OBSESSING ON A LIFE OF POETRY
Salmon Sunsets and Rose Alley Ways, Part 2:
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID D. HOROWITZ
by Christopher J. Jarmick
[In Raven Chronicles, Print Issue 15.2, Winter 2010-2011, you'll find "Salmon Sunsets and Rose Alley Ways—A Conversation with David D. Horowitz" by Christopher J. Jarmick. Part 2 of this interview is offered here as a Raven Chronicles Web exclusive.]
David D. Horowitz is a poet, writer, editor, and publisher. Born in New York City in 1955 he earned bachelor's degrees in philosophy and English from the University of Washington and his master's in English from Vanderbilt University. He taught at Vanderbilt, Seattle Central Community College and, briefly, Shoreline Community College. For the past decade he has worked as a conference room attendant at a large Seattle law firm. He values his job's good wage, benefits, and reasonable hours, all of which allow him to pursue his poetic pursuits. If you live in the Seattle area and attend poetry readings, you know David. He enjoys entertaining audiences by reciting his rhyming formal poetry (including his odes to ball point pens, sparrows, Scotch tape, and crackers!). David loves supporting open-mic venues, independent bookstores, coffee shops, and Northwest poets. An even-tempered gentleman, he is ever-concerned something he says might hurt another's feelings—which is never his intent. It remained one of his biggest concerns during our interview, which was conducted via e-mail and telephone during August and September 2010. David has published books by many Northwest poets, beginning with Victoria Ford in April 1996, and later Michael Spence, Douglas Schuder, Joannie Stangeland, and Donald Kentop. In 1997, he published Caruso for the Children, & Other Poems by his mentor and favorite teacher, William Dunlop. In 2007 he published Limbs of the Pine, Peaks of the Range, an anthology featuring work by twenty-six Northwest poets. He has published six collections of his own poetry, the last four through Rose Alley Press. The latest is 2008's Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke. In October, 2010, Rose Alley Press published an ambitious anthology of work by forty-two Northwest poets called Many Trails to the Summit. I first met David at PoetsWest and Red Sky poetry readings in Seattle around 1997. He remains one of the loudest cheerleaders and supporters of open-mic poetry readings and Northwest poetry that I've ever met. So it seemed only fitting that I interview him for Raven Chronicles. We had a lot to talk about, some of which is represented in the print magazine and some here. Support the magazine by buying a copy, please. Now enjoy Part 2 of my interview/profile of David D. Horowitz.
It seemed fitting to start and end interviews with David by citing his poetry. So here is one of my favorites from the 2008 Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke collection.
by David D. Horowitz
I lose my keys and credit card and drop
Christopher J. Jarmick: You were born in New York City in 1955 but moved upstate when your father began to teach at Bard College. Soon you and your family moved further upstate to Geneva, New York. Any early memories?
David D. Horowitz: We'd often take the New York State Thruway to visit my grandparents on my father's side. Grandma and Grandpa owned a little house on Nelson Avenue, not far from Yankee Stadium. There would be my grandmother's backyard garden; her pungent Noxzema cream spread over her thick, knobby, aching legs; her hard, long hours helping her husband, Louie, manage his locksmith shop under the train near Yankee Stadium; and her incredibly delicious chicken soup, potato and meat knishes, stuffed cabbage, borscht, blintzes, pickled herring, noodle kugel, and coffee cake. There were her sudden giggly laughs, her Yiddish-inflected attempts at eliciting gossip-worthy tidbits from me over hands of gin rummy, her blue parakeet ("Pretty Boy" and, later, "Blue Bird") chirping in a cage in the bedroom, and the silver jar stuffed with cellophane-wrapped gem-colored candies on the coffee table in the living room ("the parlor") in front of the television set, usually tuned to Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, a Jerry Lewis movie, or similar entertainment. And there were lots of arguments, and I don't mean friendly ones. Esther and Louie—they loved each other and drove each other crazy. My and my brother Carl's presence encouraged my grandparents to restrain their bickering, so when entering the kitchen for breakfast the fighting would stop and my grandmother might ask: "Here's de kleine! Duvid: you vant farina or Special K? And Louie has the bagels and farmer's cheese." She acted like she had just been watering asters or whistling a favorite tune.
Here's an amusing story (via my mom). My Grandmother Horowitz once sent my mother and father a package of goods via standard mail. It was about 1956, and we lived on Weeks Avenue in the Bronx. My grandma knew about Vicks Vapo-Rub, and her English spelling, based on her malaprops and mispronunciations, could be atrocious—so her package was addressed to "Vicks Avenue." My parents received the package, though! Postal service employees must have been used to old Jewish grandmas misspelling street names, so they just took it in stride, assumed "Vicks" meant "Weeks," and sent it along to my parents.
C.J.: I know you aren't particularly religious.
Horowitz: I was born Jewish, but my parents raised me as an atheist. Yet, my parents wanted my brother and me to have some grounding in Jewish tradition. I would make excuses not to attend Sunday School, and I just had no enthusiasm for it, and my parents couldn't change that. Even at that young age, I was wary of faiths and promises of salvation and miracles and messiahs.
At the New York World's Fair in 1964, my mother, Carl, I, and my grandparents visited many of the pavilions and displays. One exhibit featured a movie sponsored by the Church of Latter Day Saints. It depicted a man, after his death, climbing a hazily luminous staircase to "heaven," where he was reunited with sheet-and-wing-clad loved ones. My brother and I giggled at this. My grandmother was mortified—embarrassed and ashamed that we would not revere such an image if not share the religion it represented. Once I asked my grandfather if he could prove God's existence. He opened The Bible, pointed at a page, and exclaimed: "There's proof!"
Let me note, though, for the past twenty years I have not called myself an atheist, but rather a deist whose primary values are consideration and vitality. I discuss this viewpoint at length in my one prose title through Rose Alley, 1996's Strength & Sympathy.
C.J. In the early 1960s you moved to St. Louis.
