Q: What first drew you to poetry?
The Mississippi Delta has its own rhythm section, a low-buzz humid vibe of catfish, fried bacon, prom queens, screeching crickets and dizzy june bugs, sexual frustration, Friday night football, bleached hair and chewing gum, roadside Bible verses, minimum wage, non-unionized light manufacturing, and a dogmatic certainty that everything is Baptist until proven otherwise. The place literally itches for an explanatory scratch, evidenced by the numerous literary figures that it has produced who can't seem to keep their writing pen tongues out of the region's root canalled iconography.
Hemingway was once asked what makes a good writer. He replied "an unhappy childhood," implying that a backdrop of tension will not only get attended to, but its creative fruit will eventually get attention. Sorry, I'm starting to sound like Jesse Jackson.
I credit boring church sermons, coupled with the cadence of screaming evangelists, with my ninth grade initial interest in the sound of language as an art form. At that point, I began putting my own thoughts onto paper, in a cryptic style that was somewhere between journalistic shorthand and a jazz saxophone riff.
Q: Who have been some of your biggest influences as a writer?
I learn from everybody; either what to do or what not to do. While Shakespeare is the finest English writer there ever was, musicians Lyle Lovett and George Jones lay down some righteous blue-eyed Velveeta rants themselves. In addition, I'm turned on by the sizzle of some magazine and newspaper columnists' work.
Sometimes the influences of an artist are not limited to the artist's own field. Painters influence dancers who influence gymnasts who influence athletes who influence sculptors who influence painters who influence musicians-type thing. A lot of the writers who have had an impact upon me are not restricted solely to the poets. In addition to Shakespeare, I have had my head turned by the English Lake Poets, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, playwright Edward Albee, the letters of Lord Byron, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner; Jack Kerouac, W. H. Auden, P. G. Wodehouse and even e-mailed correspondence from contemporary friends.
Q: Can writing poetry be taught?
Since a "no" answer could legally jeopardize years of university income from at least ostensibly having taught the subject, I see that I'm more or less relegated a "yes" response.
Poetry can be coached, but not taught.
A friend of mine says that playing music is really about listening, painting is really about seeing, and writing is really about reading. Poetry transcends the mechanical exercise of writing a poem, but has its essence in how one thinks while experiencing events, in a marriage of lyrical symbolism with perception, in drawing parallels and creating drive-by drop-dead tensionjust by telling it as it is. Real poetry is an outward manifestation of an inner drive that must be more instinct/habit than choice.
Q: How did your Hamlet series come about? Do you have any more planned? How long have you been writing the Hamlet poems?
Well, the subject of Hamlet is kind of like country music; it's always hanging in the ether of the air, just waiting for us to plug in and play around with it. Turn it on, turn it up or turn it offcountry music is still going on out there somewhere.
Consider the parallel of Hamlet as a contemporary political figure: Hamlet as George W. Bush, Claudius as Dick Cheney, Polonius as Donald Rumsfeld, Ophelia as a faithful Condaleeza Rice, the Saudi family and Osama bin Laden as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (respectively or interchangeably as the reader may wish), and so forth. Unlike George W. Bush, however, Hamlet found his weapons of mass destruction.
That's one angle of the inspirational overview, you understand. Mechanically speaking, the project got off the ground thanks to my having won a distinguished professor award, which included a sum of money with which to undertake a creative teaching-related enterprise, so I decided to kill the fatted calf, don the apron, hold a bar-b-que and invite the prodigal Hamlet home for a roast. He arrived, the guests turned out and we howled.
As for future plans, I don't have anything definite in the works Hamlet-wise, but as I say, Hamlet is more a gas than a solid, a spirit than a thing tangible, so you never knowhe could come buzzing back in at any moment, without prior notice.
I think every student of literature spends a lifetime bouncing off of Shakepeare's ecumenical cast, and I'm certainly no different. My own Hamlet entries represented some 5 years of writing, off and on.
Q: How has cancer affected your writing? Please don't feel obliged to answer if the subject is too sensitive or private...
No, I'll gladly answer the question; after cancer, I'm rather happy to do anything.
Something about an ordeal involving 25 radiation treatments and numerous hospital visits has a way of giving a writer a book satchel full of brand new symbols and figures of speech to work with. As you can imagine, however, these symbols come at a very expensive price, which on second thought I guess makes us cancer survivor/writers a rather elitist bunch!
As a writer, you filter this cancer experience along with previous life events, and it finds its way into the humorous, mundane and serious aspects of your work. Realizing one's own mortality at such close range has the effect of fuel injected black coffee, kick-starting the writer's efforts, whether that involves meeting a publisher's deadlines, teaching a university writing course or shopping at Wal-Mart. We have been to the mountaintop -- and we've definitely heard the meter ticking.
Q: Do you have any special rituals for writing, such as a favorite place or time of day to write?
Writing is like bicycling; the only way to practice it is to do it. Continual writing does several things: sharpens writing craft skills, develops self-editing ability, and most important of all -- it makes the act of writing habit-forming.
I'm always mentally writing, whether I'm at a computer, in the kitchen or at a traffic light. I carry a journal with me almost everywhere in order to jot things down, so as not to leave that next book deal sitting out there at the traffic light! Journalizing also puts you in a work-in-process mode so that you are free to revisit and adjust your work. After relentlessly kicking things around in the journalizing stage, I find the act of finally putting a piece onto paper becomes merely one of many possibilities as to what can be done with the seminal idea. In this way, I dodge the deadly "masterpiece mentality" that can constipate creativity.
I find early mornings to be especially conducive to writing, although, as I say, I mentally write all the time.
Q: Do you consider yourself a southern poet?
Years ago, I sent a collection of poems to a university press for publication. They wrote back that they liked the poetry, but asked if I couldn't come up with a more appealing book title. I wrote back that putting a title on my work was almost as futile as assigning a name to a cat -- no matter what you name a cat, the cat won't respond to any name given to it.
Similarly, when I am faced with such regional distinctions as "southern poet," I'm inclined to respond "South of what? Such a label might work if the readers are located in Canada or the USA, but what happens when someone in Latin American, Europe or Africa reads my stuff (note: this assumes of course that I'm actually that widely distributed!)?
Regional labels have less and less relevance anymore, given jet travel as a norm, the homogenization of television and news coverage and the advent of the Internet.
Q: Do you have any new books in the works?
Yes, several, in fact. Prior to the cancer stint, I was pitching publishers a book of fly-fishing haikus, illustrated by old friend "JamDanny" Drew, who claims to hold down the front desk duties of what he humorously refers to as DC Berry Central Control. My cancer poems, Zen Cancer Saloon, crawled out of remission just long enough to win the chapbook contest at Black Warrior Review, and that particular issue will be appearing Spring 2004. My Hamlet series, Hamletta de Pompadour, has made the finals at three university press contests, so as you can see the ghost of Hamlet is still hovering about us. I have two works that at this point remain unpublished (through no design of my own, of course!), both of which are non-fiction: Diary of a Marriage Wrestler, 1970-2000 (my journals) and A Week On the Chunky and Chickasawhay, a Canoe Trip in Mississippi. Then I have a few other ideas that I plan to get working on shortly.
Q: Have you thought about writing fiction or other genres?
I might have given the idea some thought, but not seriously enough to pursue it, because I'm not really a writer in that sense; my stuff is more cryptic semaphore that can find its home only within what may loosely be described as "poetry". I'm grateful that at least one writing category accepts me, and wouldn't want to upset the industry by trying to spread myself too thin across the board, and thereby risk losing such amenities as my cult following, limousines, groupies, poetic slam-fest grand openings, etc.