Jul/Aug 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with William Roetzheim

Interview by Jeffrey James Keyes

William Roetzheim is the author of 20 books, over one hundred articles, and twenty spoken word audio CDs. He is currently developing a series of five plays about poets. This summer at the Studio Theatre in NYC, Roetzheim premieres Pound and Dickinson, two of the five plays. I was lucky to catch a preview of Pound and discuss the performance, the other plays in his series, and gain a glimpse into Roetzheim's process.


JJK     You are truly a distinguished Renaissance man. When did you start writing?

WR     Thank you for the compliment. I started writing shortly after college during the late 1970s, but my writing was all management and technical books. I used the research period for those books as an opportunity to learn new topics, and then enjoyed the opportunity to share what I had learned both in book form and also through articles and lectures. It wasn't until after I sold my first software company, in 2001, that I felt sufficiently financially secure to shift my writing to the more fun areas such as poetry and plays. Like all writers, I read a lot and I enjoy a wide diversity of what I read.

JJK     Was there anyone in particular who served as a role model or influenced you to pursue your work as a writer?

WR     I've got many, many writers who influence me. But I think my biggest influence has been the writers who work on the boundary between poetry and drama. For example, Robert Frost comes to mind with his poems in North of Boston, which included such wonderful poetic dramas as The Death of the Hired Man and Home Burial. I've enjoyed T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Thomas Disch's The Cardinal Detoxes.

JJK     I just read that you were a Naval Flight Officer and flew a S3-A Viking aircraft from the USS Forrestal. You must have extraordinary stories from your Navy days, might you be able to share one? Are you able to draw from these experiences in your current projects?

WR     I guess my favorite Navy story doesn't even involve me. It's the fact that my daughter Elizabeth set her mind on being a Naval Aviator after she saw the movie Top Gun and now she's a pilot flying P-3 aircraft for the Navy. As to my writing, my time in the Navy wasn't particularly fruitful as a source of inspiration. Most of what I do is character intensive, so I'm always on the lookout for interesting, weird people that I can use either directly or blend in with another character. The people I knew in the military were, well, pretty normal for my taste.

JJK     In the preface to Five Poet Plays, you propose five poets as individuals who "gave birth to modern poetry". Can you give a little personal background on what initially drew you to these five writers?

WR     I'd just read a few hundred books of poetry as part of editing The Giant Book of Poetry so I was pretty well positioned to decide whom to include. In three of the cases, it was really a single poem that captured the essence of the poet involved and which I fell in love with. Those were the poems "Patterns" by Amy Lowell, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, and "Home Burial" by Robert Frost. In the case of Emily Dickinson, it was the breadth of her poetry and the mystery of her life. And Pound was someone whose name kept coming up, every time I read anything about anybody in the arts working during that period of time. I remember that after reading a lot about Pound, both the good and the bad, I turned to my wife and told her, Out of all the poets I've read about, if I could pick just one to be friends with it would be Ezra Pound.

JJK     If you were to continue on with your poet plays who might the next five poets be?

WR     I've done a lot of research on the Bronte sisters, known both for their novels and, to a much lesser extent, for their poetry. Unfortunately, their lives were actually pretty boring by modern standards and I'm not sure I can find an entertaining angle on that one. I'd love to tackle some of the newer poets who are writing, but I'm not sure I'm up to tackling the whole rights thing. Getting rights to materials and to the representation of people (life rights) is much easier for people who lived long ago than for people who are either alive or died relatively recently. When I put together The Giant Book of Poetry I needed to put in place over 200 contracts covering literary rights and the process took me over a year. During my research on the play Pound I did run into a fascinating, important historical figure that has been largely forgotten, Father Charles Coughlin. He is known as the father of hate radio, and was really a predecessor of many of the shock-jocks today. I also think that his statements, and apparent legitimacy as a priest and celebrity, encouraged a lot of people and even nations to do things that in retrospect were pretty horrific. I'm toying with the idea of a play based on his life.

JJK     You have engaged in extensive research covering the writings and biographical lives of each of these extraordinary writers. Would you be able to share some details as to how you conducted the research and then, ultimately created these plays?

