Brian Baumgart is the poet behind Rules for Loving Right, a chapbook of poetry that explores topics such as love, technology, masculinity, and cats. In this interview, Baumgart explains his approach to writing, his thoughts on the poetry within a social media landscape, and so much more. Sweet will have three copies of Rules for Loving Right at our AWP booth, 1109, so make sure to stop by if you’re interested in owning a copy! More chapbooks will be available soon.
How does a poem come to you? For instance, how did the poem, “Before the Caterpillar” come about and develop into the poem it became? What made you think that a day you spent at Home Depot would be something you could develop into a poem?
The weighted scene or image in “Before the Caterpillar”—the series of doors like a spiderweb in Home Depot came to me, honestly, in one of the more clichéd ways: I dreamed it. I’d been spending far too much time in big box hardware stores around that time, and I could never tell one from the other, and I’d get lost, searching for whatever tool I needed for the jobs I’d been working on, so, somehow, they meandered into my dreams, and, like so many dreams (at least the ones I have) there was a confounding repetition, an action that could never be completed: door after door after door with no end—and I was trapped, caught in that loop. So I scribbled that description down, along with the spider. But I’d also had a different poem draft with doors and the cocoons, one I, in truth, had kind of hated. It made no sense, even to me. But when I began fiddling with the dream, the doors drew together and the cocoons and caterpillar joined the spider’s web. Those two separate ideas merged together, and thus the poem—at least an early draft—emerged.
But that’s just one poem, really. The primary question, “How does a poem come” to me?, demands a far more complex answer because they come in so many different ways, from the happenstance to the ugly and forced. Usually, though, I’m struck by an image or a phrase, and I write that down, then I write whatever pops next into my mind, and then again, and again. I rarely start writing a poem because of a concept or idea—although recently I’ve drafted a number of socially “big” and political poems that were inspired by ideas but still rooted in images.
Your piece, “What Happened on the Nine O’clock News” provides an interesting look of how technology has built bridges between time and space. How has technology changed the way you share your poetry?
I’m an “I love paper!” sort of reader and writer—if I can get ahold of a hard copy of someone’s work, I do it (including if I can actually afford it; y’all know what I mean)—but when it comes to initial publications, literary magazines and such, the technology of the internet has made reading and sharing each other’s work that much easier and accessible. So instead of simple, “I’m a poet, you should read this book or this journal,” I’m more inclined to use social media as a way of disseminating my poetry, as well as sharing the work of others I respect. For those of you who are connected with me on social media, you know that a good percentage of what I post is “omigod-read-this-poem-right-now-it’s-so-good-I’m-gonna-die” sort of stuff.
And one of the really great things about this is that a majority of folks have smartphones or tablets they bring places, like into waiting rooms and restrooms and restaurants, and if someone is going to take a few moments while they’re sitting on the pot to read a poem they might not otherwise read, I think modern technology has done its job—and if it’s my poem they’re reading, even if it’s a quick read, just long enough to finish what they’re doing in the bathroom or before they get called in for their dentist appointment or while they are ignoring their not-so-wonderful date before the meal comes, I can be happy that I’ve given them something and shared a (distant) moment with them.
What are your thoughts on the future of poetry and the use of technology and social media?
There’s going to continue to be a lot of shitty poetry launched out into the world. But I’m not sure that’s a change, and I’m not sure that’s, inherently, a bad thing. As online social media increases—because I’m sure it will keep growing—I imagine that more and more folks with little awareness of poetry will write poetry and share it on social media, much like amateur—and often terrible—musicians share their songs on Youtube (confession: I used to be in an amateur band that has a video on Youtube), but what that does, even if the poetry is not so great, is increasing interest in poetry and literature; it doesn’t destroy the good poetry. I mean, my band’s music has had a very little effect on the music or career of Eels or Beyoncé, right? So, I guess what I’m saying is that the growth of personal technology and social media should be beneficial to poetry because it subscribes to small moments, too tight, short-form writing.
But, even more-so, I’d like to think that it also makes it more universally accessible. In the past, poetry (and big-L “Literature”) was written by and for the intelligentsia, which, at the time, was usually the financial elites: the rich folk. I’d like to think that—if we can get our Net Neutrality back *hint, hint*–this gives those without financial power to have far greater access to poetry; they can read it on phones, tablets, on computers, at the library, in school, wherever. While I immensely enjoy attending public readings, often time and distance interfere with those, and thus we can have recordings, audio, and video, made readily available—both live and archived. I don’t see the future of poetry eliminating the paper page or eliminating the live, public, interactive readings at coffee shops, schools, and bars; but I see it as complementary, as a way of tying together both local and distant, and thus growing the community.
