PATERSON: The Blue-Collar Poet and Writing with a ‘Day Job’

By: Nicholas DiBenedetto

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Screenshot from Paterson (Creative Commons/ Flickr)

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is Paterson in ways that I never realized something could be Paterson. The film’s star, Adam Driver, plays a bus driver and poet named Paterson, who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, and whose favorite poet is William Carlos Williams (whose epic poem Paterson, is set in the same New Jersey city). The film’s plot is like an onion where each layer peels off to reveal a deeper layer of Paterson. But, unlike an onion, any crying that results from this delayering is less of a chemical reaction and more of an honest emotional response.

The film chronicles one week in the life routine of the eponymous character: he wakes up and goes to work as a bus driver, eavesdropping on the conversations of his passengers, and writing during the brief respites he has just before his shift and during his lunch break. Afterwards, he returns home to his wife Laura, an artist/aspiring cupcake shop owner/aspiring country music star. They share dinner before Paterson walks Laura’s English bulldog Marvin, stopping at his favorite bar for a beer, and makes conversation with the bartender, Doc.

As someone who works part-time and attends school full time, I found myself empathizing with and admiring Driver’s character. Writing within the confines of a daily schedule can often feel like a maddening effort, as I’m sure some of my student and work peers would attest to: on one hand, there is a struggle to decide what to write about, to find inspiration when one is making the same moves, literally, day by day. On the other hand, there is a struggle for time, to carve out a moment to do the physical act of writing. ‘Oh, I really miss it, but I just haven’t had time to write lately,’ or ‘I haven’t done anything worth writing about lately,’ are common excuses I’ve heard from my peers and that I’ve made to both others and myself. While I can still empathize with these sentiments to a certain extent, they are still, at their core, excuses.

Paterson’s life is mundane on the surface level, but his careful observation of his surroundings, most evident in the extended conversations he overhears on his bus, really amplify how poetry and inspiration can come from the most mundane places if one is willing to pay attention. In the aphoristic words of the old man in the electric wheelchair and the sailor hat (who has sometimes attended poetry readings at UConn): “poetry is all around us.” One such conversation Paterson overhears is between two blue-collar construction workers; they talk about women in the way one would expect the stock construction workers to talk about women, but Jarmusch’s careful writing and shooting of the scene show that their conversation is exactly that: all talk. Luis might claim that he hasn’t called Rita, the alleged bombshell, because he wants to make her play the waiting game. However, his hesitant voice and vague details suggest that he likely made up the story to impress his coworker. Jarmusch even includes Paterson’s observation of the young woman who shoots the men a glare just as she gets off the bus, clearly upset by their vocal display of sexist machismo. This, like most scenes in the film, reflect the subtle but calculated craft of Jarmusch that reflect a writer’s observations of the careful moves of daily life, and how inspiration can come from an overheard conversation or even the suggestion of a brief glare.

Recently, I’ve started to believe less in writer’s block and more in my own capacity to be lazy. I am quick to cry “writer’s block!” when someone chastises me for not having written or revised anything, but lately I’ve started trying to break down what that really means. I have a theory that writer’s block, or at least most forms of it, are rooted in laziness about the revision process. For many that write, whether creatively, or for school or work, revision is arguably the most difficult but also the most important part of the process. Because of how difficult it is to revise, I often find myself trying to get a poem or a piece of prose in as perfect a state as possible before committing it as a ‘draft.’ However, writing something perfectly the first time has never happened to me, and I doubt it ever will. Being preoccupied with achieving perfection the first time not only makes it harder to start in the first place, but also makes me lazier about the revision process: if the draft is already so perfect, why put as much effort into revising it? Being lazy about my writing and revising, and being insecure about producing something that isn’t absolutely dazzling (which has happened and will continue) has had serious effects on my writing process. So, I’ve started to conduct an all-out attack on these habits. I’ve started adopting more of a policy of just writing.

As for time, I don’t think that should be an excuse for anyone who wants to write. If one really wants to write they will find time. For Paterson, that time is just prior to work, on his lunch break, and in his study after work or during the weekend. For some professors, I’ve been told that carving out a block of time daily or weekly helps, whether it is first thing in the morning or late at night. Having my schedule relatively booked with attempts at the triadic balance of work, having a social life, and sleeping, I’ve adopted the strategy of always carrying something to write with and write on (paper, cardboard, napkins). I scrounge for any loose minutes or seconds when I get the inkling. It sounds stressful, but I’ve been relatively successful thus far, and I’d encourage similar attempts at others who are frustrated by the same kinds of excuses they come up with for themselves.

