Interview with Ron Egatz: Poet, Designer, and Publisher
By The Editors on 2.26.10
On Letter from a Young Poet (the fledgling Poems Out Loud interview series), we now hear from Ron Egatz: poet, designer, and founder of Camber Press. Ron is also currently being filmed for a documentary on the state of contemporary American poetry. Listen to Ron read one of his recent poems, “Post-Eisenhower Nourishment”, and then check out the smart things he has to say about lucid poetry, the effects of his homemade popcorn on women, and so on.
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Ron Egatz - “Post-Eisenhower Nouishment”
© Photo by Ab Sesay
Ron Egatz is the winner of the Glimmer Train Poetry Award and the Greenburgh Poetry Award. Beneath Stars Long Extinct, a collection of poems, will be published by Red Hen Press in April 2010. A poet widely published in literary reviews and anthologies, Egatz also runs Camber Press, Inc., an independent literary press. He lives in a loft on the Hudson River while missing Paris. For all things Egatz and other non sequiturs, visit egatz.com.
In what direction would you like to see American poetry move?
Egatz: I’d like to see the continued trend of readers and listeners coming back to an art form which turned it’s back on it’s audience long before I was born. We’ll never get back to the pre-radio days, or the numbers of readers poetry enjoyed a century and a half ago, but it can’t get much worse. I firmly believe the only way to regain readers is to promote poetry humans can understand. There’s no reason lucid poetry cannot have incredibly deep emotion or music in the language—energy in it that makes you want to read it aloud to your friends and strangers in the streets. The main problem with achieving this is most Americans are completely unaware this kind of poetry even exists, and that’s not their fault. Critics became translators of the obscure, the virtually incomprehensible. They stopped judging and recommending. In turn, generations of educators got this trickle down of oblique verse. They, in turn, pushed it on students, who came to know of American poetry as annoying, at best. Publishers allowed this to happen and they killed their own audience. They did it to themselves. No one wants to pay money for a product that makes them feel stupid.
Reading a poem like “Poopie Head,” it is obvious you don’t have a limited view of what constitutes poetic vocabulary. Do you believe any particular nomenclature is off limits to poetry?
Egatz: To me, that’s a compliment. Thank you. As the poem indicates, that was sparked by a phrase I heard a small girl say. I think any verbiage is fair game in the arena of poetry. Charles Bukowski horrified many readers with his subject matter, opinions, and word-choice. Through his countless paying readers, he eventually earned a living from his poetry in our time. Not many poets can say that. Toward the end of his life even Allen Ginsberg taught in Brooklyn, if memory serves.
Fear of language breeds ignorance. Words are performatives, and people should be concerned with the thoughts behind the words, not the nomenclature. We’re talking about art, which is, by nature, subjective, and more importantly, human. There will always be ivory towers inhabited by the self-proclaimed elite of all kinds. There will always be poetry by the angry disenfranchised using certain words to shock. I fall in somewhere in the middle, and the middle is vast. I want my art to turn up the heat now and then, but not gratuitously. There should be meaning and reason behind every word, particularly in poetry.
When and how have you been shocked by a writer’s use of a particular word?
Egatz: I’m more shocked by what passes for journalism than I’ve ever been by a poem, story or novel. I’m also astounded by the way reporters dance around truth and meaning. The lack of what they write is painful.
Language is constantly mutating. What was shocking twenty years ago is now spoken by children, and it’s not given a second thought. What was considered elevated diction is now common vernacular. This is only natural. Our fiction and poetry reflect this by dating it. A poem in my new book, Beneath Stars Long Extinct, called “Baby,” has examples of dated language as a main theme.
Some writing holds up well, some sounds silly. Many people think Shakespeare is Old English. They’re off by centuries. Chaucer is Middle English, and he shocked plenty in his time. I’m pretty jaded, and subject matter is what shocks me in fiction and poetry these days, although rarely. Words themselves come and go.
What do you consider “success” in the world of poetry?
Egatz: I heard an old interview where Henry Miller said he hung on the hope there was one real reader out there for him; one person who loved what he did, and fully understood it, collected every book, et cetera. When you think about it, that’s an incredibly serious thing to ask the world to send your way and a hell of a gift if you get one.