WR     Sure. For me, the research phase is probably the most fun part of a project. On the average, I spent one year in research for each play. Dickinson was about double that, and Frost was shorter than the average. Ironically, once I finally sat down to write the plays the first draft was normally done in less than a month. For the research, my approach is pretty consistent. I begin by reading everything that they have written and published (prose and poetry). I then read enough biographies to get to the point where everything I'm reading is repetition. For Frost a half dozen got me there, while for Dickinson it was a couple of dozen. I then read source documents, letters and diaries. Here I'm trying to get into the head of the person, who they really were, how they talked, subjects they liked to talk about and subjects they avoided, and so on. In some cases, I would need to go down a complete side path to learn about a historical movement that they were involved in. This was especially true with Ezra Pound, where I really needed to study up on the Social Credit movement, Father Coughlin and anti-Semitic movements of the 1930s, and Fascism. Finally, I re-read their published poems to understand them in a biographical and historical context. One thing I learned is that the successful artists of that timeframe interacted heavily with one another (both positive and negative interactions). I have the feeling that the world was a much smaller place then than now.

Sometimes in doing this research I encountered a fascinating coincidence. My wife and I own an 1890 Victorian mansion outside of San Diego that we operate as a bed and breakfast. When reading Amy Lowell's diaries I found that when she was a teenager she was sent to San Diego to convalesce for a winter, and with a lot of further research I discovered that she actually spent that time living in the house that we now own.

JJK     I understand that this mansion also serves as an artist colony and that you host artists for residencies and host a regular art dinner program. How did you come up with the idea to open a bed and breakfast that doubles as an artist colony? What types of artists have come out to stay at Jamul Haven?

WR    Jamul Haven has been a wonderful opportunity to support the arts while meeting interesting people. We've been active in raising money for the arts, and we enjoy supporting the arts in as many ways as possible. We've hosted painters, poets, actors, musicians, comedians, directors, cinematographers, and many other artists. Given our southern California location, I'd say that people involved in film are probably the most common. In fact, I was one of the producers for a film that was made at Jamul Haven. A trailer is available at http://www.vimeo.com/4453025. We also work with the La Jolla Art Association, and in fact, we're supporting a show running between June 8 and June 21 at their La Jolla gallery called Poetry and Art. The show exhibits paintings that illustrate poems, and poems that describe paintings, side by side. For example, six of my original illustrations for The Giant Book of Poetry are on display along with the poems that are illustrated.

JJK     Where can people find information about Jamul Havel online?

WR     www.jamulhaven.com

JJK     You have a gift of weaving biographical information with their inherent voice and the essence of their persona. How were you able to get so deep into these great minds?

WR     The primary source materials are the key (primarily letters, diaries, radio broadcast recordings or transcripts). Poetry can sometimes be a primary source for me, but I need to identify the poems that are biographical in nature (not all are), and the biographical message is often hidden metaphorically or distorted enough to not seem biographical to a casual reader. Other materials provide me with the facts, but the person won't come alive in my head. I need to read their own words written where they are relaxed and writing without paying a huge amount of attention to what they are saying. In my experience, while reading the primary source documents at some point the subject of my research moves into my head and tells me how I must present their story, and the right words to use. In the case of T.S. Eliot, he told me that his story must be presented as a musical. I fought like crazy against that, since I had never written a musical and I had no desire to write a musical. But he insisted and finally persevered. The process was a lot more frustrating with Dickinson. Every time I felt like I had captured the voice of Emily inside my head, like I could become Emily Dickinson, my mind shifted and a new Emily Dickinson emerged. I finally accepted the idea of a character with multiple personalities (maybe or maybe not clinically, but certainly for this purpose). I wrote a play where Emily speaks with multiple voices, sometimes changing voice in the middle of a paragraph. When I did this, I could almost feel her nodding to me and saying, Yes, that's just so.

JJK     They styles of each of these plays is surprisingly tailored to the five writers. What was your thought process in creating the unique form for each of these plays? Did any of them start out in one form and evolve into something new?

