Interview by Ashley Hart
Rob Talbert was born and raised in San Antonio, the home he’s forever running away from. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly, American Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Painted Bride Quarterly, Passages North, Rattle and others. His first book of poems, Jagged Tune, is available from MadHat Press. Currently, he is working on his PhD at Florida State University.
Ashley Hart: Why Poetry?
Rob Talbert: Because dentistry didn’t convey enough emotional resonance.
When I read a poem I get to live like someone else for a little while. I get to experience the world through their eyes, their thoughts and how they use language to convey them. I am allowed to examine their morality, their shame, their obsessions and dreams. If it’s a great poem, there’ll be this flash-bang moment of clarity and some minor piece of existence will suddenly be resolved for me. Reading poetry means I get to understand things a tiny bit better, and through this, appreciate the magnitude of the hours in my own life.
This all probably sounds like a Hallmark card, but it’s true. Poetry makes me better; I believe we can all make each other better.
What non-literary artists / artworks have most informed your development as a writer?
I think stand-up comedians have a great deal in common with poets. They need to make an immediate emotional connection with their audience. They need to open with great material, then space out the rest of that great material with stories and banter. They need to know the importance of timing and vocal delivery. They experience years of rejection and low income. They need to advertise themselves. Comedians also have forms: the knock-knock joke, the one-liner, the dumb blonde, the “walks into a bar” form. Poets have sonnets, sestinas, aubades, etc. There are rules to follow or else it won’t be funny so how does the comedian make it new?
I like watching stand-up comedians to see how they achieve (or fail to achieve) their performance. How do they use speech to build pressure and then relieve it? Where’s the emotional core? Why is the audience still listening? Mitch Helberg was a genius at manipulating logic. Christopher Titus can dig into deep channels of childhood pain. No one can tell a story better than Lavell Crawford. I try to pay attention to how they do what they do because it can make me a better poet. Take this line for example:
“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”
Now tell me, is that Stephen Wright or Stephen Dunn?
How did you learn to write?
Which “learn” do you mean? In the craft sense, I learned to write by reading and spending ridiculous amounts of time typing away on a laptop. But this is the boring version of the question.
When people ask it the other way it becomes a question about harvesting. How did you learn to recognize pivotal moments between people, between people and their past, and communicate this with immediacy? That just comes down to experience and paying attention.
I’ve punched a lot of time clocks, spent many nights walking around San Antonio and bar hopping. I’ve totaled my car in a four-way intersection. I’ve worked a ton of different jobs and dated a few people I really shouldn’t have. Somewhere in the midst of all this you start to see patterns. You hear things said over and over and begin to assemble a sense of how people, in all their endless differences, possess common ideas of struggle, love, perseverance, whatever. Perhaps another way to describe this sense is just to call it empathy. I learned to write by learning to empathize.
Can you say something about the process of writing?
Yeah, it’s a fistfight. First you have to find the time to do it. Then you have to get away from all the distractions in life. Then you have to focus. Then you have overcome your fears of failure and inadequacy. Then you have to actually write something down and hope it doesn’t suck. Then you have build it into something sophisticated enough to make all your writer-pseudo-friends and professors say “mmm, yes, I see what you’ve done here,” because those are the only people who kind of give a shit about your writing anyway. Then you have to send it out into the world only to have it returned with words like “decline,” “unfortunate,” “reject,” followed by weeks of mail from the places that rejected you asking for money because they can’t make enough SELLING the magazine (because, again, nobody cares), which makes it all bullshit because deep down you suspect they didn’t even read your story or poems in the first place, or they gave it to the undergrad chemistry major who’s interning there for Christ knows why, and who reads submissions between bouts of texting and Facebook. But then — you need to remember those fears of failure and inadequacy, and how this temper-tantrum you’re throwing is just a defense mechanism for self preservation. And that the serious truth of the matter is that your work probably was read with respect, but you’re just not there yet. You need to write better. You’re not good enough to do justice to the scale of your dreams. But you could be. WILL be. You just need to keep going. Because in the end, what else, really, do you have? So you find some more time, go back to the keyboard and write better.
How does it feel when you complete a poem/story?
I don’t believe I’ve ever completed a poem or story. That’s something only the masters can do, create a poem or story where every single line, every word, is balanced and perfect. To add something or subtract something, to alter the enjambment or punctuation, would destroy its greatness. Take poems like Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” William’s “Danse Russe,” Plath’s “Tulips,” Brook’s “We Real Cool.” These are what I would call completed, and I will not be able to operate on this level for years, perhaps never.
I think what I do is come to a stopping point. The story or poem reaches a stage where it works for me, but there’s always something I can learn from my peers about how to improve it.
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
I’ve actually struggled for many years to formulate a definition of poetry that I find accurate, so when you ask how my idea of it has changed it necessitates that I’ve had a previously established idea, which I haven’t. What was that line Justice Stewart said about obscenity? “I know it when I see it,” right? That’s kind of how I feel about poetry. I just know it when I see it.
What I can tell you so far is that I believe it has something to do with empathy. Poetry is a form of expression (usually transmitted with language) that creates bridges of understanding between people. This understanding is essentially the communication of how one should navigate through human existence and all its trillion injustices, frailties, miracles, fears and passions. It is the communication of the magnitude of events in peoples’ lives, so other people can say “oh, yeah. I know what you mean.”
That’s all I got so far. Work in progress.
What poets do you continually go back to?
Oh man. Ya know, this question always gets me in trouble. I want to answer honestly but I feel like there’s this pressure to name certain poets because they’re altars and I’m supposed to revere them. Or that I’m supposed to turn my back on other poets because of some character flaw, however massive.
I’m somebody who can separate the art from the artist who creates it. I can appreciate the brilliance and wonder of their poems and kick the rest of them to the curb. Surprisingly, I find a lot of people can’t do this and a sense of moral policing begins to invade the canon. I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing or not. It means as writers we are choosing to downplay other writers because of the imperfections of their humanity, when understanding humanity is our ultimate task as writers — so we can all become better.
That said, here are a few of the poets I often return to, and I don’t care who was a Socialist, who cheated on their spouse, who was a drug addict or who left the gas on with kids in the house. Their poems hit hard and they don’t let go of me.
Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell, Lucille Clifton, Samuel Coleridge, Carl Sandburg, Charles Bukowski, W.H. Auden, Claudia Emerson.
What makes you happy?
Eating calamari on a sunny restaurant patio. When the Spurs win. Sleeping in. Open bar. A great joke. Women. Fixing a broken appliance. A great conversation. Wind through an open window. The smell of freshly cut grass. Waterparks. Owls. Tattoos. The friends I have left. The aura of neon spilling into the streets. Going to the movies. Pulling up to the last gas pump before the other guy does. More money than I expected. When a song I love comes on the radio. Second chances. Dancing all damn night. Remembering that not one person I have deeply loved has died yet, which is another way of saying, any form of mercy from the gods.