J. P. Dancing Bear interview with Ken Robidoux
I am very attracted to and drawn in by the poems you have given us to publish. As with many of the poems you’ve recently published in Pank, Peony Moon, and Good Times Santa Cruz, and now with us at Connotation Press, these new poems all carry with them a similar structure. Perhaps I could describe them as a prose poem/list poem hybrid but that would be only correct insomuch as on first glance they look like prose poems and have phrases separated by colons like a list poem might. However, they aren’t exactly listing poems, unless one considers each specific phrasing a list component. It’s almost as if you’re using colons in place of line breaks. Please help us understand what your intention is with these poems and what you think is your attraction to this form?
I think the first thing I should explain is that these are what are referred to by a lot of people as “the birthday poems.” The reason why they’re referred to as that is because that’s what they were written for, the dedicatee’s birthday.
So they’re occasional poems?
Yes, and I would not say that they’re ekphrastic poems, but they do have a footing in ekphrasis. It’s a process that I came up with. I should explain the whole thing. I’m on Facebook, and on Facebook I was just overwhelmed. There are a lot of friends and family, who, when I first started off on Facebook, you know, befriended me. And when it came around to my birthday I was kind of overwhelmed because there was just a really big response. And I tried to do the same thing back to people that first week where it was, you know, like, happy birthday, and I was sending these applications but they were coming out dry almost like greeting cards and I hated it. And what I normally do with close friends and family is I will write them a card and make it myself. So, I thought, well, I’ve got 300 friends. I can do this. So what I decided to do was during the course of the year I was going to write a poem to everyone that had a declared birthday on my friends list, which seemed like, you know, it might be a bit of a stretch. It was like three hundred poems and I figured that’s less than a poem a day. I can do this. (laughs)
(laughing) That’s a rather monumental task. I’m sorry, but you’re presenting it like it’s “you know, I could probably…” No, that is daunting for me to think about…
(laughing) It’s funny because had I thought about my previous year I had only written about 50 poems.
Better not to think about that then.
Yeah, so already I was setting myself up to do six times as many. And what it turned out to be by time the year was over, oh my god, it was 1,400 poems.
Oh Lord! That is absurd. That is an enormous amount of output.
(laughing) Indeed! And what I had to do was I had to come up with some fast rules about the way I was going to approach this and I couldn’t do my normal writing process. So what I did was, I gave myself 20 minutes to actually write the poem. And then, of course, I realized later on that I was probably going to have to edit, edit, edit, edit. But, with that amount of time—my normal process is that I will read a poem probably, oh, at least four or five times before anybody ever sees it just to make sure the mechanics are working and the rest of the stuff, but I didn’t have that luxury here. I was literally just kind of writing a lot of stream-of-consciousness kind of stuff and I was trying all kinds of things. I’d go to the person’s web page and see what their latest quotes were, you know, their statuses, things that they liked, that kind of stuff, artwork that they liked and then I would find a painting that I felt suited them and then I would sit down and write from the painting, from the person, and possibly from one other angle like maybe an old film or music or some kind of other art or science.
Something that personalizes it and makes it connected specifically to the subject?
That’s right. So you can’t really say [the poems] are any one particular thing but they’re kind of a hybrid of a couple or three different approaches. And at first I was writing regular lines, but you know, the way Facebook’s formatting works kind of leaves a lot to be desired.
The internet in general has trouble with formatting poems.
Well, that’s true, and I was looking at something that would kind of not require line breaks and I didn’t want to do traditional prose poems so I went back to a book that was really seminal to me, which was C. D. Wright’s, Tremble and there were two poems in there that used colons and yet they looked like prose poems for the most part. So I borrowed that structure along with a couple other things…you’ll notice that none of these poems are ever written in first person, they’re all written in second person, which again personalizes it to the person. So I borrowed this structure from C. D. Wright and it just seemed to fit. It fit so well that I rarely looked back and thought about it after that point and I still use it even though I’m not doing the birthday poems anymore.
