Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
Bart Edelman, poet and editor
interviewed by David Garyan
DG: Readers well-acquainted with your work wouldn’t say that you’re a particularly political poet—not that one needs be—but your poem, “U.S.A.,” published in the 2001 collection, The Gentle Man, is a wonderful example of what really represents the best of this genre, if we may call it that. You capture the committed indecisiveness of a country that’s both powerful and at the same time unsure of itself, mainly because of its polarizing tendencies—these are quite memorable lines: “Here, in a united America, / We slip into perfect position, / Depending on the issue at hand. / We turn left to center / And center to right— / Sometimes, in the same night, / And strike only when danger / Rears its scaly little head.” Twenty years later this work has aged perfectly, which reflects well on our craft, but the ability of such poems to influence matters on the political level seems to be highly contended—poets writing in this genre believe in its effectiveness while those eschewing it perceive nothing but futility. What’s your take on the issue and would you prefer to see more or less political poems today?
BE: Thanks for referencing my poem, “U.S.A.,” from The Gentle Man. Seems hard to believe, but, yes, you’re correct. It’s been twenty years since its publication. And, sadly, in a way, it’s as potently relevant today, as it was back then. I don’t know if it “represents the best of the genre,” as you kindly relate in your question, but it was my attempt to come to grips with this ambivalent, yet deceptive country of ours, and its rather fragmented, splintered population, hell-bent on hypocrisy, at every level, both public and private.
The poem begins with America, generally speaking, forwards to a somewhat united America, and ends with the “United Snakes of America,” slinking and slithering until it’s got nowhere to go but sleep. God forbid it wake and show any more of its true nature. The connection with modern day politics, of course, is the egregious sense of polarity, as you state, above. Just think of Trumpism, itself—what it entails—and the division it continues to sow at this very moment. How foolish to believe it’s a one-and-done political syndrome. Politics aside, it crawls into its own morbid place on the historical and psychological scale of doom.
Another poem, on the political spectrum, “Little Daddy’s Thanksgiving,” from The Last Mojito, explores the Bush dynasty, and its consequences on foreign policy, including the futile attempts at “Restoring their good names / In these inhospitable times.” Little Daddy is a “lovesick missile,” whose target is anyone’s guess. And where he eventually lands or strikes confounds the troops he sends into battle.
Concerning how poets can truly influence their audience is a highly charged discussion. There are many avenues writers travel to deliver their messages. And you’re correct, in my case; I write few poems that appear outwardly political in nature. Yet, there’s always a political context of sorts at work below the surface, whether it be through personal relationships, business endeavors, or how the government operates on a day-to-day basis. To that same degree, any poet must ask how individuals legislate the soul. What does it mean to operate in a society of human beings who need to find their place in the world?
As to my desire for more poems of a political bent, it’s a bit of a trick question. Sure, the more provocative poems, the better, especially if they’re effective in their scope and not a means of mere protest, for its own sake. However, this genre answers to both the voice of the poet and the readers who comprise the audience. Yeats might eloquently add, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
DG: Speaking of genres in poetry, there seems to be a balkanization in the field, usually among aesthetic lines; there are experimental poets in one camp, lyric poets in another; there are those who write nothing but light verse, while others tackle mostly “serious” themes. Poets like Edgar Allan Poe, for example—capable of elegies, ballads, lyric works, long and short poetry alike, seem to be a rarity in our times. The catalog of your own work, I’m happy to say, does reflects a broad range of styles. You’ve done prose poems like “Towards Sleep,” a very introspective, poignant work, which will appear in your forthcoming collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind; you’ve tackled political themes, relationships (both in serious and humorous ways); more importantly, you’ve been comfortable with both emotion and sensitivity, but also boldness and daring. It would be intriguing, thus, to hear your thoughts on how a unique voice can be developed. Is it a matter of reading a lot, extensive travel, or simply talent? Do you believe the latter exists, and if it does, where does the teaching of writing fit into that?
BE: Hmmm …. Yes, I guess, there is this fragmentation in the field, as you state it. Certainly not my style to make it any more divided than need be. It’s a large house, thank goodness. A plethora of rooms. You choose where you’d like to live. Or move around to your own content. Everyone has to dwell somewhere, it seems. But you’re right. It’s just too damn convenient to pigeonhole poets, place them in a box, and watch them struggle to escape. It’s the squirming that takes its toll. Then, again, maybe the very fight to gain individuality aids in the poet’s progress, step by step, day by day. Who’s to say what it is that often sparks creativity in any number of curious ways. There’s a noble effort involved in the plight that leads to occupying your own address on a street you call home. And should you, as a writer, spend too much time questioning your own space and listening to others dictate where you belong— aesthetically or not—you’re, essentially, closer to extinction than you may think.
