Twenty-five years after releasing Spirit, Hurry, author Rolly Kent has come back to writing poetry with Phone Ringing In A Dark House (paperback). In the following email interview, Kent talks about this new collection, what influenced these poems, and why he started writing poems again after a certain someone was elected president.
To start, is there an underlying or overt theme to Phone Ringing In A Dark House?
I’m reluctant to say too much about themes — not that someone reading my book wouldn’t ask, “Hey, Mister Author, what’s your book about?” I remember E.L. Doctorow at an L.A. Public Library event saying that when he wrote, he did not want to know too much, but rather just enough to write. He meant, I think, to give the reader the experience of discovery, you, the writer, also have to discover what to say next. If there is to be the feeling of discovery in a poem, it has to start with the poet.
Over the five years I wrote the poems in this collection, yes, after a while I saw, not themes, but that certain poems were in dialogue with each other. There are three poems “about” my dog Phineas. I had a few more about him, but I thought three was enough. Likewise, several poems that feature my father — that father / son relationship is often, as it was for me, a fraught one. Rather than say the theme is our relationship, I see it more as an example of how even after people — family, dog, friends — die, I still have a relationship with them. I hope that the surprise of that realization comes through the poems, as if they were just veils through which something more than the apparent could appear.
Kathleen Flenniken, the wonderful poet of Plume and Post Romantic, was quick to point out to me that the people in my book are like place names on a map. That seems accurate. She was talking about an inner geography we all have, some of it remembered, some of it imagined or simply concocted, all of it a complex map or star chart of our inner world where we live awhile in the feelings of other times. Carlos Castenada has one of his characters say in Journey To Ixtlan, “We live in our feelings.” That certainly seems correct to me. The past is and is not finished. For me, it is a source of a nearly endless life.
Phone Ringing In A Dark House is your first book of poetry since 1985’s Spirit, Hurry. Did you stop writing poetry and only just start up again recently, or did you write this whole time but just didn’t publish for whatever reason?
I needed to make money at the end of the 1980s and did an as-told-to book. And after it was finished, I thought I’d keep going with prose in order to make money. At the same time I was finishing a follow-up book to Spirit, Hurry which ultimately never found a publisher; a good thing, because as I look back at that manuscript it wasn’t very good. I kept on working instead in non-fiction and then did a novel called Between New Jersey And The Night, a late draft of which I had completed just before the election of 2016. I still like that novel, but once I very suddenly returned to writing poems, I didn’t go back to it, and still have not. So it exists rather as a ghost, but an inspiring ghost because I learned a great deal about dialogue from it, and in Phone Ringing, people, animals, things are often speaking.
What prompted you to start writing poems again?
I began writing poems again after Trump was elected. My wife and I were so depressed that after a few days we just said, “Let’s do something different.” So we cleaned up the garage. Took three days — a Godsend in those depressing days when Clinton was defeated. In the process: I found three cartons of manuscripts of poetry. A few days later I got to them, just to be sure I should throw them out — remember, I was never going to write another poem. Rereading the folders of drafts, I thought, “Why did I ever stop?” There was a lot of good work. Sure, plenty of it was ponderous, or downright awful. But many of the poems’ failures were now easy to understand. And I was older and I’d like to think a little smarter. At last, I could see what to do was release the poem hidden inside the failed poem.
So I began rewriting — and after a few months with that legacy of poems from the 1990s, I felt free of them. I used them to refresh my poetry skills that had lain dormant. Suddenly I wanted to write something fresh, I was 71 years old, and no longer gave a hoot what anyone else thought but me. After four years I showed the manuscript to a dear and old friend, Lawrence Raab, whom I’ve known since our days together in college. Larry is easily one of the best poetry minds in the country, and was a true friend to the poems themselves.
Because I didn’t write or read poetry for so many years I feel liberated from the compulsion to have to prove I’m a poetry somebody with a chest full of poetry medals and ribbons. When I read the back of poetry books I’m amused at how unimportant I have become, standing without so much as a private’s stripe on my sleeve.
Your poems are usually free verse. Or at least not rigidly structured. Why do you feel a lack of a strict structure is the best approach for what you’re trying to say?