WR     Each of these poets is significantly different, so when I made the decision to turn the writing of the play over to them, I ended up with five very different styles. In all of the cases, the form came to me during the final stages of the research. In the case of Eliot, I had no desire to write a musical so I tried to write his story as a straight play, but I could never get past the first page or two. He just crossed his arms, clammed up, and refused to talk to me. When I acquiesced and did my best to write a musical, the words flowed easily. For the others, by the time I started writing, the general approach was defined before I wrote the first word.

JJK     Eliot is a musical in the spirit of Moulin Rouge and Cabaret. You collaborated with Czech composer Vladimir Spasojevic on creating this piece. How did you come to work with Spasojevic? Can you describe the process of writing Eliot with Spasojevic?

WR     I had Eliot completed, including lyrics, but I had absolutely no idea how to get the music written. I advertised on the Internet (craigslist and so on) and reviewed resumes and music samples from various composers. I liked Vladimir's music the best of those samples I heard, and after he read the script, he was extremely enthusiastic, which was important to me. After we started working together I tried to bring him over to the U.S. so that we could collaborate together for a few weeks, but the U.S. Embassy would not grant him a visa because he didn't have enough money in the bank account. There was also a bit of a catch-22. He wasn't coming to the U.S. as a tourist (he couldn't afford that), so a tourist visa didn't apply, but I wasn't paying him anything so he wasn't coming over for employment, so a B-1 visa didn't apply. We ended up working over the Internet. My role would be to communicate to him the rhythm of the words in the lyrics. Once he got that, he'd write the music and send it to me in the form of lead sheets. I'd check the lyrics, but I don't read music enough to really know what the music sounded like. Finally, I scheduled an AEA reading in Los Angeles and sent Vladimir a round-trip plane ticket to come out, then spent hours on the phone with the U.S. Embassy in Prague begging them to issue the visa, which they finally did. Michael Wallot directed the reading for me and he was able to bring in a lot of his friends who had extensive Broadway experience to the reading. Tom Griep was our music director and he was amazing in his ability to arrange the music in real time working directly from the lead sheets with Vladimir at his side. Anyway, I finally heard the songs and they were wonderful. Plus, I got a demo recording.

JJK     Pound is featured in this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival featuring Jeff Berg, Dickinson is going to be performed in New York during the Planet Connections Festival before its month-long run in San Diego, and the Eliot will have a June reading. Are there any plans to bring Lowell and Frost to New York in 2009?

WR     Not in 2009, but they will be presented in New York during 2010.

JJK     Getting back to Pound, what were your prime resources for researching Ezra Pound? Is there anything you came across in your research that particularly surprised you about him?

WR     In Pound's case, the best primary resources were his radio broadcasts. I found that the best way to understand the anti-Semitic attitudes of the time was the radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin. Pound considered himself as much an economist as a poet, and the writings of C.H. Douglas, the leader of the Social Credit movement, helped me to make sense of what Pound was saying. Finally, by reading some of the pro-fascist books of the time I was able to understand how Pound could buy into fascism. Pound was full of surprises. Going into the process I had no idea how involved he was in economics in general and the Social Credit movement in particular. I was also surprised to learn that most of the world was pro-Mussolini and at least somewhat neutral toward fascism during the 1920s and much of the 1930s. In fact, it wasn't until Italy attempted to restore the old Roman Empire boundaries by invading Ethiopia that they, and Mussolini, fell out of favor.

JJK     In Pound, Jeff Berg plays many characters including Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Ed Johnson, Clark Thompson, and Pound himself. As the writer/director, how has it been working with Jeff on creating these dynamic characters? Is there anything specific that Jeff has brought to the table that has changed the way you initially envisioned the role?

WR     Jeff's been amazing to work with. He's smart, easy to get along with, and a superb actor. He took each of the characters and did extensive research on that character, developing a detailed profile that included voice, posture, and so on. One of the biggest challenges was being able to switch back and forth between characters during a dialog between characters. For example, carrying on a dialog between two characters with different dialects is an amazing accomplishment. I'd also like to compliment Barbara Samuels, our lighting designer, for her ability to use lighting to help create a space and mood for each character.

