Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Brad Phillips. His new story collection, Essays and Fictions, is available from Tyrant Books.


The late Anthony Bourdain calls it: “Searingly honest, brilliant and disturbing. [Phillips] peels back the skin and bone and stares right into the human soul.”

Born in 1974, Phillips is also an accomplished visual artist  known for dark work that engages with themes of eroticism, depression, and mortality. His paintings display stylistic breadth, from text-based to photorealist, referring in many cases directly to his daily life. He lives in Toronto.

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annabelle-moseley-oberon-judgeYou are the founder and editor of String Poet, the online journal of poetry and music. What was the inspiration behind this endeavor?

I believe that the best poetry has an inherent music, no matter in what style it is written. My immersion in this wordless language was in the work of my stepfather Charles Rufino, a renowned classically trained violin maker. His studio, filled with the shaped wood of cello and violin backs, showed me that music had a birthing room, a visceral beginning. The scent of varnish, sawdust, and rosin taught me that this auditory pleasure can involve all of the senses.

As professional musicians visited us, there would often be impromptu concerts, and I came to see how the musician’s love for music paralleled my love for poetry. They often appreciated my poetry as much as I did their music. The intrinsic music of poetry spoke that same language apart from words, the soul’s under-song, understood by both musician and poet. From this recognition came the idea for String Poet, a journal where poetry, music, and art can be appreciated simultaneously.

RK CornfieldYou’ve been awfully quiet today. What’s up?

I’ve been thinking of my attraction to bardo spaces. The in-between places. I suppose I’ve been dancing there since my early 20s when I left organized religion and began formally pursuing the visual and literary arts. An early exhibit of oils and monotypes called Between featured quasi-mythological, autobiographical figures knee-deep to chest-high in water, both on land and at sea at once. Looking back, it isn’t a surprise that ten years later I would begin seriously studying Tibetan Buddhism where this concept of the between figures prominently. It’s a natural fit for me. Any philosophy that makes a practice out of living beyond duality and with the concept of both/and feels like home.

Please explain what just happened.

In 2001 the United States of America entered an alternate dimension, and the real world has continued next door or across the street running in parallel. We live in a world where there is a black president, half the country believes he is Muslim, and they don’t believe in evolution.

In the real world our president is of no consequence. In our world the sea is rising, rainforests are burning, crippled children labor day and night to make our fancy toys. In the real world people still worry about real things like love, and truth, and being a decent person. Our world is a construct, generated by fear and run-away technology. Our world doesn’t exist in the present, only in fear of the future and the nostalgia of memory. In the real world I run a small shop that sells ties.

Here is what a book looks like when it lives on a web site. It’s not ideal. But it’s a book[esque] book, and I made it as close to book-ness as I could without handing you an actual book.

If your eyes, like mine, are tired, you can clink on the pages and they will zoom to a much more reader-friendly size.





Soutine: Book One

By Rick Mullin


Chapter 1:

Portrait of the Village Idiot


A charcoal line divides the wrinkled scrap
of butcher’s rag. And in a lightning strike,
another follows. A child’s fingers snap

and fumble with a brittle charcoal spike.
It crumbles, leaving marks that coalesce
into an aquiline and golem-like

portrayal. Repeatedly the fingers press
the black material into the brown—
a beard, the eyes, an overcoat. A mess.

They tear the paper. And they throw it down
as charcoal limns a landscape in the sky
and February hunkers over town.


And blood will fall. A life of Chaim Soutine
would almost have to drip in lacquered red
across a crusted base of brown and green.

In the beginning? Well, the rabbi’s head.
The nightmares that transgression might engender,
and the power of nature. Elemental dread

as, liver-lipped, the tenth child of the mender
waddles through the gray-slate thaw of Smilovichi.
Chaim the pariah, blood and dander

drawn distractedly across his twitching
face. His blood describes a dizzy trek
between the wagon ruts where Nietzsche’s

underdog progresses in the wreck
of finished business, punctuating shtetl
street with fallen drops. His chicken neck

and urchin’s chest exposed above the wattle
of a tunic ripped within the hour, the boy
is beaten once again. Not by his brutal

brothers this time, but by others. Oy!
Beware obsession! For in this world are things
as likely to empower as to destroy,

a light and darkness through the land that sings
precariously in the resonance
of every day. A pendulum that swings

inside a hidden engine. There’s a sense
of latent danger, violence in a law
beyond tradition, an experience

in nature and the Lord’s imprimatur,
“Behold the Child”.
       Having never seen
a work of art beyond the constant noir

vignette of Jewish poverty, Soutine
compulsively confronts the world, his scrimmage
with the word of God, by drawing. Green

and gray convert to charcoal in his homage,
meanwhile flouting a severe taboo,
the second one, against the graven image.

