1. What did you want to be when you were a child?
- I was a fervent, devout Catholic kid, so I wanted to be a nun, a martyr, something holy and dramatic and self-sacrificing. As I became a teenager, I strayed from the self-sacrificing impulse and aspired to be a beatnik, wearing black turtlenecks and a beret and hanging out coffee houses with poets and folk singers.
2. Where is home for you? How does sense of place fit in your poetry?
- My home-place is St. Louis, the Midwest, the mis-named “middle of nowhere,” America’s bread basket—location of mighty rivers and great baseball, meatloaf and flat fields, Indian mounds and parish trivia nights and fish fries during Lent. That said, I also have to add that I’ve moved 33 times since I graduated college and have lived all around the U.S., which stripped me of any sense of home base. So in my heart I feel that home is where my loved ones are, my children and grandchildren, my siblings and lifelong friends. This experience of growing up very rooted and then falling into a life of exile and wandering as an adult informs my poetry more than I can say. The word “nostalgia” is Greek for homesickness, one of the most intense forms of yearning, yearning being what poet Louise Gluck claims is the chief characteristic of a poet. Amen to that!
3. Who’s work do you read most? or recently?
- Over my lifetime I’ve read a lot of W.B. Yeats, Eavan Boland, C.D. Wright, Rainer Maria Rilke, Susan Howe, and Natasha Trethewey. Recently I’ve been reading Seamus Heaney (one of all-time favorite poems is “Saint Kevin and the Blackbird”), Kimiko Hahn, and Adam Zagajewski.
4. What environment do you write best in? Do you have a specific writing spot?
- I write best when I’m around my stuff. I’m a collector of castaways and misplaced mementos, diaries and letters, old magazines and photographs, found objects from garage sales and thrift stores. I write at my desk in my office surrounded by these things. Traveling, I will write in a journal but it’s usually crabby stuff, rants and complaints. When I’m home amidst my stuff, I am much more tender-hearted.
5. How has your writing process evolved?
- I waited a long long time to be able to take writing seriously, so my writing process evolved from a fever pitch of hours a day writing when I was in my late 40s until my poems started to be published. Then a long period of intense focus as I was researching, writing and assembling the manuscript for my first book (Souvenirs of a Shrunken World, which is about the 1904 World’s Fair). Then back to a more moderate writing schedule and less angst about if I was a “real” writer or not. Validation is good at easing doubts. Throughout this process, I was encouraged and supported and inspired by fellow writers. I can’t emphasize enough how much this camaraderie and commitment to one another means in the development of a writer. There are four people who have walked the walk with me, and I with them, over the past 25 years. I would not have grown nearly as much without our exchanges of ideas, visions, criticism, and enthusiasm.
6. What do you do when you’re not writing, and how does that impact your work?
- When I’m not writing, I’m meandering, wandering, walking, thinking, talking up a storm with interesting people, observing, meditating. Also, until recently I was teaching at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, a dream job in which I taught primarily elective courses that I designed myself, usually on a research topic that had me stoked and curious. Now, in retirement, I spend a lot of time with my four grandsons, going to the library and junk stores and garage sales searching for curios and trinkets.
7. What your writing pet peeve?
- I don’t have a writing pet peeve (but maybe I’ll get one soon now that you’ve planted the seed). For me, coming late in life to writing, it’s all icing on the cake.
8. In Angles of Approach, you frequently use extended metaphors involving objects to describe experiences, can you give us some insight this?
- Thanks for noticing this element (metaphorical value of objects) in Angles of Approach. That actually started to manifest when I was writing the poems about the previous book, which focused on the 1904 World’s Fair, where souvenirs were all the rage, more than usual, because the fair’s buildings and attractions and landscaping (five times the size of your campus and they lasted for many many months) were all demolished as within a month of its closing, leaving not a trace. For me, an object (a thimble, a key, a letter) is easier to relate to than a lengthy history or a complex, abstract concept. I believe that most people can feel the emotional impact of something huge (i.e. World War I or capitalism) through something small (i.e. yearbook photo or pearl earring). We live through our senses and objects engage them immediately, and it is after that sensual engagement that ideas and emotions begin to take hold.
