1. When did you decide to become a writer, specifically a poet?
I was in college studying philosophy and playing in punk bands, but I started hanging out with a bunch of performing poets. I loved that with poetry I didn’t need a band or amplifiers or instruments or microphones, I only needed my voice. I only needed language. Poems unlike songs are the words and the music in the very same breath.
2. Who are your influences?
There are so many. I love the Romantics—their imaginative flights—especially Coleridge, Keats, Clare and Shelley. But I also love the destructive disgust of the Dadaists, the wanna be revolutionary consciousness of the Surrealists. The Beat Generation—particularly Gregory Corso and Anne Waldman, the personal nature of the work, writing through a life. Also, the (1st and 2nd Generation) New York School poets—Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan, Paul Violi, Ron Padgett—are also huge for me. I love the ways that poetry for them is an activity, a kind of play, a resistance to ordinary language in favor of new formal possibilities, new discoveries, new music, the absurd. Of course, there are lots of contemporary poets I love as well, among them Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Peter Gizzi, Noelle Kocot, Kiki Petrosino, Darcie Dennigan, and Nate Pritts, to name a few.
3. How did you find your writing voice?
Do I have a voice? Is this mic on? I think I keep trying to find a voice, but then I get bored and resist it. Poetry is an art of resistance in love, a language made noisy with god. Just today I wrote a poem where I listed all the content I’ve been using in my poems over the last four or five years as a way of exorcising that content. I don’t want do the same things again and again, so it becomes necessary sometimes to take stock and then throw the baby out with the bathwater. That’s where I am right now.
4. How many hours a day do you write?
It depends on the day, but I’d say most of them—the ones I’m awake anyway—though I have occasionally written while asleep as well. The truth is I’m always writing something, and I read a lot too. Reading is also a kind of writing, since everything I read winds up in the poems. Lately, I’ve been writing long sprawling essays and doing some (loose) translations of the 20th century avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire as well, so I always have plenty to keep me in ink.
5. Why did you become a teacher and how long have you been teaching?
As with all the good things in life, I became a teacher accidentally. A friend told me that the AAC was looking for adjuncts to teach English. At the time I didn’t think that was something I’d really like to do—at least not for a career. Previously I’d taught logic at Ohio University where I was in graduate school for philosophy. It was fine, but I didn’t love the subject. That said, my wife Melanie is a teacher at SCPA and a graduate of the Art Academy’s MAAE program. When she heard about the opportunity, she encouraged me to apply to teach a class, if only occasionally (or just to give it a whirl). Since she’s the one with the real sense in our family, I figured I should listen—and I’m so happy I did. I LOVED teaching at the AAC from the start, and I’m grateful every day that it’s turned into my job, which is a part of my life and a part of my art. I get to work with the most imaginative students and colleagues. I get to be weird. I get to think about art and poetry and awe 24/7. What could be better? I’m astonished every single day that I’m alive and that anything exists at all.
6. What writing and life lessons do you teach your students?
It would be interesting to ask them that. Maybe I will. But here’s what I think I do: I ask them a lot of questions about who they are and what they believe in as artists. I ask them to describe what they make, how they make it and why they care about it. I tell them that imagination LITERALLY MAKES THE WORLD, that the creative life is a life as art—not just a life of making art. It’s about being a work-in-progress. I say YES a lot to whatever they’re interested in. I tell them to “do it yourself.” I tell them do MORE of that, and also I tell them to make money as irrelevant as possible in their lives. Money turns everything to garbage. And the thing is if you’re truly creative you find a way to live that allows you to LIVE CREATIVELY and HAPPILY. Money isn’t the driving force in my life or in the lives of my students. What does drive us is the notion that through art we can live more fully, we can be connected and empathetic, we can change people’s lives for the better. The value of art is that it reminds us we’re alive. “Beauty is the object of longing,” wrote the philosopher Crispin Sartwell. And as long as we’re longing we’re not dead—the possibilities are endless, and empathy, understanding and meaning are the goals. Make a mess. Have a blast. Include everything. Be as big as the world.