For me, the writing itself is the thing. I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years. I never had cable television; didn’t miss a thing, apparently. Reading a bad book was always better than most shows I can ever remember on the tube. When the writing wasn’t going well, it was still a great ride even though I wasn’t getting published. Whatever was happening in a notebook or with my ten fingers on the Macintosh was always more interesting to me. When you’ve got a new solid poem you can’t revise any further and you feel good about it, there’s almost nothing better—except maybe when the woman you love gives you one of those genuine smiles and she means it.
I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve amassed a small group of people who really turn out when I read in New York. Doesn’t seem to matter if I’m doing my fiction or poetry. I feel fortunate I’ve got them, even though I haven’t had a book out until now. I’ve gotten fan mail based on poems that have appeared in anthologies and small journals. That’s always surprising. Because of these little shots in the arm—these little successes—I stopped submitting to the magazines that didn’t want me. I know that’s the wrong advice to give, but for me, the writing was the thing I lived for, not to see my name in lights. For the last ten years, the only publications I’ve had were anthology editors and magazine editors who solicited me. That was enough. I felt successful. Some editor out there cared enough to seek me out. The ones who wrote from Europe really made me feel honored, at least for a half-hour. Then it was back to work.
How is a poet responsible for shaping his or her virtual persona (a la a website or twitter, for example)? Is this critical to success?
Egatz: It’s hard to define the word “success” when you’re talking about contemporary American poetry. Like I said earlier, you can probably count the poets who earn a living at writing poetry on one hand. Let me clarify that by saying I’m not talking about songwriting, rap, or perhaps other kinds of performance poetry. Most poets wind up in academia to keep the roof aloft and the child support payments going. It’s been like that for a long, long time.
I know many poets older than myself who really resisted the Internet. One famous poet told me, “the promotion should be handled by the publisher and the place hosting the reading.” Well, times have changed. Perhaps it used to be like that in the forties, but that’s history. It’s nice to have your own little outpost on the Internet with all the relevant data and reading schedule, but with the average new poetry book selling 3000 copies and being deemed a real success, you have to wonder if it’s worth a poet’s time and money to build a professional-looking site or blog.
What are the origins of Camber Press? What inspired you to start your own press?
Egatz: The origins are my inability to make a living as poet or fiction writer. I taught myself to be a graphic designer and have been a freelancer for almost my entire adult life. It’s paid the bills most of the time. The art of beautifully-set typography is as brilliant to me as any other art. The frustration of buying badly-written books, or poorly-typeset books, made me want to combine good poems with what I did for a living. If you had to point to a moment of inspiration that was a good kick to my head, it was when someone gave me that collection of letters between Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin. You can follow their struggle to get New Directions off the ground, and while reading it, I thought, “I can set type. I can design books. I can edit. I’ve got a Mac. I know a lot of poets. What the hell am I waiting for?” I procrastinated for years, but eventually I launched it.
You’ve stated the mission of Camber Press is to “publish lucid poetry that is accessible without sacrificing its inventiveness and depth of emotion.” What do you wish to publish books with these particular goals in mind?
Egatz: Well, it’s the kind of poetry that speaks to me. It’s the only hope in hell poetry has of regaining an American audience. It turns out I was right in that we’ve got a devoted following who really enjoy our editions and support the press with their dollars. Some people have sent checks with notes: “Don’t send me any books. I own them all. Keep going!” There’s still readers out there who care and respond.
It’s a labor of love, for sure. I pump every dollar back into the next book printing, web hosting, or postage. We also run an annual poetry award that’s very popular, and this year is our second fiction award. We attract very well-known judges, who seem happy to be part of what we do.
What do you believe makes a great poetry teacher?
Egatz: That’s a delicate balancing act. You want someone who can be firm and point out what’s going wrong with a poem or story, but you also want someone who’s not going to destroy too many young hopes. It’s definitely a human and diplomatic art. I had some brilliant ones when I was at Sarah Lawrence College for my MFA, but that place and its pedagogical ethos is a very rare gem. When I was there the masters of this included Kevin Pilkington, Brooks Haxton, and Thomas Lux. They pushed students in the right direction, and did everything they could to encourage.