Nonetheless, while I can give as much writing advice as I please, there is no way it will apply to everyone. Some of it is acknowledging my own inexperience, the fact that I could change my mind with future experience, but some of it is acknowledging my own privilege when it comes to writing. I still have the advantage of being able to take creative writing classes regularly; the threat of not writing being tied to my GPA. Plus, although I go to school and work to pay for rent and food, I’ve never been at a point where I’ve been poor. I may be low income, but I’ve never gone hungry for stretches of time or homeless or had other people to take care of. I think it’s important to talk about those things when we talk about having to write to make ends meet, or while simultaneously trying to earn a living. A collection of essays edited by Manjula Martin called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living involves popular writers speaking frankly about their financial struggles. In an interview with Joseph Frankel, Martin makes note of a kind of “writerly code-switching” that goes on when writers relate their own story of ‘struggle,’ notably commenting on her own story; “I have this narrative of myself as a scrappy college dropout who made it, when in reality, my parents work in a university and have my whole childhood. I was middle-class growing up.”

Paterson (the character) may not be affluent, to the point of hesitating at Laura’s request that they purchase a harlequin guitar, but there is certainly no financial struggle over the course of the film. No bills to pay; no jobs lost. One might wonder how different the character’s relationship with writing might be if he was more actively struggling against different economic barriers.

Nonetheless, I would recommend Paterson. The film’s presentation makes the smaller moments feel that much more profound in the scheme of Paterson’s life. There’s also a fair amount of balance in the film that makes even the minor characters feel well-rounded. Not having a huge cast of one-dimensional characters does wonders to bring the world within the film to life. I was worried at times that the film was going to force a moral message upon me. Paterson, notably, does not have a smartphone and makes mention of it when asked by others, but this movie doesn’t spend time demonizing technology as a new evil that ruins everything. Instead, the decision is balanced in the film, as not having a cell phone in modern day does come with notable disadvantages. I appreciated that the film didn’t try and take a moral high ground; especially because Paterson is about a poet. It could have really run the risk of being pretentious or high and mighty if there was a lesson woven into the story’s conclusion.

Paterson inspired me to rethink my processes and deconstruct the excuses I’ve made for myself with regards to writing. So, in that sense, I can recommend it to writers interested in the portrayal of the day-to-day experiences of a poet who writes primarily for himself. To others, I will recommend it as a quiet journey and celebration of life’s routine.

10 Poems for Graduating Artists

By: Taylor Caron



(Creative Commons/ Google Images)

I often think that I am the only second semester senior with artistic ambitions who is realizing that the coming months may not perfectly correspond with my long-held fantasies as a post-graduate. Maybe all of you, loyal readers, are ecstatic to begin working with one of the four big publishing houses on your first novel, your prestigious MFA program, or the reveal of your first exhibition in the MoMA. If so, that’s wonderful and I’m really happy for you. But unfortunately, this list was not compiled with you in mind.

Recently, I have had the pleasure to interview award-winning poet Kimiko Hahn due to my gig as Interview Editor for the LRR, and she offered some extremely succinct and helpful advice for aspiring poets: “Abandon the roadmap.” This was great news to me considering my roadmap is becoming increasingly less clear as graduation day approaches. It’s helpful to know that a certain aimlessness is necessary to create art, and maybe even just to live well. If nothing else, hopefully these ten poems can help remind all of us non-prodigies of that truth.

  1. Robert Frost – “The Most of It”

“He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech, But counter-love, original response.”

You were expecting “The Road Not Taken,” weren’t you? Trust me, I considered it. I went with this poem because Frost doesn’t hide from the despair one feels towards the universe when it doesn’t comply with our wishes as artists and humans. Instead, the universe demands something new from us. I found this poem inspiring because it reminded me that there is no set path to take, both roads are the wrong choice. Frost explains here that it takes time to realize that you need to make your own way, to develop your own version of “counter-love.”

  1. Anna Swir – “The Sea and the Man”

“Laughter / was invented by those / who live briefly / as a burst of laughter.”

Here, Swir reminds us of the importance of laughter in the face of the grave, eternal abyss. The “eternal sea” that she mentions in her poem works well as a substitute for the rapid passing of time toward an uncertain future.  As she describes, sometimes the only logical response against this morbid reality is to laugh.

