This Choice: Xtra Voices 1
Oh, but if I could stay home and pay my bills with an interview a day, I would. But this is the next best thing.
I’ve invited poets to send in their stories about how poetry (or a poem) has made a difference in their lives. See details here.
This first Xtra Voices episode features Jerrod Schwarz, Michael Odom, and Star LaBlanche.
Jerrod Schwarz is an aspiring poet and editor. In addition to working towards an MFA at the University of Tampa, he is also the Managing Poetry Editor and Co-founder of Driftwood Press, a nationally recognized literary magazine. Jerrod has studied abroad in Germany; and has worked with poets such as Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Jay Hopler, Erica Dawson, and Sandra Beasley.
Jerrod has been described as a fiction writer who is too anxious to write the boring parts. While Jerrod certainly has the utmost respect for fiction writers, he cannot imagine having to deal with formatting all of those annoying paragraphs and chapter titles.
Here is the full transcript of Jerrod Schwarz’s creative non-fiction piece on diapers and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck“. Be sure to check out Jerrod’s website. (I know I am looking forward to his chapbook The Crop after Christmas!)
Michael Odom studied philosophy and is now a video editor, and poet. His work can be found on his website.
Ren: Do you think it was a good thing that teachers (until college) didn’t try to “teach you” poetry? Do you think you may have loved it less, or more?
Michael: I do believe great poetry, great art of all kinds, should be taught in school. I reject outright the idea of using universities only for high-end vocational training & the promotion of social justice causes. Poets and the few who appreciate their work are a much smaller minority than any ethnic or gender minority. And in our era, we are more likely to have our interests appropriated or ignored by the larger culture.
Many have noted it is the lower classes, working people, the poor, the “uncultured”, who become most snobbish about art. We the undereducated are the most likely to demand the classics and new work that complements it. This prejudice against the “snobbery” of a “jumped-up provincial” (and someone once called me that for having no interest in a critical study of Stan Lee) is the equivalent of the acquisitiveness of the “new rich”: that’s what aristocratic “old rich” types once labeled working people who valued material wealth so much they grabbed up all they could to climb up to wealth. Yes, it is the people who have done without who see the value, and insist on their right to it, of the extraordinary things elites keep for themselves. I have no doubt the prep schools & Ivy League & Oxford still teach the English Renaissance.
Being raised without poetry made it that much more indispensable once I found it. Americans tend to define the democratic impulse to mean neglecting or tearing culture down to the level of the lowest common denominator. The other possibility is to give the lowest common denominator access to great literature and the knowledge to appreciate it. This is the impulse that gave us public schools and libraries. This is the impulse that assumes the vote is safest when entrusted to people who read.
Ren: I LOVE that you bring up Ogden Nash. And the reading aloud. Do you still enjoy reading aloud?
Michael: My first bookstore job was at Tower Books in Chico, California. I discovered all the old Caedmon recordings of 20th Century poets reading their works or actors reading classics (Richard Burton read John Donne! Wow!). I had a great collection on cassette. I pulled myself through a deep winter depression by taking very long walks through Bidwell Park, listening to poets & old radio shows on a Sony Walkman.
Today, I use an iPod, Librivox, Archive.com, iTunes, Amazon…. Now it’s long drives, not long walks: walking is better.
I know you are a runner, Ren, so you may appreciate this: after several months of walking away despair with Pound & Yeats, nearing summer, a friend asked me to run with him. Neither of us were runners, but he at least went to the gym every day. I told him I was unlikely to make it the 3 miles he wanted to go but I’d break off when I needed to and meet him in town later. At the end of the run, he collapsed panting like a dog. I was not even winded. I ran 3 miles and I felt I could keep going easily! So I started running instead of walking. I got up to 6 miles a day 4 and 5 days a week. It was great joy. But, unfortunately, poems are distracting and make for poor pacing.
Ren: Do you think there is anything we can do online to make poetry less of an “elitist” thing for kids?
Michael: This is an important question and I wish I had found the answer. I’ve been making YouTube videos, readings, cinepoems. I see no reason YouTube should not explode in poetry (if you are fan of slam poetry, it has. Personally, I think slam poetry is the greeting card verse of our era). But I haven’t the resources to be a filmmaker. I’m a rank amateur. I try to make videos where the cheapest production values complement the poems (and many of my poems explore creepiness, so cheap works).
I also think television in the last decade or so has entered a golden age in its writing. There is no reason to not include verse there, now that long attention spans of binge-watchers and the stop & start of lyricism can be assumed. That and the fact so many people are not bothering with books at all, poetry may have entered a performative, aural period. Poets may have more opportunity, not less, than prose writers. If… If… If…. Unfortunately, like so much, success is dependent on people who do not necessarily care about the art.
Oh. I missed the “kids” part of the question. I would still use YouTube & TV, but I would choose the poems for playfulness, musicality, and relevance to childhood. I think step one, however, must be to revive the art in adult culture; if it is in the curious child’s world, they will find it.
Star LaBranche has been writing ever since she could put words down on paper. She has never stopped. Author of multiple books including creative non-fiction, memoir, non-fiction, poetry, and multi-genre compilations, she is always working on a new project. Her dedication to digital media has led to a 10-year blogging career and advanced knowledge in WordPress.
Adding to her digital media skills, Star has begun training in the Adobe Creative Cloud, in photography, videography, and audio work. She hopes to use her blog and website to chart her growth as she expands her knowledge and creativity outlets.
Ren: I am an amateur bookbinder, too, and am very curious as to whether you have gotten around to the physical act of binding your book yet, and what you think that might mean for you?
Star: Bookbinding was something that always fascinated me. The idea of making a book just seemed like magic. I practiced some binding at my last class, but am still putting the finishing touches on the chapbook right now. I think that binding it will be very therapeutic for me. I’m still struggling with my mental health, but I created something from it and I find that comforting. I get very attached to physical books and I think binding my own chapbook is going to make it extra special.
Ren: You describe the process of writing as emptying it from your head “I didn’t have to have it rattling around in my head all day” – but do you think it also helps you process your emotions on any level?
Star: I’m absolutely positive writing helps me to process my emotions. When I sat down to write this chapbook, I did some planning. I wanted each poem to tell part of the story. Whether emotionally or narratively or both. Each piece works together to create a recorded of everything I was thinking or feeling when this happened. Because of my bipolar disorder, I have problems with my memory. Beyond processing the emotions, in a few years, I’m not going to have these vivid memories or be able to recall details. In a sense writing everything down works to help me process emotion and record it.
Ren: Anger, guilt, remorse, frustration… is there joy in that chapbook?
Star: The work itself is very dark. It’s no bright spot of sunlight. I read over the prose introduction the other day and just felt a sense of heaviness from it. There are bits of joy in it, but often they get overshadowed by other emotions. At one point in the book, I have a new experience after the breakup and am gushing about what a great time I had. But then I remembered that I’m leaving my ex-fiance behind and having these experiences without him despite promising to share my life with him weeks before. So there is some joy, but definitely not a lot.
Ren: You said you revealed things about yourself you didn’t like. Did you also see things you did? Are you still horrified – or do you have more compassion for yourself as you get more distance from your poems?
Star: My editor gave me the final edits on the chapbook last weekend and reading over her notes and comments (she’s a friend of over 15 years), I started to realize just how unforgiving I was being with myself. Yes, I made mistakes, and yes, I was experiencing lapses of judgment due to my bipolar disorder, but I’m also a human being. And a mentally ill one at that. All things considered, I didn’t do too badly. I do feel proud of myself for facing this difficult decision and dealing with the fallout as best I could. Was I perfect? No. But I never should have expected myself to be.