Working the Lines Out: Ten Questions with Russell Thorburn

1. How did you come into writing, or more specifically writing poetry? Have you ever tried your hand in the other genres?

I had a Catholic education. In 5th grade a lay teacher, Mr. Guerrini, read poetry in a wild, animated fashion. He invited us to write poetry and I did. My very first work was about raking leaves and it was humorous. I mean I made the class laugh. I was a shy, reserved Catholic boy and I thought that was great. It was the golden age of comedy; Bill Cosby, Stan Freberg, and others with comedy records. I listened to those records. I kept writing. In high school I wrote poetry but nobody read it. Then I started writing songs and played in a garage band. We made a demo at Magic City in Detroit. None of us Catholic boys went to college. We were lucky though, and the draft and Vietnam War didn't get us. I became serious about poetry when I moved to Marquette where I wrote, played music and lived. Something about the north affected me in a positive way. My first reading was at a bookstore with the writers-in-residence at Northern Michigan University. I just wrote a poem about that night, because a friend of mine lives in that downstairs apartment, and I sit in the exact spot where I sat years ago, reading with the big poets.

Other genres. I have written a number of plays. Happy Birthday James Joyce was recorded as a radio play and aired on WNMU F.M. 90.1 four times. It was also read on Off-off Broadway. I am writing screenplays now; the latest registered screenplay The Adventures of Big Daddy and Ned Nuclear, a film noir set in 2018, involves a mutant squirrel resembling Buster Keaton and a nuclear power plant operator who dreams of making a film in the style of classic Hollywood [films] like Citizen Kane.

2. Several of your poems draw from baseball, historical figures and events, and pop culture. Where else do you draw inspiration from when writing poetry? Do any poets of the past or your poetic contemporaries influence your work?

My life, the idea of recovered memory. I have recurring dreams that end up in a poem. But the idea you can talk to a woman about poetry at the organic food co-op, walk outside and notice the wedge of geese disappearing into the dusk, see someone's darkened face in the parking lot, and realize the material for writing poetry is right there. This happened last night.

Poets I re-read are Jack Gilbert, William Carlos Williams, and Dylan Thomas. I am also influenced by my friends, Rod Torreson, John Rybicki, and David Dodd Lee. We all studied with the late Herb Scott together.

3. Many of your poems, especially ones from Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged, seem autobiographical in nature (“Eviction”, “Listening to Jazz”, “Moonlight Spills Crazy Upon You” to name a few). How much of your poetry is taken directly from your own life and experiences and how much of it instead uses the two as a jumping off point? How much of it is pure fiction?

Getting up in the morning to drink coffee, brush your teeth, or read a line of poetry is a narrative. I reflect upon what I do, what I have done, use photographs for inspiration, remember first loves in music, literature and women. But I also imagine other lives not lived, use almost a filmic method in getting at a poem. In my new poems I have a recurring WW2 soldier appear, Reese, and he's based on a Steve McQueen character in "Hell Is for Heroes." Then there's a new figure related to the making of art, Agent X, who takes photos of strangers and wants to go to Hollywood and become a famous actor. Truth and fiction are sometimes blurred.

4. Building off of the last question, a great majority of your poems read like snapshots, or momentary fragments of the experiences individuals have of the world and with others, and these characters have either ambiguous identities, (the he’s and she’s) or specific identities (Apollinaire, Einstein, Matisse, Henry Zender), and some poems even make use of an undefined “you” as the subject. What makes you focus on the experience of the individual as opposed to other poetic subjects such as descriptions of nature or cultural commentary?

Apollinaire is my muse, my owl. I read him in my twenties and the whole modern art scene fascinated me. I was inspired by their takes on the world. Henry Zender is my great-grandfather. These figures are part of my life. They forced me to write good poetry. I wanted to reflect upon their lives. I like nature poetry though. I go out with a friend to waterfalls, shorelines, rocky bluffs, and we sit there and write poetry. It's like painting. My first good poems as a teen were from nature. So maybe I am coming full circle. Rod [Torreson] just helped me with a poem about a fox. Behind our apartment is a woods; we see foxes, coyotes, deer, and weasels all the time.