And now, it’s learned, he’s sketched a learned Jew.
“As if such portraits weren’t forbidden, dunce!”
The rabbi’s son, the village butcher, screw-

locked, punches Chaim and kicks him once.
The butcher’s brothers throw him at the wall.
“We teach frumkeit and how to take a punch,”

the eldest grunts and swings a board with all
the force of his observance on the slumping
boy. And then the boots. And then the crawl

toward the doorway of the shed. Then something
drops on Chaim’s back—a burlap sack
of poultry offal. Now the older boys are bumping

into one another heading back
to town, ecstatic in the rage they’ve spent
and laughing, satisfied with their attack.


At the end of the road he sees his father
sitting in a window sewing rags
and davening. Factotum to a tailor,

poor as gravel, Soutine père reneges
on any promise of Chagall nostalgia
that the shtetl might suggest. He sags

over a pile of scraps in a neuralgia
of repetitive despair. His cuff
must be avoided! Surely all the

Soutine children understand the stuff
of dreamless sleep. The ghetto’s endless drone.
The heavy thud of father’s mad rebuff.

But how long has Chaim been standing there alone,
the raining shots of multicolored light
behind his eyes? He plucks a chicken bone

and feathers from his clothes as night
chokes over Smilovichi. Then she’s there,
as always, to collect him. “What a sight,”

his mother says, and pushes back his hair.
And what a sight indeed. An eye is swollen
shut. He’s bleeding almost everywhere,

his face, his hands. His hat is likely stolen,
“for he had one, yes, this morning, if you please!”
He isn’t crying this time, though. A woolen

shawl is wrapped around him. Mother tries
to lift the boy, but at 13, her youngest son
won’t budge. “He usually cries,”

she mutters to the doctor’s wife who’s come
to see what all the trouble is about.
“It’s bad,” she tells the mother—the child is dumb

and listless. “Some cuts are very deep. I doubt
they’ll stop without some stitches. Let me help.”
They carry him. Now half the shtetl’s out

to see the doctor take the sorry whelp
indoors. A mass of beards and pipes and hats.
The donkeys haw. The scrawny street dogs yelp.


For sixteen days, Soutine remains in bed
recuperating at the doctor’s home—
a bed he doesn’t have to share. His head

is wrapped in cotton gauze, a comb
of rooster shock protruding from the crown.
At first he worries he’ll go blind and roam

the streets of Smilovichi like a clown,
a village idiot. The term had been applied
at various localities in town—

When the schul dismissed him, Chaim stayed inside
and helped his father. He would watch the light,
remembering as a toddler how he’d hide

behind a chest of drawers, stay out of sight
for hours, while the window’s square design
traversed the room. And now, in bed at night,

he only has to close his eyes. The fine
bouquet of pin-scratch lights still shoot and twist
inside his mind. By day, he struggles with the line,

a charcoal sprig inside his healing fist.
The springtime air outside makes slight incursions.
His mother visits once. She brings a list

and shows it to the Smilovichi surgeon.
“Your mother’s going to the village council
with her case”—the doctor’s wife, her words in

gentle pace, describes to him a town still
buzzing with the news of how they nearly
killed him. He considers how the town will

someday do the job and sees it clearly.
Should he heal, he’ll somehow have to leave.
This incident will cost the rabbi dearly.

“The idiot gets paid! Can you believe?
As if the world were rattling with such rubles.
Soutine the mender cannot sew a sleeve—

he gets a quarter-hundred for his troubles?
Our rabbi is a fool to play along.”
The muddy street of Smilovichi bubbles

for an hour. And it isn’t very long
before the artist leaves the family hovel
for the school of Vilna. That’s where things go wrong.

OK. Rick Mullin. Your second book-length poem in as many years, Soutine, is due out soon from Dos Madres Press. How are you feeling about everything?

All right. But I need to get involved in another big project soon. Lately I’ve been working on compiling a collection—cleaning up my desk, that kind of thing. I’ve been going back to older work and revising. I’m trying to keep busy. But I’ve got an itch.


It’s kind of weird, right?

You know, ending work on a book is like the end of a rather intense relationship. You live in a story for months. Then you have to live with it. Alicia Stallings once said that a poet is never really happy unless he or she is in the middle of a poem. I think that’s true. It’s a very, very happy life living in a story while you are creating it.


The two books you’ve written, Huncke, which was published by Seven Towers in Dublin, Ireland last year, and Soutine, which you finished writing this summer, are very different books. Where did they come from?

