Vlad Savich: As one Russian poet said: “Poets are not born by accident. They fly to earth from a height.”
Where are you from, Thomas? Who are your parents? Where did you grow up? Where did you study? Where are the graves of your ancestors?
Thomas Walton: That quote reminds me of Baudelaire’s poem “The Albatross.” In the poem, Baudelaire compares the poet to an albatross that is graceful in the air, but not on the deck of a ship: “How gauche and weak he is! How comic and ugly he is! The invalid who once flew!” So yes, I think many poets prefer the sky to what’s mundane. I at least, have mostly failed on the ground. And certainly prefer staring at the clouds to sitting at a desk.
My poetic ancestors (at least, those who have most thoroughly influenced me) are A.R. Ammons, Gertrude Stein (specifically Stanzas In Meditation and Tender Buttons). I always hear Walt Whitman’s music, and see William Carlos Williams’ wheelbarrows, but jazz also has been a huge influence on me, especially Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans. Nikolai Gogol and Jean Genet were very important to me in my twenties. Rimbaud and Baudelaire saved my life when I was a teenager.
My bodily ancestors are mostly farmers and laborers. My mother spent her first years in a pig barn in southern Indiana. No plumbing. Her parents ran a hamburger joint nearby, and they used it for all their plumbing needs. My father was born in an auto parts store beside the Ohio River. Physical labor, for better or worse, comes naturally to me.
I studied poetics at Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, and at Naropa University in Boulder CO. But as you know, one studies poetry their whole life. Right now I’m studying in Seattle WA.
VS: “My bodily ancestors are mostly farmers and laborers …” Do you think a person’s poetic abilities depend on their genetics?
TW: Hmm … as an existentialist, I would argue that no, we are not bound by genetics. The essentialists perhaps would disagree.
For me, I cling stubbornly to the notion that I can always change who I am, can realize infinite potentials through hard work and determination, devotion. The world is more expansive this way. And besides, when you’re born as ugly as I was, you have to believe there is hope for a brighter, more beautiful future.
VS: Do you think a person can learn to write poetry, or is it a gift from the heavens?
TW: I think a person can learn the techniques of poetry – meter, rhyme, simile, etc. The thing that is more difficult, and perhaps unteachable, is poetic vision. Poetic vision seems to be a tangle of many things: a person’s personality, obsessions, sense of humor, neuroses, imaginative breadth, etc. I do think artists and writers can cultivate and expand this vision, though. But it is their responsibility. A teacher at best can help to upset a student’s preconceived notions of what poetry/beauty/art is, what the possibilities can be.
VS: Some people say that they have prophetic dreams. Have you had a dream like this?
TW: I hope my dreams aren’t prophetic. They are mostly horrible. I wake up nearly every night around 3 a.m. and then lie there while the worst things that could possibly happen to me, happen to me. I think people have the idea that I’m a morning person, but in actuality I just can’t stand to be in bed any longer. I’d much rather be staring out the window with a cup of coffee.
VS: What does the bed symbolize for the poet?
TW: Sleep, I guess. For me though it’s probably something more like a tomb wild with frescoes of strange and terrible torture. I would prefer to never sleep. It’s difficult for me to be still. It’s one of my great failures.
VS: “…it’s difficult for me to be still.” Would you prefer to be Mount Everest, the pyramid of Cheops, or a yellow moon in the night sky?
TW: I guess I would go for the yellow moon in the night sky, but I fear that I’ve been something more like yellow snow in it.
VS: A letter is a segmental symbol of a phonemic writing system. What do letters symbolize for you, Thomas Walton?
TW: Lyn Hejinian has written that “a word is a bottomless pit.” I like that a lot. That is, a word is a bottomless pit in the sense that anything can be made of it. A rabbit hole of sorts. As Wittgenstein says, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Each and every word can mean anything at all. This, for me, is very exciting. A letter then, by extension, is a mad building block of limitless potential.
VS: “…building block of limitless potential.” Which parts of speech do you like the most: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, interjection?
TW: I’m a big fan of nouns and nomenclature, the naming of things, but am wary of lists. Verbs are magic, and move the poem along. Adjectives and adverbs decorate the coruscate rooms we’re in. Prepositional phrases almost always have a poetic ring – over the river, through the woods, on the dole, in the loo, etc. I suppose those are my favorites. The pronoun is going through a kind of revolution right now, and that’s interesting to watch.
VS: Does poetry influence the life of society?
TW: It can certainly influence the life of society. And certainly influences individual lives. I’m not one to defend its usefulness, however. And am mostly nauseous when I hear poets defending their “role in society.” I’m more often defending poetry’s uselessness to society. I agree with Plato that all poets should be exiled from the city. The utilitarian can have their rational, measured lives; their eight hour workdays, and two week vacations. I’m fine being exiled to eat marshes and scavenge bream.
VS: Which authors from the past would you most want to talk to?
