1. Bryan,
    Thank you for your willingness to talk with us this semester. It’s much appreciated.

    Now then, I love tercets. Prime Directive seems to be constructed using tercets, often enjambed from one to the next. I’m just curious about the thought process that happens when building a poem solely in 3-line stanzas, or if they even start out as 3-line stanzas, or why use tercets at all?

    (Chess match: Khan v. Roy Batty: Who wins?)

    Lastly, what motivates you to write poetry?

  2. Hi Justin!

    Yes, Prime Directive uses tercets, but of a particular kind. The entire book/poem is a Renga chain, which means every stanza is a haiku.

    I’d never attempted much haiku in this life, but when I saw the Chinese film Hero in 2002 it spoke to me. Most of my poetry is intensely dense and layered with jargon and allusions. I saw this film and came out wanting to write something simpler, more spare.

    Whether or not the resulting project lives up to that goal is debatable, but the inspiration led me to a desire to do something more Eastern than Western in its sensibility, thus the haiku and thus the smaller bites. Writing in strict 5/7/5 syllabics was challenging but also freeing. I think it forced me to approach my craft and subject matter in a less intellectual, more emotional way.

    The end result is , I think, still very much like me, but I do think the poem as a whole sings a plainer song. It may not play out as I had originally imagined (more nature centered, more softly contemplative), but it does not seem as packed with verbal and mental fireworks as some of my other books. Sometimes we need to clean the slate and try a different chalk.

    Motivation? I may have answered a piece of that above, and clearly life (i.e. my father’s illness, my son’s maturation, turning 40, etc.) move me. But beyond that, the crafting of poetry is not something I’m motivated to do. It is what I must do. It is who I am. More on this notion later!

    As for the chess match? Great question. I suspect Roy wins. At least he doesn’t seem trapped in two dimensional thinking.


  3. Hello again Bryan,

    There are times when I’m writing that I can’t help but get hung up on a particular image or, more often, the idea of an image and I can’t fully articulate it onto the page. Or if I do manage to get something on the page, it feels forced and doesn’t ‘do’ what I thought it would, it doesn’t ‘feel’ right. There is this glaring insecurity that the image I have in my head will get lost somewhere between my thoughts and the page. That it’ll end up on the island of misfit moments; that the result won’t be quite exactly as I had envisioned. What is your advice to overcome this insecurity (frustration?) in poetry? I’m trying to remind myself to let the poem go where it wants and not direct it so-much but…what do you do when the poem goes somewhere unexpected?

    I really enjoyed PD, especially XVII.
    Thank you


  4. Hey Bryan,

    I’m actually running into a similar problem as it seems Justin is, working on a poem and being hung up on an idea. For me it seems that what I originally begin writing sounds too much like prose, perhaps the ideas are too broad or get drenched in too much detail. If ideas are too detailed or too broad would you recommend splitting into different poems following the same story, or give the reader enough credit for a longer attention span? I’m working with a pretty ridiculous idea right now that may end up being multiple pages, but I’m not sure if I should just start breaking the poem up into sections (chapters if it were prose) or if my time would be better spent editing like crazy to really simplify ideas and shorten the overall piece.


  5. Hi Justin,

    Let me just say, as far as I can tell, the writer is the last person in the world who has any control over a good poem.

    We get to feed it and water it and trim it back, take clippings, maybe even repot it or hang tinsel, but the root of a poem that’s really working rests very deeply in our psyche and in the psyche of the Overstory. My own experience has been that poems work best when I get out of the way. That’s hard, and it seems counterintuitive, particularly when the poem is “confessional,” but nothing worth writing ever came easy.

    I try to remember that I’m a gardener, not a God, not the sun, not the soil. I try to use the shears more often than the chainsaw, and the small clippers more often than the shears. If I have to break out the chainsaw, I’m probably in the wrong garden.

    The best way I know to get over the anxiety of such a role is to stop worrying about what the tree is going to look like when it grows up. Trees take decades to reach maturity. Most good poems take days or weeks, sometimes years, so why worry about the end result when our job is supposed to be tending the garden regardless?

