By CL Bledsoe
This is an interview from the Adagio Verse Quarterly. I was a featured poet there several years ago (2003 or 2004, I think). Patricia Gomes, the editor, was very kind to me, interviewed me (my first and best) and later blurbed my collection Anthem (which took 4 years to come out…). She made me feel like a “real” poet by seriously examining my work. Thanks for that, Patricia.
AVQ is no more, so I thought I’d dredge this old thing up and repost it. I always come off sounding self-indulgent and pretentious when I try to sound thoughtful, but cest la vie. (That’s French for “fuck if I know.”)
Interview with Featured Poet CL Bledsoe
*reprinted from Adagio Verse Quarterly
(conducted by Patricia Gomes)
PG: I’m loathe to discuss only poetry with you; poetry is Life … let’s talk life, yours to be specific. Tell us about your first recollection growing up on a catfish farm. And please, for us city dwellers, what is a catfish farm?
CB: My family operated a farm in the Arkansas delta that produced rice, soybeans, and milo, and also cattle. During the winter, when the crops were laid by, we had a fish shop that sold catfish and buffalo fish which we raised during the summer. We kept cattle in a wide, fenced in valley, our house sat on top of a ridge overlooking the cattle on one side and a stock pond on the other. The fence around the house itself had long ago fallen down, though, and growing up, I often woke to hear cattle chewing outside my window, or scratching themselves against the bricks of the house. It was very comforting to hear the sounds of them living nearby.
In the fall, we rounded up the cattle for vaccinations. They were usually scared and skittish, likely to bolt if given the chance. The men used electric cattle prods to keep the cattle under control. When I was very young, I remember asking if the shock hurt them, and a friend of the family who died recently, a man we called Bob “Hollowhead” (a pun on his name) tried to convince me that it didn’t hurt at all, come here and I’ll show you… He proceeded to chase me around, shocking the air inches behind me while I ran, giggling and terrified, afraid to come near him for hours.
This is a pretty idyllic view of things. Much of the time, things were much darker, but as I move away from them, it is these livelier moments that stand out.
PG: One of my favorite Bledsoe poems is Night Variations. The opening line reads:”Stand on the corner of the night and don’t allow it / to unravel itself into something less velvet. …” what inspired that particular poem?
CB: This poem was heavily influenced by the writings of Italo Calvino. If you haven’t read Calvino, check him out. For example, his stories narrated by Qfwfq, a being older than…everything. Qfwfq might tell a story, in a grandfatherly sort of way, “In my day, we didn’t have matter; we were free-floating accumulations of energy.” I like the fable-like quality of his work.
This poem is a sort of ars poetica, or maybe arse poetica, because it is very tongue-in-cheek. It is full of little lessons on writing and life, presented in a fabulist style. “This reiterates the necessity of always keeping a journal. But remember/ that which tastes sweet to the termite may leave others’ tongues bored.” In my writing, I am often (perhaps always) struggling with the idea of “how to live,” though not always so blatantly. I don’t think this is something one can ever consider an answered question. All of my life, I hope, I will be forever revising my answers to this question. I consider it an accomplishment just to realize this much. It has taken some work.
PG: Speaking of inspiration, which of the following is most likely to inspire your poetry: nature, family, or personal insight?
CB: When I was in high school, I had a teacher who always tried to get me to write about nature. “Everything you write is so dark,” she would say. “My favorite thing to do in the world is work in my garden. You should write about that.” I didn’t have a garden, but I had worked in rice fields, and this is not a fun thing to do. Though the first poem I ever published (in a little student journal at the University of Arkansas, which I later joined the staff of) was inspired by my grandmother’s garden, it was really about racism, and my experiences with a black nanny. So in that poem, nature inspired a personal insight about my family. I think that my personal insights are heavily linked with my family, whether I agree with them or not, so these two things are often very close. My family is my model for the world.
My father instilled a deep appreciation in me for nature. I remember coming home over a break from college once with a friend. We had been walking around the pasture and as we approached the house, my father pulled up. I made the comment that there were so few trees left, compared to when I was a child. To which my father replied, “I’m doing the best I can.” It was important to him to preserve the trees, but many of them had to be cut down because they were sick or dying. Nature can be very abstract. Man’s relationship with nature and each other, and the insights one can draw from this, interest me more. So I’d have to say personal insight inspires me most, but they are all closely entwined.
PG: Name the first poet who made you gasp for air.
