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Oct/Nov 2010 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Scot Siegel

by Penelope Schott


Scot Siegel's poems are unafraid of joyous things. Some poets steer away from nostalgia and sentimental love, but Siegel is so full of gratitude that he makes everyday pleasures—family memories, bright words from his children, the promise of marriage—shine. And because he is so humane and generous toward life, his poems about struggles and griefs feel both finer and truer. Here's a poet who is comfortable with reporting out the range of human experience. His poems are both the songs and the weather of a full, interior life.
               —David Biespiel

Scot Siegel is one of my favorite Portland, Oregon, poets. He is also a very effective reader, mostly reciting from memory. Scot is always friendly but also a fairly private person so I welcomed this chance to ask him some personal questions about his poetry.

PS     Who was the first poet whose work really affected you?

SS     WB Yeats and Led Zeppelin simultaneously stopped me dead in my tracks at age 16. Lyrical poetry is what first caught my attention. I am 43 now, which certainly feels older, but that spirit of recklessness, lust, and wonder remain through my writing.

PS     Is there a poem or a line of poetry that has stayed in your head for years?

SS     "I went out to the hazel wood,/ because a fire was in my head." —WB Yeats, "The Song of Wandering Aengus"

PS     Can you say what about those lines caught your imagination?

SS     When I first read them in 10th grade English, the lines struck me as rebellious, somewhat manic, and hopelessly romantic, which is how I had felt, how many of us felt, through adolescence. So you could say Yeats spoke to me.

PS     When did you start writing? And was there a fire in your head?

SS     I was sixteen living in the mountains of California (Squaw Valley), attending a private boarding school, a ski racing academy. I wrote poems while traveling for ski competitions. I don't think anyone knew about this, except my English teacher. I wrote because I was in love with some girl from Oregon, or was it California? Maybe it was the girl who lived upriver with her mother and worked at the deli with me that summer. Or maybe I imagined her.

PS     Have there been periods in your life when you didn't write?

SS     I did not write any poems between ages 19 and 35. I wanted to write, but I so busy with school and being newly married (at 23), then trying to get a foothold in the job market during the recession of the early 90s, I just couldn't focus on it. The only creative writing I did during that time was for my senior honors thesis at Oregon State University, and journal writing after graduation. Although I was a science major (geography), my honors project combined fiction and natural history essays in the tradition of Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, John Daniels, et al. My 48-page manuscript won a grant from the Richard Chambers Memorial Trust and received honorable mention for the Oregon State University Provost Literary Award.

I came back to poetry when our second daughter was born. She helped me see the world through poetry again; she made me think of Yeats, and that magical time in the mountains:

When You are Old
When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
...
And bending down beside the glowing bard,
Murmur, a little sadly [now], how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars
—W.B. Yeats

PS     Besides being a poet, husband, and father, you are a land use planner, a consultant to small towns and cities. What is the relationship between your job and your poetry?

SS     The introduction to my first book, Some Weather (Plain View Press, 2008), attempts to describe that connection:

Poetry is an essential creative outlet from the work I do every day as an urban planner. When I write as a professional planner, I am trying to tell the story of a community according to the vision or aspirations of its citizens. An effective plan must reconcile different values and points of view, while serving as a roadmap for the common good.

As a poet, I am free to focus on the individual, raise questions out of order, and leave things unsettled and open to interpretation. Poets can—and in fact are obligated to—explore subjects that are forbidden [or suppressed] in the workaday world: love, childhood dreams, family history, alternatives to violence and greed... In this way, poetry can help us find meaning and balance in our lives.

All people have the capacity to change the world through art, as producers or consumers of it. Poetry should be readily accessible to a wide audience while pushing the envelope of literary accomplishment and challenging our notions of political correctness. The best poetry blurs the line between everyday life and high art, and moves us to repair the world.

PS     When, where, how do you begin a new poem?

SS     I do not have a set schedule or workplace for writing. I write whenever I have time and wherever something occurs to me; often things occur to me when I do not have time or I am without a notebook, so I'll write a few lines on scratch paper or use my phone recorder. This is where Oregon poet William Stafford's advice of lowering one's standards comes into play.