    Enjoy the smell of the earth, let the sun beat upon your neck, take pride in the sweat that drips from your limbs. The best poems find a shape we rarely intend. They grow slowly and take the shape only perhaps the wind intended.

  6. Hi Steve,

    Often ridiculous ideas are the best ideas. Get out of your comfort zone. Do something stupid or insane. That’s how we got Moby Dick after all. And Thomas Pynchon. And Yeats.

    So much of what we all want to write has been written already. I often say I write what I write because I’m a geek, and that is still true. But it’s also true to say that if I weren’t writing about Batman and Superman and Electra Woman I’m not sure if any of my poems would have found a home by now.

    Rule 1) Write your passion. Rule 2) Do it fearlessly. Rule 3) The goal is not acceptance or accolade or publication. Rule 4) Do justice to the words and the ideas you serve. Rule 5) Break the rules intentionally and beautifully.

    If your poem is getting long, let it be long. It may not ever find a home (precious few venues want or need long poems), but that’s not the point…is it? The point is to give the poem the space it needs to exist as it must. It may be the poem really needs a tiny environment, a box to keep it strong and new. Sometimes too much space is just…too much; it can weaken an already weak poem or encourage bad habits.

    But sometimes a poem is large. It contains multitudes. Without seeing the poem you’re working on itself, the best advice I can give is, if it needs a cast of thousands, pony up the production costs, hire the crew, lease the warehouse and, by God, film Lawrence of Arabia. Just make sure you haven’t mistakenly bought the script for Cleopatra.

  7. I haven’t quite gotten past the cover (which has entertained me endlessly) of Prime Directive. I have, however, read Universal Monsters. And I’m going to admit: I really don’t like rhymes and the idea of form poems convince me napping is sometimes the most amazing activity one can engage in. You seem to deal with form poems in a way that aren’t aggressive and rhymes that don’t dull me down with their never-ending thud (specifically, I enjoy The Oblong Box…mainly because I like the word “pine” a lot). Unfortunately I do not want to become one of those Post-Modern cliche cunts that go about writing everything without form and scoffing at restrictions and attempts at decent rhyme. Do you have any sort of troubles with form poems? If not, any suggestions for over-coming this? Or even suggestions of poets that I may not despise for rhyme and form?
    And of course, thank you for engaging with us. It’s always nice to have a published poet to discuss matters with (especially when they are distanced by electronics and lots of land).

  8. Hey Bryan,

    First off thank you for giving your time to answer questions and for conversing with us. I enjoyed Prime Directive and how you touched on a father and son relationship in a cool way. I admire how you are able to do this without being cliche. How do you suggest one should write about one’s father or such without being cliche in a short poem such as in 20 lines or so? My second question is what does poetry mean to you? My last question is what made you decide poetry was the right genre for you? Thank you again for giving your time to answer questions.

  9. Hey Shannon,

    Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy this very much!

    Actually, I have problems with every kind of form. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to master them or let them master me. Half the fun is getting lost in language or the forms language can take. If it were about money or fame or free tickets to Lakers games, we wouldn’t be writing poetry…yes? So it has to be about enjoying the ride.

    I would recommend trying every form you can. Start with the Sestina and move on to others. Wind up with the sonnet. Read a whole lot of Dickinson, Marilyn Hacker, Anthony Hecht, Dylan Thomas, Honor Moore, Mark Strand, Sylvia Plath, Frederick Turner, and pick up an anthology titled A Formal Feeling Comes by Annie Finch.

    There are thousand of others of course, but the key is to keep looking until you find a voice that sings the song you’re seeking. Then join in chorus. For me, the voices were Hopkins and Thomas and Yeats, Plath and Sexton and Olds. Then, at long last, I found Cairns and Goldbarth.

    Just know that every poem is–and should be–a struggle. If it’s not, it’s probably not a poem. Every poem I work with is in some sort of form. But I learned a long time ago that if the form has begun to DRIVE the poem, I need to back off and rethink. The poem should gain from the form, and the form can of course help shape the poem, but if you find yourself sacrificing clarity and quality and vision ONLY for the sake of form, abandon ship.

