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September 04, 2003

Interview With Mike Snider, Part One

Friedrich --

I don't know about you, but I'm left in the dust by the work of most contempo poets and poetry critics. Happy to admit that I'm a long way from being an expert. On the other hand, what kind of art form would demand that a reader/consumer/spectator be an expert before beginning to enjoy its products?

And if I'm a long way from being a specialist, I'm also a long way from being the world's worst poetry-reader. I'm eager and interested, my basic feeling about poetry being "Hey, little crafted verbal things? Cool!" I've also got what passes these days for a decent lit education, and, heck, I do some actual contempo-poetry reading. I've even got a few poet friends. Yet, yet ... Jesus, an awful lot of the poetry (and poetry-discussion) that I look at delivers very little for the amount of effort it demands.

Some exceptions: Tom Disch (also a first-rate poetry critic). Vikram Seth. Frederick Turner. Charles Simic. Dennis Cooper. Dana Gioia. Some other names my tired brain isn't volunteering at the moment. For the last year I've also been enjoying the work of Mike Snider, a poet who runs a blog here, where he publishes some of his poems and writes about poetry.

I took to Mike's poems first. They're charmers -- often offhand-seeming, sometimes erotic, sometimes ruefully humorous, sometimes flat-out emotional (in a restrained kind of way). Pleasingly weatherbeaten while also showing off a lot of clarity ... "Deceptively casual" is the usual term for this kind of thing -- work that looks easy, that's genuinely fun to experience, yet that delivers real payoffs.

Then I got further into Mike's concerns and point-of-view: hmmm, the importance of artistic form, the challenge of making room in life for art, an interest in evo-bio and neuroscience, the pleasures of minor art ... Well, I gotta say I found it freaky how very right he is. Or maybe, to be more modest and honest, how much his interests overlap with mine. So I kicked off an email correspondence. As we swapped messages, Mike struck me as so interesting that I slyly turned the discussion into a q&a with him.

With Mike's permission, and in the hope that visitors to 2Blowhards will find the results enjoyable, I've edited our correspondence into the following conversation. If it's a little rough and awkward (is this an interview or a conversation?), that's all my fault. Please don't let that get in the way.

I especially hope everybody will treat themselves to a visit to Mike's blog, which is here. It's first-rate; he's generous to other poets yet firm in his own convictions, and he's interested in the arts in a broad way. And his own poetry's a reminder of how delightful and moving little crafted verbal things can be. I like Mike's work and mind a lot; I've also got the greatest respect for his approach to art.

This is part one of the interview. I'll post part two tomorrow.

Best,

Michael


2 Blowhards: I've taken only one how-to-write-poetry class, and I wonder if I got the standard thing. I think most of the people in the class went into it assuming we'd be given exercises in writing poetry in traditional forms. Instead, we were encouraged to write what I'd consider modernist prose-poems -- short things with heightened language and line breaks. Is this typical?

Mike Snider: You're entirely right about the general nature of poetry writing courses. For my sins, for 6 years at the University of Louisville I taught a clone of the one you took. There are good teachers out there (Dick Davis at OSU, for one, though I think he mostly teaches Persian literature). You might try asking, in the General Talk section at Eratosphere, whether there is a good program near where you live. And Eratosphere itself (here) is a wonderful place, especially in the Poet Lariat, Discerning Eye, and Musing on the Masters sections.

2B: A funny thing about art is that no one really needs it. So, unless you're one of the one-tenth of one percent who's actually making a living at art, how to get your motor going becomes a pressing question. I loaf around a lot and don't do nearly as much art as I'd like. How do you meet the challenge? Does writing in traditional forms help?

MS: I completely empathize with not having a self-starting motor. It's embarrassing how little I've written. I started playing mandolin when I was 35 partly because everywhere I went there were 15 other guitar players, and I've been accused of similar motives in my switch to making formal poems. But it had more to do with what you mentioned about finite things. I was married, with an infant daughter; I was working fulltime as a programmer and taking graduate CS courses. Writing seemed impossible.