  1. May Swenson – “How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Wave)”

Continuing with our sea-as-metaphor-for-everything theme, this beautifully short poem declares that all motion in nature follows a pattern of advancement and recession. I won’t quote from it here since the words are purposefully positioned on the page to emphasize the wave-like nature of the universe, but I seriously recommend that you check it out if you ever thought to yourself: There is nothing happening in my life right now.

Spoiler alert: You were wrong.

  1. Allison Joseph – “Why Poets Should Dance”

“Boogie is both noun / and verb for a reason, blessings / of motion do you both on page / and stage.”

Allison Joseph’s poem from her recent book Multitudes, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t read it already, encourages all writers to remember to live loudly in order to live well. This poem challenges serious, cantankerous artists to get in touch with the poetic spirit on the dancefloor as well as on the page. Joseph implies that good writing comes from a good life, and living well requires dancing to be fully enjoyed.

  1. Pablo Neruda – “Ode to Laziness”

“That night / thinking of the duties of my, elusive ode, I took off my shoes / beside the fire, / sand spilled from them / and soon I was falling / fast asleep.”

This one is clearly a great motivator for anyone suffering from senioritis. But in all seriousness, the narrative of this poem relays the frequent folly of forcing inspiration. Instead of endless planning and scheduling, Neruda tells his audience to find poetry in the small adventures that the everyman will find relatable. So, take it from a Nobel Prize winner: it’s okay to be unproductive sometimes.

  1. Rainer Maria Rilke – “For the Sake of a Single Poem”

“For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly.”

It was very, very difficult for me to choose only one Rilke poem for this list. If I could simply reprint all of his Letters to a Young Poet for this article, I would. Please check out this series of poems if you haven’t already, it’s a timeless book for anyone considering dedicating their life to the arts. This prose poem is effective in it ability to force us to think differently about what qualifies something as “successful” when making art. For Rilke, it’s not about a career or making a profit. Instead, the point of art lies in the work alone. Sometimes it will take a lifetime for an artist to finally create a worthwhile piece. And Rilke assures us that that’s okay. This poem is able to comfort aspiring artists by explaining that we still have time to create something that we will be proud of.

  1. Langston Hughes – “Wealth”

“Goodness becomes grandeur / Surpassing might of kings.”

It’s impossible to have too much Langston Hughes in your life. Poems like this remind me of why I love poetry and wanted to beginning writing in the first place. My first inclination to join this field wasn’t necessarily about me, or about getting published. Instead, I was drawn to poetry by the empathy and kindness that this medium provides. Hughes is a guiding light in that way. This poem claims that muses should always take the form of both tenderness and compassion. This power, when effectively harnessed by poets of Hughes’ caliber, can overthrow kings.

  1. Mahmoud Darwish – “Psalm Four”

“Blessed is he who eats an apple / and does not become a tree.”

Darwish’s ability to channel the pain of the Palestinian people into stunning, original language is one of the more amazing accomplishments of 20th century literature. The transition from college life to the working world is a frightening one, yet reading Darwish is able to put these fears into perspective. This poet creates a direct link between being a just citizen with the ability to act and think correctly in small situations, and art. I believe that Darwish provides good advice for the struggling artist: remember to pay attention when you’re eating an apple.

  1. Po Chü-I – “Lodging with the Old Man of the Stream”

“In spring he drives two yellow calves. / In these things he finds great repose; / Beyond these he has no wish or care.”

Maybe one of the most important factors in being able to produce good art is being around people who can help to foster that creative process. This poem suggests that this may include rather unlikely individuals. The speaker in this piece is admiring an old man who is only concerned with the simplest and most immediate tasks before him. It’s the kind of concentration that induces a level of ease. I believe that this sense of calm is also needed when applying for internships at magazines and galleries while simultaneously studying for midterms.

  1. William Shakespeare – Sonnet 30

“But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor’d and sorrows ends.”

This may seem like an unusual pick. However, I’m starting to think that a lot of the anxiety surrounding graduation is not just about the uncertainty of what lies ahead, but rather having to bid farewell to that which is familiar. Shakespeare was good at writing (controversial, I know), and this sonnet ends hopefully by suggesting that the past is always being reanimated through our memories. To me, this is good news. It is encouraging to believe that we will all stay connected in some vague way, regardless of where our lives go after May.