Horowitz: In 1963 my father got a job as an associate professor of sociology at Washington University, so, in August of that year, my family moved west to University City, Missouri, a suburb just outside St. Louis and adjacent to the university. Summers around St. Louis could be a sauna. Virtually everyone had air conditioners. There were also tornado drills in school, and I lived through two minor earthquakes there, although they were strong enough to rattle dishes and loosen a few bricks.
I lived at 7114 Cambridge Avenue and attended Jackson Park Elementary School. Jackson was almost all white, save for one Japanese-American child and perhaps one or two black youngsters. It was about two-thirds Jewish. On Yom Kippur and the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the school was virtually deserted, and I stayed home. I developed friends quickly and was popular amongst my classmates. We played softball, corkball (a popular St. Louis baseball variant), soccer, touch football, and basketball in our non-school hours, and we traded comic books and baseball cards and went out for ice cream and otherwise had a grand time. My father was a sports fanatic, and though our home was humbly furnished, he did spend on sports tickets. I saw dozens of St. Louis Cardinals baseball games, and we had St. Louis Cardinal football season tickets from 1964 to 1968. When the San Francisco Giants played in St. Louis, my brother, my father, and I were there. I visited the Bay Area for three consecutive summers, 1964 to 1966, and our focus on two of those trips was Giants baseball. I attended Art Gaines Baseball Camp for a three-week summer session each year from 1967 to 1969. I became a good baseball player, as well as a competent playmaking-guard type of basketball player. I was a capable, though not outstanding, pitcher and outfielder for University City High School's sophomore baseball team in 1971, just before my move to Seattle.
CJ: Your parents clashed often and got divorced, and you were growing up during a time of racial unrest.
Horowitz: Two St. Louis obsessions are baseball and race. My life there was deeply entwined with each of them. There was violence in the schools, but few dared publicly claim racial tension fueled it. You would simply walk to school one day (past the university-themed streets: Vassar, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, Amherst, Dartmouth) and notice yet another "For Sale" sign on someone's neat green lawn. One of your buddies would tell you his family had decided to transfer him to a private school, or that his father had decided they should move west so the kids could attend school in the burgeoning (and white) Parkway School District. Often, too, a white family would move out and a black family would move in, prompting more white families to move out. By the time I left U City, its population was fully one-third black and increasing.
Just before spring vacation of 1970, a major riot occurred at University City High School. That was my brother's senior year there. I was a ninth-grader just down the street at Hanley Junior High School. The high school was set afire. Apparently, some black students had taken offense that white students laughed during a movie showing footage of blacks being lynched, and fighting escalated until the school was set afire and all were evacuated. Soon afterward, fights occurred at Hanley, and a book storage room was set on fire. The high school was shut down several days early for spring vacation and so that tempers could cool off a bit.
During my years at Hanley, I saw one of my Jackson Park friends accused by white toughs of reneging on a bet he didn't make. He was punched, and the bullies stole a quarter from him. Another time, a good friend of mine called a penalty during a flag football game in gym class. I saw the penalty. My friend had been blatantly grabbed and pushed. Several bullies, mostly black, pushed my friend and began chasing him. Soon, fifteen or twenty kids—the opposing team—began chasing my friend all over the field. He was terrified but brave and tried to fight back, but he was ridiculously overmatched. He ran crying to the gym teacher, who brought him into the locker room to calm him down. I still feel ashamed that I did not offer more help to my friend. I was absolutely terrified and had to fend off several of the bullies myself. Several weeks later my friend told me he was transferring to a private school in West St. Louis County. He had lots of company, including one Filipino boy who was hit near the temple of his right eye by a desk—yes, a desk—thrown by two guys horsing around in study hall. He bled profusely, and his wound required many stitches. His parents permanently removed him from Hanley days after this incident.
I would often go into a school bathroom, and, while standing at a urinal, a tough guy, white or black, would put his foot square into my back and demand my money. I would not give him anything, and someone else would paw through my pockets. I had stored my money in my locker (which I would not visit for a while after an incident like this). I typically was cursed and then left alone. The bullies had other prey to attack. I began timing my bathroom visits to occur just before or after recess when many children were around. Not until my senior year at the University of Washington could I again comfortably use a public bathroom.
The worst incident for me occurred in April 1971, towards the end of tenth grade and my years in U City. There had been a rather freakish snow, and now the warm spring sun came out to begin the big thaw. My math teacher decided that the weather was too oddly nice, and we should be able to go outside for a while to enjoy the warmish, sunny, snowy day. I left my stuff at my desk and visited the bathroom and walked down a stairwell to go outside. I was accosted by a young black woman, who said: "You have to pay fifty cents to pass. Where's your fifty cents?" I said, "I'm not paying." She laughed, and several of her friends approached me. "You got to pay a dollar now to pass. Where's your money?" I wouldn't pay. Three or four of them began punching me in the gut, on the back, on the neck. I somehow kept walking forward. A whole bunch of their friends watched this, laughing from atop the stairs. Finally, they let me go. One of them remarked, "That'll teach you for calling my friend a n*****!" Of course, I had said so such thing, but I was ecstatic to escape without further attack, and I strode away from the scene. A black fellow in the math class briefly noticed what had happened and asked me about it. I told him. He shook his head but sympathetically said not to pay them any heed and that I had done right not to have given them my money. Privately, I was rattled and angry. I did not admit this to anyone, nor did I discuss this incident with anyone.
That summer my brother drove an ice cream truck, and his route passed through a tough neighborhood in St. Louis's west end. My brother was robbed three times by young black men, and twice the robbers brandished weapons. My brother quit the job after several weeks.
During my years in U City, I witnessed numerous other incidents of violence and abuse which I needn't address here. How could living through that not scar a person? The school violence I endured and witnessed was a ticking time bomb that exploded in my life in the 1980s and, finally, subsided in the early 1990s. I am hardly alone in having lived through this emotional arc.
