Shut up our mother said we couldn’t say,
so behind her back we said it all the time
risking her witch’s look, the hairbrush,
or a talk from our father whose sadness
we exacerbated with our acting up, not that
he much cared what we said to each other
but punishing his sons wasn’t what he wanted
after working all day and so it was a failure
of strategy on our part to provoke our mother
to have to ask him to talk to us about shut up
or the picture I drew of turds dropping
from a stick man’s butt or Bill’s tantrum
in front of Miss Ossie Price, but I still can’t
get the words out, something shuts me down
when I’m around somebody who needs to hear it–
yesterday morning I saw this girl get right
in a guy’s face in the City Market parking lot,
they were smoking and kind of stepping around,
when she shouted, “Shut up!” leaning into him,
grinning and red-faced as if what he’d said
was so damn scandalous but perfectly delicious
like I know you’re not wearing underwear today
or blankety blank blank, and god did it hit me hard,
sixty-five years old, both parents long dead,
and whatever that girl was feeling right then–
which had to be some fantastic amalgam of arousal,
embarrassment, shame, and joy–wasn’t anything
I’m ever going to feel, even if I get another
sixty-five, even if I ever do break through
and finally ask some jackass to please be quiet.

Your poetry is not difficult to understand.  Doesn’t that mean it’s not really very good?

I think it’s possible to be both challenging and accessible.  I believe that poetry belongs to everyone. There’s a stupid-smart game being played by lots of poets:  If the poet writes a poem that makes other people feel stupid when they try to read it, that elevates the poet up to a seat on the smart pedestal.  It’s disgusting.  What’s astonishing is how many smart people buy into it.


Who are some contemporary poets who are important to you?

Marie Howe, Stephen Dunn, Tony Hoagland, Dorianne Laux, Steve Scafidi, Alice Friman, Larry Levis, Judson Mitcham, Kay Ryan, Mary Ruefle, Bob Hicok, Robert Hass, Jan Beatty, Robert Cording, and Charles Harper Webb.


What are some of your opinions about writing poetry?

–It’s a mistake to try to write to fulfill one’s idea of a poem.  My successful poems always go beyond my original idea, and sometimes they end up having nothing to with what I thought my topic was.  My rule of thumb is When in the throes of composition, be flexible.  My best poems are a lot smarter than I am.

–Form (sonnets, villanelles, blank verse, nonce forms, etc.) is an obstacle for some poets–usually beginners–but it is a great help to the poet who learns how to use it.  It asks the poet to try lots of solutions to a single formal requirement (e.g., rhyme); therefore, it deepens the poet’s concentration and stretches the poet’s thinking and imagining.  Even when my poems appear to be free verse, I’m often imposing the discipline of a loose syllable count on the line.

–Abstraction almost always calls for a concrete example.

–Eschew wisdom unless it arrives unexpectedly and initially appears to be incorrect or at least problematic.

–Humor, too, should probably be unintentional.

–Direct quotation (of a voice other than the poet’s) can be an enlivening force in a poem.

–I try to aim for the poem that only I can write.  And though it’s rarely something I think about, I also believe that poems should speak out of the poet’s specific historical moment and culture.

–I believe that all serious creative writers, at some point in their evolution, must reckon with where they came from and their experience of growing up.  It is, of course, possible to do this imaginatively.


Do you believe that your poetry will, as they say, endure?

No.  And I’d rather it didn’t.