A Poetry Sancocho

By: Gabriela García Sánchez

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(Creative Commons/ Flickr)

Sancocho is a stew from Puerto Rico—there are variations of this stew throughout the Caribbean—that dates back to when the Spaniards originally brought African slaves to the island. Since that time, it has been passed down from generation to generation before landing on my table. The integrity of this recipe has been kept intact over all of these years partially because of its simplicity, the ingredients are left to boil in a huge pot and become a hearty stew by the end of the day.  It’s a popular dish in my household as it is apt to bring everyone to the table commanding them to eat. I believe that the beauty of sancocho is that it can be found in many variations across the Caribbean as well as the world. Poetry can have a similar effect.  Like sancocho, poetry has the ability to warm my conscience, lift me up, and fill the spaces within me with its hearty words.

Now, here are some lines that are still simmering away in my mind like a delicious stew:

  1. “If you are grow up the type of woman”

In The Type, Sarah Kay elegantly challenges being a specific type of woman. Her delivery of this poem reminds me of the ocean: the sound is soothing but the waves can pound on your body with a harsh integrity. In this poem, Kay brings me back to being assigned a certain role as an adolescent, people using my physical cues to label me like a plant. Her poem also reminds me of the ways that I have previously defined myself as a certain type of woman who will take care of a certain type of man. This poem acknowledges the power of discovering what is right and wrong for you on your own.

  1. “The birth of revolutions is simple like the wings of butterflies”

To Pimp a Mariposa is an exciting poem for me. First, it is a duet between Julian Randall and Noel Quiñones. Second, it illustrates how poetry is a useful tool to immortalize both history and the people in the creation of it. Being a history junkie myself, I would encourage you to do some research on Dominican history in order to get a better understanding of the significance of the Maribal Sisters. Historical moments do not only need to be remembered, but also engaged with by the present generation so that they can be learned from. In addition, this poem will be enjoyable for anyone who gets the references to songs like Alright from Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly.

  1. “I speak the alien tongue in sweet borinqueño thoughts”

Sandra Maria Esteves’s poem Here situates you in both the speaker’s perspective and setting. Esteves blended Spanish with English, using the manipulation of her diction and the insertion of various slang words in order to draw on specific references about Puerto Rico. The inclusion of both cultural sides of the speaker makes the mixing of cultures more intimate and vivid. This combining of languages is a common occurrence among Puerto Ricans who were raised in the mainland U.S. Language is not mutually exclusive for the speaker (as well as myself), our identities include both.

  1. “My mother tells me to fix my hair”

This poem is so rich for me. Although my mother loves the outrageous way that I wear my hair, my father does not feel the same way. Now, let me start off with saying that I love my father, even though he never fails to notice when I leave my hair to dry in a thick halo. He is prone to remarking, “What’s up with your hair?” or “Are you going to do it?”  From his perspective, I am challenging him with my new hair styles, cuts, and colors. When I do my hair, it’s almost like a mediation for me on how I can manipulate my body into new forms. As a child with tight curls, many people would come up to my mother and me, praising my hair and asking to touch it. However, when I was five years old I wanted to have silky, bone straight hair that my mother would not have to tediously detangle. Today, I have grown to love my hair for it’s natural texture. Poems like Elizabeth Acevedo’s Hair speak to the spiritual connection that I have fostered with my hair.

  1. “She speaks a sancocho of Spanish and English pushing up and against one another”

My number eight choice goes out to my mama (Hi, Mamí). My mother moved to the U.S.  from Puerto Rico about 24 years ago and even though she’s fluent in English, she still has trigger words that flare up her accent. Sometimes, my best friend and I purposely get her to use words that we know she’ll mispronounce just to hear the awkward remixes that she will create. Denice Frohman’s poem Accents is narrated in such a way that embodies the personality of my mother and her unique existence between English and Spanish.

  1. “My Spanish is left in the corner of the classroom, chews on a pencil, does not raise its hand…”

This line from My Spanish by Melissa Lozada- Oliva is the spitting image of me as a child in school. In this poem, Lozada-Oliva dives in to what “my Spanish” means to her by demonstrating the way in which her identity interacts with her environment. This line tickles my memories about the way in which I was often embarrassed my lack of a Puerto Rican accent. It is as if I needed to prove my Spanish-ness to those around me because I could not naturally integrate it into the way that I spoke. As a child I would often say, “I understand more than I can say.” At this point in my life, English is not enough for me. I need to express myself in both languages in order to describe my perspective to others.

  1. “I am nasty like the battles women fought to get me into that voting booth”

Many have heard Ashley Judd recite the poem, Nasty Woman, by Nina Mariah at the Women’s March in D.C. This line is from that poem, reminding me of how important my civil duty of voting is to my experience as a woman. Being an active voter is my way of honoring the women who have come before, those who fought so that I have the choices that I enjoy today. This poem also reminds me of the fact that my ability to vote is only a little older than my great grandmother, who is 93 (women’s suffrage is only 97 years old).

