Jack Scott: I’m a retired sculptor, published writer, Reiki Master Teacher, and a constant poet. My passions include reading, writing, making art, making love, movies, theater, thinking, meditation, Reiki, fishing, bodies of water, mountains, mystery, conversation, and looking at things, feeling the beauty of them. A sense of beauty is at the core of all of my delights. I find myself thinking in poetry much of the time. My mind still works well enough and my focus can be as intense as needed. I’m reasonably healthy, but my body is naturally slowing, steadily becoming more infirm. I don’t intend to put up with pain beyond a certain limit. I blindly accept what lies ahead because I have no choice, admitting to an absolute ignorance of what that might be. Occasionally, I will turn a corner and there, upon abruptly confronting some evidence of death, will feel the chill of fear. At those times I know this about it, and nothing more: it is a disease that no one survives. So why not be a poet in the grand old tradition?
DV: What got you started as a writer -- and, especially, how did you ever become a poet, of all things?
JS: I started out as a writer at a young age and at 80, going on 25, I’m ending up as a writer, a poet. I learned to read and write very early, as my mother read to me constantly. She was my storyteller; I thought she was making it up as she went along and I wanted to be able to do that. I had an ideal childhood until I went to hell. School. Cast out of the nest. I was bipolar before treatment was available, and had a very high I.Q., so I became a problem child and an outsider. Books were my best friends; I read constantly.
DV: So it was being read to and reading that triggered your desire to write, to be a writer?
JS: It was more than a desire; as I needed to read, so did I need to write. Like inhaling and exhaling: the two parts of breathing - life. Being a writer became my core identity. It was something I could not not do, even when I did it poorly or, for long stretches of time, not at all. My belief that writing was a dietary requirement of my soul, magical and healing, was my driving force.
DV: Have you ever felt that this was genetic? That you were born with this literary drive?
JS: I’ve wondered about that, but I don’t really believe it. There have been no writers in my family that I know of. And I was a very slow starter, definitely not a prodigy. For the longest time I wrote a lot of things badly. I had no idea how difficult it was to write well, but I did confront that early. The literature of my role models seemed so effortless, so clear and so colorful. So alive. Novels were my first goal and I stubbornly began some, even after I realized that I had no talent for it. I never finished one. I could write non-fiction well enough, but my heart wasn’t in it.
DV: That mirrors my own experience. I tried several failed short stories when I was young, and I have a great opening chapter for a novel to write some day, but no follow-up chapters. However, about five years ago I wrote my first real short story by completely ignoring all the narrative rules, and it turned out well. I then did another, more conventional one, and a novella that is intermediate. And then I stopped again (temporarily, whatever that means; but I have all the time in the world….) So, how did poetry come into it?
JS: By the process of elimination, I suppose. Seeking my niche, I wrote poetry that happened to be bad. It took me years to realize how complex and demanding the discipline of writing good poetry was, at least for me. It was hard work. My impatience was a handicap, both in reading and in writing. I rushed through things. My mind raced. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with it. I left things unfinished because of my restlessness. Or I ran out of time because of work. My focus would become blurry. I'll finish it later was an all too frequent intention. I did keep all my notes, though. Another handicap remains true even today. Reading poetry is very difficult for me. I also have a great deal of trouble reading directions. It may be a form of dyslexia. I read most prose very fast, but if I have to go back and read something over, I almost can’t do it. It’s as if it becomes a foreign language, like Chemistry. Yes, this opacity affects my reading of poetry. Luckily, I thrive on complexity and work. I kept returning to have another go at what I came to think of as my art, time and time again, no matter how disappointing and unpromising my output seemed. I’ve done hard physical work all my life: carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electrical and more, besides tree work and landscaping. Believe it or not, sculpture was for me among the hardest. I should have made some money, laid up a nest egg, but I didn’t. I’ve never had a savings account. Every time I’d get a little ahead doing paid work for others, I’d withdraw from the treadmill, parole myself from the prison and write until I ran out of money again. This synchronized pretty well with the wave lengths of my bipolarity, which also affected my earnings. My writing was almost exclusively poetry. Oh, I’d write a so-so short story from time to time, but I never got really good at fiction. And I half-heartedly kept a journal, but all I put in it was how depressed I was. If I really want to get depressed all I have to do is go back to my journal and read how depressed I always used to be. I never wrote much when I felt relatively good. Too busy enjoying it, I guess.
DV: Surely, you must have had some positive reinforcement from others. Didn’t you read your work to friends, lovers?
JS: Until I made it to college, there wasn’t anyone who might have taken an interest even if my early scribblings weren’t so primitive. I think they were either cries for help or goopy crap about girls which I never delivered. I think I thought or hoped that the right girl or woman would come to my rescue and make everything all right. But I never used poetry as bait. There’s a name for that syndrome, but I can’t think of it. OK, back to the spaceship. I did have a great English teacher in high school named Florence Williams. I wrote some class assignments for her, getting encouragement, which I valued, but I didn’t really start cranking it out until college. Actually, I didn’t start becoming a person until then. I kept writing down ideas for novels. I wrote essays, short stories, plays, a column for the college newspaper, a lot of poems, some of which made it into school publications. I did read some to friends, especially girlfriends who said I was good and I was naïve enough to believe them for a while, and they were naïve enough for it to have its desired effect. I have, from embarrassment, destroyed the evidence of most of this. I spent a lot of time acting, directing, doing some playwriting in the theater in college and, later, acting in community theater. I quit that when I got tired of being a different person in the evenings. But, then, that’s the very reason I drank. (Inside joke.) I’ve only ever taken one poetry course, given by Dr. Robert Hillyer at the University of Delaware. I majored in bullshit and beer (English, actually). I don’t think I’ve ever taken a Creative Writing course, as such.
