[img_assist|nid=9907|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=150|height=225]Earlier this year, Alexander Long was kind enough to discuss with me his latest book of poems, Still Life, published by White Pine Press and winner of its Poetry Prize. I was delighted to find that his prose is just as compelling as his poetry; with candor and a great deal of awareness, Mr. Long answered my questions about how to live and write in the modern age.
Q: Writers often perform a juggling act, with many different jobs, careers, and interests swirling around them. Perhaps most obviously, you’re a university faculty member, an editor, and a musician. How do those aspects of your life, as well as any others, shape your approach to a writing life?
[img_assist|nid=9906|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=250|height=213]A: Hmm…I’ve never thought of my life in this way, maybe because I’m a lousy compartmentalist. Everything I do that may seem different or separate from my writing, in fact, feeds my writing. I’m writing all the time, as I suspect most of us writers are, but I don’t mean physically putting pen to paper. Phil Levine calls this approach to writing scouting, simply (or not so simply) wandering around the world, not necessarily looking for material (though we do that all the time, don’t we?) but letting material reveal itself to us. It takes me years, sometimes, to understand an experience on levels so I can then write, I hope, something meaningful about it. . . .That formal feeling Dickinson talks about—after great pain, etc.—is a very slow process, and I’m a very slow healer, slow reader…come to think of it, I’m slow in just about everything I do! . . .I’ve had, as the great poet put it, a “succession of stupid jobs”: fry cook, obituary writer, technical writer for the glorious Siemen’s corporation, Cutco knife salesman, 7-11 cashier, bartender. A shabby résumé. But all the while, during those lousy shifts, I was always sneaking poems at my desk, or on break. I’d call out “sick," and eat the lost pay, if I felt my writing was getting “hot,” as Berryman liked to put it. No matter what job I end up with, I’ll be writing. Like most people, I’ve worked very hard to get where I am now, having a tenure-track job in allegedly the greatest city in the world. Unlike most people, I’ve also been incredibly lucky. I get to teach poems and talk about poems and “great” literature and all that. It’s an incredible gift, and I realize how pollyanna and kumbaya I sound. But, life is often wave after wave of loss—a casting off, as Linda Loman puts it—, and teaching is the only job I’ve had during which the hair on my arm still stands up with amazement. . .One of the chief benefits of teaching isn’t so much the time it affords me to write (summers off, and all that, which is huge), but the fact that I get to talk about writing with students and friends and colleagues. Access to minds like these simply isn’t going to happen writing obituaries or chopping onions or analyzing code for some software that will be obsolete in two months.
And, yes, I’ve been avoiding my life as a musician and how it may, or may not, dovetail with my life as a poet. I’m reluctant to talk about my life as a musician because I consider myself a fraud musically. I’m largely self-trained and am aware just enough to know just how much I don’t know. Both my poet and musician friends are surprised when they hear me say this, but it’s the truth: there’s very little intersection. . . . There’s the inevitable crossover if you’re awake to your life, and I’ve drawn from my life as a musician for some poems. And I’ve tried to write song lyrics, and have failed miserably. . . .Just don’t confuse those words for poetry, because they’re not. Dylan, at his best, sure. Paul Simon. Leonard Cohen. Neil Young. Springsteen. Jagger’s best stuff from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s are brilliant at times…if you can make out what the hell he’s saying. The more coherent lyrics of Cobain and Jeff Buckley.
But, you see, I’m talking about two very different forms of verbal expression that are too often perceived as interchangeable. They’re not. There’s a reason Springsteen, for example, has an eight piece band behind him, or why Dylan toured and recorded with The Band. Even scaled down, there’s a reason they’re playing guitar and singing rather than simply relying on the words themselves to sustain their art. . .One form of expression isn’t superior to another; they’re just different. Rap comes closer to poetry in my mind than the music I’ve tried to play and write. The Roots approach poetry. Chuck D approaches poetry. A Tribe Called Quest, too. But they’re not doing poetry. They’re doing something else, something perhaps more powerful because they reach a larger audience. I keep hoping to get bit by the bug of slam poetry, but I haven’t yet because so much of it on the page is weak, but the performances can be incredible.
A poem that hums and comes just as powerfully on the page as it does on the stage…now, that’s something.
Q: In Still Life, your most recent collection of poems and the winner of the White Press Poetry Prize, many of the “still lifes” seem to be filled to the brim with personal—and often painful—recollections, which are often at odds with the historical characters and determinedly objective tone that pervades them. How do you see the trope of the still life shaping this collection?
A: Still Life is a book largely invested in the ekphrastic, but the ekphrastic as I understand, or misunderstand, it. Photographs have always fascinated me more than paintings, which flies in the face of the ekphrastic tradition. Maybe I misunderstand ekphrasis just enough [to make it] somehow meaningful or useful to me.