I read Barbara Herrnstein-Smith's "Poetic Closure" (sadly, out of print), which was mostly about the interaction of form and thought in the sonnet. This particularly appealed to me in two ways: I was trying to find a way to write about something other than how I felt about things, and it showed a possible way to make serious things on a scope I could hope to manage. That is, I could sit down with the hour or so I had to work with when I was lucky and hope to get 140 syllables out in a recognizable (though seldom finished) form. It helped just being able to see how much was left to get to the end.

Of course my first (fifty or so) attempts were dreadful, but the reward of finishing something and the kind of fascination and satisfaction that working with form shares with puzzles were enough to keep me going. I really think I'd have stopped making poems long ago if I hadn't become a formalist. I'm not sure I've answered your question--I should mention Lewis Turco's "The Book of Forms," a catalog of meters and stanzas, and Timothy Steele's "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing," the best introduction to meter i know of. There's a sample of what it's like here:

BTW, I'm a fan of Christopher Alexander, whom you've mentioned at 2Blowhards -- did you know that he's a had a tremendous on the object oriented programming community? And it seems to me that much of what he says can be applied to traditional form in poetry, as well.

2B: I've found that a lot of what he says can be applied to a lot of things.

MS: I've been interested in Christopher Alexander -- particularly "The Timeless Way of Building" and the more local patterns in "A Pattern Language" -- since the mid-'80s when I was living in a one room house my first wife had built by hand using hundred-year-old white oak she'd pulled from abandoned barns. I was amazed at how well we could live there with a computer and no plumbing. I was intrigued by the idea of patterns as codifications of the solutions people had actually used to solve common problems--and since world government was hardly the kind of thing people had repeatedly solved, I was and am skeptical of his ideas on that subject and on anything bigger than say, cities of about a half-million people.

I haven't seen his later work. What worked in the books I've seen was solidly grounded in field work and I don't have much patience for theory that doesn't at least acknowledge that we are part of the biological world, with many of the same kinds of constraints as any other animals. Maybe the new book will do that. I'm certainly intrigued enough to buy the first volume. But I make my living as a programmer, and Alexander's ideas have made a real difference for me there -- I write better code, and I do it faster, because I look for re-usable patterns. I do think it has relevance to the poetry I write, as well. I don't think it's an accident that poetry in every culture, at least until the last century (it's hard to get used to saying it that way), was composed of repeating rhythmic patterns. It works on other levels, too -- the sonnet form solves a particular class of problems. Frost said that if you have something you'd like to say for about eight lines and then want to take it back for six lines, you might as well write a sonnet.

2B: Are you an Antonio Damasio fan? I know Oliver Sacks and others think he's the real thing, though I tried "The Feeling of What Happens" and wasn't entranced. I do love keeping up with theories of the mind. Are you a Steven Pinker fan? I am. How about Frederick Turner's more recent stuff? I find his essays very brilliant, and I'm on board with the ideas and the general approach.

MS: Turner, Damasio, and Pinker -- I know Fred, though I haven't seen him since 1978. In the summer of 74 he and Robert Allen and Michael Farin and I drove from Ithaca to Vancouver Island to LA to Denver (where Fred and Michael had what I'm told was an actual fistfight, and Fred hitchhiked back to Kenyon, where he was teaching at the time) and back to the East Coast. He was just starting to think about the things that led him to formalism and on to Natural Classicism -- "The Neural Lyre" (here) appeared in the August '83 edition of Poetry. The last thing of his I read was "The Culture of Hope," which I thought very impressive except when he talked about our descendants reaching back through time to guide us. Even when I knew him he was always trying to find explanations to make magic work through as yet undiscovered science. He does have Arthur C. Clarke on his side there.

I thought Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens" was too much of a collection of just-so stories, but "Descartes' Error" is really good, providing the empirical basis for rejecting the separation of reason and emotion. Lakoff and Johnson's "Philosophy in the Flesh" is very good on the same subject, approaching it from a more philosophical basis. The second half of that book, which attempts to dismantle most of the influential philosophical tradion since Plato one chapter per philosopher, is not as good. Pinker's grand. Lakoff and Johnson have some technical disagreements with him that I'm not qualified to comment on. Daniel Dennett's another writer to keep an eye on. I'm rambling now--must be time for lunch.