The wild thing to me about this is the ekphrastic component. You could have chosen the subject and made them the art and written from that, but instead you found a piece of painting or graphic art that actually connected you to the subject you wanted to write about and then wrote from there, which is an extra step that is absolutely intriguing to me.
(laughing) The thing is I never really got a chance to think about any of this stuff until after, I’d say, all of it was completed because I was just so busy working. (laughing) I just didn’t have a chance to really think about it. You know, people were making suggestions that I should put these all in one book and I was like, there is just no way anyone is ever going to do that. I’d spend probably five years tracking down permission [to use the artwork].
(laughing) In a book form, if you wanted to combine the art with the poetry it would kill you, but you could collect them and bind them just as they are without the art itself. They easily hold up on their own. They don’t require the art itself to make them make sense.
I firmly believe that a poem has to be a poem on its own. It can’t be a poem that relies on something else. And a lot of ekphrastic poems to me seem to want to have the painting there as an anchor and I don’t believe in it.
But it’s like we tell our students, right, you can’t go door to door explaining your work.
But I think these easily do stand on their own, and they’re gorgeous, so it’s basically a kind of a new form that you’ve created. I think it’s a neat idea. And the idea that you created it on the basis that Facebook wrecks formatting as sort of a launching point is great. Isn’t that what poetry does? Isn’t that how forms came about to begin with…
Well, you know, that’s what the bottom line is. You have to work with what you’re given. And when people ask me about this project, the eye-opener is yes, the innovation, but the other thing is there was no writer’s block. There was never time for it.
Oh, how beautiful is that? A year without the pressure. That’s just brilliant…
Yes, a year without deadlines. I mean, you just have one day to write each poem. And you don’t have the luxury of having a writer’s block.
You don’t have the luxury or torture of questioning yourself and going back over and over again because by the time you do you’re already in four deep. By the time you start to think about looking back you’ve already written three or four more and you’re already moving forward. This would be a great exercise for beginning poets because it would give them a chance to open up and go for it without a lot of…
Yeah, without a lot of worrying about what the end product looks like. You know, because a lot of time what we end up doing is we edit ourselves while we’re writing and that gets in the way of the actual writing itself. And you know, they always tell you you’re supposed to have the writing hat on first and then you put the editor's hat on but a lot of time, you know I’m guilty of it as much as anybody else, you want to edit that poem as you’re working on that one line.
I’ve never had a writing teacher tell me otherwise. Every single writing teacher I’ve ever had tells me the same thing you just said and I’ve never known anyone that didn’t edit as they wrote. It seems like it’s one of those things we all talk about but no one’s really figured out how to do it. I think you’ve actually nailed a way to do it.
Right. Again, this whole project was a real eye-opener for me. If I’d have known it was going to be 1,400 poems I would have probably never done it.
(laughing) Well, it’s monumental to think of writing 1,400 poems. It’s like a life’s work and then some.
I know, and as I look back it just became the most prolific period…and I consider myself a fairly prolific writer most of the time. The previous year was really a fluke for me with only 50 poems; it’s usually at least a couple poems a week.
Wow! You’re working, which leads me to a couple of the other questions I wanted to get to. You are a disturbingly busy man. I run this magazine, I teach, and I’ll be working on documentary films starting in October. You, my friend, make me look like I need to get more jobs.
You’re the Founding Editor-in-Chief of The American Poetry Journal, you own and operate Dream Horse Press, plus you’re obviously writing constantly. And then on top of that will all our extra time you have a radio show (Out Of Our Minds on KKUP 95.1 FM Cupertino, an NPR station)?
The previous host of the radio show was a local poet, Jim Standish, who was a friend of mine and I’d been on the show a few times. He knew I had pretty good connections throughout, and the show had kind of turned into somewhat of a local reading and he wanted it to ascend. So he begged me to take that show, I did not want to do it…
Thinking you’d be able to call various writers with a little bit more national prominence?
Right, and international, too. The thing is, through the course of the [past] ten years I think that the audience is incredibly savvy and it’s not an audience of poets. It’s an audience of poetry lovers.
Isn’t that nice?