DV: How did the bipolarity affect your working life in the “real” world? The work-a-day world?
JS: After three years of college I moved to Baltimore, Maryland looking for paid work. My first job was as a tree climber while I scanned the want ads for the perfect writing job. I was hired by one of the two daily papers as a reporter, then was fired when they discovered I had an ulcer history. (“Sorry, son, we give ulcers here.”) I then worked for the other daily as a “Merchandising Supervisor,” whatever that is. The pay was the same: $47.00 a week. When I quit, I tried getting into TV and radio, although now I can’t think of anything less attractive, particularly since those slots were mostly filled with free interns. Then I became editor of The Baltimore Guide, a weekly shopper in Highlandtown for $47.50 a week (coming up in the world). I got fired when I insisted on printing a headline that was forbidden. Knocked up my girlfriend, got a divorce, got married again. (My first Marriage [both of us 17] had lasted about a month.) I went for nearly a year to Morgan State College, a black college with a 2% white population. This was before the civil rights movement. I had no problems there and remember it as worthwhile experience. I had to drop out short of finishing my second semester when my wife had our first son. Time to go back to work. We couldn’t live on the $50 a week she was making, so I went back to climbing trees, eventually establishing my own tree service. The bipolarity brought me down on and off throughout these and later years. The depression was crippling at times and the mania was ruinous in terms of my acting rashly on bad judgement.
DV: A lot of artists seem to have been bipolar. Do you subscribe to the belief that a correlation exists between manic depression and creativity?
JS: I’ve always had the fear that meds would take away my enhanced abilities. Be that as it may, I voluntarily admitted myself four times to mental hospitals to try to get relief from the depression, each time quickly discharging myself Against Medical Advice. The shrinks had not yet figured out how to treat bipolarity, so the best they could do was to zombie us with Thorazine and other toxins. When you complained, they upped the dosage. Back then those drugs left you with no comfort zone. Standing, sitting, lying down, asleep, awake was all the same misery. Imagine a sensory deprivation chamber in which, instead of Epsom salt brine, you are suspended on a supersaturated solution of unremitting wretchedness. Intermittently clear of that revolving door, I managed to buy an old farmhouse isolated atop a hill overlooking the Baltimore Beltway in the County. In the summer of 1966 while I had pneumonia I wrote over a hundred haiku in a month. My business expanded to include landscape design and landscaping. We had a second son and a bad marriage. We were both alcoholics and that property, along with our children, was pretty much all we ended up with in common. I once killed myself, really – dead, with Quaaludes and gin when I found out that my wife was fucking her psychiatrist. I woke up angry as hell, strapped to a hospital bed. We separated, and eventually divorced. The children went with her and I lived in the house alone for about a year before moving back into the city.
DV: Were you writing during all of this turmoil?
JS: Oh, yeah, whenever I could. As a matter of fact this was a relatively prolific period for me. I took a job maintaining and improving the grounds for a company that owned seven suburban apartment developments. I had a landscape crew of about thirty day laborers. Before I got fired for taking off to hitchhike to Mexico, I replaced the men with girls, women, most of them college graduates. It was the first female landscape crew that I’d heard of. They were better at the work than the men. I entered the first and only period in my life when I was having sex with a different woman almost every day. Actually, it almost got boring – but not quite! My muse was alive and kicking. I wrote a lot of poetry.
DV: Sounds ideal. What happened?
JS: I moved back to Bolton Hill in downtown Baltimore. Somehow, people came to believe that I could do almost anything, so I did my best to accommodate them. It’s funny: people have always assumed that I have a college degree. I don’t, but no one has ever asked. I advertised “experienced problem solving in landscape, construction and restoration.” My ex-wife-to-be moved back into our house with the children. Eventually our property was auctioned by the state because she didn’t pay the property taxes and didn’t tell me. I moved from apartment to apartment doing nearly everything to houses and gardens that can be done to houses and gardens. Most of the varied work I tackled, I was undertaking for the first time, with no prior experience. It kept me on my toes. I learned a lot by watching other people work, from supply house clerks (Sir, I wonder if you could explain something to me.), and by just doing it. Usually, my mind was my best drawing board and I would lie awake for hours at night building things over and over in my head until I got them right. I could build or repair almost anything, until later when confronted with my diabolical nemesis: computers. My anchor home was the Mount Royal Tavern, where I drank a lot of beer and wrote a lot of poetry. It was then that I met the love of my life, Betsy. She was a fine-arts major at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), a painter. I hired her to type boxfulls of my handwritten manuscripts of mostly poetry. I fell in love with her. She was 19; I was 38. I wanted her to move in with me, but she resisted. I went to the Florida Keys to fish and drink beer, while she came to my apartment daily to work. I called her at every day. Then one day she said, “I’ve moved in.” I said, “I’m coming home.” In the time we were together she had a uniquely stabilizing effect on my life. She didn’t believe I was sick, so I did my best to hide or manage the signs that I was.
DV: So you stopped writing then?
