The Colorado Poet, #23, Summer 2013
Interview with SETH
A Black Odyssey (Mercury HeartLink Press, 2013)
Bob King: In your acknowledgements you say this collection is your attempt “to cram 30 years of poetry into one volume.” To structure this, you arranged them in subheadings referencing stages and places of Odysseus’ journey in The Odyssey. How difficult was this process? Did it have ups and downs? Runs and halts?
SETH: I wouldn’t use the word difficult. Nothing is difficult when you enjoy doing it. Actually, I lucked out in that the entire process evolved over a long period of time. The original idea probably came to me 10 or more years ago. I experimented with an arrangement, had to put it down to attend to other things, picked it up again years later, rearranged a few things, put it down again. Then a year or so ago I decided, “Okay, let’s get this thing done.” And lo and behold, things fell into place nicely.
I will say that in an earlier arrangement there were two poems that I considered to be among my absolute best but I could not make fit thematically. With considerable regret, I was prepared to leave them out. Fortunately, by the time I said “this is it, I’m going to get this done,” I found a way to include them.
I did ultimately leave out a small handful of poems, maybe 5-10, several of which I thought were quite strong and should be included. They fit thematically but including them would have ruined the pacing. Each chapter, as well as the entire volume is a narrative, and to cram any chapter with too many poems would destroy the flow – and if my writing is about anything, it’s about flow.
BK: You have the titles of individual poems in your table of contents, but in the sections you omit titles, spacing the poems with 3 asterisks. So your intention must have been not to foreground the titles, making them appear like sections inside a section. Was this your intent and why?
SETH: Again, it’s about flow. Including the titles within each section would have interrupted the flow. Not only that, I feared some of the titles would divert the reader’s interpretation from how the poem functions within its given chapter. Every poem was written at a different time and in a different context, and can suggest many things. But within a given chapter, they are intended to reflect the common thread suggested by that chapter’s title. I removed the individual titles to avoid any confusion.
Ambiguity is one of my favorite literary devices: making lines and images subject to multiple interpretations.
I did toy with the idea of re-titling some of the poems. But that not only felt ludicrous, it ruined the original integrity of those poems. So I thought, no, just remove the titles from the text and if the reader wants to explore or reference a particular poem, he/she can go to the table of contents.
BK: That long a span of writing poetry means there are differences of style and diction between the poems. I’ll mention three to give our readers an idea of your varied styles: “Ode to Beauty” is rhymed iambic pentameter (“Ah Beauty, what sweet faces thou doth wear / Thy countenance of fiery trees marooned”), “Conversation over Croissants” is a jazzy free-verse (“So it’s a beautiful morning / Pimple sun screaming yellow / oozy jello green / Sky bleeds bluer than Coltrane.”), and a poem telling Jesse James he could have been a man in suit and tie and briefcase, a political poem in a long-line rant that reminds me of spoken word (“Instead of contraband goods in some abandoned mining shack / and whiffing the farts of the Younger brothers / You could have been eating your neighbors, chomping on busboys / pouring your gravy on a thick thigh-of-peasant/ & doling out prostitutes as christmas presents.” What for you, is the effect of this much diversity or what do you hope is the effect?
SETH: You know, when I started out, I wasn’t even sure I could get away with including so many varied styles of poetry. I kept asking myself, “Is this kosher?” “Will the people, the experts on compiling poetry collections, frown at what I’m doing? Will it be looked at as an ill-advised attempt by a naïve poet who knows next-to-nothing about assembling a book of poems?
Now I think it’s the book’s greatest asset. I mean, each chapter offers its own poetic landscape. I’ve always been big on offering readers different textures, whether in my poetry, my fiction, or my performances and A Black Odyssey does this beautifully. Each chapter, in essence, is a different island and were you traveling from island to island, each island would be different, and somewhat unique, offering its own local color. I did not set out consciously to achieve this, but that’s what happened and I’m thoroughly delighted by it.
BK: You’ve done an ongoing reading of these sections at the Mercury Café and I think you told me something like you were “testing” the poems in their oral performance. Why did you do this and what was the result? Or, in a larger sense, what’s the connection for you between writing and oral performance?