Oh, it’s wonderful! All the previous hosts have done ten years and I just came up on my ten year mark and I don’t feel like a journeyman yet in this position. I still feel like there’s so much to learn that I don’t want to give it up.
But that’s got to be a lot of prep work that you’re putting into this stuff.
Yeah, we do about 30-35, probably at the most, interviews a year. The rest of the time we do a bunch of other things. This year we’ve been focusing on the body as the instrument of a poem, so that it doesn’t necessarily have to be read by the author to be enjoyed. And there are places out there on the web where you can find people who are reading poems that are not their own. They’re just their favorites. They really like it. And it gives you a chance, especially if I can find the author reading the poem, to see the difference in the take on the actual written word. But it also lets you hear the music that comes out of the poem regardless of who’s reading it.
So sometimes you’re doing interviews on the show and at times you’re playing with these other ideas…I’d guess you probably have some very devoted listeners.
Yeah! They like to call in and it’s fun, you know? It’s encouraging because you hear all the time how poetry is like an inbred art form; that the only ones who read poetry are poets. But this show flies in the face of that.
Have you ever videotaped any of the people that came into the studio?
No, I haven’t, but I’ve been trying to become a content provider for iTunes so that I can put these [audio recordings] out on the net so people can actually hear this…at one point, before Congress decided the internet was a second revenue source and therefore royalties had to be paid, we used to do streaming audio out of the radio station and I had a world-wide audience.
Tell me a little about Dream Horse Press. How’s the press working out for you right now?
We just released Gary L. McDowell, American Amen, just in the last week and prior to that we released Mark Conway, Dreaming Man, Face Down. It’s funny; both of those are contest winners. I have a very slow, methodical process with contests because I read every manuscript and I give them a true reading. And then if you’re a finalist or sometimes a semi-finalist…you’re getting an audio reading as well because I’m literally reading it aloud. I really want to make sure that what I present has that quality to it; that the poems are meant to be heard.
Which is a great thing for our emerging writer audience to hear. I tell my students all the time that this is an auditory form; that they should be reading their stuff out loud even if it’s just to themselves or they’ll never know what it sounds like because it’s different in the world than it is in your head.
Right! And not only that, but every poem that you read, that you really think you like, you should be reading aloud as well. Because you have to learn those mechanics, and the only way you can do that is to read the poem out loud. When you read Sylvia Plath it’s one thing, but when you read it out loud is something completely different. It’s got so much more depth and layering to it.
So with Dream Horse one of your missions there is to not publish necessarily well-established writers. Am I on point here?
I really don’t care. I just want the best work.
Right. And with Dream Horse Press you’re publishing complete manuscripts; with The American Poetry Journal it’s different. You were once on staff with DMQ Review, right?
I was one of the founding editors when we first started off. And then the magazine kind of languished and nearly died and I spoke to the Editor-in-Chief at the time and said, “Well you’ve moved on to other projects and everybody else doesn’t seem to be interested. I’d like to take it and run with it.” And that’s exactly what I got out of it. With DMQ Review I kind of got to a point where I didn’t think I could go any further.
What’s different about The American Poetry Journal that’s helping you feel like you’re reaching a further place than you were with DMQ?
DMQ was electronic. And a lot of people tended to view, this is more then than now, but a lot of people tended to see online magazines as lesser and they gave lesser work…but there’s a fatal flaw in that logic. And I could never get anyone to pay attention to that, which is that web publication will probably last for 10, 15, maybe even longer years. And people will find it when they Google your name…the power of the web is the exposure that you get. That’s why I think you really need to put good work out there to the online magazines because that work stays. You know, once a print journal is done and you’re onto the next issue there is no return readership except for a couple of libraries and geeks who are reading back issues. And I don’t mean that as a derogatory term. I love people who go back and read back issues, don’t get me wrong, but there aren’t that many of them.
So with The American Poetry Journal you’re doing what, you’re stretching your boundaries a bit?