JS: I’ve been self-employed almost all my life. The other jobs have been varied and short term. I had learned early on that any job I might want would never be advertised in the classifieds. So I had usually pretty much written my own job descriptions. One of them was a Writer for Hire ad I ran in the Sunpapers for three or four years. For a couple of really bad people I ghost-wrote two very bad books, one of which was published by Prentice-Hall, the other by Doubleday. And I had a literary agent. For others, I wrote all kinds of things from resumes to speeches. The phone was always ringing with people who had a story that wanted to be a book; all it needed was a writer. “You write it and I’ll split the proceeds with you - right up the middle.” Yeah, right. I did not consider the writing I was doing to be writing, and still couldn’t make a decent living doing it. Active things were more fun, and paid a lot more, so I went back to work as a glorified handy man in wealthy historical preservation districts, still doing some tree work from time to time. Shortly after my mother died and left me some money, Betsy and I got married and bought a house at about the same time. I had promised to quit drinking when she said that she wouldn’t marry a drunk. I had been dry, though not sober, for about thirteen years, when I started drinking again. We had lived together for about 23 years when she left me for good reasons. The drinking wasn’t the whole picture, though. We had simply grown apart, become other people, strangers to each other. While we were together, because she had a good job and could afford the materials to rehab our house, which was a disaster, I stopped being an outside contractor and worked at least ten years on the house, alone, for the most part. I got very OCD about the house; it became my life. Betsy said that I had married it. She wanted me to finish it so that we could sell it and move out to the country where she could raise German Shepherds. To make a long story short, I balked, she moved and I stayed behind with the house. She left me with $500 and a line of credit. I was determined to change my life. I felt like I was supposed to be a sculptor, so I jumped in with both feet, determined to make a living from it. Oh, I got a lot of attention. My work was in a lot of galleries, usually featured in the front windows. And I had some exhibitions. If compliments were dessert, I’d be a fat man. Baltimore is a good city for an artist to work in, but rotten for sales. All of this showcasing of my work was costing me money; making the work was costing me money. Even with going back to doing some contracting, I spent about $40,000 on credit, money I didn’t have a prayer of repaying. Some absurdity was involved: one lender sent me an unsolicited check for $5000.00 with a cover letter saying that if I come in to their office, they’ll give me another check - for $3000.00. I did; they did. Another company sent me a $2000.00 credit for their store; that lasted about two days. End of chapter.
DV: Did I miss something? How did you get into sculpting?
JS: I’d been making three dimensional artwork off and on most of my life, not enough to dilute my writing time. Seriously, but privately. Living alone again, I began learning to make basic clay pottery. I was a slow starter, but once I got the idea I became a natural prodigy. I had taken a sculptural ceramics class and quickly discovered that if I could visualize it, or dream it, I could figure a way to make it out of clay. I could never draw, had absolutely no ability to work in two dimensions, but the world of three dimensions was, I discovered, my native habitat. My teachers said that I could make things out of clay that can’t be made out of clay. I made eagles and elephants and birds and abstract pieces. I made an eight foot dolphin of clay I threw on the wheel. I had to cut it into four sections to fire it in a kiln and never put it back together. Imagine: it’s early in the morning, with dawn coming on. Winter. You’re cold and hungry. Been up all night. The earth is flat, desolate, unpopulated, harsh and hostile. You’ve been working to the point of exhaustion on a piece of sculpture that’s the kind of thing that’s easier to make than to describe. You’ve spent all your money and then some, maxing out your credit cards to buy materials. You have no idea how the gas and electric bill is going to be paid. You’ve been working steadily for hours and hours because you’re sure about what you are doing and certain that you are going to carry it off. What you are making existed before only in your mind, your imagination. You could see it so clearly right from the beginning, but lacked the talent to draw or even sketch it. Then. There. There. there. The final touches. A little more of that. There comes an instant of realization that there is nothing more you can add, nothing subtract. Change nothing. You stand back, transfixed. You have goose bumps all over. You feel radiant. You don’t say anything. For a moment you don’t think anything. Then words come. “It’s alive!” I have the same reaction when I make a poem that comes together just right, when it’s balanced, finished. Although some poetry is never finished. I can never read those pieces without giving them a little tweak. It’s really curious- and I’ve encountered this so many times in so many different ways - that when enough people say you are this or that, well then, that’s what you can become. The job’s half done. I don’t mean because of them, but rather because of a self-recognition which was not before clear to you until triggered. People told me I was a sculptor, and that’s what I became. Actually, that’s what I was. I even taught classes in ceramic sculpture. I just hadn’t realized that I was a natural born sculptor until I began working as a natural born sculptor. Not world-class, but I got some attention, some recognition. I got a Baltimore’s Best award for Public Art. I got the sculptural commission for the Columbia Festival of the Arts. I got my first and last, one and only bronze plaque for a permanent installation in the Enoch Pratt Central Library. Penny, my copper Fish-Out-Of-Water entry, brought $9000.00 at auction at the Walters Art Gallery. And so on and so on, to a modest degree.
DV: Again, in a different way, it sounds like an ideal life. Why didn’t you stick with sculpting?
JS: I am a creature of serial passions. The list of my fixations seems endless, but in each case I fall in love and into step with something, become intensely and intimately involved with it, then gradually or suddenly lose interest and drift on to the next obsession. Clay, sculpture, orchids, reptiles, cacti, reptiles and amphibians, squirrels, succulents, coreopsis, gemstones, seeds, growing plants from seeds, thrift shops, lawn and garage sales, you name it and I’ve probably done it, made it or collected it. I’ve spent a fortune and wish I had some of it back. I’ve also spent a fortune on cigarettes and alcohol. Now I have a big house full of things I neither need nor want. I also married for the fourth time. When I was seventy five I married an eighteen year old ghetto girl who had been severely abused by her family and her environment. Actually, she asked me to marry her so that she could get clear of her family. Naively, foolishly, I thought I could help her improve her life. She had been badly damaged: her father had been raping her for years, her mother tortured her. She was bipolar, with PTSD, ADDH and, possibly, multiple personalities. She left me, not the other way around. She became a prostitute to raise the money she needed to be a cocaine dealer, then became pregnant (father unknown) and had a beautiful daughter, since given over to others to raise. Instead of being able to pull her up, I was pulled steadily down. We separated into silence, then had an amiable divorce last year. I believe she now lives in a homeless shelter. So, I live alone with my German Shepherd and her cat. I go out only when it is absolutely necessary. I have come to prefer solitude to the company of others. Nearly deaf, I live in a world of silence. I’m constantly at work on my computer, posting my poems on Facebook and elsewhere. And I’ve been trying to teach myself how to use Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Evernote, yWriter, Kindle Fire - the whole arsenal. None of this comes easily, my mind’s not wired for it, but I want these tools that can maybe make it easier to write and circulate my poetry. I’m trying to learn something about merchandising and distribution. I wish I had a teacher, but I don’t. This leaves me really no time for anything else, not even my beloved movies and books. I keep hoping I’ll come to a resting place where I’m caught up with what I tell myself I need to do, and allow myself to do what I really want to do: write more poetry. And maybe do some readings.
