Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

One Bad-Ass Poet: An Interview with Tom Holmes

Tom Holmes

 Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. He is also author of After Malagueña (FootHills Publishing, 2005), Negative Time (Pudding House, 2007), Pre-Dew Poems (FootHills Publishing, 2008), Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex (BlazeVOX Books, 2009),  The Oldest Stone in the World (Amsterdam Press, 1-1-11), and Poetry Assignments: The Book (Sage Hill Press, forthcoming 2011). He has thrice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared on Verse Daily and has also appeared in Blue Earth Review, Chiron Review, Crab Creek Review, The Delmarva Review, The G. W. Review, Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, New Delta Review, New Zoo Poetry Review, Orange Coast Review, Rockhurst Review, San Pedro River Review, Santa Clara Review, South Carolina Review, Sugar House Review, Swarthmore Review, and many other journals that don’t have “Review” in their name. His current prose writing efforts about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break.

CC: So, just how did you get to be such as a bad-ass poet? In other words, what got you interested in poetry and how have you developed your craft?

TH: What got me interested in poetry? There are like 50 events that got me interested in poetry. When I was very young, in third grade, I wrote a poem about life after a nuclear holocaust. The final image was of a lone dog barking. Then I secretly started writing in high school. I don’t know what drew me to it. I went to college in 1986 as physics major. One day I heard the voice of Bob Dylan on his album Infidels. It was the summer 1987, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was with my friend Jeff Stremick and Dan Goettel in Jeff’s Chevy Cavalier in a mall in West Irondequoit, and Dan popped in the cassette. Oh, it was love. I wanted everyone to be quiet so I could listen to this, what Allen Ginsberg called, “angelic voice.” And it was angelic! I didn’t know it at the time, but I was drawn to his moans and long vowels. It changed everything.

CC: Physics seems a way off from what you’re doing now. What’s the story there?

TH: Well, I drank myself out of my physics program at Clarkson University. (I also played too much hockey.) Then I went to a community college in 1988, and threw myself into literature and poetry. After that, I attended SUNY Oneonta in 1989 to get a BS in English and, fuck, everything was plunged into poetry. Everything. And I had the best poetry teachers in Graham Duncan and Patrick Meanor. Duncan knew everything about Modern American poetry and Meanor pointed me to the Black Mountain Poets and taught me poetry on levels I didn’t know existed. Duncan didn’t teach me about music, but he opened my ears.

But it’s college. So what did I want to do in college? Drink and get laid. If drinking didn’t get me laid, then surely a poem would. “What woman doesn’t want a poet,” I thought. So half my intentions were to write poems to impress women. The other half was to improve my skills.

CC: Yes, a familiar story for the male poet, and I’m sure it’s still true, regardless of the skill set. So how did you develop those skills?

TH: Richard Frost, a professor at SUNY Oneonta, once told a story in poetry class about a man who talked in sonnets. I thought, “Damn, I want to do that.” So to train, I started talking in iambic pentameter, which took a while to learn to do. I actually had to write a lot to learn to speak it. Then I added some rhymes to my iambic scats. But after a month or so, when I was getting real good at it, I stopped because people didn’t much care for the rhyming. (I didn’t rhyme in front of all my friends, like the people I played high-stakes poker with three times a day.)

CC: You spoke in rhymes but not at cards with friends? See, I can speak in iambic pentameter too. Sounds like this got you thinking about the formal elements in poetry.

TH: Yes. The next few (10-15) years, I studied and wrote as many meters and forms as I could find in any language. I particularly enjoyed Sapphics, which is a form with a meter where the syllables are based on the length of the syllable, as many languages do. Then I discovered Swinburne, who pretty much taught me everything about meter. (He also made an accentual version of Sapphics, as did Ezra Pound (who combined stress and length) and James Wright (who Americanized Sapphics). Eventually, I tried to write poems where I could create tensions between the length of the syllable and its stress, and then used those to create tensions against whatever meter or form I was using.



CC: Well, Swinburne was a bad-ass too, or at least tried to be. Who else influenced you?

TH: I learned about harmonies, mainly from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who along with Wallace Stevens taught me how to work etymologies into a poem. I eventually wrote some really good musical poems. But as happened with older Swinburne, my poems became abstract and with long words and were hard to follow. Then add in some Black Mountain aesthetics and this interest in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and the poems became even more difficult.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Wallace Stevens


CC: It would seem to me that any serious student of poetry would fall in love with etymologies. I often draw from that well when I need ideas for poems because it suggests so many other possibilities, resonances, and imaginative leaps. How did you end up in Brockport, which of course was one of the literary hotbeds in this state, if not the country?

