The Art of Poetry: Interview with Alan Britt
In August 2015 Alan Britt was invited by the Ecuadorian House of Culture Benjamín Carrión in Quito, Ecuador for the first cultural exchange of poets between Ecuador and the United States. During his visit he did TV, radio and newspaper interviews, also gave presentations and read poetry in Quito, Otavalo, Ambatto, Guayaquil, and Guaranda, plus the international literary conference sponsored by La hermandad de las palabras 2015 in Babahoyo. He served as judge for the 2013 The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award. He read poetry and presented the “Modern Trends in U.S. Poetry” at the VII International Writers’ Festival in Val-David, Canada, May 2013. Recent readings include the Biblioteca Comunal at the Ecuadorian Consulate in Queens, Long Island City, NY, November 2015 the 6x3 Exhibition at the Jadite Gallery in Hell’s Kitchen/Manhattan in December 2014, the Fountain Street Fine Art Gallery in Framingham, MA in June 2014, and the Union City Museum of Art/William V. Musto Cultural Center in Union City, NJ sponsored by LaRuche Arts Contemporary Consortium (LRACC) in May, 2014. His interview at The Library of Congress for The Poet and the Poem aired on Pacifica Radio, January 2013. New interviews for Lake City Lights and Schuylkill Valley Journal are available at http://lakecitypoets.com/AlanBritt.htmlwww.svjlit.com/aninterviewwithalanbritt. He has published 16 books of poetry, his latest include Crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge (bilingual English/Romanian): 2017; Violin Smoke (bilingual English/Hungarian): 2015; Lost Among the Hours: 2015, Parabola Dreams (with Silvia Scheibli): 2013 and Alone with the Terrible Universe: 2011.He is Poetry Editor for the We Are You Project (www.weareyouproject.org) and teaches English/Creative Writing at Towson University.
This interview with Alan Britt was conducted via e-mail by Pradipta Kumar Parida from The Bhubaneswar Review.
PKP: Could you please talk a little about your journey toward becoming a poet?
AB: First of all, thank you, Pradipta, for this opportunity to answer your questions. I discovered poetry during my first year at the University of Tampa through the urging of my older brother, Steve Barfield. Steve was already a published poet by his second year at the university, and he introduced me to other student poets, significantly, Silvia Scheibli, who remains a close friend to this day. I also took classes with their influential teacher, Duane Locke. Duane’s enthusiasm for poetry along with his laser intellect revealed to his students layers of depth in poets John Donne, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, John Keats, Georg Trakl, and countless other European and South American poets. I quickly fell in love with the magic of these poets and began writing and publishing my own poems.
PKP: When did you realize you were a poet?
AB: By the beginning of my sophomore year I felt poetry flowing through me in a way that forged a relationship between the environment and my spirituality. I loved writing poetry, so I continued to write. In those days the University of Tampa was a hotbed of poetry.
PKP: What do you look for in writing poetry?
AB: I enjoy how poetry transports me away from our utilitarian culture by expanding my imagination into an intense spiritual relationship with my environment. Pretty much all subjects and styles are fair game when I write, but the natural world provides me with the greatest pleasure.
PKP: What you are writing now?
AB: I’m working on three books. One book follows my usual course of action which is to write one poem followed by another on whatever inspiration moves me at any time. Another is a book length poem written as a stream of conscious in order to experience an unfettered sense of freedom. The third book consists of prose poems chiefly about nature. The world is deranged enough to keep any person on edge and distracted from the nobility of life, so I made a conscious decision to focus on blue jays, swallowtail butterflies, leopard slugs, bumble bees, foxes, and eggplant blossoms in order to rejuvenate my spirit through the luxury of prose poems. I needed a distraction from the distraction of humans brutalizing one another or scarring the spiritual landscape by bulldozing a pipeline across sacred Sioux territory at Standing Rock.
PKP: Is there any difference you find in your thought process for choosing a book-length poetry for Lost Among the Hours than when choosing your individual poems?
AB: Well, most of my books begin as chronological but unrelated poems until I’ve accumulated enough poems for a new book to begin. While there is some intuitive notion that effects where one book ends and another begins, the magic number of poems per book is random. Lost Among the Hours is such a book.
PKP: How do you compare and contrast your two books thematically: Lost Among the Hours: 2015 and Alone with the Terrible Universe: 2011?
AB: Alone with the Terrible Universe was written immediately following the attack on the two World Trades and reflects at times the emotional fallout of that tragedy. The first two poems in the book were written a week before 9/11. The rest of the book flowed along until June 2002, the month of initial cleanup at Ground Zero. While Alone with the Terrible Universe is not strictly thematic, since most poems in the book make no mention of 9/11, there is a thin melancholic adhesive from one poem to another. Lost Among the Hours came about years later and is my typical practice of writing one poem after another with no theme in mind.
PKP: In terms of esthetics, how do you see Parabola Dreams (with Silvia Scheibli) that was published in 2013?
AB: Silvia Scheibli and I have been friends since college. We both enjoy imagistic poetry. Additionally, we’re both drawn to the natural world for inspiration. We have many poems that have enough in common to combine several books. Parabola Dreams is the first book that I’ve shared with another poet.
PKP: If I ask you to describe the esthetic of Alone with the Terrible Universe in a couple of words, what would it be?