DV: Yet another form of the ideal life. Do you think you’ve finally found the right one?
JS: I have, at last, found my niche. I’m 80. Better late than never. I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. Despite my self-doubt about presenting it to the public eye, my poetry seems to be appreciated by others. Thanks to the generosity of my friend, Sandy Moss, the poetic content of my website has been made into an Amazon/Kindle book. Published at last! When my son gifted me with the website, I quit drinking and smoking. I don’t miss the drinking, but I would hobble a mile for the cigarette I won’t let myself have. There’s no such thing as one cigarette, any more than there is one potato chip. I hope I’ve quit in time to add that hypothetical ten years to my life so that I can follow the course of my poetry as it seeps its way out into the world. It’s curious that over all those years I spent writing with such intensity, I didn’t give much serious thought to publishing it. That remained on my Wish List.
DV: When Lyndon Johnson had a heart attack and was forced to stop smoking, he complained that he’d have rather have had his pecker amputated. I’ve never been a smoker, so I guess I’ve missed out on a lot. But what have your various abandonments and vacancies meant for you?
JS: I’d have to think real hard about that pecker business. The point I want to make with this mini-circumnavigation around my world is that writing poetry is the one passion that has stayed with me my entire life. It was too often the only ray of light in my cyclical darkness, but through all my seasons it has remained my strength, my solace, my hope. I can honestly say that although I have many times fallen short of it, it has always been there for me. My one genuine passion.
DV: One of the poets on this blog insists that writing saved her. Would you say that it has healed you?
JS: Don’t I wish! I’m damaged goods. I’m not healed, but I am healing. I can say I do believe it has saved me. Let’s imagine that I have fallen overboard. Poetry has been my life preserver. As long as I was able to hold onto that, I wouldn’t drown. The first ten years with Betsy did a lot to stabilize me. She was at first good for me, kept me afloat, but I began to flat-line. My work on the house became too heavy, too everything. My life became banal, mundane, stale, ordinary.
DV: Did I hear you almost say normal?
JS: (Chortles in parentheses). Hardly. I needed to make more art, and to do that I needed more freedom than was possible in my situation. I don’t think I consciously realized this, or I was a coward. Because I could never bring myself to leave her, I believe I gave her good reason to leave me, subconsciously, or whatever. And so she did. Anyway, it hurt like hell, but I did not try to turn it around. Once the creativity level began to rise again, so did my bipolarity cycles. (Or was it the other way around? Who the hell will ever know?) You see, the manic phase (often, but not always, together with the alcohol) is the rocket fuel for the heights I needed to reach. I made a lot of sculpture and I wrote a lot of poetry -- again! But, having burnt and spent my way through my passion for making sculpture, I went back to contracting for a so-called living. The ensuing depression was largely situational. I came down hard. I got involved with Reiki and became a certified Reiki Master Teacher. I first-drafted a manuscript of what I called The Reiki Manual, the guide book I wished I’d had when I was learning Reiki, a book I’ll never finish.
DV: What is Reiki?
JS: Roughly, it’s an energy healing modality distantly related to acupressure. It can be done hands on or hands off the recipient by the practitioner. I got into it in search of whatever caused a spontaneous remission of a physical condition that was considered to be progressive and incurable. I don’t want to get much into that here and now. I do want to briefly mention two things, the first being that with exposure to Reiki I came to realize that half of what I had previously been taught was false. This both enraged and enthralled me. Years later, or I should say teachers and books later, having been deeply involved in the local spiritual community, I came again to the realization that half of what I had subsequently been taught was also false. In each case, I was left with the problem of figuring out which half was true. And so, I also left Reiki behind me. I could write a book about the experience.
DV: So, when was this, your turning away from Reiki?
JS: It’s still going on. This is current - now. I remained a contractor until the growing infirmity of age made that no longer possible. That’s about when I gave up sculpting. I have tremors. I have difficulty walking. I’m unsteady on my feet, wobbly. I walk with a cane. The riddle of the Sphinx, that’s me. Good riddance. That was only a couple of years ago. I’m trying to live within my Social Security benefits and have - finally - learned to not want anything, or at least not to buy anything I can’t afford. Over the last two or three years, while continuing to write poetry, I took on the formidable task of organizing all of my poetry. All of those poems I had dashed down in a half ass way over all my years were at first vexing; what to do with them? Many were no more than crude notes, sentence fragments, key words, the kind of scribbling you put down in hopes of capturing a dream to remember. I had four categories of poems: Deletes, Rejects, Maybes and Selects. I deleted a lot, poof - gone. I transformed many of the rejects into Maybes or Selects, holding some back from sentimental attachment and deleting those I could do nothing with. I turned almost all of the Maybes into Selects, candidates for publication. I’m glossing over this now, but this process is one of the most important things that has ever happened to me. With age came enough maturity and, possibly, wisdom for me to upgrade my poetry into something like my original intention for it, or better. I was calmer. I could think more clearly. I felt a power that was consistently fresh and new to me, and with it a more certain confidence. During that period I rewrote nearly every poem I had ever begun, and a lot of new ones. Finally, I had the patience, the focus, the control, the mastery that had eluded me all my life. I was at last becoming the man, the poet I had always wanted to be. This was my Golden Age.