2B: It's hilarious how much on the same page, or at least the same reading list, we are -- I'm a Lakoff and Johnson fan too. Have you tried Mark Turner ("The Literary Mind," a few others)? He's great too. (And can be sampled here.) All but says that language equals metaphor equals poetic form equals story, etc etc. It's all a spinning-out or flowering of the innate code, the basic grammar. Which seems to be the Christopher Alexander vision too, as I understand it. Interesting moment, what with traditional forms being revived, people like Turner and Lakoff and Alexander thinking what they're thinking, the Web unfolding before all of us, etc.

MS: Mark Turner sounds intriguing. I've been thinking about Alexander's notion that patterns and pattern languages are built from observing the solutions people repeatedly discover or adopt when faced with common problems, and how that applies to, for instance, the sonnet. It isn't accident or the support of elites that have kept the form alive and vital for nearly 700 years in virtually every European language.

2B: I fell for the arts when I was a confused teen via French lit and painting and arty movies. To my shame, I think the Euro-snobbery was part of what appealed to me then. How, when, and for what did you tumble when you first went for the arts?

MS: Euro-snobbery? Sounds familiar. In high school I had, four years running, a remarkable Spanish teacher named Susan Dunlap. She had us reading, in Kentucky, in Spanish, philosophers like Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, the poets Machado, Guillén, Sor Juana, Borges, Paz, Neruda, Quevedo, Lorca -- I loved Lorca. I still remember the beginning of "Gacela de la muerte oscura" :

Quiero dormir el sueño de las manzanas, / alejarme de tumulto de los cementerios. / Quiero dormir el sueño del aquel niño / que quería cortarse el corazón en alta mar.

But I started making poems out of contempt for a different teacher, who offered a point on the six-week average for every poem turned in. I wrote 92 and got a 95. Meanwhile I was hanging out with a Catholic monk who was running the youth group at my Episcopal church and a Bolivian exchange student who wanted "la vida del artist." I swear to God this is true. Between the Latin and the Monk and the Notebook -- "Hey, what are you writing?" "A poem." "Really? Can I see..." -- well, you can imagine. And you're ashamed of arty movies? Of course la vida del artist doesn't get art done, and it took a long time to figure that out. I don't know that I'd have listened, but I wish someone had told me I needed more than attitude. And I wish someone had taught me something about prosody, even (maybe especially) Spanish prosody. I was almost 40 before I began to wonder how to work on a poem, instead of just feeling my way into it.

2B: How do you suspect you're viewed by the poetry world?

MS: I have NO reputation in the poetry world: I haven't published a poem (or even submitted one for publication) for about 10 years, and it's been nearly 20 years since I taught Creative Writing at the University of Louisville -- most of that time I've been writing software or doing various kinds of construction work. Almost all of my current connection with the poem biz is through the net, at Eratosphere, in blogs, on mailing lists, etc.

2B: I marvel at the way so many people manage to make a little time and space for art -- who'd have thought there was that much goodwill towards art? Did you ever think of trying to become an art pro? You taught for a while -- how did that strike you as a solution to the "arty guy without a trust fund" problem? How about putting your musical or verbal skills to work commercially -- maybe doing music for ads or TV, or trying to make it in the c&w biz?

My current tiresome old-fart rant to gullible (or maybe just humoring-me) youngsters is this: 1) You'll probably never make money at art, so if art really means a lot to you, be sensible about planning for an arty life. So 2) Develop some sort of craft you can sell for enough money yet retain some control over -- become an accountant, a vet, something useful and commercial that allows you set your own life and hours. Then 3) Design your life to make as much room in it for art as you can. But never, ever bank on getting by on your art, unless you're really determined to make it as some kind of commercial artist. In which case, go right ahead.

