Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Interview with Keith Badowski on Writing Poetry

Recently I’ve been serving as mentor to a high school student, Maria, who is working on a senior project in poetry. For one portion of her project, Maria was required to interview her “poetry mentor.” The following four questions were posed to me. The answers, reproduced here, are what I wrote for her, plus some other expanded thoughts that have occurred to me since I emailed her my reply.

1) How has writing poetry affected your life?

I’m sure that being a poet has enhanced my attentiveness to words and my awareness of how people use language. For instance, I recognize in half a heart beat when someone is trying to sell me something or convince me of their point of view. My interest in words and sentences has also made it second nature for me to read between the sentences, to intuit what people are in fact not saying, but actually really mean. Definitely I am not superhuman in these talents and by no means perfect in my accuracy. (Ask my wife!) Yet attentiveness to language usage has had its advantages in a variety of circumstances. I suspect many writers, whether they write poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, are better attuned what people are saying and what they really mean.

Being a writer, when you are truly devoted to the craft of conveying experience or observation, forces you to notice more about the world around you. I find that I’m a people watcher, noting gestures, interactions, and habits. My tendency is also to wonder about the things I see: How did that house get in such shabby shape? What led to that trailer being set on fire? How did that rusted out car get turned upside down? Admittedly, there is the chance that my personality naturally leaned that way, and that is why I also leaned toward doing writing. However, I have no doubt that a commitment to writing requires a commitment to noticing things, so the natural tendency toward such would necessarily be enhanced.

All that said, I’m just as guilty as the next guy to having my blinders up in my own household. Countless times, I’ve left my socks on the floor of the bedroom and they have become invisible for literally weeks! So it’s really only in environs other than the familiar that my interest in observing is at its best.

The most obvious way writing poetry has affected the course of my life is that I’ve fostered many friendships and associations with other poets and poetry lovers. Poetic types tend to be drawn to each other for a variety of reasons. One of the main ones is that poets like to get feedback on their poems, so they get together for poetry readings and workshops.

I started attending poetry readings back in the 1980s, and two decades later (and after the turning of a new century), I’m still attending them. Back in the late 80s, the readings were on my college campus at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz in New York. Those college readings featured dramatic antics, music, and experimental approaches to literature. One guy did something where he smeared ice-cream on a guitar! (Don’t ask.) Most of my close friends at the time would attend with me. Afterward we would discuss what we had heard. We would recruit poets from those readings to participate in our college literary magazine, The Accordion Flyer. Even though I’ve moved from New York to the South, I’m still in touch with many of those people and consider them friends.

As time went on, I attended more and more literary readings, featuring published poets and writers. Often I came away from those readings feeling inspired to write more and to write more ambitiously, employing the style or technique of those writers I’d heard. I also started to amass a huge collection of poetry books that are autographed to me by the poets. Those events make up some of my fondest memories.

In more recent years, I’ve had the delightful privilege of being part of the GA Poetry Society and a member of the local poetry group here in Columbus called the Brick Road Poets. Among these poets are some of my most valued friends—people with whom I’ve broken bread, taken road trips, and planned events. Participating in all these poetry-related activities tends to create bonds and connections that are important in life. Poets also tend to be smart and sensitive, so those are good folks to have in your corner.

2) What types of problems do you encounter with writing poetry?

The biggest problem I encounter with writing poetry is myself. Although I keep up appearances, and my friends might tell you otherwise, I’m not as disciplined as I would like to be when it comes to writing. I will go long periods of time without writing anything (sometimes as long as 5 or 6 months). I easily fill my time with much less meaningful activities, such as watching television or surfing the internet. What I really ought to be doing is writing every day, or at least on regularly weekly pattern. I find that when I am writing regularly I generate material that might not be “finished” but at least provides an excellent starting point for revision. It is only through the revision process that “complete” poems start to form. Sure, every once in a great while, I do get a complete poem almost all at once. However, the majority of my finished poems have been through numerous revisions. So all those times when I allow myself to waste time instead of writing, I could have been revising something and thus finding a poem.

