POESY: Your images hit hard and grab your readers with a shocking strong hold. Sometimes the metaphors go off on, what seem to be, random passionate tangents, but the pieces fit in the end to envelope associations you make to piece together one arresting poem. Is this the style you strive for? Or is it a natural reflective reaction to the order in which you seem the poem developing on the page? It seems like with all your images you assault the reader with what could be split apart into separate poems by themselves.
JOHN: I really think that it’s both, at least most of the time. I do strive for that result to be sure, but it is also what naturally what comes from me. Unlike a lot of poets, I don’t revise, so whatever you get you get. I think my late friend Scott Wannberg was like that too and lot of the more natural elements of my writing were/are influenced by him, and Ted Berrigan, who I’ve been obsessed with for years.
I loved how Scott would read and his passion would definitely project through his bold voice. When he read, I was always blown away and knew that this the real deal. This was poetry and somethng beautiful was happening in the room. It was all amazingly genuine. Your approach is more abstract. Where Scott would ease you into brilliance, you tend to pull out your guns right away for a full-blown assault off the opening line. I think the New Word Order tour 6 or 7 years ago you did with S.A. Griffin and Scott was so powerful because of the unique contrast of three of your styles. You were all pushing the limits of poetry, but in all different directions. In this age of social media overkill, how important is the On the Road concept of networking with poets face to face? How does it shape you to read night after night in different places, different poetry venues? Do you find poetry scenes are the same everywhere? Are you able to take away something new from every place?
First off, thank you for the kind words. I personally found Scott to be brilliant from the first line, but then I also felt like he and I were super connected from our very first conversation, S.A. too, but with Scott it really shined through in the work. On your question about poets meeting face to face, I think it’s VITAL. You have all these poets now talking online and they think that they know each other, but for the most part they don’t. I’ve broken bread with people like Gregory Corso, like Scott, S.A., Todd Moore, Kell Robertson, I could go on forever, but my point is, you see inside people’s hearts when you see them out on the road, at their best and their worst. Travel shapes you in that you can draw from those experiences in your work, and not just your own; but the lives of everyone you meet along the way— you can tell our whole collective story. Poetry scenes are of course somewhat similar, but no, they are not all the same. There are great cities where poetry can draw larger crowds than your average rock band, places like Cleveland, or Sacramento or Kingston, NY. In those places, it’s like bottling magic. If you can go out and have one person get you, I mean really feel it, then you’ve done it. I do think you take something from every place you go, at least I do. No matter how many times I’ve been somewhere, it’s always different, like any great love affair.
The biggest problem this country is facing right now is the economy and how are we going to pull ourselves out of the extreme poverty that is taking over the masses? The unemployment rate is still higher than 8% (11% in California). Yet, we spend millions a day on senseless wars. Everyone seems very emotional about this right now. It is our duty as poets to reflect on this. I don’t find too many politics in your poems. I think your extreme emotional passion could be influential in this arena. Do you ever write political poems? Or do you see poetry as an escape from everyday madness?
I find that all poetry is a statement of your politics in one way or another, my book Steal This Imagination, which was published by Rank Stranger Press in 2006, was political. I just don’t believe that a “political poem” has to beat you over the head and tell you you’re stupid if you don’t get what the troubled genius of the moment is talking about. I hate poets that basically write that America is bad. I just want to say, yeah, there are bad things that happen here, no shit— tell me something I don’t know. Where’s the art in that? S.A. Griffin writes political poems, but he invests a lot of beauty into them and that’s key. I wrote a piece a while ago about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but I took it to the human level, sure he’s dead now, but there’s still poverty here, I don’t want to shock anyone with news blurbs, that isn’t poetry, that’s a distraction from true emotion.
I agree, America is not bad, but we are in a fragile state right now as a society. I learned from Jack Hirschman that a poet’s job, historically, is to question this irony that is so apparent and confusing. I have traveled to several countries and still feel US is the best country in the world for me personally as well, but I have to question where this ship is headed. If we stay in our own niche and don’t question this, who else is going to? The media? You have to dig deep to find a compelling truth. My goal with POESY has always been to expose that poetry is an exciting art form and also to expose the right poetry that does have its place on every coffee table in America… I guess the focus is as David Lerner states in his poem “Mein Kampf”… all I want to do / is make poetry famous… Does the poet have a role in society? Do you feel poetry is stronger than ever in society? Or does it need a swift kick in the pants to get jump-started again?
I’m not sure about the poet’s role… Jack Hirschman is a smarter man than me, so what he said 🙂 Seriously though, I do agree, but like I said I just don’t think it should hit you over the head. Most of the time, sometimes you do have no choice, and given our current economic climate this might very well be that time. To answer your question though, yeah a kick in the pants is exactly what we need, at least in my opinion. Poetry is alive and well, but it could be stronger.
What was the best advice you have ever received about writing poetry and who was it from?
The best advice… that’s a good question. Probably to write more from personal experience and just be brutally honest not only with readers, but with myself. That came from my friend Jason Hardung. It really changed my writing style completely, if you read my book Sodomy is a City in New Jersey, it’s a much more narrative style than past work. Really though, I’ve gotten advice from a lot of great poets. The last words Todd Moore whispered into my ear in New Mexico were “I love ya kid…know that.” That sort of encouragement has meant more than any advice in the end.