The Interview with Anthony Uplandpoet Watkins Page Two
by Kevin McLaughlin
Kevin: You have gained some recognition for your work, though certainly not yet the full recognition it deserves. What are some of the awards or prizes you’ve accrued over the years? Are you, or have you ever been, affiliated with any academic institutions?
ALW: I have been published in a few journals in America and Canada, but with the advent of the internet and the ease with which I can self-publish as soon as I finish writing something, most of my work has never been eligible for publication in traditional venues. I have won the Goodreads Poem of the month contest repeatedly. Many years ago, I was a Poetry Super Highway poet of the month.
I have never understood the concept of not publishing previously published work. I love to read a mix of the great poems, both that I know and love as well as new poems by new artists. To me a publication that does not give us both is like a radio station refusing to play a record more than once.
As to academic institutions, I dropped out of Auburn University at Montgomery, in 1980, as an arrogant young smartass, and even there I was alternatively on a course for engineering and later business. I never studied poetry until a few years ago, a friend of mine suggested I take a poetry course online through a platform called Coursera. The course was Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) taught by the professor of poetry, Al Filreis, at the University of Pennsylvania. After taking the course, in 2014, I was invited to become a Community Teaching Assistant. I am not sure what I bring, but I am extremely proud to be part of ModPo, and am a bit of an evangelist for the course. I think even non poets can get a great deal from the course, or let me expand, even people not particularly interested in poetry. Al uses the course, not only to explore the way poets think and write and to answer that question you asked earlier, “What is poetry?” but to look at how we teach, how we learn and what is a teacher. I find the philosophy behind “close reading” to be very applicable to every aspect of life, including math and the sciences, and the spiritual and philosophical.
Kevin: Who are some of the current poets you admire? Do you see a direction in which poetry is heading? Certainly, it has evolved since the days of the ancient Chinese poets and Chaucer. Will we experience a “modern art” version of poetry that will leave many traditionalists baffled?
ALW: The more poets I read, the more poets I am in love with. Just as you opened me up to the beauty of the tiny art form of haiku, and Dr L gave me southern conciseness, and Brenda gave me the story telling/painting, Billy Collins gave me validation, and Maya Angelou helps me touch my soul, but then there is the experimental side of me that is blown away with the ModPo poets of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams (who I think must been a strong influence on Dr L, though we never spoke of it when he was alive), and Gloria Stein. Cid Corman was a master and a friend of mine was his student, and even though their styles are very different, my friend, Joseph Massey is also already a great poet. He is sparse and spiritual and captures both a moment and an image with a clearness that is rare. I am still fond of Frost, Stevens, Addreine Rich, Plath, Sexton, Kizer, but they now share the stage with the likes of Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, Rae Armantrout, Ashbury and Cage, Replanski, Brooks, Bernadette Mayer, O’Hara, and others I have tumbled into, like Ron Silliman and Yosuke Tanaka.
Kevin: I dabble in math and equations. I see an elegance, maybe even a bit of poetry in math. When you were a young lad in Alabama, you were a ranked chess player. Do you perceive an elegance, maybe even poetry in a well played game of chess?
ALW: Yes, I do find poetry in mathematics, and chess, as well as the curve of a roof of an automobile. I see poetry in everything, and for the most part, except for the ugly language of politics, I see poetry in everything and as everything. I enjoy the poetry of a WINNING game of chess, but too often I have to admire the work of my competitor for that!
Kevin: I need to know this. What is your assessment of the Romantics and William Blake? For me, this was the Golden era of Western poetry? How about two more of my favorites… William Butler Yeats and Baudelaire?
ALW: I struggle with this “Golden Age” not because I don’t like the poetry, but because I do. I worry about the white hegemony of Eurocentric literature and art. I worry at the displacement of all the voices around the world and even within Europe who were widely overlooked and dismissed in favor of the work of a select group of white males. I have often wondered what the European art and literature from that era would have been if every dirty little peasant boy and girl had been encouraged to express themselves through paint and word. As I was raised in the tradition from Shakespeare forward, I love the words, and though I no longer read much in the way of formal and rhyming poetry, I find comfort in the odd couplet or sonnet from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but my focus is always on who and what is coming next.