On a related note, I don’t send out my poems to publishers as often as I should. I’ll send out two or three packets of submission each year, and spend the rest of the year waiting for them to come back. If I were more disciplined, I’d keep all my poems in the mail at all times. That way I’d have more of a chance of getting some of them published. I’ve been told that the average number of submissions a poem must go through before acceptance is usually about 10. That’s just a guideline, not a hard rule. You might get lucky and find that editor who “gets” your poem in the first try. The point is you have to circulate your poems far and wide until you find that editor or editors who like what you’re doing. That takes dedication and effort—something I’ve been missing.

3) What are some misconceptions that people have about either poetry or poets?

I’ve noticed that some people think poems should be treated like puzzles or riddles that need to be solved. I think this idea comes from teachers who ask their students to interpret the poem. Students are given the assignment to put the poem into their own words and explain what the poem means. I realize the teacher is trying to develop reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, however, it gives the students the wrong impression. Poems are not made out of ideas; poems are made of words. Often poets use specific words that can not be substituted by the student’s own words. The poem is a unique creation that can’t be summarized or dissected. In a way, you kill the poem when you try to explain it. Also people get a bad taste about poetry when they think you only read it to figure it out.

Ideally, poetry readers should enjoy the words and phrases for themselves. Sure, you need to be attentive to the text to get a sense of what effect the poem is striving for. But you shouldn’t feel as though you have to study the poem for hours to “get it”.

Another misconception people might have is that there is a universal quality scale that can be used to judge the merits of poetry. While there are great guidelines out there for what constitutes good craft in literary poetry, there is no such universal scale for judging whether a poem is good. Sure, the poem might be characterized by originality, brevity, metric grace, and pleasing word choice, yet still not be universally praised as “great.”

The reality is that the judging of quality in poetry, just like the visual arts and music, is largely subjective. Almost always it comes down to the personal preference of the critic or reader. What means the world to one person can mean nothing to another. Because there is no “absolute” in judging poetry, it is very important that poets and poetry readers identify for themselves what they like and why. Only once you understand and know your preferences can you judge for yourself the merits of what you have written or what you are reading. The reign of subjectivity and diversity is no excuse for “anything goes.” Instead you must choose where to plant your stakes and then diligently tend to your tent poles.

Perhaps you will find a few like minded folks who share some of your preferences, and if you are lucky, maybe they will offer you useful and constructive feedback on your work. At the very least, it is up to you to construct in your imagination that ideal reader for your poems. Accept that very few may ever salute what you do, but that’s also true for everyone else. I’ve also realized that trying to please all the possible critics is impossible, trying to go that way leads to insanity

4) What tips do you have for intermediate level poets, such as myself, for improving on writing skills?

Three things: read, Read, and READ! In order to improve in any style of writing, you need to read lots of that genre. In the case of poetry, you ought to read the classics, such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, and others. You also need to read the contemporary poets! I tend to buy Best American Poetry each year and read through the anthology to discover new voices that interest me. Some of my favorite poets writing now include: Ken Babstock, Seamus Heaney, Mark Strand, Billy Collins, Frank Bidart, and Natasha Trethewey. You will never know what is truly possible in poetry until you expose yourself to those who have come before. As you find poetry you enjoy, imitate it. Write poems that sound like those poems. In that way you will learn techniques. Eventually you find your own voice by toying with the voices of others.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friday Spontaneous Poem: 'Jesus as a teenager . . . '

Last week, Ron Self sent me the following challenge: "Jesus as a teenager . . . "

Here's what I came up with this afternoon:

Jesus as a Teenager
for Ron Self

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
---John 21:25

At the dawn of creation, God gave teenagers survival instincts--
a supernatural sense for the patsies who would never tell,
a radar for the abettors young and old who would cover up,
and a gift for schmoozing every slippery way out of scalding water.

