“They've all decided to try to starve me to death.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How are you?
Good, good. I was just looking at, I don't know if you know about this British avant-garde musician, David Sylvian — he was associated with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno in the 70’s... Anyway, he liked Kindertotenwald, the prose poems. He came over here and recorded some of the poems and then took them and spent all last summer going around Europe giving these concerts, these sort of improvisatory electronic music shows around the readings of the prose poems. I usually don't like this kind of stuff, but I swear it came out really really beautiful. I was just watching some of those.
That’s great! He did that “Dead Bees” record?
Yeah, “Dead Bees on a Cake” — I have that record! I love some of his oldest songs, but he’s got a lot of stuff. He could have been a big star. You just can’t predict who's going to make it.
That ties into one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about, your early experiences with music, growing up in the Bay Area in the 60's and early 70's.
Well, I was there between 1961 and 1971. I had a job on Saturdays as an usher at The Berkeley Community Theater. We didn't get paid, but we would do the ushering, which was nothing, and then when the concert would start, we would go sit in any seat we wanted down in the front row. We saw everyone: The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. I saw the early Grateful Dead many times, I saw Leonard Cohen when he first was going around. Who else? James Taylor, when he first came out and was huge. I saw Neil Young and Steven Stills. Sly and the Family Stone. One thing that was great was these bands, if they were going to play the Winterland Ballroom or The Fillmore, they would give a free concert during the afternoon at the Golden Gate Park for people who couldn't afford tickets to the night shows. It was a wonderful gesture and that was typical of the time. It still gives me chills thinking about it.
I mean, goddamn. I saw the Beatles’ last concert! It was at Candlestick Park in August of ‘66 or so. I was at the very last concert they ever gave. Of course, nobody knew that then. The last song they sang was "Long Tall Sally." (Laughing) Whenever I taught, I wanted to wow my students, so I would pull that out. I would get their jaws to drop. It sounds so mythological to them.
Haha. It sounds mythological to me!
I saw everybody. When you're young you just think, “it's always like this, isn't it?” We didn't quite realize how remarkable it was. There was no end to it the incredible music.
It was the perfect time and place to be. When we spoke last night, you mentioned that you spent your infancy in Seattle. That was where your father (Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright) was earning his graduate degree, studying with Theodore Roethke, right?
Well, he did, Roethke was one of his teachers. He had some others… Stanley (Kunitz) might have taught there for a while and I believe they grew close, and I think he got closer to Kenneth (Rexroth) than Roethke. Roethke was a pretty imposing figure.
(Laughing) I mean, my dad was shy. He would ask, “Ted can I come over tonight and show you some poems?" and Roethke would say, “Yeah, sure.” So he would get over to his house and Roethke would say, “Come on, we’re going to the fight!”
Roethke would be manic. He loved boxing, and when he was manic, he hinted he had connections with the mafia, which was total bullshit. But, he loved the fights. Roethke, you know, this delicate poet. He was always trying to prove that just because he was a poet and he wrote about flowers, that he still a real man, so they’d go to fights and he'd be drinking beer and shouting, “Kill him, kill him, kill him!" (Laughing) My dad had boxed in the army and was quite a good boxer, and he played on sort of a semi-pro football team back in Ohio. He was very athletic when he was a young man. But yes, Roethke. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I discovered the Photobooth thing on my Mac and I’ve been doing these readings.
Yeah, the videos of you reading his work and your own on Facebook, I love those.
Oh, thank you, there was a great reaction. I couldn't believe it, it was just so much fun to do and I want to do more.
I've never had the opportunity to see you read in person, so when you read through the poems from F, I thought that was great.
Thank you, thank you, I want to do more of that, like reading from my own books. I am, I think I'm going to do more of that.
I’d certainly enjoy it. Roethke has that poem “Academic” where he writes, “With a nurse-maid waddle and a shop-girl simper, / And the style of your prose growing limper and limper.” And your father called the MFA the “Mother Fucking Asshole degree.”