Huncke surprised me. I had gone, quite reluctantly, to a memorial reading that a friend was hosting for Herbert Huncke. I knew who Huncke was, but I didn’t know much about him. Nor did I care much, really. I have a great deal of regard for Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beats, but contemporary Beat poetry, per se, is not particularly appealing to me. Anyway, I went. And I wrote a sonnet—practice, as I recall—on the way home. It didn’t work, so I switched to ottava rima, wrote ten stanzas and figured that was my poem. Well, that ended up as Canto One, the shortest of a twelve-canto cycle of tales. I warmed to Herbert Huncke in the process. Soutine, on the other hand, I approached fully conscious of the poem as a book-length poem. While Huncke took about two months to write, Soutine took a year. It is also about three times as long as Huncke.


Who are these guys?

Well, Huncke was a progenitor of the Beat movement. He innovated the Beat life, as it were, and Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac lived a bit of their lives vicariously through him. He is in their books in one form or another. Soutine was perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th Century. He, Beckmann, and Bonnard are the big ones for me. He was a Russian Jew who painted in Paris and died in a roundabout way as a victim of the Holocaust. He brought the grand traditions in western art into something like the modernist idiom. But he was his own man, which is why he is not very well known. His roommate, Modigliani, a lesser painter who is quite well known, recognized Soutine as a genius. Soutine’s life story matches van Gogh’s for sheer drama, which doesn’t hurt when you’re writing his life story.


So, you knew a lot about Soutine, and very little about Huncke when you started these books.

Right. And as it turned out, I did weeks of research writing Soutine and almost none writing Huncke. I used old Herbert as a diving board to write about America. I actually invented my own Herbert Huncke, based on what I’d heard at the memorial reading, which was kind of an all-over-the-place group performance. But Herbert Huncke lends himself to being invented. With Soutine, I put myself into the protagonist’s life. Don’t get me wrong about the research—the book is very much an historical verse novel, but I did not work from notes. Certain scenes and encounters are entirely imagined. Soutine also has a parallel narrative, a memoir describing my discovery of art, of Soutine. It captures certain revelations that occurred in writing the book. Writing it was very much an experience of writing poetry. It never felt like I was writing a term paper. It felt more like I was flying a small airplane.


Give me a little bit of the technical stuff, but keep it down.

Sure. Huncke is written in ottava rima, as mentioned, the verse form of Byron’s Don Juan—I invoke Byron, or a Byronic hero, in the first Canto. It is a bit of a picaresque gallivant across a big swath of American history with sections concentrating on art, literature, and music. Somehow I managed to sidestep the Civil War, but nobody’s called me out on that. Soutine I started in blank verse, but I very quickly started over in terza rima. That form ended up having real resonance in the parts with Modigliani, who loved Italian poetry and actually recites from Inferno in the poem. Terza rima, as we know, sustains an epic. My model, really, was Derek Walcott’s Omeros. He used the form very gracefully in that poem.


You write almost exclusively in form.

Well put. Yes, I love formal poetry. Writing it and reading it. I compare writing in form to the exercises in art school where you draw without looking at your hand, only at the model. You produce a picture that is entirely yours but that would never have materialized if you kept your brain in the game, measuring the space between knuckles and knowing there are five fingers, etc. The picture is strange, yet familiar. You have to do it many, many times to get the hang of it, but the immediate results are stunning even in the earliest drawings. Similarly, making a rhyme and keeping the rhythm forces you away from what occurs immediately in your head, from what you already know or intend. It internalizes the thought processes, ideally subjugating it to unconscious feeling and experience. That is where the imagined scenes in Soutine come from. The counting, the formulaic part of writing metrical verse is incidental. Writing in form often results in a poem that you could not have imagined writing. But imagination has a lot to do with getting you there! It’s a paradox. A really beautiful one.


How about guiding principles? Who are your masters?

Well, I can point to some great ones in music, poetry, and painting with whom I associate an idea or guiding principle. First, there is Duke Ellington, who says we must find a way of saying it without saying it. Then, there is Rainier Maria Rilke, who, I am told, said that the truth is buried under a pile of facts. I can’t find it anywhere, but I believe it to be his observation. Who else would say something like that? And then there is George Inness, the American landscape painter, who reminds us that knowledge must bow to spirit. Put all three together, and there you have it.


This from someone who has written two book-length poems filled with facts and things that he knows?

Indeed. But that is the beauty of poetry. The chance to come up with something better. We all have information, knowledge, and something to say. But if we surrender to feeling and experience, the rest becomes something like technique or ink. They are vital to the process almost on a physical or structural level. The verse comes from within. It strives for the truth under all the facts in a way that cannot occur in the writing of prose—I’m a journalist and editorial writer by day. I know. Verse conveys what truth it gleans via a kind of spiritual channel. What moves us in a poem? It is almost impossible to answer that question. It really has little to do with what the poem says. There is a lot of historical information in my two books, but the narrator is pervasive. I record my experience of living the story and I try to subjugate the facts to that experience. The autobiographical tracks in Soutine are there to personalize Soutine’s life and invite the reader to connect with Chaim on a more visceral level than might otherwise occur. I make myself a foil to the hero, which I don’t consider hubristic—I paint, and I’ve lived painting for a log time, during which I internalized Soutine’s art and his story. I’ve been a carrier, so to speak. I have to say that I am very anxious to do this kind of thing again. I have my eyes on Janis Joplin to round out a trilogy. We’ll see. Maybe something will hit me like Huncke did.


