blue ink cuticle
reminder of who I am
shy spiller of words
Interview with Bruce Meyer Part II
VS: You teach writing. What is a facet of writing that you notice many students/writers struggle with? What is your solution/inspiration for this major writing challenge?
BM: The one thing students struggle with is wanting to be easy with what they are writing. They want to toss off rhyme without learning how powerful a tool it is and how connected it is to form. I was a Member of the American New Formalists Movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Their dictum was that one had to be clear (another thing younger writers struggle with) and that the poems should work as much as possible in the voice of everyday speech. There’s a problem that has been pointed out recently called “Poet Speak” where the poet’s voice changes entirely into something unearthly and eerily artificial and fake because they are saying what they think they should say but saying it in poetry. To hear it is unnerving.
The poets I really admire are Philip Larkin, Jared Carter, Ted Kooser, the late Don Domanski, Billy Collins, Marty Gervais, John B, Lee, George Elliott Clarke, Laurence Hutchman, Bruce Hunter and Molly Peacock and Marilyn Hacker because they write poetry that isn’t trying to sound like poetry.Bruce Meyer
It sounds like someone sharing something important with you. That said, a lot of poets in the 60s and 70s went too far with that and their poems were sloppy. They sounded like someone announcing that a Via Rail train was going to be late on Track 7. There is a happy medium. One of my students who isn’t trying to reinvent language but who is telling something as if it is spoken from the heart is Antonia Facciponte. I’m very proud of her. Her poetry is honest. It isn’t trying to be academic. It is trying to tell the truth of something with passion and urgency yet with an ear for the way we hear life. Giving a voice its basis in the world and not in theory is the other hard thing — the opposite thing — from those poets who don’t know much about the art, don’t want to know much about the art, and who are looking for an easy way out of what they have to say. In other words, the hardest thing to teach students is to listen to themselves, to train their ear, so that they give the poem the kind of honesty that, in the words of Keats, approximates good prose or is a person speaking to a person (as Wordsworth said). When Heaney is on his game he achieves this. I have no use for sound poetry, or poetry that is predicated on linguistic theory. I think Louise Gluck won her Nobel on the basis of being honest and organized with what she is saying. There is beauty in honesty.
VS: How important is your reading life to your writing life? Would you say you’re an avid reader? Do you tend to listen to audiobooks as an option for reading? Do you think it’s the same experience?
BM: Reading is essential. My students ask what they should read. That’s like asking if there is a royal road to learning. Nope. Read everything. A student who only reads one thing is like a deep-sea diver trying to visit the Titanic wreck by holding his breath. They are missing so much. I know that’s an extreme metaphor. Let me put it this way: the practice of poetry is about laying as many tools as possible on your workbench and finding the right tool, the right means of saying something, at the right moment. I have never listened to an audiobook. I mean, why? I have an inner voice. What is important is the way it sounds in my head and not in someone else’s voice.
Reading is democratic. It is individual and it is personal. Christopher Middleton, an English poet I knew, used to say that built into every poem or even a story there is something called the endophone, the innate voice of the author that cannot be taken out of the text no matter how badly someone else reads it.Bruce Meyer
Here’s an example: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. You can hear him coughing. “O happy, happy, happy shades… and more happy…” Geez. He’s about to choke up blood. Pity. He is dying on the page in front of you. Writers pour their own voices into their work. You can hear mine. You can hear the emphatic, slightly snarky teacher right now. I am an insistent teacher. I ask students to open their minds, but above all to open their ears. Beyond that, Robert Graves says writers see what they are writing about and you can tell if a writer is near sighted or far sighted. Keats, by the way, was myopic. The essay by Graves is titled “How Poets See.” It is in his book titled The Crowning Privilege.
VS: Is there a place you’ve always dreamed of writing? Like, a specific location… in a villa in Tuscany… or a chateau in France? Where is this place, and what is your dream writing situation? (The script mechanism on my sympatico is a nightmare so sorry for the odd typography. I trust you will fix this problem. Your questions are in bold and my answers in regular font).