7. How do you encourage your students to become writers and poets?
As I said above: I say YES to whatever drives them deeper into the things they’re passionate about. I don’t care what you’re interested in, just be interested in something and do it with all your heart (I often say that). Of course, I also talk with them about how their thinking, their attitudes, their brilliant strangeness is itself poetry, is itself art. Many of them are walking poems—by which I mean, in the words of Walt Whitman, they “contain multitudes.” They are agents of plethora. Poetry is language deployed generatively to say many things simultaneously and wildly (rather than merely practically).
8. How do your poems become books?
My 8th and 9th books, RADIANT ACTION and RADIANT COMPANION, were just published on Sept. 15th. RADIANT ACTION is a philosophical, book-length, serial poem and RADIANT COMPANION is a new collection aimed at my radiant companions. The books are friends. They talk to each other. They look up at the stars and supernova together. Lines in one reappear in the other. They are each other’s best shadows and ghosts.
The truth is I still don’t know how books happen sometimes. The problem is: Like a lot of poets, I don’t write books, I write poems—lots of poems—and I think of them as individual events. That said, at some point inevitably they start talking to each other (in terms of form or content or both), and that’s when I start arranging them in ways that exploit or explode or connect those conversations into a larger constellation of shadows and reflection. Somehow, via accumulation, assembly, juxtaposition, and rearrangement, I wake up from the dream of activity and there’s a book!
9. How did you find a publisher for your new books?
H_NGM_N Books did RADIANT ACTION, and I’ve worked with them before. We have a good relationship, and I’m excited to keep working with them in the future. This is the third book of mine they’ve published. I met Nate Pritts, H_NGM_N’s editor-in-chief, in grad school back in the late 90s. We kept in touch over the years, and when he started H_NGM_N Books in 2010 he asked if I had a manuscript, at which point I sent him what would become my third book WOLF FACE. In 2012 he published DEBACLE DEBACLE and now RADIANT ACTION, so H_NGM_N’s become my primary publisher. RADIANT COMPANION was published by Monster House Press, and placing it happened in a way very similar to the experience of placing the H_NGM_N books. Richard Wehrenberg Jr, the MHP editor, saw me read and asked me for a manuscript. I sent him one and that was it.
People often think that publishing is super mysterious, but really it’s about being a part of the community. If you go out and read, if you send your work out, if you’re genuinely interested in other people and what they’re doing, good things will happen. 23 years ago, right after I moved to Cincinnati, I co-founded and started editing Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety as a way to build community in what was then for me a new city. I’m still doing Forklift today, but now we have a national, and even international, audience. It would be ridiculous of me not to acknowledge how being a part of that community has benefited my own writing. I’ve met some of my best friends through Forklift, and I get to work on it with people who are really dear to me. But I also get to read the newest of new work, things that challenge my own sensibility, values, and aesthetic. That’s so important. It’s the life blood of a poet.
All that to say, be genuinely excited about the art and publishers will find you. It takes patience, a willingness to put yourself out there (and sometimes get rejected, and a desire to engage with others in language and life.
10. What are your future plans regarding writing and teaching?
I don’t have any plans beyond continuing to write, continuing to teach, continuing to push my own limits, challenge my own values and beliefs. I’m one of the most un-strategic people I know. I always lose at chess. But I am committed to this life, committed to art, my family, my students. My plan is to keep trying to live up to that commitment. And also not to die.
11. What advise do you have for the young writer?
Write every day. Read voraciously. Don’t worry about whether what you’re doing is any good. Quantity leads to quality eventually. Believe it.
Here’s a poem I wrote for AAC students that’s full of advice for young writers, but it’s also advice to me:
NOTES TO YOUNG ARTISTS/WRITERS/SELF
You could do a lot worse than art.
I like plaid flannel shirts, but maybe
you’re into cute dresses or deerskin.
Maybe you’re into hopped-up IPA’s.
Maybe when I say hopped-up you think
of rabbits or you think of crank.
It’s all okay. Associations are always
okay. But have some intentions
for your work, if only after the fact
of making it. Don’t leave meaningfulness
to chance. Chance operations are fun—
especially removing the spleens
of your friends. You can try this
at home, but for you it may work better
in a bar or an ice skating rink. Find yourself
a process that works. Or find many of them.
