An Interview with Greg Kosmicki:
Rethabile Masilo: Your poetry is at once sparkly, with shining passages, contemporary, and resonant. How do you know when it’s what you want to say? How do you know to stop tweaking?
Greg Kosmicki: Thank you! No one has ever told me that my poems are sparkly! When I set out writing a poem, it’s usually because something that I saw or heard sometime during the day, or in a memory, or in combination of those, somehow caught my interest, and so I sit down to write to try to capture that, but I don’t know exactly what it is that I’m after, most times. As I write, other things related to what I just wrote present themselves to me—I think that it’s subconscious, based on the root words of the language that we’re not even any longer aware of being in the words. After all, we use words every day for so many ordinary tasks—“Please pass me the salt,” or “Which way to the nearest number 4 bus stop?” that we lose consciousness through repetition of the deep meanings in the words. But the language itself remembers, and when anyone writes anything, especially a poem, there is always that deep tug of the original name, the original thing, from centuries back before us, that pulls our minds down into the chasm of language where so much dwells hidden beneath our daily disregard of it. The memories of all those before us is held in the words like the ghosts in the trees and the spirits in our DNA. It’s like the smoke you smell in the word “fire.” When you write poems, you are giving your attention once again to the elemental particles of language that fling themselves around us every day like unseen bundles of energy, and they pull themselves together and make themselves into a poem when you give them the attention. Because of this deep gravitational pull, the writer may feel herself or himself enter into a zone in which the words start to automatically line themselves up to relate themselves to each other and the deeper meaning, whether the writer knows it or not. Some reader will see your work and tell you things about it that you yourself did not know were there. Writing it, you may just feel like, “Wow! This poem is working!” but then at some unfortunate time in the poem’s creation, your conscious mind enters back in to take control because it doesn’t want you mucking around in the irrational, and the poem goes away, that’s the end of the poem. All poets, if they are going to write words that mean something to someone else, will access the loose debris of the unconscious mind that’s buried in the language, and not the words of the conscious mind that makes your grocery list or studies airline routes or keeps you interested in the political world or in any other world besides the poem’s. Being a poet is only the ability to keep the pen moving to receive the words, and then to be able tell later on when that plunge started and stopped, and then to have the clearness of vision even later on to chop off the parts that aren’t real remnants of the deep dive. So to make a short answer: I don’t spend a lot of time re-writing and tweaking. Either the poem feels like it worked or it doesn’t, but either way, I go on to the next poem. I can’t go back to a poem very easily. I was in it in the moment, but I don’t know the poem when I come back to it the way I knew it when I was writing it. I guess that I would be a better poet if I had a more craftsman-like approach. My approach is more like “Throw the words on the page and see what happens,” rather than to think that I’m chiseling a monument for the ages. That kills writing for me right away. I want my poems to somehow be something living.
RM: When did you start writing, and why did you do it? Marlon James, who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, has said on Facebook (and perhaps elsewhere) that he doesn’t see why writers should complain that writing is difficult. The following quote has been attributed to several writers: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” What is your take on the subject?
GK: I first wrote a poem when I was 16. It was a funny one and got the girls to laugh and then someone put it in the school newspaper. That’s no big deal—our high school only had 80 students in it. When I was in the military service a couple years later, I wrote out many agonizing personal lonely things in a notebook that I don’t think survived, although I still remember to this day the sting of shame I felt when I showed a poem to one of my fellow sailors and he laughed at my word choice because it was archaic. (Not his term). He was no poet himself, just a speaker of our language, and it sounded funny to him. My first lesson in criticism—but he was right, too. After I got out of the navy and went back to college, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I had wanted to write fiction since I was in high school and read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But I had had no idea how to do that. I didn’t realize then that you had to sit at a desk and make stuff up and write it down. There was no one to tell me that, but I had the sense from somewhere—maybe from the popular knowledge of the Hemingway myth—that I’d have to have a tremendous amount of savvy about the world to write fiction, so I set out to try to get some by drinking too much and using drugs and by being a general asshole in college and later in the service. But when I got out of the navy, I took an Introduction to Poetry Writing class at the University of Nebraska under Greg Kuzma, and he really liked the things that I turned in to him. They were little square-shaped things that seemed to me to have intense emotion in them when I wrote them. I didn’t know what they were, but that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I tried writing fiction, but it’s too much like work—you have to actually sit at your writing desk/computer or whatever and put a serious number of words down onto the page each day to write a novel, or even a short story. Then you have to go back and edit over and over, which is also like work. So I write poems. I don’t have to know anything at all for sure except that the words I just wrote down seem to follow from the ones that came before, and they make me think of this other thing, but I don’t have to prove it, and make everything cohere like you do in a novel. All I’ve got to do is state what I think and see and feel. Sometimes it’s a poem.