(Laughing) He did! He did.
You’ve gotten a lot of heat talking about your own feelings regarding MFA’s.
I should've kept my mouth shut because I can't making a living now. I am blacklisted. I have not had an invitation to read from a place with an MFA program (which is every school in the country) for a year and a half. Before that, I had something like thirty readings a year, you know.
I made a lot of dough. I read from Galway, Ireland to Anchorage, Alaska, everywhere. I read with Louise Glück at The University of Houston and we made a shitload of money. I made a lot of money and fortunately I put it away. And, I sold some papers to Boston University and I was able to put some money away from that too and account for my wife. It turns out it was pressing on my part because I do have lung cancer, and I probably won't be around that much longer. I've lived four-and-a-half years after being told twice that I only had two months to live.
Nothing’s happened. It's not so easy to get rid of me.
Well, like Yeats “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal” as his writing entered a new phase late in his career, I think you’ve very much done that with Kindertotenwald and F, with some of those extraordinary prose poems.
First, let's not compare me Yeats, please. It's like comparing me to Catullus or something. But yeah, there's a parallel in that way. I knew this was going to happen because it runs in my family, on both sides of my family. My mother's mother died of lung cancer and she didn't smoke. It runs on both sides, people dropping like flies on both sides. I think it might have had to do with living in that very poisonous atmosphere of the Ohio Valley during the Depression. People had no sense of the shit they were pouring into the river. They’ve cleaned it up since. I wish, wish, wish that my father could see how beautiful it is now, it's just so beautiful. They did a really good job and it's gorgeous. My father pointed out in a poem, “Ohio” means “beautiful river” in the language of the indigenous tribes who were around there and it is beautiful, it's gorgeous.
The only places I've been invited to read in recent years are Franciscan Universities. (Laughing) And that's alright! I like that. But seriously, it's not paranoia. I am blacklisted. Obviously, no one will invite me to read. I'll tell you, when I was at the Dodge Festival in 2006 or something like that, I was talking to this big audience and I'd look down and my wife would be holding her head in her hand and shaking it and I'd realize, “uh-oh.” I have a really hard time not saying what I think and I have a hard time filtering out the truth. The truth as I see it, my truth. I don't assume my truth is equal to THE truth.
I thought the academic world was the one place where you were free to debate different ideas and not all have to be muzzled. It's like the goddamned Republicans, they wink, wink, do little hand signals. These poets, they’ve all decided to try to starve me to death. (Laughing) My wife has a decent job, otherwise we'd be in a desperate situation. I have a couple cents in the bank, but it’s really bad. It’s shocking. I do feel that writing programs have dumbed down and lowered the bar so far down that you can trip over it. I never see anyone not get a degree. They have an undergraduate degree in it too, which is so ridiculous to me. I've never seen anyone not be able to get their poetry degree anywhere. You pay your money, and if you show up, you get your degree. I mean, people who couldn't write their way out of a fucking vacuum, just stuff that I'd find embarrassing in a high school student, really bad stuff... People always wrote bad poetry, but they didn't go get a degree in it and start their own magazines and pat each other on the back about it. They have splintered poetry into a million pieces. I could just go on about that. But listen, I'll tell you, one guy got up on his folding chair and jumped up and down and shook his fist at me and screamed.
Yeah, at the Dodge Festival! There were like 15,000 people there and I was looking around for an escape route. I was scared, I was really scared! After that, all the other poets would snub me. We were sitting by ourselves in this tent and Paul Muldoon, kind and humane, was the only person who came over and sat there with us. He did it deliberately, in front of everybody. We had a wonderful talk and we met up with him in Ireland at a Literary Festival. We’re not best pals or anything — I wish we were because I’d like to meet Bono (laughing). But, he's a beautiful man, a wonderfully kind man, and he's the only person who would talk to me. Nobody wanted to be seen with me!
Those votes of confidence can mean a lot. I talked to Jean Valentine not too long ago for this same project and she spoke about how early in her career, she never had a huge readership but she always had one or two important people who really believed in her work and how that made all the difference. You’ve had that with Deb Garrison at Knopf.
