I haven’t found them to be in conflict. I often approach poems inspirationally to begin with, but the editing and revision process is very analytical, and the rigor and clarity of thought that I’ve developed in my work help me there. At the same time, I’ve found that writing poetry has improved my general communication skills a lot, and that helps me in my job.
Many people aren’t aware of the nuances of different ways of saying things, or don’t have large enough vocabularies to be able to make effective choices. As a poet, these are indispensable skills. But actually, these skills are useful in any kind of job where you have to communicate with other people. No matter how dry and factual the information you’re putting across, there is emotional content, and it’s very easy to change that or shade it by using different words.
Tell us about this chapbook you have coming out from Barefoot Muse.
My working title for it was “Sonnet-Free Verse.” I write a lot of sonnets and I love them, but among the characteristic forms of English poetry, the sonnet is probably the most common. I thought it would be fun to put together a strong collection entirely of other forms, and maybe draw attention to some forms that I think are underappreciated.
The most underappreciated form is probably the pantoum. Pantoums do tend to evoke negative emotions, and I think the one-step-forward, two-steps-back, end-where-you-started feel discourages poets. The trick– as with all forms– is to choose a subject that’s appropriate to the form.
Why so many ghazals?
Ghazals are a very common form throughout the Near and Middle East, in many languages. A lot of traditional Sufi poetry is and has been written in ghazals; Yunus Emre’s work, for instance, which features in the liturgy of many Sufi orders including mine. So writing ghazals is one of the ways I connect to my Sufi heritage. I also like how the pinwheel-like effect of a ghazal works with other forms.
Why do you write formal poetry, in general?
To me, that’s almost the same question as “Why write poetry instead of prose?” Clearly, if you say the “same” thing in different ways, you’re not actually saying the same thing. The medium is part of the message; the form shapes the content. A sonnet and a piece of free verse may tell the same story, but they have different effects on the reader or listener.
Formal poetry makes use of sound-patterns in rhyme, meter, alliteration or repetition. The human brain is very attuned to sound-patterns; it’s part of our linguistic ability and is the reason we enjoy music. Historically, poetry and music have a very close relationship. Much poetry was intended to be sung or chanted, and in fact the original meaning of “lyric” poetry was poetry that was accompanied by music. Formal poetry taps into the brain’s pattern-processing abilities to create an extra layer of relationships between the poem and the audience. These can work with or against the text; set up expectations and subvert them; support or deliberately undermine moods.
Don’t you find forms confining?
No more than other types of poetry. Occasionally one gets asked about one’s “poetic voice:” how do you find it, what do you do to develop it, similar questions. I feel confined by the suggestion that all your poems should be in a particular “voice.” For me, it’s much more like finding the right voice for the poem, and a form may be a part of the poem’s voice. Often, a poem will start with a particular line or image, which may in turn suggest a meter, rhyme, or other type of structure.
When I was first writing poetry and exploring forms, I’d set myself a task: “I’m going to sit down and write a triolet.” That’s important exercise, and it can feel confining at first. But as you become fluent with a particular form and learn its strengths, it begins to suggest itself to appropriate poems. As a poem takes shape, you find yourself thinking: “This could be a triolet… it feels like a triolet…” You have to let the poem lead.
Do you write songs at all?
I don’t know anything about music, so I can’t really say I’ve written songs. But I have written a lot of poems that I can imagine as songs or being set to music, especially blues. A friend of mine who plays some blues guitar has done that with a couple of poems, and I really liked the way they turned out, although that’s more credit to him than to me.
I don’t have any patience for a hard-and-fast division between poetry and songwriting. There is a difference in the market conditions; songwriting is a much bigger dollar industry than poetry, though I don’t have a sense of whether there are actually more dollars per aspiring songsmith than per aspiring poet. I think it’s also true that even a moderately successful song finds a much bigger audience than a successful poem does. Artistically, as I’ve pointed out, the roots lie so close together I don’t think it’s really worthwhile trying to separate them.
How did you start writing poetry?
As a child, I thought that if I became a writer, I’d be an SF/fantasy author. That’s what I grew up reading, and still mostly read. Poetry had never been more than a passing whim for me, although it was often a spontaneous response to strong emotion; for instance, on seeing a total solar eclipse at the age of six, I said:
Black and white and blue
and on the horizon a sunset clue.
I converted to Sufism in early 2005, and began seriously writing poetry almost immediately. For me, it’s all about communication. It’s about encouraging people to look outside themselves, to reach out and connect with other people and other pieces of the physical world. Ultimately, it’s about connecting with God. I’m often not overt about that aspect, because I don’t like to preach to people.
Why isn’t more of your poetry personal?
I’m not a big advocate of the dogma that poetry needs to be personal, intimate, etc. For one thing, it shuts out a lot of the traditional uses of poetry to convey subjects as diverse as mythology and political struggle. For another, it’s encouraged an unhealthy self-centered attitude in poetry. For another, it seems redundant to me– if your writing is honest, it will reveal the “real you,” no matter what it’s ostensibly about. Why not write about something else, and get across twice as much information?
I’m not against personal poetry, but I very much oppose being limited to it.
Besides writing, what do you do that supports your poetry?
I walk, listen to music, read, take cross-country drives, go to readings, pray, correspond with other poets, work with the Oregon Poetry Association, submit poetry, and try to get lots of sleep.
One of the best things I’ve done for my poetry was actually before I started writing. I did some storytelling for the Interstate Firehouse Community Center, an art gallery and community theater which has since closed for lack of public funding. The artistic director, Adrienne Flagg, was a professional actor and voice coach, and she coached me just a little bit. I’ve found it’s made a tremendous difference. I see a lot of good poetry suffer from poor delivery.
Don’t you feel like it’s cheating to prop up a weak poem with a dramatic delivery?
If you think again about the history of poetry, it’s always been a spoken or sung art, a performed art. The idea of poetry as something you just read is very recent. That means, traditionally, the delivery and the skills of delivery were part of the poem, not props somehow wedged underneath it.
If you think your poems are any good, why wouldn’t you take the care to give them the rendition they deserve? The basics: stand up straight, don’t mumble, make eye contact, project. And, I’m not advocating a lot of histrionics, but if you show no emotional investment in a poem it’s pretty hard to expect your audience to make that investment.
Do you worry that people aren’t getting your message?
It’s more important to me that they’re enjoying the poem. As for “message,” I learned early on that readers or listeners will always come up with interpretations you could never have thought of. I see that as one of the great strengths of poetry. At one extreme, you have instructional manual writing; the goal is that every reader comes away with the exact same information, no matter what their background or experience (assuming they even speak the language the manual’s written in). At the other extreme, poetry leaves a lot of room for the audience to fill in their own “meanings.” A good poem makes people come away from it saying: “I felt like that poem was about me.” Like the old song, Killing Me Softly: “I felt he’d found my letters/and read each one out loud.”