The biggest surprise Jeff brought to the work was the seductiveness of Pound. Ezra Pound had a wife, a mistress, and a never-ending stream of sexual liaisons, some long-term and some short-term. These continued even while he was in St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which leads me to believe that his seductive personality even applied to the staff and guards at the hospital. Jeff brings that to the stage. I've had the privilege to work with Alix Steel (Artistic Director) and she's helped me to find some ways to tighten the script, and to help Jeff find the characters. I've also really come to appreciate the value of a strong stage manager (Kate Gibson) during this production. In particular, the timing and transitions of the lighting cues are critical to making the production work and Kate's been brilliant. Overall, for my first experience with live theater in New York, I couldn't have found a nicer and more professional group of people to work with.

JJK     How were you able to assemble such an astute team?

WR     The most important asset in making that happen was the script. At this stage in the play's life the people who are involved aren't doing it for the money, but because they think the play has potential. Everyone on the team is enthusiastic about the script, which is both the reason they want to be involved and one of the major reasons I want them involved.

In terms of actually finding the people, that was fairly standard networking. As a playwright I've been traveling to New York and building my network of directors and other theater personnel. I met Alix during that process, and I knew she was someone I wanted to work with on one of my projects. Alix had worked with Kate as a stage manager in the past, and she also knew the lighting designer, Barbara. During a reading of Pound back in January Jeff Berg was one of the actors who auditioned. His audition stuck in my mind, so when the role came up, I called him to see if he was interested.

JJK     You also directed this production of Pound. Do you have any words of wisdom on directing your own work?

WR     I've directed spoken word audio CDs before, but this was my first time directing a stage play. First and foremost, for a writer thinking about trying it, I would encourage them to give it a go. One thing I learned in the process was that there is no right and wrong way to direct a play. I talked to a lot of other directors during the process and there are lots of ways directors work, so just do what feels comfortable for you. One of the key requirements of directing is to thoroughly understand the script, both at the surface level and the subtext level. As the writer, I'd assume that we all have that down. Secondarily, I think it helps to be able to visualize the final play. At least in my case, that visualization is part of the writing process. So again, I walk into the process with that done. Beyond that, it's mostly helping all of the players to understand the script and see the vision for the play, then sitting back and letting them bring their experience and ideas to the process.

JJK     What has been the most rewarding aspect of working on uncovering the lives of these great writers?

WR     Crossing the boundary between knowing them as stiff, historical wax figures and knowing them as real human beings. In a very real sense, I feel like I've had the opportunity to become close friends with five great poets.

JJK     Do you have any advice for younger writers who are just beginning to develop their own material?

WR     First, I think an awful lot of emphasis today is placed on selling your writing. There are books, classes, seminars and so on about pitching your work, packaging your work, finding marketable themes, etc. When you go down this path, you're always chasing the next trend, and in my experience, you're always a step or two behind. Instead, I think it's more productive to spend your energy on the writing itself. Good writing is timeless, so there is no rush, there are no market trends. It's likely to take several years after you finish writing before the play (or poem, book, song, etc.) reaches its potential. Be sure that the writing will stand that test of time.

Second, don't blindly listen to the critics, or follow the guidelines in various writing books and classes. They teach patterns... formulas. These are useful as a starting point, but it's important to look for opportunities to go beyond those patterns and formulas, to break new ground. When you do break new ground, the people around you who are locked into the patterns and formulas will criticize you because your writing doesn't fit their preconceived expectations. Sometimes you just need to politely ignore them.

Finally, for me it works well to complete a body of work prior to trying to market my work. For example, if you're writing plays, finish three plays before you ever try to get one produced. I keep going back and doing major rewrites as my skills develop, so it's useful for me to have time to allow this process to work.

JJK     It's been a pleasure talking with you, William. I look forward to reading and seeing more of your work. Where might our readers be able to find more information about seeing your plays and reading your work?

WR     The American International Theater website is a good site to keep track of me. I also put out a monthly newsletter with updates and various jottings and thoughts. People can sign up for the newsletter and read back issues on the American International Theater website as well.


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