I’m glad you believe my work “does reflect a broad range of styles.” I’m not cognizant of following a definitive path or making the effort to mix it up, now and then. You mention “Towards Sleep,” from the new collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind. Honestly though, I’m still not clear on how it became a prose poem because I’ve written so few of them. It seems to have developed first from a traditional stanzaic poem, to a short story, and, finally, to a more compressed work that emerged and felt as if it fit the space where it settled and rested. Solomon Schwartz appears happy, contented, and at home in his own genre, so to speak. The subject of the prose poem did his best to awaken me before he ambled off towards sleep. As for “emotion and sensitivity,” and “boldness and daring,” it’s good to know you’ve discovered these qualities in my work, but, again, I may be the last person to provide a guide to how they occur or why.
Unique voices, I presume, are a product of a poet’s or narrator’s honest and provocative view, regarding the choice and frame of reference. And the language employed to create the soft and credible bridge between speaker and audience is often challenging, compelling, and at the heart of our craft. What you cite as possible examples of a poet’s development, “reading a lot,” “extensive travel,” “or “simply talent,” warrant more examination than I am capable of here; however, they’re all extremely important, even if a writer can’t bag them all, in that order. Surely, talent, itself, exists for many aspiring poets. Yet a fairly good and dedicated compass, of sorts, can augur well for what success a poet achieves and how that success may be measured.
The teaching of writing is, indeed, a rather controversial subject. Suffice it to say a poet’s progress can be hastened, the craft fine-tuned, the object of publication, directed and encouraged by an academic mentor, in many cases. But how far that eventually takes the student is a humble, personal matter that defies a universal response.
In my own case, let it be known, I enjoyed teaching graduate students in an MFA poetry program who, I learned, benefitted from our union. Oddly enough, though, the only creative writing class I ever attended was in high school, tenth grade, to be exact, with the reverential William Moore. I include this example only to illustrate the different paths writers travel in their unique, literary journey.
DG: It seems to me that much of contemporary poetry lacks passion and intensity—the courage to deal with any given subject matter head-on, which is why it often chooses to obfuscate under the guise of experimentation; if poets fail in this respect, they can get away scot-free because should their “experiment” be misunderstood, they can simply blame the reader—or fall back on the notion that experiments aren’t always meant to work, and, of course, they aren’t; indeed, simply trying them is courageous. However, there are other ways to experiment besides just trying to be difficult; and, naturally, openness, honesty, and vulnerability also require ample amounts of courage—perhaps more so in this respect as opposed to when poets simply trying something “new.” Having said that, how do you find the poetry scene today? Do you mostly enjoy what’s being published or do you look elsewhere for inspiration?
BE: You’ve lobbed a loaded question at me, indeed. Defining and evaluating passion and intensity approach a slope I’m not prepared to climb, for safety’s sake alone, with or without the necessary hiking boots. But your point remains valid, as it relates to experimentation in current poetry and the many forms it takes, both on an academic level and far outside formal education. I doubt anyone would quibble with the exploration of genres, technique, structure, and, even, typography, for that matter, yet if the experimentation merely becomes an exercise in variety, for that sake alone, than the serious nature of poetry’s message may well be lost. Now should the experiment allow a poet to employ a new technique or form to add another layer of, brace yourself, complexity, to its ability to engage the reader and provoke an authentic response, then it’s high time for celebration. Bring on Kool and the Gang!
As far as “openness, honesty, and vulnerability” are concerned, we can settle that question simply, if need be. And “courage,” as you suggest, joins the discussion, relating to what makes a poem “work,” on its most elemental level. I would propose, first and foremost, that a keen sense of voice is always necessary to create the basis of what allows poetry to grab us by mouth, throat, or foot, especially on an initial reading. Without the intimate, credible connection with the speaker of choice, who waves that magic wand and begs us to enter into a world we dare not exit, we have no chance to take the journey, capable of preparing us for life, its teachings, and what it means to have a soul we are fortunate to share with other kindred spirits, through verse.
The poetry scene today is a thriving, contemporary collection of writers who are unafraid of confronting the political, social, and moral upheavals swirling around us on a non-stop schedule. Not that this moment in time dictates a far more vocal and literary response than other decades, but the advent of media, in all its blaring forms, hurls us deeper into a vortex of communication, demanding greater responses from writers, so capable and ready to impart their own stamp of approval, disapproval, or, even, quasi-apathetic angst.