What sort of future do you see for the long poem?

Well, it has had something of a renaissance with Walcott, Les Murray and David Mason. Mason’s Ludlow is beautiful. I can’t imagine an historical novel on the Ludlow strike that would affect me as deeply as his poem did. Omeros is one of the greatest books I have read, and Murray’s Fredy Neptune is a natural marvel. I have fervent hopes for the long poem. I think we’ll see more of them.


Hey, let’s hope so. Thank you very much. You kept the name-dropping down, which was one of my big concerns going into this.

I told you not to worry. And it was nice doing this for once without the sock puppets! Thanks for the opportunity. Keep in touch. And thank you, The Nervous Breakdown!


She boils the thighbones of her cattle
until they give like gelatin
when she prods them with
a rough-grained wooden spoon.
Sprinkles silver
powder in the fuming cauldron.  Stirs.
Ulysses, crouched behind a barrel,
spies on the witch as she brews
in her overheated
dark kitchen.
The windows are draped with
black velvet:
there is scarcely enough
light to see by.  Circe’s eyes gleam red.
She is sweating like a green hill
the dew has drenched.
Her skirt so short,
he can see her rump
when she makes abrupt moves.
Muscled arms bare, she plunges
the long spoon
into the eye of the hurricane
she’s cooked up.  She spreads
the stuff, like butter, on a glass plate.
By now,
both the woman and the man
feel so hot,
they feel just about ready to hallucinate.


By David Wozmak


I fidgeted in my seat, my seventh grade teacher reviewing my IQ test results. He looked over his thick rimmed glasses at me, frowning, as if the words he would speak made no sense to him.

“You have a great potential.”

Please explain what just happened.

Electrochemical conditions on a certain planet orbiting a certain star caused certain molecules to organize into more complex systems that were capable of self-sustenance and reproduction. The success of these systems gave rise to new, even more complex systems, and eventually self-contained individuals emerged. The wide variety of local conditions on the planet’s surface promoted a level of cellular specialization, creating groups of individuals with similar characteristics and functional traits. Millions of life species evolved on this small planet, all of them adapting to each other and their surroundings with varying degrees of clumsiness. One of those species developed a form of self-consciousness that caused a disconnection with their surroundings and changed their relationship with other species. They decided to call themselves “humans,” and here we are.

“The fans, which move from time to time, touched by invisible currents, serve also as some form of communication known only to the Reptiles.”
-William Burroughs

One of the key purposes of art in my view is pure inquiry-to ask ourselves some new questions, or to be invited to consider familiar or obvious things in a new way. As mainstream commercial art in all its forms becomes ever more committed to the quick narcosis of superficial entertainment, I think this inquisitive and participatory aspect of more thoughtful art becomes all the more significant.

Welcome.  As this is announced as a “Self-Interview,” I won’t pretend to be two people chatting.  Many of the questions were posed by friends of mine, after I asked them what they’d like to see answered in an interview.  Those I’ve used will credit their author.  This online feature is mostly about my haiku, so let’s start there.  What is a haiku?

Due to a misunderstanding at the turn of the last century, Haiku are commonly thought of as a short 3-line poem of five, seven, and five syllables.  Technically, most of the short poems I write are Senriyu, not Haiku.  A Senriyu is any poem of 17 syllables.  A traditional Haiku is not only short, but also includes a reference to Nature, the season, and some hint of time passing.  In Japanese, Haiku are often much shorter than 17 syllables, as they use rhythm rather than syllables as their measure.

Why Haiku?

I started writing Haiku as a joke.  When I went to my first National Poetry Slam in 1995, I was only a spectator.  There are many ‘side events’ that non-registered poets may enter, and one of them was called “Head 2 Head Haiku.”  Rules require at least 21 haiku to win.  Sure, I can write a 17-syllable poem!   So, being over-confident and pretty drunk, I wrote 21 REALLY AWFUL Haiku about Jerry Garcia.  He’d died the day before, and I was not a fan of the Grateful Dead.   Here’s an example: Ben & Jerry’s invent / a new flavor ice cream: / Rotten Garcia.   groans I didn’t exactly get booed off the stage, but it was noticeably uncomfortable in the room.  Next day, I had the bad luck of facing the previous year’s defending champion, Sarge Lintecum.  He was smart, clever, and wickedly funny.  He creamed me!  I was deeply inspired by his work, and the other poets.  How much brilliance can be crammed into so few words.  Brevity is poetic, and Haiku seemed to be the essence of poetry to me from then on.

