On Poetry, Process, and the Writing Life
Mark Reep: Border War made me use too many ands. When I wrote back I was still buzzing from it and I said your poems are like trailers for films no American studio would finance because they’re too strange and dark and beautiful and they’d leave too much wonderfully unexplained and too much room for viewers to dream and make the stories their own. You’re right, that’s a tangle of woods. But rereading the piece a few weeks later, its impact is the same. Your work wakes, frees me up a little, makes me want to write something, now. Would you talk a little about the the making of Border War- Inspiration(s), process, etc? Was it as much fun to write as it is to read‒ that is to say, a lot?
Howie Good: I don’t think of writing as “fun.” Challenging, yes. Rewarding, maybe. But fun, not exactly. The process is simply too fraught with perils and obstacles: is this the right word to use? Is this line too long? Is this image tired or inaccessible or barbarous? And it’s not much better when a poem is finished. I keep worrying that it’s actually not “finished,” that something is wrong or missing, but I’m just not seeing it. As for the inspiration for this particular poem, I woke up one morning with the phrase “too many ands” in my head, and my conscious mind took it from there.
MR: Your work often blurs lines, combines seemingly disparate elements in a way that never seems forced or obtrusive, only surprising, intriguing, inspiring: ‘The wind thrust its beak into me.’ ‘The torn envelope dawn came in’. ‘I heard jewels in the mail.’ ‘Night frost lit up the fields, a language that has no word for the past.’ Talk a little about how this happens, or you make it happen, so seamlessly.
HG: What you’re describing is, for me, the essence of poetry. I believe that an image in a poem should startle us out of our habitual patterns of seeing and thinking. I know my images often seem irrational. But look around- the rational world isn’t such a great place to live. If a poem works right, it re-establishes new relationships among familiar objects and meanings and, in doing that, implicitly comments on and maybe liberates us from the oppressive nature of their old relationships.
MR: The work’s not only seamless, but always clean, spare, efficient. As my wise ma says, good reading is often hard writing- Generally speaking, how large a role does editing play?
HG: I revise extensively. It’s the old adage- writing is rewriting. On the other hand, I try to stay open to surprise even while imposing structure on the primordial ooze from which the poem emerged.
MR: Many of your regular readers know you’re not only a prolific poet, but also a professor of journalism, and you’ve published a number of academic books as well. How much time, most days, remains for writing poems, and how do you make such consistently productive use of it?
HG: I write for several hours most days, and it’s almost exclusively poetry. I published an academic book- Entertainment and Ethics- in spring 2010, and I think it may well be my last one. I just don’t get a rewarding feeling from that kind of writing anymore. Academics are often distressed by the fact that I write poetry, and poets are often confused by the fact that I’m a journalism professor. Most people seem to see one as disqualifying me from the other. This isn’t to say that journalism hasn’t hurt me as a poet. My style is in some ways highly journalistic. I tell tight little stories in a simple language (what you earlier described as “clean, spare, efficient”)- which is pretty much what I try to teach my students to do in the basic newswriting class. But where they write to inform, I write to unbalance or unnerve.
I never took a creative writing course, though I did teach one as a TA at the University of Michigan. I received my training in newsrooms. For good or ill, it’s definitely left its mark on my writing.
MR: Are you a morning writer? Late night? Coffee? Music? Silence? If it varies, how do environment/time/circumstances impact the work?
HG: I prefer to write in the morning (after several million cups of coffee), but if necessary because of class or committee meetings, I’ll write whenever I can grab the time. I tend to reserve evenings or late nights for either revising or brainstorming. By brainstorming I mean going through the notes I’ve jotted down during the day- phrases, titles, quotations, whatever- and transferring them to a Word file, where they can begin to cook. Sometimes I like quiet when I write, and sometimes I like classical music. I take what I get, though- garbage trucks, barking dogs, screaming neighbors.
MR: A common response to good writing is to say oh that must have happened to him/her. Of course, that’s an insult to the writer’s imagination and ability, but I’m still kneejerk curious: Is Writing Life at all autobiographical? Is there something of you in that boy kicking the apple? Are you observing/imagining someone else? Any of the above?
HG: I wrote that almost immediately after a recent poetry reading at a local bookstore. I had invited a bunch of people, and a bunch of them said they would show up, but only five or six did. I found the whole episode eminently depressing. So the images in the poem are imagined, but the emotions underlying the images are autobiographical.
