Ask yourself: do I love words? – Interview with Kenneth Pobo

Ken Pobo is the author most recently of Ice and Gaywings (winner of the qarrtsiluni chapbook Contest, 2011), Trina and the Sky (winner of the Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest, 2009),

and Glass Gardens (Word Press, 2009).  He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and has published four collections and twenty chapbooks to date. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as such journals as Fifth Review, Hawaii Review, Atlanta Review, The Fiddlehead, Grain,Nimrod, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, and, we’re happy to say, RHINO 2011. Associate Editor Andrea Witzke Slot interviewed him in February 2012.

AWS: First of all, thank you, Ken, for taking time out of your busy teaching and writing schedule to interview with us here at Rhino.  I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know your work. You are a prolific writer and use a wide range of voices and styles, with each book having a clear focus and/or thematic structure.  I’m curious, though, how you might describe the defining features and writing style of your work as a whole?  Which of your books do you feel best represent you and why?

KP: I have several approaches to writing poems.  I enjoy writing character poems, but I also enjoy observations of the natural world, including the garden, poems about my life as a gay man, poems about growing up.  While I mostly work in free verse, I sometimes work in forms.  More recently, I’ve been working on flash fiction.  Reading other poets, no matter what I’m working on, is helpful.  I am particularly drawn to ancient Chinese poets: Du Fu, Li Bei, Wang Wei, among many others.  I am a reviser.  Sometimes I wish “first thought, best thought” would work for me, but when I draft, I have to almost “talk” the poem through, so much needless verbiage appears.  I work toward a lean, economic line and poem.  At 57, I am still learning how to trust the image, trust the metaphor or simile.

No book/chapbook fully represents who I am as a writer.  Right now, I feel a strong connection with Ice And Gaywings, perhaps because it is most recent, but also because it combines my interest in Wisconsin, my relationship with Stan, and a connection with nature (particularly the Wisconsin Northwoods).  Trina and the Sky took years to write.  At first, I was going to write a suburban satire, a Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman done in poetry.  I saw Trina as a comedic figure—until she got more real for me, a person with losses, doubts, and fears, and the poems moved away from my initial ideas.  Characters always change, at least to some extent, as I write them.

AWS: As mentioned, your books use a wide variety of voices and styles. In Trina and the Sky, for example, my favorite of your books that I’ve read so far, you give one woman, Trina, a 3-D persona by letting her speak for herself in first person in some poems but by allowing a third-person narrator to speak for her in the majority of the poems. I want to note, too, how you very successfully avoid sentimentality even when the subject matter could lead us there.  Trina, it seems to me, could be a woman inside many houses in America, and yet she is so entrenched in the details of her life that she can’t see beyond those details.  What do you feel are the major themes, preoccupations, or concepts running through this particular book?

KP:Actually, Andrea, your comments say it very well, better than I could!  I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.  Trina could fit in there (if she “fits in” anywhere).  Can any of us fully see beyond “the details” of our lives?  I think Trina has a quiet courage and much of her life deals with various kinds of traps.  I don’t think of Trina as an “everywoman” (or her husband Frank as an “everyman”).  She’s a woman who faces difficulties partly due to lack of vital communication between herself, her two kids, and her husband.  It’s almost like the bridges have washed out and she’s calling to them from an island.

AWS: You have succeeded in gaining an audience for your work through many different avenues and publishers.  Your latest chapbook Ice and Gaywings won the qarrtsiluni chapbook contest in 2011, Glass Garden was published by WordTech Press in 2011, Trina and the Sky won the Main Street Rag chapbook contest and was published in 2009, and your chapbook Tiny Torn Maps was published with Deadly Chaps, a book that is available for immediate (and free) download through LuLu.  Tell us about the choices you’ve made when considering contests, small presses, and self-publication. What you think of the publication market today and the opportunities and/or pitfalls for poets?

One challenge that many poets face is the “business” aspect of being a poet seeking publication.  Much time goes into choosing a magazine which, one hopes, will be a good venue for one’s work.  Over the years, I’ve grown a thick skin to rejection.  I get a rejection and tear it into tiny pieces.  Then I’m over it.  One online site I use often is Duotrope.  One could fall into Duotrope searching for possible magazines to submit to and never be seen again.  Hours slip by.  I’m pretty dogged.  When I get work back, I always go over it and see what revisions could be helpful.  That makes rejection more of an opportunity than a negative.  William Stafford said that an editor is your friend if the editor prevents you from publishing work that shouldn’t be published.