But the real reason that I became a poet was because when I was 16, my brother, who was 21, was killed in a car accident. That was when death entered into my life for the first time. I can’t understand how people who live in countries in constant war and poverty and have had all their family slaughtered can stay human. I barely could with all my white privilege in the richest country on earth. One death of one person I loved, and idolized, changed my life forever.
RM: Does today’s language, which some say is going astray, instruct you or repel you? Your voice does say ‘today’. What are your thoughts on language change, and what do you incorporate or not incorporate in your poems vis-à-vis the evolution of language?
GK: I love that the language is growing all the time and acquiring new words. I don’t think language can go astray, if it’s going to evolve along with the culture of which it’s a part. Only people who have a vested interest in maintaining some sort of control over the public consciousness would desire a language that doesn’t evolve. If they can tell you how to talk, they can tell you how to think. I love that English is always picking up new words from other languages. It’s hyper-malleable. That trait makes it richer and more expressive and just plain fun. The more ways that you can twist words up and throw them out together to see what happens, the better. In American poetry, I myself am a pretty much middle-of-the-road poet. Not cutting-edge by a long shot. Some relatively new words get into my poems because they are everywhere around me in the media and daily language and I absorb them, but I don’t consciously try to incorporate new words for some sort of effect. As an example, about a year ago, I first heard someone say that this upcoming weekend they were planning on just “chillaxing.” That’s a combination of “chilling” as in “to chill out,” which means to just hang around and relax, drink a beer, chat, watch TV. Then to add “axin’” onto that, to make “chillaxin’” with the “-axin’” being the last part of the infinitive form of “relaxing” with the “g” dropped as in ordinary speech, and you get a word that means, as I understand it (nobody ever told me)— an intensified, deeper, and more relaxing chill-out, the Mother of all Chillin’. What a great combination, and I knew exactly what it meant the first time I heard it over my cubicle wall, and it’s such a perfect word that, as far as I know, didn’t exist much more than a year or two ago. And it’s a perfect word! So what could be wrong with adding that to the language? But I haven’t ever had the occasion to use it in a poem. For me to randomly throw that word into a poem without it being in a context where it fit, just to sound like I was more hip than I am (not very) would make my poems phony—“Here’s an old guy trying to be hip,” is what it would read.
There is an ongoing tussle in US poetry between people who think that the poet should “keep out” of the poem—never say “I,”— always write about something not personal, versus those such as myself who actually say “I thought this. I felt that.” That seems more than a bit snobbish to me, as if to say that, unless the poet objectifies the poem, it’s really only whimpering or solipsistic pleas for attention—that the poems are somehow not “universal.” Well, bullshit.
There is also a division between poets who think that poems should be very difficult to understand, and that if the thing that one wrote is a “real” poem, then it must be mostly incomprehensible to anyone (who of course would admit that?) versus the poets who think that it’s a good thing if someone can read a poem and get at least a general understanding of it in one reading, and then the reader can go back and look for deeper meanings if the reader chooses to do so, if the poem itself earned the closer reading. I write the second kind, the kind of which you can read through an entire book in one sitting, like eating a bag of popcorn, because they are ordinary, un-heightened language, and I feel false if I write the first.
RM: Have you ever ‘taught’ poetry? If you had a group of aspiring poets in your class, what’s the most telling thing you’d want to share with them?
GK: I get the reason for the quotes around “taught” in relation to poetry. I have done a few one-class-period poetry workshops, with adults who were interested in writing poetry. I also taught Poets-in-the-Schools for the Nebraska Arts Council for a couple semesters back in the late ‘70s. Poets-in-the-Schools sends working poets into the classroom in participating grade schools and high schools to present poems to kids and to get them started writing poems. It was fun, but I learned from that experience that at the age I was, I was still too close in thinking to the kids in high school that I could never teach them. I was still feeling their angst, but for some reason I also thought that I had some sort of an exalted status among humans because I was a poet. Don’t know where that came from, but I did. It took me a lot of years of raising kids, making a living driving a truck, being a social worker, working in a group home, selling door-to-door, to realize that I am no different than any other human on the block except that I write poems about my experience. If I didn’t have my daily life that involved being out in the public for more than forty years with people who could give a shit less about poetry, and know nothing about it except in an idealized sense of it being something special that they can’t understand, like nuclear reactions or organic farming, or think of poetry as the stuff that they find on cards they give people on special occasions, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, and certainly nothing to teach about.
