Tim Seibles by Remica Bingham-Risher
In October 2012, Tim Seibles finally got a bit of his due. His latest book of poems, Fast Animal, was nominated for the National Book Award, putting his work in the spotlight for the national audience many agree it deserves. When Tim Seibles fell headlong into poetry as an undergraduate student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas more than thirty years ago, he was a Philly son burning to play football, but beginning to believe words could be the saving grace in a rapidly maddening world.
Tim Seibles has published seven collections of poetry, Body Moves, 1988; Hurdy-Gurdy, 1992; two chapbooks—Kerosene and Ten Miles An Hour, 1995; Hammerlock, 1999; Buffalo Head Solos, 2004; and Fast Animal (Etruscan, 2012). In 2012, Body Moves was re-printed as part of Carnegie Mellon’s Classic Contemporary Poetry Series. His work can be found in numerous anthologies including: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Outsiders: Poems about Rebels, Exiles and Renegades and Verse & Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics. His poems, “Allison Wolff” and “Othello, Unplugged” were included in the 2010 and 2013 Best American Poetry anthologies. His honors include an Open Voice Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.
Upon hearing that Tim Seibles was nominated for the National Book Award (NBA), I wrote the following on my blog:
“When I was 16…I found Tim Seibles. His book, Hurdy-Gurdy, fell into my heart and hands and I was hammered by its deft music. I remember, so clearly, reading the poem “Trying for Fire” sitting up in my bed and feeling a little faint, a little dizzy. My head was blaring, heart banging, I couldn’t breathe. I’d never had that kind of reaction to anything…certainly no book, and I’d read plenty by then—many that I loved beyond telling—but none moved me like the work of Tim Seibles in that moment. Years later, after I sought him out and followed him (and a boy) to Old Dominion then weaseled my way onto his advisees list so I could sit in his office and marvel once each term, he told me I was a poet, and that this poet’s life was possible, even in a stark and dire world. He sent me to Cave Canem then to Bennington, then eventually back to Etruscan Press. He has colored so much of the timeline in my life and I am so grateful to know him this morning and know that now (finally) a great many others will love his fire, too. He is, indeed, a Fast Animal, a brilliant mind, an open eye and heart.”
Remica Bingham-Risher: Many of us felt you were long overdue for an NBA nomination. More than a year has passed now and I’m assuming you’re moving back into the poet’s regular obscurity. How does the influx and then the return to normalcy change you or your writing life?
Tim Seibles: I’m wouldn’t say I’ve been changed in any significant way by being a finalist for the National Book Award. I’m so glad to have had a bit of that big spotlight for awhile—truly astonished really—but you write what you’re driven to write forever and ever amen. I don’t think the effort and neurotic worry ever changes.
Bingham-Risher: Publishers Weekly called Fast Animal, “[c]risply comic, disarmingly frank, and aurally bold…” It is all that and more. In it, you write in the voice of a black vampire, pen sweeping odes to the ordinary and deify the ghosts of your past. One poem I’ve been revisiting a little too often recently is “Donna James.” I’m really fascinated by it and its subtle but clear erotica. You are a poet who certainly praises the body and all its uses. Writing about desire and specifically about sex is so hard for young poets, it all seems overwrought and underdeveloped. How do you craft this kind of work?
Seibles: Believe me, my early efforts at articulating the erotic were not readily embraced by those who read them. Given the puritanical underpinnings of this culture, it is very hard to walk the tightrope between the erotic and the pornographic. (Of course, I think there’s room for both in poetry, but I am determined not to be careless with either.) I want to rescue sexuality and restore it to a celebrated place. It is an expression of the spiritual in us as well as a feature of the raw animal in us. I make no apology for either of those aspects of our humanity. For me, the erotic realm is one place where those apparent opposites are beautifully reconciled. In sex, we share companionship—a mutual interest in each other’s deepest longings—and physical pleasure becomes a sort of text, a manifestation of another language perhaps a prayer to the body for the body.
