Hi Russell, we love your poetry and your sense of humor, so we can't wait to find out more about you. Will you tell us a little about yourself?
There’s not really much too tell. I was born in New Jersey in 1950; grew up in South Florida; started out college in North Carolina – but grew restless and tried Colorado for a while, then Tennessee, then back out to Colorado for another little while; then came east to NYC. But it was the summer of 1972 – and hot. And so I looked at the map for something cooler – and came up with Switzerland.
As things turned out, I liked Europe; it seemed to like me – and so I stayed on for nine years. I missed the roaring seventies, of course, but the fact that I spent them in Europe kept me both reasonably out of trouble and disease-free. I also managed to pick up a few languages along the way, although I could never bring myself to buy a beret.
All good things have to come to an end, of course, and so I came back and re-enrolled in college. Only Columbia would have me at that point (because I think Columbia was in a cash-mad mood – that, or feeling charitable). I finished up in three years with an immeasurably useful degree in philosophy and figured I’d better start thinking about more than my navel or how many angels could sit in it. The spring of 1984 is when the job-search began. It’s been going on ever since. (It used to be that just death and taxes were sure things; now, however, I think we can add “job search” to that short list.)
Lucky for me before all of that philosophy, I’d also learned how to type. Typing is probably what I do best in life. So here I sit twenty-one years later, still typing. Only it’s not called “typing” anymore – it’s called “stroking.” Which I’m also pretty good at, and have two broken marriages and a pair of kids to prove it.
That’s really a lot more than the “little” you asked me for, but you didn’t interrupt, and I was feeling a little nervous about the possibility of silence.
Q. How long have you been a writer? What made you put that first poem down on paper?
The first time I wrote poetry of any kind was my fateful freshman year at Davidson College. Davidson in 1969 was just guys, so I had to travel up and over the mountains to find my muse. Between the steady testosterone drip of a youngster of eighteen at an all-guys school, the seven hundred pounds of hot, throbbing steel between my legs (no, no – that was the motorcycle), and the miles to go before I might sleep with the lady of my constant dreams, I had plenty of time – and some small inclination – to think in iambs.
She became the first in a long line of unfortunate Edvard Munch-like muses. (Think “The Scream.”) ‘Last I heard, she’d gone into hiding in the mountains and had taken a vow of frowns. She’d also become a tree-hugger out of protest for the pulp I was wasting.
Q. What types of poetry do you write?
I have a penchant for “formal,” but I’m tone-deaf. (It’s the result of a fit of rage on the part of my second muse, who went in for my tonsils with a wrench and came out, instead, with my adenoids.)
Q. What do your family/friends think about your writing? Are they supportive?
Excuse me? Did you say supportive? I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece a few months back called “The Cure for Original Sin” (posted at www.writethis.com) in which I considered how I might dissuade my thirteen-year-old son from his masturbatory practices. Of course, I knew and know nothing about my son’s masturbatory practices, and really wouldn’t care to know. To my way of thinking – etymologically speaking – auto-eroticism is a private affair.
Same thing with my poetry – we practice a kind of “Don’t ask; don’t tell” thing where it’s concerned.
Q. For you, what is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
The most frustrating? Well, that would have to be the money and the attention. I’m drowning in both.
The most rewarding? That, I suppose, would have to be the stroking. I was damned good at it twenty-one years ago; I’m still pretty good at it. 65 wpm on a good day! There’s a lot of satisfaction in having a skill like that.
Q. Do you read much? What kinds of books inspire you to write - if any? Favorite authors?
I do. But – I confess – I also like to look at the pictures. My little guy, (the chronic masturbator) and I look at the pictures together and compare notes. I subscribe for him because his mother doesn’t approve. (She was the Art History major in the family, so you’d think she would, wouldn’t you? But if it’s not of bronze or marble, she can’t cope.)
Anyway, we compare notes, and then I try to steer him towards considerations of the literature between the pictures – until, that is, all four of our eyes glaze over and we go back to the pictures.
Q. How do you handle rejection letters? Any hints?
Yes. Denial is a wonderful thing.
If the rejection is personalized (one in a thousand), I scribble in the margin “You must be kidding/thinking of someone else” and send it back.
In the case of form rejections, I bought myself a very U. S. Post Office-looking stamp and ink pad a long time ago. Every time I get a form rejection, I take it out and stamp “Addressee Deceased/Return to Sender” on the envelope. If I’m feeling particularly vindictive, I also usually squiggie a drop or two of chicken soup down near the bottom of the letter – ya know, to look like a tear from someone who actually cared about the poet. You can never spend too much when you want to send the very best.
In the meantime, I’m renting space at U-Store-It for the rejection letters I can no longer find space to file away here at the farm.
Q. If I were sitting down today to write my very first poem, what would your advice be?
Slit your wrists – it’s faster. Then, find a desolate hotel room wall and write your bit in your own blood. Yesenin – one of my favorite (Russian) poets did just that. The PR was huge! (I suppose it also helped that he titled the poem “Letter to My Mother.” The success rate of poems to mothers is legion.)
Q. Do you take most of your ideas from life? Or your imagination? A mix? (Do you hate when people ask this?)
Oh, people can ask pretty much anything they like. I have no secrets – well, at least none that I would care to talk about.