PS     One of my favorite poems is your 5-page narrative "The Day Father's Shop Burned to the Ground." Here are the first two sections:

When I'm afraid, I don't think of something my father said
I think of poppies, and the wild almost trees on the hill
Behind our house. And in those years before I became
A Bar Mitzvah, there was a game: hide-and-seek in the dark—

*

Once, when it was my turn to find the others,
I hid and kept counting. For a long time
I thought I'd never be found; it was getting dark
And I grew hungry—

With a rock I crushed the velvet husk of an almond,
Only to find it shriveled & bitter inside—

Far below my hiding place, the dark bay divided
Our hills from the city;—in the distance, San Francisco
Pulsed & bloomed through a lens of fog & pollution
A luminescent field of poppies—

Inside that shell, the old industrial district, a sanctuary for immigrants
South of Market, and my father's print shop on Ninth Street

You go on to give a vivid portrait of "ink, sweat, cigarettes & hot metal" in "the sweatshop where Irishmen/ Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks—/ And the great grandson of a Russian rabbi worked side/ by side" and then you tell us, "Eight years old, I thought this was the whole world." So that was the world that burned to the ground?

SS     Thank you for asking about that poem. I think it is the most important early poem of mine. Yes, when your family suddenly loses their business in a fire, at any age, it is the end of the world. The print shop came back in a new location in the city, but it wasn't the same. If you have been to San Francisco in the past twenty years, you will know that the area "South of Market," which used to be very gritty, has redeveloped, and the Museum of Modern Art and Moscone Center are there now.

PS     How did you decide to start with the boy playing hide-and-seek? In what ways did the poem change as it developed? What was the initial kernel and what came or left the poem as you continued to work on it?

SS     It started with the memory of that night of the fire (it was arson, by the way) when my mother sent me out to play, i.e., to get me out of her hair. Of course I used to play hide-and-seek in the hills with the neighbor kids all the time, but it was late and no other children were around. That's why, when it's "my turn to find the others, I [hide] and keep counting..." I am scared and my father is away. There was no single kernel. About a dozen discordant images from childhood prompted the poem; the more I wrote, the more images and fragments flooded my memory and I became passionate about telling the story. Eventually, after writing about three thousand words, I felt like I had a good grasp of the story but I was having a hard time tying it all together, so I put it away. About five years later, while attending the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, I dusted it off and chopped it down from 3,000 words into what I thought might be the beginning of a free verse poem; it was really rough, but when it read it to the group I got watery stares all the way around, followed by some encouraging comments. Claudia Rankine, our leader that morning, said all I needed to do is find the form and the rest would take care of itself. That fall I went back to work on it while taking a workshop with Kim Stafford. I realized that for the narrative to reach its full potential I had to focus on the images and develop a lyrical structure that would amplify the metaphors inherent in each image. So it took the form of a lyrical poem with stanzas marking transitions in time and dialogue. Line length controls the pace, with longer lines in areas with action and shorter lines in passages of introspection. The poem was a semi-finalist for Nimrod's annual Pablo Neruda Prize; an audio recording of it (8 minutes) can be accessed through my author profile at Poets & Writers.

PS     Did your parents get to see that poem? If so, how did they react?

SS     Yes, I checked certain facts with them as I was finalizing the poem, and they read it for the first time in Some Weather. My mother's reaction was "We had no idea you were absorbing all that; it's amazing how much an eight year-old can retain." She was also speaking for my father, who was moved by the piece. I could tell it brought back memories for him.

PS     How much editing or rewriting do you do in general?

SS     If you are asking how long it takes me to complete a poem that I feel good about, it ranges from one day (always best to sleep on it) to years. Sometimes phrases or stanzas from failed poems stick with me for several years. Last week I picked up a line that had stuck with me like this. It had resided in at least three failed poems before the one that it is in now, which I sent out this week. Sometimes multiple failed poems resurface later as one larger or deeper poem. Failure following a heavy investment in writing and editing is a good sign; it means something more important is waiting to happen.

PS     When you edit, what kind of changes are you likely to make?

SS     That depends on the form. Some of my most resilient poems, the ones that resist revision, come out in couplets and they are almost fully formed in the first draft. The central idea is strong and the poem feels round, fully realized; editing is typically limited to changes in word choice and lineation. By comparison, longer narrative poems like the one describe above always require major revisions, followed by many editing sessions. Sometimes I will try switching voices (e.g., from first to third person) and see what happens. Sometimes I will look for a different entry into the poem and let the editing process take me back into revisions. I might destroy the poem in the process, but the ones that I feel most passionate about tend grow back even stronger. I have two poems about my father that were forged this way.