A pitfall poets face is making the “goal” of publication more important than the growth of craft and the contemplative time that helps a poem to come alive.  A funny thing about getting work accepted is that in poetry there is no arrival.  There’s still a new idea, a new draft—and the work it takes to bring the poem to fruition.  Winning contests is gratifying—and afterwards one goes back to a draft and sees how much more work is needed.

I am pleased that we have print and online journals.  Both have much to offer.  I like how online journals make poetry more accessible than the print world could do.  How amazing to think that someone in India could be reading my poem because it is online.  However, I love the feel and smell of a magazine that one can actually hold in one’s hands.  A print journal feels warmer to me than something on a screen.

AWS: How has social media and new forms of communication and connection affected your life as a poet?

I’m thinking this through right now.  I’m on Face Book and haven’t decided why it has become as much a part of my life as it has.  It is great for connecting writers, though the connection often is in short “status update” snippets.  I’m an email-aholic too.  I find I check email quite often.  I hardly ever write letters anymore.  I have a friend who still has no computer, so I write him letters, but he is the exception.

AWS:You are a very productive poet, publishing no less than 20 chapbooks and four full collections to date.  What is your writing regime?  How do you manage (and balance) the administrative side of writing with the creative side?

KP:It’s fairly simple: butt in the chair.  If I can’t generate something new, I try revising something old.  In that way, I never have “writer’s block.”  Some days are more productive than others, and I think with creativity one learns to respect the ebbs and flows.  If I feel stuck, a prompt helps me.  Sometimes I’ll sit down and look out the window and cull an image from what I see and start writing.  Some of my poems have political content—those are often begun in instant fury over something on the news.  Poems centered on a character can grow numerous once I get more of a handle on who the character is.  Trina, for example, required many more Trina poems to be written than ever got published or published in the chapbook.  They needed to be written for me to better understand her.  I’m fairly bloodless about deleting work that doesn’t feel focused or my commitment to it is weak.  Some drafts just don’t work and never will.

By administrative side, I think you mean making submissions.  That’s pretty much about readiness.  When I think the work is ready to be seen by an editor, I submit it.  I am never sure when I send it out how “finished” it really is.  With book manuscripts, if one comes home, that’s a great chance to see if some poems in the manuscript would better suit a different collection.

I’m a professor and when school is busy, my writing life suffers.  In English and creative writing, the work is so language-centered that when I get home I can feel I lack the energy to create.  I usually get better as the semester goes on, but in those early weeks my writing takes a hit

AWS: Following on from that question:  When did you first start writing and why?  And how has your poetry—and/or your approach to poetry—changed over the years?

KP:I can point to a day: July 4, 1970.  In my family house in Villa Park, we had a ping pong table that my grandfather built himself in our basement.  July is usually a hot month near Chicago and the basement was a cooler location.  I loved (and still love) the popular music of the 60s.  My favorite singer, then and now, is Tommy James (Tommy James and the Shondells).  In 1969, Tommy had hits that were very “peace and love” on the radio (“Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball Of Fire”).  I decided to try writing my own song lyrics in this vein. My first “poem” was called “The Open Door” which included the immortal line: “C’mon, let’s unlock our minds.”  The lyrics rhymed and had a chorus.  As I kept writing, I got tired of always having to put in a chorus (ironic since I can’t read music or play an instrument).  I started to get away from a tethering to rhyme.  By the time a year had gone by, I had a sense that writing would be my life.  I started reading other poets.

The excitement I felt when I started creating poems back when I was fifteen hasn’t faded at all.  It’s still great fun—as well as a struggle.  I didn’t write character poems early on.  Those came later.  I’m not sure why.  That happened more when I got to graduate school.  If one wants to write, one needs to do it, not just talk about it or say “Someday.”  Distractions can be abundant and dangerous.  If I’m not writing, I’m frustrated.

AWS: Do you belong to a writing community or group? If so, how has that helped you?

