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February 13, 2018
I saw Elizabeth Ellen before I’d read any of her work. There was a photo of her on a flyer for a book tour during the fall of 2014, and it piqued my interest so I googled her book Fast Machine. The search result provided several dozen more striking pictures of Elizabeth and I remember thinking, who is this chick? I found her website and read everything I could find written by her online. My obsession with Elizabeth Ellen was born.
Lauren Haldeman is the guest. Her new poetry collection, Instead of Dying, is available now from The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. It is the winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry.
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Matthew Zapruder is the guest. He is a poet, editor, translator, and the author of a new book called Why Poetry, available now from Ecco.
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Who are you? And also, why do you write? Actually, why don’t you just write me a poem right now?
Poetry is: an artifact of the shining me, the radiant, the torn: the execution of that self: the contending with who do I think I am to live so freely here: walking this riverbed: kneeling in dirt: putting my lips to cemetery stone: loving the glow of metacarpal bones under me, in my stumbling: decay: in my children: their spines: their flows: their jaws: my God, where are you blinking?: because I am among the abandoned: scattered: fragmented: a broken word: do you know what I mean by broken?: because even swallowing: even: broken: witness: heard: any song: any move into slow: the dead hold out their palms: I approach as lamb: for food: for daisies: for slaughter: for an end to thirst: for white blooms on my tongue: for being in a body: disembodied: embodied: an embodied spirit: the intersection: revenant against my teeth: a rosary for sorrow: a litany to see the dead in mirrors: joy in finger bones: if I lay me down: if I lay me down: because I have wished for death: but now I would go fighting: the poem is: my voice: my clawing for light: my internal song/scream/cry: it’s the part of me that will endure: here: can I believe that there is a skyward: that my bones float in it: unsheltered: here.
Why do I write poetry? It’s the part of me that will endure: here.
This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with TNB Poetry editor Rich Ferguson , whose debut novel, New Jersey Me, is available now from Rare Bird Books / A Barnacle Book. Big congrats to Rich! Go buy his book!
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Dwight Garner of the The New York Times says
Mr. Robbins’s heart is not lovely but beating a bit arrhythmically; not dark but lighted by a dangling disco ball; not deep but as shallow and alert as a tidal buoy facing down a tsunami. Yet it’s a heart crammed full, like a goose’s liver, with pagan grace. This man can write.
Monologue topics: Patrick Swayze, tweets, drones.
Photo credit: Clayton Hauck | Chicago Reader
I think I felt the urge many people my age experience – to set down (as honestly as I knew how) what it was like to live most of my adult life in the last half of the 20th C. in the USA. I meant it to be a kind of witness to my times.
How would you describe your experience at The New Yorker?
I often describe it as the story of the longest lateral career in journalistic history.
For a brief period in 1960 when he was in New York on academic vacation, the poet John Berryman was of the opinion that I would make him a good wife. He proposed this to me regularly. It seems he was, in the years between his second and third marriages, proposing to every halfway decent-looking woman he met. It was perhaps his way of acknowledging guilt at the failure of his previous marriages and an indication of his good intention to do better next time. Late in the sixties, at a women’s group, he came up when the issue of male commitment arose — as an example of overcorrection. Among the seven women in the room, it turned out that he had proposed to three of us. And that was only in New York, in his spare time. The campuses where he taught in those bachelor years, 1959 – 61, were checkered with other potential Mrs. Berrymans. So it was perhaps not the mark of distinction it seemed in the moment.
From an obituary in the New York Times:
For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — in just seven words.
What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”
March 19, 2012
“Hey Snooze,” I said, putting on my headset so that when the dog tried to murder a squirrel, I’d have both hands free.
“Hey.” There was an ocean of melancholy in that “Hey.” Susie can say a lot in one syllable. I guess it’s not surprising that she’s a poet.
“Well, I went to look at my book sales on Amazon, and I got all excited because I sold five copies.”
Birth, nature and nurture or lack thereof. Is there any other answer?
Yeah, that seems to be the default setting for many a writer. What specifically about your childhood most influences your writing?
My relationship with my father.
What about him?
He was a shrink, then a neurologist. A true narcissist in its most virulent form. Unfortunately, I knew no better and worshipped him as a little boy. By the time I had reached my early teens, I was running away from a home that should have been the American Dream, but was just a hell-hole in disguise. I dropped out of high school and went to work.
What did you do for a release from that?
I stayed at friends’ houses as much as possible and abused whatever intoxicants I could wrap my mitts around.