  1. “I’m the pimp who built this shit”

Porsha Olayiwola’s poem, Capitalism, depicts the power of personification and extended metaphors by giving a voice to America’s economic system. Her delivery of this poem commands attention in the same way that the financial state of this country rules over the lives of its citizens. This poet’s ability to bring capitalism to life while simultaneously villainising it is both entertaining and thought provoking.

  1. “Wepa for the word that taught my people to celebrate”

Perfection by Noel Quiñones captures the spirit of the people of Puerto Rico. This identity is powered by our pride in our lineage, which is a combination of Tainos, Spaniards and African Slave. In an odd way, we are like satos, mutts or, better yet, a designer breed of people. Quiñones reminds me of the pride that I feel for Puerto Rican history, the reason why we wave our flags, and the community that unites our understanding of ourselves into a cohesive group.

  1. “Go como la negra tiene tumbao, azuuuuuucar”

Elizabeth Acevedo’s poetry has worked its way into my heart, and Afro-Latina is one of the stand-outs that first caught my attention. Her soft yet strong delivery of her piece is empowering. I love to read and hear poetry that intertwines languages with art forms and narratives. Acevedo tugged on my heart string by stirring butterflies in my consciousness. Acevedo directly engages her audience with lyrics from famous Latinx icons like Celia Cruz which reinforces positive images of successful Latinos. She also faces heavy issues like sexism and race head on through her lines. Her ability to embrace her identity as an Afro-Latina, and all of the parts that make up that understanding of the self, is empowering.

Reading and listening to poems revitalizes me like my mamá’s sancocho, except the sustenance it gives me builds and coddles my mind. These poets have managed to imprint their words into my thoughts by using different styles, dictions, performances, and experiences. Hearing their recitations has caused the inner dialogue of my consciousness to spiral and intersect, infusing their spoken words into my own experience like the flavors of the rich sancocho that nourishes my body.

An Interview with Carl Phillips, Poet and Professor

I only had 30 minutes to speak to poet Carl Phillips, which was just enough time to access his worldview, yet a woefully insufficient amount of time to truly get at the thickness of his poetry. It was by far the friendliest interview I have ever conducted. Phillips was flexible with his schedule and would make a joke in the same breath as a philosophical aside. I reserved us an awkward space near the lobby of the Nathan Hale Inn on the University of Connecticut campus where we sat across from each other in armchairs looking over a small table. People continually passed by, but we were relatively alone.

With an impressive catalogue of 12 books of poetry and two books of criticism, as well as being a professor and winning countless awards, Phillips seemed almost as honored to be interviewed as I was honored to interview him. Phillips wore a blue button-down shirt and had a neat crop of facial hair. I couldn’t help imagining him as a quality professor, for he made my questions seem smart when I thought them vague, and he always doubted the adequacy of his answers, as if he wasn’t giving me enough to go on.

Phillips is about as established as an American poet can be, but his manner seemed unchanged by the fact that the Long River Review was interviewing him, not the Kenyon. When we had wrapped up, he thanked and complimented me before being rushed away to speak to a group of high school students an hour removed from UConn.

Sten Spinella: Going through your biography, you’re impeccably educated, as both a teacher and a student. I was wondering, can you contrast how your poetry has been influenced due to your teaching versus you being taught?

Carl Phillips: In terms of being taught, I’ve studied Greek and Latin, so I feel like that’s had a lot to do with what I write about, because I was interested in Greek tragedy, and in the Greek tragedies, people get in a lot of trouble for being innocent. They’re sort of randomly caught in a bind, with the Gods, usually. I was interested in this idea of how come just by being who you are you can suddenly be cursed, or damned. I feel like I’ve been writing about that intersection between how we behave and how we’re told we’re supposed to behave, and how they don’t always connect. Also, I think the way I write sentences is kind of connected with how Greek and Latin work. They’re kind of flipped aroundverbs are at the end and things like that. Is this too…It sounds boring as I’m saying it.

SS: Not at all!