Finally, you ask about “inspiration,” and if I find it in what’s published these days. Yes. There is so much fine poetry published in print and on-line journals. I wish I had the time to read even more than I do, currently. When I edited Eclipse, a literary journal, we were only able to publish 1% of the work we received. There were so many other capable poets who submitted their work, but we didn’t have the space for it. I envision, if I’m ever fortunate enough to live another life, here on earth or not, a literary oasis, of sorts, where I can publish a journal of talented poets whose work may not have made it the first time around, but now have a home within its pages. This would be a blessed reward for these poets—and me ….
DG: Speaking of inspiration, many poets and non-poets alike have different ideas for where it comes from. On one hand, in a Paris Review interview, E.B. White once said that “the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” On the other hand, Victor Hugo was a master procrastinator, having often preferred the entertainment of guests and other projects to writing. How does your own schedule look? Do you work meticulously or spontaneously, and, also, do you think the “mechanical” approach, promoted by so many writers, is always necessarily better? According to the Paris Review, Balzac supposedly drank lots of coffee and likened inspiration to military maneuvers.
BE: I’m glad this question allows me the latitude to discuss, more fully, what my personal schedule is these days, pertaining to writing, and I will discuss that, momentarily. Inspiration, on the other hand, and its many forms, is a much more difficult topic to corral, lasso, and examine. You know … the aspect of the muse and how and why she appears when she chooses to do so. I’m buoyed by your reference to E. B. White and the idea that in his household he is not considered “a writing man.” And the noise he must endure if he attempts to compose at home base.
That is certainly not the case with me, fortunately. My wife knows when I’m in my creative, reflective space and leaves me in that state, content to do her own work or contemplate the grandkids latest exploits, while hosing down the patio or doing battle with the treadmill. Certain nights, I will read her what I’ve written for the past few days and elicit her response to the work. Just listening to the sound of my own voice often gives me another perspective in the somewhat endless path towards revision that most poems enter on their way to a final draft. Even then, before a poem is published in a journal, or it becomes part of a manuscript, I’m always tinkering away, changing this and that —words, punctuation, cadence, line breaks, stanzaic shifts, the whole rigmarole … and then some.
I think, again, of Yeats and his constant changes to poems, long after they were published and made famous. He was still cobbling, left and right, never quite finished, decades and decades later, compressing and compressing until he claimed his rightful place and restful sleep—finally free from any more contemplative revisions.
One more note on the responses of those close to my work and me needs mention. Most of the friends around me are not poets or writers. We rarely discuss anything having to do with my work or the craft of poetry. The only time my work is a topic of conversation appears to be when a book is ready to drop or I might leave town for a reading or lecture. At first, long ago, I thought they were neglecting me; not at all interested in my literary passion and pursuit. But the bonds of friendship have actually enlightened me and shown how liberating it is to be yourself, appreciated for who you are, regardless of your devotion to a craft or calling. Sure, friends know I’m a writer. Yet they’re more interested in where we’re headed for dinner and what selections of bourbon the bar is serving these days. Patently refreshing, indeed.
As far as what my writing schedule looks like, I’m best in the afternoons and evenings. My simple morning regiment includes stretching, before tackling those daily eight miles on the elliptical, completing correspondence and chores (yes, I still have them), and any other items that need attention. When that is dispensed, I wander into that territory reserved for creativity and contemplation. I set no time limit, whatsoever. I imagine though I normally spend two or three hours, almost every day, writing, (on a legal pad with a pen), before I take a short break and then sit with my laptop, entering the day’s work for safekeeping, and to view, for the first time, how it appears on the screen, immediately beginning the first of numerous revisions, unless by the next day, I determine the poem to be quite dead with no hope of survival. However, even then, there may be a line or two, perhaps, a mere word or phrase to be saved for another poem. And, thankfully, all is not lost. Whether or not I have any idea of the subject I intend to explore each day, I do make myself “approach the blank page,” steady my soul, and be ready for what follows.
DG: Very relevant to our discussion is Robert Frost. Poetry—is it a profession or condition? And condition not just in the bad sense, as in I’m suffering and I must do something about it, but something more positive, as in trait, attribute, or more generally, personality—indeed, writers and artists alike love the motif of torment. Yet, what does it really mean to compose in a genre that emerged, really, with the dawn of humanity—long before academia and before, perhaps, even professions? How would you answer Frost and where do you see yourself on this spectrum?