I’m not someone who believes that in a poem, the line break is holy. In earlier books I, like many other young poets, wanted the line breaks to have some profound significance — when I was a young man the 1960s work of W.S. Merwin was a liberating influence. The feeling of the words on the page, the lines without punctuation, the starkness of the blank spaces around the words and lines, forced the reader to hear the poem in sometimes startling ways. I think one of the jobs of a poet is to surprise, to create a world in a short space of time where the unexpected and the expected can happen. Merwin did that for me.
When I returned to writing poems in 2016, after two decades away from even reading, much less writing, poems, I just wanted to keep things simple. So I chose a ten-count line. It seemed to put the emphasis where I wanted it: on the reader to hear for him- or herself how to speak each sentence. With a ten-count line you sometimes have enjambments that aren’t easy to incorporate into a flow of breath, so after a while I loosened up my “rule” and would allow 9, or 11, even 12 syllables, just depending on how that helped say the sentence, which remains the unit of meaning for me.
Unless I’m mistaken, Phone Ringing In A Dark House is your fifth collection of poetry.
Phone Ringing is actually my third collection.
Oh, sorry. Anyway, are there any poets who had a big influence on a specific poem or poems in Phone Ringing In A Dark House, but is someone who did not influence any of the poems in your previous books?
As I said, when I stopped writing poems I never expected to return, and the reading I did in that period was largely prose, and often of esoteric books, as well as photography books. I spent ten years shooting and developing black and white pictures. I contemplated — briefly — being a photographer instead of a poet. When I look back at my photographs from 2005-2014 I realize the impulse to make poems went into the photographs.
Here’s a link to some.
What other things influenced the poems in Phone Ringing In A Dark House? Prose novels? Music? Paintings?
I particularly admire the war photography of Henri Huet — there’s a poem about one of his photos that is also a tribute to him. I grew up in the shadow of World War 2 and it seems completely accurate to say after seventy years my entire life has been lived against the background of war, particularly wars of national stupidity which America in my lifetime has proved expert at.
What else: Buddhism — I don’t practice it, nor any organized religion, but have been an admirer of the tenets of it for many decades. I’m a lifelong fan of rock and roll music, lately Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, and of dogs. My wife and I love Paris. I like speaking French because it is sometimes a relief not to speak English or think in it. Because I have not advanced much in the nuances of French I often feel when I speak it that I am almost a child again.
Now, when I wrote poetry, back in the 1900s, I used to workshop stuff by reading it aloud; sometimes at home, sometimes at open mics. Do you do the same?
I think one has to read a poem aloud. That’s part of writing a poem of mine, grounding the abstraction of the words on a page to the sounds they make coming from the body. In a sensual way, a poem is a script; people almost always remark that they like hearing the poem in my voice. They are sometimes surprised that it sounds more like talk when they hear it. The strength of poetry is, certainly, its resilience and flexibility; in my practice of it I prefer to take what poetry can do in a conversational direction, that kind of engagement with a reader. When I speak aloud the draft of a poem, I can hear rather quickly what it wants me to say. Not always. Sometimes poems have to wait, but I can often tell if patience is what a particular poem asks for or needs, especially if I am stuck. I’ll read it aloud and hear that I have reached an impasse only time will solve.
As you noted earlier, Phone Ringing In A Dark House is your third book of poems. But it seems like it’s the only one of them that’s readily available. Have you talked to the good people at Carnegie Mellon University Press [who are publishing Phone Ringing] about reissuing any or all of your previous books?
There are over 9500 professional poets in America, and around 200 small presses that publish poets. Carnegie Mellon, like many university presses, tries to keep my work in print. Publishing tastes change, and old poets like me die off. I have no plans. I’m at work on another book. I don’t feel ready to retire again. There’s more I want to say. So I hope I can keep healthy and go on working.
Finally, if someone enjoys Phone Ringing In A Dark House, what poetry collection of someone else’s that you read recently would you suggest they check out and why that one?
A poet I have admired lately is Lynne Thompson. Fretwork is a really strong book full of stylistic twists and turns as the poet traces and struggles to claim her ancestry, in the fullest meanings of that word, and as she says at the end of the book, to “call herself.” I’m so impressed by the sweep of her project. It’s an audacious book with a dramatic and passionate urgency.