Kevin: Do you spend leisure time reading poetry (I am aware you have only a scant amount of leisure time)?
ALW: I have found, as I work 6-7 days per week, that I can have a lot of leisure time if I do two things, get up well before daylight and spend my evenings doing something besides watching TV. Of course, I read all the free verse, and sentimental and experimental poetry we receive every month and Better than Starbucks, I read the finished work of yours, and Vera’s, and S Ye, and our wonderful international poetry editors, Tendai and Rameeza.
ModPo isn’t just a 10-week course, but it is also a 52 community and in the “off season” we have what we call SloPo. During the 42 weeks we are not “in class” we look at the various poetry of both the course poets as well as other poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. So, I do read a lot of poetry, but of course I seem to write two for everyone I read.
Kevin: Do you use metaphors and similes frequently in you spoken, working vocabulary?
ALW: that and really bad puns. My language is rooted in the 1800s so more than metaphor, it can be a bit archaic, and as I like to say, English is second language, because I was born in Mississippi. There is some truth to that joke.
Kevin: Could one man have produced all of the poetry and literature attributed to Shakespeare?
ALW: YES! Did he? That is another question, but when you look at the massive quantity of high quality work of a few others from Balzac to Dylan, to Emily Dickinson, I believe there is room in a creative soul to have produced his entire work.
Kevin: Both of us are major Bob Dylan fans. Did the good Bob deserve to win the Nobel Prize for literature?
ALW: The funny thing is, when he won the award, I was very unhappy about it, as I have read his poetry, Tarantula, and wasn’t impressed, and for the longest time I held that while he is my favorite songwriter, his songs were not poetry. As I have begun to accept poetry in a broader definition, I see his work as poetry, and whatever his work is, it is some of the best of anything that has been written. I generally have an issue with competition for anything, and especially art, but on the other hand, to recognize and honor the contributions of people who have enriched our lives through art and science and the political process, and the Nobel does, is also desirable, so it is a vexing question, but on balance, I have to say I think he is worthy of that level of recognition.
At this point the waitress asked us if we desired anything else from the menu. I’d had a veggie wrap and an iced tea. Anthony did justice to a bagel & cream cheese and three cups of coffee. We left the café, and walked down to peek in the window of the old Lyric Theatre. Many ghosts walked with us.
Kevin: Ho, ho, do you remember the first poem you wrote with serious intent? Mine was a “sonnet’ to a grammar school sweetheart.
ALW: I remember two poems, one only the event of writing it and the other the actual poem. When I was a senior in high school I wrote a lot of poetry, in fact, I did not really do classwork, I wrote poems and drew automobiles, as I thought I was going to work for GM for awhile and then build my own cars, ala DeLorean. I wrote a poem called “The Long Coated Stranger” which I thought was this amazing serious poem. Today I would cringe to read it, though I do have it in an early collection. Then a few years later, I was in college, still drawing cars and writing poems. A boy sat next to me and would occasionally read them. One day he asked me to write a love poem about a girl in one of our classes. I obliged. He gave it to the girl, pretending he wrote it, hoping to win her heart. She liked the poem, but knew him well enough to know he had not written it. When he confessed, she asked me out on a date. Then she stood me up. So poetry had not been the success either he or I had hoped for.
Kevin: Many people have difficulty describing exactly what a poem is, and how it differs from prose. I use R.H. Blyth’s definition: “Poetry is the best words in the best order.” Do you have a personal definition of this protean art form?
ALW: sometime around the time I was born, a famous Supreme court justice said he could not describe obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it. I used to feel that way about poetry. But as I age, and as I meet more poets, read more poets, I have begun to look at poetry very differently. I no longer think I know what poetry is and isn’t, I still like the best words in the best order, but I recently had a serious and long, if polite, discussion with another poet where I took the position the poetry can be achieved without words. So these days, I say, I think poetry is what the reader thinks it is. Not necessarily the writer, but the reader, always.
