We sat there for 4 hours, eating some pretty bad food and drinking some good beer, reminiscing and talking about poetry. Bruce recorded it all on a little pocket tape recorder, a pre-digital machine from the time of King Sobieski.
Listening to the tape after the interview, I said to Bruce, "I don't care how good a poet you are, You'll never be able to make any sense out of these snaps and pops!"
He laughed and said, "Trust me."
I did, and here's the interview reprinted from the Winter/Spring 2007 issue of Spoon River.
SRPR: John, you’ve been writing so many poems over the last few years and now have a full-length collection and a new chapbook coming out. Congratulations, but weren’t you mostly interested in fiction years back, in postmodern especially?
JG: Yeah, I was reading a lot of Hawkes and Pynchon at the time, but I haven’t been reading much contemporary fiction for years. I’ve been writing poems for a long time, though, but not so many as recently.
SRPR: What do you think has gotten you going? Really, it’s incredible the number of poems you’ve written lately. And they’re hardly postmodern.
JG: I think one of the things that has me writing as much as I am was the death of my father and my mother’s increasing bad health and then her death. I’ve just been thinking about the two of them more, and a lot of the poems come out of my parents’ experiences. I think this is what’s fueling all of the writing.
SRPR: “Death is the mother of beauty.” Yeah, there’s no doubt of it: there’s this organic process involved in the writing of poems that has to do with working through some painful experience. It’s clear that something deep inside has sparked you here.
JG: One thing that happened is that after my father’s death, my mother started telling me stories about her time in Germany. She had never told me these before, so that hearing all of her stories gave me a sense not only of her experiences but of my father’s as well. Many of the things she told me about had really happened to my father. I think that hearing her stories and then putting them next to my father’s got me thinking about the two of them. So, a large part of my writing lately has come from finding a comparable experience my father had to what my mother had told me about her own life—things she never told me before, by the way. She was the kind of a person who would not talk about her experiences, and, honestly, sometimes there were things you just didn’t want to hear.
SRPR: Well, I must say they are not among the happiest I’ve ever read.
JG: In one of the last conversations I had with her before she died, we talked about when she and my father met. I had written a poem about why my mother stayed with my father because I had always wondered why she had. It was a relationship that seemed to be so antagonistic and so bad for the two of them. Maybe that’s why I wrote a poem about it. Afterwards, I asked her if she had ever been happy with my father, and I thought maybe she would tell me about some kind of courtship experience they had had, maybe what it was like in Germany right after the war. Even though it was spring back then and everything was in bloom, she started telling me a story about my father and her that was so ugly, I said “Mom, I don’t want to hear this.” I was hoping for something romantic, but with that story, I didn’t want to hear any more. That was really the last time we spoke about their experiences in Germany.
SRPR: There does seem to be a kind of implied dialogue in your poems as you go back and forth with titles like “What My Mother Told Me” or “What My Father Said” about this or that. I get the feeling of your being almost a little kid in a way, going from one parent to the other trying to get at what was the truth.
JG: Yeah, yeah. I feel that very strongly. I had a poem just published online called “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father,” and I sent the link to a friend of mine. She wrote back and wanted to know how much of the poem was true, and I said to her that it was all true but was a “child’s” truth. That’s the way I saw their relationship whether what I saw was actual or not. It was true to a child’s eyes, mine, as it appeared to me.
SRPR: The cover of your first chapbook, The Language of Mules — there you are as a little boy in your passport picture. I find that picture very revealing. It stays with anyone reading those poems and then, when we get to the back cover, there’s a picture of you grown, looking considerably different than anyone else in the picture: taller, staring off into the distance, almost scoutlike in this new land. It’s as though the poems are the reason you grew from the little boy on the front to the intense young man on the back. The poems were that birth process. I actually had planned to ask you about that chapbook because you did something that I know people will be interested in hearing about: you self-published this book. I know for some people there’s a stigma about self-publishing, so I’m just curious what your experience was. I have a feeling it was the best thing for your poems you ever did.
JG: Absolutely. After a while, I began to think about these poems as a kind of gathering because there were so many and I wanted to put them together. I had always been under the impression that the way you got a book published was you would send things to magazines and then at some point, a publisher would see one somewhere and say, “Wow, this is so good I want to see a whole book of these things.”
SRPR: You still are a child, John.
JG: No, really. I kept waiting for someone to contact me and want to publish a book of my poems. I waited and waited and waited, and what finally was the spur to putting the chapbook together was that I was going to give a reading at a World War II conference, and I was going to have a session all to myself. I thought it would be nice to have something to pass out to the people there, so I gathered together enough of the poems to make twenty-eight pages and put together a cover and went to Copy-X and ran off a hundred copies.
It really was a transforming sort of experience because I never thought that I would get the kind of response to these poems that I got. The first printing cost me about $132 for the hundred copies. My friend and colleague John Kilgore helped me set it up on a word processing program because I was pretty ignorant about what I was doing. I sold all those and ran off more copies over the years. About eight hundred copies altogether. It’s really brought me a long distance.
Bohdan Zadura, an excellent Polish poet living in Poland, saw a copy and asked to translate the poems into Polish, and then Czesław Miłosz saw a copy later and did a review of it that’s included in his last collection of essays. Then later I took a bunch of the poems and submitted them to the Illinois Arts Council and won a fellowship for 7,000 bucks.
SRPR: That’s a great story. Really.
JG: It’s been amazing. Who would have thought? So when people say to me that they’re thinking about self-publishing, I say “Go! Self-publish, by all means!” I was on a panel a while back about this very topic. There were four of us, and the other three all said the same thing: you need to be evaluated by your peers and if you print the book yourself, there’s no peer evaluation, and on and on they went. I said, instead, I printed this little book and it was a good
thing to do. It was the right thing to do.