CP: But teaching, I think, has taught me more as a writer, partly because, first I was a high school teacher for a long time, teaching high school Latin, where you really have to know grammar. You can’t just go in and tell students ‘This is a verb’ because they don’t know what a verb is. So I find that teaching has made me really understand things I took for granted so that I could explain them to other people. Poems are, in a sense, doing that; trying to explain something to an audience, but now that I teach in college, what I learn most from the students is things they bring up I’ve never heard about, like things they’re reading that I wouldn’t think to read, or else we’ll read something I’ve read many times like Homer’s Iliad, and some student will have a totally new idea I’ve never had after all these years. I actually think that’s the best kind of teaching; when you’re learning too and not just some big rock of wisdom, beaming wisdom to people. Plus, it makes it exciting. It would be boring if you knew everything. It seems like it’s symbiotic, kind of feeding off the students and vice versa.

SS: Continuing on education, obviously you did go to school for creative writing at a certain point, and you are a creative writing professor. There’s of course this school of thought that writing can’t be taught. Where do you stand on that?

CP: I believe you can’t. The way I always put it is you can teach technique, but you can’t teach vision. You can teach someone the rules of a sonnet and they can write a fourteen-line poem and it can rhyme a certain way, but there’s a reason why Shakespeare is Shakespeare – just because that’s who he was. Or like Emily Dickinson, in a way, was very messed up, weird, but that is what makes her poetry, her poetry. There’s reasons to go to a writing program, you can learn and read a lot of other poems, and learn styles of other people, but it’s hard to tell whether someone will go on to be a poet who has a unique way of seeing the world that people want to hear about. It’s hard to explain that to students because it’s almost like saying ‘Well, it’s just a magical gift. You either have it or you don’t.’ I secretly kind of believe that.

SS: You don’t tell your students that, though?

CP: Well, it seems like they want to believe if you work hard enough, and I’m sure that’s true in some cases, but for the most part it feels like someone has to have some weird…

SS: Story?

CP: Yeah, some strange angle on the world. Most poets are pretty much a mess in some way once you dig deep enough. I think that’s where their weird way of seeing the world comes out on the page. That’s a long sentence, cut it off whenever. That’s what I always  tell my students: ‘Just stop me.’

SS: This is going to sound weird, but, when I was reading your poetry, my favorite color is blue

CP: Good choice.

SS: I noticed there were a lot of references to the color. Of course there’s the poem “Blue” and I noticed it in “Cortege” and “Hymn” that you alluded to the color blue. Does the color have some sort of significance in your writing?

CP: I never thought it did, but, I too have noticed it comes up, and maybe I’m just redundant, but in some ways, in that poem “Blue” it’s like it stands for some kind of space in-between where we can never quite get to, of who we actually are, and I feel like if I think about the color, it’s some kind of abstract thing that we’re aiming towards. To me, being alive is an ongoing wrestling to figure out who we are, and it’s always changing. You never can say, ‘Oh, I got the answer now to who I am, and what love is, and what life is.’ It’s always like this wrestling, but it’s towards this space of blue that would be perfection. But, if we really reached it, there’d be no point in living, so, that’s my latest theory of it. It’s like some ideal that we’re always striving toward even though we can never make it, like a calculus curve, from what I remember of calculus.

SS: On a personal note, just from people’s accounts of you, especially at the event last night

CP: Oh, are they talking already?

SS: (laughs)

CP: I read the article. I mean first of all I appreciate that they did it. One of the things I’m always bothered by about myself is that I want to seem personable, and also, in my nervousness, I say things that I guess are, they do come across as sort of funny, that’s fine, but then I don’t want to seem like I’m not a serious poet, but I don’t want to seem like a pompous

SS: You’re not allowed to have a sense of humor then?

CP: Right, but I hate going to these poetry readings where they just go up like they’re a priest or something, and they just read, and I just feel like a lowly nothing. So, I like it to be more human. But then, when I read the article, I thought like ‘Oh, it just sounds like I spent the evening saying ‘Gee, I’m stupid.’ I know that’s not what the intention waspeople like that at the same time. But you were going to ask something based on accounts.

SS: Who am I to know, really, but it seems that there’s this idea that you’re humble.

CP: If it comes across that way, that’s good.

SS: At this point in your career, how can you still be humble?