TH: Eventually, in 1992, I studied with William Heyen and Tony Piccione at SUNY Brockport to get an MA in English. I was the only one at the school who preached Black Mountain aesthetics. I stood firm with those Black Mountain poets in this Deep Image school. (The Robert Bly deep image. Not the Robert Kelly deep image from Trobar issue 2 with Jerome Rothenberg.)  The funny thing is Bill and Tony didn’t have much effect on me. Not for a very long time, anyway. Not until maybe 2005. I was a bit stubborn and closed minded.

William Heyen

Tony Piccione

Robert Kelly

Robert Bly

CC: You say that in the past tense. Do you mean to say you’re not so stubborn anymore?

TH: I’m still stubborn, though not as much. It just takes a while for new things to settle into me. Hmm. How to explain? … Between 1995 and 2005, I wrote and wrote. My writing seemed good at the time, but it was wasn’t. There came a point in the late 90s when I was getting too cocky. I thought I was great, but I wasn’t improving my writing. I was just strutting around as a writer. My ego was huge. I was resting on my laurels, or the laurels I thought I had. So one day, I took my two boxes of everything I had ever written, went to a Fourth of July party with a bonfire, and burned each poem one by one. Sometimes I read the poem aloud to the sky and gods before I placed the poem in the fire and watched its ashes rise to the audience I just read to.

I purged myself.

CC: That’s a great image. Did it help?

Yes, I could start over.

And I did a bit. And then more so a few years later, in 2002, at Eastern Washington University (EWU) with Jonathan Johnson, Christopher Howell, and Nance Van Winckel. There I earned an MFA. Again, like SUNY Brockport, I didn’t learn until a few years after graduating when it all sunk in.

Jonathan Johnson

Christopher Howell

Nance Van Winckel

SUNY Brockport ten or fifteen years later taught me about the image, and EWU about two years later (it really was two years later, I saw it happen before me) taught me about tone and humanity. And I taught myself clarity, which I’m still pursuing.

CC: It seems to me that clarity is the highest achievement in writing. When it’s done well, it seems so simple, and yet it’s so hard to attain.

TH: True. Though, I still have not written a musical masterpiece that is clear on an imagistic level or written a perfectly clear poem that is musically awesome.

Oh, I have so much more to say, but I reckon this is enough for now. There are so many people to mention, like Rob Carney, who have influenced me so much.

Rob Carney

But there is my answer to your initial question.

Oh, and I’m bad-ass cuz I drink and swear and have slept with women.

CC: Well, I’d say you’re bad-ass for other reasons, too, namely your writing, and, of course, the work of others you present in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. “Redactions,” of course, means the process of editing or revising a piece of writing. Can you share some of your philosophy about revision, something that I don’t think most poets do enough, though I’m probably over-generalizing.

TH: Revising. I think that's a familiar condition of American poet today. Poets revise so much. The mood about revision is almost Puritanical, it seems. That is, if you work a lot on a poem, it will be good or successful. But are they successful? That's the question. I see poems in journals which are okay, but they still need work. I'd love to take those poems and fix them up.


When I revise, and I'll get more into this down below, I first start by writing all my poems by hand. I used to only use a pencil, but I'm now able to use a pen. Anyway, in the handwritten versions, I write, scratch, erase, and write the poems over and over and over again. Then, when I think it's done or done for this phase or when I just need to see it more clean and laid out, then I type it up on the computer. This is where I think many of poems stop – the OK ones I just mentioned seeing in journals.

But there's more to do, like shaping the poem. Honestly, a poem has to look good on the page, too. (Eight four-line stanzas are easier to look at and read than one 32-line stanza. But each poem has its own shape, and occasionally the 32-line stanza poem is required.) Plus, when I type the poem and print it, I can start marking up the poem. I can scan the poem or track certain sounds. I can make marks to see what I hear. I can follow harmonies, melodies, rhythms, and tones much better with a visual representation. I do less of this now, as I’ll explain below, but it's still a step in the revision process, especially when I'm stuck.

Man, if you get stuck in poem, then it's time to start using syllabics or a meter. If I'm stuck, and I see a meter or rhythm pattern here and there, then I'll chase them down. I'll try to make the rest of the poem follow it until I free myself from where I was stuck. You know, just because during the writing process I wrote a villanelle or a Sapphics doesn't mean I have to keep the villanelle or Sapphics. Sometimes you just need them to see the poem differently for a while, and meter and form can do that for you.

CC: What gets your attention as an editor, both in writing that you’d consider publishing, and writing that stops you from reading further?

TH: Paying attention to language gets my attention. You can tell pretty quick when a poem is paying attention to language. When it's not, it becomes boring. When it becomes boring I stop reading. And a poem can get boring quick. Oh, and the poem has to keep moving forward. So basically, you get a few lines for free, but if the poem stops moving forward or stops paying attention to language, then I stop reading. (I have to do this out of necessity, too, because I get so many submissions.) So the poem has to keep moving line after line. Of course, this is all ideal talk and there are always exceptions. Basically, the poem has to sustain my attention.

