Monday, April 1, 2019

Interview with Poet Robert Walicki

The first time your body broke was to sound.
- from "B-Boy Meets Future Self" by Robert Walicki


Robert Walicki’s work has appeared in over 40 publications including Fourth River, Stone Highway Review, Red River Review, and others. He is the author of Black Angels (Six Gallery Press, 2019), and two chapbooks: A Room Full of Trees (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and The Almost Sound of Snow Falling (Night Ballet Press, 2015), which was nominated to the 2016 Poet’s House List of Books in NYC.

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Robert Walicki and I have been acquainted for several years. I wrote a blurb for his chapbook The Almost Sound of Snow Falling and had the wonderful pleasure of reading with him and Angele Ellis at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. It was a delight interview him about poetry and his debut book Black Angels.


Praise for Black Angels
In Black Angels, Robert Walicki says, "...men will want to break you, / like they've been broken." These poems jackhammer us with compassion, asking over and over: What does it mean to be a man? The haunted details shift from the scarecrow to the dying fish, from Bowie to Prince, as the voice professes its burning love: "I caught a fish but didn't / want blood." ~Jan Beatty, author of Jackknife


Still Falling by Robert Walicki
(a poem from Black Angels)

like the air from a door when it's closing
                                                        strip of light revealing keys
on a table, crayons, finger paints, glitter on the floor
                                                      like air in the restaurant between us
I was talking about your children,
                                                    this strip of life this sudden whatever
like the air  this sudden door
                                                  you kept talking
like the rain
                                                  from a summer when rice hit your dress
against the door of your car as they drove you
                                                away like a door closing
into air before your children came
                                                like rain changing over
this sudden whatever
                                                I kept talking about children
this weather of you
                                              leaving
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Congratulations on the publication of your debut book Black Angels! Please tell us a bit about it. How did you decide on the title?

RW: Thanks! Well, Black Angels is the title of one of the poems in this collection that I think best represents what this book is about. At it's heart, "Black Angels" is about blue collar life and survival. Other poems move outside the identity of the speaker, and aim to represent the working class experience as a whole. There's something pure and transformative about these hard experiences and the characters that live in this imperfect world. These are the "Black Angels".


In a 2012 Poetry Society of America series called Poets on Politics, Fady Joudah writes: “The political in poetry is always born out of the incessant assault [that] systems of power and knowledge impose on the individual spirit, on ways of seeing, and on speaking truth to power.” How do you define political poetry? I was wondering, since one of the themes in Black Angels is shining a light on, and interrogating, the circumstances of the working class, do you consider your poetry political?

RW: I don't like to use the word "political" as I find it limiting, but when we write about the human condition, our work inherently becomes political. It has always been important to me to only write from personal experience first and foremost. The poems need to have an authenticity to them, and this is usually the barometer from which I start from. I usually don't intend to write a "political" poem, or a poem that has a direct agenda from that perspective. It's usually a byproduct of the poem's subject. That said, working conditions is a subject that I'm very passionate about. I've seen many individuals whose lives and health were gravely compromised, or even killed, as a result of dangerous working conditions brought on by the abuse, apathy and the greed of individual in positions of power over them. Most of the time, I want to simply take a snapshot of these experiences and invite the reader into the conversation. There are times however, when we are charged with taking a stand in this life, and poems like "Writing Political Poems at the Squirrel Hill Cafe" are a good example of the responsibility we have as poets and writers to speak about the climate of injustice, intolerance and hate we currently live in.


Poet Philip Levine was known for writing about the working class and had been called “Voice of the Workingman” (New York Times, 8/9/2011.) In the Poetry Foundation’s entry for Levine, they write that “Levine’s poetry for and about the common man is distinguished by simple diction and a rhythmic narrative style” and offer an argument by author Charles Molesworth “that Levine’s work reflects a mistrust of language; rather than compressing multiple meanings into individual words and phrases as in traditionally conceived poetry, Levine’s simple narratives work to reflect the concrete and matter-of-fact speech patterns of working people.” Do you find the same thing in your own work? How did you navigate between the two impulses of lyric and narrative? 

RW: Absolutely, language for me, falls into that category of authenticity. If these experiences are to be at all believable, they have to reflect the grit and the concrete details in the narratives. This is a very tactile world I'm writing about. It's not an academic or conceptual world. It's a mindset that's ruled by what is experienced by the senses. There may be a misconception however, that there's not a lot of subtlety in this type of writing, but there's always another layer to the onion in a lot of these poems. There's always more going on there for me, than what is on the surface. That's not to say that there isn't a lyrical component to the poems. Sometimes it's present more in some poems than it is in others. It really depends on the poem, and I try to get out of the way when writing and let the poem lead me.

Balance  though, between the lyrical and the narrative, is still very important. I can usually tell when I start writing a poem where that balance will strike. There has to be some music in every poem, but the music can be rough edged. It doesn't have to have an obvious beauty to it. In fact, I prefer that it doesn't. I often fight against the urge to be lyrical. I want the tension and the struggle between the narrative and the lyrical to be there. I think it gives the poems energy and keeps them from being one dimensional. Most importantly, I want the poem to feel as if it's been lived. Everything else is secondary.