Oh, but the Hebrew teens at the dawn of A.D. were especially loved,
at least those podunk Nazarene punks who grew up with Jesus.
When they stole their parents Passover skins and got stinking drunk,
Jesus passed his hands over their heads and filtered them sober.

And we all know why those wineskins were never missed.
When those boys played too rough near the street and one went under
the crushing wheels of the chariot, Jesus was there to inflate his torso.
When he caught Bennie Barnabus deflowering the prim and proper Pricilla,

Jesus turned back time and orchestrated an escort. The Son of God
was a handy to have around, although at the time they couldn’t say why.
There was just something mystical about that gawky youth
who spent his days seated on the temple steps, his head in a scroll.

Those God-given instincts reigned in their jibes, sealed their mouths.
After all what were they going tease? If you keep reading like that
you’ll go blind. Stop playing with that scroll or your hand’ll fall off
Yet Jesus had no friends, too busy for that, so many sins to undo.

He was so grateful at eighteen when God’s messianic plan for him
finally penetrated his greasy hair and zits, when he finally knew
he could rest at night instead of listening at tent flaps and thatched roofs.
He could take it easy for awhile, slow down, build a bench.

What a relief to know he would undo it all. So what if he had to die . . .
that would be a pretty good rest too.

Keith Badowski

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Spontaneous Poem: 'Action in France'

From: Steven Shields
Sent: Thursday, September 11, 2008 9:57 AM
To: Keith Badowski
Subject: RE: Poetry Challenge?

Keith, have a look at the first photo in the blog I am keeping for our family history. It's entitled "Action in France" and can be found at There are lots of other photos there too--maybe something else strikes your fancy. This is what I've spent most of my summer doing, most of the past year or two actually. This blog is a small slice of it but maybe will prompt something. Hope all's otherwise well with you and yours--S.

Here's a link to the photo mentioned above.

3rd BN Infirmary, 26th INF. USA
(Charles Thorne, fifth from left

for Steven Shields

Those coarse white-washed bricks
and the crusty mortar in-between them,
every morning I opened my eyes in the dark
to escape that texture.

All night my dreams skittered like mice—
miniature hearts racing, anxious to preserve fur.
That morning I awoke breathless,
terror stricken that my mouth had scabbed shut.

My fingers sprang to my teeth, my tongue—
still there! Oh, yes,

I’ve patrolled the mouthless rows,
watched ribs stand in for jaws,
seen those who can not sneeze.

As the photographer posed me,
instructed the whole infantry where to place
arms and hands, so our bodies would not repeat,

I kept marching past rows of moaning blankets—
stubs of eroding trench feet poking out,
white pads draped over sightless sockets.

Against the bricks, I couldn’t hear them.
The nurses would tend to the bandages
while I stood stock still, held my breath for 26 and 3—
certain those bricks would grind me to dust.

Keith Badowski

Friday Spontaneous Poem: 'Sexy Push Ups in New Fall Colors'

From: Jean Copland
Sent: Thursday, September 11, 2008 9:49 AM
To: Keith Badowski
Subject: Re: Poetry Challenge?


Sexy Push Ups in New Fall Colors - Victoria's Secret
in rhyming couplets.


Seasonal Marketing Strain
for Jean Copland

When bras must mimic leaves
autumnal orange heaves

beneath silk-cutter’s cuff.
These spinning models slough

saffron and sage like slaw.
Our designers dread the thaw

all those dyes they must expend
and heft of time suspend!

They so rarely know the peace
of hooks undone, release.

Keith Badowski

Friday Spontaneous Poem: 'a bald man speaking'

From: Brad Tree
Sent: Thursday, September 11, 2008 9:43 AM
To: Keith Badowski
Subject: RE: Poetry Challenge?

a bald man speaking
I will explain my source after I see the poem. I do not want to spoil your process.