Since I have no real life – and only a small imagination – I try to leave the driving to Greyhound. Which is to say, something may occur to me – some image, some line, some sound – and then I write it down. Nine times out of ten, that’s about as far as it and I get. Sometimes, however, both of us get frisky and call for a partner – and so a couplet is born. If the couplet survives until morning, I jump on the bus for the next several months (or even years) and ride. I have no preconceived notion of where that bus is going to take us. No destination. What I end up with several hundred drafts later may be something quite different from what I’d originally envisioned.
Q. Do you have days when the words won’t flow? What do you do?
I wish. And so do most of the people who stumble upon my poetry, by the way. There are many dark and dreary nights in which exhortations to just “shut the f*** up!” are the only sound I hear from my bedroom walls. Meanwhile, I live in a very densely populated neighborhood – and so, the sounds I hear from other folks’ bedroom walls sorely tempt me to do just that and listen. Those, to me, are the real sounds of poetry!
Q. What’s a typical writing day like for you? Do you have a schedule? How do you keep from procrastinating?
I’m sorry to say that writer’s block and procrastination are not bears I’ve ever had to wrestle with. The only thing I really like better than the sight of a naked page is … the voices of my children. And so, they can interrupt me anytime they like. I recently read that, statistically speaking, the non-custodial parent is almost always the happier of the two, and I can believe it. As it is, I see far too little of them even though they live only three subway stops away. So if they call or come over to visit, I happily retire whatever I’m working on at the moment.
Otherwise – truth be told – I think my writing is a kind of filler for when they’re not around. I don’t feel compelled to write. I feel compelled to find distraction from the loneliness I feel whenever they’re not with me. If I still had my kids full-time, you and I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’d still be a reader for those hours when the kids are already asleep and I’m still awake, but otherwise I’d be a full-time father and a no-time writer.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Remember those pictures I mentioned earlier…?
Writing relaxes me. Creative writing, that is. Editing – my own stuff or someone else’s – does not. I find writing without concern for punctuation or publication – or how I’m going to pay the bills – to be tremendously energizing. I find editing to be quite the contrary. And yet, I’d still rather edit than mine for coal or diamonds.
Q. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and started writing? Do dreams inspire you?
I tipple a tad, so I rarely wake up in the middle of the night – and even more rarely remember my dreams the next morning. That said, I often have those moments when I first wake up in the morning that seem to be somewhere between hallucinatory and genuinely creative. The problem is that something else wakes up with me and generally wins the battle of wits. And so whatever I might’ve been hallucinating about seconds earlier goes “poof.”
Q. Do you have a ‘golden rule’ of writing that almost always works for you?
Yes – and I got it from a cartoon in The New Yorker several years ago. “Kepler’s Fourth Law: the world does not revolve around you, you know!” I try to apply it not only to my writing, but to my life. It’s not exactly a formula for success in this most competitive of cities (at least of all the cities I know), but it helps – I hope – to keep me in touch with reality. The canon of Western Literature will not be found wanting if my work never sees finds a little niche in its hall of fame.
Q. What’s your opinion on “How-to” books on writing? Helpful, a waste of money?
Helpful? Essential! No one’s a born writer. And no writer ever attains “perfection.” We’re all in a constant state of becoming – until, of course, someone or something turns the last light out. In the meantime, I personally think there’s a lot to learn from folks who are much further along the road of “mastering the craft” than I am. Why? Because writing is first and foremost a craft. It’s not a mystery; it’s not an inspiration; it’s a craft – and one that has to be learned, practiced, and honed.
I don’t think for a moment that good writing is intuitive – any more than I think that good oratory is intuitive. Some of us are born with better voices than others. We can’t all be Cicero and we can’t all be Shakespeare. But I believe it was Diogenes who, because of a speech impediment, practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth.
He, of course, never became a Cicero, and he died poor as a rat’s ass. But Alexander (and eventually the world) heard him quite clearly one day when he, Alexander, came upon Diogenes sitting on the steps of the Parthenon and asked “Diogenes, if you wished for any one thing in my empire, what would it be?” To which Diogenes replied “That you remove yourself from my sunshine.”
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer? What’s the worst?
The best? Never give up. The worst? Possibly the same.
Q. Did we forget anything? What would you like to add? Any upcoming publications or links for our readers? Current projects we should watch for?
‘Don’t think so – ‘least not about me. I think there are only two pieces of advice I would give to aspiring writers (apart from the advice that I was given): (1) never forget your readers, without whom your stories are nothing; and (2) writing is entertainment; exhortation is not. Persevering and believing in yourself should always remain a well-tempered clavier. Delusions of grandeur are not the same as wanting to write and be read because you believe (hope) you have something worth listening to. All of life is just one constant competition for attention. With any luck, you got a huge dose of that from Mom when you were still on the tit. That, however, is where undivided attention stopped. From there on out, you had to earn it – which came (and will always come) through work – and not through entitlement.
Was that only two pieces? It felt like a rant!
“Current projects?” As Bertolt Brecht once said when he was asked the same question: “Just preparing for my next mistake.”
Thanks. It’s been fun – at least for me!