How did you start out as a poet, and what has sustained you most on the path?
I wrote poems when I was a boy, which isn’t as strange as it sounds—there were no computers, no video games and the many devices children grow up with now (even the television was quite restricted in those days). So what better way for a shy kid to transport himself than by reading books and trying to write some words himself? I thought being a writer, particularly a poet, was the greatest thing in the world. I’m more jaded now, but I still think being a poet is an honorable devotion.
I started to send out poems with increasing frequently and purpose to magazines and journals at the old age of 28—and I’ve been doing so ever since. I had moved from Florida to NYC, with an eye toward an acting career, but writing continued to take center stage. I took David Ignatow’s poetry class at the 92nd St. Y and I was on my way. Later on, my business partner and I had our own headhunting firm for stockbrokers for 17 years. I can still hear Wallace Stevens’s assertion that “money is a kind of poetry.”
Friendship has been the sustainer during all these years of writing—friendship with writers, commiserating in disappointment and reveling in success, and friends who never wrote a word but are in my corner. And sweetest of all has been the last 11 years with my beautiful wife, Pui Ying Wong, who is a brilliant poet. The two of us writing our poems—well, I couldn’t have dreamed something better.
Your poetry focuses on what is human and ordinary, with a tender emphasis. Your poem, "Everything Changes," is a particularly beautiful example of that. Is this a focus you maintain naturally, or do you see it changing?
Poetry is ordinary and extraordinary, and all I try to do is write each poem as best as I can. And if I do it well, the humanity will take care of itself. I’ve always tried to be aware of not sounding like I know it all—I’m fumbling around like we all are. I like poetry that has wisdom and gravitas and poetry that is oddball and not afraid of the seltzer down the pants. I could be rather dogmatic when I was younger and while I’m still a bulldog about certain things, I’ve surprised myself by being more tender, as you put it, towards poetics that at one time I might have given the back of my hand to.
The poem you mentioned “Everything Changing” was written for a friend who fell in love with a woman who worked at a store my friend went to often. He wanted, but was unable to tell her how he felt, and he never did let her know. Of course, had he spoken up she might (as he feared) have rejected it. The agony and exultation of love! It keeps us alive—poets for sure, the occasional Werther aside.
In what ways do you see yourself changing as a poet? How affected are you in your everyday relationship to poetry by political and social crises?
I’d like to think that I’ve learned more about the art of poetry and am writing better than I ever have—at least better in the sense of making my younger poetry self proud. That younger self wrote poems that were much longer and narrative, a lyric touch showing up almost by accident. And despite my writing years later that “Lyricism has always escaped me,” I think I’ve been more decently lyrical than before--although as they say, history will judge.
I write shorter poems now—if I write a poem of two pages, that’s a long one for me. If it were possible, I’d desire to write a good poem under one line! In the meantime, I’ll keep exhorting the Muse to help me write to Anna Kamienska’s request, that my poems too “stand clear as a windowpane bumped by a bumblebee’s head.”
As for poetry in this political world of ours, well, it seems to me that poets and writers have expressed their concerns very well. It puts us on record and that’s important. Protest is part of a democracy—and injustice anywhere still bothers me deeply, but I don’t want to be just a political animal. Writing about the joys of this life is just as important as writing about its tragedies and how the world so damn often breaks your heart. I gladly leave the last words to Camus: “I have always thought that the maximum danger implied the maximum hope.”