So if I were to give students any advice, I would say to them to resist the temptation that is so powerful today to get yourself into an academic setting after you graduate from the Masters of Fine Arts Programs and the Doctoral programs in writing— now that you “know how” to write poems—because of the siren call of the itsy-bitsy bit of Rock Star-ish fame that comes with being a “well-known” poet, and spend your time out in the world making a living doing something else that has nothing to do with writing poems, where no one knows you are a poet, and no one would give a damn if they did know, where no one understands the impulse or the need to write poems, and not one person has ever heard of Billy Collins or Ted Kooser, or Elizabeth Bishop or Dylan Thomas or Charles Bukowski, or Marianne Moore or Amiri Baraka or W.S. Merwin or Sylvia Plath, or Louise Gluck or Anna Akhmatova or Maya Angelou, and see if you are still writing poems after 20 or 30 years. If you are, then quite possibly you are a poet. Maybe not a great poet, but a poet nonetheless. An added benefit from that is that you might actually have something interesting to write about.
RM: In the poem “Cricket Theory” you move at once from image to image and also evoke in words that same idea of weaving from here to there. How common and how deliberate is this in your work?
There is nothing else quite so good as to sit
by an open window at the end of summer to hear
the thousands of small creatures weave their skein
of sound as if the outside dark is a sonic
cloud chamber, a crystal box hung with strand
after strand of pearls into infinity
GK: I have always loved to hear the night-time creatures chorusing their lives out there in the dark in the summertime. I think that they are calling for mates, and establishing territories, and bragging, and all the other stuff we humans unconsciously do with our clothes, our cars, our jewelry, our fads, our bodybuilding, our implants, our accumulations of money, etc. The list goes on and on. I have always loved to listen to the crickets for their clock-like regularity, and their unstinting devotion the task of singing out for all the reasons they sing out. They make me comfortable to be in the world and lonely in it at the same time. In this poem, I was thinking about something I had read in a scientific magazine, about the fact that some current theories in quantum mechanics, I think, state that objects can exist, and do exist, in two different places in the universe at the same time, or something like that—I forget exactly now. I’m not smart enough to be a scientist, but I like to read about science presented in layman’s terms. So I realized somehow that the crickets could exist inside of me and I in them, with their chirping bouncing off the corners of the universe, and that if the world were like a cloud chamber, if we could only see the trajectories of their music, we would see trails all over from them to me (and us). And because it’s a poem, I made it come true, whether it is or not.
I don’t know if it’s common in my work, or deliberate, to be honest. I just sit down and then I write. Sometimes what I’ve written seems like it is a poem and I stop. Usually not until months later when I’m reading through notebooks and find a certain glob of words on the pages, like a stone in a field, do I turn it over, and see that this one has some beautiful little thing in it. But I don’t know where it came from.
GREG KOSMICKI is a poet and social worker living in Omaha, Nebraska. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied under the poet Greg Kuzma. He founded The Backwaters Press in 1997, which he now serves as Editor Emeritus. His poetry has been published in numerous magazines since 1975, both print and online, including Briar Cliff Review, Chiron Review, Cimarron Review, Connecticut Review, Cortland Review, Dacotah Territory, New Letters, Nimrod, Paris Review, Poetry East, Rattle, Smoking Poet, Paddlefish, and Windless Orchard. His poems have been anthologized many times, most recently in 2015 in A Sandhills Reader: Thirty years of great writing from the Great Plains, Stephen F. Austin State University Press. He received artist’s fellowships for his poetry from the Nebraska Arts Council 2000 and 2006. He is the author of four books and 8 chapbooks of poems. Two of the poems from his book from Word Press, Some Hero of the Past, and one poem from his chapbook from Pudding House Publications, New Route in the Dream, have been selected by Garrison Keillor and read by him on The Writer’s Almanac on Minnesota Public Radio. He has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. His newest book, Sheep can Recognize Individual Human Faces, was published in June of 2014 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. A new collection, It’s as Good Here as it gets Anywhere, is due out from Wayne State College (WSC) Press under the Logan House imprint, in spring of 2016. He and Debbie, his wife of 42 years, are the parents of three children, grandparents of one.