Lee Busby Interview, with Nicelle Davis
How do you look at dog poop and see a poem?
I guess I would ask, why wouldn’t you see a poem there? If you were to ask most dog owners, especially those with house dogs, if they could imagine their lives without their dog’s shit being a part of it, I think the answer would always be “No.” Seriously though, I think it works because it’s as much a part of our lives as anything else in nature, as we are to each other. And in this particular poem, the speaker is returning to the familiar, taking care to note what has, or more importantly, hasn’t, changed. It’s just another part of the inventory process. The dog’s shit is another one of those constant reminders, one of those things you can never quite get away from, something that can even be, as weird as this may sound, a comfort, a reminder of one’s responsibility and of one’s past.
What is your favorite work by Hemingway? What about it do you love—what about it do you hate?
The Sun Also Rises first endeared me to Hemingway. The dialogue, the European fanfare, the characters — oh, god, the characters! I wanted to be Jake Barnes – well, except for that one little thing; I can leave Jake to his own troubles there. What could be more romantic to a writer than being a writer in Paris, drinking with other writers, the dancing, trips to Spain and bullfights, and there’s that damn drinking again, and there’s a bit of love in there for everyone, everyone except Robert Cohn, of course, but even he had a run of good fortune strike him. It’s a book that I return to often for inspiration.
In my poem, “I Set Fire to Hemingway!”, I’m trying to figure out for myself, within myself, what made Hemingway so prolific, so untouchable, so brilliant (in the most well-lit sense of the word), and how can I touch that, be involved in that? One way was to take myself to Key West, to his house, to sit on his porch and go drink in his bars. It’s hard not to be inspired there. And I can see why he loved it, can see why he had such reverence for Key West. This poem is my attempt to tap into the machismo, the myth, that great fire that was Hemingway.
When shopping with Moe of the Three Stooges, what do you buy?
You know, Moe’s a hard person to please. He’s never at home anywhere, or maybe the problem is that he’s at home everywhere. It’s kind of hard to tell. I could see us having lunch at an outdoor café in New York City, somewhere near 2nd & 2nd, and I would listen as Moe would comment on everything: the bread, the soup, his unlit cigar, the 24-hour funeral homes, the coolness of the wind, my haircut, my propensity to talk about my dog, my dog’s haircut, you know, the usual things one talks about with a Stooge.
But what would we buy? Moe is probably the one person with whom I would care to step into a place like Macy’s. Fancy, debonair, well dressed, and just awkward enough to be charming, we’d try on suits. I’ve always admired how well Moe could wear an off-the-rack suit. And what’s a new suit without a new hat? Yes, I think we’d spend our day shopping for suits and hats.
Your poems move from fire to water—a repeated pattern of highlighting the hope and devastation found in these elements. What, in your secret language, do fire and water stand for?
I think the images of fire and water always carry a heavy connotation, no matter how they’re used, and there’s a reason that they do, and those reasons are almost always right. But I think, for me, it’s also about what those literal images can hide behind them. In my Hemingway poem, the speaker is on an island surrounded by water and trying to set himself on fire just to get inspired; in “Blackbird’s Sadness,” the speaker is running his foot through a rain puddle, considering his burnt up birdfeeder and wishing that he smoked. There’s a certain sense of supernatural power in fire and water, something that can heal or kill us, can make us better, or can hide us when we’re not. So, of course, the speakers in these poems, being merely human, searching for perfection or looking to hide, seek out these elements naturally.
What new writing projects are you working on?
My first book, a chapbook titled Wild Strawberries, is due out this December from Finishing Line Press. Since sending that out there into the ether, I’ve been working on putting the final touches on my first full-length collection of poems. I’ve also just had the good fortune to be a part of the River Pretty Writers Retreat, and I came away from there quite inspired. Right now, I’m most involved in writing a longer sequence of poems in collaboration with my good friend and poet, Chaz Miller, that follows the masculine intimacies and small town redundancies of two loners, Blackbird and Banner. The poem included here, “Blackbird’s Sadness”, is part of that sequence, and I’m excited to see where that takes Chaz and me, both individually and collaboratively.
