Friday, September 25, 2009

The Habitual Poet: Charles Harper Webb

Installment #14

: : :

The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to:

: : :


Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

I buy from independent stores when I can, but in fact am more likely to get the books from the library or, since I've been on the Tufts Prize committee, to have them sent to me. Spring Church Books is a good place to get poetry by mail.

Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

Many hundreds. I've read at least some of all of them.

Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

I prefer to read when I wake up, and just before I turn off the light for bed. I rarely read cover to cover, if I'm reading for pleasure. I like to skip around. The more I like a book, the slower I read it.

Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

B.H. Fairchild's USHER, James Tates THE GHOST SOLDIERS,
Richard Garcia's CHICKENHEAD, and parts of many others, old and new.

Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

Dennis Lehane's THE GIVEN DAY, Jay Parini's PROMISED LAND,

: : :


Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

I like to write first drafts in longhand in the morning on whatever paper's available. I revise either in long hand or on the computer, whenever I get the chance.

Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

It varies widely. 0 to 30.

Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

It varies enormously. Some poems I work on straight through from rough draft to final copy. Others may wait, in various stages of deshabille, for years.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

I read it aloud several times, over several months, and like what I hear, and don't see anything I want to change.

Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

Yes. It depends on what the invitation is to do. I'll drop writing any time for a fishing trip, for instance.

: : :


Q: What is your system for sending out work?

Sending out work for me is like doing income taxes, so my "system" is to approach it as a regrettable necessity, and power through it. When I'm in my Must Send mode, I mail out everything I have available all at once, then feel virtuous and free until the first envelope comes back, and I realize I'll have to do it all again.

Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

I most recently (on the day I write this) received an acceptance. I did think that this editor would probably take something, and I even predicted the poem he took. This is rare. I'm wrong much more often than I'm right.

Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

I publish both in print and on line. I still like to hold a concrete mag in my hand, but I like the greater exposure of on-line. Preference is for particular mags, not print or on-line.

Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

My best experience is "We love and want to publish this," followed by "We want to give you this prize."

One of my weirdest was when an editor of a journal now defunct kept my poems for over a year, then sent them back with a note that seemed to have been written during some kind of seizure. The paper was ripped; the words incoherently denounced my poems and me. The implication seemed to be that if I hadn't had the temerity to send them, they wouldn't be coming back so late.

A close runner-up was when I sent a batch of prose poems, one of which contained the (humorous, I thought)line "No, never, nein, impossible, unthinkable." I got back a standard rejection slip on which the well-respected editor had hand-written my line. This was kind of funny, I admit. Still, if said editor hadn't already been in a wheelchair, I might have considered remedying that situation.

Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

I love it, and almost always acknowledge it. I'm not shoveling my poems into a bottomless abyss after all!

I've gotten a little bit of hate mail, generally from certifiable paranoids who've never published a thing, but believe I've read their minds, stolen their ideas, and will use them to make millions cultivating the money-tree we know as Poetry.

But what does it say about me that schizophrenics think I've raided their pantry of demented fantasies?

: : :

Practical considerations:

Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

I'm Professor of English at CSU Long Beach. It helps my writing by keeping me connected with young people, and paying me to stay current in the field. It's also taught me how to edit brutally but not viciously.

Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

Our shared interest in clinical psychology has provided the impetus for a number of poems. My wife is also good at seeing strange things in the news which I can use in poems. She's been a reliable source of interesting ideas, and came up with several of the titles of my books.

Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

Not after I learned to hold a pen.

Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

If you mean an amount of money I can spend on books of poetry, no.

Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

Almost all the women in my life have suffered at some point from feeling that they came second to my poetry. This wasn't (necessarily) true; but they felt it anyway. I guess I should be flattered that they were jealous of the time I spent alone in my dim little writing room.

Someone's not liking my poems would certainly put a strain on our relationship. It's like saying, "I don't like the way you think and feel." I'm not willing or able to put a bag over my brain.

The main suffering I do for my art is putting so much energy into an art form that gets, for the most part, so little attention and respect. I tell my students that the primary rewards for writing poetry have got to be self-generated. I've managed to generate enough to keep going.

: : :

Random nonsense:

Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

I have the uncanny ability to make turtles go in their shells by waving a large magic wand in the direction of their heads. I can also turn into an egg salad sandwich if it's big enough, and I'm driving an old car.

Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address
b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed
c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)
d.) Do none of the above; instead: _____

I endure sighs and sorrowing looks from beyond the grave.

However, I'm glad to say that I don't have anything scathing to say about my mother. All things considered, and especially considering what she had to put up with from me, she was pretty great.

Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

I'd give up my poetry habit, fake a dramatic death, and see how my reputation fared posthumously.

Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

I'd be an O because it sounds exciting. (I can hear my enemies saying, "He'd be an I, the egotistical prick."

Q: Finally write a couplet for a collaborative ghazal using the following kaafiyaa and radif: “said the poet”.

"The stomachs are fed up. The way the world is going
makes them sick," said the poet.


Charles Harper Webb's latest book, Shadow Ball: New & Selected Poems, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in Fall 2009. Recipient of grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim foundations, Webb directs Creative Writing at California State University, Long Beach.

No comments:

Post a Comment