Now, acts of admirable courage also occurred in U City. Here is a prime example. In 1969 and 1970 a youth baseball league in U City consisted of one predominantly Jewish team, one black team, and two Catholic teams. Rivalries grew and heated up, and fights and arguments during games were not rare. I belonged to the predominantly Jewish team, and we had won the league championship in 1970. Our coach (my best friend's father), though, got into serious trouble with league officials over a shoving match that occurred during a game. Tensions were high as the 1971 teams were beginning to practice. The black team, though, seemed not to have enough players, so one of their players, Frank, joined our team. We were glad to have him. Frank wanted to play baseball, yes, but by joining a "white" team he was also making an implicit statement: let's have fun, and quit getting into racially and religiously based fights. Let's get past some of these petty barriers and focus on baseball. Now, Frank was a wiry, tough guy, and a remarkably skilled boxer. I saw him scuffle with toughs at school five or six times, and he never lost. He had credibility within the black community. He also was well liked by white students. He worked for a while at a Jewish deli, belonged to a church choir, and sang beautifully. He and three of his friends every day after gym class early in seventh-grade sang in the shower "Get On Up," a 1967 hit by The Esquires. Their harmonies were impeccable. Everyone, white and black, was entertained. Frank was one of the very few students in U City who could make a statement like this and get his peers to genuinely respect the move, not simply attribute it to approval-seeking, cowardice, or dismissible naive idealism.
Although that year the league lacked a sufficient number of teams to justify formal competition, I never forgot the quiet leadership Frank had showed in trying to help competing teams focus on fun, not fighting. It proved positive change could happen—and that, yes, some genuinely sensitive black men were aware of the toll violence and bullyism took on race relations and strove to improve the situation. There were other positive moments. In my shop class in spring 1969, a Jewish friend (Ricky) and I and two black fellows (Derrick and Darrel) somehow started humming songs to one another, while we filed and soldered our respective tin boxes, letter openers, and the like. Soon, my Jewish friend and I were singing Supremes and Temptations songs, while the black guys were singing Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" and Beatles covers. This lasted most of the class. It was a sweet, spontaneous moment. Music linked us.
C.J.: And then, Seattle ...
Horowitz: On August 22, 1971, my mother and I moved to Seattle. We rented a house at 4428 Greenwood Avenue North, found for us by one of my mother's colleagues in the UW political science department. I learned I would attend Lincoln High School, in the heart of Wallingford. The sports pages just then were filled with stories about tension between UW football coach Jim Owens and defensive back Calvin Jones. The news pages featured occasional stories about tension stemming from busing in Seattle to achieve racial integration. Within two months of my move here, a serious race riot occurred at Lincoln. I had moved two thousand miles—and I might as well have moved two houses down the block.
The Lincoln riot of autumn 1971 was a large, complicated event, and I lay no special claim to understanding all its sources and results. I recall the principal, Mr. West, sustained a wound on his forehead after being hit by a tossed object. Several fights between black and white students broke out in the cafeteria and within an hour hundreds of students were rampaging throughout the hallways and on to the school grounds. It was chaos, utter anarchy. One young woman, Bonnie, a cheerleader, walked in tearful stunned silence down the main hall, but virtually everyone else was scampering, scrapping, kicking, and screaming. I went to my locker to get my jacket, and three young black women were engaging in a screaming match with a white fellow. I simply got my jacket, stayed as calm as I could, and walked home. For days afterward, there were rumors of an ultimate rumble to occur in Lower Woodland Park, and "outsiders" were blamed as the primary culprits. Perhaps they were—but plenty of students participated, so I felt the "outsiders-caused-it" accusation rather shaky.
That spring, Lincoln elected a black student body president, Bernard Woodson. Mr. West stepped down a few years after the riot, and Roberta Barr was appointed Lincoln's principal. She was, I believe, the first black principal at a Seattle public high school. Lincoln, for whatever reasons, could not be saved. It closed in 1982, along with Queen Anne High School. By that time, Lincoln's enrollment was about half of what it had been ten years earlier.
During my two years at Lincoln I began to write. A four-line poem was accepted by the school's literary magazine. I wrote a regular editorial column for the school paper, The Totem. I liked circulating my views, and I learned from the feedback I received. After I graduated in June 1973, I began to record observations in a notebook. My poetry was utter doggerel. I would across the Ballard Bridge and compare the light upon the waves below to "diamonds." Yet, an occasional image or phrase suggested the possibility of talent, albeit as yet unrealized.
C.J.: There was also a lot of drug experimentation going on around this time.
Horowitz: Drugs in U City? Yes. Lots of kids experimented. It was considered hip, edgy, and there was enough money floating around to pay for it. Drugs in Seattle and Lincoln? Yes. At parties, in the U District, Capitol Hill, and around Green Lake. I'm sure the South End and the East Side had their scenes, too.
C.J.: You didn’t inhale?
Horowitz: I stayed clear of the drug scene. Yes, I was offered pot just walking around Green Lake about half a dozen times. I always refused. I also had a sort-of friend—a relative of one of my mother's colleagues—who several times telephoned me to ask where he could get good pot. I told him I did not know, and he reacted as if I was too square, too repressed, that I didn't know what I was missing. Well, I didn't feel intimidated by his condescension. I did get drunk with some dorm buddies on my twenty-first birthday, and I drank to excess one or two times during the next few years. I took a few puffs of a marijuana cigarette once in a group home in which I lived. And that's it. Nothing beyond that. I totally reject the idea that drug and alcohol use enhances artistic performance. I didn't and don't need it. I've seen that stuff destroy too many lives and talents, and I love my health and vitality and will not damage them. I'll tell you, too: I don't drink coffee or soda. I drink lots of orange juice and carrot juice and water. I drink an occasional cup of herbal tea. Once a month, perhaps, I might have a glass of beer or wine. Once or twice a year I might have two glasses of wine at a social occasion. That's my maximum.
C.J.: You continued writing poetry as you began college at the UW in 1973.
Horowitz: I filled several notebooks with verse, most of which rhymed. I understood neither meter nor the importance of precise physical imagery, but I sensed I grew deeper when I wrote. I often wrote dramatic monologues, and this to better appreciate diverse perspectives. I was a philosophy major, and I was accustomed to Platonic dialogues and to the importance of debate and dialectic. To this day, I enjoy writing verse dramatic monologues and dialogues.
C.J.: You learned quite a bit from UW English professor William Dunlop.