BE: So very glad you brought Robert Frost along for the ride. This fellow knows his stuff. Stopping by woods … snowy evening or not! Yes, I would say poetry’s a condition, although in his case, I believe it also served him well as a profession. Mark Twain’s quote comes to mind. “When red-haired people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.” Regarding Frost, suffice it to say, his hair was always auburn, whether he knew it or not. And it had nothing to do, whatsoever, with his social grade. He was a bit above it all, but that didn’t mean he didn’t suffer private tribulations, to his wit’s end, unfortunately.
As to whether, writers and artists gravitate to torment like you suggest, I’m not sure it’s always true. I guess it depends upon your definition of torment and what that terror entails. I tend to think poets, especially, labor intensively over every single letter, word, punctuation mark, and line break (at least this poet, you’ve chosen to question), that there’s a major construct telling us, whatever can go wrong, shall do so, and, thus, each poem is a lesson in patience, courage, and wonder. All the empty space on the poet’s page allows the reader to jump into a pool of possibilities, with or without a life preserver—I’m betting without. It’s a sheer act of unpredictable freedom, of course, yet it comes on the wings of doom, by its very nature. No safety net here for either the poet or the reader. Lawrence Ferlinghetti knew this all too well, as do we who hang high above our audience, knowing full well the dangers awaiting us. But, then again, there’s often the splendid, spectacular view, despite the trepidation or torment, should you choose to name it such.
What I’ve stated, I believe, is true for all artists in genres galore; however, there’s a particular zone which poets inhabit, due to their occupation and need to compress, compress, compress. This compulsion leaves us poor folks begging for mercy and requires a cold compress to keep from overheating. Ah, precision, precision, precision, at all costs. Yes, poetry surely existed long before academia got a hold of it and shook its very nature to a core it never realized it possessed. We touched on this previously in a former question. How much formal study is necessary to interpret poetry and produce the voice that makes it effective? And what of the countless, struggling students, MFAs in hand, who step into a perilous job market, expecting to land employment, tenured or not.
I’m not sure where I appear on the spectrum we’re describing here. I certainly earned a living teaching students everything from remedial reading, to freshman composition, to introduction to literature, to poetry fundamentals, and, ultimately, advising graduate students on their thesis proposals and projects. And, how, I enjoyed it. I’d do it again, if offered, another time around the old college block should the next life come to that. I was a lucky duck, indeed. Fellowships, grants, and study abroad took me to India, Egypt, Nigeria, Poland, England, and the Czech Republic. What’s not to like? As a poet, alone, I doubt these opportunities would necessarily have been mine. I think Frost grasped the tenuous nature between profession and condition, even if it did cause him more and more moments to reflect on his fate. Again, akin to so many other writers, I feel compelled to create poetry in a manner that is far different than the study of the craft by which I’ve curiously made a living, thereby affording me precious time to write.
DG: The titular poem of your forthcoming collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind, seems, upon first reading, to have a very pessimistic tone. We go through much of life, really, attempting to make reality conform with our own views—sometimes with success when our perceptions are sensible, but too often we fail, mainly because of our great desire for things which may perhaps not be for us; nevertheless, we trick ourselves into believing that things can be the way we want—to lessen the pain, I guess. That could be the first interpretation of this particular poem, with its speaker declaring the following at the end: “Lived a rather fruitful life / In the company of boulders— / Too old and tired to converse— / Took his final act of contrition, / Whistling to trick the wind.” Upon further reading, however, the poem and many others in this collection do indeed sound very positive and life-affirming. As opposed to the Conradian notion which states that we’re trees swayed by the wind, the speaker in this poem believes in agency and freewill—if we can sing well enough, the direction of life’s wind may not be that relevant. Where do you stand on the issue of free will? Are we masters of our fate, as Henley wrote, or does fate “sit deep in the man,” as Emerson proclaimed?
BE: It would be too easy to dismiss the tone of the title poem, “Whistling to Trick the Wind,” in the new collection, as a pessimistic one. While the central figure does appear, at a first reading, to have “run out of words,” “lost his job,” and given “his friends the heave-ho,” he is far from wringing his hands in desperation. This would not be his style – no how, no way, no do. And while he has abandoned speech, for the most part, refused an intervention, and promises to “wire his mouth shut,” he has found an inner peace that permits him to “commune with the moon,” “believe in a God,” and “live a rather fruitful life.”
When we learn that he takes “his final act of contrition,” he has, quite frankly, earned the right, privilege, and honor, if you will, “to trick the wind,” one whistling song after another. After all, it may very well be the trenchant wind that reminds him, and the reader, also, of the entire list of misgivings we transport through life and the many destinations we fail to reach along the journey. How shall we make do with the life we continue to live and the distractions which keep us from achieving, at least, some notion of peace and contentment?
