Friday, June 18, 2010

Louisiana Saturday Night with Poet J. Bruce Fuller

I'm very excited about my interview with poet J. Bruce Fuller. When J. spoke at our Bayou Writers' Group meeting earlier this month, everyone left all jazzed up and feeling pretty inspired. After reading his book, 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World, our inspiration intensified. I believe we're all trying to write poetry now, or wondering how we might start our own small press. I don't think any of us will ever look at a blackbird in quite the same way.
J. shared with us his world of poetry and publishing, and I'm thrilled that he let me pick his poetic brain a little more to share with you. I hope you enjoy hearing from the heart of a poet.

1) Tell us a little about yourself and when you wrote your very first poem.
I’ve been writing poems since I was a kid. I couldn’t tell you when I wrote the first one, but I’m sure my grandmother has it tucked away in a drawer somewhere.

2) Do you have a basket full of credits or just a handful? Tell us where you’ve been published and how many books to your credit and how many poems you keep in the mail?
I’ve been lucky enough to have many poems published in the last few years. Some of the most recent ones have come out at Yankee Pot Roast, Rougarou, A Handful of Stones, & The Tipton Poetry Journal. I try to keep a dozen or so poems out and circulating at a time, which helps keep the credits coming in. I try a lot and succeed a little.

3) Tell us about your book, 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World. How did it come to be…and why?

I wrote the poems back in 2007 intending them to be a chapbook, but wasn’t sure who would be interested in publishing twenty-eight haiku as a collection. I published them as a single poem in 2007 and it was reprinted in 2008. A publisher saw the poem and asked if I would be interested in publishing it as a chapbook. I jumped at the chance and so it ended up being a chapbook anyway.

4) Give us your personal definition of a poem, and are you a real poet—meaning one filled with sorrow and angst – or are you a different generation of poets? You seem awful cheerful for a poet.
I’m not sure what a real poet is, but I am definitely not a brooding person. I am not even a very emotional person. Most of the time I am more like a stand-up comedian than a poet. I think a poet is simply someone who looks carefully at the world around them and comments on it using heightened language and imagery. There may be tortured poets out there but I’ve never felt that I needed to suffer to write good poems. In fact, I think suffering would probably get in the way of the poetry.

A poem needs to have good sounds and strong images, and should reach for something great in terms of its emotion or ambition. Now, do I think a poet should have terrible tragedy in life to write that poem? No. At least I hope not, because I like my life, and I would rather not write poems than have to go through something terrible to get at some great universal truth.

5) Tell us when you sit down to write, what goes through your head when you face the blank page.
I try not to look at a blank page unless I have an idea to start off with. Otherwise it gets a little depressing… Usually I will start off with a line or an image. Then I see if the poem goes somewhere. If things go well one thing will lead to another until the poem is done.

6) Hurricane Katrina forced you out of New Orleans – how did you choose to settle in Lake Charles—instead of Baton Rouge?
After Katrina my wife and I moved to Monroe, LA, where I finished my B.A. in English at ULM. I came to Lake Charles to attend the Master’s of Fine Arts program in poetry at McNeese.

7) How would you describe your writing?
I consider myself a sort of a regionalist, which is to say that I write a lot about Louisiana. On the other hand I’ve never lived anywhere else so I wouldn’t know what else to write about. I am fascinated by the landscapes and voices of this state. Regionalism gets looked down upon by some, but it would be foolish of me to write about what I don’t know. I tend to focus on voice in my poems, and try to be as strong with imagery as I can.

8) What poets influenced you the most, and why? And who do you read, and why?
As far as the greats, I really like Walt Whitman, Dante Alighieri, and John Milton. They capture what I mean about greatness in ambition. It doesn’t get much more ambitious than Leaves of Grass, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost. Those works show what poetry can accomplish, though it may take a lifetime to achieve it. As far as more contemporary poets I really love Galway Kinnell, Charles Simic, Martha Serpas, and Gregory Orr. I love them all for different reasons, but those are just a few on a very long list.