You started writing in earnest later in life. What was the genesis of the move to ink?
My father’s influence was strong inside me and I had no idea how much it was eating me alive and destroying my marriage. Eventually, even though it takes two to tango, my wife decided she couldn’t take it anymore and we split. It was devastating and served as the impetus to begin the journey to find self and maybe a bit of childhood wonder that I didn’t have when I should’ve. I was going to explode. In a way, I did. I just did so on paper.
What else propels your word?
Ah, the usual. Everything from angels to demons. I’m often conflicted. I’ve learned I need to let the good and bad fight it out to find equilibrium. I don’t try and change how I’m feeling, especially for the purpose of satisfying, the “Don’t worry, be happy,” crowd. They annoy me the most. I feel how I feel until I no longer feel that way. I boxed up my human emotions for too long, hiding them so only the hunter would be seen. He collapsed in upon himself forcing acknowledgement of deep voids.
Frankly, I didn’t know how fucked up I actually was. I had been working on Wall Street, with skin that took years to thicken as I always was an outcast with a big mouth that for a time wrote checks my ass couldn’t cash. Eventually, I learned how to make good on my drafts. I cash all checks nowadays, but the reason goes back to the home thing. Bullied by a nasty old man, I would never again back down from confrontation unless it served a specific purpose. I’d rather get my ass kicked.
I just at some point refused to allow fear of physical damage to stop me from doing what I had to after realizing emotional pain becomes a physical malady at the drop of a hat and no purely physical pain I’ve ever felt could compare to that which is born of a heart ripping apart at the seams. I felt like that for much of the first 42 years of my 42-year life. So, pain of a poor childhood, a destroyed marriage, a dissonant mental dynamic and a mind that never quits solving equations which all add up to zero anyway, all contribute to that which I write. Oh, all that and a seizure syndrome which drives me crazy and makes everything twice as hard as it should be. The medical issues show up too.
The human condition, old buildings and history truly get me off as well. Wherever I am, I find myself wandering the streets at night, sucking in the essence of life. It’s something L.A. offers in such abundance and I do miss that. At heart I’m city kid and clearly that factors in occasionally as a backdrop or subject of my work.
Health topics aside, that sounds fairly normal for artistic types, but ‘artistic’ isn’t a word most people in your earlier life would use to describe you, is it? What’s the story?
It’s actually the root of much of the dissonance to which I refer above. I was always into the punk scene, yet I was going to work in a suit. I am not ashamed of the work I’ve done, despite the modern, monotheistic anti-capitalist sentiment that is pervasive in much of the underground segments of society. I feel far more comfortable on the margins, I’ve discovered, but I’m slave to nobody else’s agenda. I thought that was what punk was all about in the first place; doing what you decide is right for you. I didn’t realize that there was some sort of list of appropriate positions. So fuck ‘em all. I won’t be any scene’s hostage. That said, I do feel some of that sell-out cliché in my own veins. I’m being hard on myself, but that’s like saying I woke up this morning.
I just wish I never put that suit on in the first place. I shut down the right side of my mind except for those spots my left side could hijack whatever creativity might be available to help with the its nefarious linear plans. I realized when the world started collapsing around me, I had an angry creative side that finally declared war and started writing far more regularly. I’m having fun with it. Not really, but I need it.
On to the obligatory “Who are your major influences?” question.
That’s actually one I like to answer. I love so many writers—Vonnegut, Orwell, Heinlein, Buk (yeah), Chandler, Ellroy, Rand, (no, I don’t drink her kool-aid), all the ‘Beats’, Leonard, Heller and Pirsig (just for Catch-22 and Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, respectively—don’t think anything else really caught me, but there’s a couple that can make up for lots of marginal product, no?). I really enjoy Ferlinghetti lots. D.A. Levy, Hunter and Burroughs of course. I could go on forever on them. Hemingway is another…P.J. O’Rourke and Clancy…there’s no end to what I enjoy reading, though unfortunately my work schedule and lingering neurological issues often make it quite difficult to sit and read for extended periods and what’s likely far more important is what I haven’t read yet, but want to. One day…
As far as other writers are concerned, there are just too many to list, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the influence of Iris Berry, whom I’ve known for years via a mutual friend. Iris really put me on track with my writing and I wouldn’t be having this interview with me (ha) if not for her. Besides, she’s a fucking stellar writer. A. Razor has similarly been a huge influence on me and is becoming just a great friend.
