I was wondering how you became the new manager of the Kent County Poetry Contest.
Former Grand Rapids Poet Laureate and friend Linda Nemec Foster recommended me, and when I was asked to take it, I accepted. I was quite pleased to do so, as my post-college publication began when I won first prize in the adult category of the Dyer-Ives Contest in both 1971 and 1972. When one is young, contests are good ways to get a sense of what makes for good writing, though winning a contest doesn’t mean that one has found a true vision and voice.
I think that I have a pretty good grasp of your life thus far, unless you think you want to express anything of note that was not on your website.
I guess most of it’s there, though I’d add that any testimony is necessarily incomplete. In the past two years, for example, I’ve experienced a lot of deaths among family and friends, and that has changed many of my perspectives on my life and work: one sees the same tapestries with different eyes.
I'm more interested in what inspires you to write poetry. Your topics range from things you have experienced to things I'm pretty sure you haven't.
Subject matter and inspiration really can’t define it. One is moved, and one writes. I do believe that one must faithfully record one’s own life, the times that one lives in as best as one understands them, the people that are a part of the time. In the Maura Gage interview on my webpage, I go into many of the various recurring themes: life on the river, kayaking and camping; war as a theme that never quite goes away, that in many ways defines our time; work; my 39 years-long love affair with my wife Suzanne and my kids, my love of my home town and my state, as reflected in the many situations/places.
What is your favorite poem that you have written thus far? Why is it your favorite?
Hard to pick a favorite—each stage of my career has given me poems that I continue to love reading for others. “Rexroth Gone” from Quiet Lives¸ “Antietam” from On the Bridge, “The Invisible Keys” from Fragments from the Stars, “Catching Nothing” from Coming Home, “The Rhododendron” from Silences for Love, “Tender Petals for Calm Crossing” from Turn the Wheel, and “A Dream of Jerusalem” from my unpublished new collection, Moonlight Rose in Blue, are all personal favorites. Why? Hard to say—each of them captures an important emotional moment in my life, a particular approach to composition, and my own sense that compassion in the face of suffering is the key theme for any poet’s real work.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Any place at all, any time at all. A lot of work happens at the computer in my kitchen after I’ve done some housework, but I’ve also been known to write a poem on my hand under a streetlight when I have no paper, in a classroom while the students are writing something, or pulled over by the side of the road when the words come to me.
Do you have a favorite topic to write about?
Nope—I just follow my heart and let it tell me what’s important. I avoid at all costs trying to predict where my spirit will lead me—it generally takes care of itself if I just stay open to what needs saying.
Who is your favorite poet?
Too many to count—Dante’s Commedia, Will Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Walt Whitman, and among the moderns, William Carlos Williams. Williams showed the clearest understanding of formal experimentation with his “variable foot” and with free-verse forms ranging from enjambments in short line quatrains to spatial arrangements such as in “For Eleanor and Bill Monahan,” to the triadic verse paragraphs of his later work—all invested in common experience and the common tongue. I’m also very fond of my old poet-professor Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” and “Monet’s Waterlilies,” George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” the work of Charles Reznikoff, Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly,” and among my contemporaries, Sharon Olds’ work. Allen Ginsberg was, of course, my mentor, and he has a very special place in my heart both for the way his poems got me through the most difficult days of my life and for the model of kindness and generosity of spirit that he set for those who came in contact with him. He was also the hardest worker I have ever met, bar none.
What is a quote or saying that you live by?
Here are several:
"What's the work? to ease the pain of living—everything else, drunken dumbshow." (Allen Ginsberg)
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." (Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest)
"The female principle of the world / is my appeal / in the extremity / to which I have come. / O clemens! O pia! O dolcis! Maria!" (William Carlos Wiliams, “For Eleanor and Bill Monahan”)
"Woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humour, and like to consent." (Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It)
"Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" [But where are the snows of yesteryear?] (Francois Villon, “Let Testament”)