CC: I loved Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex, especially as it imagines with much historical accuracy, the relationship between sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and poet Ezra Pound. I’ve always been fascinated by Rodin’s influence on Rilke. What was this collection all about and what did you discover about yourself in the process?

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

Ezra Pound

TH: First thank you for the plug and the compliment.

Now to the question. Historical accuracy?! I don't know if I'd say that. I mean, for instance, Nina Hamnett did visit Sophie Breszka at a cottage during World War I, but, everything else I write in that poem is metaphorical or an imagining. I think in the end, the book is trying to get behind the swirling creative energies that existed during Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s time and because of Henri. Henri had a long and powerful influence on Ezra Pound and Sophie, and what I accidentally discovered, and it was a fun accident as the poem made the discovery while it was been written and I just happened to be the first witness, was that Ezra and Sophie both ended up in a mental hospital because of Henri's death. I loved watching that discovery. I wished I had thought of it myself. (The way I wrote the poem explains it better than I can here, because here I just want to say the only reason Ez was in a hospital is so he didn't go to jail and get executed for anti-American propaganda from his radio shows out of Italy during World War II. "Free speech without free radio speech is as zero," I think he says.)


Discovery. That's the second part of the question. What did I discover about myself in the process was the process. Prior to these poems, I used to revise so much. (I even have a poem I worked on for 17 years.) I'd revise a poem on a phonic-level to make sure all or most the sounds in a poem harmonized. So if I had a "k" sound in line five, for instance, I made sure it chimed within two lines before or after. I never could do it as well as Linda Bierds or Gerard Manley Hopkins, though. And I'd revise to make sure the language was tight and interesting. Harmony and fresh language consumed a lot of my revisions, and when it was all done, I'd have a tight poem. But you know what? During all that revision and craftiness, the poem would lose its original energies. Hell, it would lose energy in general. It would be a well-wrought poem that seemed smart. I also unintentionally revised out tonalities. So now I have this flat poem that's technically clever.

In the composition of the Henri book, I learned to "revise lightly," as Allen Ginsberg said. What I did in this book and what I'm doing now is to trust my ear. I spent years of concentrated detailed work to tune my ear and hear harmonies and rhythms, During the Henri book and since, I thought it was time to trust my ears and let them work on their own. I didn't need to interfere. So I instead concentrated on clarity and tone.

I think the problem with my earlier poems was that people couldn't get into them. The poems were obtuse, obfuscating, and sharp. They'd cut you if you got too close. In other words, the poems didn't have a surface layer. So in the Henri book, I just made sure all the poems were clear and made sense on the surface so that anyone could get into them, and if they wanted to go deeper into them, they could. Isn't that a mark of all good poems? They have a surface level, ya know, like a story, but the more you stare at it the deeper it gets. Isn't that a beauty of a Frost or Merwin poem? They invite you in, and if you want to visit all the rooms and basements and attics and secret panels in the poem’s house, you can.

So what I learned was to trust my ear, revise lightly, be clear, and ensure the tones are working well. I'm just starting to get good at all this now, especially in trusting my ear. Oh, and I won't even get into harmonic tonalities.

Oh, I just remembered this. Sean Thomas Dougherty introduced this term about my poetry, and it works for every book I have and most of my poems: Investigative Poetry. Edward Sanders coined this term (and I just received his book with the same name), but it’s been around longer. You can read about investigative poetry here: http://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/investigative-poetics/ and better yet here: http://bit.ly/gSfdLV. Read the latter essay, and you’ll get my poetry, even my newest collection, The Oldest Stone in the World (Amsterdam Press), which is more like Imaginative Investigative Poetry, a topic for another time.

Sean Thomas Dougherty

CC: What exactly is Vorticism, and by the way, The Ez Head looks a lot like you. Coincidence? Clearly, Ezra Pound has had a big influence on you. Talk a bit about that.

The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound

TH: I don’t think I can define Vorticism. It's too slippery a term. Each Vorticist did their own thing. However, I can say that each Vorticist piece is a high-energy construct. I can say there was Cubism then Futurism then Vorticism. Vorticism was sharper than Futurism and celebrated less the machine and technology.

I would say I look like The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, but I'm less phallic than it. I look like it because I tried to be like Ez for a while. Pound's influence is incalculable. His major influence on my writing came from his prose pieces about poetry, specifically The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound and even more specifically these two essays: “A Retrospect” and “How to Read.” I don’t even know if I can explain. But if you want demi-glace reduction of poetics to pour over your poetry, read these essays. They changed my life.

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