I’m sure some would say I’ve crossed the line into offensive territories—even in the poem you cite above, which I believe is an honest and tender rendering of early sexual discovery. With regard to crafting such work, it’s a matter of patience and sweat—like with all poems. There are plenty of half-ass poems on safe subjects. For me, the work is in finding a specific tone and a particular set of images and insights that can do justice to real sexuality. I mean, there’s what one does intentionally as a poet and what one stumbles into that works, intuitions that seem to instruct us as we write.
Bingham-Risher: You often write in formal verse in Fast Animal and throughout your repertoire. What does working in form give you as a writer? Does it free you in a way?
Seibles: I love ballads and, more recently, I’ve found myself consumed with villanelles. I don’t find form freeing. I find it more like trying to do a new dance in clothes that are just a little too tight, so I feel obliged to elbow around and high-kick, to stretch the garments to make certain moves happen. There’s a tension in that—not unlike the tension between a guitar solo and the rhythm/melody that give a tune its shape. The soloist presses against the edges, almost breaking out, to make something dramatic and moving and good to the ear. I like the way the lines of a villanelle can bump against or slide beyond its rhyme scheme and metrical demands to create a kind of almost untethered singing, a daring romp, a late-night bar song, an elaborate cry, both playful and sad. Think Hendrix and Coltrane or Wayne Shorter and Carlos Santana.
Bingham-Risher: Can you talk about your life in publishing (i.e. with Cleveland State for some time, then in limbo for a while until Etruscan)? How does that search for different poetry homes influence your morale? What advice can you offer to other poets who go through the same type of thing?
Seibles: I feel very grateful for my years with Cleveland State University Press. Of course, things change. After almost twenty years the editor of the press changed and he was unimpressed by my work, so I left. I wasn’t happy about the departure, but I understand things like that happen. There are better writers than me who’ve had far worse luck. My morale wasn’t damaged. I love to write and I believe in poetry; it would take something far more traumatic to change that feeling. Certainly, you worry about how long it’ll be before you find another press, but I was willing to self-publish Fast Animal if the search didn’t go well. My advice to other poets in a similar situation is to not give absolute power to presses (or anyone) regarding how and when your work is published. That could be head-warping in a lot of ways.
Bingham-Risher: I found this revelation of yours very interesting from an interview with Bomb Magazine. You said, “When I was a young poet—dreaming of being published, dreaming of getting invited to do readings—of course, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to win this award or that award. But truthfully, they seemed relatively unreal
to me. So I did submit manuscripts to a few contests, when I was starting out. I just wasn’t a good enough writer to win any of those contests.” NBA nomination aside, are you a good enough writer to win now? How would you gauge your personal progress?
Seibles: Writing is like playing an instrument. My instrument is English. The longer I play, the better I understand what words might do—how meaning and sound operate within a poem—or how a line works within the larger body of the poem. Also, my own sense of things has deepened and sharpened over the years, which adds fuel to my imagination. It’s impossible for me to say how good I am or to gauge my progress in any precise way. I feel that I know more now than I used to, and living this long has made me more desperate, more daring with respect to want from my poems. I also take courage and inspiration from other artists—poets, painters, musicians, dancers.
Bingham-Risher: What would you tell those, especially students and the like, who are sometimes taught to put much stock into contests, etc. Are contests all about the skill of the poets? Does losing them say more about your skill, or lack thereof, than about other parts of the writing life or larger professional landscape?