DV: Ah, at last. The Prodigal Son returns. Surely, now you have reached a plateau of relative comfort?
JS: True. But to claim victory would be to act like a lightning rod. I know to just say ‘thank you’ quietly, or I’m going to get knocked on my ass. I say thank you a lot. Pride, hubris is a red flag waving for the bull that’s waiting just around the corner. In my life, for every up, there’s always been a down.
DV: I wouldn’t have thought you were superstitious.
JS: I’m not. But I’m used to the roller coaster. I know you must buy a ticket for every time you go up, up, and never quite away. The price of that ticket is the certainty of your crash, for crash you will. Think: Sisyphus. Life is change and that’s the pattern of change. It comes and goes in waves, all sorts of waves. Because of my early experiences with the psychiatric community I swore I would never again talk to a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist. Then something happened to alter my vow. That something was a someone, actually, a manic depressive who had written a book called An Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Its author, Kay Redfield Jamison, is an American clinical psychologist and writer, herself afflicted with bipolarity to the extent of having once attempted to take her own life, almost successfully. I was so deeply affected by the candor and authenticity of this book that I had to read her others: Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, and Exuberance: The Passion for Life. The travesty of my fourth marriage was at that time pulling me down faster and further than I wanted to go and I seemed helpless to pull out of that spiral unassisted. Because of Ms. Jamison’s influence I felt it might now be possible to seek some outside help. I applied for admission to a mental hospital on an outpatient basis. I was accepted and did my best to adjust to their program. It was basically four different group therapy sessions daily, five days a week. I forget how many weeks it took, but I “graduated.” I had a worrisome problem with its effectiveness because I could barely hear, having not yet gotten my hearing aids. Most of the other patients were black, which was in itself no problem, but, Ebonics being what they are, made my hearing even less effective. All in all it was worth doing, in itself, and due also to a large measure of serendipity, or shall I say synchronicity.
DV: In what way?
JS: The really life-changing occurrence that came about here was my assignment to the best therapist I can imagine. We’ve had twice a week conversations for over four years now. He once asked me what I thought he was to me. "You’re my friend,” I said. (Your therapist isn’t supposed to be your friend, but we cheated.) I’ve also got a psychiatrist whom I like and respect. Nowadays, psychiatrists have become psychopharmacologists, the ones who prescribe the meds. Bipolarity is incurable, but medications have been gradually improving to the extent that some actually provide partial relief, partial stability. The problem is the side effects, which can be many and varied. I’ve been through quite a few meds before finally settling for three that have a helpful effect.
DV: Has this new-found contentment helped you as a writer?
JS: Yes, I believe my illness and my art are deeply intertwined. I think the intensity of the former has fired the latter. My poetry became the only voice I had when I absolutely needed to describe life, in order to survive it. There was a song, “Is the Going Up Worth the Coming Down.” As a rule, at least while drinking, I would say,” Hell, Yes!” And I wrote poetry. There is no doubt that poetry is a survival tool. But now I don’t need the illness to drive the art, and the meds I’m on don’t seem to affect my spark at all. I feel stronger as a writer, as a poet than I ever have. I think I’ve grown a lot. An expensive journey, and a painful one. While coming to the end of it, I can tell you I would never agree to go through it again.
DV: But you didn’t submit your work for publication. Did you do any readings?
JS: Yes, some. A few. I enjoyed them.
DV: So why didn’t you treat your poetry in the same active way you handled your sculpture?
JS: I’m not sure I really know. Part of why is that I don’t like multi-tasking in any form. And I’m sure I had - hell, I still have - a fear of rejection. I’m pretty thin-skinned, easily wounded. I think I was afraid that rejection, non-acceptance of my work might have a negative effect on my willingness to continue writing poetry. Or even my ability. You see, I think I would go right on writing it no matter what, as long as no one messed with me. Also, crazy as it sounds, I think I might be afraid of success. I don’t handle compliments or gifts very gracefully. Let’s not get into why.
DV: What do you mean by "no one messing with you"?
JS: I don’t know if I can describe it, but here goes. It’s like I have a lot of rooms in my mind in which I do different things. A room was dedicated to Reiki. One of them I go to to write poetry. Another has a drawing board in it, while another might have paints, brushes and canvases. There’re a lot of windows to the outside, with shades, which I usually keep drawn. There’re a lot of doors inside and stairs and corridors. I’m a very visual person. I can usually travel around in there pretty easily and experience a lot of different things even in the dark, but it’s not usually dark. A lot of accommodations for all kinds of things, to do all kinds of things. It’s a very private place, a secret place, although the poetry that comes out of there is no longer secret once it’s been published, that is, shown, displayed to the outside world. Now, this inside is so big there are a lot of outsides in there. Are you familiar with astral travel? Or lucid dreaming, in which you are the author, the playwright, the director and actors, the whole studio? Capable of producing movie-like movies, that clear and dramatic. Without going to sleep, and actually dreaming? What I’m saying is that there are universes in there. There are places you can visit where the people or entities are no one or nothing you have ever seen, in life or in the movies, or read about in books. Uniquities. And all these things have to be coordinated, kept in balance in such a way that the center holds and everything is connected. It’s a place where you, in an instant, can be aware of everything at once, and in the next instant lose all memory of the experience. This universe/entity is sort of like the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. There’s a balance involved, an equation, an algorithm that allows certain desirable things to happen in a fragile continuum. Magic, perhaps. I think, or I’m afraid that, if I had to defend myself against too forceful an attack, or exposure my Goose would die or be killed. If my consciousness, and that’s what we’re talking about, were to be exposed under too bright or harsh a light, it would shrivel and perish. Then: no more Golden Eggs. I won’t be melodramatic enough to suggest that the process would kill me physically. Rather, it would empty and wither me. You’ve read of Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Well, I’m a real toad. My poetry contains both the utmost naked truth I am capable of and the most parallel alternate universe I can pose it in. You’re sorry you asked me that, aren’t you?