Right, she saved me! I had just given up. I’d given up publishing, not writing. Vijay Seshadri, who was at Oberlin when I was there, said he knew Deb. I had just written The Beforelife and I showed it to him and he said, “Would you like me to show this to my friend who just became editor at Knopf?" It’s incredible. This thirty-two-year-old succeeded the most famous poetry editor in American history (Harry Ford). She's something, she's really a genius, a meteoric genius.
I don’t know if Jean mentioned it, but we were quite close friends at one time. We were really close. I use to go over to her place all the time whenever I was in New York and we’d sit in their kitchen and talk for hours. I’m sad that I never get to see her anymore but I do think she is absolutely stunning. She's one of the few genuine real things.
You’re two of my very favorites.
Well, that’s very nice to hear.
Moving backwards a little, John Berryman turns 100 this year—
Yeah, his 100th birthday is in a month, I think.
God, I love him.
Your father taught at Minnesota with him, and there was that Helen Vendler essay (“From the Homicidal to the Ecstatic”) where she compared your writing with his…
That was a strange thing to say I thought. I mean, it was a thrill to have a two-book review from Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books, but I never expected that. Deb said, "You have a review coming out!" When I asked who wrote it, she wouldn’t tell me. I finally got it and and opened it up and said, “HELEN VENDLER?!” (Laughing) She doesn't write about living poets very much. If you're young, that can really make you. But, that review was stretching things. The homicidal thing, that made me uneasy. I'm not a homicidal person.
I think she was getting at a sense of danger in some of your poems.
Well, then the comparison to Berryman was such an exaggeration. I mean, Berryman’s a shockingly great artist and there's no way in hell that I could think of being compared. You know, it's ridiculous for someone to say that. I'm a good poet, but I’m not in the same ballpark with John Berryman and it's ridiculous for her or anyone to make that comparison. It just made people hate me more (laughing) and it's ridiculous. There's so much hyperbole.
You know, my father visited him in the hospital during one of his periodic… well, what Berryman was doing was drying out, but I think we called it a “nervous breakdown,” like that was less shameful than alcoholism. He was going to a hospital every once in a while for a month and then for a month he'd come out and be sober for a month, then he'd be drunk again. But he did stop before he died, he was really trying. Berryman had eleven months of sobriety when he killed himself and he had no alcohol or drugs in his body. I think he had just had it.
I just read his unfinished novel, Recovery, where he talks about being in the hospital drying out, in essentially what we’d call “rehab” today.
Right, but he didn't seem to realize that it takes a while. I always thought if he could've waited another six months, he would've been okay, he would've felt fine. He thought he had destroyed his mind! I think he really believed that, but that's just what you feel like sometimes. Some people can’t write a line for months or even years, and of course that would be torment for him. I mean, he never lost his brilliance. They found found brilliant poems in his wastepaper basket, poems about killing himself. They were in the form of the Henry poems (from Dream Songs) and they were in that form like, “Sharp the Spanish blade to gash my throat after I'd climbed across the high railing of the bridge,” describing jumping off the bridge, how he was going to cut his throat first... He didn't do that, but he did wave goodbye to some students before he let go.
I’ve heard that, yeah.
It's a little funny gesture, but there's nothing funny about suicide. It devastates families, and he knew that because of the devastation it caused him! There’s another thing that runs in families. Addiction, suicide…
Right. I know addiction, recovery, I know those well.
Yep, very well. And I know you don’t like the comparison, but like Berryman, addiction is something you have dealt with and written about for a long, long time. I go to both of you guys for those things we talk about, strength and hope and moving through it...
