The Interview with A. M. Juster

by Alfred Nicol

photo credit: Johnson Photography (cropped)

Four Featured Poems​

In 2010 Paul Mariani gently “outed” Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue, who had served in senior roles for four presidents, as the poet writing as “A. M. Juster.” That year Astrue won the Alzheimer’s Association’s Humanitarian of the Year Award to go with awards from many health care and disability organizations.

His work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Rattle and The Hudson Review. He won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award three times, the Barnstone Translation Prize, and the Richard Wilbur Award. His tenth book, Wonder and Wrath, is due shortly from Paul Dry Books. He runs the most active Twitter site devoted to formal poetry (@amjuster). Last year he and his wife welcomed a puppy and their first grandchild.

AN: I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk poetry with you. I have to say that, whenever I begin to consider your work as a whole, a couple of incompatible quotes float to mind. The first is Jean Cocteau’s remark: “There are poets and grownups.” I, for one, would be tempted to accept at face value that statement, which appears to set poets apart from the men and women who take responsibility for things like the economy, health care, and government, but your own career path has been so dissimilar to that of the majority of contemporary poets, it forces a reconsideration.

 

The second of my incompatible quotes is this, from James Wright: “The kind of poetry I want to write is / The poetry of a grown man.” That quote fits you better. You have worked at the highest levels of business and government—notably, for instance, serving for six years as the Commissioner of Social Security—all the while publishing original and translated poetry, at last count three collections of your own poetry and six volumes of translations from Petrarch, Horace, Tibullus, Maximianus, Aldhelm and John Milton’s Latin poetry. In the fall of 2020, Paul Dry Books will publish a fourth collection of your original verse, titled Wonder and Wrath.

 

My first question, then, is the one that anyone would be led to ask: how do you it? I mean the question literally. Describe for me your writing practice. Is it as disciplined as one intuits it might be? Do you have “writing hours” at which you make yourself sit at your typewriter and refuse to be interrupted? Do you show up for work like a responsible adult?

Publisher’s Choice — Free Verse

 

Fairy

 

As if I didn’t already know,

Loudly scratched in a high school desk,

The sentence, two nouns,

My name and the word,

As if everyone else didn’t know—

Shoving me into a bitter awareness.

As if I didn’t already know that everyone else knew,

Though they never saw me in Aunt Mary’s slingbacks,

As if I hadn’t already been called that,

Just one brand on a list of poisons to spray,

To make me go away.

As if I could deny it—

Not the hippie disguise,

Not the occasional straight friend,

Not the herbal and chemical hobbies

That often brought acceptance.

As if I could ever be anyone else—

The slow unraveling of my smile,

The lisp that was my wardrobe,

The wasp-sting of knowing while hiding.

As if the words didn’t stare back at me.

Every fucking day, I picked at them

Like crusty scabs,

And remembered that all my

Pretending and forgetting,

The last time it growled at me,

Gave it gathered power.

As if I didn’t picture the others who sat there, saw it,

Laughed in public and phobic agreement.

I might have easily found its author,

Who obviously knew I sat there,

I never found the one, but I often wondered

If the writer wondered how I’d feel,

What it might do to my day, my heart.

Of course not—a fool and a fairy too.

A few weeks later, the desk was replaced,

I sat there, as if I needed the reminder,

I didn’t—it was everywhere I looked.

 

 

John Bowden is a retired high school English teacher and administrator. He lives in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, with his husband, Russell, and their array of Covid masks, gloves, bleach, and cleaners.

Publisher's Choice  African Poetry

 

Ebony Black

 

I’m ebony black

Never been bleached.

Beautiful like a black petunia

I walk to the interview room leaving other hopefuls behind.

He barks ‘enter’

I slide into his office, my resume in my sweaty palms

He frowns, I smile.

My African teeth crooked and pointed

Escape from my lips

The holes in my nose big and gaping

Suck the air in his office

My hair kinky and neatly combed

Stands at attention.

 

He weighs me and grunts ‘No job’

I mumble a weak ‘Thank you’

 

Unspoken thoughts fight for freedom to be heard

My brother, you didn’t check my resume

I have a masters, a bachelors, wait, a diploma underneath all that

I have ten years’ experience

I have an award and a certificate of excellence

I did volunteer work

I helped an old lady cross a busy street

I rescued a snared puppy

I decrypted an intriguing password

I worked twenty-five hours a day

My black skin did not interfere

My crooked teeth stayed well inside my lips

I have never bleached brother, but I can work forty-eight hours a

       day if you want.

 

 

Banqobile Virginia Dakamela is a writer who hails from Zimbabwe. A story she wrote was published in an anthology which was studied at high schools and is a set book in a local university. She writes extensively.

Editor’s Choice — Formal Poetry

Lot’s Wife

 

Because there is no turning back,

in thrall now to time’s vagaries,

(house sold, car packed) I slip away

under twilight’s canopy.

 

The garden gone to stem and thorn —

the house just a house I never loved;

its windows, curtainless, pool dust-churned,

halls lit where it seemed a heart once moved.

 

Make haste! Behind the trees the sun

comes up, casting its furnace flare

on buildings of a thread-bare town

that never in fact belonged to me.

 

Foot on the clutch, key in hand,

I nudge the stick shift into gear,

hands grasp the wheel at two and ten;

as for the sins committed here

 

I leave them in a bin by the walk.

This was no man’s nor woman’s fault.

Farewell, my love, my life, my lot,

I take one last look — I turn to salt.

Lisa McCabe lives in Lahave, Nova Scotia. She has published (or has poems forthcoming) in The Sewanee Review, HCE Review, Better Than Starbucks, A3 Review, and The North American Anglican, among other print and online journals.

Editor’s Choice Experimental Poetry

Cat in a Box, Head in a Hole

 

I’ve locked my head in a box,

      As if alive, with

A cat. My memory has grown

Looking at things that

Can’t be seen. The cat,

At least, has possibilities. I’ll

      Write to you from here,

From the future-present an

Entire summary of summer

      And all the voices of shadow.

Now, how’s that for a bargain?

Maybe someday you

      Can meet my cat.

 

 

Gavriel Ross has been studying poetry since he was a teenager. He has contributed poems to ditch, and finds that poetry is the best way to express himself.

. . . and now . . . 

 . . . from the mind of . . .

     The Mad Poet

Copyright  Better Than Starbucks 2020, a poetry magazine    

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