preoccupied—not only with my own childhood, but with this basic layer of our humanness that I feel we never outgrow. I work as a psychiatrist with a therapy practice, so, as you might imagine, I’ve seen what children we really still are beneath our apparent adulthood. And that’s not bad! Without our child-selves alive inside, we wouldn’t have any music or poetry, I’m sure!
Part of my preoccupation is the search for safe space for feeling sad or lost or helpless—space, creative or therapeutic, for feeling and expressing how it is without a dad there, or without a mom freed-up enough to be engaged. Whether we’re six or sixty, finding true holding for our distress can be as elusive as it is necessary. Many of us, young and old, trudge on without this, and it is, I believe, of great consequence. Much destruction comes of such secret lonely torment.
So, you hope that a poem like “Catch” might provide such safe space?
Possibly. For someone here and someone there. Perhaps it’s akin to how we gather to grieve. A poem can serve as a memorial object, like a burial stone, where the lost can be remembered in mutually comforting company.
This particular poem caught a contest judge’s interest. It received New Southerner ’s James Baker Hall Memorial Award. What do you believe stood out about this piece?
I do wonder about such things. Why, or how, does a given composition resonate with its human receivers? In this poem’s case, I imagine it might involve the element of hope—a sense of promise, of the ongoing, after the loss. The essence of the father-son encounter lives on in the son. And that makes the pain of absence safer to feel.
It seems to me, more and more with time and practice—of poetry and therapy—that hope of some kind must live in the frame, however bleak or agonizing the picture. We can grieve and go on because there is, after all, more than the loss. A poem perhaps must provide something of this—some felt intimation of beauty, or caring witness, or praise or wonder—for the unbearable part of the truth to be rendered bearable.
You know how a kid gets hurt, and clamps the hurt in, bites his quivering lip, while he runs to his mom, and only when he arrives within her embrace can he let the tears come, and wail—that’s how a poem might permit fresh tears. Donald Hall specifically called poetry “the company of tears.”
Hall is recently deceased. He wrote extensively and beautifully out of his experience of the loss of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.
I had the great fortune of a correspondence with Donald Hall in his last months. He hadn’t remembered he’d coined and used that term, the company of tears, in an essay years earlier. I was quite tickled to be the one to remind him. I’d quoted him on it in an essay in JAMA exploring the role of poetry in coping with loss.
Hall emphasized many times in our exchange the crucial importance of the sound, the music, without which, he believed, a poem just can’t live. And I believe him. If it isn’t much of a song, it just won’t stir or hold the listening heart very well.
Do you believe the poetry of our era can be sonically beautiful, when so much raucous, chaotic, crashing sound and rushed jangled feeling surround and penetrate us, seeming to define our experience?
Well, I’m an appreciator of a wide range of music. We might more easily call Bach beautiful, but I have had experiences of majesty listening to, say, The Art Ensemble of Chicago creating a living, pulsing torrent of intense sounds. Or, in the visual mode, I can be thrilled by Matisse or by Jackson Pollack. Very different experiences, but neither the less magnificent. There will be poets who capture the urgency of urban reality in their works’ music, and those who remind us of the melodic currents we carry within us through the noise. We need all of it.
Back, then, to your work. The poem we’ve featured appears in your new book, The Marriage of Space and Time, published by MoonPath Press. The title seems to reference Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
I did conceive of my title in relation to Blake’s. He was writing in the 1790s and had a sense—a vision, we might say—of this union of two great domains. In its time it was a bold new paradigm. I grew up fascinated with physics and cosmology. The unions I saw were electricity and magnetism, matter and energy, space and time…. Einstein was my early hero. But something counter to the scientific still needs to be brought in, and Blake, were he with us, would agree. My implicit assertion, running through the book, is that with the marriage of space and time come the offspring—not only all the objects in motion, but evolution, life, consciousness, memory, desire, love, awe, and all the complexities of experience and expression that constitute our lives as human. The subjective domain of poetry is itself a child of the marriage of space and time.
Does the book reflect this assertion in its structure?
There are three sections, titled, in this order, Space, Time, and Union. The first two begin with brief quotes from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The third section begins with a quote from Hermann Minkowski, Einstein’s college mathematics teacher. That third section reaches more into the subjective complexities of lived experience. The poem “Catch” is in that section.
Where hope and loss can intersect and interact, as you’ve suggested?
And where time and timelessness can occupy the same moment.
Is that something you feel is important in your writing?
I feel strongly that we need a here-and-now sense of the eternal. We can’t depend on religious constructs of reward or punishment after life to shape our actions. As metaphor, wonderful. But for real, here it is—what you or I do or say right here, right now, will forever have been just so. The fabric of space-time (or should we say space-time-experience?) will eternally have this particular encounter in it, just as it’s happened, and with all its causal cascades. The cosmos will forever be to that small degree more or less lovely or loving or indifferent or cruel. In this way, the moment is eternal. I want to embody this feeling in my work.
You’re getting us into a kind of moral dimension. Which brings to mind the role poetry might play in social struggle and cultural evolution.