Seibles: Every contest is different—and it’s impossible to have a clear sense of who is reading manuscripts in the early stages. I’m sure a good number of fine books have been passed over by readers who may have been too hurried as they plowed through the stacks. I was lucky enough to place my second book, Hurdy-Gurdy, through Cleveland State’s contest. (Four books were chosen that year and I believe mine was the fourth.) Of course, skill has some part in who’s picked, but who gets picked is also a reflection of who’s picking. To win a contest there must be a convergence of three things: good writing, alert readers-judges who find your particular sensibility appealing, and the lucky timing that has your work in those particular hands. That year, I could’ve easily submitted my work to several other contests and been ignored. I think it’s potentially destructive to place a lot of stake in being a “contest winner.” You write steadily, you write what compels you, you grow as you work; this has to be the main source of sustenance for a writer. How many now famous writers had their work rejected many times before attracting a publisher? James Joyce’s Dubliners, I believe, was cast aside by 27 different presses before hitting print. Contests can be just as mysterious as publishing houses with regard to their choices.
Bingham-Risher: You teach in two MFA programs at Old Dominion and Stonecoast. Do you think the influx of these programs changed the writing world over the last decade? One criticism is that we’re giving students a false hope about being the next great writer. What are your thoughts about that?
Seibles: Clearly, the proliferation of MFA programs reflects a felt need in this culture. I think the number of MFA programs is a response to what appears to be a tidal wave of superficial nonsense coming from the zillion screens surrounding us. People want meanings, visions, voices that reflect their actual lives. The Geico Gekko can’t offer this; neither can a bunch of Law & Orders or movies that feature demonic possessions and/or vicious gun-loving lunacy. People don’t suddenly want to be writers because of MFA marketing. The passion is there and students come to such programs to hone their skill. Virtually everyone has dreams of doing something wonderful. It’s the job of parents, teachers, coaches—everyone—to encourage such dreaming. It’s understood that not all dreams come true, but what’s the alternative? Telling young people that it’s better to aim low would be poison. Every writer that we’ve come to love was once a young bubblehead with delusions of greatness.
Bingham-Risher: I was happy to see that you’ll be heading back to teach at Cave Canem’s summer retreat in 2014. It’s such an important institution. In fact, you told me as an undergrad, that I had to go to Cave Canem, so I bit the bullet and started applying until they would have me. How has it changed you? What effect do you think it’s had on the American literary landscape?
Seibles: When I was a poet in college and in my twenties, I knew very few black writers personally. That sense of isolation can be paralyzing, especially insofar as imagining an audience for your work is concerned. I was just too hardheaded to stop writing—the idealist hippie in me believed everybody would read my poems. Cave Canem (CC) has created a crucible in which black writers can feel part of a community of serious poets and readers of poetry. You feel like less of a freak when you can walk and talk with people who know some of the strain you’ve lived with, who know the codes particular to the experience of black people in America. In such a setting, there is wonderful cross-pollination, a feeding of the shared flames. I think it created a kind of latter day Harlem Renaissance for black poets. It’s impossible to overstate the size of the ripple in the American literary pond caused by Cave Canem. Just look at the winners of the National Book Award in poetry over the last four years. At least two of them have CC connections as either faculty or student participant (Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes). And, let me tell you, that place is as nourishing for faculty as it is for students.
Bingham-Risher: I’m finishing a book, Blood on the Page—African-American Poets from the Black Arts Movement to the Neo-Urban Modernist Movement: Interviews, Essays and Poems, wherein I posit that the emergence of Cave Caenm in 1996 spawned a new literary current, the Neo-Urban Modernist Movement. So black poets have moved beyond the Modernist, Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement into a new era where the collective “I” is still apparent, but individuality transcends the expectation that we carry community. Where do you see yourself and other African-American contemporaries fitting into this era?
Seibles: I think black poets still carry some significant expectation that we speak of and for the larger African-American community. The difference between now and earlier times is the great variety of voices, which reveals how wonderfully various and complex the black community is. I think, at various stages, black American authors have faced some pretty narrow ideas—both from without and within black society—concerning who we were supposed to be and what we might write. That is much less the case now. The doors been blown off the hinges! We are everywhere doing all kinds of things. This has been importantly facilitated by Cave Canem over the last two decades.
