At fourteen, George Washington is already in the wilderness
surveying the western districts for settlement,
but I'm still listening to Steely Dan,
contemplating virtuosity. How good is good
enough? How much polish is too much, how much
silver-toned studio gloss before the baby goes blind,
how much honey, and of what bloom—
Can't Buy A Thrill—that nectar, that attar—or Aja
like some kind of holy cloud descending,
music in the blur-zone, V-necked leather with glissando,
lush and lovely L.A. decadence done late-70s style,
skate the magic vibe and trill of marimba rhythms,
zither and shimmer, shimmy and shake,
ride the cocaine snake to the neon North Hollywood
studio of chromium acoustics or sonic acrostics,
little night flower of my heart gone to seed in the shade
of such arbors of blossoming oleander. Shh,
the sheaf of silent ears falls slyly. Hush, sugar. Hush.
Self-Contained And Self-Generated
Interviewed by Jenni Russell
In your poem “Hemingway Dines on Boiled Shrimp and Beer” I detect every sense invoked – touch/taste/scent/color/flavor – is the search after sensuous effects for you something you deliberately reach for, or which comes naturally, without realizing you did it?
Florida is a sensuous place—to say the least—and I think that sensuousness and sensuality have entered my writing more heavily since moving here. So, it’s an unconscious influence, but one that springs from the subject matter—not just in the Hemingway poem, but in many of the Florida poems.
You grew up in the DC area. What are the main cultural differences you’ve noticed between living in a northern state and southern state?
From where I live now, you have to go north to find the South. I don’t live in a Southern State; I barely live in the United States . I live in Miami . Is it different from DC—or NYC—or Chicago, the other places I’ve lived? Very much so. It’s a Sun Belt type city, young and sprawled and poorly planned, and of course it is a heavily Latinized place, a city that looks as much South as North for its cultural rhythms.
In previous interviews you’ve mentioned working on the same poem over a period of several years. Do you find that your style changes, develops, evolves during this time as well—and thus can complicate this process?
That’s a good question. Sometimes working on a poem over many years can be complicated. One does evolve as a writer, and many poems, smaller poems, poems of a brief moment of lyrical consciousness, probably need to be written before one sheds that skin and evolves into a new writer. They belong to a particular stage in one’s life and one’s craft. But longer poems, which I often write, can evolve—they can carry a sense of the mind evolving through intellectual and emotional stages, a greater sense of complexity. So I think length and complexity are key to evaluating this issue.
You’ve noted Allen Ginsberg as an influence on your writing. Ginsberg, of course, was a highly political poet. What to yourself is the most political you have gotten in your own work?
I think the reason my work is often compared to Ginsberg’s is twofold: a kind of cultural documentation in the poetry, and a kind of political commentary that you’ll find in poems of mine like “Benediction for the Savior of Orlando,” which is essentially a rant, not too different a thing from a howl. But I’m not really as much of a ranter as Ginsberg was a howler; politics in my poetry more often takes the form of cultural observation, of meditations upon our society, on American history and landscape. But many of Ginsbeg’s best poems have a more low-key, meditative tone to them, so that’s another kinship maybe.
For me the most effective “political” poetry is poetry that thinks deeply about America , not poetry that offers easy slogans, quick answers, or unearned epiphanies.
How has living in Miami changed your sociocultural identity, if at all?
Living in Miami has made me more conscious of “the Americas ” as a cultural unit, of the New World as a distinct polity. While it feels marginal to North America , Miami feels central to “the Americas .” I’ve enjoyed feeling both marginalized to what the United States are now and central to what we might become.
Contemporary hip-hop/rap lyrics and videos are becoming a huge influence on American culture—from fashion to slang, and many of the lyrics are politically questioning and critiquing traditional American value systems, poverty, gender and race relations. Is there a valid argument that rap has taken raw political rhetoric into an accessible realm which contemporary poetry lacks?
Popular music has always had a political component—think of Woody Guthrie in the Depression, or Bob Dylan in the 60s—but politics is marginal to the real subject of music, which is music! So, rap is more of an inheritor than a pioneer in the notion of joining political messages to popular music. So, too, poetry has always had a political component—but politics is not the central purpose of poetry. Political rhetoric is central to politics, and the world can live without it. If you can write great poetry with politics as its subject, great: but there’s no requirement that poetry address politics. Rap is more “raw and accessible,” I think that’s true, and I think that’s part of its job. Poetry has other jobs to do, like exalting the language, and thinking hard, feeling hard, working hard to express whatever truths it feels worth expressing in the best possible way.