“It’s Not Cool for a Man to Love Cats” humorously tackles the subject of men and their relationship with expressing masculinity. You’ve also contributed to the website “Good Men Project,” which is described as “a glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century.” What’s your own relationship with masculinity like at the moment? And how do you feel it has changed since you were younger?
My relationship with “masculinity” is one that is in continuous flux, and I like it that way. As the whole concept is a social manifestation or construct—as opposed to biological fact—it strikes me as appropriate that we are all constantly redefining what it means. With that said, I was raised in a culture that has/had a relatively rigid view of “what it means to be a man,” although it wasn’t forced upon me as I know it was for others of the same generation and a similar cultural background.
Masculinity, though, can also be a rather touchy subject, especially in light of the far more public awareness of toxic masculinity and the #metoo movement, so it’s also a very conscious thing for me and within my writing—and, to be honest, even more personally since I’m raising both a son and a daughter, who, yes, factor into my poems, as well. When it comes to the conventions of masculinity, I often see it as a cover, one of which I’m guilty of having used more than once, especially as a younger man that I am now. (For those interested in dissecting my poetry, the line in “Upon Hearing that My Grandfather Would Like to See More Tears” that says, “The delirium does all I’ve asked of it: smokescreen,” is touching upon this idea.)
With being a father, I have a fear of unyielding definitions of masculinity, especially ones that isolate sex from sex and gender from gender, but also—and perhaps even more immediately—those definitions that cause irreparable damage to those who don’t fall in line with those definitions handed down from earlier generations, even those who have meant well (see another poem of mine at The Good Men Project, titled, “Blister”: “Through the holes in my hands, I see / my son with all the blood that used to be mine”). (https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/chb-blister/)
In case you’re interested in more, my poem “Upon Being Told by My Four Year Old That Zombies Are Bound to Devour Both Her Brother and Me” also explores my relationship with masculinity and so-called gender norms. (http://www.whaleroadreview.com/baumgart/)
What’s the most important thing you feel you’ve learned about yourself on your journey as a writer?
I’ll stick with what I’ve learned about myself “as a writer” because, my god, I’ve learned so much about myself, personally, it would be overwhelming in this venue. And y’all aren’t paid to be my therapist.
But, as a writer, I’ve learned to both not take myself too seriously (cats, Home Depot, and food poisoning are legit subjects for poems!), but also that less-than-serious subjects can lead to—or from—the biggest questions, because the questioning and searching is, in my opinion, better than knowing the answers up front.
I’ve also learned, both as a writer and teacher of writing, that there are many things that can be poorly done in writing, but very few approaches that are “wrong.” The rules for writing are malleable, not even really rules, but basic conventions, and even when they are ones that drive me up the wall (for example, if a poem is center-justified, I tend to lose my shit), those aren’t absolute rules any more than the rules in my chapbook’s title poem are absolute rules—there are always ways to bend and break and manipulate and turn and twist those conventions, and that’s when we see the most beautiful work. But it takes work—not extravagance for the sake of extravagance or experiment with no purpose.
What’s your advice to young poets?
And that work is probably my biggest advice for young poets (are you saying I’m not young?). Work at actually being a poet, not pretending to be a poet. It doesn’t matter how you dress or what your style is or if you drink trendy coffee or tea or if you like the right poets.
You’ve gotta read. You’ve gotta write.
You’ve gotta share what you’ve written.
You’ve gotta listen to other writers, especially those who’ve been doing it for a long time—formal teachers or otherwise. (No, you don’t have to do everything they say, but listen closely and openly, because they might be right.)
And you’ve gotta be present in the physical world. Use your senses all the time, especially with the small stuff, the things less obvious (don’t just stop and smell the roses; stop and smell the wallpaper, the inside of a winter hat, the bark of a birch tree).
If you had to destroy everything you’ve written except one piece, which would you save and why?
I’m not answering this one.
You’re asking me to save one of my babies and let the others burn.
OK. This answer will change in a few minute, I’m sure, but I’m going to go with the poem “How to Save Me: To the Missionary Who Knocked on My Front Door.” Whenever I read this poem aloud, it feels to me that I’m not just being honest with the audience (whether it’s an audience of one or a hundred), but honestly vulnerable, that I’m not playing games or beating around the bush or asking the audience to alter their perceptions; this is me, in one tiny moment, opening myself up and saying, “Here I am.”
Maybe that’s actually the same reason why I should destroy it.
And, yes, by the time I finished saying that, the piece I’d save has switched. Now, I’m thinking it’s the novel I’m working on. Oh, well…