DV: Not really. You’re describing your defense system, aren’t you?
JS: You got it. I’ve been timid about putting my poetry out in view for public inspection. Before I set up my website - poemystic.com - I had no idea what I had. I had no idea how it would be received. You see, I not only have to work hard to read poetry, I have also not read much poetry throughout my lifetime. I guess you could say I’m a visionary in that I am relatively little influenced by a poetic education or broad exposure to poetry. Sometimes, I feel like an imposter. Surely that man can’t be a poet. A lot of nerve he has, acting like a poet. Shall we oust him? As with “being” a sculptor and other things, I suppose any claim to my being a poet arises from others saying or assuming that I am. OK, I’m done. What I’ve said isn’t what I set out to say, but I began to feel that showing the context in which the poetry was written might reveal a useful dimension to the poetry itself.
DV: You once wrote, "I am extremely interested in the nature of poetry. I believe it is broader, deeper and higher than is commonly recognized. It’s really gotten a bad rap. Poets themselves are the villains. 'If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.' To express oneself with clarity, one must truly know what he is talking about, even if the subject is mystery itself." You have an opportunity now to start untangling the mess (or neatly cutting through it, like Alexander did to Gordian's knot?). How do you think poets are responsible for baffling readers (or listeners) with bullshit rather than brilliance?
JS: I don’t think I can do that in one go at it. That’s a biggie that will require several installments. I ran across an interesting quotation from another poet recently, who, when asked what one of her poems meant, said, "When I wrote it, only God and I knew the meaning; now God alone knows."
DV: Laurie Kuntz made that point here. What does it mean?
JS: Poetry is like music in that in describing either, you are essentially trying to describe a description. Both are created because their creators met with an offer they couldn’t refuse. Both describe, both can be said to have meaning of some coin, to resonate with some aspect of our being as in a symbiotic relationship of tuning forks. Both exist in their respective forms because there is no other form in which they could possibly exist. Ideally, both should be self-contained, whole, needing no annotation or explanation. They are intimately connected, but neither could exist as the other. It is basically in the matter of clarity that I think poets are at fault, because, for one thing, they believe that it is traditionally expected of them to be deliberately difficult to understand. Here, I think, poetry departs from musical comparison; because of its language it is easier to accept that music simply is. We feel less generally impelled to explain music, whereas an explanation of much poetry seems to be tacitly expected. Or feigned.
DV: Don’t novelists feel the same cultural need to explain what they’re doing?
JS: Prose has speed; poetry has speed bumps. One aspect of poetry that separates it from prose lies in the delicate matter of resistance, delicate to define, delicate to control. Poetry is supposed to resist the rapid assimilation that prose affords, but not obscure it. This is a most precise balance, rarely if ever happening by accident, or carelessly. Poetry is, by definition, the most complex form of language. Complexity is resistance; because of this the reader is not only forced to slow down his pace of reading and funnel his thought into a different time universe, but should want to do so, to savor the experience, the difference between beer and wine. This is where the difference among great poetry, good poetry and verse lies. A poet has the duty to communicate what he is trying to say so that a broad range of readers can understand it more or less fully, or it has failed as communication. Anything less is simply code, sensible only within an elite club, perhaps with a membership of only one, or even none. In other words, if his efforts fail as communication they fail as poetry. Forget word music for the moment. The poet may intend to target his audience, or let the chips fall where they may. For a poet (or poetess, ALWAYS included by implication) (Blame the language, dear.) to deliberately embed barriers to comprehension within his work or to recognize that they exist and not remove them is to fail as a poet.
DV: Are the so-called “poetic devices” – rhyme, meter, and so forth – relevant to this discussion?
JS: Forget meter and formal versification; it is irrelevant here. Use it or not, as you like; the universe is indifferent. Here’s the real heart of the matter. The first reading of a poem is like meeting a person. A definite impression is made in a nanosecond. We have something like a meter that registers: yes, maybe, no. Hot, medium, cold. Promising, neutral, repellant. Interesting, acceptable, indifferent. A given poem will resonate with only a specific audience of readers at a given time. The reception will vary with time, and this cast of characters will also change. Much poetry will exclude a certain set of readers, whether this is deliberate or inadvertent. If deliberate, I think this is contrary to the basic idea of poetry. What valid reason can there be for a poet to limit his audience? He should speak clearly to as many people as possible or, if I may court the absurd, he betrays his poem as well as his readers.
DV: Because of the sheer diversity of poetry readers, wouldn’t you say that any attempt to devise rules or watertight generalities approaches impossibility?
JS: If watertight or even airtight actually applied to any use of language there would be no need for poetry. Readers, poets and poems are all equally diverse. However, the core subject of discussion here is communication. Therein lies the rub for much, if not most, poetry. A lot of poetry - possibly most- is masturbation, self-satisfaction of the lover with no thought for the pleasure of the other, loved or not. Many poets are smugly satisfied to reap a harvest of that which they did not sow. There is a conspiracy among some poets (you know who you are or you used to before you started believing your own blurbs), some critics (who’d be put to better use reviewing restaurants), some academics (literary scholars being the squintiest) and some poets-as-readers (who will laud your poetry as long as you applaud theirs with equal effusiveness). This is a con game. (Why does the Wizard of Oz keep coming to mind?)