The outside frost has frozen the dog’s shit
to the ground. He’s hesitant to go out there
this morning. I’ve been arranging and re-
arranging three brown glass bottles, perhaps
vases, on the kitchen table for when my wife
gets home. My new wife? We’ve been married
for four years. I’ve lived with her for three.
But I’m back now, and that must mean
something. The latch to the mahogany back door
is loose like it could wriggle free in my hand.
The dog wants to go to the door and have me hold
it open just enough for him too look outside,
then shake his nose at me and back, back
into the house. Missouri winters don’t bring
much snow, only a little cold, but this mutt
is set in his hearth-laying ways. I’ve changed
out two light bulbs this week. Both in closets,
both in the extra rooms that used to be filled
with my books. I guess it’s time that I started
bringing back my books. She’s stood a full-length
wooden-edged mirror in what was my closet
in our bedroom, and now I sit in bed with my
notebook and stare my self down as I forget what
it is that I’m writing about. So I can question
if I’m really even there, or here. I wonder how
much she knows about me. I wonder how
much I know about her. What if she knew
one of my dark secrets? What if I knew one
of hers? What if she didn’t know that I knew?
But she knew she knew, my friend would tell me.
To think that I came to know all that I know about
without knowing more than she already knows.
The dog has jumped up and rested his head
on my lap, to stop all of my secret-spreading.
I worry too much about me. Maybe she has no
secrets. Maybe the mutt knows that. I’m afraid
to touch this new brown comforter too much.
There’s a new brown ottoman in the living room.
I’m wearing a damn brown shirt this morning.
Is this the color of my new/old life? My dog
jumps down and runs to the mirror and barks
at the me in there. I look skinny and pale.
I Set Fire to Hemingway!
Or rather, I would set fire to Hemingway!
Or, I am sometimes Hemingway,
And therefore must set myself on fire!
What kind of fire must’ve burnt
What kind of fire must’ve burnt
In him? What strong light led
Him out onto the ocean so many times,
Left him lying on Cuban beaches?
Or, why I do I find myself
Here each year – on this beach
In Key West looking south towards Cuba,
Holding a lighter up under my chin,
The backs of some large fish glinting
In the last traces of the sun, a fire
Spreading across the water?
I read that biblical prophecy of his,
That unlit fire he started in Jake Barnes,
Left him in the back of a cab to ponder
The way we think about fire:
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
The beaches here turn blood red
In the sunset. The fishing boats sail
Into that ball of fire. I’ve let fall
My lighter, see my feet more clearly
Burning me to this place
Where I set fire to Hemingway!
And that is my stake here!
907 Whitehead Street. They won’t
Let me move in, even with my proof
Of ownership! Hemingway tried eating fire,
there at the end! His flame is now my flame:
In the name of blasphemy, I say this!
I followed him here, chased away his cats,
Sat on his beach, drank and then drank
In his bar, and, by-God, I wrote inspired!
I woke up this morning (inspired!) on fire!
Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb
The title of a 3 Stooges short
where they accidently put super
glue on their pancakes. My dog
rests on the back of the couch
behind me, watching and nodding
his head. Still looks like rain
outside. A tornado killed 120
people about an hour west of here
this past weekend. I slept through
it – how’s that for comforting?
It’s the day after Bob Dylan’s
birthday, so I’ve been thinking
about him too. About his song
A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
Didn’t he live in a place called
Tornado Valley? No? Didn’t
he live on a farm and swing
a hammer as a young man?
No? I’ll never know. It’s only
Wednesday. I’ve bathed
and gotten my hair cut
which means it’s a good day,
even though it looks like rain,
and Moe urges me, “Let’s go places
and buy things,” and I don’t feel
like it, and my dog doesn’t feel
like it. This picture of me I have
in my head standing outside
on the back deck would look better
if I smoked, or, if I could convince
myself that I cared to smoke,
like the classic pictures of a young
Dylan in New York, with a stormy
sky behind him, he smoked and
never looked at the camera,
never seemed to cut his hair either.
“Can you tell me which room
is the one occupied by the gentlemen
who won the cigarette contest?”