Horowitz: Yes. William loved the work of Philip Larkin, Thomas Hardy, W. H. Auden, and Richard Wilbur. He loved Shakespeare's work, especially the play Antony and Cleopatra. He loved opera and, not surprisingly, paid special attention to a poem's tone and music: how it sounds, not simply what it means. While his recommendations were many and diverse—including Elizabeth Bishop, Alexander Pope, W. B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound's translations from Chinese—it was Larkin whom I felt could teach me the most. During 1978, I read the entirety of Larkin's 1974 collection, The Whitsun Weddings, almost every day. Slowly, my verse began to reflect a Larkinesque aesthetic: physical imagery, distinctive verbs, diction that was concise yet rather conversational, and rhyme. Progress was slow, though, and arduous.
After graduating cum laude in December 1977 with a B.A. in philosophy, I focused almost exclusively on my writing. I worked as a dishwasher at various downtown Seattle restaurants, took a trip around North America via Greyhound, and eventually got a job as a "page" in the Business & Science Department of the downtown Seattle Public Library. I wrote and wrote. I intensely studied Larkin, Richard Hugo, Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, and Pope. I also read deeply in the work of early twentieth-century novelists like Dreiser and Faulkner. Larkin was the focus, though—especially learning to use rhyme that did not sound obvious and writing concisely yet conversationally. I also visited William occasionally at the UW.
During those years I researched Reader's Guides for references to William's poems. I found about eight or ten that had been published in TLS, Poetry Northwest, Encounter, and a few other prominent journals. I thought most of these pieces—such as "Beside the Seaside," "Square," and "Single-Minded"—were excellent. How did poets I thought mediocre achieve so much fame while William, who achieved moments of genuine mastery, remained a relative unknown? What could be done about it?
In 1980 I began sending my poems to journals, and in 1982 I earned some acceptances, especially at one British journal, Candelabrum, to which I still regularly submit work. Also in 1980 I cut my hours at Seattle Public Library to return to the University of Washington as a part-time student. By December 1981 I finished the course work necessary to earn a B.A. in English. I also sat in on a fiction writing class of William's.
C.J.: It's interesting you haven't wound up teaching.
Horowitz: My mother taught at the University of Washington but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1976 and could not teach for two years. This, combined with William Dunlop's seeming less than contented, influenced me away from psychological dependency on academic life. I never felt it was essential that I wind up teaching. I love teaching, but I do not care about professional prestige. I am quite happy now as a conference room attendant—happier than when I was in academic life. My mother's life in the UW political science department was no joy ride; in the 1970s her department was riven and factious, and my mother couldn't take it anymore. She never really felt a sense of belonging to the place after she returned in 1978 to teach. I took note of this.
NOTE: For more about David's experience at Vanderbilt and teaching at Seattle Central Community College please read the interview printed in Raven Chronicles.
C.J.: Who has influenced your own poetry the most?
Horowitz: The greatest influence on my own work has been the poetry of Philip Larkin. Other important influences are diverse pre-Romantic British and Irish poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, the "Sons of Ben" or "Cavalier" poets (especially Lovelace, Carew, and Suckling), Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Pope, and Swift. I also have fondness for various works by Matthew Prior, Charles Churchill, and Oliver Goldsmith. Of the major British Romantic poets, Wordsworth influenced me most. International influences include Homer, Martial, Catullus, Ovid, Tu Fu (the T'ang Dynasty master), Luis de Gongora and various Spanish "Golden Age" poets, and Heinrich Heine. American influences include Richard Hugo, Richard Wilbur, and Anthony Hecht. Many contemporary women poets produce fine work. I was particularly impressed by the recent collection Hapax by A. E. Stallings. I have also had the honor of publishing work by many excellent Northwest women poets: Joannie Kervran Stangeland, Victoria Ford, Belle Randall, Margaret D. Smith, Nancy Dahlberg, Lyn Coffin, Rebecca Meredith, Elizabeth Austen, Karen Finneyfrock, Ellen Elizabeth, Brenda I. Givens, Lana Ayers, Joan Swift, Diana Brement, and Judith Skillman, among others.
C.J.: Some of your favorite poems?
Horowitz: "Lines Written in Early Spring," William Wordsworth; "Tops," Philip Larkin; "Inviting a Friend to Supper" and "To William, Earl of Pembroke," Ben Jonson; "Night," Charles Churchill; "The Definition of Love," Andrew Marvell; "The Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot," Alexander Pope; "Soneto CIII," Luis de Gongora; "To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve," John Dryden; "To a Friend who had been much abused in many inveterate Libels," Jonathan Swift. My favorite writing of all time is a selection of later tragedies by William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus. Masterpieces, all.
C.J.: Anyone you intensely dislike or feel is overrated?
Horowitz: I could offer a list of poets I think overrated, and this might excite those who love a fight—but I have often been wrong in my assessment of others, and sometimes less-than-great poets are good people, and I have no desire to needlessly hurt feelings. When I write a review, I say what needs to be said. Otherwise, I would rather avoid bomb-throwing just to make noise. One of my teachers at graduate school more or less said during a seminar: as graduate students, you need to make a splash to get a job! That is, better take an extreme position and get noticed than be overly subtle and seem mushy. There's some truth in this, but I remain wary of it. I have angrily defended extreme positions—and been wrong, irreparably damaging relationships and my own credibility. I respect subtlety, nuance, and caution. I do not want to make an outrageous statement just to get noticed. Fill out your understanding, always consider revision, and sound polemical only when necessary, not just to get a job or fame.
In that vein, let me note that I mistrust religious absolutism on the one hand—the Holy Book says A, so A must be true. I also look askance at the relativism of someone who feels no need to articulate at least minimal standards of behavior, as well the hypocrisy of someone who claims there is no real right and wrong—but then denounces someone else's greed and corruption, or who only cares that the robber of his car be prosecuted. I remain wary of any text assumed to be perfect, whether it be The Bible, The Koran, Das Kapital, Atlas Shrugged, Ulysses, or a collected Shakespeare—and I remain wary of glib talk of there being no right and wrong or true and false. Rather: gather, listen, consider from diverse sources; articulate tentative beliefs and standards, always willing to reconsider from tolerantly endured challenge; and try to balance commitments to personal happiness and societal good. My basic model?—honesty sensitized by tact.
