- GUEST POET -
Sadly, I don't get to interview many poets, but today is your lucky day.
Welcome, Jeff ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR POETRY JOURNEY.
I’m a Pushcart Prize nominee and a nominee for Sundress Press' Best of the Net Anthology, and I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. I’m a frequently published mainstream poet whose work has appeared in over 40 literary journals in the US, the UK, Ireland, and Asia, including Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today, Naugatuck River Review, Rattle, and Whiskey Island. I have over 30 years experience as a teacher of English language and literature at secondary and university levels.
I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, an historic terminal market for western beef, where I worked for Waitt Cattle Company while I attended Morningside College. In the 1970s and ’80s, I worked in Florida and Minnesota as a groom and stableman for dressage and A-Circuit hunter-jumper trainers. I was licensed on Thoroughbred race tracks of Nebraska and Montana as both a groom and assistant trainer. After several years of teaching in El Paso, Texas, doing some daywork on ranches near Sierra Blanca, and boarding horses at our farm in New Mexico, my family and I moved to Great Falls, Montana, where I taught English. I retired from education in California then spent three years teaching Business English in the Faculty of Arts at Assumption University of Thailand in Bangkok.
My performances as a cowboy poet incorporate my expertise as an educator, his love of history and his passion for the English language. I have appeared in the Public Television (PBS) Series Cowboy Corral and in November 2013, on BYU Radio's Appleseed program.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A POET?
I began writing and performing “Cowboy Poetry” in 1992 and enjoyed some local popularity (Texas and Montana) and some acclaim in the genre with publication credits in Western Horseman and other national magazines and important anthologies. I expanded into the mainstream when I earned an MFA in Poetry from New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire in 2008.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A POET?
The challenges and opportunities of the revision process. “Nothing happens except in revision” is a mantra I owe to my mentors and NEC. All the worthwhile creation and adjustment for final effect-- all the “play” associated with a piece-- is concentrated in that process. Anybody who says to you “I wrote this in 10 minutes” is probably showing you something that could as easily have resulted from an explosion in a print shop.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT POETRY?
Finding the right words and then getting them in the right order.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A POET?
I know one person who claims to be a professional poet, whose sole income is revenue from public readings, speaking engagements, and publishing sales. He also is eligible for food stamps. So nearly everyone is something else at the same time they are a poet or they are living in a cardboard box under an overpass. Like many others, I’m a career teacher of English language and literature with experience at secondary and university levels. I’m a consultant for second-language academic writers working in English. I’m also an Associate Editor for Poetry & Prose at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L). And that last is a volunteer position.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
I’ve achieved a few milestones. My cowboy poem “Ol’ Smoke” appears in the third anthology published by Gibbs Smith Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion commemorating the genre. My haibun “El Paso: July” was selected by Robert Olen Butler for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions 2015 from Queen’s Ferry Press. My first book Sunday Creek won widespread approval from cowboy poets and mainstream readers alike. My second book An Atlas of the Interior, a collection of poetry, haibun, and flash memoir, also was well-received. But the “greatest writing achievement is ever and always the last thing that I’ve finished. This time it’s a chapbook of haibun called WILE: Sketches from Nature.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
In addition to curating the OPEN journal and coordinating its Contributing Editors, I’m building a writing workshop for poets to be delivered at the local library in November and for a later launch on Youtube. Poets will bring a late version of a poem and we’ll use the O:JA&L screening rubric to determine if any of them are in a publishable form.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I guess I’m a narrative pastoralist.
WHAT SORT OF POETRY DO YOU WRITE?
Prosey stuff. Carefully organized rhythmically, but prosey. Some lyrical things but most have or imply a traditional narrative structure or otherwise supply hints of a complex backstory. The imagery and the situations in my latest book are drawn almost exclusively from natural scenes of rural America-- from the Southwest, the Far West, and the upper midWest. There’s nothing elitist about my work. There are some things that will reward a careful, skillful reader, but generally people don’t need university training in modern poetry to have a good time with my stuff.
In addition to his frequent publication in mainstream literary journals, my works have been included in the anthologies The Big Roundup, a project of Cowboypoetry.com, and in Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, third in a series of definitive cowboy poetry anthologies published by Gibbs Smith.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR ASPIRING POETS?
