J.B -Some of your recent work has been to produce long
sequences of poems. What is it about a sequence of poems
that attracts you as a poet?
G.B.- I might be a frustrated novelist. Single poems are
like short stories; series are novels, and if long enough
epics. I’m attracted by the possibilities of relating of
the poems to each other and of discovering the original
poet’s voice without mimic. I’m not much for poetry
without image, the more philosophical styles; but given a
phrase or word I can find someone or some place’s story.
Perhaps that is a kind of laziness, but I’m probably working
too hard for that.
J.B -What can a sequence of poetry do that say a
collection of individual poems cannot?
G.B.- A sequence can explore broader themes that a single
poem; but to be honest, when I do a series, the poems are
written to be mostly stand alone with sometimes only a
slight connection. A few of the poems in this series have a
strong connection taken from how Whitman penned his lines.
J.B -What has drawn you to this Whitman sequence?
G.B.- Besides being drawn to Whitman because of who he is
and his importance to American poetry, I am attracted to the
historical possibilities for this section of “Song of
Myself.” Here and other places in the poem, in a dream he
meets a variety of the people who resided in the pre-Civil
War United States. Most he knew or had meet during his
I am an amateur historian with my main interest in the
politics of the nation during the hundred years before the
War. Whitman’s crowd allows me to explore history while
engaging in flights of fancy such as in Deacons #7 or shifts
in time and space in Auction Block #13. And of course to be
straight forward and true to the era as in Policeman #16.
J.B -What do you think of Whitman?
G.B.- He is a great poet, but everything he wrote does not
work. His work is often too long,
but that thought comes from a
poet who is more minimalist every day and lives in world
increasedly rushed. He brought us into modern
poetry long before we were ready for it, and his talent
belies Robert Frost’s complaints about not rhyming. He took
chances that are not often taken even today as witness
Calamus and I Sing the Body Electric. A collaboration
between Whitman and Emily Dickenson would have been
interesting. Finally, he was an American poet. He
celebrated this country as few poets have before or since.
J.B -Yes as an American he rejected a lot of the European
styles and set out in search of a style for the New World.
Did he succeed?
I believe so, but not
alone. Dickenson contributed and W C Williams, HD, and
Carl Sandburg added flavor. Even though they wrote in
England, Pound and Eliot brought seasoning to the
table. And Frost despite his dislike of free verse was
a player in developing a distinctive American style.
J.B -I think there is a line that can be drawn from
Whitman, through to Ginsberg and Bukowski and even Bob
Dylan. This is an openness of language subject and imagery
which they all possess and which I see as coming from
Whitman. Do you see his influence persisting or is poetry
moving back into a more prescriptive phase?
The influence of Whitman
and Williams is still strong. Below I speak of poetry
as a big tent where anything seems to go in this era.
In both official - academia/print - poetry and the
more generally unrestrained internet writing, free
verse that echoes Whitman and those that followed him
seem to be most predominate, both influenced by East
Asian forms. That is not to say there is not a broad
variety of style in either. Mainstream in the
Best of American Poetry 2004 leaned
towards the most experimental forms, while one of the
premium forums on the web is Sonnet Central. However,
even in more formal, prescriptive, work, the influence
of Whitman et al can be seen.
J.B - Do you have an underlying philosophy of poetry that
you would like to share with us?
G.B.- For me, poetry is a big tent, unlimited in size and
scope. In it there is room for free verse and sonnets, love
poems and poems to trees, the minimal construct of a haiku
and large ambition of Howl or Whitman, for sing-song,
word-play and prose poetry, and for other poetry you can
imagine. I’m sorry, Lewis Turco, you are wrong.
Quality is not part of the definition of poetry. A bad
poem, even a commercial jingle, is still poetry.
Poetry can be learned but to be learned it must be practiced
– Write every day! – and studied. Read poetry, not
forgetting that from other cultures and peoples; and read
books on how to poetry. My top three recommendations are
How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry,
Kim Addonizio and Dorianne
Laux’s The Poet's
Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, and
John Fox’s Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making.
Explore with your poetry. Seek
other voices, images outside your normal experience. But
also, find a style that you are comfortable, that you can
use as your base.
Most of all enjoy this thing we
J.B - What are you hoping to achieve in the future? Is
there a piece of work that you want to tackle? Something
G.B.- There are several ideas I have considered, including a
series based on the Psalms or
Beatitides, perhaps alternating the Old and New
Testaments – poetry from a mostly nonbeliever. The Bill of
Rights comes to mind, if I can do it without being overly
political. I would like to get back to the High Tang,
specifically to explore Li Po. Rifts on Rumi or Neruda would
be interesting. I have not written any for some time, but
something erotic could happen. I’ve done a few based on
recipes, and might look at erotic poetry from them – mac and
cheese for lovers? And I would like to do another
J.B - Have you learned anything important from writing
this sequence that you could offer as advice to other poets?
G.B.- Be careful what you start. You may invest a lot of
time and brain sweat and find it a bust. At the very least,
early in the series take a sanity check. There are a couple
of series I have not finished – the final Poetic State, the
Pacific territories, remains to be penned; and the Many
Names for Rain is on hiatus.
Have a basic plan, otherwise you might be facing
considerable rework. Fortunately, I decided to do most of
this series as first-person early in the set with only a
half-dozen to change (and a couple left as is.)
J.B - Has this sequence led you to a fuller understanding
of Whitman as a person? As a poet?
G.B.- Because this series is limited to “Song of Myself,” I
haven’t got into Whitman because of it as much as I might.
I am exploring his bio and some recent criticisms, but I’ve
a stack of books that come first.
I have found out that he did not take very good care of his
manuscripts and notes; and that no one really knows if he
was bi or not.
J.B -Is there anything else that you would like to add?
G.B.- Thank you very much for listening to my rambling, and
I hope the PKers and other readers find some inspiration in
the inspirations I found in Walt Whitman.