C.J.: I know music has been very important in your life and you continue to enjoy it.
Horowitz: I always set aside some several hours weekly—and sometimes more—to listen to great music, and I often visit local venues, too. My favorite music includes Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; Mozart's later piano concerti and symphonies; the Baroque war horses: Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and various concerti, Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, Handel's "Water Music," and so much else. I enjoy symphonic works by Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak. I love much medieval music, especially some pieces of the troubadours. I owe much to rock, too. My favorite band when I was young was Traffic. I was deeply impressed by that band's ability to draw from eclectic sources yet define its own sound—an exemplary approach. The Rascals, Lovin' Spoonful, Allman Brothers, and various Motown and Stax performers were among my youthful favorites. I note how some performers never received the full credit due them; Laura Nyro is a case in point. Another: Pentangle, a British group largely ignored in the US. I have tried to keep up with rock since the '70s, but I admit my knowledge is limited. The Police, Tom Petty, The Decemberists, and My Morning Jacket are favorites. I unabashedly like a good melody and skillful playing, and I like a strong keyboard presence. I like visiting local venues, too, especially The Tractor Tavern and The Triple Door, and I still go to the symphony now and then.
I must note that my musical interests have diverged during the past three or four years. Because of my interest in world history, I have explored deeply into the world music scene. The "Rough Guide to the Music of ... (name of country or region)" is especially good and offers a wonderful education. Marvelous music is emerging from Madagascar, Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan, Ireland, Wales, Cuba, and Bolivia, and many other places. I frequently listen to this music and feel blessed to have that opportunity. Indeed, I believe the World Music Network deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for its "Rough Guide" series.
C.J.: You ardently support open mic poetry and spoken word readings. Why?
Horowitz: Spoken word venues serve critically important needs. They help promote free speech. They help novice poets gain performance experience, and they help veteran poets test-drive new work and sell their chapbooks and CDs to folks who might want them. Venues help literary folk of all stripes befriend peers and learn about other performances and publishing opportunities. They connect people to each other and to larger literary and constitutional traditions.
No spoken word venue or philosophy is flawless. Some poets read their work poorly. At spoken word venues, they might lack confidence and passion, looking at the carpet as they read in a soft monotone. At a slam, they might mistake rapidity and volume for passion and, thus, simply sound derivative. This is how and where poets learn, though. Let it happen—the bad with the good, the mediocre with the excellent. Poets often improve, given some patient, skilled role modeling. Too few skilled, experienced performers in the poetry community commit to visiting and reading at less glamorous venues. Support the venues, despite their limitations. They're the best training grounds literary performers have.
C.J.: I take it you've learned a lot by performing your work at readings, yourself.
Horowitz: I respect audience reaction. I listen to it. I sense when a poem works for most in the audience, and when it does not. I learn from that. I might go back and revise a poem because I understood the audience sensed some weakness in it. I will not revise just to pander, but I frequently find audiences have a knack for sensing when a piece is strong and complete—or is not.
C.J.: Are you also a supporter of poetry slams?
Horowitz: Poetry slams often provide wonderful entertainment, and some finely skilled poets—including so-called "page" poets—perform there. Slam venues have helped improve the quality of public poetic performance in this country, and we should be grateful to them. As you can imagine, though, I have some reservations about them. I voice my reservations, aware that slam venues can differ considerably one from the other, so I want to avoid stereotyping. That granted, I'll note that I don't think competition is a dirty word, but I also don't revere "winning." Judging at slams can be erratic, as too few judges appreciate subtler approaches. The tact and beauty of the traditional meditative lyric are too rarely heard in those precincts. Occasionally, I sense the politics and rhetorical noise had better favor one side over the other, or one will be greeted with, at best, polite applause. Sometimes, I think the four-letter expletives are gratuitous and tediously predictable. Again, though: I'm glad for the slam venues. They provide good entertainment and promote showmanship and performance skill. They provide healthy outlets in which the frustrated and unheard, especially among our younger people, can at last get a hearing and deepen their sense of connection to American society generally.
I just don't want to limit myself to slam performance, and I certainly hope poets do not idolize slam venues because of their greater emphasis on fame and cash prizes and the immediate approval that comes from publicly winning a contest. Seen in the context of a larger literary scene, the slams are a highly welcome addition. Revered as an evolution superior to presumed fuddy-duddies who still—giggle—study and analyze poems and respect the great tradition, some slam poets and venues convey an air of self-importance.
Let's stay focused on the positive, though. I say let's build bridges so writers can cross them and recognize mutual need and different talents. Slam? Spoken word? "Page"? Look: good poets should be able to write well on the page and perform well on the stage. Period. There's no dichotomy. Poetry admits of both the oral and printed traditions—and benefits by both being diverse and contemporary.
C.J.: Tell me about your writing rituals. Do you rough draft on paper or computer or both? Do you write every day? Any special writing places?
Horowitz: My work as a publisher, combined with job and family responsibilities, greatly limit my free time to write. I cram in writing time. Consequently, I almost always carry a pen and scrap of paper with me. I'll return from a stroll to the grocery store or through a park, having scribbled down several promising rhymes or a phrase describing sky colors or a street scene.
Rhymes especially seed poems for me. They generate new ideas, suggest connections at deeper and deeper levels, and generate new rhymes. I typically jot down five to ten rhyming pairs per day. A scraggly stack of scribbled-on Post-It Notes looms from my office desk at work. Occasionally, a rhyme suggests a theme large enough for a poem, and I start excavating its mineshaft, noting rough-cut gems. Staying prepared to jot down inspirations: that is number one.
I almost always compose poetry in a notebook and prose on my computer keyboard. That said, I find it helpful to print word-processed drafts of poems. I find it easier to spot flaws and potential improvements from typed copy. Getting started, though, I love the immediacy of my little black Bic scribbling across a scrap or sheet of paper. It's deep, heartfelt, pulsing.
