Sunday, August 9, 2015

Jeremy Toombs responds

Jeremy Toombs: I come from lots of different places: Illinois where I was born and lived the first year of my life -- how important are those unremembered years in imprinting who we are; Guthrie, Kentucky where I grew up with all the love a family can give a child but always knew I'd be leaving; Murray State University where I learned my craft (and started drinking amongst other vices); Naknek, Alaska where I learned a lot about just getting on and doing what needs be doing; South Korea and the SAN open mic where I learned how to be on a mic, where I felt at home, with my people; and now Bristol, England--a special place where poetry flourishes, a place I've made a home and a family. All these places I'm from. Really the places stand for the people in the places from family to adopted family to teachers to professors to dock bosses to fellow poets to comedians and singers and co-workers and co-conspirators. What's important? My family now more than anything -- Rebecca and Benjamin. The children I've worked with in school, even though those are by nature temporary relationships, but intense and important and perfect.

DV: Why do you write poetry?

JT: I love the way words sound: big and loud and quiet and said just so. I loved studying the forms in university. To me, that's like the physics of language. How the words and sounds work together. What it means. One of my fondest memories of my degree was reading the romantics out loud while pacing the hall of the dorm I was working in as a security guard.
4 am hallway poetry rumbles. You know, all those 'rules', they're all about sound. Not rules so much as describing how words work. I really enjoy being a part of such an ancient tradition as writing poetry. I've seen the same moon Li Po wrote about. So have you. I've looked on Tintern Abbey through Wordsworth's eyes with the Abbey right in front  of me. I think there's a connection between poets, an acknowledgement that words and how they sound help us all to relate to the world. Back to Homer, Shakespeare, Li Po, Han Shan, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Basho, Whitman, Duane Vorhees, Sally Jenkinson, BJ Wilson, Dan Dietrich and oh how the list goes on to the sacred symbols and mantras of the yogic tradition, the griots; I also find it amazing that there's always a new way to approach an object, a subject, a moment, a form, a poem. It's those new ways that  I look for, that I try to reach. That's what writing is, I suppose: reaching.

DV: "Reaching" is an interesting metaphor for writing. To me it suggests something like seeing a big green Granny Smith apple on a low-hanging limb, not not quite low enough to pluck. It implies an eternal failure by poets to really grasp the essence of meaning. Are the forms you love so much ladders or are they just a scaffolding to camouflage the failure?

JT:  The poet can only try to convey the poet's conception/interpretation of what's being written about. And even that can never be complete as it's taken a whole life of differing influences that have led to that belief at that time that the poem was written. Now, that's not something particular to form/not form or even to poetry. Nothing can really replace experience for understanding. Reading Wordsworth's poems don't transport me to the actual
Lake District, nor do Han Shan's poems take me to Cold Mountain; but they do make me want to go to those places and experience those moments myself.

DV:  So, then,  the form is irrelevant?

jT: The heart sutra would say that form and emptiness are the same thing at the end of the day; when it comes to hearing a poem as opposed to reading it, it makes little difference what it looks like on the page. When I studied meter in university, me and BJ Wilson, another fine poet, studied Robert Browning's Frau Lippo Lippi line by line, syllable by syllable. There's a point in that dramatic monologue where the mood shifts and the monk goes from being accusatory towards the police to being complimentary of the captain. Now, when you read this part with no knowledge of meter, you still get the shift (if you are reading aloud). When you study the meter you can see exactly how that shift in mood occurs as Browning very clearly goes into several lines that are not iambic after many lines that are strictly iambic and then back into iambic more or less after the shift.

DV: This will seem like a silly question, I'm sure, but why would anyone need to spend so muct time and energy on such a picayune pursuit? Why not just write what you feel at the moment?
JT: The time I've spent reading and writing sonnets has helped to shape my other free verse poetry (I do write mostly in free verse); I have poems that more or less follow the thematic structure of a sonnet, and feel to me like a sonnet, that I had no thought at the time of writing of making a sonnet. Within a form itself, if I were to decide to write, say a sestina, it does provide a scaffold for the words. it's something that I don't have to consider, even if only subconsciously, while I'm writing.

DV: So what approach toward writing do your follow at this stage of your creative life?

JT: My own poetry has moved away from forms; that is, it's been a long time since I deliberately followed a western form to write a poem. The last few years I've immersed myself in old Chinese poetry (following the links that modernist poetry from Pound to the Beats trace back to what is essentially modernism back as far as Tang Dynasty poetry). I do think that the method of writing more than the form (not being literate in Chinese I can say little about any form) comes a shade closer to producing that 'essence' than most western poetry pre-modernism (all that came after is shaded with Chinese poetic philosophy as it came through Pound and William Carlos Williams and others like Gary Snyder). I'll leave with a quote from Basho about writing. Now this passage of Basho's really stopped me in my writing tracks and I thought on it quite a while while also reading a great deal of Chinese poetry at the same time. it's affected my poetry as much as studying forms and metre once did:

"Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one--when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural--if the object and yourself are separate--then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit,"

DV: I guess that pretty much says it all. But even Emerson (Emerson! who truly understood the mystery of poetry far better than he could undertake to truly write it) remarked that "Good poetry could not have been otherwise written than it is. The first time you hear it, it sounds rather as if copied out of some invisible tablet in the Eternal mind than as if arbitrarily composed by the poet." But I fear we have now stooped to the level of trading quotes, like dueling guitarists is a cutting match, instead of creatively exploring the issue at hand. It has been wonderful, and wonderfully enlightening, to carry on this conversation. Maybe we can resume it at some future point.

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