SETH: I am so glad, so very, very glad I decided to do those readings. First, a correction: I did this not at the Mercury Café but at Ziggies. Every 2nd & 4th Wednesday of the month, for 16 weeks, I read A Black Odyssey chapter by chapter to whoever was there to listen.
Performance is my secret weapon. Performing has become the final stage in my editing process. It is where I add the high polish to my poetry and achieve that flow I referred to earlier.
Everything I write goes through a three stage process before I consider it finally done. My ear tells me when something is or is not right.
Once I’m satisfied, I read it in public. While rehearsing it, I visualize delivering it line-by-line to another person’s ear. This also reveals any subtle hiccups in the rhythm, the imagery or the narrative, imperfections my ear alone sometimes misses.
Then comes the final test: reading before an actual audience. Where as my ears lets me hear when something does or doesn’t work, reading to a live audience – or better still, performing to a live audience –lets me feel if a specific line doesn’t work. And that comes not just through applause. I can actually sense when delivering a line, whether it is having its desired effect.
A small handful of my poems, like the “Ode to Beauty” you referred to earlier, I’d almost never read in public. I was prepared to include them as they were, but as I rehearsed them for Ziggies, I found glaring imperfections. Not only was I able to weed out a number of minor flaws but I could make subtle changes that echoed references elsewhere, either in the same chapter or elsewhere in the volume.
BK: One of Odysseus’ tricks with language we all remember is giving his name as No Man to Polyphemus so when the Cyclops is blinded he shouts “No Man has done this.” You play with language yourself. The patrons of a bar are “conducting wholly mass / over sauerkraut and mustard.” A devilish figure who has “horns of plenty” talks about “stupor-stition” and mixes “a molecule cocktail.” Can you say something about this facet of language in your work? And is there an oral/performance connection here?
SETH: Playing with language, doing little verbal tricks, is what I first thought poetry was all about. Poetry to my mind was where you were allowed to break the rules of ordinary syntax. What better way, I thought, to appreciate and master the laws of syntax than to intentionally break them? My poems don’t preach; they tell a narrative and use various literary devices to keep the reader/listener engaged and intrigued.
As to any oral connection, I have observed I can play a little more with ambiguity when delivering a poem live. For instance, in my poem “Ode to Great Ghosts,” there is the line “We have spread seed on rock, in blood-soiled mud, along the fertile crescent of madmen, entrepreneurs, salepersons and prophets.” In the written text, I spell prophets with a ‘ph’ as in soothsayer. But orally, the reader can interpret it as either soothsayer or “profits’ as in making money…which I imagine most do since ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘salespersons’ comes right before it.
You know, when I started out, I wasn’t even sure I could get away with including so many varied styles of poetry. I kept asking myself, “Is this kosher?”
Ambiguity is one of my favorite literary devices: making lines and images subject to multiple interpretations, giving each reader the opportunity to take the poem wherever he or she chooses to be led.
BK: Reading it the first time, I was thinking it must be especially difficult to find a ‘last poem’ for a collection like this. Then I read it and figured you knew what you were doing. It ends “The song / remains the same—only the soloists change,” a reference perhaps to Homer but also to all of your ‘selves” over the last thirty years. So do you see all poets as singing the same song deep down? Or am I twisting your meaning?
SETH: You have the right to interpret those lines anyway you choose. To me, the best poetry is poetry that allows the reader to open any number of doors and explore. I like your take although I wouldn’t agree all poets sing the same song.
It is never important to me that a reader get what I am trying to say, only that a poem somehow speaks to them, that they can walk away with a new insight or verification of something they themselves have thought, felt or experienced.
What I was getting at, is that we are all soloists. We are here for a time, we sing our part, we pass on, others take our place and sing their part. But the interplay of human interactions and social dynamics is always the same. Despite changes in technology, from the Bronze age and before, to the present, we love, we struggle, we desire, we doubt, we face oppression, when we acquire power we oppress others. Some of us fail, some of us triumph, most of us compromise. But when all is said and done, the song is always the same.