1. When did you first start writing poetry? How long after that did you start sending them out for publication?
Before I knew how to write, I would make up poems and my mother would write them down for me. Poetry was in the air in our house because my father Mel Weisburd was (and is) a poet, and, with Gene Frumkin, was the co-founder and editor of Coastlines magazine in the 1950's and 60's in Los Angeles. My parents would often host parties to raise money for Coastlines. Every month a group of poets and their families would get together in a park on Sunday to play baseball and read and socialize. I grew up with the families of Gene, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Stanley Kiesel, Bert Myers, and others. Coastlines also hosted Ginsberg's first LA reading in which a drunk in the audience heckled Ginsberg who started yelling back, threatening a fight and then took off all his clothes. I wasn't actually at that party, but it became a kind of family lore. The other story that made me feel cool in high school is that my Dad wrote the first West Coast literary account of taking LSD, which Coastlines published. He was part of a study on the effects of LSD on a thousand artists. My mother was a visual artist and a tremendous inspiration to me as well. But I detoured quite a bit in college and graduate school and thereafter. It wasn't until the early 90's that I returned to writing more seriously. I can't remember, but I think I began sending out and starting my rejection collection pretty soon.
2. What was your very first publication in a literary journal? Your first big publication?
I think my first publication occurred in college-Helicon, the UCSD literary journal. Afterwards, I took over the magazine with Luis Alberto Urrea. We transformed it into a new journal called Roadwork using his wonderful illustrations. But I didn't write or send out again until much later, when I started taking poetry workshops at the University New Mexico. The poem "Notes in Norton" from The Wind-Up Gods was my first publication. It appeared in Quarterly West. (Thank you Quarterly West.)
3. How often do you write poems?
Sadly, I don't write poems very often now for a variety of reasons. I really need a concentrated amount of time to focus on writing, and I just haven't had that in a long time.
4. Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets?
There are a lot, and whom I am most interested in depends on mood and what kind of poem I need to write. I am drawn to write two very different kinds of poetry: (1) a rich-sounding, lyric, lush language with a smidgeon of narration and (2) more humorous, "experimental", poetry of ideas, poetry of science, more surreal. For (1) I love to read people like Amy Beeder, David Wojahn, Seamus Heaney. For (2) I love Mary Ruefle, Matthea Harvey, Sarah Manguso, Larry Goeckel, Hadara Bar-Nadav and tons more.
I love finding new poets whose language excites me, and I feel so lucky that the internet has made it possible for me in Albuquerque (so far from New York and LA/SF) to explore and get to know so many writers, especially younger poets
5. From where do you draw most of your subject matter?
I am more interested in the external world than in my personal life, although that's not to say that my emotional landscape doesn't play a role in shaping poems. There are so many events and discoveries that are either amazing or horrific. I've been writing more about the horrific lately. I'm under no illusions that by writing poems about the terrible things people do, I'll change the world one iota. But I can't just sit here in my comfortable suburban house and say nothing.
6. You have a scientific background, which is a bit unusual for a widely-published poet. Do people often remark on that?
No, not really. I studied physics, and at some level there are similarities between poetry and physics-both deal with fundamental questions about how universes work, both search for the most elegant expressions of and solutions to problems. The awe I feel about the natural world and thinking about questions like what's beyond the universe's boundaries has been a driving force in my writing. The only aspect of getting degrees in physics that I regret is that I avoided taking any literature classes, so I'm always having to scramble to make up for that. Career-wise the link between physics and poetry has been science writing. I worked for a now defunct Congressional agency called the Office of Technology Assessment and at Business Week as a fellow from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I was also a staff writer/editor at Science News magazine until my daughter was born, and I continue to do science-related freelancing work. When my daughter was very young, it was difficult to get much journalism done, so one day as I was sitting in her messy room surrounded by toys I started writing poems again, but for kids. My first collection of poetry for children is called Barefoot; it will be released in early 2008 from Wordsong Poetry, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press.
7. How do you feel about MFA programs?
I've never been an official student in an MFA program, so it's hard for me to comment. I've taken workshops at the University of New Mexico. I've been to Bread Loaf twice and to the Postgraduate Writers' Conference twice (my favorite conference), and other smaller workshops. I was a private student of Roger Weingarten for 10 months. I belong to a poetry group that meets every two weeks. So I've found similar ways of getting the feedback, inspiration and community of an MFA program. From observing UNM's program, I find it unfortunate that not everyone who goes to an MFA program can get a job afterwards doing what they love.
8. What do you see as the role of poetry in the United States today?
I am thrilled by the vibrant communities of poets-both on-line and in cities. But I don't think poetry really matters much to most people. I heard Mary Ruefle give a talk about the moon and she showed us the New York Times from the day of the moon landing. There was a poem on page one and two more, I believe, in the first section. It's hard to imagine a paper doing that today. Poetry seems to be for the most part for poets. And for kids before the 5th grade.
9. What is your best advice to writers getting started in writing poetry?
Mix up the language. Here's a tip that I like from Matthea Harvey: reverse the order of a poem-that's how "Memoir of an Electron" from The Wind-Up Gods got some of its zip. But mostly: Read, read, read. Read anthologies, read Poetry Daily, on-line journals. Find poets whose writing excites you, who break rules you didn't realize you'd internalized, who are able to articulate difficult emotions or situations without being sentimental. When I have an idea for a poem, but I don't know how to write it, I search for a writer I know could do it, for a style that suits the subject, and I fill myself up with their language, reading for two or three days and then I try to write.