Transparent Words





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 life. 


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?  


G.B.- 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?


G.B.- 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 Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with PoetryKim 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 do.


J.B - What are you hoping to achieve in the future?  Is there a piece of work that you want to tackle?  Something different?


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 collaboration.



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.




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