    The white whale can’t sink you if you decide to swim alone.

  10. Hello Danny.

    Well, crap. Big ass questions.

    Okay, first one: Write what you know, but be aware that A) just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s poignant or art, B) just because it’s true doesn’t mean changing facts might not make it MORE true, and C) Hallmark has a corner on the maudlin market.

    Look for events, moments, quotes from your experiences that aren’t familiar. Try on memories over and over until you find the ones that truly sing. Wait for collisions (i.e. for me, no one moment or insight is ever enough; I need several things happening at once, colliding in metaphor and symbol to justify my taking on any topic, be it lived or imagined).

    And finally, read, read, read. Look for what’s already been done, learn from it, and leave it dead with the knife of your re-imagining.

    The second two questions I believe I’ve answered before, elsewhere, and didn’t sound completely insane, misguided, or just plain dumb. So, if you like, please check out the interview on the following pages:


    Honestly, I don’t know that there are answers to some questions about poetry. That’s why it’s poetry. But I can tell you this: I’ve been a poet ever since I read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I didn’t choose poetry. poetry chose me. Even writing a novel these past eight months told me that.

    Probably no-one will want the book. Why? It’s really poetry pretending to be horror.

  11. List of questions:
    I’m assuming there is no way you live just off poetry. Do you teach? If so, is it the bane of your existence? Or do you actually live off poetry?
    I know you are all about being a poet because there is no way you can’t be a poet because you are a poet and that is what you are, but…is there a particular “thing” (for serious lack of a better word) about poetry that compels you? For instance, I like word fucking and turning terms into parts of speech they really shouldn’t be allowed to (but I also don’t refer to myself as a poet…).
    What’s your opinion on prose-poetry?
    Do you read fiction?
    Also this made my day: “It’s really poetry pretending to be horror.”

  12. Bryan,

    I’ve found your advice to other students very helpful. You have inspired me to mess around a little with form and I have the beginnings of a sestina written. I hope that form will give me some foundation to “like” writing poetry. While I want to believe I am capable of writing poetry, I am never satisfied with the work I produce.

    I have no emotional investment in my poetry. I feel as if every poem I write is complete B.S. and should not be taken seriously. Yet poetry as a genre does seem to be very serious even when it is humorous or sarcastic. I have little creative connection with my poetry and do not find myself trying very hard to forge one as I have little interest in the final product.

    However, with fiction, I am quite the opposite. I spend months thinking out the lives of characters that will never fit on the page and revel in the work of tightening scenes. I wonder why I feel okay about making shit up in prose form, but feel like asshole when I do the same in poetry. I have tried writing some prose-like poems and feel more comfortable this way. However, in workshop I was told the style was almost too prose-like.

    How do you feel about your own relationship to your work? Is it always positive or are you sometimes amazed that your peers have accepted a poem that you find cliched and half-hearted? What would be your advice to a novice writer unsure of the sincerity of the form? Do you think poetry is worth the effort for someone who just cannot feel comfortable in such a limited amount of space?

  13. I seem to have a little trouble revising my own work. It’s not that I think it’s great and therefore beyond revision but at some point after I’ve done some revision I can’t get enough distance from the poem. Is this problem strictly a time issue? It is difficult in a class setting where we have to produce a certain amount of work within a certain time to find the time to get enough distance from my work. How much time do you generally spend working on a poem? Are workshops with other poets helpful to you? Are writer’s conferences helpful?
    Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.

  14. Dear Shannon,

    Wow. Okay, one universe at a time.

    Let’s see… No one lives off poetry. I have been publishing poetry, seriously, since 1994 and have seen exactly 0 dollars in royalties. Now, I have been paid for individual poems (Poetry and the New Yorker, for example) and have won prize money, but I figure if I put all that together it might just reimburse me for all the postage and contest fees I’ve paid out over the years. I don’t write poetry because it pays. No one does. I write poetry for the same reason preachers preach or teachers teach…it’s a calling. Once upon a time, back when my parents were still dragging me to church (Southern Baptist), one of our ministers asked us to raise our hands if we thought we were being called to preach the Word. We all had our heads bowed and our eyes closed, but I peeked. I was the only one with his hand raised. It’s still raised.