DV: Obviously not all poets or poems are equal. They cannot be and should not be. Should they be graded, then, according to some form of ranking, as in the military, for instance? An application of objective principles?
JS: Nature has already done that and supplied copious clichés to describe it: “No two people read the same book.” “Birds of a feather flock together.” And so on. But, because what we’re looking at is called poetry, there seems to be a conspiracy brewing. The name and aim of the conspiracy is obfuscation, a dimming of the lights of understanding with frequent blackouts. Its objective is to make the poet seem superior to his reader. This, in a nutshell, is the strongest reason that lay-people (civilians, non-poets) shy away from poetry. That is the poet’s doing. That is why a poet’s best, or only, audience is other poets. And even that has come to be an I’ll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine exchange, with a double-think sort of language of insincere or ignorant flattery.
DV: I write poetry. Shouldn’t I be offended by these remarks?
JS: Only if the shoe fits, Cinderella. I take poetry seriously and also have a lot of fun with it. The issue of clarity and responsibility is worth consideration. Sloppiness and laziness waste not only the time of others; they also dilute their attention. It sets readers up to miss the real thing when it passes before them. The following are suggestions to so-called poets who, by shooting themselves in the foot, insist on driving away potentially satisfied customers. Let he or she who is without sin throw your stone at the person on your left. Write whatever, however you like in your personal diary or journal, but if the distinction among Poets, Poet’s and Poets’ is unclear to you, you would be well advised to seek the mentoring of a Grammar/Spelling Nazi before displaying your poetry before the public eye. Don’t let the scratches on the window ruin the view. Distractions are subtractions from intended effects. ‘Nuff said. (Not really.)
Poetry should neither be arbitrary nor contain arbitrary elements whose lack of relevance or meaning will deprive a poem of its power to give satisfaction.
Poetry doesn’t have to be “pretty” to satisfy any but the narrowest of definitions.
Don’t refer to non-existent antecedents.
Non-sequiturs may seem cute to you, but they leave big holes in your poems.
Knock it off with passages in a foreign language, however brief, if not in common world usage.
Inoculate yourself against clichés.
You can be derivative, but learn what plagiarism is and don’t copy or claim the work of another.
Avoid arrogance. Seek not to reap what you did not sow.
Don’t write down to your reader. S/he will detect and resent it.
Don’t write over your reader's head. They may succumb to pretension to avoid the embarrassment of ignorance.
“Don’t let your reach exceed your grasp.” Don’t write over your own head.
Seek and find your own level; it’s good enough for the group of readers you will naturally attract. You have no need for pretension.
Write about what you know best, in your own tongue.
Minimize the dictionary-speak. The first trip to a reference book will likely lose your reader.
Immerse yourself in the language until you love it and are in love with it. Marry it. Cohabit, at the least.
Create with concrete detail. Be specific. Show with picture words; don’t tell with dull ones.
Getting heretical here: as soon as I see the words Jesus or god (substitute your own blasphemy) I stop reading.
Even if God may not be dead, the word has been used to death. Ditto Love, etc.
Don’t capitalize any word that is not capitalized in the dictionary. Don’t attempt to deify, enshrine or force adoration on anything by capitalizing its name. And DON’T SHOUT; IT’S RUDE.
If you’ve read one love poem, you’ve read them all. B o r I n g. Perhaps one in a thousand will move us freshly to genuine emotion. If you insist, read the other guy’s poem and don’t do what he’s doing. Look around. Pay attention.
Good nature poems are also among the most difficult to write about well. Similar to the above.
C’mon folks. There is an infinitude of things out there to write poetry about; why are you all so stuck on love and religion and posies? Both god and love are in the detail. So is the devil. This kind of diabetes is contagious.
Metaphor is our friend. Better latent than blatant.
Don’t take the easy route.
To write good poetry you must become a rewriter. You may feel that your first draft was heaven-sent, dictated by god, but here as elsewhere any god helps only those who help themselves. You might write one great first draft in your lifetime, and then spend the rest of it waiting for the same lightning to strike again. Sacred crap remains crap. You’re supposed to be the artist; do your job. Transform that poem-to-be into splendid existence. Make it live.
To write good poetry, be authentic. Write what you know even if you’re learning as you go. Observe. Write with the utmost possible clarity and simplicity. Let your poems be inevitable.
Be guided by your intuition when first drafting; be shotgun. Be analytic in your rewrites; be sniper.
Poets sometimes write what they didn't know. This is called revelation. Pay attention.
Poets sometimes write what they didn't know they knew. Learn from this. Trust it.
Although you are your own censor, you will be rightfully censored by others if you violate their sensibility; you will become unwelcome, perhaps denied admission. It would be wise to limit yourself to eleven naughty (e.g. shit, fuck, cunt, etc.) words a year - maximum. Whatever sex you depict should be discrete, spontaneous and unprotected.
Read. Read. Read.
DV: Whew. You must be exhausted. How can you speak with such passion about poetry if you’ve never sold any?
JS: Too busy writing it. I’ve never made a nickel from poetry. And I also didn’t make a full living from sculpture; I had to supplement by doing other things, but I have almost always been self-employed. I’ve done a lot of different things to support myself. And my poetry. Two things have sustained me through the hardest times. I have almost always been in love. I love being in love. I’ve always felt I needed to be in love. Some would call that Limerance. (Look it up.) That’s what my passions have been: falling in love with women and with a lot of other things. I love them, but I just might have been a serial monogamist. I’m not in love with anyone now for just about the first time in my life, but my poetry is still with me. I think maybe it has always been my first love.