Read widely. Write much. Submit often. And never, ever quit your day job. Unless you win The Lottery.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
“Writer’s Block” is a myth. If you understand “Writer’s Block” as a psychological paralysis that comes from trying to do too much at once, you can find a way through it every time. Anybody can write a sketch of a single moment, a description of an object on the desk, a list. Do any of those little things and writer’s block simply vanishes.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
I’m usually a “night writer.” I often work after “lights out” for everybody else. That is an old habit that comes from raising three smart, active children.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I know I contradict the contemporary wisdom that ays you need a devoted space, a sanctum free from intrusion on your processes, but I can write anywhere I can set up my laptop. Literally, anywhere. I wrote four semesters worth of academic papers sitting all night in a booth at a Sambo’s Restaurant in Iowa City.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
Getting a piece picked up by a publisher. That means it has found an audience. It has become another fulfilled ambition.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
I have several favorites. Hemingway and Basho for economy of language, Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) and Cormac McCarthy (the Tex-Mex Westerns) for narrative tone and richness, the Anglo-Saxon bards and Walt Whitman for control of rhetorical devices and rhythms, Gerard Manley Hopkins for creative manipulation of diction and the music of language, Emily Dickinson for energy and control of image, T.S. Eliot for balance of all elements, Jane Heap for the single prose poem “White,” Robinson Jeffers for the single narrative poem “The Roan Stallion,” Robert Bly for the single book The Morning Glory, Stephen Vincent Benet for the epic poem John Brown’s Body, and Robert Haas, Billy Collins, and Gerald Stern for their bodies of work.
WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
Tears. I get a few kind remarks now and again, but the most remarkable reaction was tears from a woman when I recited “Ol’ Smoke,” a poem about a foul-tempered aging cowdog, for a large audience at a cowboy gathering in Ruidoso, New Mexico. She said she had owned a dog just like the one described.
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
The worst reactions from readers are the generic rejections from publishers. If you write, you will get far more rejections that acceptances. I repeat, “Don’t quit your day job.”
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
I think writers are only influenced by things that happen in their own lives. It’s likely impossible for a writer to escape from his unique set of experiences (which establish the writer’s internalized world view and value structures) and still be genuine and authentic. Attempting to abandon experience in favor of some abstracted and intellectualized substitute seems like an aesthetic suicide. Maybe that’s why I prefer more transactional poems that represent features and qualities of the real world.
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
I’m a hunter and sport shooter. I’m a horseman.
DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
I’m my own editor. I do offer them before publication to a few trusted readers. The publishing presses sometimes offer additional advice, usually about formatting, to which I most often agree.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Every day is perfect if you judge it by the criteria it offers you
IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
My wife. That’s the only safe answer.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Nothing. Leading the world is not my job. Picking the right leader (which I helped to do), that’s my job.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
I’m going to mow the lawn. I try not to plan too far ahead. That would imply that I take time for granted.
WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO YOUR GRAVE?
Death in the Afternoon, Leaves of Grass (Deathbed edition), John Brown’s Body, Shakespeare’s folio edition, and KJV.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Many of my pieces are first person POV, so that’s intended.
DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
Not really. It’s just another maze. If you submit often enough in enough different places, your work, if it’s good, will find a way to the audience.
DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
No. Poetry is just a game writers play with publishers and readers. You can’t win if you don’t enter up. “If you don’t like the ramrod or the cavvy, roll your sougans and travel,” as the old cowboy says. For now, it all suits me fine.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE POEM TO WRITE? WHY?
“Horse: 4 Frames” is a long syllabic poem (16 syllables/line) of maybe 400 lines, executed in four distinct voices. It was published in Los Angeles Review in Volume 8 (Fall 2010). Fun to write and still fun to read. It’s also in An Atlas of the Interior. “Horse: 4 Frames” is, I think, the best piece from my MFA manuscript project. One of my most admired mentors, the poet Carol Frost, told me she found it to be “admirable.” High praise, for my money.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER.
Publication. That’s the purpose of writing. Success is achieving your purposes.
WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR POETRY KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
They should know something they didn’t know before and have the sense of having done something they had never done before. That should be a satisfying experience.
HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
I was consulted only on the design of my first book cover. That design (Sunday Creek) went through three iterations before it did enough to serve the contents. The publisher’s graphic artist designed the second cover (An Atlas of the Interior)-- the focussing device was a red compass rose on a dark blue field. Title & by line were in white. I proposed a design for the third book (Wile) and the publisher approved it.
WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
A Pushcart. That’ enough.
WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
I’ve got marketing help from my publishers and from a marketing firm. Click the links.
ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
Self-publishing for a new poet is a way to guarantee that the work will be available only to the smallest conceivable audience-- the people to whom it is given.
DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT?
No. Most poets don’t need an agent until they win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer. Genre writers or those who write with the mass markets in mind, they need agents. I don’t write that kind of books. I write poems and once in a while I gather them into a collection.
Clancy's comment: Thanks, Jeff. Well done. There is some good advice here.