I most often write on weekends. That's when I am most able to indulge the impulse to leisure, although I typically carry a notebook with me whenever I eat at a restaurant. I often scribble rough drafts and explore ideas while munching a burrito, Thai salad, or roasted veggie sandwich.
C.J.: Your inspiration comes from these rhyming seeds you mentioned and what else?
Horowitz: I often read books and websites about history, especially ancient Rome; lesser-known aspects of medieval life; and political turmoil during the lives of great poets and musicians, as well as such artists' adversities and triumphs. I love reading first-hand accounts, whether it be Procopius's Secret History of the court of Justinian or Tu Fu's poems about warfare during T'ang Dynasty China. I am equally fascinated by the life stories of rock musicians whose fame has passed. What happened to them? Are they happier than when they were at the height of their fame? Can their career decline suggest larger life lessons for me, Rose Alley Press, fellow writers? Has the performer died, and was the death suspicious, and how might that reveal corruption? I might want to listen to some medieval music before composing a poem about the Crusades or a particular rock performer's music before meditating on ambition and fame. I might want to stroll a hilly Seattle neighborhood at night to soak in the images of lamps, stars, silent ferries drifting out of sight, and a stream of vehicles crossing a freeway bridge—and then begin to compose a poem based on that scene.
C.J.: You can see the strong historical influence in your latest, Stars ... poetry collection. After writing the rough draft, is there a process you go through to make the poem successful?
Horowitz: If I have recently composed a rough draft of a poem, I typically repeat to myself some of its lines—to measure authenticity and to sense how I should perform them live. I want to feel out the contours of the language, to modulate and accentuate to the subtlest nuance.
My commitment to writing is renewed daily, but the time I spend on writing on a given day varies from five seconds to five hours. I rarely know how much time I will spend. I might prepare to write for five seconds, and two hours later I'll be fussing over a phrase in a new draft of a sonnet. I might run with an inspiration, and keep finding new, good stuff, so I keep going, going. I not infrequently stay up until two, three, four a.m. obsessively refining a descriptive phrase, a voice in a dramatic monologue, a rhyme or metrical scheme I think could be improved. I aim for a rhymed metrical tone that suggests conversation and verisimilitude, while avoiding the too obvious. To set a scene, I prefer rhymes about physical images. To deepen and reiterate a theme I am more open to using the occasional abstraction. Effective rhyming is a high art. Audience prejudices about greeting-card sentimentality and bumper-sticker sanctimony run deep, and sometimes are not without foundation. To make rhyming fresh, yet not seem too much of a reach; to make a rhyme fit a metrical scheme yet feel utterly spontaneous and conversational; to make a rhyme reverberate with deeper connection than the jingle of similarity—this requires radical commitment. It requires you commit to art the marrow of your life, the bloodstream of your thoughts, the hewn-out bits of time others spend on engine tuning and child-raising and patio barbecues and overtime at the second job. You have to live with a voice, let images from rough drafts seep into your consciousness, research and observe and research and observe to test phrases' worth and develop beyond the obvious. Being a poet means committing yourself to revisiting your rough drafts for accuracy of voice, verisimilitude of diction and image, and the resonance of genuine eloquence. Fear complacency, not revision.
C.J.: You've studied and read poetry throughout four decades now. Teach. How do you evaluate a poem?
Horowitz: When evaluating poetry, there are no absolutes—but there are some strong tendencies.
1) Sharply distinct imagery can powerfully evoke a scene, a moment, and a character. It can deepen meaning and mood without preachment or hyperbole. Nor need a hat simply be a "hat." Is it a black beret flecked by dust and dandruff and old enough to be fading into gray? Is it a spotless black derby? Is it a pink pillbox banded by white chiffon and garnished with the tiniest red rose? Relate description to scene and character, and try to particularize, eschewing the safely generic.
2) A single image and, or phrase reiterated in the middle and near the end of a poem can suggest change of circumstances, more emphatically engaging a reader than could abstract statements.
1) Typically, rhyme is best when convincingly natural yet not too obvious.
2) Try to make a poem's rhyme scheme fit its tone, theme, and narrative voice. Note: I have heard poems in jaunty tetrameter or pentameter couplets about terrible tragedies, such as the Holocaust or a killer earthquake; their rhyme schemes felt horribly ill-suited to the material. Such poems evoke more giggling than empathy and inadvertently illustrate why many poets shun rhyme.
3) Rhyme need not simply be about jingly similarity of sound. The best rhyming resonates with connections of meaning between rhymed words or phrases. This can help a reader or listener more subtly observe life, not just poetry.
4) Rhymes of physical imagery provide a powerful way of vivifying a scene (e.g., the valley's lamp-lit streets, horizon's scarlet streaks).
5) Try varying rhymes' spelling now and then, to keep the reader from anticipating too easily (e.g., "rose" and "crows," not simply "rose" and "nose"; "guessed" and "test" is both difficult to anticipate and suggests a relationship of meaning; "the needy" and "graffiti" works as a "heard" rhyme and is full of implication, yet the two terms share hardly a single letter).
6) Add a word before each member of an obvious rhyming pair to make it a less obvious rhyme. "True" and "blue" are a rhyming cliché. "Maybe true" and "hazy blue" are not.
7) Rhymes can be drawn from popular culture, modern technology, and the business world (e.g., governing board, extension cord; photocopy, cup of coffee; Havoline, Javelin; real estate, interest rate). Keep rhyme open to contemporary influence, to current conversation—yet keep that eloquent touch, that special awareness of rhythm and pause and voice.
8) Generally, the more obvious the rhyme (e.g., June, moon), the more complex the rhyme scheme should be to mask its obviousness (e.g., abcdabcdcd). As a correlative, "June" and "moon" as couplets would likely seem laughably cliched, whereas "strewn" and "rune" (or "moon" and "rune") might work, especially as the pair resonates with a connection of meaning, not simply sound.
9) Exceptions to these tendencies abound. For example, simple rhyme schemes can work wonderfully, especially in light verse; simple rhyme schemes wonderfully help convey humor.