    As for teaching, no, it is in no way a bane. It is perfectly married to my writing interests and habits. My scholarly interests feed my poetry, and my poetry feeds my scholarly pursuits. I write papers on and teach Wonder Woman…I turn around and write Wonder Woman poems. I write Gothic poems…I turn around and research the Gothic as Jungian trope. It’s a vast Mobius strip of passion that feeds back in upon itself. I knew from that moment in second grade, at church, that I wanted to serve the Word. I’ve known since seventh grade that I could do so in two ways: write and teach. I’ve never wavered, and I’ve always been happy. Weird, huh?

    I suppose if there’s any one “thing” about poetry that draws me to it, it’s the fine-tuning process. I began life as a reader and writer, but also as an artist. I suppose poetry chose me for the same reason that painting and sculpture chose me. I love the minute changes, the placing of a line here, the carving off of a lump there. I can spend hour upon hour working on a single curve of a cheek in a painting…I can spend the same kind of hours on a single word in a poem. Beyond this, I also like (as in art) the feeling that I’m only just THIS far from falling off the edge of the world and losing control. That restraint at the cusp of chaos makes the world vibrate. And I vibrate with it.

    As for prose poetry, the term is something of a misnomer. Poetry is poetry, no matter form. Some poetry is written in verse; some isn’t. Some looks blockier than others, but if the poem makes us feel a sense of vertigo, it’s poetry, no matter the shape it takes (unless, of course, it’s in the shape of a haystack or a ukulele…concrete poems will take us all to hell in a spiral). 😉

    I love reading all kinds of things. Fiction? Yes. Horror, Sci Fi, Fantasy, contemporary fiction, comics… Probably everything but rap and fanfic. My favorites, for all time, are Hopkins and Bradbury. But lately it’s Rushdie and Martin.

  15. Hey Laura,

    You ask a hard question, but the only one that matters. The only answer I have for you is to write what you love and love what you write. If you have no love for it, it will never love you back. Neither will it seduce others. Keep writing. If what you’re writing wants to be a poem, I believe it will let you know. If it doesn’t, it won’t have to tell you.

    Myself, I only write those things that call to me so often I find myself certain I’m going insane. The voice, the notion, the crux…whatever it is that screams poem or story to me has to keep crying out until I find the space and time to write it. Other ideas, germs of ideas, have only whispers. Once those whispers become audible, I can really take note. Until then, they wander the vestibule, chased, I suspect, by bees.

    More, once the voice cries loudly enough, once the idea becomes an unavoidable need, I have to also be sure the idea is more than singular, that it collides with another idea in an interesting way. If it’s one note, it will have to keep calling. If it’s harmony or even dissonance, I have no choice but to find an Opera house suitable for it.

    Sometimes I wear a mask.

  16. Hello Christina,

    Back when I was still in workshops, they saved my writer’s soul. It takes a long time, for some of us, to hear what others have to say, to eventually internalize that editing impulse that comes so readily from those who haven’t done the writing and so hard for those of us who have.

    Not all those voices are right. Not everything they say is good advice. But the impulse, the need to second guess what you’ve put on paper, is the right impulse. We are imperfect vessels for what the cosmos pours into us. And our poems and stories are sometimes even more imperfect. The idea, no matter how pure, must have the clearest vessel possible.

    Learning what voices to listen to is difficult, but essential. Even more essential is letting those voices become part of you. We need those exo-somatic editors in order to develop an endo-somatic one. Just like we need parents to develop a work ethic or a sense of right and wrong.

    We may wind up hating our parents (been there, done that), but their voices still whisper to us at the hour of the wolf, they still yell at us at the hour of choice, they comfort us at the hour of each little death. The internal editor is important. Like a conductor or a tour guide. Like Virgil.