That’s fantastic. By no means are my problems over, in that regard. The doctors themselves are in shock. I just spoke to a doctor the other day and he said, “Why can't you take all that discipline and willpower and just use it with your drug problem?" I went, “you’re kidding me aren't you?” I said, “I beg you go to an open meeting and read some of their literature. How's willpower doing on your diabetes? Does willpower work on a broken leg or your heart disease? No more does it work on addiction.” Since the 1950’s the AMS considered alcoholism a chronic, probably hereditary, terminal disease. It's a disease. You can't will it away, and there is no cure for it.
There’s a line I loved in Berryman's Recovery where he says, “Willpower is nothing. Morals is nothing. Lord, this is illness.”
(Laughing) Yeah! It has no effect on it whatsoever! The only chance you have is, one, total abstinence. But that's not enough either, as I'm sure you know. People have to undergo some real transformative experience. I watch people coming in just because they have to, or because they think just by being there they'll get sober. You don’t stand a chance unless you’ve had some kind of grace, some kind of experience that makes you want to get well. Without that, I don't see a way. You need some kind of spiritual orientation. You're very fortunate if you have that already.
But, you know, I never got more than five years. I went down to (a major southern university) because we were so broke and they offered me one semester. I love little towns like that, but I live in Massachusetts, this is my home. So, when I went down there, my problems were not over. The devil, goddammit, put a graduate student above where I was living with eight milligram Oxycontins. That was back when you could snort them and shoot them. Now they put some kind of wax in there or something, they don’t work that way anymore. But he would load me up on those things. I don't know where he got them, but he would give me them for free because he wanted me to be on the board for passing his poems.
I took them and the reason was, what happened was, I never should've gone down there by myself. We knew I was going to have trouble because of my mental illness stuff. I can't go alone by myself to a town like that. I immediately fell into a really radical regression, a post-traumatic stress thing. I’m like a terrified eight-year-old until I get some of that shit in me. Then I'm me again. I think you understand. A lot of the addicts, they're not trying to get high, they’re just trying to be like normal like everybody else, trying to feel good. Some people have never been happy, except when they've been high.
Yeah, so much of recovery deals with that. That’s why it’s not just enforced abstinence.
It's a tragic, horrifying thing. And then you have everybody calling you scum, a fucking scummy. I heard (a poet) down there got wind of what I was doing, and (the poet) said, “I'm not having that dirty drug addict in my department.”
I never would've done it anyway. I hate it, teaching. It's the worst thing for a poet, it's so depleting of the energy that you need for writing. I’ll concede, there are people who are born to teach, there are gifted, great teachers like Roethke. Roethke couldn't get enough of it. My dad considered himself a teacher before a writer. There are many, many instances of this, but I think most people, most writers just shouldn't do it, and I'm one of those. I wouldn’t do it. I would never do it.
Would you teach literature if you were asked?
Oh sure, now that's different. I find that energizing and it makes me ecstatic. I mean I would come out of teaching classes like that higher than I ever was on any dope. I mean, Christ, definitely. I'd love to, but nobody would invite me.
Maybe there’s still time?
No, there's not. I have lung cancer and nobody wants to have anything to do with me. I'm a leper. I did just put a thing on my Facebook site that says I am in remission, I don't have any tumors, and I’ll give readings. As of right now, I don't have cancer.
They treated me with this new experimental thing called “Cyber Knife." There are only three of them in North America and man, it seems to have worked. It hits you with incredible accuracy. You’re in a room and this white fiberglass brontosaurus comes down and looks at you and looks in your ear and then it rears back and BAM! It hits you with as much radiation as I’d get in an entire summer when I was getting conventional radiation treatment. They said it would extend my life a year, but it's been a year and a half and I have no tumours. I could wake up any morning and discover it’s back. That's what happens—you wake up and you have a pain in your arm and you find out it’s bone cancer.
Oh, my wife just came home! (Franz’s wife is the scholar and translator Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright) She just gave me a pillow, and that's great because I don't have any fat on my ass and it hurts all the time. My wife is very nice to me. She's a miraculous, angelic person.
Yeah, I get that sense from your writing. You had that poem in Poetry and it was in the book later, “Our Conversation.”
