Your poems often examine people during war time, specifically how people find life in the midst of death and destruction. For example, from The Moon Reflected Fire, the bathing girl in "Bamboo Bridge": "...a wonder she is; I forgot./For a moment we all hold the same thought, that there is life in life and war is shit." How is this idea of seeing the hope and possibility of life despite the horror of war important to your overall body of work?
Violence and uncertainty have been a large part of my life. I guess I'm a bit of an edge junky because of it. I don't understand normal life. I am instantly uncomfortable with safety and happiness because I don't trust them not to be ripped away. My wife is the same way and we talk about it a lot. Some of this is plain old PTSD, the rest -- character? I don't know. But every once in a while something beautiful or astonishing upstages that whole system and I find myself surprised, delighted and hopeful. These can be simple things. I took up photography in the nineties and this has taught me to see what is there apart from my "mind-forged manacles" and this gives me hope. The most powerful kind of love surprises, sneaks up on you, disarms you. I try to make myself available for this and poetry is the most productive practice.
Women figure prominently in your writing, especially when there is a longing for peace, comfort, survival, and an end to the suffering that life brings. Yet the women who show up are not perfect, pure wives and mothers promising rescue. They are varied and regular, hate-filled ("Bamboo Bridge"), a prostitute with young children ("Purification"), and a maid ("Donde El Diablo Perdio Sus Pantalones"). How do the bodies of women and the women's actions offer a kind of healing or escape to the men in your work? Do you see women in this symbolic type of way due to your own personal experiences, or does it come from something else?
They are not at all symbolic. I admire women. I especially admire how they have learned to survive in world where things are stacked against them. The women I write about have had lives that are analogs to my own in another gender context. The connection between war and prostitution, or poverty and prostitution, is an ancient system of economic relations. Between ages 16 and 23 I was a professional jazz musician. I played in club housebands backing singers and strippers and commedians. After hours, the jazz scene really lit up and other musicians came in to jam. I became friends with prostitutes, gangsters and lowlifes. There were two prostitutes that sort of looked after me when I was in my teens. I activated their mother mojo. I learned to see people differently, to not judge. I am much more judgmental of respectable frauds. I'm wary of anything that might suggest that women are there to heal men. I prefer to think my writing is an act of empathy. The young prostitute in "purification" is also a person who longs for spirituality and who has had few choices in life. The young combat vet who comes to her – me – senses they are both being used.
As I read the short story, "Donde El Diablo Perdio Sus Pantalones," I wondered how and why you decided to make it a piece of fiction. When it comes to subject matter, do you know instinctively that a piece will become a poem or story immediately, or does it take time and exploration for you to decide?
In January I taught at the Pacific University of Oregon MFA residency. Pam Houston gave a talk on fiction writing and offered this exercise: Write a scene that happened 24 hours ago. Then write a scene that happened over 10 years ago. Then write a scene that happened any time. It was one of those exercises that sound really simple until you start doing it. The result was the story you mention. I am very much a believer that the best writing comes at the intersection of the self and the world, and not from the immersion in self, or an escape into externals. Novalis wrote, "The seat of the soul is where the inside meets the outside." I try to position myself at that intersection. Writing from someone else's exercise is one way of achieving that.
Who are a few of your favorite writers and how have their works inspired you?
I'm extremely eclectic. Jack Gilbert, certainly, for poetry. I had the good fortune to be mentored by him in a poetry group in Northampton, MA. And, of course, everything Jack read: especially Pound and the modernists. It was a very grounding kind of experience. Of course, after a while, you have to escape your teachers, which I have been doing, but that kind of grounding is essential and irreplaceable. You need to give up your ego for a while. I guess that's what is meant generally by apprenticeship. It's hard to find that kind of situation any more and it's a shame.
Because I was in the theater for a while I am immersed in Shakespeare, Beckett, Brecht. Powerful influences too, and ones which came to the fore in my early poetry. I haven't really had a fiction mentor yet. I suppose I am still looking. I love Joyce, Faulkner, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Lermontov, Dostoevski, Nabokov. I am an eclectic and voracious reader. I can read Aristotle's writing on the Soul, a crime fiction novel, and a book on the intelligence of crows at the same time and somehow it all fits. My very favorite contemporary poet is Dorianne Laux. I like younger poets like Terrence Hayes and Reginald Dwayne Betts and am partial to the blues: the brilliant understatement and wit. I don't think we can tune out popular electronic culture: it has replaced nature as the most immediate environment, whether we like it or not. I like neon as much as I like the few remaining unpolluted bodies of water. It's what we've got.