Is that what inspires you?  Other poets?

Yes.  Yes, and everything else!   I love the world we live in, the ugliness and the beauty, the drama of suffering and pleasure.  I grew up as an artist, got a degree in studio art, and took up poetry as a kind of cross-training for drawing.  When I get writer’s block, I just switch art forms.  Poetry is not my ‘native tongue’ however.  I need to put on my “poetry cap” to translate thoughts or strong feelings into poetry.  Other poets help me to think poetically.  But the inspiration is over-flowing.  I’m constantly inspired.  I can work myself into exhaustion trying to express my gratitude for being alive, to reflect the beauty I see all around, to manifest all the ideas in my head.  Art inspires me.  Nature.  Creation itself inspires me.  I’m lucky, or blessed.  I don’t need to seek inspiration.  I have to choose what to focus on.  That’s part of why I like Haiku.  The form has a strong traditional association with describing things as they are in present-tense, of being based on nature.

Is it necessary to understand or know the author in order to appreciate the poem?

In my opinion, no.  Art is a phenomenon unto itself which can be appreciated in context without any reference to history or authorship.  To put it bluntly, I don’t need to like you to like your poem.  Or, I don’t need to love your father in order to love you. Knowing a little bit about the author may enrich the experience of reading the poem, such as the sad story of the famous haiku poet Issa.  Knowing his story makes each poem so much more poignant!  To me, poetry, especially performance poetry, is a lot like a conversation.  I can have a fascinating chat with a stranger on the street about cherry blossoms. I don’t need to know their biography.

The experience a viewer/reader/listener has with poem based on their own values is not dependent on some kind of external validation or reference.  I totally agree with Tolstoy’s motto, “To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can’t eat it.”  However, I’d take it further and say it is not necessary for the reader to comprehend the true meaning of a poem (or the author’s intent) in order to have an enjoyable or meaningful experience.

In fact, knowing the author can actually diminish the experience, as another ‘filter’ is placed over the piece and the feelings it invokes.  For example, I’m unable to view a Picasso without the baggage of knowing about his nasty character weighing me down.  I feel annoyed by work which is so intensely personal and obscure that I practically need the author’s diary by my side as a reference to decode it.  It seems self-indulgent.  As the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t look at the finger, look at the moon (it points to).”

Question from Daled: What took you from the visual arts to the written word? (or, if you prefer – why’d you go from painting to poetry?)

A few things:  One, painting is toxic.  Most artist’s paints are made from heavy metals, and the solvents are poison.  It is literally against the law to throw an oil painting in the trash, though people do it all the time.  It just seemed weird to me, to be making toxic waste, to be destroying myself by making art.  I read so much art history, about so many unhappy, unhealthy, and dysfunctional artists, and it seemed like an occupational hazard!  I love art, but couldn’t resolve the illogic of killing myself for it.  Painting wasn’t helping me figure myself out emotionally.  Even if I stayed unhappy doing poetry, the least I could do is stop poisoning myself.

Two, I got tired of making expensive trinkets for rich people.  A typical American will spend 30K on a car that loses half its value as soon as you drive it off the lot, no problem.  Those same ‘average folks’ will balk at spending $1000 on a painting that will not only increase in value, but still be valuable to their grandchildren.   Our culture just has a skewed sense of value.  So typically it’s the wealthy who buy art.

The social scene around art sales back when I graduated from art school was such a bizarre cult of personality.  I just didn’t want to play that status game.   I wanted to create something non-toxic that wasn’t about ME, but about ART.  Art that was affordable, inclusive, and transcended class and caste.  I was already writing poetry (really BAD poetry) and when I got pulled into organizing poetry events, it clicked.  This was a way of including all kinds of people in making a non-toxic, non-polluting, inexpensive art.  It was a way to serve others while being creative in a non-materialistic way.

Three: artists are often solitary creatures.  People rarely applaud for paintings.  I really didn’t connect with most of the people I met at art gallery openings.   I was lonely at the time and not only were poetry events a great way to meet girls, the applause is a huge rush.   Poetry became my service, my art, and my social scene.  I met my wife at a poetry event.

Oh, and I should say that the visual arts scene has changed.   First Fridays in Oakland (AKA “Art Murmur”) is so much fun!   It’s become a kind of street carnival where all kinds of unpretentious people go to a bunch of galleries in an old industrial part of town.  It’s inspired me to seriously take up painting again, but that’s another story!  Suffice to say that serving others through art AND making it social cleared up a lot of emotional issues.

How did you get involved in Poetry Slams, specifically?