CP: I think because I’ve never expected anything to happen. I wasn’t raised to think that I wasI don’t think I was ever told ‘You don’t deserve anything’I just wasn’t privileged. It seems like I was on paper, like going to Harvard and all that. They don’t mention I went to Harvard on a scholarship where I cleaned toilets and dormitories for the first three years, and that really has a way of, if you want to get all cocky about ‘Oh, I’m a Harvard student,’ but then you’re carrying a bucket and a mop across Harvard Yard each day. I was raised very working class, my father was in the Air Force, we moved around, so I’m always sort of grateful. I can’t believe this is happening. It’s kind of weird because I know people get sick of how Taylor Swift acts shocked every time she wins something: get over it girl, you win everything. Or Sally Field when she wins the Oscar and says ‘You guys really like me, I can’t believe it,’ it’s like she’s not acting like a dignified actress. But I feel that way. Like last night I thought, ‘People are actually here.’ I don’t know why I think there should only be three people. Then this woman gives this introduction that’s so smart and everything. To me, I don’t feel like that person. I feel like I just write, but I don’t have any thoughts, or ideas. It could be humbleness, maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem, but maybe that’s healthy sometimes. A lot of times, especially poets beginning out these days, they sometimes seem like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a first book, I’m a superstar.’ That’s hard to call. Even when you have 10 books, it could all end. It’s safer to be grateful, and it’s a privilege for people to come and want to listen to poetry. There are lots of other things you could do that are probably more fun. I host a lot of poetry readings at my school, and after someone is introduced they’ll get up there and they never even say thank you. You shouldn’t take that for granted, anymore than if someone had invited you to dinner – you don’t just eat and leave.

SS: Do you think that when you write you shed that humbleness and lack of self-esteem? Do you have to have a sort of arrogance to write?

CP: I’m glad you used that word, because I tell my students a lot that a writing career involves a combination of arrogance and humility. You do have to have some belief that you have something new to say and people should hear it, but you can’t just think ‘I wrote something, I’m great.’ You have to have enough humility so that if you get rejected or people don’t like the work, that you think ‘Well, I’m not perfect all the time.’ At the same time, if people reject you, you can’t think ‘Oh, I’m a loser, I’ll never write again.’ You just say ‘Well, screw them.’ It’s a mix, but that’s probably true about everything. There are parents who think they’re the perfect parents, and that’s a guaranteed way to screw up. But then if you’re just a slacker who never is doing anything and think, ‘I’ll never be a good parent so I may as well just be high all day,’ that probably isn’t the best model either, but I’m not a parent, so I don’t know.

SS: In reading your interviews, it seems like there’s this obligatory question about the lens of your identity, race, sexual orientation. What are your thoughts on this common question and how are, for example, white, straight writers treated differently in that way?

CP: I was just writing something about this. I feel as if people – well, there seems to be a movement right now, partly because of different events that have been happening like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and those issues of police shootings. Everyone thinks the only kind of poem there’s room for is a certain kind of political poem. This article I’m writing, it’s about how it can be political just to be yourself in different ways. Not all of us are supposed to – well first of all, if you’re a black person, it doesn’t mean you have to speak about race at all. That kind of thinking doesn’t make room for straight, white writers and readers. Everyone has some political statement to make about who they are, and I think choosing to live how we live is a statement in a way. Some of the stuff that people are thinking is political, like race or sexual orientation, those are just parts of identity. I don’t go through the world each day and think, ‘Here I am shopping, I’m gay and I’m black.’

SS: That would be a huge burden.

CP: It would be! I’m also a shopper, a dog-walker, I’m all these things. It’s more like I don’t think about those things too much until something happens to make me aware of it. Some of those things go away, but they’re just parts of identity, and there are equally valid other parts. There was a straight, white male student at the University of Cincinnati recently who was asking me – he felt like he didn’t have the right to write poems now. I was thinking that we’re all supposed to be recording, in some way, what it’s like to be alive right now, and we need all the voices, because it all counts. In some ways I think it’s especially important to hear straight, white voices because now there’s been this tendency to think – there’s this whole thing of whiteness, which is just as bad as saying ‘This is what all black people are like.’ Poetry is a great way to understand who other people are and how they feel. I think the world includes everyone. People should be able to write the poems they want to write, and knowing what those experiences are informs my understanding of the world. I feel like that sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I truly believe it. I understand a certain kind of guilt that straight, white men might be feeling, like they’re sort of under attack, but I feel like that doesn’t leave room for the fact that everyone’s an individual. The thing is too, when I get lumped into being black, one of my parents is black and one is white, so I don’t immediately think of white people as the enemy, nor do I think that they all think the same way. If anything, that makes it all the more important for them to keep writing so we can see there’s just as much diversity of voices.

SS: This has been an issue for a long timeI think back to the Harlem Renaissancedo you think that black writers are pigeonholed by political events, and who is doing that pigeonholing?