MR: One of my favorites of your poems is ‘For The Woman Who Walked Out During My Reading’ (from Police and Questions, at Right Hand Pointing). So full of good stuff. Immediate surprises- an upsurge in sunspot activity, the general decay of manners- that are at once familiar phrases but lovely too. They fuse like licks from a well-crafted solo to shape the story in a way that’s both beautiful and efficient. And despite her walking out, you treat her kindly:
Let me think there was a man
(with a ponytail, perhaps),
a vase of dried wildflowers,
a bedroom wall on which
you put a hand for balance
as you stepped out of your skirt,
your micro panties, and then yourself
and delicately into a love poem.
The closing lines- and then yourself/and delicately into a love poem- are a last wonderful surprise. Did in fact someone’s exit spark this? If so, it’s a kind and lovely response.
HG: Yes, it was based on an actual incident. A woman walked out of a reading- one of my first ever- on campus. As you might imagine, it was extremely disconcerting. I wasn't a very confident poet or reader at the time. Maybe that's why when I came to write the poem about it, I pictured her going to someplace even more poetic. Or maybe I'm just a forgiving type... nah.
MR: You’ve said reading is essential to writing, that words are the water we writers swim in, that if you didn’t read a lot, you’d soon be flapping around gasping for air. I expect you draw inspiration from a variety of sources‒ what kinds of reading most often fuel or feed you in a way that furthers your poetry, and how?
HG: I read a lot of nonfiction- history, philosophy, biography. As with my journalism background, perhaps this gives me different resources to draw from than other poets do. I collect words from my reading the way one might collect shells while walking along a beach. They’re words that strike me as poetic, though they may not have struck others as such. I like to think this helps me avoid conventional tropes when I begin to construct lines and images.
MR: What writers, publications do you enjoy most, read regularly?
HG: Here are the titles of the books I’ve kept on my night stand for the past few months for company and inspiration: The World Doesn’t End and My Noiseless Entourage by Charles Simic, The Afterlife by Franz Wright, Mountains in Berlin by Elke Erb, View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska, and The Great Fires and Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert.
In the world of online publishing, I admire and often envy the work that appears in 2River View, elimae, Right Hand Pointing, Prick of the Spindle, and the e-chapbooks published by Gold Wake Press.
MR: When I first began reading your work, I half-expected, based on its quality, that you might limit your submissions to well known, respected publications. I was very happy to be wrong, to find you regularly publish work in new and emerging markets few who don’t read Duotrope have heard of yet. Thank you for that, Howie; it’s always exciting to find your work in the inbox. How important is it to simply get as much of it out there as you can, to make it accessible to as many readers as possible, and how do you hope your work may impact them?
HG: I’m not as indiscriminate in submitting as might appear. I read previous issues of a publication before submitting. They say one’s known by the company one keeps. It’s just common sense to study the quality of the work that might surround your work if accepted.
But I’m not all that exclusive. I will submit to emerging online publications when they seem carefully designed and edited. Submitting is one of the ways I test whether what I’m writing is any good. You can’t always rely on an editor’s judgment of your work as a true measurement of its worth, but sometimes a rejection will send me back to a poem and get me to dig into it again and improve it. In that sense, submitting can be an important part of the writing- or rewriting- process for me.
MR: I always value opportunity to learn a little about others’ process, ways of working‒ Seems regardless of media or form, something always translates, becomes useful. Anything else you’d like to say about your approach to your personal work, the writing life in general? Essential advice you’ve found most useful, or wish someone had shared with you earlier?
HG: I tell my students that if they’re serious about being writers, they need to organize their lives around their writing rather than their writing around their lives. Without a set routine, very little writing is likely to get done. There are just too many competing interests and obligations. This is hard for them- for any of us- to accept and even harder to practice. It means that writing is the organizing principle of your life, and that means, in turn, your life is going to seem very odd to other people- for example, your parents. And how do you justify the sacrifice to them or yourself when you can never be sure that what you’re writing is worth a damn? It requires a leap of faith that most can’t make or, having made, maintain. Have I wasted my life by devoting so much of it to writing pages and pages and pages of stuff that’s almost guaranteed to perish, and soon? Maybe. Probably. But I don’t know if I had a choice. At some point, I became dependent writing as my way to navigate the world. If I didn’t do it, I’d sail right off the edge of the map.
MR: Thanks for taking the time, Howie. It’s much appreciated.
Howie Good is the author of the full-length poetry collections Lovesick (Press Americana, 2009), Heart With a Dirty Windshield (BeWrite Books, 2010), and Everything Reminds Me of Me (Desperanto, 2011), as well as 24 print and digital poetry chapbooks.