20 March 2011

An interview with poet Harry Calhoun

Bill Diskin: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?

Harry Calhoun: I enjoy communicating with others, especially other poets, through my poetry. I also hope that I can continue to develop a reputation as a talented poet whom others would like to publish. So far, while I’ve had limited financial success, I have been lucky to have two books and two chapbooks published in 2009 and 2010, with more on the horizon.

Poetry is sort of the “odd bird” of the literary world. Even people who are voracious fiction readers, or people who paint or pursue other artistic endeavors, seem a little skeptical when you tell them you write poetry. The reactions range from, “Why?” to “I don’t understand poetry” to simple indifference. I guess one of my goals is to make my poetry so accessible that they’ll read it and see why ... and truly understand poetry.

Editor Shirley Allard once said “Your poetry is so real and easy to relate to. I don't know how anyone could read your work and still say ‘I don't get poetry’." That means a lot to me and it’s close to the heart of what I try to do when I write..

BD: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?

HC: Well, of course I was exposed to it early on in school, but I guess I first started liking it — and writing it, badly — in high school. I remember I wrote a poem comparing a girl I had a crush on to a purple-and-green stuffed gorilla. Obviously, I had a lot to learn.

BD: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?

HC: Well, if you mean important to most people, it’s not. That’s not intended to sound bitter or cynical, it’s just true. There is a website called Outsider Writers for a reason … many writers, and I think especially poets, feel like outsiders, ostracized almost. But for people who care and understand it, poetry is a very pure and, at its best, beautiful way of communicating. One very different from reading fiction or nonfiction … something that connects in a visceral and special way. Poetry at its best either changes you or makes you feel deeply what the poet is expressing.

BD: What inspires you to write?

HC: My wife and my dog. Pain and joy. The ocean and rain and sunshine. It really can be anything, but it’s not an accident that I mention my wife and dog first! Also, I lost both my parents over the period from March 2008 to February 2009, and believe me, soul-searching to get to my feelings about those events inspired me to do a lot of writing. It’s a lot of therapy, sometimes not easy to go through, but it does get the emotions out there and lets you examine them. I have often said that one reason I write is to find out what I’m thinking about. I think that’s true. The poems sometimes surface emotions, fears or simple joys that would otherwise go undetected.

BD: When do you write?

HC: More or less when I feel like it, but often I wake up at night with a bout of insomnia and will write ideas for some poems. I almost never remember them the following morning, which I guess is why I write them down. When I walk my dog, I have developed the knack of ruminating about things and coming up with poems in my head, which I then write down later.

BD: Is there a particular place that you like to write?

HC: Yes, I keep a notebook beside my bed. When I have insomnia, as I mentioned before, I write then. But my wife and I like to take naps on weekend afternoons, and many times I wake up from those snoozes with poems in my head. And of course, I keep several books of poetry by authors I like close by. Just with any other type of writing, you have to read it to be able to write it. Reading newer poets keeps me current, and reading the old ones reminds me that the old dogs still have quite a few tricks to offer.

BD: What poets do you read?

HC: Well, the poets that I consider “mainstream” that I love are W.S. Merwin and Billy Collins. Early on, say in my 20s, Dylan Thomas was a great inspiration to me. Oh, and of course, Charles Bukowski, how can anyone live without some Bukowski? Now, I like to read the young’uns … Christopher Cunningham, out of Asheville in our own North Carolina, is one who bears watching. So is Hosho McCreesh out of New Mexico. I also enjoy people whom I have published in my magazine, Pig in a Poke, which has recently been revived as an online literary magazine. But poets I published there long ago — Jim Daniels and Louis McKee spring immediately to mind — still hold a special place in my heart. I have been reading a lot of McKee lately and marvel at his simple eloquence, the easy way he has of talking about difficult subjects. That is at the very heart of poetry.

BD: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?

HC: As Ray Bradbury once said in Zen and the Art of Writing,, don’t do it for money. Do it for passion, for love of the game, so to speak. And keep at it, and keep reading it and pick up pointers from your betters. Copy shamelessly if you must, and eventually you will become one of your betters!

BD: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?

HC: Yes, I am writing more and thinking about it less. I throw the first draft on the page longhand and then savagely attack it and rewrite at the computer. I know other people — Christopher Cunningham whom I mentioned earlier — who like to write on the typewriter. Doesn’t matter how you do it, it’s getting it done that matters. As I’ve told my wife, Trina Allen, who is herself an excellent fiction writer, the important thing is to place the seat of your pants on the chair. Then, as someone else once said, just open a vein and let it flow.

BD: Share a comment or two about life, parenthood, nature, teaching, writing, or anything else that you'd like.

HC: Life is great. I have a good job — good enough that I can work part-time and still survive. I would recommend that to anyone. It always seemed unfair to me that a working man would have to relegate his passion, his poems, to two days and a few evenings a week. Having an extra day off means so much to me and I really don’t miss the money. Parenthood I wouldn’t know about it, except to say that there is a reason I have never had children. I’m sure they can be a joy, but I’ve also seen what pain they can cause. Nature: I love it … I am a huge fan of Hal Borland, the nature writer for the New York Times, and I incorporate the woods, the sea, the simple sights I see walking my dog Alex into my poems.

That’s about it. It is so gratifying to me that, at age 56, I’m getting some recognition for my poems. I mean, I had some publications earlier on, but nothing like this. Just call me a late bloomer and a baby boomer, and happy either way. And thanks for the interview!

Further reading:

Harry Calhoun’s articles, literary essays and poems have appeared in several magazines including Writer’s Digest and The National Enquirer.

Check out his trade paperback, I knew Bukowski like you knew a rare leaf, the recently published The Black Dog and the Road and his chapbook, Something Real.

He’s had recent publications in Chiron Review, Chiaroscuro, Orange Room Review, The Centrifugal Eye, Monongahela Review and many others.

He is the editor of Pig in a Poke magazine. Read Harry's poetry and more at http://harrycalhoun.net.

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