TW: Strangely, I think I wouldn’t necessarily want to talk to my favorite poets – Ammons, Stein, Berryman, Baudelaire – well, maybe Berryman but only under certain circumstances (in a dark pub while he’s still on his first or second drink; I don’t think I’d want to deal with him after that). Dylan Thomas, too (first few drinks), as my ancestry is Welsh and I’ve always felt a kind of magnetic affection for singing drunk people. I always thought Dorothy Parker would be fun to hang out with. Honestly, I’d rather chat with people who weren’t poets per se – the Irish singer Luke Kelly (another drunk singer), Caravaggio, Simone Weil, Lao Tsu, Thelonius Monk, Joan of Arc, The Marx Brothers (though I’m not sure I’d be able to get a word in), Susan Sontag, some of the nameless sculptors from ancient Rome, Homer and Sappho would be nice to talk to, Gogol for sure, and then I would like to talk to the quote-unquote “common people” – a butcher in ancient Greece, a haruspex in ancient Rome, the gardeners at Hadrian’s Villa, the cave painters at Lascaux, a few druids or Celts as they were assembling Stonehenge (I would like to be on the work crew for Stonehenge), and Lucy, I think a chat with Lucy would be pretty interesting!
Poets, though, I think would be much less interesting compared to a say boat builder in Byzantium in 100 B.C.
VS: The English poet, William Wordsworth, penned the enigmatic line “The child is father of the man,” expressing his conviction that it is the world in which we invite our children to live that is responsible for the underrealization of their potential.
Do you agree with this?
TW: I’ve always read that line as a kind of lost innocence. The child has the wisdom, is the wisdom, from which the adult falls and spends the rest of their life trying to get back to. Certainly much has been written of this as it pertains to the artist and the role of art in the culture.
As a parent, I read that line as “the child is the teacher of the man.” This has been the case for me. Especially when my daughter was in her first ten years, she was in touch with the marvelousness that is everywhere around us, even in the most mundane things. Every walk with her was an expedition. Every two blocks down the street could take an entire day, and I tried very hard to allow those walks the time they needed, and to see things the way she was seeing them. There seemed to be almost no distinction for her between what was imaginary and what was “real.” This seemed like a great lesson that she was teaching me, and a way of seeing that I had lost touch with. She’s thirteen now, and it’s been difficult for me to watch her endure the social pressures that discount that childhood, amazed imagination – that consider it immature and foolish – in favor of order and reason and social status. And what’s worse, I’m partially to blame! I’m trying to teach her to be, gulp, responsible!
Incidentally, Brian Wilson uses Wordsworth’s line in his song “Surf’s Up.” He seems to be reading it the same or similar to me. There’s a great video clip of him at the piano in the sixties, bangs and all, singing an early version of that song. I don’t think a falsetto has ever been so high.
VS: I understand how one can be a genius in certain professions: a physicist, mathematician, programmer, etc. but I don’t understand what a genius writer is. What is genius in terms of writing?
TW: I would say vision. It is perhaps the same in any field of study. Vision, and then execution of that vision. I certainly don’t have it. Though I try very hard to keep vision clear.
Stein used the word genius a lot, and I address it briefly in my book.
The French poet Jean Genet said that great works are the result of rigueur rather than genius. A kind of persistence through to the end. This always seemed very encouraging to me. That Beauty could be worked out. It isn’t a magical, mystical mot juste that one is fortunate to wrest or stumble upon. I knew very early on that I had no genius. To work, however–rigueur–seemed entirely within my capabilities. The fact that I’m incurably stubborn only helps in this process.
VS: A poet lives in reality, but what is reality?
TW: I guess I’ll nod to Wittgenstein again: “The world is all that does befall us.” That is both the title of my book, and my translation of his Die Welt ist Alles, was ter Fall ist, which is usually translated as “The world is everything that is the case.”
VS: Do you agree that life doesn’t make sense? And if so, then isn’t it true that poetry doesn’t make sense? And if so, why do we continue living, and why write poetry?
TW: Life, I suppose, doesn’t make sense from a reasonable perspective. It is unpredictable, horrid and unbearably fantastic at times. I think the impulse to work in an office is the impulse to make life “make sense.” Not many of us are able to “do nothing,” or to live lives that are not highly regimented. Pascal’s notion seems to apply here: that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Regarding poetry: I can’t speak for others of course, but for me it is a compulsion. I think of poetry as singing, and I think of singing as a very primitive, sacred act. I feel that I am in the lineage of the cave dwellers. I imagine them singing around a fire, harmonizing, feeling sound and song vibrate in their chests, mesmerized by melody, tone and rhythm. If poetry doesn’t move on this very fundamental level, then for me it’s difficult to understand. Why write poetry? There’s really no choice.
Thomas Walton is the author of three books: a book of seventeens, All the Useless Things Are Mine (due out from Sagging Meniscus in spring, 2020); a saccharine lyric essay arguing against saccharine lyric essays, The World Is All That Does Befall Us (Ravenna, 2019); and a poetic travel essay about Rome (written with Elizabeth Cooperman), The Last Mosaic (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2018). He is one of three editors of Make It True Meets Medusario (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2019), a bi-lingual poetry anthology, and author of the micro chapbook, A Name Is Just A Mane (Rinky Dink, 2016). His work has been published in numerous journals, including Rivet, Pontoon, ZYZZYVA, Delmar, Bombay Gin, and others. He is founding editor of PageBoy Magazine and runs what his daughter calls "the unsolicited lecture series" from his home in Seattle WA.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.