This poem was, indeed, selected to be the final work in Whistling to Trick the Wind because I wished to address many of the issues you raise in the above question. I imagine there are a variety of interpretations surrounding the entire idea of what is meant by the word “trick.” And I hesitate to open up a discussion on this topic. Suffice it to say, though, that we often find the need to trick ourselves, make sense of the nonsensical, and devise a world we deem ready for us to inhabit, somewhat, existentially speaking. Without our own stamp of approval, even to a limited extent, there’s nowhere else for us to wander and look towards the promise of spring, for that matter. Contrition demands the penitent exercise his or her own personal remorse, yet in agreeing to this act, another world may open, providing possibilities, nourishment, and sustenance for the excursion the soul undertakes, wherever it’s ultimately bound.
I’m glad that you perceive the poems in the collection to possess a “life-affirming” quality to them. I see it that way, also. And I hope the volume’s thematic arc presents itself as a journey of sorts, compelling both the speakers, central figures, and the readers to realize that there are paths to follow, missions to accomplish, poems to read and complete. For like the individual selections of the collection’s progressive movement to this end, there is a song we are capable of learning if we listen closely enough, in silence, or through what wind waits at our back. Pertaining to free will and fate, we are masters—should we choose to be. Finally, it takes courage to chart your course, accept responsibility for the fate you display, and create a world you see as worthy, when you’re honest enough to take your place in it.
DG: Do you promote the release of new collections with many readings or would you say that the reputation of the book is mostly enough? My question really is the following: Has the pandemic affected poetry negatively or could it be that people are reading more today? Perhaps there could be different ways to promote poetry in these times, aside from readings, that is, and bring greater readership to it than before. What are your thoughts on these challenges?
BE: Time was when there were numerous live readings associated with a new book’s release. A lot of this often deals with publishers, and their interest in this area, as well as poets and their ability to schedule readings, depending upon location, popularity, and how well an author connects to an audience.
Certainly, the pandemic brought a halt to in-person readings, for the most part. However, online readings, Zoom, and other electronic-based media has allowed for countless performances and presentations, live or not, here in the United States and worldwide. The same is true for workshops, lectures, and a host of avenues, capable of promoting a book’s release.
After a new collection of poetry appears, I’ve always done traditional readings, planned college speaking dates, coupled with workshops and seminars, and made it a point to be available every chance open to me. Again, various publishers hasten the process, booking dates and championing the cause, depending upon their own methods and who it is they hire for publicity to announce the book, the poet, and a possible reading tour.
Of course, most small presses and university presses, too, have extremely limited budgets and rely on the poet to undertake the junket, if we can call it such. A large budget is never in the realm of possibilities for almost every poetry publisher. Grants, donations, and fundraiser after fundraiser, literary or otherwise, are, perhaps, the only tickets to increase budgets.
More popular known poets—those who’ve garnered national literary awards and prizes—may, of course, have the reputations to sell a far greater number of books and make more appearances at colleges and a host of literary events, especially in larger cities. Poet-in-Residence gigs and other faculty appointments, if only temporary, aid in poets much needed attempts to place their work in the hands of more potential readers and, ultimately, consumers.
Online book sales are responsible for a bulk of purchases, these days, and it seems as if the pandemic has done little to slow this market down. In fact, the lack of in-person live readings, and live events of all matters, has further opened a market devoted to folks who need additional entertainment and literary-based options at home. Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, encouraging communication and an exchange of ideas deserve mention in any discussion of promoting one’s book and being available as your own, personal agent, of sorts.
In my own case, with a new book dropping quite soon, from Meadowlark Press, a small but mighty band of poetry partisans, deep in the rural heart of Kansas, I intend to employ as many different forms of strategy, as possible, to create an audience and space for my work. I wish I could call an end to the pandemic, for a plethora of reasons, obviously; however, it does seem, at least for the moment, that more readings and other in-person live events are now scheduled than in previous months, and, surely, the last year. One can only remain patient, stay positive, and hope ….
About Bart Edelman
Bart Edelman’s poetry collections include Crossing the Hackensack, Under Damaris’ Dress, The Alphabet of Love, The Gentle Man, The Last Mojito, and The Geographer’s Wife. He has taught at Glendale College, where he edited Eclipse, a literary journal, UCLA, and, most recently, in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. His work has been widely anthologized in textbooks published by City Lights Books, Etruscan Press, Harcourt Brace, McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, Simon & Schuster, Thomson/Heinle, the University of Iowa Press, and others. His newest collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind, will soon be published by Meadowlark Press. He lives in Pasadena, California.