INTERVIEW WITH GLENN SHELDON
You grew up in Salem, MA. When did you start writing seriously?
I'm still not sure I do write seriously. Well, I write critical articles, and I wrote a critical monograph,
South of Our Selves: Mexico in the Poems of Williams, Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, Levertov and Hayden, and those
certainly are serious. I'm not saying that creative work is not serious, but it's what I enjoy doing the most.
Scholarship is like putting up a fence in August in 99-degree heat. Creative writing is like sipping a mojito
in the shade, staring out at a weed-free garden. Also, more and more of my research-based work, at least in
terms of popular culture, manifests itself in creative nonfiction, so that's a nice compromise. Looking back,
I'd have to say that Salem always inspired me to write. And I'm not saying that because I've written a poem
about Giles Corey, but in Salem you're taught so many stories from your own backyard-bizarre stories, historical
stories-that I'm a little surprised more authors have not come out of Salem, at least in the twentieth century.
On a more personal note, getting a little gloomy here, I began to write to escape from verbal and physical abuse
at the hands of my mentally-unstable mother. So my escape into words (reading, reading, reading and a little
writing-however juvenile) was very serious to me at the time and protected my psyche, I believe.
In addition to scholarship in South of Our Selves and elsewhere, you have also dabbled in drama.
Talk about performance and theater. How is writing a play different from poetry, for example?
The state of contemporary drama seems to be lacking? What are your thoughts on this?
Well, when I was younger, I thought drama would be an easy leap since I wrote a lot of narrative poetry, but
I soon realized what a profoundly different genre it was. I had been exposed to performance art in Chicago in
my twenties, and even earlier, I wrote reviews of contemporary theater performed either in the Boston area or in
Providence RI. I've written some plays, published one (co-written with Rane Arroyo and Diane Williams) and seen
one performed (co-written with Rane Arroyo). That last experience declared, loudly (at least to me), that I wasn't
a dramatist. However, those experiments, I think, helped me overcome overly fretting about dialogue in my prose
works, so that's freed me up to draft a couple of novels which will, maybe, one day see the light. It's the same
message I try to dispel in all my writing students: writing informs your work over the long-run, so nothing is
wasted, even if it's tossed away. Word-work is practice, exercise and failure. And then success somewhere.
Contemporary drama is . . . is it anywhere? My opinion may be naïve here, as I haven't really followed theater
for a long time, but it seems Broadway has become ever-more corporate, as have touring companies who dominate
American drama dollars. Our culture is becoming ever more homogenized, but that's a common complaint for all
sorts of domestic cultural ailments that it's almost cliché. All I can hope for, I guess, is that one day the
pendulum will swing back, and we'll have some exciting avant-garde drama that really shakes our world views.
And perhaps, hopefully, theater is doing some interesting things in other places around the globe.
You have been teaching for many years now at The University of Toledo. Talk about what you teach and
what you try to teach your students about writing. What challenges do you face?
Mostly, I teach academic writing and creative writing, as well as Cultural Studies.
In the first two instances, the message above serves well in both scenarios. I also
teach in a program called Adult Liberal Studies (ALS), which is where Cultural Studies comes in.
I teach "Food and Eating in U.S. Culture" regularly, which is my favorite course to teach. Once I
taught a course in "Kitsch" which was more challenging. In Fall 2008, I will teach a new course in
"Television & Rock 'n Roll" which should be fun. ALS seminars are terrific because they are upper-level
and the students are 25 or older. Nontraditional students bring so much experience into the classroom that
I often wonder who's the teacher and who's the student. That's rewarding. I like teaching "Introduction
to Creative Writing" very much, because the students are beginning creative writers (or just dabblers) who
tend to come to class without prejudices in terms of genre and word craft. In terms of challenges, well,
anyone who teaches in a public institution is faced with skill-level expectations. But that challenge,
if you're a committed, hard-working, patient and spontaneous teacher, becomes a reward, in many cases.
Teaching is my second career; I was an editor for many, many years. I prefer teaching, even though the
rewards are less obvious and definitely less immediate.
Describe your favorite place to write.
Well, I've always lived in the north, so my favorite place to write in the winter months is anywhere warm.
I like fires, and I have a wood-burning fireplace, but I hate cleaning up afterwards so I don't do that much.
In warm weather, it's a different story. I like to sit on my deck (which isn't much of a "deck" in the
suburban sense), staring out at a small garden that I know should be weed-free (if I wasn't so lazy-note
the reluctance to clean the fireplace) and compose a poem. I may scribble some notes from time to time,
but mostly I compose in my head, first, at least these days. In the winter, I feed the birds and squirrels,
then watch them eat from behind the French doors of my library. I like composing then until the stray hawk
comes around, and then I have to run outside and scare it away (note: "bird scarer"). I sometimes compose when
I travel, so I bring a notebook, sit alone in an unfamiliar restaurant in an unfamiliar place, and write.
More and more, I just edit when I travel. And I love editing when I travel. I believe distance is a great editor.
