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  • Lexy Roberts

Tim Erickson Interview

I interviewed Tim Erickson, a former mentor of mine, for a number of reasons. Mainly, I thought that others like myself could learn from him and take his advice and implement it into their own writing. I thought that would be useful. I like his writing and enjoyed the tone of his poetry book, which I reference in the interview. However, I think that even without prior knowledge of his writing readers can benefit from his perspective.

1. What are your favorite literary magazines?

My faves are the ones pushing the limits, those that clearly publish envelope-pushing work. Chicago Review is one--Denver Quarterly. It's tough because the nature of these publications is that they're not generally well--or securely--funded, so they pop up for a bit (particularly the ones without institutional support--university support, say) and then die off. New American Writing seems to do interesting things, and mags like Fence, Boston Review, too. Not a fan of Poetry Magazine, which seems to publish conventional--thus boring to my ear--poetry.

2. Why did you pick a minimalistic cover for your book?

I didn't pick the cover. It's pretty rare that the author has much say in it. In the case of my publisher, they tend toward the minimal, which suits me, and the book, perfectly I think. In fact, I wouldn't have chosen a different one.

3. What do role do you think research (if any) has on creative writing?

Too often, research is used as an excuse to put off the actual writing. I guess in my practice, everything is research: all my reading goes toward making poems, life experiences. But I do know many writers--students and professionals--who get lost in the research phase and the thing never gets written!

4.What does the word "Egopolis" mean? How did you create it?

Egopolis came to me from a couple of odd places. First, Charles Olson, in the Maximus Poems, has a line "polis is eyes," tracing the etymology of "polis" somewhere clear back to the Proto-Indo-European word for "eyes." I started playing with "polis," city, as a collection of eyes looking. Kind of disconcerting. But then thought of the pun with "I's" and went to "ego." So "city of me's" came to me, a city, a state, a collection of me's, a group of disparate egos caught my eye and I started to think about America as being an Egopolis, a collection of independent and sort of isolated egos, and that became the working title when I was collecting the poems for the book. Really helped me focus on what poems belong under the title Egopolis and what don't.

5. How do you determine who to dedicate your poems to?

Many of them were first shown to the dedicatees, and so their names felt important to celebrate. Some were responses to a challenge the dedicatee had given, or were influenced by the incident or thinking the poem explores. It's good to have a sort of target and envision talking to the dedicatee. But it's also often a gift, such as it is, I'm giving to them, often a sort of thank you note.

6.What was the inspiration for the poem "Intifada for Lars"?

That's a toughy. It's one of my favorites, but whenever I read it to an audience, I find myself spending quadruple the time to explain its origin as it takes to read the poem itself. Several things conspired to make the poem. Robert Lowell in his poem, "Fall 1961," has a line, "a father's no shield for his child," that I was certainly keying on. But the Lowell poem was repurposed into lyrics by the songwriter John Vanderslice for his song, "Radiant with Terror," and the Lowell poem, which was about the Cuban Missile Crisis, became in Vanderslice's song about the "War on Terror."

There is documentary film footage of a Palestinian father and child caught in crossfire between Israeli forces and Palestinians during, I believe, what's called the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. The father waves his arms to say there's a child there. Bullets spray and the father slumps over, killed, having "shielded his child," as in the Lowell poem. Quite harrowing. But that was certainly part of the thinking going into the poem, too, the sort of futility of a father trying to protect his son in this world.

So all of that crossed into a poem for my son Lars, and exploring how I can fashion a safe place for him, a shell. So when the poem says "a father's no intifada"--referring to the Palestinian uprisings, fights for freedom--I think the poem is saying that it's impossible to protect him. The Lowell poem has this back-and-forth motion to it, and mine the spiral downward. Sorta depressing, come to think on it, but there it is.

7.What poem (or other work) are you the proudest of and why?

I think Egopolis as a whole is a book that I'm very very proud of. I see so many poets a bit embarrassed by their first book, but I'm quite proud of that thing. Within it, the first poem ("Canto Fermo") and the last ("Via Appia") are probably two I'm most deeply proud of. They bookend the collection quite well, and they're a blast to read aloud. Beyond that, the poem "Toward Egypt" felt like a real turning point in my style, and so was sort of the germ from which the book grew.

8. What do you do to combat writer's block?

Two things: just sit down and write. I'm fond of the phrase "the muse has to know where to find you," i.e., you gotta be ready when inspiration strikes. So I write pretty much every night and sometimes the muse visits and sometimes not so much. I don't suffer much from "block," which seems to be anxious data blindness--unsure you have anything to say, unsure of your skill, unsure that you'll write something interesting. Seems really wrapped up in ego, in needing validation or applause. Well I just forget about it and make something. It's 90% sure to be total garbage, which is a relief, really. Don't step up to the plate thinking you'll hit a home run every swing and you really lighten that anxiety.

These questions affect poets in particular because we so often face the white page, the blinking cursor. "The page wants to stay white" and my job is to break that force field and make it accept my mark. Just a word is enough to break the field and it feels like you have something, a ground to build on.

But honestly, I don't think there is such a thing as "writer's block."

9.What is your favorite underrated poet or writer?

MYSELF. Truly. I am my favorite underrated poet. But other than me, I think of the neglected and marginal, poets who might once have had some renown and don't any more, or never had it: Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Larry Eigner spring to mind. But poets mostly work in obscurity, so any name I cared to mention, even popular in the poetry world, are not household names.

Maybe I should say poetry itself is underrated, underrepresented in culture.