Do you find that students in your classes have unrealistic expectations about being able to make a living off poetry? Are most informed of the low sale rates of poetry, including award-winning first books and even well-known poets? Is this a topic that comes up for discussion in classes?
I teach mostly graduate students, and I take it as one of my duties to make clear the realities of the poet’s life in our society. That is: poetry is a marginal art form in a culture that values neither literacy nor artistic expression in any vital way. America does not persecute poets, it does not hate them and seek to smash them like bugs—it just doesn’t really care a lot. The country is a pragmatic, dollar-and-cents kind of place. So, poets need to learn immediately that they must earn their living doing something else—teaching, writing business documents, washing cars—and write poetry on their own dime. This is not a very complicated issue, and I don’t know any students who harbors the illusion of fame and fortune coming his way via poetry.
Write poetry if you deeply want to write poetry, if it fulfills a deep need for you, and take the personal satisfaction that it offers as your reward. That’s a lot more than most jobs in our society offer.
There are a number of online workshops that offer ten-week courses for an average sum of $375 per class to work with a published author. Many include a summary of advantages, one being a better chance for publishing in their online magazine or journal and being noticed by agents. In the Nov/Dec 2003 issue of Poet’s and Writer’s, an article titled, “Sweeping Contests Clean,” discusses favoritism in small press publishing as well as the legitimacy of contests that have a fee for entry. The author does not dispute the belief held by his students that it’s not what is good that gets published, but “who knows who and who will return the favor.” It thus appears as if poetry is susceptible to capitalism. Do you have any feelings about this special advantage approach and the pressure to publish poetry of a lower standard just because the poet participated in a workshop or knows an editor? How in your opinion can contest fairness and publishing be improved – if at all?
You have linked two issues here, one of which I can speak about from experience, the other I’ve never even heard of.
Taking an online workshop so that your poems will receive “special treatment” is something I’ve never heard of, but is deeply suspicious on the very surface—just say no, is my advice.
As for book contests and prizes: I can only say what my pretty extensive personal experience has taught me. No, it’s not fixed. No, it has little or nothing to do with “who you know.” Yes, good work gets published, eventually. Yes, it’s a pretty meritocratic system. But: there is no one standard of literary merit, it’s highly subjective, so if you want to imagine conspiracies, nobody can stop you. I have personally judged three or four book contests, and have selected winners that I did not know and had never heard of: BUT—I didn’t even know that at the time, since I was judging the manuscripts blindly! I could have picked a book by my cousin Frank, and I wouldn’t have known it! So, how can that system be improved upon? I don’t think people should pick for publication books by their good friends or former students; but I do think it’s okay to publish individual poems by those folks, so long as they are good poems! My own work has received prizes over the years, and never once, to my knowledge, has it been due to anything but luck. I didn’t know the judges, and they owed me nothing. They liked the work. Same thing happens when people do NOT give me an award—they didn’t like the work, or liked someone else’s better.
The deeper point here is this: worry about the parts of the process you can control—the writing—and don’t waste time worrying about the parts you cannot control, namely publication.
Many poets in history have had a secondary art or discourse – Elizabeth Bishop had painting and letters, John Ashbery has had art criticism, Edwin Denby had ballet review, Frank O’Hara had museum curating, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Sexton each had rock bands in the 60s. Do you have any other artistic outlets besides poetry?
I have no artistic outlets beside poetry. I used to paint portraits of Big Boy and Colonel Sanders, etc, but have given it up for lack of desire. I used to play in a band, in college, but gave it up for lack of talent. I would have liked to be a film maker, but cameras and lights and all that are just a big pain. Poetry is self-contained and self-generated and not reliant upon exterior technologies. Poetry is so complex and multifarious that it satisfies all of my creative needs, which is a great stroke of luck for me.
Have you seen any bilingual, hispanic-dialect or spanish poetry written by students while you have been in Miami, and have you worked with any translators there?
Many of my students over the dozen years I’ve taught in Miami have been bi-lingual. A few have written in West Indian patois, or Kreyol, but mostly I mean Spanish-speaking students, many Miami natives, and also those from places like Cuba, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Venezuela. I encourage them to write in Spanish, even if this excludes me from being a great help to them, as my Spanish is terrible. So, in effect, they have been their own translators, and I have never worked with any official “translators” here.