You worked full-time while writing Black Angels. How do you make time for your writing?

RW: It's a juggling act. I go through long periods where I write copiously and other periods when I'm fallow.Lately, I've been trying to work on a regimen where i'm writing at least twice a week, but even that doesn't always work out. I've learned to not be so hard on myself though. Even the times when we aren't writing, we actually are. We're constantly absorbing experiences that come out in our writing eventually.


What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? Why is it important to you? How did it come to be?

RW: The poem, "Black Angel" is definitely one of the most crucial poems in this collection, but I think I'd like to include the poem, "Real Men", as it not only encapsulates those construction themed work poems that are the heart of this book, this poem bridges the gap between family, identity,and how the memories of our past shape who we are now. Here is the poem:

Real Men

Say it loud in a huff.
Shoot off their mouths and heavy guns,
drag bloody deer, leave their hearts on the ground.

Real men roll their sleeves up,
a handful of chips, edge of a mouth,
dripping with sauce, give you shit.

Real men screw tool boxes down to floors,
put rocks in your hubcaps, lock you in porta johns, tip them over,

Real men call you sissy and bitch,
quick as a fist bump, a punch in the gut at break
Say, I thought you’ve done this before?
Water break, gas leak, jack hammer between your balls

in some grandma’s basement. Say this breaking is necessary—
flaking concrete, ears and shoulder, burning.
So, when the ground opens, grab a shovel

and get down on your knees, keep moving as if this is your religion,
your hands, the cuts and blood,
the men standing above you in hard hats, laughing.
Every man you’ve ever met resembles the father you couldn’t know.

The father, heavy, as the shadows that fall over you,
6 feet of leaning earth, this ditch line, crumbling
into the shape of a body, your body, learning.


In publishing Black Angels, were there things you thought would happen, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

RW: Well, after publishing two chapbooks, I thought it would be a much smoother road, publishing this one, but that really wasn't the case. I knew I had something special with this book, and I can't thank Nathan Kukulski enough, from Six Gallery Press enough for believing in this manuscript and bringing this out into the world. He did a beautiful job! I'd also like to give a shout out to the amazingly talented poet and photographer, Rebecca Clever who did a phenomenal job with the cover, and last but certainly not least, I especially wanted to thank my poet friend Rick St. John for reading this manuscript and offering his insightful and invaluable help in early drafts! I would say that was the most unexpected thing that happened. I can't express how grateful I was in having an incredibly gifted poet like Rick mentor me and guide me through the daunting experience of putting a book together.


When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you? 

RW: Many. My first big mentor was my high school English teacher who blew the top of my head off exposing me to 20th century poetry and literature. It was the moment I fell in love with the written word. I didn't know poetry could relate to me in such a personal way until she exposed me to writers and poets like Franz Kafka, T.S Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.


So which poets would you say have influenced you?

RW: This is always an evolving list, but the poets who have influenced me the most would have to be: Jan Beatty, Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, and too many others to list! I would say that more than any other trait, these poets gave me permission to write frankly, and with restraint, about working class living with a kind of hard, edged beauty that I keep trying to aspire to.


When you write, do you imagine a reader?

RW: I didn't initially, but when I began presenting my work in front of people, I tried to imagine the kind of audience whom my work might resonate with. One memorable night comes to mind after a reading, when a heavy equipment operator, who was the husband of one of my co-readers, came up to me after the reading, really inspired and validated by my work poems. I felt like what I was doing mattered at that moment, that I was making a meaningful connection with someone who didn't write about the experience, he lived it.


Generally speaking, how do you approach revision?

RW: Several ways. It's usually a process. I ALWAYS compose on the computer. It's very helpful in seeing line breaks, assonance, consonance, lyricism. Oddly, I edit as I go, for the most part. I would venture to guess that most poets just write and "get it out" first, but for me, editing actually fuels my creativity. I also like to read drafts aloud alone. It helps me "hear" more of what may work and doesn't work. Where I'm being too wordy, or prosy.


What are you working on now?

RW: Actually, I just learned that my latest manuscript, "Fountain" was just accepted for publication at Main Street Rag, so I'm currently putting the finishing touches on that. I'm really excited about this book as well, but for different reasons. In the new collection, there's a bit more emphasis on language and lyricism. The grounded blue collar aesthetic is still there, but I'm trying to stretch the boundaries out, see where they take me.


Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

RW: Read, read, read, not only work you enjoy, but work that challenges you and that you aren't naturally drawn to. Some of the most inspiring poems that have really stirred my imagination have been from poets whose work I wasn't initially interested in. If I had any other advice to give, I'd say that other than continuing to write, the most important practice one can have is to join workshops and to share your work with others. I've been fortunate to live in a community like Pittsburgh that not only is supportive, but offers a lot of opportunities for folks starting out in terms of free, peer led workshops for writers and poets of all levels. We aren't meant to do this in a vacuum. If I've grown at all as a poet, it's been because of the guidance, support and friendships of fellow poets I've shared my work with.

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Listen to Robert:
- on Electric Poetry
- on YouTube


Find Robert online:
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/walicki_robert
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robertwalickipoet/

All poems printed or quoted in this post © Robert Walicki Black Angels (Six Gallery Press, 2019)

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