I didn’t like the game at first.  Poets, competing?  I’d already been running poetry showcases for four years before I saw my first slam at the 1994 Lollapalooza music festival.  It seemed wrong, but I could not deny the hundreds of people watching the event.  I wasn’t fond of the punchy, gimmicky, drama-driven writing, but could not deny the quality work I witnessed at my first National Poetry Slam.  Nor could I ignore the thousand-person audience giving multiple standing ovations.  So I was willing to set aside my biases to use the gimmick of slam to motivate poets and bring in audiences.

You gotta understand, when I was in school, writing poetry was something that got you beaten up during recess.  It was NOT respected.  Hiphop, Slam, Def Poetry Jam, so many factors have combined to make poetry socially acceptable.  Back then, we organizers were all looking for a way to get audience to show up for poetry events.  I managed to get up to 100 people out each week to my poetry event in Long Beach, but most of the time it was very small and not so profitable.  The idea of poets touring like a band seemed silly.  Today, the Berkeley slam features a touring poet almost every week!

Slam is metaphorical mud wrestling.   It works.  I’ve packed tens of thousands of people into venues across the West Coast in the last twenty years.  Schools have invited me to work with students, and I’ve encouraged many thousands to write poems.  Today, being a lyricist, calling yourself a poet is actually cool.  I can name a dozen people I know personally, who make a decent living as professional poets, and could list many, many more.

Question from Kyle Bown:   I could never figure why anybody liked haiku, but my question would be, as a coach do you get the same rush when a pupil rocks the room as when you do it yourself?  Examples.

So, folks reading this interview may not know much about my background as a poetry coach, or that such a thing exists.  Every year, dozens of the top poetry slams hold qualifying events to select a team of poets to represent their home venue at the National Poetry Slam.  It has become accepted that teams have savvy veterans to coach the team on performance and strategy.  I’m willing to lay down money that I’ve coached more poets to more wins than anyone else in slam, ever.   I’m not saying the best win ratio, because getting the top score wasn’t always my goal or my poet’s goal.  But I’ve coached a LOT of poets, and a lot of teams in a lot of bouts.  I love to win.  But I really love when a poet I’ve worked with wins.

To answer Kyle’s question: No.  I get a way bigger rush from seeing one of my poets rock a room than when I do.  It’s like asking a baseball player to compare hitting a grand slam to seeing his or her child hit the ball for the first time.  The rush of personal triumph is overwhelming, it’s true.  It can even be humbling or fearsome!  But when you’ve watched someone learn, and struggle, and grow, and succeed?  You are truly able to savor the experience, to feel part of a process larger and more ancient than one small lifetime.  It’s so much more satisfying.

It’s part of why, after 14 years of coaching poets, I’d neglected my own work so much.  It is a huge rush to see others succeed, but you can burn out if you ignore yourself.  I’m learning, now, how important it is to BE an artist, to continue nourishing yourself even has you nurture others.

Question from Patrick Bremser:  When did you start?

The first poem I can remember writing was in Junior High School:  “Caught a flea on me.  It survived the vacuum, it survived the poison.  That’s one hardy flea!  But it didn’t survive me!”  I started writing poems regularly in high school as a kind of code.  Once, I caught my sister reading my journal, but she didn’t read the poems.  They were painfully bad!  So I just wrote everything in verse and never had to worry about journaling again!

In college, when I was assigned to keep a sketch book, I would sit in cafes and draw on one side of the paper, then write poems on the back.  A woman (flirting) looked at the sketch, then looked at the poem and lied: “That’s pretty good!  Wanna come to my writer’s group?”  I was terrible and they barely tolerated me.  I learned and grew.  Later, that same lady started a weekly poetry reading, where I became known as “The Heckler.”  I figured if anyone was worse than me, they oughtta hear about it!   Another woman (flirting) asked why I didn’t start my own show, if I was so opinionated.  Then she booked a venue and asked me to co-host.  I’ve been running events ever since.

Question from Anthony R. Miller:  “Can poetry create empathy and understanding for people you usually would not?”

I don’t think so.  People need to change from within; they need to be ready for the truth before they can actually HEAR it.  However, I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have their minds expanded at poetry events.  Poetry can be very seductive, and like putting a pill in a teaspoon of sugar, it helps the truth go down easier.  Over the years, I can’t count how many people have randomly come up to me on the street and thank me for a certain poem.  Or for running the show.  Or for visiting their school with the slam team.  We’re talking years, even a decade later!  Poetry is the vehicle for many people to open to other points of view, to witnessing how much we are the same no matter what color our skin, our age, our gender, our birthplace.   Poetry Slams by their nature are multi-cultural.  They are like an emotional crash-derby.  To play the game well, you need to be familiar with your rivals’ work, and how the audience is likely to respond to it.