CP: In the Harlem Renaissance there were white expectations of how black writers should be, writers like Countee Cullen would write based on white models, like a Keats sonnet. Part of his agenda might have been to show that black writers were just as educated and skilled. At the same time, there are writers like Langston Hughes who were saying that black writers should be writing the way black people speak, so he would go into Harlem and try to record that kind of language. I find that even back then, and now too, there’s an expectation on both sides. I’ve often been told that I’m not correctly black. In this article I’m writing I mention that I’m not appropriately black if I’m not writing about black things. Why is it not a black thing to write about love, or sex, or desire? They seem to mean you’re not writing about a black identity experience that we all are supposed to relate to. If that includes a certain inner-city life or living in projects for example, or having been raised in certain ways, I didn’t have that experience, so it wouldn’t be authentic for me to write about it. It happens with gay writers too. You’ll have people who will say ‘You stopped being gay after your second book, because there’s no graphic, gay stuff.’ I didn’t stop being gay, maybe I just had other things to write about besides that.

SS: I want to get back to your writing. I’ve always really liked your titles.

CP: I like them, but sometimes I can’t explain them.

SS: I’m not asking you to necessarily explain them, I just think that they’re very lyrical and I’m wondering how you find your titles and how that relates to your writing process.

CP: The title is always the end, I never have a title until after I’ve written. The problem is – I’ve been traveling around for a couple weeks with this poem that has no title – and I feel it would be like if you had a child and you haven’t named it yet. It’s bad luck, you should name it. Sometimes they just come to me. Truly, I’ll just be walking my dog or something like that. Some line, I don’t even see how it works, but I’ll put it on there. I like titles that aren’t exactly what the poem is gonna be. Say the poem is about walking a dog, I don’t want the poem to be called “The Dog Walk.” A lot of people do that, but I think it’s boring, so I like something where you think ‘What? How does that title fit with the poem?’ I get a lot of titles from song lyrics. One night I was listening to some chorus where this women kept singing ‘Bow down to me,’ and suddenly I thought “Bow Down” is the name of this poem that’s striving for a title.

SS: So they really just come to you, it will just be a feeling.

CP: I know it sounds lame. It’s the hardest part for me.

SS: It is the hardest part of your writing?

CP: Yes. The poem, it seems like it just happens when it’s ready to happen. I always think ‘If it doesn’t have a title you don’t know what it’s about, Carl. If you don’t know what it’s about, what’s the point?’ I think that poems are supposed to surprise us. First we think ‘I don’t really know what this is about,’ and then over time you’re like ‘I see, I was wrestling with this or that.’ Not every poet works that way. Some people decide they’re gonna write a poem about doing a reading last night, and they’ll sit and write about that, but I can’t write toward an assignment like that. I was a bad student in that sense because someone says ‘Write about this’ and I don’t want to do it, so I write about something different.

SS: When I was researching you, which is weird, I was thinking about it while I was walking over, to look someone up on the Internet.

CP: It’s weird to me to think that I’m on the Internet.

SS: I wanted to know about how your skill in translating, criticism, and essay writing – do you compartmentalize those, or do you think that they’re conducive to poetry?

CP: I really hate writing essays. I’ve written two books of them, but mostly they were talks I gave, and then later I was able to turn them into an essay. I can’t do that thing where someone says ‘Write an essay about this.’ They’re not conducive to anything. What I found though is that how I write, I figured out a way to write essays how I write poems. My problem with essays is that I feel like I have to hold an idea and develop it and all that. I can’t do that, and I don’t like reading essays like that. But then I thought, ‘You could just leap from idea to idea like you do in a poem, and maybe the pieces will all start to come together like a kind of collage.’ So that’s often how my essays are now, like a little section and then an asterisk, a little thought here. After a while I think, ‘That makes sense,’ you know, they all came from the same mind. To me an essay becomes an invitation to think about this thing a little bit here and there. It’s like if an essay were a many-faceted diamond, and so each time you turn it, it catches the light in different angles. That would be, to me, a fun essay to read, where I’m invited to tumble through an idea. I feel like freshman comp ruins people. You have to do a thesis statement, and then the body, and then the summary.

SS: Now does that start in high school, or college?

CP: I guess it does start in high school. I hate those papers. I hated writing them. My students think it’s weird because I don’t assign papers. I don’t want to read them! You’re gonna turn in those essays that I hate.

SS: That’s great. That’s all I’ve got. Let me save this.

CP: What if you hadn’t been recording and you didn’t find out until now?

SS: Honestly, it’s a recurring nightmare.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.