Oh, yes, people have liked that very much and it makes me happy because it was all about Beth, you know. I'm happy I wrote a decent poem for Beth. There's another one called, “The Anniversary.” That one is a little bit more secretive about stuff in our life.
Yeah, those are both gorgeous poems.
Thank you. I'm really proud of those. I never thought I could write longer poems. It astounded me when it started to happen in The Beforelife. But, then I kept writing them, I wrote quite a few. Alice Quinn took a 200-line poem for The New Yorker. I’d only ever seen that a couple times, a poem that long in that magazine.
It's certainly not the norm. That goes back to what we were talking about, you finding a new way to write late in your career.
It's due to Beth, that's where I got the juice and I still do. Without her, forget it. She literally, very literally, saved my life. I was in this hole and I was trying to commit suicide every week and I was going to succeed sooner or later. She came back into my life miraculously, and I had been so in love with her. You know, she proposed to me when she was twenty-years-old and I was thirty-two, and I said, “Do you notice anything about the way I live?” I was in this sort of attic apartment where I was literally pissing in a milk bottle. It was horrible. All I did was drink, and she still cared about me. She also inspires me, in that she's a very devout woman. Even as a child, she was a very devout kid, strangely. There’s nobody like her. She’s got that devout side, but she's also very funny and bouncy and beautiful. We still get these looks, like, “oh there's the dirty professor with his graduate assistant,” or something. There are days when she can pass for a college student; she’s just beautiful. There's nobody like her.
You talk about her faith, and you spoke earlier about how faith played a role in your recovery. You’ve written about it in your poems, too.
It’s because I'm always afraid I'm going to go back to being the evil motherfucker that I actually am. That does happen! I had a relapse with Dilaudid, which is pharmaceutical heroin. It's the holy grail for junkies, and I got a doctor who just wrote it for me. I kept that going for quite a while. It’s a scary time for junkies.
Yeah, it is.
But, I cut myself off recently. I couldn't do it on my own so I told the doctor, “you know, once I was in so much pain I injected it myself.” And that was it. When they hear that kind of thing, it's all over. No more prescriptions, you know?
And I knew that. So now I'm going through withdrawal. In fact, I’m in hell. I would give anything for a fix. I walked around my apartment looking at the floor thinking maybe I'll see a pill somewhere. It has happened (laughing), that's how fucked up it is. It's pathetic.
Do you have a support system in place where you are?
Sure, my home group! I have a fantastic group. I tell everybody that the worst thing you can do, as you know, is keep it to yourself. If you tell people you’re struggling, it becomes something that's out in the open. It's like half the battle is already won. I don't know why, I don't know how it works, but it works just fine. “How does your recovery program work? It works just fine,” like the old guys say. Nobody knows how it works, it's a very mysterious thing.
Actually, I do know partly what it is because I was involved with this place called The Children's Room, a place for children who had lost a parent, and I realized it was just like recovery — it was the one place where these kids weren't freaks. They’d be ostracized, they were pariahs at school because children think magically and primitively, they think they'll get a contagion, they might catch it. So at The Children’s Room, you could see it dawn on them that they were in a place where it was the norm, where everybody else had the same thing and then they would go out of themselves. I was watching this take place and I realized partly how it works, there is one place alone, only one where you can go and not feel like the scum of the Earth. You know this.
Yeah, a place where it's the norm and people laugh about it and it's not shameful.
Right! Alcoholics suffer horribly for their shame, they’re always trying to conceal and cover up what they're doing. And, you know, it's worse with drugs. So that's why, as long as I keep that connection to recovery, there's hope. I'm starting to get better a little bit. I want to die as myself, and that's why I ratted myself out. I cut off, and I punch myself in the face sometimes for doing it but I'm still glad I did. There is no explaining either recovery or addiction, there's no explaining it. You can't deal with it intellectually. It's a mystery. It's a mystery, but part of the mystery is that you're in a place where it's the norm, instead of being a freak.
That’s exactly it. You’ve spent so much time walking around feeling defective, and then in a meeting you’re suddenly relieved of that.