CB: I wish I could say something really hip, like James Tate or Charles Simic, both of whose work I love now, or even Ginsberg, but I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, which was, at the time, 49th in education, so I didn’t hear about any of these people till I was out of high school. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t exposed to as much poetry as I would’ve liked to have been. What we did read, and there was a lot of it, was older writing. Aside from Maya Angelou (a fellow Arkansan) I don’t remember reading a single living writer in school. I loved Dickenson in grade school; this was probably the first book of poetry I bought. Frost was probably the second. At some point in high school, I read Plath. This would be the third. I remember being incredibly frustrated with William Carlos William. When I graduated, I went through a period of self-education before entering college. I read everything I could find. Anthony Hecht was an early discovery. When I discovered a writer or poet, I would drive to a city with a decent book store, and buy every book I could find by that author. This is something I still do, though now I use the internet. I came out of school so ignorant and confused. I just wanted to dump everything they’d told me and start over, so I read. I remember reading Camus and Thomas Mann, while the people I knew or worked with were reading Goosebumps books. It was very alienating.
PG: First woman you wrote a poem for? (First name is sufficient.) How old were you, and how do you feel about that poem today?
CB: I wrote a terrible poem for a girl named Karen when I was fifteen or so. It was called something like, “This is How I Feel,” and consisted of a list of images and situations meant to convey certain emotions, like a child waiting to be picked up from little league, only his mother has been killed in a car wreck two streets over, and he has to wait all night. Really awful melodramatic teenager stuff. I turned it in as a creative writing assignment at school, and had to stay after class and convince the teacher (also my Aunt) that I wasn’t suicidal, on drugs, etc.
PG: Does the poetry come easier than the fiction?
CB: I don’t really think any of it comes easily, but poetry comes more often. Lately, I’ve been writing more nonfiction. Who knows where that will go?
PG: Title of the poem you’re most proud of. Title of the poem that embarrasses you to no end. (Don’t worry; I won’t ask to read it!)
CB: I’ve seen the answer to a similar question often being, “The one I’ve written most recently is my favorite,” and I wish I could repeat this answer, but it wouldn’t be true. Perhaps I am a negligent father, but I play favorites. I wrote a poem a few years ago for a workshop taught by the inaugural poet Miller Williams. The poem was later printed online in Story South, and won the Blue Collar Review’s Working People’s Poetry Contest. The poem, entitled, “Roaches,” isn’t the best poem I’ve ever written, but it was a breakthrough. I was in a class with some good writers, and I wasn’t very good. Some of these people were writing about things I didn’t care about, relationships that’d gone sour, travel, angsty stuff, and I realized that I was also writing about things that I didn’t care about. The good ones, though, were transcending themselves, using themselves and their experiences to represent larger issues. So I wrote a poem about working in a rice field, the way the sun just sort of perched on your shoulder and sat there all day. This was my father’s life. It was miserable work, for me, and at night, I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed and listened to the roaches scritching in the walls. There is misery, but there is also beauty in this. The noises the roaches made were like music. The poem turned on the lines: “I sank into the mud of those fields/and into myself, waiting/until night came/when I would crawl into bed/press my face against the wall/and listen.” This was also a very stripped down poem for me. This is something Miller Williams taught me. Economy.
The poem I mentioned earlier, “Garden,” is pretty embarrassing. It is very fumbling and unclear at times. And so, so long.
PG: Finish this sentence: “I write poetry because ___________________ .”
CB: If I didn’t I wouldn’t understand the world. Poetry is how I make sense of life.
PG: Share with us your initial reaction upon winning the Working People’s Poetry Contest.
CB: I was surprised. I’d never won anything before. The Blue Collar Review is a good journal. They’d published my work before and actually I have work forthcoming with them. I respect what they are doing and I am honored to have been chosen by them.
PG: What do you envision for yourself five years from now?
CB: Hopefully a job. I couldn’t say. I hope to improve in my writing and life. I don’t think I could have predicted where I am today, five years ago. I would like to think that Ghoti Magazine will still be going strong, and this is the plan. I am shopping around a chapbook, working on a novel. Maybe in five years, these things will be published and I will be working on more.
Notes, 5 or 6 years later:
1. No, nature isn’t abstract. Society is abstract because it’s a construct imposed over Nature. There’s nothing abstract about the lion’s teeth, but, as Terry Pratchett said, put the universe through a sieve and show me one molecule of “Justice.” What I meant is that man views nature abstractly because we are so distant from it we no longer understand it. Just look at how we describe it — “All Natural” means something is clean and pure, when it should mean dirty as hell (what’s more natural than dirt?). We describe murder and rape as a “unnatural acts” and yet they are commonplace in nature.
2. Maya Angelou is not, exactly, an Arkansan. She lived there for awhile.
3. Is Charles Simic hip? I mean I enjoy and admire his work… These were both poets I was really into at the time.
4. The first “poet” who made me gasp for air was Susan ______. She did things with her tongue…
5. “Hopefully a job.” I was in college, maybe grad. school, but I think I was still an undergrad. at this point. I wanted to teach on a college level.