Think about what you’ve done, what you want
to do, and what you’re doing. No one else will
do it for you. Don’t make yourself ignorable
by not making decisions. On the other hand,
nobody knows what art is, and
anyone who says otherwise is merely
limiting your possibilities. Turn tail and run
in the other direction when you can.
When you can’t, turn into Grendel
and wreck the mead hall. Making art
is a value in and of itself, and if your art isn’t like what some supposed authority on the matter, X, thinks art should be, that only goes to show how little they know about the history of art, not to mention things like imagination, creativity, and vision. Remember Van Gogh. Read Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Read A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord. Read the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read HOWL and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg for god’s sake. These are all books about faith and perseverance in art. You will need them to continue. Setbacks will occur, and you need to be ready. If somebody tells you you can’t include: stars, trees, birds, the human heart, leaves, grass, dogs, babies, etc. in your art, immediately make a great piece that includes all of those things to prove that they are wrong. If the first piece you make which includes all of those things isn’t to your liking, then make another one and another one until you make one you like, OR, alternately, make a whole body of work where you include the “impossible to use” or “impossible to use well” things one at a time. As for originality, forget about it. You will be original because you have been able to tap in to what makes you uniquely weirdly, brilliantly who you are, but it’s important to note that who you are has been shaped by all the art you’ve been astonished by, all the experiences you’ve had, the music you’ve listened to, the books you’ve read. Nobody creates out of a void. The poet Dean Young says that the highest achievement of the human consciousness is the imagination and the highest achievement of the imagination is empathy. I say additionally that through empathy we find our feet with the world, connecting the self to the other viscerally. These connections are our finest sort of human entanglement. The imagination—and thus art—allows us to recognize and be moved by the similarities between us—which is the basis for appreciating difference. Make your work payoff meaningfully in proportion to the amount of work you expect a viewer to do to get it. Be as worried about avoiding hermeticism as you are about avoiding the sentimental and saccharine. You could do worse than humanity. When something works for you, celebrate wildly, then resist it in future works. People like to be understood and listened to. Be genuinely interested in other people and what they’re doing, and they will be genuinely interested in you and what you’re doing. If they aren’t, too bad for them. Not everybody’s kind, and there are so many thousands of people making art whom you can be friends with and build a community with. You can do better than mean, snarky people. Also, everybody needs a nemesis—a nemesis that isn’t themselves or their mother—so you can choose one (or a hundred) from among the mean people, but you should do this mostly only to ignore them. Don’t waste time being angry and negative, and complaining. Instead make more work. If any of this is contradictory, that’s par for the course. Welcome
to art. You could do worse, e.g.
Welcome to Syria 2013. Welcome to the Lord’s
Resistance Army. You are five or you are
seven. Remember: Ambiguity isn’t vagueness
anymore than Justin Timberlake is a landfill.
Association and disjunction are entirely different things.
Just because there’s a story behind your painting—
because a story was the impetus for your painting—
doesn’t make it narrative. Sometimes form is
content. This may or may not be something
you’re comfortable with. Go to dances. Do karaoke.
Be willing to look stupid. Nonsense really is serious
business. There is such a thing as called the soul,
but probably not in the way that I or anyone else
thinks about it. Forget about business. Forget
about jobs. An art education is about getting
a creative education—one that will allow you
to deal imaginatively and resourcefully with any situation
life throws at you, any materials, any instructions,
any employer. The creative mind is a mind on fire.
The mind of the artist is a valuable thing to everyone.
Often even artists’ failures are brilliant. In art,
your genius is your error, because art must be
“a debacle of the intellect” (Breton). You can’t be
out of control-in control, but in art you have to be
a bad artist not to be. I said that somewhere else. Also,
don’t obfuscate. It’s annoying. Don’t expect others
to be able to interpret your work if you haven’t put the time
in to make it about something, On the other hand,
not everything needs to be solved, especially not (in) art.
Works of art aren’t puzzles, secret codes, or witnesses
beholden to the facts. Swear to tell the Truth,
including all the lies. Sabotage, thievery, and failure
are three of my most favorite artistic values. Maybe
they’re yours as well. “Always do the opposite
of anything I tell you” is something I wrote
elsewhere for a different purpose, but
I think it applies here more than ever.
You can’t do better than art.