AB: Alone with the Terrible Universe represents the continued evolution of my poetry that happens to contain poems reflecting the emotional fallout from the terrible events of 9/11. The last third of the book evolves from winter into spring and, as such, expresses the proverbial sense of hope and rebirth.
PKP: How do you find a balance between being a professor and poet?
AB: I devote much time and energy to both. Poetry classes afford me an opportunity to analyze a plethora of books for my classes. I read the poems in those books many times addressing layer upon layer, often involving the superconscious digestion of nonlinear imagery in those poems. Some refer to this approach to nonlinear imagery as emotive comprehension. We also examine the nuances of sound and rhythm in my classes. The deconstructive process is not only enjoyable but also enlightening, affording insights that influence my own writing. Though time and energy devoted to teaching reduces my opportunity to write new poems, being prolific by nature means I have many poems that require revision. I enjoy revising poems right up until they appear in books, and I am forced to abandon them.
PKP: Do you think poets have moral responsibility toward society?
AB: It’s a wonderful fantasy to believe that poets are held in high enough esteem to have serious effect upon society. Take William Blake or Walt Whitman—both have great impact upon fellow poets but virtually no impact upon society in general. I express my disdain and love regarding human morality in good conscience for anyone to read and to [sic] be nourished. Through my own irrepressible naïveté, and because of the harsh reality that surrounds us, I wish all poets would write and publish at least one poem per year, one poem that addresses humanity and the environment to offer a focal point on changes that could improve the quality of life. So, I suppose to answer your question directly, yes, I believe every one of us has a moral responsibility toward society.
PKP: How do you handle criticism, a bad review of your books? What is your advice to budding poets?
AB: Criticism, good or bad, generated by a close reading I welcome. When revising poems I often feel like an outsider peering in to smooth out the rough spots. But astute criticism reveals weaknesses in my writing that I overlook. Assessing one’s own work is a tricky business. It helps to have sensitive readers assist the process. Just ask T.S. Eliot about Ezra Pound. I tell students what matters is that in the end poems should be exciting or at least engaging. So, forget the original intent for a poem. Readers don’t know original intent, and as time lapses poets forget original intent, assuming they had an original intent to begin with.
PKP: Who do you always look for while writing poetry, and which contemporary writer would you most like to have a chat and meet with, and why?
AB: I don’t look for any contemporary writer in particular when I write. Over the years I’ve read hundreds of poets, and I’ve met and discussed poetry with more poets than I remember. I file away on my brain’s neuronal bookshelves every interesting (and diverse) insight that I’ve learned from others and go about the business of writing based upon momentary inspiration at the commencement of every poem. I would like to have a wine filled six course meal with an unknown brand new Lorca, Neruda, Baudelaire, Blake, Dickinson, or Whitman currently tucked away in some dingy apartment anywhere in the world.
PKP: What scares you the most? What's the biggest mistake you will always regret as a poet?
AB: Not much. I underestimated a few poets in my naïve youth, poets I later came to realize had more depth than I could see when I was inexperienced and narrow-minded. But Blake would say don’t dwell on regrets; instead, move forward.
PKP: Who are you reading now? What was the last book you read?
AB: I’m always reading. Currently I’m enjoying Liberty, Rats and Sandpaper by Géza Szöcs, Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman, Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye, Songs of a Dissident by Scott Thomas Outlar, To Burn in Torturous Algorithms by Heath Brougher, Song of the Open Sea by Joanne Morency, Owasco: A Passage of Lake Poems by Paul B. Roth, Tongue Threaded Shuttle by Lilvia Soto, The Pilot’s Daughter by Gardner McFall, Voodoo Trombone by Sharon Alexander and enjoying them all. Reading is joyous.
PKP: On a lighter note, who is your favorite politician and what is your favorite TV show at the present?
AB: My favorite politician is Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s the rarest of politicians who addresses social progress through his ability to think critically. My favorite TV show? Well, the avalanche of banal advertisements makes me nauseous, but I’d say it’s the sans commercial HBO production of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. Oliver possesses the ability to clarify the aberrant behavior of world leaders via a biting wit that is both intelligent and humorous.
PKP: I myself have found it very difficult to get submissions for this journal. Being a poet, how do you see sending out submissions to a new literary magazine?
AB: I submit to whatever publication appears open to diversity.
PKP: How do you write? Tell us about your writing process. How you divide time? Do you use computer and notebooks or pen and paper?
AB: Being prolific has been a blessing since much of my time is devoted to teaching. But whenever possible I like to relax among sparks of vermilion flickering from Japanese maples, or contemplate Marvel’s hemispheric dew drop on a cabbage leaf. I begin with pen and paper and eventually transfer to the computer. My psychic pace is more suited to the languid flow of pen and paper than the tapping of computer keys.
PKP: How have you handled the language while writing poetry?
AB: The possibilities are endless. There are no obstacles when it comes to writing poetry. Why would you want to limit your possibilities? Words are symbols of discovery. So, why not sail “on the viewless wings of poesy.”
PKP: Do you have any advice to young writers who have just started writing poetry?
AB: Simple. Read variety. Read hundreds of books by poets from all cultures, and then write as often as you can because you’ve fallen in love with poetry. Pay attention to your environment. And listen closely to others but don’t believe everything they say.
Thank you, Pradipta.
PKP: Thank you, Alan.