Interview with Thomas Whyte

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I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Thomas Whyte, who hosts a website entitled “Poetry Mini Interview: Very Short Interviews with Poets.” Below is the full interview, which was released in five parts over the course of December 2018. You can find the original interview on Whyte’s website.

How does a poem begin? 

A poem begins in the body. Sometimes I wake up with a whole poem in my mouth and immediately spit it out. Sometimes it’s a stuck thing, and I yank at it for hours before it finally loosens. Sometimes I have to coax it, give it time and edit after edit. Regardless of how it leaves me, it begins as a bodily urge. It’s a moment that I need to snowglobe on a page.  

What do you feel poetry can accomplish that other forms can’t?

Poet John P. Maurer once said to me that poetry is like staring at something, and I think that sums it up well. Poetry is an experience, both in its style and brevity. You’re right there in the middle of it, the poem all around you with its emotion and power, then all at once it’s over — you’ve blinked.

How important is music to your poetry?

In sixth grade, my English instructor created a month-long poetry curriculum for us, and we began by listening to spoken word poets. This became an obsession for me, and I spent countless hours after class on the library computers listening to it. I hadn’t ever heard words used the way they were in poems, and nothing had ever moved me as much as these sounds did. After this, I started looking for poetry in every sound. Now, there is poetry in everything for me — in the squeal of the train on its tracks as it takes me to work, the pigeon-purr of my cat once I arrive home. I also hold so many actual songs close and believe that they too helped me understand how sound would be portrayed in my writing. There are a lot of lyrically skilled musicians, especially in rap. Any poet who isn’t listening to rap could benefit from it; the time put into the rhyme scheme and literary devices of well-written rap bars is often impressive. 

What poets changed the way you thought about writing?

When I first began reading poetry, the things I was reading were beautiful, but they were extremely lyrical, with topics which were palatable for any audience. As I grew older, I had this period where I was writing horrible poem after horrible poem because I didn’t know how to write on the topics I needed to. When I first heard “What Did I Love?” by Ellen Bass, there was a chunk of ice in my chest that melted down through each toe. The poem is about a chicken butchering day on a small farm, but Bass makes it ceremonial and loving while simultaneously making it neither of those things. It’s truly just a masterpiece of a work. I’m not a spiritual or religious person, but the religiousness felt toward the cycle of life in that poem just did something for me. Hearing it was a revolutionary moment for my writing. I grew up on a dying farm, and was surrounded by that culture, and I didn’t know that feeling of belonging in a moment so often argued as innately immoral could be expressed. It made everything that I needed to say feel so much more approachable.

What are you working on?

As 2019 is on its way, I’m working to end this year with one-hundred written poems. I want the importance of daily writing — profound or uninspiring — to be ingrained into me. As far as books go, I’m finishing up my second collected work, or mixtape if you will, written using blackout on the lyrics of all of my favorite albums. I wanted a piece that expressed what music has meant to my poetry, and I thought that there wasn’t any better thing to do than to pay homage to each album that held me up on a dark day. I also am working on some more long-form pieces for a video project. I want to return to my beginning in spoken word poetry for a brief moment in celebration of my one-year anniversary of submitting and being published — upcoming in June.