Playground of Flesh (Main Street Rag Press), At the Axis of Imponderables (winner of the Quercus Review Press Book Competition), and Beyond the Bones (FutureCycle Press). He also has written several award-winning chapbooks, including God’s Experiment (winner of The Ledge Press chapbook competition) and The Weight of the Heart (winner of the Blue Light Press chapbook competition). His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Atlanta Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry East, The Sun, Southern Review, and many other journals. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council, he teaches and is Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
I GO OUT WALKING WITH MY DEAD FRIENDS
Plants in a kitchen window,
Lights on here and there.
Soon the fireflies.
They tell me to stop wasting time
like a talent. They say it is a river
flowing both ways.
Sure, I say, then offer them a puff
of my cigar. They say go inside
and unlock the curved trunk of a body,
someone’s you love. Loosen the rib
straps and slide a hand into the space
where he or she keeps those things
closest to the heart. Watch the face
for signs of wakefulness. Let your
fingertips brush the inner lining.
You don’t want them to know
what you are doing.
Nothing else matters, they say.
But it is too early, no one is asleep,
I tell them. Besides, we hug sometimes,
now and then even notice each other’s eyes.
They get quiet and look down at their feet.
I kick some pebbles. They tsk.
We pass more houses, not talking,
listen to the crickets.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem sometime in 2008. I often take walks and sometimes smoke a cigar while doing so (cigars are one of my passions). I took a dusk walk and noticed all of the houses, including my own, with lights on inside their windows, which naturally gave me a feeling of all the lives under all the roofs going on without me. I got to thinking about how much we actually connect with each other on a deep level while we are on this earth, or how much we don’t connect—how we keep our mysteries locked up inside our bodies while days and nights come and go. And meanwhile, the lives of those we love also come and go, entering and exiting within this flux of knowing and not knowing.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
If I recall, I probably revised this a few times. I wrote the first draft in one fairly short session and then revisited the poem two or three times, tinkering and adjusting.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration. Like a wild rare bird that defies being caged, inspiration refuses to conveniently arrive for us when we “will” it to do so. In all of its mysterious textures and manifestations, without it we as poets are left with only the ambition to move words around on a page, overly conscious of a finished product we are shooting for. Too often, I “want” to write poems and try to force or induce inspiration to fall into my lap. This poem was definitely “received.” I feel that the best poems arrive in this way, seemingly out of nowhere. I almost felt, bodily, that I was walking and talking with invisible dead people, some of whom I had known and some strangers. Perhaps this sounds goofy, but it is true. I sensed a presence with me on my walk (I often feel this sort of presence in certain states of deep quiet or communion or inward focus). Of course, after this initial receiving of the poem, I revisited the first draft, and then the sweat and tears came into play.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Again, I find that my best poem experiences occur when I am attuned, when I am “listening” to something deep inside me. During my walk, I sensed a poem starting to surface and consciously tried to notice and memorize what was happening for later use. After my walk, I mentally and emotionally returned to the experience I had strolling with my dead friends (I did not stop in the street and write the first draft on a note pad). I tried to recapture the somewhat fragmented, quiet and mysterious feelings by using language and craft elements to mimic these sensations. Word choice, line breaks, and all of the other poetic aspects then entered into play.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Not really. I usually write poems in a similar fashion. However, as stated, not all of my poems are so clearly “received.” This poem’s first draft was written in one pretty quick sitting—perhaps because it had been experienced in its entirety on my walk.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
If I recall, I sent the poem out a few months after writing it, and it was taken by a magazine, and later appeared in my book, Beyond the Bones.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I get excited after writing a new poem, and have to fight the urge to send it too soon out into the world to share and hopefully gain some recognition. So, I usually force myself to wait at least a few months—which is good for me because I always find editing/revision concerns when I revisit the poem with fresh eyes.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
When writing about an experience such as the one described in my poem, I can’t worry about whether a reader will believe the actuality of the event or not. With this poem and with any poem, I try to use language to reach through to an emotional truth. Hopefully, if I have written well enough, the poem will have a certain power that is felt as humanly “true” regardless. Every poem, in my opinion, must hover near this boundary line of real and unreal where an undercurrent of psychic electricity throbs. I often try to achieve a level of magic realism in my poems. There is magic all around us, even in the simplest things. We know the wind exists although we can’t see it.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, I suppose is it, since it attempts to relate an experience that occurred at a certain time and in a certain place, containing a certain chain of events.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I have always admired and studied the poetry of Jack Gilbert, who I became friends with and lived with for a brief time many years ago. I am especially moved by how some of his poems render an experience that is difficult to put into words, how he finds ways to convey the unsayable using simple, concrete descriptions and poetics.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I do not consciously think of any audience as I write. I try to stay loyal to the sensibilities I respect and admire within myself, shaped from years of reading the poetry of others. I suppose one develops certain self-imposed standards that fit one’s aesthetics and tastes. I guess this all means that I ultimately write for myself, and then hope that others might like some of what I write.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
No one saw this poem until it appeared in print, which is usually the case. Now and then I will have a poet friend take a look at a poem—especially when I am getting closer to thinking about putting a poem or poems into a collection.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This poem is similar to other poems, but different to me in that it was so recognizably felt as a tangible experience before becoming a poem—and I should say, a tangible, almost mystical experience. I even remember the specifics surrounding my walk (It was July. I had eaten chicken salad for supper. I was wearing black gym shorts. The cigar I was smoking was a 5 Vegas Classic!).
What is American about this poem?
Other than the fact that the poem was written by an American in America—which is not obviously evident in any specific details of the poem itself—probably nothing.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
The poem ends the way my walk that evening ended—listening to the crickets. So, I suppose it would be what you’d call finished.