MS: Do you know Edmund Crispin's short murder mystery "We Know You're Busy Writing, but We Thought You Wouldn't Mind if We Just Dropped in for a Minute"? I like your old-fart rant. It's not too different from my original plan, but you know John Lennon's line about life and plans. I'm staying 300 miles away from my wife and two step-daughters (11 & 13) because the telecom wreck left me washing dishes and it became clear we were going to lose the house if Something Wasn't Done. The one good thing about the arrangement is that I can spend every other weeekend and all night after work either writing or playing music. At home I have to fight for time, and I feel guilty about the time I do manage.

When I graduated from Kenyon College (in 1974, with a degree in Spanish) I was determined to stay out of the academy and to write poetry in the language of the people. Whoever they were. I waited tables until I could get into a tool-and-die maker's apprentice program and ran lathes and milling machines for 2 years before stupidly quitting because my girlfriend left me. I wrote a lot of stuff in that couple of years, mostly free verse, with lots of thighs and tongues doing unspecified things. Just one poem came directly from the industrial world, and, curiously, it was a sonnet:

The Sacrament

Our Second Adam taught that human greed
must build, at last, the earthly paradise,
and surely he was right. No end to need,
of course, is coming, but -- for a fair price --
all needs are satisfied. I read the signs
of progress everywhere, but Building Four,
Appliance Park, holds what, for me, defines
our Grace: That no one's milk may spoil before
it's drunk, that all our beer be numbing cold,
our celery crisp and icetrays filled, steel plate,
four hundred times an hour, is oiled and rolled
beneath the press that smashes out its fate --
compressor cases. Stenciled on that press,
its maker's name, in black block letters -- BLISS.

It's altogether too literary and Episcopalian and socialist but I'm still fond of it. The broken heart didn't last long after the job. I met somebody, got married, and ended up teaching Freshman Comp and Creative Writing with her. We were both part-time lecturers, making nothing, but we lived in a 16' X 20' house she'd hand-built on her grandmother's land with hundred-year-old white oak pulled from the sides of old barns, and we didn't need much.

The next 4 years were the only time in my adult life when time and money weren't problems. We both wrote a lot of poetry, some of it not too bad (hers was better), and we both started to publish in little magazines.

The interesting thing about teaching Creative Writing was learning how very little I had to say about making free verse and how little help came from more experienced teachers: "show, don't tell," "avoid cliches," "use vivid language." The result is that perfectly reasonable English phrases like "The fresh-brewed coffee burned his mouth" turn into "His tongue writhed under the fiery Arabian infusion" -- the free-verse equivalent of syntactic inversions for the sake of rhyme.

2B: Hmm, the exact poetry-writing class I took.

MS: When we did actually teach anything beyond sensibility, we taught poorly understood prosody since "You have to know the rules before you can break them." No one, least of all me, asked why they should be broken. Still, looking for something to say in those classes led me to Paul Fussell's "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form" and to Barabara Herrnstein-Smith's "Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End," and both those books were important later, when I started to think about poetry. Much later. At that time I just knew something was wrong.

Then my wife got sick -- really sick -- and when she appeared to get better, we had a baby. I read a wonderful book by Samuel Floriman, "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering," and I found myself teaching Comp while I was taking Calculus, working on a degree in Engineering Mathematics and Computer Science. Got a software job before finishing the degree, moved to North Carolina, bought a house. No sleep and not a line of poetry. Really ugly things happened involving Recovered Memory Syndrome and a psychologist at Duke named Susan Roth. House gone, job gone, wife gone, daughter gone (this past spring I heard from her for the first time in 9 years). My dog died.

I was 39, starting over, this time with huge debts, the biggest to the IRS. I framed houses, did some commercial construction, roofing, other odd work. I bought a mandolin and somehow ended up in a band a month later. I was writing again, still mostly free verse, and I started doing open mics, reading poetry as well as following guitar players (outside of bluegrass, they can't follow mandolinists). I got pretty good at presenting the poetry, but as I got better and better receptions for my jokes and sex riffs, I got more and more uneasy about it. Why did I call myself a poet and not a standup comic, especially since comics could make a lot more money than poets?