5. It is evident from the careful and minute revisions you’ve made in several of your poems that appear in Approximate Desire but first appeared in Henry Zender that you choose your words and their placement very carefully. Also, one of my favorites of all your poems (Approximate Desire’s “Lesznianska Street Piano Lessons”) is all of sixteen words long. How big of a role does revision play in your writing process, and how difficult is it to find the right word for the situation?

This comes from Herb Scott, the work done at Western Michigan University. He taught us how to edit and take chances in unusual imagery. Herb edited every line in Approximate Desire. I was very fortunate. Good friends like Rod Torreson celebrate that editing style when they read my work. Revision is big. Rod helped me on every poem in Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged. I usually involve several readers if a publication of a book is approaching.

6. I want to go back to “Listening to Jazz” from Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged for a moment. It contains a wonderful description of Thelonius Monk’s piano playing that I find a near perfect literary translation of the way the music sounds, the way he “plays in jumps.” It’s no secret that jazz music and poetry go hand in hand, but I was wondering to what extent has music influenced your poetry?

I am listening to BBC Radio 3 right now, lunchtime in London. I work until 2 a.m. sometimes and imagine breakfast in London at that time. I play piano and still compose. I had a July reading at our library where I played a thirty grand Petrov. A friend provided guitar, dulcimer and snare drum backgrounds when I read. He read a couple poems and I provided piano. We are writing a song for his Irish band to record for a film. I listen to folk music a lot. I love the Iain Anderson program on Radio Scotland. A major influence on me was the Incredible String Band from Scotland. I saw them play in Detroit. Ah, Monk, and his jumps. Carnegie Hall, 1957. So music is very big. I think of poems almost as songs. I dream of chords.

7. In the short biographical blurb in the back of Approximate Desire, it mentions that you have taught poetry to prison inmates, an experience which is also the subject of one of your poems, “Moonlight Spills Crazy Upon You, Teacher of These Inmates”. Could you talk briefly about this experience? How did you get the opportunity to work with inmates, and what did you get out of doing so? How was the experience different from teaching classes at NMU?

The inmates were raw but talented. I showed them Cyrano de Bergerac, the French version, and they loved it. I got them writing and then the state cut the program. The trustees were easy. The maximum classes involved teaching in the heart of the prison. These guys had made big mistakes in their lives. They were my students and I came to work each day to help them. I have certain standards that I uphold in any class I teach. I just use different methods. It doesn't matter if it's the prison or NMU, or anywhere else.

8. One thing I admire about your poetry is its stark honesty – the fact that it does not need to hide behind dense allusions or complicated metaphors, and it is not afraid to say what it means or ask what it needs to ask. How did this frankness come to be such an integral part of your poetic style?

Probably from William Carlos Williams, the way he embraced certain French painters and made it American. I imagine simple lines a painter would, say, Matisse in his drawings. Also from my life, a son of a printer. I am on the job, working lines out.

9. Of all your published work, the poems in Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged seem to be the most personal and reflective collection. Many of the poems speak of a desire to recapture the past and one’s youth, but the collection ultimately speaks of an acceptance of the present. How has the progression of time and age changed the way you write poetry?

I wanted to imagine being there, to recover those memories. It's my memoir and I went at it in different ways. From the present looking back and the past looking forward, trying to imagine joy and sorrow. I didn't know what was going to happen when I was young. I wanted to go there--to those moments--when everything was new and I was writing poetry inspired by my life and loves. As I grow older, it becomes more difficult to be satisfied with the past. I want to change not only the lines but the realities of the past. Make the past into a different future. Maybe certain recurring dreams take that on too. My new book, The Whole Tree as Told to the Backyard, takes on our house on Michigan Street, my sons very young and no money. The piano figures greatly in these poems too. In one poem, we grow pianos in the backyard. The title poem is about our favorite tree that was chopped down after we moved out: well, we were evicted for my accordion playing. Not that I was a bad accordion player, it was loud and the upstairs people didn't like it. But I didn't play longer than ten minutes a night. More to it than that. This is the poem's version.

10. Branching off the last question, what would you say is the most important thing for young, developing poets to keep in mind as they get older and hone their craft?

The young poet needs to read everything and then give it up, go on to other writers and offer them up; his or her work has to be original and from both heart and mind. The simple lines are the poet's guide, the way a drawer starts with a curve or a circle and then measures

the distance between a model's eyes, chin, chest. The deepness is that, the work behind writing these simple lines which may grow in complexity.


Works by Russell Thorburn

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