We feel like we're totally different and we're like these horrible lepers. But when you're in recovery, you tell people! In fact, you tell them too much. I did at first. Most people don't want to hear about it, but you're so relieved that you don't have to have this horrible secret shame. It's beautiful, you know.
It is. To bring it back to poetry, that notion of hope and eventually coming through to the other side, I think that's what’s left if you distill your poetics to its core. That's maybe what it's all about, that notion that, yes there's all this psychic tumult and misery, but there’s also a coming through.
I've never despaired; I've never totally despaired. I've always believed. I've had breakdowns and drug shit, alcohol shit, and I've been hospitalized, been in horrible places, and I’ve really never totally despaired. I always had this little flicker of a belief that there was a possibility of some grace entering into my life. I've had experiences that, if I told you them right now, it would really sound flaky. I've had some really heavy-duty experiences that convinced me that this faith was really literally true. I never really lost hope completely. There are people in the world who are in connection with some higher thing, and if you can find them, you can find it in yourself too.
It's always in the poems, it's always sort of lurking around the corner. “Soon, soon, between one instant and the next you’ll be well.”
Death is the ultimate “being well,” but while we’re alive, we want to live. We don't want to live in misery or shame. There's so much that's beautiful about life. For all of the horrors and the fucking ugliness of the world, there's so much beauty. Now, especially when I know I have a terminal disease, the imminence of death makes... I mean, the poignancy of everything is almost unbearable. It's just too much sometimes.
Yeah, there’s a sense of wanting to find a resolution throughout F. I could have a conversation with you about every one of those poems, but one that I want to talk about specifically is "Postcards 2.”
That’s kind of a rough one, yeah.
But that’s a poem where you’re very directly trying to come to a place of peace with your father’s absence, with your relationship to both your parents. And that poem, poems like that have a real power to help people figure out things about themselves, about their own relationships to family, to forgiveness.
Well, I hope so. I think that’s great.
Did you have the opportunity to share much of your writing with your father?
Yes, I'm very grateful that he was alive long enough to see that I was carrying on with it. We had a ten-year period from when I was fifteen onward where we got to know each other. I loved my father more than anything, but I didn't realize just how angry I was at him. People would always ask me, “Aren't you angry?" and I'd go, “Are you kidding?” To me, the thought that James Wright was my father was the greatest thing in the world. It still is. But, at the same time, we can hold the contradictory thoughts and feelings in our mind and in our soul and in our heart. I think Fitzgerald spoke about this. We do it. We do it all the time, but if you lead a more examined life, as you're forced to as a writer, you're always amazed that you can contain very contradictory states of mind.
Absolutely, yes, Fitzgerald said that was the mark of genius. Whitman wrote about it too.
Right, yes. We all do it.
You used the words “carrying on” to describe your writing. Did winning the Pulitzer yourself, after your father had won it, signify to you that you were really doing your own thing, making your own path?
No, I don't think so. I don't think I'm a very original poet. I took some things that were already in place and I was able to do something with them, but I'm not a very innovative poet and I don't care. I'm just so fucking grateful everyday that I got a chance to live the life that I wanted to live. I’m finishing this last book... There's two actually and they're killing me but I think I ought to be able to do it. I have a friend down here who is helping me put together one of them right now. She has done an enormous amount of work helping me, but it's brutal. I'm so tired. I used to be able to work for days on end. Now, I work for a few hours and I feel like I’m going to collapse. But, I'll make. I think I'm going to make it.
I feel there's an arc, you know, there's a fullness to my books; but, I've always recognized that I'm not a Berryman, obviously. I took some things that were there in poetry and I tried to do something with them from my own life, but I'm not in that category of the great innovators. I'm very far from it. But I'm good. I'm pretty good.
Well, I think you're being modest, but—
I'm not at all, I'm being very literal. There are poets and writers who bring some new things that are unheard of to poetry, the way that Berryman did, and then there are poets who sort of serve as a link, they keep it going. It's a great honor to just to be a link in the whole thing until the next really great poet comes. That's a tremendous honor to me.