That's suddenly a very uncomfortable question. I never thought about it quite like this, but the answer may be that no one expects a poet to make a living writing poetry, while a comic who can't make a living is just not a very good comic. There's not much on the line writing poetry, is there?

Of course everything changed again when I married again. There are lots of essays and books by women about their art sinking under the weight of domestic life, and maybe it once was different for men, but it ain't no more. My new wife had two small children, and it wasn't long before I was back in software. Full-time time job, a marriage, two children, a band. The music's not so bad -- she went out with me because of the way I sang John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," and I bought her some drums, and now she plays with us.

2B: Where do you find the time for the writing these days?

MS: Writing has been hard. Maybe there's something on the line after all, because time for writing poetry is the one thing I'll fight with her about. The most I can manage is an hour or two at a time about 5 days a week. My habit working on a new poem had been to spend at least that much time just playing with phrases before I found something that interested me -- I'm not one of those poets with an endless supply of images and stories -- and if I didn't get something like a draft going that day, I'd likely have to start over the next time.

I was also, after my time in open mics and slams, looking for a way to do more than attitude in a poem, and that made it even harder to get something going in such a short time. I went back to Fussell and Herrnstein-Smith because they talked about poetry as a way of thinking. Both books discussed rhyme and meter as structural elements in poetry, but "Poetic Closure," which began as a study of how sonnets end, turned out to be particularly useful.

The sonnet is a beautiful little machine, only 140 syllables, with a mental/emotional structure determined by its rhymes. It looked manageable and in fact it was -- I could get a draft done or nearly so in one session, pulled by the rhyme and finger-counting. To my surprise, the sonnet's weird combination of intimacy and distance let me write about things that had seemed too hard, too personal, or even too trivial before.

I write things besides sonnets these days, but I think I would have stopped writing if I hadn't spent almost a year writing nothing else. And I have this domestic sonnet about making time:

Putting Clothes Away

Lazy, I lie in bed and watch you bend
Over the drawer, knees apart, your dress
Just barely reaching your thighs. I don't intend
To take you from your work, just caress,
Lightly, your supple calf, but then my hand
Gets notions of its own and when you stop,
A little, noticing, moves on. You stand
Up half annoyed and half about to drop
Every stitch. My fingers undo folds
Of flesh and find the button just inside --
My breath unravels when you press, then hold
My hand away. "You stop it now!" you chide --
"Get up! I told you there was work to do --
We'll see how that thing fits when we get through."


We'll continue our conversation with Mike Snider tomorrow.

posted by Michael at September 4, 2003




Comments

Blowhards,

I didn't know you had the courage and scope to tackle contemporary poetry as well. Big applause for the Charles Simic mention (good God! is there no end to 2BH genius?). And *thank* you for dropping some other names to check out. Tips like that are worth their weight in gold.

Mike, you sound like a fascinating person and I'll be sure to check out your blog. I'm thrilled that you're still crazy after all these years. Please keep the faith. There are so few of the good ones out there.

Good point about the monetary aspect of poetry. What I've always loved about it is that those who do it seldom seem conflicted or prone to careerist tendencies, there being so little financial reward. That gives a certain freedom.

(As for myself, I'd love to have a poem published one year when I'm retired, if only to give me the right to write "Poet" under occupation on my tax forms that year.)

Cheers,

Robert

P.S. Charles Simic points out that poets have *always* been reviled since the beginning of time. One of his essays begins with a quote from a Roman Senator with advise on raising a son(I'm paraphrasing): "If he starts writing verses, throw him out." Mike, you just have to take some satisfaction from being in a profession that's been the underdog for over 2000 years!

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on September 4, 2003 8:39 PM



I think it's wicked cool that Fred Turner gets into fistfights.

Enjoying the interview.

Posted by: J.W. on September 5, 2003 9:22 AM



I learned this weekend that there were no blows exchanged—now one of best stories is ruined!

Posted by: Michael Snider on September 13, 2003 9:01 AM



Sometimes we put a bit too much on our plate. It's understandable. Thanks for everything you shared in the past.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:25 PM






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