I’ve had many minority and queer poets tell me “your audience won’t appreciate my work.” Then, after I dared them to try (and pointed out the $100 cash prize), most felt shocked when they were embraced and cheered.  It works both ways!  This is empathy.  This is understanding.  People will sit through and carefully listen to poems during a competition that they normally would block out or ignore.  It’s not going to change someone who is completely close-minded.  But if the door is ajar, so to speak, a great slam poet can kick it open!

The competition creates a certain kind of ‘plot’ to the night, a terrific momentum that sweeps the poems together like characters in a story.  It rewards poets for getting out of their own heads and describing things in a way that people outside of their tribe can also understand.  Poetry Slams are a great motivational tool, which is why so many youth programs and schools are using it.  The point is not the points, as they say.

I’d add that the point is not the poetry, either!  The point is people.  It doesn’t matter what the vehicle is, whether poetry or painting or dance or music.  Art is communication, and communion is a state of unity.  This is the root of empathy and compassion.  When you help others, you help yourself.   When you understand others in a profound way, you also come to understand yourself.

Question from Katelyn Lucas:  why (and how to) stay involved? Especially after “climbing the ranks.” How to share your energy among being an organizer and an artist…

I’ve seen  a lot of poets become ‘successful’ and leave the poetry slam community, stop going to open mics, basically leave their roots.  It’s a terrible mistake for two reasons:

One, it’s selfish.  Who’s going to inspire the next talented newcomer?  Who’s going to show how it’s done without using cheap gimmicks or worn-out clichés?  I KNOW it can be tedious listening to crappy poems from well-meaning amateurs, but the rest of us listened to YOU when you were a beginner, too!  It’s basic human decency to give back to the community that nurtured you.  In a tight-knit community like the poetry community, people talk.  You get a reputation that’s hard to change.  It’s very beneficial to pay your dues.

Two, it’s bad business.  You must stay in touch with your base.  Your fan base, yes, but also the creative community where new ideas and trends gain momentum.  It’s easy to let your work become stale if you insulate yourself with your peers, friends, and fans.  This is how giving back to the community keeps you fresh.  Later, after you’ve been around for a while, you’ll need to replace your fans that ‘age out’ or stop going to readings and buying CD’s of poetry.  Folks get families, get busy, or get dead.  In fishing, they say you’ve gotta “Chum” the waters.  Throw some bait out ‘for free’ to get the fish interested, rather than only putting juicy stuff out when there’s a hook attached.  It may not make economic sense to sit for two hours at an open mic when you normally get paid $1000 for a 30-minute set at a university, but keep a big view.   You’ve got to water the roots, even as you harvest the fruit.

As for the “How to stay involved,” that really depends on the person.  For many people (as with parents) it goes from serving yourself to serving others, though that isn’t always by mentoring or organizing.  Usually, it does involve expanding the process beyond simply writing about yourself.  It should not be seen as a linear process, though!  If you enjoy writing poetry, and you give yourself creative freedom to follow your muse, there’s no need to stop but I do think we need to evolve and change.  It’s very important to keep your priorities straight, and to honor yourself every step along the way.  For me, it was a promise to myself.  I took a one-year break from organizing back in 1997, and when I came back, I promised to stay involved only if it stayed fun.  I made the slam my job; I made a living from it.  Not much of a living, but enough.  The bottom line for me, however, was that it had to be more fun than work.  When I stopped having fun, and started truly feeling burnt-out, that is when I decided I needed to quit or change my role.

Nothing burns out an organizer faster than resentment.  Usually resentment piles up when the organizer doesn’t feel like they’re getting as much out of it as they put in.  That could mean recognition, money, sex, gratitude, power, whatever!  Going around expecting people to thank you constantly is a fool’s errand.  Nobody who’s not an organizer knows how much work it is!!!  You’ve got to be clear about the big picture, and go to sleep after EVERY SHOW at peace with yourself and your work.  Don’t ‘put it on the credit card’ and wait for the payoff later!  On really bad nights, I’d ask myself if this was worse than waking at 4am and working at the stock exchange.  Or cleaning toilets in a restaurant.  Or being lonely.  I’d ask myself if the fun up to this point outweighed the crud.

Make short-term goals you can easily achieve, and long-term goals to strive toward.  Challenge yourself.  Seek the company of people who will be honest even when it hurts, because they’ll keep you from becoming complacent and bored.  Play little games behind the scenes by doing things a little different each time.  Focus on the feelings, not the stories.  Focus on the people, not the poems.  When emotional drama gets annoying, remember that great art arises from great communities, not the other way around.  It’s an investment in your own art.  Being in community means dealing with human issues, just like being in a family.  Control may feel safe, but no one likes a control freak.  Make a game of letting things slide once in a while.

Why did you quit slam?