10. Do you have any advice for writers?

Work. Work. Read widely and deeply--literature, poetry, non-fiction, science periodicals, tabloids, weather reports, news, plays, book reviews, literary essays. And write often. Carve time to make something.

Also this: a writer who doesn't read is as annoying as someone who talks but doesn't listen.

11. What was the best writing advice you were given?

I already said it above, but "the muse has to know where to find you." To work consistently and not wait for inspiration to strike. Inspiration is a product of work. So even if you're not writing, you could be revising, or simply organizing files. In this case, as long as you're "in the garden" (meaning you might not be harvesting, but you're working toward it: watering, weeding, etc.), you're doing your job.

Another thing strikes. My professor at the U, Donald Revell, steered me away from over-exposition, toward trusting the reader to do some work, and so making a connection between her and the poem, told me to try to aim more for discursive than expository poem-making.

Finally: better to sound like your grandparents than whatever cool new current trendy writer.

12. What or who do you think affects your writing the most?

Music is my major inspiration. I listen for interesting words, or if instrumental, for a mood or a sound that catches my ear. My wife and son, of course, affect it. And my dear friend the poet Dr. Michael Hansen, who is a brother to me. And my students teach me every day.

13. Do you ever write poems about things that annoy you as a way to vent?

No. I think poetry doesn't lend itself well to whining. Mine doesn't anyway. It's much more of a room for questions, for playing with language as a means for new understandings of the world. The poem should surprise the writer herself--and if I sit down and say "I'm gonna make something about [whatever subject]," it invariably comes out uninteresting because it doesn't surprise me: we shouldn't write what we already know. I think it's crucial to let the poem lead out, to learn from it rather than wrangling it to say what you'd already pre-formed.

14. How do you think that writing and art intersect and influence each other? As writers is it important to be aware of art?

I think it's ESSENTIAL that we are aware of other art forms. Music, visual arts, architecture, all influence me deeply, but most particularly painting. Cy Twombly is most definitely a person of Egopolis. In fact, poems inspired by him and the poet George Oppen account for the majority of the book. Twombly was a painter who would scrawl lines of poetry onto his paintings, which I find really compelling.

But the arts definitely entwine: musicians (as John Vanderslice, mentioned above) inspired by poets who were inspired by painters and musicians, etc etc. It's that chain of inspiration that I think is deeply important, certainly to my practice. Sad fact, though, that you don't see a lot of that kind of cross-pollination anymore.

15. Why do you use "fringe" words in your writing?

I'm not sure what fringe words are...? Do you mean specialized vocab? If that, then I'm simply captivated by the jargon of the physicist, the musician, the biologist, the astronomer, the medical doctor, the military. I love language, and I love swiping words from other fields because I think they can be enlivened by using them in poetry, that they can help us when recontextualized to understand our world from a different perspective.

A Google search just tells me that fringe words might be something like concrete nouns, which are images. If that's what you mean, then I think imagery is absolutely necessary. Whatever wisdom we can hope to gain enters us through the holes in our faces, and imparting anything surprising requires the poet to access the reader's nostrils, eyes, mouth, ear holes.

16. Are there places that you like to go write at the most?

I haunt the library, particularly the Marriott at the U of U. It's open late, and wandering the stacks, grabbing random books from all corners of the library, is among the best ways to stimulate my metaphor making mind. It's where I get most of those "fringe words," if I understand your meaning: from reading randomized selections of books from a monster library. So the aleatoric is a very important part of my practice.

Otherwise, I have a studio in an outbuilding at my home that I use, and my wife's art studio works too. I seem to need quiet, or to be in an environment where I get to control the noise. Headphones are good things, since I write to music.

When we lived in NYC, I got to the point I could write on the subway, which required an almost Zen-like quieting of the mind.

17. How do you keep track of all your ideas for writing?

I write longhand into a daybook. It has quotes, lines, references to books. Then compose there, dating every piece. Then at intervals, if, perhaps, I don't have it in me to make a new poem, I'll move them from the daybooks onto a computer. I think writing longhand is essential because it's too easy to type, too quick. When one has to write it out with pen and ink, one seems to be making decisions already--sort of revising as one goes--as opposed to throwing it into a doc and adjusting on the screen. After I write a poem out into the daybook, I then usually write another revision as sort of a clean copy before another revision as it gets entered into the computer.

But always version them, rather than erase. Leave the original and make a new copy called "version 2" and mess with it there. Never erase.

18. What excites you the most about writing?

I'm not sure I'd call it exciting. It's just something I have to do or I feel uncomfortable. Itchy. My wife can always tell when I haven't written in a bit because I grouse and groan about everything. She pats me on the head and sends me to the studio.

But I love sharing my work; I love hearing responses to it, talking about it. It's a solitary art, so whenever I get a chance, I love sharing it, and reading others' work.

19. Do you write poems for an audience or for yourself?

I write to be read, certainly, but not to satisfy anyone but myself. I don't make choices depending on an audience, and certainly not with a worry about being "accessible" or "clear." I'm fond of the quote "it's impossible to make pea soup 'clear.'" I write to be generous to a reader, but also to trust her to do a bit of work. Whatever difficulty the poems might present to easy paraphrase is not me posturing or showing off or trying to intimidate, but more a faith in the reader to be comfortable being lost a little, to have what Keats called "negative capability," comfortable in ambiguities, for me to sort of push the boat out into the water and let the reader guide it the rest of the way, wherever she wants to take it. I'm very fond of the lines of Donald Revell on this subject: "A poem is like a toy car: / I pull it back, it goes forward twice as far."

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