Well, no, the thing is there is no school of poetry that we play to. There’s no boundary except that it has to be a combination of image and sound. So I want to hear sound mechanics when I read a poem, but I also really love good metaphor and good strong image…and that’s the beauty of owning your own magazine. At the end of the day you get to call the shots, whether it fails or succeeds. The bottom line is you should always work from quality, and if you do you probably won’t have the issues that a lot of places do.
This is the thing I always say: as an editor I am first reader, but I’m basically reading for the other readers. It’s the thing I hold true more than anything else: I owe the readers. The writer secondly, but the reader first because they trust me. An editor has to establish a level of trust with their readership in order for a magazine to really work.
And to do what you do with the kind of hours you put into all this, you’ve got to love what you do or you’ll just go nuts, right?
Oh, it is so much a labor of love…truly; honestly, I would not do any of this if I did not love poetry. And I mean absolutely love poetry…In a nutshell, I do the publishing and promoting because I love poetry, and the work that we publish is the stuff that I love. And it makes it so much easier to get behind something when there’s that much passion. It doesn’t feel like it’s a lot of time, it doesn’t feel like it’s a burden because it’s all done from the heart.
Temple of the Ocean
for Lorna Dee Cervantes
you’ve walked along the beach for hours: taking in the energy of each wave offered: you fill yourself with blue and green light: wade into the water heart-deep: to feel the power sway you as it swells in and draws out: when it pulls: it is like a lover’s needs: the water over the stones and sand singing to you: a wooing voice: each wave is an arm: in a dance: timed perfectly to meet your body: on the shore there wait treasures: ornate shells: stones polished by the surf: sand dollars: a speckled feather: the rainbow interior of abalone shell: you run your finger along the lip: of the swirling greens, blues and purples: almost like the currents: the ocean catches the sun itself with its ropes of mists and fog: bright golden light: even as you step back onto dry sand your spirit says yes, yes, yes: and this is why you love the ocean back with everything within you: the primal call of each wave: the power: without ego: each graceful wave: willing to accept you as you are: willing to give you all that it can
for Diane Kirsten Martin
you are riding through snow again: thinking this should change to reflect the weather of the waking world: the antler trees sing their songs of rebirth: already they desire the tiny buds of green: they feel the earth warming under white curtains: it’s time for the other half of the world to cool off: blue music where once was gray: you want a new picture of yourself: something green: you think you could be Persephone: with flowers in your hair: the trees greenly agree
for Sandra Simonds
you say ponder why the caged birds sing later: you swing the door open: red bodies escaping: a few feathers spiraling: sticking into the grass: grabbing the bars: you think you are going to tear it apart with your hands: but there is no give in the construction: you throw it to the ground: door rattling off: you kick it up into the air: more bars snapping free as it lands: you stomp on the cage: which smashes flat: you are looking for the jailer: a little man with a key—no one: you bend to pick up one of the crimson tongues in the blades: you see the newly freed: hopping from branch to branch: one following quickly behind the other: still full of song: now full of joy
At Night The City Rearranges Its Buildings to Speak to You
for Patrice Olivier
the city looks like a broken alphabet to you: a series of sentences that you can’t read: and so there’s a need: to make sentences: you write down the words: you call them sketches of the city: every time it is a different sentiment: sure: Dr. Jung would be laughing: because he wants to tell you the city’s a reflection of self: but sometimes: the city whispers things you did not know were true: you don’t think it’s so wrong: to have a little magic in your city: or to believe it holds messages: only you can read
for Sheila Lanham
crack your statuesque chrysalis: the one that has reminded too many people: of a greek goddess: you leave it in the town square: with the water-stained fountain: that needs it: more than you do: walk down the street anew: fresh from your past self: walk differently: shoulders back: a proud stride: you see the curtains of the windows part: a finger and a nose: all the gawkers: recessed in their triangles of darkness: a frown of envy: you cannot worry about the faces of shadows: you are marching out to the tune of your new life: with any luck: what you’ve left behind is more than just the history: and tomorrow: there will be more statues in the plaza square
The Dancing Bear Reader
Dream Horse Press
The American Poetry Journal
Out of Our Minds (KKUP 95.1 FM)