10) Learn terminology, and practice recognition in actual poems. Knowing the meanings of terms like "identical rhyme," "assonantal rhyme," "consonantal rhyme," "homophonic rhyme," "rich rhyme," and "off-rhyme" does not guarantee you will improve your composition skills. It might, though, sharpen your awareness of poetic possibility, skill, and complexity. It helps you fill your poetry-writing kit with some fine instruments. Rhyme and meter are the rhythm section of traditional poetry's band. That band's been entertaining readers for millennia. As a poet, it might interest and benefit you to know why.
1) Make one's use of meter consistent with a poem's tone and topic.
2) Try to use meter consistently within a poem, yet generally keep its tone conversational and fluid—not metronomic. One or two slight metrical variations within a poem—especially near the end—can prove powerful. To refine one's skill at this, learn to use the caesura.
3) Try to make accents fall on nouns and verbs, not definite and indefinite articles.
4) Try to make accents fall on customarily accented syllables of words so they do not feel forced on the language. Having a metrical pattern violate normal pronunciation dissuades many poets from using meter, the same way forced, obvious rhyming dissuades poets from using rhyme.
5) A poem can feature variable line lengths yet keep the same metrical pattern (e.g., iambic, trochaic). This helps minimize metronomic predictability (Ben Jonson, George Herbert, and Percy Shelley, among many fine poets, practiced this at times).
6) Meter, like rhyme, works well with enjambment to emphasize conversational tone and flow. Enjambment is arguably the single most powerful device by which contemporary formal poets avoid a tone of metronomic predictability. Study, study, study how the masters use enjambment—to avoid too predictable a meter while adding texture through double and triple entendre (e.g., note how William Dunlop, in his "Beside the Seaside" breaks a line "Perhaps it had to do/with the short turf"; ending the line at "had to do" not only is effective because it is a place in the line where there is a slight natural pause, but because he emphasizes an additional meaning—"had to do" here suggests "is about" and "must suffice," both meanings being relevant to the poem's context).
7) Except in rare instances, try to end lines at points of slight natural and, or grammatical pauses. This is also true of enjambed lines. Try to end lines with nouns, verbs, or significant adjectives that convey a sense of fullness about what the line says while spurring a reader to want to know what immediately follows. Generally avoid ending lines with "a" and "the"; ending lines with articles and bland words diminishes the impact of a line and minimizes suspense about what is to follow.
8) Learn terminology, and practice recognition in actual poems. Terms to learn include "iamb," "trochee," "anapest," "amphibrach," "dactyl," "tetrameter," and "pentameter." If you want a good drummer in your poetry band, the drummer should know a variety of rhythms. Yes, rhythm affects tone, meaning, and level of poignancy and resonance.
CJ: And form, grammar ?
I want to keep my comments about form very limited. I'll say this: sonnets have been written for almost a millennium. The form proves durable. Fourteen iambic pentameter lines with a lyrical but not overbearing rhyme scheme, offers such an amenable, flexible, and concise structure for poetic comment. What a marvelous tool to have at the ready when emotions or observations demand expression. Other forms provide additional means for varying tone and effect. You write exclusively in free verse? Fine. I'm all for your freedom to do so. You might consider this, though: the best way to improve your free verse is to write an occasional sonnet.
1) Generally use accurate, dictionary-based spelling and meaning. If not, fully consider the effect your violating a rule tries to produce.
2) Check the dictionary (and, yes, the OED, if necessary): a poet might feel a certain word is right for his or her poem, but if its denotative meaning differs from what the poet wants to convey, then the poet should reconsider using it. Words have dictionary- and custom-based meanings, and a poet ignores this at his or her peril. Audiences might totally misunderstand the poet, and rarely is this good. Yes, occasionally a brilliant surrealist or language poet pulls off dictionary-defying feats, and more power to such an experimentalist. Great. More often than not, though, careless use of diction looks and sounds sloppy and simply confuses even the most literate, sympathetic readers and listeners.
Generally, I recommend using punctuation in poetry as one would use for standard prose—with respect for correct, conventional usage. Yes, some fine poems have been written that entirely eschew punctuation and which violate every convention possible. If you must violate conventions of language, then do so. Freedom first. That said, most such poems confuse readers or, at the very least, confuse them at key points. Occasionally, radical musical fluency and deliberate ambiguity can work. Most often, they do not. Conventions of language have evolved over thousands of years to facilitate communication. Violate them with great care and deep purpose, not simply because poetry is somehow supposed to look rebellious and not including punctuation is part of cultivating a hip, edgy image.
1) Poetry need not be about flowers, dreams, and reflections on life and love. Poetry can be about anything, including flowers, dreams, and reflections on life and love—and day-old ham sandwiches, telephone receivers, computer monitors, hippopotamus tails, a red-tailed hawk's beak, corner grocers, giant supermarkets, political scandal and corruption, overlooked stories of bravery and compassion, skyscrapers, peasant huts, ancient Rome, contemporary Mongolia, your city's daily newspaper, cloud formations in Illinois in July, or vanilla frosting on a double chocolate cake. Use language evocatively and explore ideas and emotions deeply—and any subject matter can come alive in a poem.
2) Poets who write about nothing but their own emotions not only tend to bore others. They miss out on so much around them. There are seven billion people, billions more animals and plants, and trillions of rocks on our planet alone—is one poet the only interesting subject around? "Write about what you know" is generally a good rule, and surely it can be purgative and necessary to write about oneself, and if one can do so skillfully, then great. Nevertheless, it might be worth a self-absorbed poet's while to study something besides his or her feelings, to learn so as to "know" something else to write about.
C.J.: I know you've had a romance or two, but have you ever married or have children?
Horowitz: I have never been married, nor have I ever had children. I have never seriously felt the need or desire to be married. Yes, I have had some romantic liaisons and friendships with women to varying degrees of love, reciprocated and not reciprocated. A tendency has been for me to love someone who does not quite love me in return and for someone to love me whom I do not quite love in return. I am loath to indulge insincerity or conduct fakery merely to gain the approval of the watchfully conventional. I feel it is wrong to lead someone on whom I do not romantically desire. I also feel it is wrong to try to guilt-trip someone whom I love but wants to be left alone. Fine, I will leave you alone, is my feeling, and I'll go right out there and have a wonderful life, regardless. Strong romantic relationships require extraordinary mutual commitment to endure the storms of circumstance. If either party's heart is not into such commitment, letting a relationship go is best. I think romantic love is phenomenal, mind you—but I think one can live a happy, productive life without it. If it comes along again, great—and, if not, I'll be fine, thank you. That's the story, and I have a hunch it is unfinished. I never close the book on romantic love. I'm just not going to let it define my sense of self, possibility, or happiness.