Kevin: Is there an other-worldly or spiritual component to poetry? Does it communicate the inexpressible?
ALW: What I have learned is that poetry is as many things as there are people to create it and read it. As a writer, sometimes a better piece of my own work will seem to have a quality of being better than what I intended when I wrote it, as if it was a gift from god or the universe. Not exactly inspired, but more than I feel like I brought to it consciously. In that sense, sometimes I think the mysticism of the spirits are at work. And sometimes when I read a poem that touches me, I feel I connect with it on a level deeper than, “oh, that is exactly right!” sort of level, an insight into the cosmos, even a tiny one, so yes, this old atheist finds spirituality in poetry.
Kevin: I believe every human being has had poetic thoughts. Do you agree? Is it not remarkable that nearly every civilization has produced a form of poetry?
ALW: I wonder. It would seem to me, as a poet, that everybody is or could be a poet, if they were allowed, or allowed themselves to reach in and touch the poet inside. But I have two caveats. I have several musically talented family members, and for them, it is hard to understand that others cannot do more than croak when they try to sing, but then, even the most talented musician has to train themselves to get above a barely passable level, and while society has patience with the annoyance of a beginning piano player or violinist, heaven help the beginning poet when his “wordbow” squeaks or he plays a flat key instead of a sharp key. So, I could see it either way. I do think everyone MUST get poetic urges, just as even croaky old me, gets the urge to sing in the shower. If we encourage the poet in everyone, we would have more poetry. There are those who complain there is too much “bad” poetry already in the world. I am not one of those people.
Kevin: You have been very prolific, and I am familiar with much of your canon. How would you characterize your style? Are there specific themes that run throughout your work?
ALW: I have always struggled with what I do, often wondering if it is even poetry, but to the extent I do understand what the forest looks like by standing in the deepest darkest center of it, I try to write “honest” poetry, which is to say, if I see a man with a broken leg, I try to paint the image of a man with a broken leg, and while I am at it, I might look and see if there is the glow of a saint about him, or if he has a broken soul just beneath the surface, but whatever I see, is the picture I try to paint. Through that lens, which I think makes me a rather simple and accessible poet, there are themes I see in my poetry. In fact, the themes of race, and economic and social inequality are in almost all my poems. The language I use is that of my native Mississippi and Alabama, while my landscapes move from the deep south to the treasure coast and southern parts of Florida. I am usually inspired by what is in front of me, or a memory of an image from the past. I still see the world, as an artist as a fundamentalist Christian, even though I moved out of Christianity altogether and even out of religion a long time ago. I love Jesus without believing in God, and I think that sense is also found in my words, though it is not intentional.
Kevin: Please feel free to answer this question at length. I have always considered you the great Dr. James Lancaster’s poetry legacy. You were also affected by the work and friendship of Brenda Black White. We all loved them. Please tell us a bit about these two towering artists and their influence on you.
ALW: Wow! Dr. L and Brenda! Yes, I don’t know if I carry the mantle of either very well, but they are tattooed all over every line I have written in the past 25 years. I wish the world knew their work better. I am a firm believer, if you never heard Brenda read a poem, your life is a little less than it would be if you had heard her. In fact, I googled her a while back trying to find her books on amazon, and stumbled across some of her audio
In contrast to Brenda, with whom I fell in love with the first time I heard her voice, Dr. Lancaster, in his quiet soft reading of minimalist southern poetry, I almost missed the first few times I heard him read. Eventually, I caught up in his words and the beauty he projects with not only the “best words in the best order, but the least words in the best order. Sadly, I don’t know where the only recording of his poetry reading might be. We do have his words on the page, which is the most powerful way for me to see them anyway. His collection Dumplings is one of my most valued possessions. I would advise anyone with a couple of dollars in their pocket and love for great poetry, to get a copy.