It’s strange for me to try to imagine ‘where I see myself fitting into this era.’ That’s probably for someone else to say. I hope my efforts have inspired a few younger poets to step out in unpredictable ways, to claim new turf for poets—black and otherwise. The thing I value most is being a part of the conversation about what being human means, what being conscious means, what the heart says, and what kind of world we want to inhabit.
Bingham-Risher: Your parents were part of the black upper middle-class in 1960s America. What parts of those experiences bled over into your life beyond that space and what parts stick with you tangibly now?
Seibles: I can’t say I grew up as part of the upper middle class; my neighborhood was mostly middle class, but the big apartment complex across the street from our house was filled with people “just getting by.” I lived in what was known as Dogtown, ruled by the Dogtown gang who battled Haines Street, Summersville, and The Clang among others. The folks doing pretty well in my neighborhood lived in row houses; the “high society” brothers and sisters lived in single houses (with swimming pools in some cases). Their parents might have driven Benzes or serious Caddies. That was somewhere else—the high sidididy scene. My father drove a Pontiac.
What my parents did for me and my brother was a reflection of their upbringings and aspirations. They wanted more from life. They’d met at Fisk University. They believed they were equal to anyone in this society. With this in mind, they made sure we were educated and unafraid to carry ourselves like we deserved respect. If my writing has seemed boldly out of bounds at times it is, at least in part, due to the fearlessness my parents instilled in me. That remains a part of me and, surely, affects my approach to poetry.
Bingham-Risher: You sent me a beautiful, difficult poem about your parents recently, and you’ve become a care-giver of sorts for them over the last few years. How does the shift in your relationship with your parents affect your poetry?
Seibles: It doesn’t really affect my approach to poetry except insofar as it gives me a new subject to wrestle with. Mostly, it affects the way I see life and the brevity of it, the fragility of all we think can’t be taken away. However, watching my parents in the last stage of their lives does make me enter each day more fiercely, more hungrily. When you watch the two people who raised you, people who once lived with such intensity, begin to lose themselves, it gives you irrefutable evidence that your clock is running too. Watching my parents at this point in their lives has added focus to my living and writing.
Bingham-Risher: Over the last few years you’ve been writing incredibly long poems, sometimes in persona. All those poems are 150-400 lines long. What signaled this shift in craft? What is the use of the long poem? How do you sustain tension in a poem like this?
Seibles: I’ve always admired long poems because of the wide expanse of territory they can cover. Think about Octavio Paz’s “Piedra del Sol” (Sunstone) or Audre Lorde’s “Dragonfish” or Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Whitman’s “I Sing The Body Electric” or Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, a book-length poem! The long form allows you the flexibility of story and essay, while featuring the moment-by-moment emotive intensity we ask of poetry. Being human is wildly complicated if one is attentive. For me the longer poems allow time to wander, to take surprising detours—and also, there’s this momentum that builds as you go further and deeper, and that extra speed occasionally helps me to break through some of the walls I hide behind.
Sustaining tension in a long poem is similar to sustaining it in a shorter poem. You have to make good choices about what stays and what goes, what compels and what’s just “filling space” while you’re chasing down the next essential thing. Writing a long poem doesn’t give a poet permission to be any more careless than a sonnet does. It may be easier to hide the weak, flabby stuff in a long poem, but the idea is to not have anything that doesn’t shake and shimmy. It may be harder—on the author—to spot filler, but that’s where integrity and work ethic come in. You claw and scratch and re-think until everything rings like it has to be there. At least, that’s the goal.
Bingham-Risher: You’ve created a pretty impressive body of work: Body Moves, Hurdy-Gurdy, Kerosene, Ten Miles An Hour, Hammerlock, Buffalo Head Solos and Fast Animal. What are the five most important/necessary pieces that would have to be included in a book of your selected poems and why?