SRPR: Maybe the way to think about peer review is whether you’ve placed work in magazines, reasonably respectable ones. If you have a group of twenty or so poems and more than half have already been published, then your work has actually been reviewed. I think it’s more than fine to go ahead with your own book then. The magazine publications are a good criteria. All the contests that exist today make publishing a book a lot different now than it once was.
JG: Contests! I think of all the money I’ve spent sending my book around for $25 a pop to twenty or so different contests. I could have published the book myself for that money. Published and distributed it.
SRPR: I’m sure you’re not alone here, John, but I’d like to get to a different topic if we could. I’ve been meaning to ask you about translations. Your chapbook, The Language of Mules, was translated into Polish and that’s the version of the book that Miłosz read. Do you or did you speak Polish yourself?
JG: I speak Polish, or a little anyway. What I call “kitchen” Polish — I speak it and have tried writing in it. In fact, one of the first poems that I wrote about my parents, “Dreams of Warsaw,” I wrote an early version in Polish and then read it to my parents. My mother said, “It sounds like a country and western song.” That’s because even though I thought it was in free verse, there are just so many rhymes in Polish that the poem came out with a kind of rhythm to it and so sing-songy that my mother said it reminded her of “a hillbilly tune.”
SRPR: What did you do then—did you translate it into English?
JG: Well, sort of. I took the last lines, “Where are the horses / where are the horses” and started over from there.
SRPR: Could you write the poem out for us in Polish?
JG: I could, but only phonetically. I can’t write in Polish. My knowledge is oral.
SRPR: I think I’m trying to get at a point here. Your poems are wonderfully simple and direct and remind me in that way of some other poets who are essentially writing in English as their second language. Charles Simic is an obvious example—from Yugoslavia to Chicago—and then another Illinois poet, Carl Sandburg, who grew up hearing Swedish before he knew English. And then there’s John Guzlowski, who also moved to Chicago, writing in a similar uncomplicated style.
JG: It’s funny you say this because I have a PhD in English and have taught for what, almost thirty years, and still get idioms mixed up and words turned around. I know there were times when the students thought for sure that I didn’t know the language. You know, my mother learned to speak English very quickly, but as both my parents got older, they lost a lot of what they’d learned.
SRPR: I guess that’s because they learned it. Polish they lived. That’s like this guy I knew in college who grew up speaking Spanish but was absolutely fluent in English. No accent or anything until he’d get really upset about something, and then he reverted to Spanish. His emotional life was connected to those first sounds he heard, but I guess that’s where our emotional lives are, down in those deep recesses of language.
JG: That was sure true for my mother especially, who knew all kinds of Polish folk sayings and songs. Real simple, direct bits of wisdom. I think about what I was paying most attention to when I was in my teens and that was folk music. Maybe I was attracted to it because of that same simplicity.
SRPR: Elemental, that’s how I’d describe your poems. Hardly ornamental, thank God. But now that I’ve been praising the hell out of you, do you think you sometimes get a little repetitious?
JG: Oh yeah. I worry about that. But I think finally what I’m doing is trying to get deeper into a poem, to elaborate on something I did in an earlier poem.
SRPR: Or maybe this is an editing problem, of taking some poems out that seem to cover the same territory. When you had this group of poems together to make the new book, what led you to choose some poems and not others?
JG: The new book actually had all the poems in it at one time. But it was about 180 pages long. I knew that wouldn’t work. So I tried to develop a strong sense of narrative as a way of unifying it, which is ironic in a way because the book starts out backwards with the death of my parents and moves all the way back to their childhood in Poland.
SRPR: Is this an influence from your fiction days? I mean, you’ve written a lot of short stories.
JG: Yeah, I did a lot of short stories, but when I started writing poetry, I stopped writing fiction. It’s been twenty-eight years since I’ve written any fiction, though my own complaint about my poems is that I sometimes think they’re too prosy. Just too many "that’s" and "which’s" in the poems. Too much reliance on transitional words that we use to make sentences
SRPR: Thank you for saying that. I don’t mean about your work, I mean about so much I read that’s prose chopped at various predictable places. Why bother with line breaks?
JG: Well, I try to work on those. Probably the poet who has influenced me the most is Robert Frost. I’m always thinking about the way he broke his lines, especially in the great narrative poems like “Mending Wall” and “Home Burial.” That’s poetry.
Bruce, can I say one last thing? About Spoon River?
SRPR: Sure. Go ahead.
JG: I’d like to thank you for reconnecting me with the journal. It represents a lot to me. One of my first poems about my parents appeared in Spoon River back when it was a quarterly. The poem was “Pigeons,” and Lucia Getsi was kind enough to print it. In a slightly different form. As I recall, she felt the opening moved too slowly, and she took the time to ask me to rethink it and she even gave me some suggestions. What I’ve come to realize over the years is that not many editors would do that. I rewrote the poem, and she took it. I was very happy to see it in Spoon River.
The journal also means a lot to me because it reminds me of all the fine poets and writers who have come out of central Illinois in the last decades, you and Lucia and Curt White and Jim
McGowan and Kathryn Kerr and Helen Degen Cohen and Kevin Stein and Ray Bial and David Radavich, and so many others whose names I’m forgetting but whose writing moved me. Really, it was an amazing gathering, and I hope Spoon River is here for decades and decades more to give poets a place to connect with readers and other poets.
SRPR: That’s kind of you, John. We plan to keep it going, one decade at a time.