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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Interview with Michael Skau, pt 2

Michael Skau is a professor emeritus at University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has written critical works on the Beat poets. He has one book, Me & God (reviewed here), and one chapbook of poetry published, with two more collections on their way. Part one of this interview appeared (or will appear) here.


Part 2 - The Work

Is publication something you pursue like a rabid dog, is it just mad pleasure, or is it like standing on your head trying to stack BBs?

For me, publication is a very strange animal, a platypus. At times I go for a year without a single acceptance. Then all of a sudden I will have 4-6 poems accepted within a couple of months. I do not know how to explain why publication works in phases like this for me. Sometimes I go for a year or more without sending off any poems, but I keep on writing anyway. I guess that the completion of poems is often satisfaction in itself. On the other hand, publication is important for me too, serving as both a testimony to my efforts and a spur to keep on writing. It is all very confusing to me.

How does a poem come to you? How do you get it into a shape that pleases you? Do have an example?

I honestly do not know how to explain the genesis of a poem. Sometimes, I get an idea that I would like to explore; sometimes, the beginning is just a line or two; at still other times, the poem arrives almost fully formed. I wish I knew the process because I would much prefer the poems that arrive needing only some minor tooling. I could give you an example of how a poem takes shape by looking at the way that the first poem in my book, "Pinballs," developed. The poem is written in loose iambic tetrameter. I knew that I wanted to do a poem about pinballs (I even used to own a pinball machine) and me and God, and I knew that I wanted God to win, but not the narrator because the game corresponded in my mind to rebirth/reincarnation (thus, God plays a machine involving "Zeus and other myths"). I set the poem in a bar to suggest that we humans live in a world of darkness ("dark in the mid-afternoon"), finding fitful pleasure ("lit only by the blinking lights") only in intoxicants ("beer signs"), the arts ("juke box"), and the trivial enjoyment of electronic games ("corner pinball games"). God should have created us to be able to find more fulfillment in life, "but he wasn't / the type of guy you could tell what to do." The narrator has not been playing well, but finally has "a good last ball," yet he does not win "a free game." Thus, even if we recover from our erratic past and devote ourselves to "good" during the last years of our life, it does not matter ("You can't win on that machine"). We get no free game: no heaven, no rebirth, no reincarnation. Only God gets "replays." These were the ideas and details with which I was playing when composing the poem.

One of the things I love about your poems--if the review hasn't already made this clear--is their humility. They step outside of the frame to see the picture. The poet sees himself and the world and god, warts and all. My first question is how do you develop this skill? Does come naturally? Or is this emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth would have it? Or is this objective revision where the first draft is the mad passion and subsequent drafts resee the events dispassionately?

How dare you accuse me of humility! No, seriously, what you refer to as the humility in the poems probably comes from my inability to believe that I have all of the answers. In fact, part of the point of the Me & God collection is to raise questions rather than to impose answers. W. H. Auden has said that poetry is the "clear expression of mixed feelings," and I agree with him on this point. Part of the problem in our current society stems from people who feel that they--and they alone--have all of the solutions. We do not need such demagogues.

What is your perspective of the poem "Wind"?

The narrator's response is innocent and naive. If "a few... might consider it objectifying," I wonder how they intend to reproduce, and I pity them for being unable to appreciate the beauty of the human body which artists have celebrated from at least the time of Praxiteles up through the time of Picasso. I used to resent having to provide "trigger warnings" in my classes. Everyone has sensitivities and vulnerable areas, but education and society do not have the responsibility to warn against possibly irritating those bruises.

Why poems about God?

My Me & God poems were originally inspired during a period of spiritual questioning, when I was trying to discover sense and value in a world that had begun to strike me more and more as meaningless. I would not dare to pretend that I was suffering from the disabling despair of a "dark night of the soul." My difficulties were less like a profound hopelessness than like a nagging irritation.

Do you see your work addressing one religion or several?

[There are] references, to cite just a few, to the Arabic "gardens of Yannah" and "Nirvana" in the poem "Entropy," to "Mecca" and "Moslems" in "Beliefs," to the evocations in "Potters" of the the potter fable in the Persian Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and the allusion to a line by the Zen master Rinzai in the conclusion of "Bruises." My objection is not to just the Judeo-Christian religions, but to organized religions in general. The thrust of these religions often seems to be "My Dad can beat up your Dad."

What books do you have forthcoming? What can you tell us about them?

I have a chapbook entitled After the Bomb due to be published by WordTech Editions in May 2017. The poems attempt to envision the conditions of a post-nuclear bomb and the efforts of the survivors to regain a sense of humanity. WordTech has also contracted to publish another chapbook of mine, Old Poets, in May 2018. This series of poems examines a variety of approaches to poetry, particularly in its themes and forms.

Thanks for the good questions.

My pleasure.

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