This Dame (and I’m allowed to say
Dame in this context, even though
it’s not really the right word for her)
has no money. She has a mink scarf.
She is pretty, for black and white TV.
She sees her self as upper class,
and carries an umbrella out into the rain.
My grandfather and I would watch
the Stooges on Saturday mornings,
and he would always go outside
and check for rain, pray for rain, start
his truck and sit in it while it rained.
He lived through a tornado. He never
listened to Dylan. I listen to Dylan
when it rains and I sit in my truck
and pretend that I’m wealthy,
and I ordered the rain to keep everyone
away from me. My dog has turned
away from me now. The wind is blowing
a bit easier in the window. Or maybe
it’s picking up. It’s hard to tell
with these Missouri hills and my apathy.
Or, as I was told, it’s my depression.
Tornados and Dylan and all three
Stooges on a Wednesday in the great
Midwest and the dog is snoring now,
and I’m the only one here, smiling, quietly.
Blackbird sits on his back porch
of the morning, rocking himself
and throwing sunflower seeds on
the ground so he can watch the redbirds
creep in to feed. He counts down from ten.
He breathes a breath deep and holds it.
He tosses a handful into a patch
of wild strawberries nearby so
he can watch how they strut to get
to them – like the way Banner struts
after spending the night with Sadie
then coming over to sit on his back porch
and smoke about it, all hyper and out
of breath. Blackbird lets out a sigh.
It rained last night and there’s a puddle
next to his chair on a warped board.
He swings his boot through and through
it without noticing. He thinks now
that he oughtn’t prayed for rain
the other day. Once, he remembers,
Banner told him he should pray for fire,
that nothing sets things back to nature
like fire, or firepower, or Sadie.
Last night, someone burned up
Blackbird’s homemade birdfeeder,
left it ablaze like a candle in a tree,
he could smell the toasted seed
the next morning still. Blackbird wishes
right now that he smoked, wishes
his hearing was as good as his eyesight,
wishes he knew a girl like Sadie,
wishes he could calm down like Banner,
who lights a match, lights a cigarette,
holds the match up in the light and counts down
from ten. It goes out on one every time.
Mallory Square, Spring 2011
Sitting on the side of a raised flower bed,
swinging my feet and whistling between
sips of mojito. They’re nice flowers
(the ones with all the primary colors)
here on the boardwalk in Key West,
and I’m leaning back into them a bit,
the sun setting into the water (that’s why
we’re all here – the ventriloquist,
the dog walking a tight rope, the magician
in the straight jacket, the cameras held above
the crowd, the black man with the broken
guitar, the kid doing back flip after back flip).
The edge of the walkway has been delicately
stenciled - NO SWIMING - about every three
feet for half a mile or so. No one here is “swiming.”
The pace is as slow and surefooted around here
as this poem is to get going. I’m as caught up
in these flowers, my fingers as twisted up into them,
as they are me. As all poems are me, are flowers.
My wife is in the crowd, moving deliberately
into the wave of people, waving back at me
so we can share some sort of bonded excitement,
a taut blood line just above the ocean line.
And later in the room, she’ll tell me how she
got lost out there, couldn’t see me anymore,
for just an instant, she became a part of the
wave, and once free could only see flowers
where I sat, only see the part of me that isn’t
what she thinks of as me, my legs hanging out
and down the side of the flower bed like
the roots of a banyan tree wanting the little
bit of sunlight that’s left. It’s a melting of sorts,
but not like ice. I didn’t turn into water,
evaporate into air. I hung on there, the ledge
my legs, and my hands and hair adding
to the plethora of flowers already sticking
out of the dirt, ready to be praised by passersby.
And I’ll agree with her then, there in the bed
together. But back on the ledge, I don’t feel
any different about myself, about this poem
about flowers. The me that’s here is letting myself go,
getting caught up into what is, and isn’t, real:
the woman waving herself back towards me
through the crowd, the sun just out of my petals’
reach, the warmness of stone on my stemmed legs,
the sweat slipping from my mojito, the young girl
who just plucked one of my lovely flowers…
How long have I been there still, since then?
How sad I must’ve looked to be happy there.