One thing about your poems, a thing that’s not often talked about, is that they’re often very funny.
Yeah, they are. I don't know where that came from. My father, as a person, was funny, but I never was very funny.
I think of the way James Tate’s poetry is kind of funny. Funny but also poignant.
I love him. I think he is one of the truly innovative poets.
Can you talk about that humor in your poetry?
I don't know how it happened. I can tell you the first time I noticed it, I was maybe thirty and I was in Provincetown at the Fine Arts Work Center. We went out to some bar and I remember I'm standing there and this poem just sort of appeared to me, fully-formed. I walked home really fast, just trying to memorize the poem so I could write it down when I got home. The poem had that funny quality a little bit, and I went, “wow, where is this coming from?” I was so happy, so happy that I could bring in some other element. Tom Lux used to say to me, “Your writing, it’s all unrelenting gloom, gloooooom, Franz, Jesus Christ!" And I felt that! I wished it wasn't that way, but I didn't know how to do anything about it. But then the humor just kind of appeared a little bit and I tried to develop it after that a little more consciously, because I needed it as a balance. Some of this stuff is so grim, Jesus. It depresses me. So, it's nice to be able to make somebody laugh. That's the greatest feeling.
Yeah, and I mean, when your poems are funny, it’s usually in service to an idea that is intensely serious. It’s that duality we were talking about.
That's very interesting, thank you. That's an interesting thought.
And I could imagine you teaching in a way that combines—
Here, let me tell you what my gripe is: the very last thing that a twenty or twenty-five-year-old person needs, when they’re at their most self-conscious, awkward stage in their writing life... The last thing you need is fifteen people who don't know what they're doing either looking over your shoulder. You need solitude, man! The first time I wrote something that I jumped up and recognized as a real poem was when I was maybe twenty or something, and I had worked like a motherfucker since the time I was fourteen or fifteen. I knew it was there, I just knew it was in me but I couldn't find it. Everything I wrote was shit. Then one day, I was in Zanesville, Ohio, at my father's parents house. It was the last time I saw them. I wrote a little poem and… I mean, I could tell you the poem, but it’s not important. I showed it to my dad and he went, “Yep, it's a poem.” He always told me the truth and so when he complemented me, I could believe him. He always took me seriously and told me the truth. He could make me cry by looking at me the wrong way. I was so in awe of him and so awkward, almost in love with him or something.
I think that relationship you just described with your father is what the ideal poetry program might be, just having that one mentor with whom you share an absolute honesty.
It did happen, but it's one in a million. It just depends on sheer luck, and it usually doesn't happen. Now, if you find a mentor figure like that in your life, you're a lucky, lucky person. I was incredibly fortunate because I found it in Charles Simic. All I did was write to him when I was nineteen. I would read his first two books and go, “you can do that?!” You know, he had more of an effect on me than anybody, even my dad. I think I loved him. He would invite me up to their place and they were very nice to me. So, if you find a couple mentor-y figures like that, you're a very lucky person. It’s just like, if you have a real friend in the world, you're a lucky, lucky person. People are motherfuckers, you know. They're monsters, we all are, and if you have a real friend, you'd better hold on to them because they don't come around every day, and they can help.
Right. I don't want to keep you too much longer — could you tell me the name of that poem you wrote there at your grandparents’ house?
I think it was just called, stupid, I think it was just called, “Morning.” (Laughing) It’s kind of Simic-y in form. When it starts out, a girl comes out of the barn holding a lantern and a bucket of milk, that was the one.
Alright, well, I think that I'm going to cut it at that. Do you have anything else you want to leave us with?
I can't think of anything, we talked about a lot of things. It’s been an honor, for sure.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This conversation has been condensed mildly. A couple of names have been removed for contextually obvious reasons. Photos by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright.)
Interview Posted: November 24, 2014
MORE FROM DIVEDAPPER. (Drag left)