It wasn’t until that terrible day we call 9/11 that I resolved to seek publication, though I’d been reading and writing poems since I was a kid. Yes, I believe it may be the arts most of all that can remind us of our oneness across all the bloody differences. Our time is riddled with heated schisms, and artists of all kinds can help loosen the hypnosis of us-and-them thinking and belief.
You spoke earlier of the “destruction that comes of such secret lonely torment.”
Yes. Psychic isolation is a source of all kinds of enactment—destructive and self-destructive, violent and passive, private, interpersonal, and political. From addiction to terrorism, the thwarted need to meaningfully belong is the essential underlying fuel source. Such isolation, and the pressured behaviors stirred by it, serve the purposes of all kinds of empires, religious, military, corporate…. What we all really need, of course, is the actual experience of our being part of a larger living whole. I want my poems to be of some facilitating value in meeting that need.
Are you writing overtly political or social poetry these days?
Yes, and some such work can be found in The Marriage of Space and Time. The poem “Catch” itself addresses the climate crisis, the Vietnam War, and borderland gang killings—how “the fathers” disappear.
One of my recent chapbooks, Dark’s Channels, chosen by Tyehimba Jess for the Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Award, is quite thoroughly a sociopolitical collection. And it draws upon another discovery of modern physics—nonlocality. The intimate and instantaneous connectivity between us across any distance is, to me, a reality of immense significance in this time of burgeoning mass migrations and spreading conditions of drought, warfare, and oppression. Borders need to be recognized more keenly as seriously hazardous in themselves, whatever dangers they’re meant to address.
I’ve been very encouraged to see venues evolving for the relatively prompt dissemination of creative work in response to current developments—online presences like Rattle’s Poets Respond, Poets Reading the News, and others. Less speedy but also pertinent and timely, there are journals like Rise Up Review and WORDPEACE. Some presses and journals are mobilizing to put out socially-responsive gatherings of work—I’m thinking of Raven Chronicles here in the Northwest, Cutthroat’s recent Truth to Power, Wandering Aengus Press’s anthology on the endangered orcas of Puget Sound, Tina Schumann’s anthology of work by the offspring of immigrants, About Place Journal’s and Tiferet’s recent themed calls, and much more. I find myself sending poems in for consideration by these entities more frequently over time.
But there is also the problem that urgently written work may or may not have lasting power. There’s a preachy preaching-to-the-choir character to much of the writing that comes of social unrest. Only a few of the poems of our era’s struggles will sing to some in the next and the next era. But that’s the hope I entertain—that I might be speaking with human beings enduring future trials as well as current ones. The way some poems have survived decades and centuries because they do speak to us down the generations, heart to heart across space and time, and across cultural and linguistic distances.
Your reflections suggest that for you, the work of poetry can be quite humbling—that you might never feel very sure you’ve gotten a poem right. It could so easily be too gushy, telling the reader/listener what’s already felt or known, or you could keep it too restrained and enclosed for fear of such over-telling.
I keep in mind W.C. Williams’ notion, “No ideas but in things.” Not as a dictum but as a guideline to lean toward. So that the poetic mechanism will be more experiential than propositional. But it’s true, I never know with any certainty whether I’ve channeled something of real light.
You say “channeled.” You’re not the maker?
No, I don’t think so. I believe poems, like other works of art, come, at best, through those who give themselves to the process. We gather and assimilate experiences of the world, and sometimes the world then sings to itself through us in a human voice. I want to serve that flux as best I can, which calls for dedication to craft. But the crafter is conduit, not source.
Well, then, what else are you channeling these days?
While I’ll remain unsure how truly ready the work is, there are two full-length manuscripts and a couple chapbooks I’m sending around. I continue to make revisions and even change out poems occasionally, but these collections on the whole have become what they are, and I hope they get picked up before too long.
I also have an involvement with music. I play guitar and sing, and with a few friends help round out the evening gatherings of a local open-mic community. I participate in an ensemble called Band of Poets, weaving music and poetry together, and we’re getting lots of opportunities lately, which is lovely.
Also, I’ve enjoyed serving as Poetry Editor for the online journal Bracken. We’ve just published a print anthology of the first five issues, and it’s a gem.
Bracken, meaning the kind of fern?
Yes. The founder, my companion, Alina Rios, wanted the journal to bring forth work out of the woods and its shadows. She had a kind of arboreal magic realism aesthetic in mind. I felt my own kinship with her aspiration in that I’ve wanted to see creative work not just remind us of nature but help us remember that we are nature. Which, in the cities at least, I think we forget!
You’ve got plenty going on. Along with continuing your therapy practice.
To a perhaps surprising extent, I find that all these involvements are quite consonant. In writing, music, and therapeutic work, I feel I’m studying that part of nature we call human nature.
Many of us wonder these days if it’s human nature to seek near-term advantage to a globally tragic extent.
I think the more urgent or threatening the circumstances, and the more isolated or existentially cornered we feel, the more that’s true. And that is a great danger. Still, one thing poetry and the arts all-in-all can offer is some refuge from survival struggle—some psychic asylum in which there is compassionate presence, witness, and solace in the face of mortal risks and inevitabilities. This gives us a chance to act rather than react. To move forth with resolve and inspiration rather than desperation. To take a breath and discover afresh what vast, timeless, and caring company we really are in, all the time.