PS     I assume that when you write or revise, you pay attention to sound. Do you have favorite sounds?

SS     I like alliteration and internal rhymes. This is from a poem called "Energy Boom":

Eleven p.m., road-weary and nearly
Nodding off, we pull into the Comfort Inn
Under the moon's spying eye
...
Overhead, floorboards creak
and a shower pounds in the shape
of some primitive lovemaking...

I do not set out to write blank verse that rhymes, but when it happens it's a pleasant surprise. All words rhyme, at least a little bit (another Staffordism).

PS     Do you belong to a writing group?

SS     I do not belong to an ongoing writing group; though, this summer I participated in an online group for the first time. Folded Word Press sponsored a free one-month virtual workshop. They challenged us to write a short poem or flash fiction piece every day during the month of August. Saturdays were devoted to posting revisions for review and comments. The project was useful for me because it provided a structure and deadline, as well as a non-competitive community with a very diverse group of writers. I ended up with several pieces that became starts for new poems. Two of the poems appear a recent issue of MiPOesias.

PS     You are an excellent reader, especially since you speak more than read. How do you memorize your work?

SS     Thank you. I read the poems back to myself as I write and edit. A poem has to sound right before I will send it out. By the time it is published, I know it by heart or I can recite it with a few glances at the page. New work is the exception.

PS     Most of your poetry is optimistic. Is that a choice?

SS     Poetry for me is a way of making sense of the world. While reading and writing poems is pleasurable, it is also a way of coping. Gregory Orr's book Poetry As Survival captures this idea better than I can explain it here. As a child, Orr was involved in a hunting accident where he shot and killed his brother. Poetry is one way Orr has dealt with the grief and made sense of the randomness that is the world. I do not have a parallel experience in my own life, but there are plenty of other demons out there that make poetry necessary.

PS    Can you explain what you mean by that? What sort of demons make poetry necessary?

SS    Lately, I've been haunted (in the figurative sense!) by a pastor in Florida who wants to burn the Quran, and a natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California. Nobody I know was hurt there, but it reminds me of the earthquake of 1989 and that summer the Oakland Hills burned. And that reminds me of the arson attack that took my father's shop in 1975, the one in the poem discussed above.

PS     Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets? Or would you rather not name names?

SS     There are so many great contemporary poets out there, too many to list. Currently, the following authors are on my nightstand Arlene Ang, David Biespiel, Howie Good, Bob Hass, Ann Tweedy, Galway Kinnell, and Charles Wright. I am currently making my way through the latest issue of Naugatuck River Review. Tomas Transtromer and William Stafford have a permanent place on the nightstand. At any one time I may be reading three or four books, an anthology, and a half-dozen journals, as well as editing Untitled Country Review, the online poetry journal that founded this year. I started the journal because there is such an abundance of great poetry out there! I love reviewing submissions and working on the journal; it has deepened my appreciation for the art of poetry while broadened my horizons on what constitutes great writing. This fall we will release our third issue.

PS     What question do you wish you had been asked in this interview?

SS     Do you suppress or censor certain things in your writing?

Yes and no. I am more direct about things that feel universal, and less direct about deeply personal things that may be less important to a general audience; though I try to address both as truthfully as possible. There are some things about myself that I do not yet understand well enough to write about them; so, in that sense, I self-censor certain things.

PS     Would you be willing to say what some of those things are? And do you think you are coming closer to touching them in your new book SKELETON SAYS?

SS     I think I have learned some things through the writing of SKELETON SAYS. For example, the book opens with a quote from Donald Justice's "Men at Forty":

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to
...

PS     It sounds like you are at a new stage in your life. Is there anything you would like to say about that?

SS    I am in a good place with my life. My wife and I will celebrate our twentieth anniversary this December and our daughters are growing into fine young women. You could say I have reached a new stage in my writing. My next full-length book, due out from Salmon Poetry in 2012, will speak to this.

PS    Thank you for what you have been willing to say in this interview, and especially, thank you for your poetry.

 

Check out Scot Siegel's website.

 

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