    To get through hell, we need guidance. To bring back the tale we need to tell, we need our Beatrice. Having to claw our way over Satan’s fur to get to the other side shouldn’t be seen as a chore; having to go the long way through the inferno shouldn’t be viewed as punishment; the journey through hell, all the little steps, all the big jumps, every malbolge avoided, every river forded…these are the twists and turns of the tale itself. Why would we want to get there any faster?

    There’s a reason Dante was confronted three times as he tried to take a shortcut through the woods. He had to go the long way. So do we. Look at it this way, sometimes we get to ride a gryphon to do it.

  17. Bryan,

    In your last response to Shannon, you stated, in reference to “prose-poetry” that “poetry is poetry, no matter form […] if the poem makes us feel a sense of vertigo, it’s poetry, no matter the shape it takes.” I wonder if you could explain what you mean by “a sense of vertigo” and expand more on what you think actually qualifies as poetry. Do you think that any thing, as long as it is poetic, can qualify as poetry? For example, Rushdie presents many poetic descriptions in his work,especially Enchantress of Florence, but it does not seem, to me, that these are poems. They do not “look” like poems. In contrast, some of the poetry I have come across does not seem to be poetry at all, but only narrative with line breaks.

    Do you think that poetry is really so subjective as to potentially include any and all forms of writing?

  18. Dear Laura,

    Great question. My definition of poetry is the same as Lewis Turco’s; poetry is the art of language. In other words, poetry is any writing that focuses on its own status AS language. That focus can be on word choice, tropes, rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, or any number of other facets. Other kinds of writing focus on story, character, rhetoric, drama, etc. What sets poetry apart is its intense preoccupation with its own mode.

    Now, given this definition, poetry can appear just about anywhere: in a novel by Faulkner or Rushdie or Morrison, in a graphic novel like Arkham Asylum or Promethea, in a song by Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel, in a TV show like Battlestar Galactica. I say “poetry” can appear wherever the language is intensely invested in its finely crafted parts. That does not mean that everywhere we see poetry, we see “a poem.”

    The poem is poetry set apart. There is poetry, for example, in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” But the only poem that appears is toward the end, in a piece set apart as “The Haunted Palace.”

    You also ask what I mean by vertigo. I believe that language, when exceedingly well-crafted, when focused upon itself to do all that it can do (see Hopkins), makes us feel unmoored from the mundane use of linguistic interchange. It tears us from the commonplace. It sends us spinning into an encounter with the sublime, which is always a confrontation with terror…and delight. The vertigo I speak of is also called epiphany, catharsis, possession, enlightenment, prayer.

    It is an encounter with the only God I believe in. And that God changes lives. That God calls me to serve. That God IS poetry.

  19. This is a bit more selfish and personal question and I halfway apologize for this. However, because I really want to know I am chuking my inhibitions into the hallway and going for broke.
    I know you are a professor (and I do believe you have some serious title or something of that nature) and you went to grad school, so you have been on both sides of the application process. I am having some problems with my personal statment (on the applications). I keep getting hung up. So I was wondering if you had any sort of anecdote about how you figured out your own personal statment? Or any sort of advice?
    Also, I have been finding my workshops a little…disappointing. I’ve been turning in poems hoping for someone to completely tear into me; to actually be helpful rather than compliment my word choice. This is causing two things to happen: I am getting a very large head and at the same time wondering if my poetry is so helpless that no one wants to crush was little it stands on. Have you ever found workshops so frustrating?
    And last, but MOST important:
    Whaddya think of cyborgs?

  20. Dear Shannon,

    Alas, I do give good letter…but only for other people. My own personal statements seem to turn people away (see all my writing above). The best thing I can offer is to be honest, funny, and interesting. The worst thing you can do is simply run your credits; lots of students have credentials, some probably better than yours, thus you have to stand out. Yeah, I know, about as much help as a Viewmaster for a cyclops.

    As for workshops, take what they offer. But never stop there. Find others, find a group of writer friends, buy beer, hang out, pass your poems around. Develop an inner circle of those friends you trust as readers. And, above all, learn to look at your work, yourself, with the kind of critical eye you yearn for in others. Easier said than done, I know, but you won’t always be in school.