KP:I have at various times and they can be enormously useful.  I have writing friends who sometimes share work.  This past summer, for the microfiction chapbook, three writing friends, Margaret Robinson, James Esch, and Michael Cocchiarale, helped me choose which pieces to include.  That was invaluable.  Much of the writing life is solitary—but not all of it.  Anytime someone raises a question, whether I choose to revise or not, is useful.  Strange as it may sound, I include writers who are no longer living in my writing community.  I have a picture in my home office of Du Fu—he’s watching me this very moment.

AWS: Do you regularly perform your poetry? How important is performing for you?  What do you feel are the qualities of a successful poetry reading?

KP:I enjoy giving readings.  I get butterflies before I begin but once I start I relax and give myself over to the experience.  Listeners who listen carefully are helpful.  One thing about “performance” I like in particular is the inclusion of voice and sound, not just the reading of poems with the eyes.  Sound opens up many more dimensions than sight alone.  Each poet has to find his or her own way to bring the work to those who listen.  Early on, I was told “Don’t read so fast.”  That was good advice.  Eye contact helps.  Monotone kills.  Not all poets are great readers and reading styles change with time.  I love Theodore Roethke’s poetry.  When I heard him read on a CD I had to laugh—he sounded so purposefully “dramatic.”  Yet that approach was probably well received sixty years ago.

AWS: How do you feel your role as an educator has affected your work?  What advice do you give to students and/or aspiring poets?

KP: In my case, I think teaching turned out to be a great career choice.  Academia can be a nightmare for some writers—or a wonderful place.  Or somewhere in between.  I teach more by discussion than lecture, and in discussions students will further my own interest in a writer or an idea.  Just last semester, I began class with a writing prompt, and I wrote as the students did.  Now I have a dozen poems/flashes that grew out of that prompt.  We have a small creative writing program at Widener.  This allows teachers to work closely with students and to form a writing community.  I love that kind of connection.  Academia is not the right home for many writers.  I think it was/is a good home for me.

My advice is more about hanging in there, finding ways to keep one’s creativity alive.  Read.  Talk with other writers.  Write.  And don’t worry about if it’s “good” or not, at least not right away.  Play.  Play with language.  Ask yourself: do I love words?  Find other poets who you are crazy about.  I still remember when I was an undergraduate discovering “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Or reading D.H. Lawrence’s Pansies the first time or Sylvia Plath’s poems.  I felt my world breaking wide open.

AWS: This is a question that has always intrigued me (as the answer varies so much from poet to poet), and so I’d love to hear your own personal answer as a way of wrapping up this interview:  Does poetry matter?  Does it count for anything significant in a world where there seems to be few readers of poetry (and yet no shortage of writers)?  What, if anything, does poetry do for writers, readers, and/or our world?

KP: Well, it matters to me and to those who cherish it.  If a poem can change a person, a person’s perceptions, even in a small way, that can matter a great deal.  And what does “matter”—the latest Kardashian “news” flash?  Who won what game?  Poetry offers us a place for meditation and contemplation.  When we share our ideas about a poem, we can better understand each other.  If the readership for it is small, so be it.  This isn’t the Neilson ratings.  Even in our world of quick clicks and texts, many people want to write poems.  Good poetry can deepen our emotional response and awaken us to ideas and observations we might otherwise miss.  Speaking just for me, I feel incredibly lucky that I write.  I’ve been doing it for 42 years now and, if I live to be 100, I hope I’m like Stanley Kunitz, writing practically up to the end.

AWS: Thank you, again, for your time, Ken.  I’d love to end with an example of your work.  Would you give us a poem that you feel represents your best and/or most interesting work to date?

KP: I don’t think I could choose that poem.  Maybe someone else could.  However, here’s a poem that might be a suitable ending.

AWS: I think this is a great choice for an ending. Once again, thank you.  It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work.


Stay in, stay in,

weather people say.  I look

at our messy dining room table,

a dull sky not quite able

to get in the window.  Rain

intensifies.  I take off my shirt,

grab the scissors, and dash

for the back yard.  Heavy

gusts make zinnias sway.  Gloriosa

daisies quickly surrender to

silver blades.  Already closed,

a blue morning glory—

a boarded-up storefront.  Down,

it comes down, a draping water.

I should be cold,

but it’s like running through

fever.  With enough for

a decent bouquet, I sprint

for the door.  Don’t run

with scissors, mom used to say.

Shoes soaked, I run, hard,

crush the blossoms

against my chest,

vase caskets ready.

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