C.J.: Your focus is on local Northwest poets as opposed to, say, St. Louis poets or Southwest poets. Are there reasons for that?
Horowitz: Yes. Let me list them.
1) I know the work of Northwest poets better than work of other regions' poets.
2) I have many friends amongst Northwest poets, far more so than amongst poets of other regions. Publishing a poet's work can be difficult; established friendship helps minimize many of these difficulties.
3) To sell books of poetry requires much person-to-person, localized marketing. I know thousands of people in Seattle and around the Northwest. I know far, far fewer people in other regions of the country. I doubt I could sell many books without that local connection. Here I have roots, friends, and knowledge of the nuances of the literary scene. That has greatly helped me promote Rose Alley Press books.
4) Seattle is full of bibliophiles and is a wonderfully arts-supporting city. Many other cities are not like this. Yeah, Seattle! I want to reciprocate the support I've been shown.
5) My commitment is primarily, though not exclusively, to Northwest formal poets. The poets who read at prestigious Northwest book fairs, literary festivals, and lecture series do not tend to be formalists, although it would be unfair to say formalists are shunned. Certainly some formal poets have become successful in the Northwest. Some in positions of literary power, though, do not feel comfortable with the implicit conservatism of rhymed metrics and only at some distance will support such writing. Occasionally and in fits and starts, okay—but not vigorously and consistently. I do not resent this; such folks are entitled to believe and promote literature of their preference. That said, I recognize that formal poets need special efforts to publish and promote their work, and this is certainly true in the Northwest. I have seen too many fine poets not receive due recognition, and this might be a bit more true of formal poets than of those who primarily write free verse. Again, I am loath to plead victim and indulge in petty blaming. That would be wrong. There are some successful Northwest formalists, and I have received much support and been shown much respect. I am grateful to many people in the Northwest for their support. Poetry is rather marginalized in the arts marketplace, though, and formal poetry is somewhat—not radically, but somewhat—marginalized within the poetry world. There remains that neighborhood-rhymster, "moon/June"-spouting cornball stereotype that stems from occasional contact with bad formal verse but more often from ignorance about the wealth of fine, subtle, sophisticated Northwest formal poetry. I have made some headway, though, and I appreciate the freedom that allows me to promote rhymed metrical verse. I think it is important that literary folks see a knowledgeable, skilled poet unashamedly and consistently defend the worth of rhymed metrics and form. It helps them feel less embarrassed about acknowledging they like it, too.
6) I am a formal poet. Part of the purpose of my press is to promote my own work. I do so without a shred of reservation or apology. I help dozens of other poets, but my work is craftsmanly and thematically substantial and deserves an audience, too.
C.J.: You and I were both born back East and migrated to Seattle. How would you share the Seattle experience with others? What would you tell people to experience in Seattle?
Horowitz: Seattle? Oh, my God:
* Pike Place Market on a weekday afternoon
* Volunteer Park Water Tower—yes, climb to the top of "the poor man's Space Needle" (Emmett Watson, RIP)
* Mariner's game—against a good, power-hitting club like the Texas Rangers or Boston Red Sox
* Carkeek Park; Discovery Park; Golden Gardens (dusk); Magnuson Park (dawn); Woodland Park (yes, the zoo, too)
* SAM and SAAM and The Frye
* lunch at one of the better Asian restaurants in the International District
* a sunny, warm summer afternoon—stroll and appreciate the Woodland Park Rose Garden
* a partly cloudy spring or autumn afternoon—stroll and appreciate the Japanese Garden at the south end of the Arboretum
* any day, around noon—take a ferry to Winslow; shop a bit; browse Eagle Harbor Books; lunch at the downtown supermarket's salad/soup bar; walk and walk and ferry home in the evening; appreciate the magnificent dusk colors and how the gulls tag along for the ride
* spend a day in Madison Park, Laurelhurst, Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Fremont, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Wallingford, Ballard, Greenwood, West Seattle—those marvelous Seattle neighborhoods
* stroll the grounds of the University of Washington and visit the Ave; the U District has the best low-cost ethnic eating in the state
* Elliott Bay Book Company, University Book Store, Open Books—yeah, independent bookstores!
* art walk, anyone?—pick your neighborhood
* local farmer's market—wonderful afternoon browsing
* Broadway—the golden dance-steps are nifty, and there's some good eating in the neighborhood
* Richard Hugo House—take in a reading
* PoetsWest, the Seattle Slam, Take a Poem From Your Heart, PEN—again, take in a reading
* walk around Green Lake, especially at dusk when the lamps start sending their spectral spears across the water
* The Tractor Tavern, Triple Door, a festival at Seattle Center—take in several shows
* take an elevator ride up the Smith Tower
C.J.: Thank you, David. Here is a closing poem, from Stars Beyond the Battlesmoke by David D. Horowitz, Rose Alley Press, 2008:
Our subtle syncopation
Hit songs of joys and griefs
Yet, now despite distraction,
By cafe window table, bench
The swallows zoom no matter
And gulls will whoop at dawn,
To risk, improve, evolve,
Find refuge in creation.
Christopher J. Jarmick is a Seattle-based writer and poet. He curates and hosts two monthly readings (at Bookworm Seattle in Seattle and at Parkplace Books in Kirkland) and is President of the Washington Chapter of PEN. His latest book of poetry is IGNITION: Poem Starters, Septolets, Statements and Double Dog Dares (2010). Radio Pictures: Aural Anxieties is the spoken-word CD he recorded with Pulitzer-nominated poet Michael C. Ford (produced by Kevin Gershan, April 2009). To receive information about Seattle poetry readings and open mics or to contact him, please E-mail Chris at email@example.com.