The trope of the still life provides me access to trespass on moments, places, and lives I’d otherwise never get to experience. The Lincoln poem was the breakthrough, the slightly ajar door with a huge light behind it that I still haven’t seen clearly. When I tried to nudge that door open a bit more, the brighter the light became and the more poems started coming despite the wicked headache from such a bright light.
Trespass seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? I was talking about this, this trespassing, with my friend Dan Lynam, a musician, a brilliant natural guitarist. He asked me if I was making it all up in Still Life or if I was relying on historical facts. Both, I told him. I’m using history as a malleable reality to help me trust my imagination. History itself is malleable, just as objectivity is a myth. So, the objective tone is really a farce, a stance I was curious about. It can be intoxicating, thinking you’ve got it all figured out, that you know the x, y, & z’s of this life. But none of us do. . .
By the time I’d started writing Still Life, I’d published two books of poems that were largely greeted with the reaction of eh. A poet of my reputation is lucky to have any reaction at all, even if it is one of indifference, mild disapproval. The first two books are, I guess, so personal, genuine…all that. Essentially, boring. I’d run out of me to write about…thank God. I wanted to write a book that was genuine and not boring. And certainly not about me. I also wanted to write a book that was not a smattering of pretty ok poems. I wanted a book that was a book, something unified, however associatively. The still life trope afforded me structure. But, the more still life poems I tried to write, the more I realized I was approaching something gimmicky, something false, a simple trope to sustain a larger, yet weaker façade that would eventually collapse.
My friend Kate Northrop took a look at a few of the poems that I’d been tinkering with, specifically, the Kafka poem. She said, insightfully, that I needed more poems like that one, poems truer to the ekphrastic gaze, poems that lend credence to the title. And that’s when it all opened up: I was/am trying to write a poem that involves, engages all the tenses, simultaneously. Why not intertwine moments across history? Why not try to overlay America’s horrific legacy of slavery, for example, with the Nazi’s genocidal regime because, really, are they all that different? Why not place September 11th, 2001 beside Auden, Chopin, and Brueghel? Why can’t they exist in the same poem?
Q: As the arts community finally seems to be embracing technology, with publications like Philadelphia Stories emphasizing their online presence as much as their physical events and magazine, how do you see this affecting the future of poetry? How do you, as an artist, use social media and the internet in general?
A: There are some terrific virtual venues for poets, writers, et al (why are poets, by the way, classified separately from writers?). Matt O’Donnell’s From the Fishouse and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Blackbird. Blackbird, for example, has video clips of Larry Levis reading poems yet to be published. From the Fishouse’s catalog is growing, and quite beautifully. Edward Byrne’s Valparaiso Poetry Review has been around a while now, maybe more than a decade, and is a place I return to. The Offending Adam is still new, but the editors there are doing some innovative things in publishing on the web; they’re finding new work, new writers who might not be able to bust down the doors in New York and Chicago and Boston and L. A., but deserve a stage. Philadelphia Stories’ ramped up presence on the web is impressive, and a welcome addition.
I’m a terrible self-promoter, and promoter in general. I don’t do it, partly out of ignorance and partly out of laziness. Social media has helped me some. How I use social media is pretty boring and expected: . . .I try to make as many “friends” as possible if only to get the word out about my work. I’m engaged in a shabby marketing campaign, but the price is right.
Q: How would you describe your voice as a poet? What issues, questions, or anxieties are most important to your work? Does this carry through all genres of your writing, or do you find that your poetry is in some ways separate from your other projects?
A: . . .I’ve never thought about how I would describe my voice. I mean, I’m always thinking about my voice when I’m writing, but never consciously. My voice may be the strongest talent I have as a writer, and I’ve done virtually nothing to earn it. It’s a pure gift. It kind of just showed up when I was 18 after having read Larry Levis’ Winter Stars. But, to describe my voice, to provide adjectives for it…I don’t know. To offer such a description would be like trying to describe how I hear rain. For years, I tried to write like Larry Levis. Something about the contemplative, meditative, almost Keatsian repose, in Levis’ voice I find, still, incredibly alluring. Levis’ voice casts a spell. Then, I wanted to be James Wright, specifically his voice in Two Citizens, a book that doesn’t receive the praise it deserves. His embrace of the colloquial, specifically his southern Ohio, enabled me to embrace my own colloquial, specifically my Sharon Hill, my west Philly. Then, I wanted to sound like myself. I’m still figuring that out. I’d like to think my voice is always evolving, always changing however slightly, always somehow getting stronger or better or more vulnerable or wider reaching. . . My voice, for sure, is what emboldens me to write whatever it is I write. It’s a genuine mask. It’s a safety net. It’s air. It’s water. It helps me realize what I’m trying to say. My teacher, Herb Scott—a real sweet cat and wickedly shrewd and wise teacher…a master surgeon Herb was—once took me aside and had some kind words about a poem I’d submitted to workshop. This was a very rare moment for me, for Herb didn’t suffer fools, sweet and kind and generous as he was. Herb told me—this evidences his genius—he didn’t realize how smart I was until he’d read my poems. What a terrifically left[-]handed compliment! . . . And Herb was right. My IQ when I’m not writing a poem is maybe around 100, but when I’m writing a poem it’s maybe around 130. I’m not all that smart, but something happens when I find the right notes in my voice while I’m working on a poem. I’m given insights or epiphanies I wouldn’t ordinarily have. I raise questions I wouldn’t have thought to raise. Confusion clarifies, sometimes. I don’t know why. I try to ride those moments out as long as I can.