Seibles: Of course, this is a very difficult question. I might come up with five different poems tomorrow, but I’ll give it a go: “Jose,” (from Body Moves) “Slow Dance,” (from Hurdy-Gurdy) “Midnight, the Coyote Down in the Mouth,” (from Hammerlock) “Late Shift,” (from Buffalo Head Solos) and “The Last Poem about Race” (from Fast Animal). Altogether these poems mark the main territories I’ve tried to explore over the years: sexuality, race, selfhood, mystical understanding, love, and loneliness. Some of these poems address two or three of these subjects at once. The only dimension that is under-represented here is my use of humor in poems. Let me add two more poems? How about “First Kiss” (from Buffalo Head Solos) and “Ode to My Hands” (from Fast Animal)? Those seven poems give a reasonably thorough look at the parameters of my stuff.
Each poem you finish represents a period of intense emotive thinking. If I don’t find something to love in a poem it dies away in the drafting stage. That’s why it’s hard to pick favorites. I feel some pretty strong attachment to all my pieces. Take “Someone Else” (from Buffalo Head Solos). I worked with that poem on and off for about 10 years before I thought it was right. And “Sorrow” (from Fast Animal) took me about 6 weeks to finish. Which one I dig most on a given day depends on my mood.
Bingham-Risher: I love this quote from Veer Magazine about you: “He’s the sort of person who writes because he believes in the power of poetry, pure and simple, whether it touches one soul or one million. He casts his poetry into the air, with unshakeable faith.” Why have you made poetry your life’s work? What’s the value of poetry today? How do we make that value matter to our students and to could-be readers, to anyone?
Seibles: I suppose I’ve made poetry my life’s work because I love how it feels to be in that secret place one enters when pursuing the words that hold the thing you really mean. I don’t know why I find such pleasure in that search; it’s just the way I’m made. We’re born and, if we’re fortunate, we have a chance to find out what compels us. It’s trial and error—like discovering what foods you like. I love strawberries, not raspberries; for other people it’s the reverse. Why? Because my taste buds smiled when I ate strawberries and for no other reason. I believe it is the same with poetry. Why is the big mystery behind just about everything.
Poetry matters because it allows us to deal in crucial speech: words bound for revelation—no bullshit, no half-hearted almost maybes. A poem wants the truth—whether we can handle it or not—while so much of the speech we hear or read through mass media holds something behind its back. The speech of politicians is so clearly calculated to give a particular impression. We are tricked every day by what we read, see, and hear. What we want, I think, is to be untricked, to have aspects of life clarified and given back to us with an honest sense of how much things weigh, how much this or that thing wounds or heals.
Poetry can be this kind of speech. Poetry can ask or assert what would never come from talk show, pulpit or newspaper. Good Morning America is virtually required to play to the middle, to make nice, but poetry doesn’t have to. It can kiss or smack us with precision—clarity, which we’re starved for. Of course, there are poets who add tricks to the trickery, who subvert the power of language and strip words of their original energy. Words evolved to help us communicate what matters and when, why, how and how much.
I believe the only way we can pass on the value of poetry to students or anyone is by writing and offering poems that speak to their lives in various ways. This might involve wildly imagined, iconoclastic works or something as simple and short as a haiku, but to the extent that the words are anchored in the realities we hold in common, to that same extent we will find a growing interest in poetry. Part of a poet’s job, of course, is to stretch our sense of what matters and what can be shared.
Remica L. Bingham-Risher earned an MFA from Bennington College, is a Cave Canem fellow, and a member of the Affrilachian Poets. Her first book, Conversion (Lotus Press, 2006), won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award and was published by Lotus Press. Her second book, What We Ask of Flesh, was published by Etruscan Press in 2013. She is the Director of Writing and Faculty Development at Old Dominion University and resides in Norfolk, VA with her husband and children. She is currently finalizing a book of interviews entitled Blood on the Page—African-American Poets from the Black Arts Movement to the Neo-Urban Modernist Movement: Interviews, Essays and Poems. For more information on her work and upcoming events visit www.remicalbingham.com.