Interview with Martin Willitts

1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.

I believe that each poem decides its own poetry line length. Sometimes, I write very blocky, all the lines are more or less the same length. Other times, the lines are more staggered depending upon where I think the line breaks. This concept works for stanza breaks or poems with no stanza breaks. Usually, within the first 3 lines I have a sense of whether the poem will have a structure of number of lines within a stanza for a format, or if the poem has no format. Some of my poems have a structure of 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 lines in a stanza. This makes the poem a formal poem. A formal poem does not have to rhyme. An example of a format without rhyme is sestinas and another is haiku.

I do not control the poem at first. Sometimes, I catch on to its format/lack of format as I write; otherwise, I wait until later to worry about editing a poem. I feel that the length of a line should be determined by your breath (Charles Olsen is the first poet to talk about breath) and emphasis (where you want the reader to notice a certain word before moving onto the next line). There are some poets, including myself, that have split words like “nightfall” into two words with one part on a line and the next part on the next line “night/fall”. Now the night is falling, or the night is in Fall. You can only be so clever so often or else you risk being too cute.

I feel that the line break must have a reason (function) to end at a certain place. Alan Ginsberg had great lung power from yoga, so his lines are long, full of energy, full of connection and list making. He was one of those rare poets who could get away with it. He established it early on, kept the concept all of the time. I have strong lungs and although some of my line breaks are long and some are short, sometimes the stanza has no periods. Regardless, I feel that the stanzas are important.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

We cannot escape our bodies and our senses, therefore a poem should explore the senses to make a person experiences the same moment of eureka that the poet had when they saw the object they are writing about. Since we are connected to our bodies, we tend to write in our own voice about our own experience of love or rejected love, young or old, seeing people dying or babies being born. We bring that with us when we write. A lot of writers tend to write what they know best.

I, however, write often from the viewpoint of someone else, entirely. I have written poems about artists, musicians, political figures, and pretended to be them, trying to use their voice. It is a lot like what Playwrights do. When I write about more personal things of which I do experience, it is usually about ecology, organic gardening, healing alternative medicines, social injustice, physics, astrology, for example.

I am a very prolific writer. It is not unusual for me to write 30 poems on the same theme in a single day. In this way, I am more like a Jazz musician (I used to be one) in the sense that I improvise on a theme. I am also a very serious composer, because I used to play classical music
These two extremes might explain the two radically different approaches I have towards writing.

When I am in the free-flow improvisation, I have more trust and less editing. When I am in the classical mind, I am more concerned with editing, the right word choices, etc. However, regardless how I write, I tend to make corrections as I write. Either way, there is a certain level of revision going on. In the jazz mode, I cannot write fast enough. Usually the words come faster. When I am in the composition mode, I notice the format more, thinking as I write, about line breaks and stanza breaks, if the poem is more formal or less formal, what it looks like visually. When I am in the jazz mode, I cannot be interrupted; I will talk to someone while typing. When I am in the composition mode, I still do not like interruptions but I will at least stop typing to talk to someone. What I am describing is very close to a fugue stage. I would call it an ecstatic state. I am in an entirely different place when I write. It is like I am not there anymore, and disembodied hands are typing the poem, but that is not true either. The trance is not induced by anything other than the writing and being lost in the moment of writing.

I once wrote a 34 page poem in a single draft, left it alone for a few days, before I went back to it to edit it. It really did not need a lot of editing. Most of it was punctuation and dropping a word or line. The poem has been published in its entirety. I tend to write very long poems. But that has to be my longest. It is both a social issue poem as well as a poem in another person’s voice:

The source of writing is elusive; and, it is individual for each writer. The source of writing is also exclusive to only a few, and even those that find the source of writing find themselves excluded (writer’s block or bad poetry). Sometimes, the source of writing is one thing one moment and then something else some other time. It is a mixture of practice, patience, luck with finding the right place to publish, willingness to self-edit, driving you crazy with self-criticism.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

I dislike a number of things. Here comes a rant. I can feel it. I am tired of the lack of support from other poets for poetry. Support comes in many forms: attending readings, purchasing books, writing suggestions for improvements to poems. There are literally thousands of poets. How many of them purchase books to fill a bookcase? How many purchase a literary magazine? I am not the only one to complain.

I have 5 bookcases of poetry. When the shelves get full, I donate to a college library. I live near one that considers my collection as a small press collection and have stored the books in a special collection section which does not circulate. They respect my ability as a collector. When I die, they will get all of my books I purchased. I have complete books of many authors, and many are limited signed editions.

I used to edit poetry for an online magazine. I would look at hundreds of submissions every month. I read every poem, sometimes multiple times. I remembered when I had sent out poems that I wondered why I was rejected. So I started writing personal rejection letters, some were requests for editing and improvement. I received a lot of negative feedback from the rejected poets in which they (a) called me inappropriate names, (b) tried to justify a really terrible poem. I stopped providing feedback. Then I had demands why I rejected poems without comments. It was a bad experience, where I could not make everyone happy. This is my second complaint about poets. So let me become clear about rejection notices:

Rejection notes are not personal. We do not know you.

Rejection notes are sometimes based on space/number of poems limitations. Sometimes we see hundreds of poems per month for a quarterly magazine that only takes 10 poems per quarter.

Rejection slips are subjective. It depends on the editor’s taste. If you think a poem is so great, keep sending it until it gets published or you run out of places to send.

Sometimes a bad poem is really a bad poem. Do not listen to your non-poet friends who say you have a great poem. They are your friends. Magazine editors are not your friend and they will be honest.

Read the submission rules. If it says 3-5 poems do not send 6.

Be prepared for rejection if you send out poems. It comes with the territory. If you do get published then hooray for you. I get a lot less rejections now, but I still get them. Sometimes it is the wrong poem in the wrong place.

I am a Quaker, paper cutout artist, organic gardener, retired Senior Librarian, I have 10 full-length collections including a national ecological conteat winner “Searching For What Is Not There” (Hiraeth Press) and 28 chapbooks including national contest winner “William Blake, Not Blessed Angel But Restless Man” (Red Ochre Press). I won the International Dylan Thomas Poetry Contest in Swansea, Wales, for the centennial.

I am including this poem as an example of a formal poem (5 lines each section) with different line lengths (the line ends where it ends). It is almost blocky at times. Some of the parts are real long lines. The poem appeared in the online magazine “Oddball” located in Boston. Jason Wright is the editor and a friend. We have met a couple of times and he has been to a couple of my readings. I would suggest his magazine as a place to send poems. He seems open to new writers:

Knowing Less about Love

Sometimes we know less of love than we did before.
Love never makes sense when you are in it,
any more than it makes sense when you are without it.
It has a way of sneaking up on you when you are not looking.
It departs the same way.

There were ancient gods who felt loved
and when people abandoned them they felt forgotten.
If they could not make sense out of love, what chance do we have?
If they could not force someone to love them,
what makes us think we can do the same?

People have written books on the subject.
If stacked back to back they would circumference the world.
And still we do not understand love, cannot command love.
Memorizing every page does not make love any easier
or helps loss feel any less. Love is complicated that way.

I have no advice on the matter, or empirical words of wisdom,
nor firm grip on understanding. I have loved and been unloved,
and every time I know less and less, love falling out of my hands.
I cannot tell you how to love more or how to keep it in your house.
I only know when it’s exceptional, and when silence is about.

If you expected an answer, I am the wrong guy.
For each person there is this longing to belong.
Sometimes love makes sense when you are in it.
In fact, everything, every feeling, intensifies.
Sometimes it is draining and filling like tidal waves.

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