DV: Then let me ask you this: Given The Commandments you just handed down, do you like your own poetry?
JS: Oh yes. I can even say without embarrassment that I love it, even though now only god understands some of it. Just kidding. I’ve always thought it absolutely necessary to make it accessible to the broadest range of people possible. Clarity is a requisite, although by definition poetry is intended to stretch the language and lead people to places they might otherwise never visit. Resistance is generally a necessary ingredient, although a delicate but firm hand is needed to hold it back from muddying clarity. The so-called poets I have no patience with are those who try to make you follow them to places where there is no oxygen. For example, Eliot’s The Wasteland is lauded by the self-anointed lords of language as the greatest poem of the 20th Century. Well, the Emperor’s New Clothes were the best fashions of the same period. Giving the poem the benefit of the doubt, I hope it was a hoax, more of a prank with a snicker in the hankie. I hope it wasn’t a con, which would be deliberate fraud. In all fairness, I love The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and enjoy some of his other work. But his “Masterpiece” has made gibbering ninnies of an infinite number of English Professors. And there are still many who still faux fawn at the rustle of its pages. I wish I could have been on the next bar stool while Charles Bukowski read it, and, better yet, while he wrote a poem about it. Or, Mark Twain, anachronistically.
DV: Certainly Twain was as fastidious about language and grammar and lexical accuracy as you are. One of my favorite of his aphorisms is, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Could you characterize your own poetry for us? Do you have what we might recognize as some signature subject matter, mood, or style?
JS: Well, first of all, I and my racing mind don’t have the patience for metrical versification, or the inclination for working within any strict form, boundaries or rules. I’m not big on discipline for the sake of discipline. I’m sorry, but I have an aversion for the arbitrary, and corseting language does not meet my standard for gracefulness. Rhyme sometimes occurs spontaneously and I‘ll let it lie if it behaves. Form doesn’t keep me from enjoying the work of others; it’s just not for me. Free verse is my forte. Sometimes I lead it, sometimes I follow it, but we dance, if the music’s right. I write for the eye, the mental eye; I like to think of myself as a describer, or at least that’s my aim. And I definitely write for the ear, I always speak or silently mouth the words of a poem as I put it together. In that respect, it’s music. If a poem, read, doesn’t sound right, it isn’t.
I’ll write about anything. As I said, I enjoy complexity and demand simplicity, which usually works out to mean that little things become surrogates for big things. I’m going to exaggerate and say that everything is metaphor and leave you guessing how literally I mean that.
DV: You’ve told us poetry is different from music. How about sculpture?
JS: Treating poetry as if it were sculpture, I’d have to say that the universe is my model. I’m fascinated with time, always have been, not because I’m old. I hate euphemism; I’m not a senior citizen or a gray panther - I’m old and you should think about the significance of that. It means that I know more, having experienced more, longer than most of the people around me. I can say quite humbly that I have in some ways acquired what is called wisdom. I know I still repeat some of the same old mistakes I was making sixty years ago [Yes, I’m aware of Einstein’s (?) definition of insanity.] I know, I can scarcely find my way around my computer and don’t really understand or trust my cell phone, but I remember Hitler, and the bountiful fish in the Delaware Bay, and a sleepy small town at the tip of Florida named Key West. I remember a big basket of great tomatoes costing 25 cents, same as a dozen cherrystone clams. I remember gasoline being three gallons for a dollar, cigarettes three packs for a dollar, and three quarts of beer for a dollar. I agree: those are just the surface of things, but have a look at my poetry and you might experience some of the things inside, or on the other side of those things. I am most impressed with mind which can hold, remember and recall a near infinitude of thoughts and memories. If anything, I worship the god, Consciousness. I have always been aware of the space between people and of the void within myself. The two are so intertwined that it would be impossible to pull them apart without killing their host. I’ve always been a willing outsider, yet too often a reluctant loner. My serious relationships have been anything but casual. My intensity eventually drove away the very women it attracted. I have spent my emotional life seeking the deepest, closest intimacy possible. It took me many years to realize that no human relationship was going to lessen my distance from other and heal the pain of apartness. No one was going to offer what I felt was missing in me. However interrelated, I have come to believe that every man is an island. A friend of mine recently shared his summation with me:
“We are all alone.
No one is coming to save us.
We are 100% responsible for what we say and do. Loss is inevitable.
The soul can be the most beautiful thing.
This is, in fact, it”
Communication between people always reaches a frontier, an outer boundary of the comfort zone where language segues into hieroglyphics or simply comes to an abrupt stop. There was a song in the sixties, “If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” I love the English language. I love to work with it and play in it. I swim in the body-temperature ocean of it. I like to storm or seduce that frontier open with the essence of words, attempting to convey what can’t be expressed directly. In that sense, words might be thought of as symbols on a combination lock which, if manipulated properly, can open sesames. I am a poet. I can’t cuddle or hug my words, but I can sleep and wake with them as solace for the lack of other things. It’s time for me to wind it up, Duane. I’d just like to throw in one more tidbit that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I’ll pose the question now, but won’t attempt to answer it until another time. Is poetry fiction or non-fiction. Or is it another category entirely? That’s the question.
DV: Well, Jack, you’ve given us a lot to cuddle up to in our minds. Or perhaps run away from in horror. I’ve enjoyed this conversation immensely and hope to have many more. I’ll bring the beer.
JS: Thank you for the opportunity, Duane. I feel that there’s so much left unsaid about the nature of poetry. It was really hard to stop the flow of words.