I haven’t quit, just changing roles.  After hosting the biggest Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) ever in Berkeley in 2009, I was feeling burnt and resentful.  It wasn’t fun anymore, it had become just a job.  I was so busy being an administrator, I was no longer a poet, hadn’t written a new poem in two years, hadn’t completed a painting in ten years!  I needed to work on my house and spend time with my wife.  I needed a break from organizing to follow my own muse for a while.  I no longer needed to use exhausting service as a way to distract myself from feeling lonely or unloved.

Having a wonderful organizer like Betsy Gomez ready to continue running things was a true blessing.  I still help out once in a while at the Berkeley Slam.  I’m privately coaching two poets each week as clients.   I’m in love with painting again, and honoring that impulse.  I haven’t exactly figured out how to avoid toxic paint;  the non-toxic plant-based alternatives aren’t very durable.  I may have to make my own out of earth pigments!   Plus, there’s this very engrossing Yoga practice I’m doing every day.  Teaching Yoga is tremendously satisfying.  It is this spiritual practice that has truly resolved those emotional issues that drove me to poetry in the first place.  I’ll return to poetry and slam when it’s a choice, not a compulsion.  Until then, I’m very happy now in my own skin, with being married, with my place in the universe.

New Yorker cover

The New Yorker continues the full court press of it’s ’20 under 40′ list; I guess that makes sense, if you’re going to try to define a literary generation you should probably publish its members in your magazine.

In “The Young Painters,” a piece of fiction appearing in The New YorkerMs. Krauss delivers a powerful story about the provenance of a painting.   The story comes across as a confession, of sorts, like a person might tell a judge after harboring the awful truth for years, and when it all comes out, it does so with great force.  The story turns to the severely morbid almost immediately when we learn that the people who created the painting were children, and they met with a gruesome end at the hands of their deranged mother, but I’ll let you sniff that part of the story out yourself.

I’m not sure if story is a part of Great House, her third novel, which will be published this fall, or if it’s a stand alone story.  If we take the Franzen school of thought, at least from The New Yorker’s point of view, then this work of fiction from Ms. Krauss is a slice of her new novel.  After reading this story, I’d like to read the novel, if the two are connected in some way, and I’d like to read it right now.  There is a smoky quality to the language here, it reminds me of stories that I once heard at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve in Rome, shared with a small group, revealed to everyone like lost treasure, and hard to forget.  At the same time, there is a modern feel (I don’t mean “modern” in the Frank Llyod Wright sense of the word, more “contemporary”) to our narrator, like she’s going through some form of crisis, a kind of awakening, or perhaps a realization that as a writer, there are at least three sides to each story.  At the same time this woman is miserable at having to deal with realities which come with writing a novel about her own father, and how she doesn’t know the difference between being a storyteller, and a person in her own stories, or life.

The story our narrator hears is told to her while she’s at the home of the dancer, and later on we find out that the story in question is reworked by our narrator and published in a “prominent” magazine.  It’s no accident that The Young Painters has been published, and I can almost see around the next corner, where this story might be going, or where Ms. Krauss wants me to think its going.  Either way, our narrator and Ms. Krauss are in on the trick, or somehow I was fooled, which happens to me quite often.  I’ll admit it, Ms. Krauss, you got me.


She visits her nudity like a razor in a house of glass;
watch her slide a hand along her thigh, extinguish
a mass of hiding bubbles, let the silk of still water
warm her, her neck thrown back, her hair afloat.

In this moisture she is all things sweet and surfeit
to desire. Solitary, she creates a realm where
pleasure is primary. Degas once painted such a
woman in preparation to bathe–a silver tub, a gold

wood floor; there was no water yet, and she stood sole,
still owned by needs to ready and prepare. In my mind,
however, I have always lent her violets and the coming
future, the settling of limbs, the way that heat would fit

right to her bones, the chill of air over her hardening,
unsubmerged nipples, and the reverie in her imagining
a lover’s lips upon them, because they are wet and
pronounced, ready to be lathed by tongues as she lounges

in the place where her fantasy is succulent and the water
serves to cradle her, the softest, most needless thing she’s
ever known, that embryonic place where she has gained relief
without cost, and in it, revels, making love to her soul’s self.


By Robin Antalek


Eighteen years ago on the way to the delivery room the feeling of not being able to stop what was about to happen suddenly overwhelmed me.  This baby that had been making me miserable for twenty-four hours had to come out and the passage of egress was not going to be a gentle one.  When my first daughter eventually emerged from her day long battle waged in the birth canal, cone shaped head and bruises on her face the size and shape of peach pits from the last ditch effort emergency forceps, a smudge of pink between the delicate fuzz of her brow that one of the nurses deemed an “angel’s kiss”, I was assured in a week, maybe less, her face would be healed and the trauma of her birth would leave no visible scars, only memories, where I would be able to chart the ghost marks on her face, badges of what she and I had endured in the moments before her birth.