Unfortunately, from junior high school on up, the vast majority of teachers are not good writers, and the best writers don’t seem to teach. They keep the good stuff for themselves. I’ve heard a lot of good writing professors talk about how teaching dilutes their work.
In Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen‘s character is a writing professor and he says something like, “You can’t teach writing. All you can do is expose them to good writing and hope it inspires them.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that bit of dialog. I quoted it when working on a PhD, and it wasn’t well-received, to say the least. I didn’t finish that degree, by the way.
The rare strong students will stick it out if it’s in them deeply enough, and keep writing long after they graduate. Much of a professor’s “success rate” at turning out good writers has to do with one simple thing: how open to criticism and suggestion each student is. If a student enters a workshop or MFA program and thinks their work is set in stone, he or she is just wasting time and money. The institutional education of a young writer is a two-way street, and a lot of stars have to be aligned for things to turn out brilliantly. And then there’s the whole autodidact route, of which I’m a big fan, but it has its own considerable traps and shortcomings.
What is your favorite novel and why?
Egatz: I’m afraid I may disappoint with this, but it’s still In Search of Lost Time. Maybe it’s the only child in me—the endless interior monologue. Maybe it’s my never-ending dream of living in France. I think largely it’s the magical rhythm of the sentences. It’s Keith Richards’ rhythm before he was born across the Channel. It’s a steady rhythm, but there’s beautiful, in-time deviations in it, and it’s always building. Proust seemingly does everything in that novel, and he does it well. It breaks my heart whenever I read it. I fantasize I’ll live in France and become fluent so I can read it without translation.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Egatz: I make a seared tuna that’s won me many friends. The secret is twofold: the quality and cut of the sushi-grade tuna is paramount, and the rest of it is the dry rub of my own creation. I’ve also had women put up with a lot to be near my popcorn. I’m talking real popcorn. No microwave nonsense, and no hot air popper.
What dead poet makes your heart stop? What living one?
Egatz: Rilke still hits them out of the park for me. Batting for the living team, it’s a guy almost no one knows. Max Garland. He won the Juniper Prize for his first book, The Postal Confessions. It stuns me, still. I’m a Garland groupie, although we haven’t met or exchanged letters. I carry The Postal Confessions in my backpack—I’m not kidding. It’s been around the world with me. I’ve given away almost twenty copies. I would simonize his car. Twice!
How do you believe having a book published will change your life?
Egatz: I’m still going to earn a living doing something else, unfortunately. This is the eighth book of poems I’ve written. I think the seventh is worthy of publication. Number seven includes a series called The Elizabeth Rogations, which is unlike anything I’ve ever written. A brilliant woman named Françoise Brodsky translated them into French, but only a few have been published in journals. The other books were my learning curve, minus assorted gems here and there. Maybe some editor will read number eight—Beneath Stars Long Extinct—and want number seven. Number nine is looking pretty good, too, although it’s not done. The most I can hope for is a wider audience, which is certain to happen, as my audience now is largely my curious following of supports who show up at New York-area readings. I’m lucky to have them. A friend of mine calls them FoEs. Friends of Egatz.
What informed the order of the poems in your upcoming book?
Egatz: This book had a few big sections excised and replaced with newer poems. It’s always a gamble putting a book together. Will someone hate the first poem? Will they read from the front when they pick it up in a store? Will they read the last poem first? Something random from the middle? It’s a crap shoot. I showed the manuscript to a well-respected elder statesman of poetry. He loved all the poems I wasn’t feeling strongly about at the time. It’s art. If we wanted easy answers, we’d work with numbers all day.
The order is a temperamental beast. Some poems just seem to naturally flow together. I lay the poems on the floor and look for a rhythm. You do the best you can and hope you have a good editor who cares.
How much influence did you have over the design of your book? What elements of book design did you feel most strongly about and why?
Egatz: I probably felt more strongly about the production and design of the book than most authors because I’m a designer by trade. I had some real concerns for Beneath Stars Long Extinct, and Mark at Red Hen Press was kind enough to listen. I like the way he designs for Red Hen, and I feel okay with it in his hands. It’s his baby now. I’m very conscious about not wanting to step on his toes, as it’s his job, and no one competent likes being told how to do their job. Kate Gale, the founder and Managing Editor, and I have the same ethos of what a cover should be like and do for a book of poems. Like I said earlier, I’ve got a lot of thoughts on typefaces. Mark knows I have a thing for the Minion family. We’ll see what happens. I’m in good hands.