To characterize my voice more concretely…that’s tough. It’s fun to consider. One line has stuck with me when I first read T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes.” I was, I guess, 18, 19 years old. That moment when he writes “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing….” Something in that acknowledgement, simultaneously audacious and humble, spoke to that late adolescent version of myself. When I read that line, I made a secret pact with myself to try to write in a voice that lives up to that. But you know, that sort of voice can only sustain itself for so long, however “infinite” its intentions may be. It can become a gateway into self pity, which I’m certainly guilty of committing in some of my poems. It can be, too, a wellspring for beauty, which I’m still working on.
What I’m interested in now are poems that have so little to do with me. I’m trying to write generously. But, I can’t escape being me. Specifically, I’m concerned with racism, suicide, genocide, and animals. I prefer animals to people specifically because they don’t participate in suicide, racism, and genocide. . .One of my primary anxieties as a writer, and as a person, is naïveté. Another is narcissism. Essentially, I’m both naïve and a narcissist because, essentially, we all are. I’d rather be an altruist, but altruism, I fear, is impossible. I’m always battling ego, about it being about me. None of us is special because each of us dies, which makes arrogance seem all the sillier.
Q: And, of course—what advice, anecdote, or other juicy tidbit of life experience would you like to give to those of us who are just starting out as writers? What started you writing, and what keeps you writing?
A: Juicy tidbit…I try to avoid gossip with the same diligence I try to avoid divas. . . I once asked Phil what could make or break a poet, and he, simply and powerfully, told me, “Success too soon, or success too late.” I didn’t press him on what “success” looks like because his point was clear: don’t worry about success. Just write, and write as if your life depends on it because, in fact, it does.
My first and best teacher, Chris Buckley, has drilled this into my head for the past twenty years: Don’t write in hopes of being recognized. Don’t turn your soul into a career; better to lose the latter than the former. If you want to write a real poem, listen to a tree, a cloud, a photograph, a cat, the ocean. Writing the poem is its own reward. Don’t get greedy. Be grateful you’re not Willy Loman. That sort of priceless, essential advice.
More practically, write every day. I mean every day, for at least two hours if you can. Do this for six, seven years. That’s about 2,500 days, or about 5,000 hours, of generating material. About 95% of it will be rubbish, unless you’re a genius, which means about 85% percent of it will be rubbish. This is what I did during my twenties, and lo and behold when I stopped to catch my breath I realized I had two manuscripts of poems, which became books eventually. I’m not trying to press anymore, which can be just as damaging to one’s writing as being lax and lazy. But, I had to press because I felt as though I had a great deal to catch up on. That’s still true. It’ll always be true. Now, I know what I’m up to a bit more clearly, so I can go a week without writing and it’s no great disaster. If I took a week off 10, 15 years ago, I would be in a deep hole, would’ve lost a lot of momentum.
I don’t have the answers. Each of us has to find the right routine, the right balance. I found mine through . . . writing a lot of really bad stuff, taking it all very seriously, and embracing failure. After all, failure is often all we’ve got.
I began writing because the simple beauty of language lured me into adoring it. Beauty convinced me it needed me, when, in fact, I needed, and need it. I was duped! And I couldn’t be more grateful. The possibility that I could offer that kind of distilled language to someone else, especially someone I’ll never meet, was, and is, everything.
Why else do poems exist but to give, to help bridge distances?
Alexander Long’s third book, Still Life, won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize for 2011. His work has appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Callaloo, Hotel Amerika, From the Fishouse, Philadelphia Stories, and The Southern Review, among others. Associate Professor of English at the City University of New York–John Jay College, Long splits his time between two Philadelphia area bands, Big Terrible and Field of Play.