A few years ago, you were one in seven Americans chosen to study with James Ragan in Prague. Can you tell us a little about that experience and how it affected your work?
First, I was lucky to work with Jim. I met Jim at Drexel University (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), where he stopped to talk to a creative writing class being taught by Poet Harriet Levin, the Director of the Writing Program at the time, before a reading he had scheduled in Princeton, NJ. Harriet and I are good friends (I owe much of my literary involvement to her). She knew my family shared Slovak heritage with Jim, and she encouraged me to meet with him at the parking garage and walk him to class so I could get some one-on-one time. When Jim mentioned his annual trip to Prague, I knew I had to go. I wrote him a few days after his visit, basically on my knees, expressing to him my desire to walk alongside him in Prague, to study Poetry, and explore my personal connection to my “motherland.”
After seeing some of my writing samples, he invited me along, and even offered me a scholarship. Jim’s graciousness alone is a profound influence. But to take it further, the whole “inclusive,” aspect of the trip – the, hey, poetry is the vehicle here taking me around the world, and the fact that this wasn’t happening to somebody else or in some other world, rather it was happening in my world – opened up, literally, a world of possibility. It encouraged me to never shy away from an opportunity. Great things don’t just happen to “other people.” They happen to you.
Prague is a place steeped in history. Living there for a month, and visiting other cities such as Bratislava, Vienna, Terezin, Brno, and eventually Budapest for two weeks – a seriousness began to develop both in my work, and the attitude with which I approached my work. I attribute much of my growth at that time to the solitude I had at my disposal while in Prague. Yes, I was there with a small community of Americans – colleagues I cherish – but much of my time was spent alone, making notes, collecting images and bits of dialogue.
Jim encouraged me to write down what I saw and heard in the streets, placing myself in the historic moments that shaped the landscape and its people. He called it, “historicity.” He wasn’t interested in love poems, or self-indulgent lyrics. He wanted us to focus on concrete images, sensory information, and the twisting of our metaphors deep into history. He considered himself a “cafe writer,” like Samuel Beckett or Vaclav Havel – cafes behaving as, “living encyclopedias.” This is a theme that persists in my work today. I like to take my poetry outside.
When I returned to the States, I felt transformed. I had lived, and held my own, among very talented writers for the first time. What I found was community. More importantly, I could approach the United States – those familiar communities in which I had lived and knew the best, yet deemed as too dull – the same as the exotic, foreign places I had witnessed in Europe. Europe was no longer singularly exotic, but everywhere I walked became exotic.
What are your poetic interests?
I have a deep interest in Image, particularly Image conveying complex, humanizing narratives, race, exile, family dynamics, memory, dreams, colloquial speech, and the Plain style. Mostly, I try to arrest moments / images I fear will slip away.
What is Drunken Boat?
Drunken Boat is an international, renowned online magazine of art and literature. It is among the most respected online, literary publications in the U.S. Founded by Poets Ravi Shankar and Leslie McGrath, I became involved there as an intern, again, because of luck. Ravi visited Drexel for a reading, and Harriet Levin invited me to join them for dinner at the World Cafe (as Harriet often did – e.g. Shankar, Ragan, and Jane Miller). At the end of the night, Ravi handed me his card and said, “When you graduate, give me a call. We could use a good intern.” I don’t think he expected me to follow through, but I did. A few months later, I gave him a call, and the staff welcomed me aboard.
Tell us a little about the Philly Naked Bike Ride, why you did it, and what that experience was like for you.
It was the first annual year of the Philly Naked Bike Ride. I planned to ride among the brave and cloth-less anyway, but figured it would be fun to promote Drunken Boat at the same time. So I built a large, boat-shaped float rigged to be “worn,” over my bicycle during the ride. We constructed it out of recycled cardboard. The best part about it was seeing my parents get involved – taking great humor over the boat’s design before my departure later that day. I think they were secretly hoping I’d be arrested.
What was it like? It was exhilarating. I imagine it’s akin to having sex with a complete stranger. Outdoors. In slightly chilly weather.
The next year, I rode in the PNBR again, except I didn’t construct a float. I settled on illustrating the course map, which can be found here.
Sometimes it’s hard for writers to reach out and find other writers–to find that spot in a community where they feel they belong. Describe your place in the writing communities of your past and present (New Jersey, Chicago, etc). How important is community to the writing life?
Community is important. I’m grateful, and lucky to be involved with so many gifted writers. But I’m part of other communities, too, which I believe are just as important, if not more. As an example, I founded The Saucon Valley Community Gardens Association last year. What I found was a sense of community via shared passion for local, sustainable food systems, and putting in the work to manifest one.
Not surprisingly, my work in that particular community of people informed my writing.
You can’t treat the Poems themselves as replacement lovers or friends, either. Poetry is a scaffold for your life, at best. You have to populate that space with real people and all of their terrible possibilities.
When I spoke with Jane Miller over breakfast in Philadelphia, she said that writing poetry was, for her, a “crazy-making,” endeavor. That, with every poem, she came closer to madness. And I believe Jane’s right on the money. Reaching out, yes, to writers, is important. Whether you are a writer or not, reaching out to anyone is an important gesture. I just want to say it is an especially important gesture for writers. As writers dive for new language, new possibilities, new syntactical arrangements and brain patterns and therefore, fresher and more wild realities – a community of writers can be the booey tethering you to the surface, saving you from the simple depth of your investigations.
The experience of writing can be maddening. It comes with its own form of ecstasy, its own sort of revelation and sorrow. Another writer may be the best person to reach out to, because they can, on some level, relate to the humble work writing demands of us.
My role in every writing community has been somewhat limited, in the sense that I’m still very young, and drawn to the idea of “being the best.” When writers get together, there can be — I’m not saying all the time, but there can be — a lot of posturing and ego-stroking (and it’s very tempting). That’s the downside, I think, of a great number of writing communities. It’s the one place to be understood and, simultaneously, praised for – well – mediocre work. I therefore approach any form of praise the same as I would an abstraction or cliché – with caution.
To counter my own statement – I think the act of writing should be openly applauded. Whether you win a Pulitzer or your writing fossilizes in a lesser state – the act of writing, of living a writing life, is worthy of praise all on its own. Writing isn’t easy.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what criticism or praise you receive. In the end, you just need to become so good that they can no longer ignore you. And, of course, let’s not forget – a bit of luck.
What are you reading now?
Democratic Vistas, by Walt Whitman; Hip Logic, by Terrance Hayes; The Bhagavad-Gita; A Wreathe For Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson; The Colors of Desire, by David Mura; The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno; Up Jump The Boogie, by John Murillo; The Water Between Us, by Shara McCallum; Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud.
Got any title suggestions for Book Fridge readers?
A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator, the Prague Chronicles of Ludvík Vaculík; The Mountain People, by Colin M. Turnbull; Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, by Edward Sapir; Winter Stars, by Larry Levis; Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett; In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, by Steve Kowit.
Name one of your favorite Canadian writers.
American-born, but truly Canadian, I think Carol Shields is one of the best writers to emerge out of Canada in recent years. I admire her poetry, and fell in love with her book, Unless. I imagine her a prolific, sharper, more graceful Updike.