I was recently interviewed by a large, local, independent bookstore for their newsletter on central Pennsylvania writers. These are excerpts from that interview as it was published. I have left out some of the questions, but everything is included as it was published. Any typos are my own.
You are a poet. What have you published?
I have self-published three books of poetry — Never Forgotten, Huck Finn Is Dead, and The Biology Of Strangeness — all through Amazon. I have also been published in a number of online and print journals, including Elephant Journal, Sivana East, The Bridge Literary Journal, Contemporary Literary Horizons, Writing Raw, Aeomancies, and Typeface Literary Magazine, among others I’ve forgotten. I also had a poem published in an anthology about poverty called, Out Of The Depths. I’ve had a few poems translated in foreign publications, like Marginalia. There are also hundreds of poems I have posted in various publications on Medium. I do not submit to traditional venues, all the publications I mentioned solicited me.
Your first book was all war poems. Has Vietnam been a big influence on your poetry?
No, it hasn’t, but it has had a big influence on my life. I wanted to get those poems out first and be, at least mostly, done with the subject. Never Forgotten is my most successful book. Civilians are fascinated with war, but for a poet, it is hard to communicate. Like LSD or childbirth, to really understand it, you have to experience combat directly.
In today’s PC climate, how do you feel about censorship?
As a writer, I abhor censorship, but I know hate speech when I encounter it, and loathe that too. Art, especially that of earlier times, must be judged in the social context in which it was written. Huckleberry Finn is the most censored and condemned book in America because of Twain’s use of the word nigger. This is absurd and ignorant. Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest anti-racist books ever written. If you can’t see that, you can’t read.
What are your tastes in other arts than writing?
Long ago, as an undergraduate, I had a dual major that included Art History. My professors taught me how to look at paintings the same way I later learned to read closely. That was a huge help. It helps you see closer.
In painting, I prefer German Expressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, as well as most of the work being produced in NYC in the Sixties. There is a wonderful artist from that time, Eva Hesse, who is one of favorite artists ever.
I have no education (or talent) in music, so for that I have to fall back on direct feeling. As a child of the Sixties, I loved the soundtrack of that era, but I rarely listen to it now. As for classical music, I prefer the period from Bach through Mozart and Beethoven. The music that I listen to the most now, and which speaks to me most directly, is the jazz that was created from about 1955 to 1965. Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Bill Evans and the others of that period. I listen to it every day.
What brought you to poetry and how long have you been writing?
Fifty years ago as a callow youth, I opened a book of poems in a bookstore to a page that had the line: “nature — green shit” written on it. For some reason that struck me, so I shoplifted the book. It was Gary Synder’s The Back Country. Snyder was a vestigial Beat (but so much more), so I guess I came to poetry through that group. Life intervened. I didn’t start writing seriously until 2008 when I was 57. Since then there has been no let up.
Why do you prefer self-publishing over traditional publishing?
Well, it was good enough for Walt Whitman! Seriously, there is no market for poetry and no way to profit from it. Even well known contemporary poets like, say Kim Addonizio or Jane Hirshfield, can’t make a living from poetry. If they sell 5000 copies of a book, it’s a miracle. They survive by teaching and giving workshops and readings. I’m not interested in those things. Self-publishing gives me complete control and speeds up the process.
As for publications, they are just too slow. You submit a poem, you wait a minimum of six months to hear from them. If your poem is accepted, it might be another six months before it’s published. And after all that, you don’t get paid. Too much hassle, too slow, for no return.
And many, if not most, editors of publications are now poorly educated, masturbatory MFA’s who want you to perform for them. Don’t even get me started on the damage the proliferation of MFA’s has done to literature.
What do you think about the abundance of books and articles on how to write?
Generally, I think they are worthless. They sell the notion that even if you have no talent, there is some magic formula that can make you a writer. Stuff and nonsense. Their only saving grace is that they might provide inspiration. I think the time spent on them could be put to better use just writing.
What is the best preparation for a writer?
Reading. Endless close reading of great works of literature. I was privileged to have some great graduate school professors who taught me to read closely, but I’ve spent 50 years doing that reading and thinking on my own. If you aren’t a reader, someone who loves words, you can’t be a writer. Certainly varied life experience helps, but wide, close reading is essential.
What is the greatest obstacle a new writer faces.
Probably, being inhibited by the fear of not being original. Originality, at least when you are beginning, is overrated. A new writer should imitate the best as much as possible, until he finds his own voice, which will show up when the time is right. Until that time, imitate, imitate, imitate, as you read, read read. All artists borrow and steal from one another. The greater the artist, the greater the theft. The artist’s job is to use what he takes to make something new.
Do you believe writers should only write what they know?
Absolutely not. As Hemingway said, “the best parts are the made up parts.” Writing gives you the chance to transcend your own experience. It’s a chance you should take.
What do you consider “The Great American Novel?”
I consider this a useless question. Novels, even more than poetry, are products of their time and culture. Time and culture change, so there have been quite a few “Great American Novels.” Certainly Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn are just two contenders from before the 20th Century. In the 20th Century, there have many for which you could make a case. Personally, if I may redefine the question, I think The Great Gatsby is the best modern novel about America.
Who are your favorite poets?
There are just too many to mention. In the 19th Century, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman. I cut my teeth on Modernism, so certainly Eliot, Pound, Williams and Stevens are on the list. After them, the list grows out of control. A very few of the Beats, and Jim Harrison and Wendell Berry, but again the list is just too long. Since about 1970, women have really taken over the poetry world. Again, there are too many to name, but I would mention Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, and Kim Addonizio.
What are you doing now?
Just writing. I have a complete book, by far my longest, finished and in hand, but I don’t know when, how, or if I will publish it.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
All I can say is that there is no magic formula, no exact method. Read, study, and think. Imitate the best until you find your voice. Write, write, write. If you do it, do it because you love to do it. Don’t expect fame or fortune or even that it will ever provide you with a living. It probably won’t. Do it for love or try something else.