BM: There are two things I can do anywhere, sometimes standing up. One is fall asleep. The other is writing. I’ve written in airports, on trains, buses, in noisy restaurants and bars while waiting for service. I have a desk in my living room and a desk in my library in my basement. I keep a lap desk beside my bed (my wife refuses to sleep in the same room because I keep turning on the light and writing things down until I am satisfied with what I’ve done) and write in the middle of the night. I think being somewhere quaint would just distract me. I write about what I see but where I see things is in my mind. I have a very powerful visual memory. I remember details of days, experiences, places, people. I have a lousy sense of time. I experience synesthesia (some people are driven mad by it but I love it because I can taste colors and smell sounds). That is very useful for a writer. I have a poem about my daughter who was eight at the time and learning to play the guitar. They high notes sounded like the taste of lemons. Being somewhere unique doesn’t have anything to do with where someone goes in in their writing. I don’t get to travel much. I’d love to. I’m open to invitations. But not having won a lot of awards, etc. I don’t get invited places. Linares in Mexico generated an entire book in a week. I loved that because Mexico, old Mexico and not the tourist trap Mexico, is like life with the volume cranked up. But the hills of Simcoe County and the view over Nottawasaga Bay means more to me than Tuscany, perhaps because the familiarities are my familiarities. So, I love travel but I can write anywhere. The place where I sit doesn’t make much difference. A river in Hualahuises, Nuevo Leon is just as good as a my desk but with one exception: my desk(s) don’t have fire ants.
VS: How important is time management/writing discipline, and how often does your writing ‘schedule’ shift?
BM: I don’t put myself on a clock. I write everyday. I make the time. Sometimes the time is late at night I’m a terrible nighthawk. The phone doesn’t ring. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “no one calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide.” If I don’t write everyday, I become physically ill. I think I am an addicted writer. My problem is not making myself write: my problem is knowing when to stop, especially with fiction. I literally walk into the worlds of my stories and sometimes finding my way out takes more time than I realize. I lose track of time. That’s not good. The other day I thought someone was shining their headlights in my living room window until I realized it was the sun and the birds were singing. That is hyper focus and it is bad. It is getting worse as I get older. I slip into my inner eye, ear, and world and time vanishes. There is no time in a text. There is no time in the world of the written word. Everything exists in a permanent now. It is wonderful, but I have to remind myself to leave because I don’t feel pain there (since I was twelve and a kid at school who ended up on the National Ski team broke my back, I’ve been in constant pain, sometimes worse than at other times). Writing is bliss. And I get to meet unusual people in that inner world. Some of the people I encounter are people I have loved and lost and they are alive there and there is no grief, only joy to be with them. Other people such as Mrs. Henderson in “The Hours” are fascinating, as is her gardener. I was sorry when the story was completed. I really enjoyed meeting them. The same is true for the travel writer trapped in his cabin in “Yellow Jack.” We had a lot in common we could have continued to discuss. I think it is important to treat my characters as real people and to show them the same respect, interest, and honor I would show to people on this side of the imagination.
VS: Do you think it’s important for writers to participate in open mics, writing workshops? What can we learn from these experiences?
BM: Only if they are prepared. I once jumped up at an open mic and bombed because the poem wasn’t finished. I tend to shy away from readings these days. I don’t want to put myself between the work and those who are trying to delve into the work. Public reading is taxing. There was a young poet, an idiot, who laughed and made snide remarks all through a set I did at a festival in Durham, and another person, the husband of a poet I respect, who heckled me at a launch for a lit mag in Toronto two years ago. Since then, I have shied away from in-person readings (and not just because of the pandemic). I have fallen in love with the Zoom reading because the moderator shuts off the mic and I can shut off the video feed if someone starts to be an ass. I love recording readings digitally. I love reading with poets such as Marty Gervais or Michael Mirolla or Laurence Hutchman or John B. Lee because I adore hearing their work and sometimes almost forget I should be reading mine. Maybe, at heart, I’m becoming a civilian in the literary world. I just don’t see the need to push my personality into the spotlight. The writing isn’t about me. I want what I write to leave the house and lead its own life. Workshops are different. They are just like my classes, and I love teaching, especially if the participants get what I’m saying as is the case with Antonia Facciponte who has really built on the basics I taught her and has gone off done her own thing which is quite amazing. She is now, very much, her own poet. I don’t have to teacher her now. I get to cheer.
VS: Any final words of wisdom?
BM: I’m not sure wisdom has much to do with it. Live and learn. There is one piece of something I want to pass on, however, that younger writers can use. For years I had been told I ought to write like this poet or that poet. That’s the worst advice to give a young poet. I can teach the engineering of the language and the ways to get the most out of experiences and the imaginative world. But it stops there. I found a quote on a jazz album (I’m a bit jazz fan) from Thelonious Monk. He said, “Play your own way. Don’t play the way people tell you to play. Play your own way, and eventually they’ll catch on even if it takes them twenty or thirty years.” That was back about 1985 I found that quote. I’m still playing but I doubt people have caught on and they may not comprehend what I have done for another fifty. Writing isn’t about the moment. Horace said, “Litera scripta manet,” the written word survives.
When a writer puts something to paper what he or she has said is not just for the moment but for the next five hundred years. I’m prepared to wait and I don’t need to be here when they sort it out.Bruce Meyer
Missed the first part of this interview? Read it HERE.