What are your poetic obsessions?
Egatz: Lucid but deep poetry is my crusade. People of all poetic skill levels write poetry for a reason. They have emotion they want to get out in some concrete form. Why some people choose to write in a way others can’t understand just baffles me. That’s my main struggle: make it as rich as you can, but craft it so others can enjoy it, too.
My other obsession is the word “that.” This word makes me crazy. It can be cut more times than not from any written text or left out of speech. It’s probably the most unnecessarily used word in English. I’ve actually read news stories where a reporter will insert it with brackets into a quote someone gave them. It’s insane. We should start a campaign. I’ll run for office on it. “Eradicate that.” Oh, and I love when someone puts two of them together. “He said that that is why the peanut butter is on the ceiling.” Are you kidding me? Did I just miss you getting tapped on the back of the head with a ball-peen hammer? These are the kinds of things I worry about. That and love, of course.
Tell me about the documentary that will feature you. How does it feel to be filmed? Do you feel you are portraying your true self on camera?
Egatz: The plan is it will be a full-length documentary about the state of contemporary American poetry. There are few filmmakers involved who are endlessly scrambling for funding, and they have some great experience. Apple and camera manufacturers have democratized film making, but you still need considerable money to fly to locations and put up the crew, not to mention pay people a living wage. Because this entire effort is hanging by a thread, and although there’s footage in the proverbial can, certain individuals don’t want their name associated with it until they know funding is in place to bring it to the finish line. I don’t blame them, but I hope they stick around until it’s a reality. Together, we’ve come up with an angle and a story on this big subject no one else has. So far, it’s riveting.
Being filmed doesn’t bother me. I did some acting long ago. You just carry on with the business at hand and don’t let the camera creep into your consciousness. When I’m at the podium reading, I’m trying to be accessible, engaging, and read the hell out of the poem. I get lost in it, so there’s really not the mental bandwidth to be self-conscious. As far as portraying my true self, it’s anyone’s guess. They say the most impossible thing in the world is to see yourself. But when you’re an only child, I think you have a leg up on self-awareness. Maybe a half of a leg.
Can you cite any other examples of art made about poetry (or involving poetry either directly or indirectly) that you admire?
Egatz: It’s a lot easier to find poetry made about art. Michael Salcman, a poet from Baltimore, put out The Color that Advances, a great little Camber Press collection of poems about paintings, for instance. Paintings with poems or poem-fragments in them have never appealed to me. At the moment, I can’t recall one that really moved me. I always look at them in a gallery or museum and wonder, “Why those words and not others?”
Films about poets or fiction writers are always a mixed bag, at best. The problem is intrinsic to the creation of the art. What does a poet or fiction writer do? They sit in a small room and suffer and struggle alone with a piece of paper. It’s not a very attractive or action-filled situation. All the digital explosions in Hollywood can’t help that screenplay. This is one of the things I love about poetry. It’s incorruptible. When was the last time corporate America hired a poet to do what they do best? Probably when Ford asked Marianne Moore to name one of their cars. Of course they rejected her submissions and named it the Edsel. This is a poem in itself. You can’t make this stuff up.
Poety is a pretty introspective art. Do you believe the prevalence of writing about writing (on the Internet, in journals, and elsewhere) contributes positively or negatively to the state of poetry today?
Egatz: The truth is the art, or, more accurately, the thing that makes us create art, lies in each individual to a different degree. There are those who get into poetry as a form of therapy—like journal writing, if you will. Many of them are served by poetry until they get through a particular crisis, and then they’re done with it, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, when they surrender and move on with their lives, they also give up the chance of refining their craft. And then their descendants wind up throwing out their poems. There’s a depressing thought.
I would never begrudge anyone for either writing a book about writing or buying one. I bought a few when I was a kid. Sometimes it’s nice just to know other bastards are out there struggling with this art just as much as you are. As far as the quality of all the writing about writing, that’s an art, too. Just like anything else, you’ve got to separate the wheat from the chaff.
topics: Letter from a Young Poet