While we have had somewhat more limited interaction, I’d have to say that Mark Hartenbach and Mike Taylor are also up there. It’s not to say that there aren’t dozens I’m missing (there are) whose word I read daily, it’s just that I know I’m leaving many out and I should just stop here and thank everybody who has shared theirs with me and add a special bit of gratitude for those out there (you know who you are, if we’ve had interaction) that have really done much to encourage and open their vaults of knowledge and understanding to me over the lest several years.
I am very grateful for the relationships that have grown since I began sharing with the larger community. It’s a bit difficult sometimes as I live in my own head and tend to feel more alone in crowds than in a small room alone. There’s no doubt, however, that I’ve grown through many of these relationships.
Well, there’s enough to choke a donkey in all that. Is there anybody else you’d like to thank? Any new projects?
Oh yes…I have to thank Dire McCain and Dave Mitchell of Paraphilia, Apryl Skies and Alicia Winski of Edgar Allan Poet and Yvonne de La Vega of The Examiner for believing in me and publishing some of my word and Cricket Corleone for my inclusion in the forthcoming Into the Valley of Hinnom: A Dark Poetry Anthology, Volume 1, to be published by Heliocentric Press, which will include some of my work as well as that of ten other poets. Finally, I have to thank Rafael and Melissa Alvarado, Iris and Razor (seems to be a recurring theme) for going out of their way to make an upcoming reading at Beyond Baroque on Dec. 3rd come to life. They really put a full court press on for this and I’m eternally grateful. With hope, a chapbook will be ready in time for the reading. I know Raf is busting his ass to make that a reality. Oh, and let’s not forget Rich Ferguson and his partners at The Nervous Breakdown for this opportunity.
Thanks for your time, Danny. Good luck with your new projects.
You’re welcome Danny, and thank you for listening to me ramble. Good luck with your health.
I grew up in Ohio, which is where Jack Lemmon and Sandy Duncan were from in the 60s movie, “The Out Towners,” well, that pretty much sums up what people from the coasts think of Midwesterners. I have a brother and three sisters, including a twin sister. My mother never wanted us to have a dog when we were young, thinking that she would be the one who would have to do all the walking and feeding (she was probably right). So we had lots of rodents. Gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, a rabbit (is a rabbit a rodent?). I was in charge of naming all of these pets. The gerbil, who did quite a bit of running on his hamster wheel, was named Runner. The hamster was named Hammy for obvious reasons. The guinea pig was Squeaky, the rat was Rattix and the rabbit Thumper. It was because of the precocious creativity that I displayed in naming these animals that I decided to become a writer.
Short stories, non-fiction essays, screenplays, poems, saucy little reviews of Rod Stewart concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and scripts for reality TV shows.
Yes people say that all the time. But you’d be surprised how much a good sense of story is needed to shape these shows.
I didn’t really start thinking about writing poems until I took a course my junior year in college. My professor, a frumpy mustachioed poet who looked like a younger and more diminutive Kurt Vonnegut, asked the entire class to submit a poem so he could evaluate our style and what level we were working at. At the time my twin sister had just been accepted into Veterinary school, so I wrote a poem for her to celebrate this milestone. It was purple, sentimental, effusive and very precious. After the next class my professor called me in and said, “I don’t think this class is right for you.” I was furious. For the rest of the semester I shot him deadly looks from the back row, but it was this brutal assessment that made me start to seriously examine poetry and the way it was written.
I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of people in this country (it may be less so in other countries) are hostile to poetry. They feel it is an affront to their intelligence, that poems are an “inside game” designed to make people outside of the game feel like idiots. I know that I shared some of these beliefs before I started reading and writing a great deal more poetry. And the truth is, some poetry is opaque and requires a great deal of careful reading to glean meaning, and these are the poems I’m less interested in.
I prefer poems that gravitate toward the emotional rather than the strictly intellectual. I like poems that use rhythm and pace and meter and show the poet really crafting his or her work. I like clarity in poems. I like stories. I like to feel something when I read a great poem. Richard Hugo, James Wright, Stuart Dybek, Lucia Perillo, Ted Kooser, Bukowski, Billy Collins, Denise Levertov, Sherman Alexie, Anne Sexton, Tony Hoagland. All of these poets, to some extent, accomplish this. That being said, I know I have a great deal more to learn about poetry and many, many more poems to read.
I once beat the Poet Laureate of the United States in a game of horseshoes.
It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.
None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.
The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.
When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.
I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.
After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.
I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.
After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.
Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.
I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.
“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.
Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.
Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.
When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.
The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.