9) Do you pay attention to rhythm, rhyme, meter, theme . . . How do you know a poem is good?
I really don’t know when a poem is good; I just know when I’m done with it. I tend to like all of my poems because I’m so invested in them, but oftentimes they miss the mark on many different levels. In the end I think you have to write a poem you love and then let it go out into the world. Eventually an editor will want to publish it, or they won’t, but after the poem is done it really isn’t yours anymore. I like to think it is trying desperately to get off of your hard drive and into a reader’s hands.

As for craft things like rhythm and meter, I definitely pay attention. A poem must be solid all the way down to its bones.

10) What’s your best advice to a young poet who is just beginning to try to get published?
Read as much as possible. I wrote a lot of bad poems before I discovered an anthology of contemporary American poetry. Reading all of the best poets of the last fifty years helped to show what can and can’t be done, and it gave me a wake-up call as to exactly how good I needed to be to get published. I subscribe to the adage that a good writer is a good reader. A good crime scene investigator keeps up on the latest developments in science and forensics, and poets should be no different. The way for us to do that is to read, read , read.

11) Give us a few publishing/writing/marketing pet peeves? In other words, anything tick you off? What’s the most difficult thing about being a poet?
Nothing really ticks me off, but there can be annoyances. I hate waiting for submission responses, but that’s just part of the business. It is annoying that there is not a lot of money or support for small presses. It goes beyond decreasing readership—writers want to be published by a journal but never want to buy a copy of it. If everyone who submitted poems or stories bought one or two issues a year, the small presses would be in better shape. That means more books get published and more writers get discovered. Since we are the only ones who care, we are the only ones who can save our industry. I think the most difficult thing about being a poet is dispelling stereotypes. Most people have a lot of strange notions about poets and how we operate.

12) What’s your proudest accomplishment in this crazy writing business?
It has to be between being accepted to an MFA program, and publishing my first chapbook. I think the harder of the two to accomplish was the MFA program. They are typically hard to get into and I consider myself very lucky to have been accepted. The opportunities that have and will come from being in the program are hard to ignore. Still, there’s nothing quite like getting your first book in the mail and holding it in your hands. That’s been great.

13) Share your long-term goal; where would you like to be in five years—in your writing and in your personal and/or academic life?
In five years I will hopefully be getting close to finishing a Ph. D. I would like to keep teaching college English, and with any luck have a new book or two come out.

14) Where does your confidence come from? Are you an arrogant poet or a sensitive poet? And is there competition among poets?
I think I am an arrogant person—but I don’t consider myself an arrogant poet. That sounds ridiculous but poetry is so vast I am in awe of it. I don’t think I’ll ever be successful enough to be arrogant in the face of masters like Whitman or Milton.
As far as competition… There’s competition among people—it is no different with poets.

15) When you sit down to write, what’s the first thing you do to put your mind, heart and soul in that mental, emotional, spiritual place to create? Or do poems just spew out of you?

Reading helps to inspire me, and when I feel inspired, the poems just seem to come out.

16) If you could accomplish one huge, wonderful thing with your writing, what would it be?
I want to say something cliché like, “If my poems touch one person then I’ve succeeded…” But the truth is I want to write a great epic poem. I am just not sure if I have one in me.

17) Do you recite poetry to your wife and children?
No. My kids are a little young to be interested yet. I’m sure I have read some poems to my wife over the years, but never my own.

18) How do you think poets differ from other writers?
Poets aren’t that different from other writers, and many of them write in multiple genres. Perhaps we see the world through a slightly different lens, but the end goal is the same—to try to shed light on the human condition, and answer our deepest questions.

19) Tell us where we can learn more about you, buy your books and broadsides and keep up with what you’re doing??
My blog is my general hub of activity. There is also Twitter and Facebook, for those so inclined.
If you'd like to learn more about J. Bruce Fuller or order your own copy of 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World, GO HERE.


Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent interview. J's chapbook remains my favorite poetry collection of the past couple of years.

Jan Rider Newman said...

Excellent. Thanks, Jessica and J.

Jess said...

Thanks for popping in. J. was my first poet to interview. :) He did a great job.

Carole said...

I love poetry, although am not good at writing it. It doesn't stop me of course, but I wouldn't dream of publishing it.

J. Bruce Fuller has a real knack for it and I love the name of his book.