I loved your first book, and now I love this one even more (Jesus Was My Homeboy). It’s so accessible, so immediate, for lack of a better term. In your poems, you capture beautifully the midlife angst of time passing you by. I was wondering if you could say a few words about that, and then maybe post the poem, “Not Much to It.”
I’ll be 60 in March so it’s heavy on my mind lately. That used to seem ancient to me as a young man. I like to think I’m in the second half, but it’s probably more like the last quarter. It gets you thinking about the journey.
Not much to it.
You draw with chalk
on your sidewalk.
You ride your bike.
You go for ice cream
with your friends.
You party in college.
You get to figuring
by the fire
on a cold night
in the mountains.
You listen to jazz
on the ocean.
You catch a ball game
now and then.
You cradle with
different folks till you
find one that fits.
wake up one day
sitting on a
missing your kids
patting your dog
drinking a can of cold beer,
the summer night
like a blanket on your shoulders
and something you knew
floats by in the night sky
just out of reach.
I also love how you write about your family, about what I, the reader, imagine is often happening right now. Do you ever feel a need for distance between yourself and your subject matter?
I feel like I have to maintain a certain distance to be able to write the poems at all. The initial memory is the prompt to the poem but once I get into it I want to write it honestly, so standing back (and trying to remove the emotion) helps to get it right in my mind.
What does your family think of your books?
I have not heard too many complaints. My wife and kids are very supportive. They’re okay knowing there’s a good chance they’ll end up in a poem or two. My brothers and sisters are proud of their little brother I suppose. I think I get them weepy once in a while. The other day I went to my mother’s grave and read a few of the poems she was in. I did the same for my father when the last book came out. They didn’t offer any criticism. (ha ha). I miss them.
You have a talent for offering a sense of place in your poetry. Reading, I feel as if I am in the car with you, or I am in the coffee shop or the park or the sauna at the Y or . . . Is this something you are conscious of doing?
I do often think about painting that picture, how the right detail or two can focus the place for you. My fiction class and I were reading a story by Richard Ford the other day and the subject looks out to the mountains and sees a “red bar sign.” We talked about how that one small detail cemented the scene in our minds. I’m always searching for that right detail. I hope some of the time I can find it.
This book has such a natural flow. Reading it, I imagined that the words glided onto the page without effort. (Of course, we all hope to sound that way.) But I am thinking, it wasn’t too long ago that your first book was published by CavanKerry. How was the writing of this different from the writing of the first? Was it just a natural continuation?
In many ways it does feel like a continuation of the same subjects – family, place, death, grief, regret. It sounds so somber when I list the topics like that but these people and these memories have had a profound effect on me. I can’t get away from them. I put the pen to the page and they keep showing up.
As a poet you have this funny, whimsical side, but you also have a profound seriousness mixed in, as in the poem, “Death Wish,” which ends, “I want it to be special, magical/worth the wait,/ after being afraid for so long.” I just wanted to applaud when I read that line. Do you think of yourself as a funny poet? Is wit, in your opinion, an essential ingredient of your poetry?
I do sometimes make myself laugh when I’m writing. You always hope what you find funny or whimsical will translate. There’s nothing worse than pulling out the funny poem at a reading and staring back at the tight-lipped crowd. The subjects I deal with need some humor from time to time or the weight might kill me.
What is the most challenging part of writing a collection of poetry?
I feel like the collection piece can sometimes come after the poetry. In both these books I started by publishing a bunch of poems until I had a stack to weed through, pulling out the ones that didn’t make sense together, then writing some more to fill in the thematic gaps. I’ve yet to set out with a totally thematic intent, as far as a collection goes, but I always end up there. I have talked about tackling a specific subject with the next book. We’ll see how that goes.
Are there any writers who helped or inspired you in the writing of this book?
Many. Phil Levine was my first inspiration and remains so today. But there are many others, Jerry Stern, Ruth Stone, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Charles Simic. I also get inspiration from songwriters like Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams. I am fortunate to be close to two great groups of poets as well, one in Salem, Mass and the other in New Jersey. I owe these folks a lot.
I am always interested in titles. When did you know that this was your title?
I imagined it not long after I published the title poem. It felt like (to me) it contained a lot of the bittersweet-ness of some of the other poems.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this book?
I’m happy it’s here. The response has been humbling.
I would love to close the poem, “Reading to My Kids,” about your daughter reading Of Mice and Men.
I was so happy to hear Garrison Keillor reading this poem on The Writer’s Almanac. But now I have to follow him when I read it in public!
Reading To My Kids
When they were little I read
to them at night until my tongue
got tired. They would poke me
when I started to nod off after twenty
pages of Harry Potter or one of
the Lemony Snickett novels. I read to
them to get them to love reading
but I was never sure if it was working
or if it just looked like the right thing to do.
But one day, my daughter ( fifteen then)
was finishing Of Mice and Men in the car
on our way to basketball. She was at
the end when I heard her say, No
in a familiar frightened voice and I
knew right away where she was,
“Let’s do it now,” Lennie begged,
“Let’s get that place now.”
“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.”
And she stared crying, then I started
crying, and I think I saw Steinbeck
in the backseat nodding his head,
and it felt right to me,
like I’d done something right,
and I told her keep going,
read it to me, please, please, I can take it.