    Cyborgs? I love them. Particularly if their spines glow.


  21. Dear Bryan,
    Have you ever successfully used the word “charming” without being cliche or sounding a little to close to a British Romantic?
    Do you know of any comics, Science Fiction movies, or poems dealing with the idea of a translucent fetus?
    Do you ever use poetic assignments to help you push through blocks? Or do you just write and write until something makes sense or looks/sounds cool?

  22. Dear Shannon,

    Okay, I’ve just gotta meet you sometime. Don’t think I’ve ever run into questions of quite this flavor. 😉

    Anyway, not sure that I’ve ever used charming, but I can imagine making it work, particularly if it’s coupled with something utterly antithetical: The bodies, piled like cordword and phlegmed with blood, lay beneath the sliced moon, blue, aromatic, charming.

    You know, something like that.

    As for strange fetuses, perhaps take a look at Shelley Jackson’s The Melancholy of Anatomy. Or maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m sure their might be others, but I’ll have to ask my alien friends.

    I don’t push myself with assignments, per se. I have, on occasion, set myself a personal assignment, like a write a crown of crowns or write a sestina using the license plate number of the car in Psycho, but as you mean it, no. I think I just like writing things I think will be cool or odd or sad or fun. The ideas take care of themselves usually. As long as there’s an interesting collision.


  23. Bryan,
    Thank you…I think.
    Did the crown of crowns turn into the crown of sonnets in Krypton Nights? Or are you holding back more somewhere on your hard drive…I am assuming you use a computer (with a hard drive; could there even be a functioning computer in nowadays without a hard drive).
    What sorts of interesting collisions? I have this image of a words and ideas in large 18 wheelers running amuck on the highway in a post-apocalyptic world (where strange fetuses mate with all sorts of colors and textures).
    That is so lovely and gory and I usually hate moon imagery. Shelley Jackson of Patchwork Girl fame? Or is there another in the mist.
    I know poetry is emotional for you (or at least it can be and your recent published work seems to indicate that), but do you ever write fluff for the sake of fluff? Or steel just have some steel?
    By the by, there is a book of yours (Krypton Nights) that is listed at 129.58 on Amazon. When did you/or have you ever called yourself successful?

  24. Dear Shannon,

    Sorry to be so long in responding. The semester just got insane and I’ve finally come up for a little air…before I go back down with the whales and the selkies and the zombies.

    Anyway, no, the crown of crowns is its own thing and appears in my most recent book, The Assumption. The single crown in Krypton Nights is all by its lonesome. (Unless you count the crown dyptich I wrote for Amazon Days, a book of Wonder Woman poems that has no home yet). And yes, computers are a necessary evil. I have to use, to quote Giles from Buffy, “That dread box.”

    What I mean by interesting collisions are any kind of secondary or tertiary idea/symbol that collides with your original idea in order to make it resonate in more than one dimension. Example: I want to write about my father and my step father, I see a connection with Superman’s two fathers, and write about both. That’s one idea colliding with another and allows me to write about the one and slip in a secondary level that speaks to the other. More, a third and fourth line of symbol emerges: While writing about Superman, I also find myself writing about symbol itself (big red S) and about the idea of meaning or law, plus, by engaging a modern myth, I necessarily am writing about myth itself too. So… Fathers, Superman myth, symbol use, mythology. Four topics, one set of poems. Big collisions, big explosions, planets die and an extraordinary infant is set afloat in space to another family… Crap, five topics. I’m writing about Moses. No, Christ. Wait, six topics…

    That’s what I mean.

    Patchwork Girl. Yes. Rockin’ writer. Plus the human skin template for her short story was a brilliant idea. A living tale made of tattoos. Wow.

    I hope I never write fluff. I have written a couple of (unpublished) kid’s books, but I’d like to believe they have teeth. Even the Sci Fi novel I just finished the first draft of is, I hope, more than genre entertainment. Of course that also means it’s going to be harder to publish than poetry. Ack!

    Finally, successful… God, I hope not. I want to keep failing so I can keep writing, keep trying to get it right.


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