These days, I travel a lot less than I did when I was junior faculty. So I may have to begin to do more travel
for travel's sake, just to catch up on editing because I am a bit behind in that area. When I was younger, I
would compose anywhere I could listen to my music; then, I stopped. Now, for the last several couple of years,
I've been attempting to write fiction, and I tend to work out scenes, progressions, etc., for prose works in the
gym, while listening to my iPod. So I suppose that says something . . . or not.
What writers influence you and why?
I guess I'm naïve to believe I'm a creative writer who just happens to be a scholar, too. Because when I hear a
word like "influence," I get all professorial. What does that mean? Writers I admire? Emulate? Imitate?
Want to be? I just don't know. If you look at my scholarship, you'll see a huge attraction to Thomas McGrath,
but I don't know if he "influences" my creative work, though he does influence my characterization of what American
poetry should be. William Carlos Williams (I love "The Desert Music"), Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hayden-all obvious
if you read my critical monograph South of Our Selves. As a teen, I decided to pursue writing poetry after reading
Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" because of its monumental power and word play. Charles Henri Ford, Edwin Rolfe, Ai, Richard
Katrovas, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Edgar Lee Masters, Barbara Hamby, etc. I can't say why, because there are
different reasons that I read each of these phenomenal poets. Also, I read my friends' works. Sometimes because I
like what they have to say and sometimes because they know I used to be an editor, but it's fun to read friends'
works in either case. Overall, I can say the primary qualities I admire in poetry are: sense of place, sense of
commitment and politic, narrative structure, detail, word play and word play.
Talk about your book, Bird Scarer, just published by Cervena Barva Press. Are you working on any new manuscripts?
What is the focus of your new works? How should a poet choose the title of their work?
Currently I am editing a small (chapbook-sized) group of poems called Cruel Flowers, which may or may not grow
into a book or the section of a full-length book. I have several manuscripts in the works, covering all sorts
of themes: travel, food and eating, growing up in Salem, a little bit of the witch trials, etc. My partner is,
I think, hyper-obsessed with titles (as well as talented and generous with offering book titles to, sometimes,
even total strangers), so most of the time I let him pick a title for my books. One night we were watching Antiques
Roadshow, and they had a bird scarer on there (one of the actual physical contraptions, of course), and my partner
turned to me and said: "That sounds like the title of your book." My obsession with birds, and air, and flight
(physical and metaphorical) was obvious to me (and should be obvious to any reader of Bird Scarer), but those two words
just solidified the big picture. Then I wrote the title poem, and all the poems swirled around it; together, the book
is flight and migration, home and away! A book title is a very delicate thing, for it often bookends a wide range of works.
Choosing one depends, as titles can and do perform different literary functions. Prior to the book coming out, I
did a poetry reading in October. We'd had a rather warm autumn, so I guess some birds had not yet migrated. On the
morning of the reading, I ran outside to scare a short-tailed hawk away. I live in the city, but there are some
field mice which attract them. But too few field mice, evidently, so occasionally they go for a sparrow or even a
pigeon. So I was outside clapping my hands, when all of sudden I looked up and the sky filled with short-tailed hawks.
I'd never seen anything like it. I mean, first there was a dozen, then there were dozens, then well over a hundred.
It was like a sign that I chose the right title for the book, and it
reminded me, eerily, of my lovely book cover.
You are co-publisher of New Sins Press with Rane Arroyo. Share with the readers some history about New Sins Press.
What sort of work do you look for?
Early in the 1980s, we published a broadside called New Sins. It was a sort of homage to Charles Henri Ford,
considered by some to be America's greatest American surrealist poet. Charles was a hero and sort of mentor to
both Rane and I, in the sense of "paying it forward." So we published several broadsides as a gut reaction to
the election of Ronald Reagan which we knew would lead to a greater anti-freedom of the arts. By the mid-1980s,
Reagan had stepped up his campaign against funding the arts, particularly "controversial" arts, partly by
controlling and limiting the NEA's funding. Thus, we decided to create a chapbook poetry contest where we'd publish
quality work regardless of content and controversy. Looking back, we emphasized quality, per our own aesthetic views,
rather than controversy (though when the two go hand-in-hand, that's sweet). But over the years, our attention turned
to getting academic jobs, earning tenure and getting promoted, so the press fell by the wayside. In 2006, we revived
the press to publish at least one full-length poetry book per year. Middle-aged, financially comfortable, both tenured,
we decided we had more work to do, more effort to pay forward. (Also, we saw how much energy was coming out of
Cervena Barva Press and that made us nostalgic, I think, for our press. Seriously!) In any case, our first book is
No Bones To Carry by James Penha (2007). Our editors-young, vital, up-and-coming poets-along with Rane and I chose
this book based on its quality. That it happens to be written by a gay man, living in Indonesia with his Muslim lover,
is incidental. (Though we understand that James, who's been wonderful to work with by the way, may not be
considered "publishable" by many mainstream presses based upon the above personal information, still we chose
him for the strength of his work, period!) So the work we look for is quality work, though edges, and margins,
and transgressions, are not without their attractions!