9. What is your connection with the poem “Perishables”?
- This poem was “given” to me. I heard the story of a Vietnam veteran on the radio, which drove me to tears and sent me immediately to my desk, where the poem spilled out—an extremely emotional, visceral experience. When the poem went on to win a fairly substantial prize, I felt guilty for receiving that recognition based on this man’s suffering. So I contacted the radio producers and asked them to give him the poem (which they did) and I donated the prize money to the War Resisters League.
10. What is something most people don’t know about you?
- Most people don’t know that I used to be a tax preparer (talk about a quirky source of stories!) or that I earned a Ph.D. at age 50.
1. In a past article, you say your plan as Poet Laureate was to encourage more readings of poetry around the state in lieu of strictly lecturing on the subject. How has that decision played out over the years? What have been the benefits of this for you and the students you’ve encountered?
- I look on a Laureate as more of a Johnny Appleseed than a teacher. Of course, along the way, at q & a sessions and in classes, I do answer scholarly questions, but my idea is to expose the audience to real poems read by the poet, hoping that those listening will find that poetry can be enjoyable, moving, instructional, and even at times fun to hear. I’d like some of the audience to like it enough that they would try to write poems themselves. Lectures can be helpful, in the way speech about a flower can be helpful. But seeing a flower and hearing a poem are stronger experiences in the long run than hearing or reading something about them.
2. Now that your stent as Poet Laureate is coming to a close, are there aspects of the job that you can reflect back on as being pivotal moments? What are you going to miss most? What are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
- Perhaps the two most vivid experiences I had were reading with the Parkland students one month after the shootings and being asked by NPR to write a poem and then read it on the one-year “anniversary” of the Pulse massacre. Although I’ve always said that poets should be citizens instead of isolated writers in a garret, these events were “pivotal” as they’ve led me to write more poems that aren’t necessarily “about” politics, climate change, gun control and the like, but at least touch on them. I’ll miss most seeing the students around Florida; we’re having a difficult time in America, and I believe that these students are our best hope in coming out of it. I also believe that poetry, a kind of writing that encourages empathy and expands our imaginations, can help us as well. I think America would be a better country if we read more poetry. Well, I’m 86, so in the coming years I mainly hope the years will keep coming for a while, so I can continue reading and writing poetry, as well as spending more time with my wife of 61 years, our children and grandchildren, and our fun-loving friend
3. Is this a hard chapter to close? If so, in what ways? If not, why?
- It is not a hard chapter to close. I’ve been Poet Laureate for 4 years, I’ve enjoyed it and learned from it. But I’ll still be giving readings, only fewer of them; and I’ll still be writing poems, but (I hope) a few more of them. In any case, it’s time for someone else to pick up the banner, and I look forward to hearing her or him.
4. Were there aspects of the job that surprised you?
- I guess the main surprise is that so many schools and students, and people in general (clubs, societies, churches, libraries) were truly interested in poetry. I know it’s a minor activity in America (we’ve lived in England, France, Poland and elsewhere, where poetry is read more widely, and poets are better known). But there’s a larger audience here than I realized. A minor, less pleasant, surprise is that I never thought about how much driving is involved. It’s a long hard drive from St. Petersburg to St. Augustine
5. What advice would you offer to the next Poet Laureate of Florida?
- I would like the next Poet Laureate to perform the duties however he or she wants. I could offer practical advice, like keeping your schedule busy but spaced out, not too many back-to-back events. My practice, basically good advice for writers, was to say Yes to everything. Sometimes I was running around too fast, especially during National Poetry Month. Maybe the state could help out with the transportation, more by plane for example. But younger poets might love getting out on our crowded highways! I didn’t get any advice, and it’s certainly been one of the best experiences of my life