Bare Club for Men
for Brad Tree

Whether a bald man is speaking to the cold
that has infected his children
or to the plastic vessel brimming with cough syrup
or to a market square littered with overturned trash cans
or to a ballpark that’s lost its third minor league
or to the valium he’s about to swallow dry,
he has to break the silence despite his baldness,
stomp his foot sometimes for emphasis
and wield his bald tongue.

It’s easy to sympathize with his plight
especially if you already feel badly
for anyone whose daily
chores include scooping kitty litter.

When the bald man is speaking you feel sorry for him,
not because he can’t jump on one foot
and rub his belly, nor because can’t swap
his snobbish tone for newscaster's,
but because you know in your heart of your hearts,
he’s worried

that while he’s speaking
all you’re thinking
about is his glistening
under the compact fluorescents
and not really listening
at all.

Keith Badowski

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Too Many Cooks (A Nero Wolfe novel) by Rex Stout 1938

In recent years I have discovered the distinct pleasure of reading Nero Wolfe novels--not only reading them, but reading them aloud to my wonderful wife, Christina. I so get into doing distinct voices for the characters. But most of all, I enjoy portraying the deep, prima donna voice of Nero Wolfe--the obese, cranky, yet brilliant detective, who loathes to leave his chair, let alone leave the house.

It’s also jolly fun to do the sarcastic voice of the ever astute Archie Goodwin, the narrator!

Nero Wolfe novels are the epitome for me of the “pleasure read” because the characters, Wolfe in particular, are so intensely animated in their dialogue. Wolfe serves as a magnet for every player in the incident of foul play, no matter how minor. And Wolfe’s right-hand man, Archie Goodwin, serves the reader as well as Wolfe with his keen eye, photographic memory, and pitch perfect ear. If you love humor, quirky characters, intriguing asides, clever plots, and a good old fashion mystery, you will love the Nero Wolfe series!

Here are a few notes about Too Many Cooks, a Nero Wolfe novel from 1938:

Wolfe is miraculously out of his normal digs in this novel, lured away from his house in New York (which he typically never leaves) to West Virginia via train for a gathering of elite chefs. Wolfe has been enticed by being invited as the guest of honor and to give a speech on the merits and contributions of American cuisine. So part of the fun of this novel is that Wolfe is a fish out of water. Throughout the entire novel, he refuses to take on any clients (although there are numerous requests) because he is anxious to leave precisely on time for his return trip to NY. (Much to the dismay of Archie, who can’t believe how hard they are working for no fee at all!)

The following excerpt, dramatically read by yours truly—Keith Badowski, touches on Wolfe’s mood in exile. Also this scene gives the uninitiated a flavor of the yin and yang of the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin partnership/relationship.

Wolfe Gives Advice

Note: If you have Quick Time, the track will automatically play in it's entirety when you click on it.You can get Quick Time here.

Your other option is to right click on the link, select "Save Target As", and Browse to the location on your hard drive where you want to save the MP3 file.

In that case, you'll need to open the file in Windows Media Player or some other media program that handles MP3s.

Here’s a couple more scenes for your listening pleasure:

In this one, Wolfe’s indignation at being offered a job he must refuse is delightful.

Wolfe Is Not A Bodyguard

Lastly, here Wolfe is grouchy over lost sleep and emotionally expresses his deep concern for a friend. One can hardly miss Wolfe’s distaste for the woman who has wrecked his friend’s life.

Wolfe Lets It Fly

Having been originally published in 1938, Too Many Cooks, portrays the state of race relations in West Virginia at the time. Racism, replete with the most offensive racial slurs, is in evidence here. However, both Wolfe and Archie are shown to be enlightened; all their interactions with the mostly black service staff are on equal and respectful terms. If anything, Wolfe is the least tolerance of those white “officials” who express racism.

More to the point, in all things Wolfe’s attitude is one of mostly wanting to be left alone. He hates to waste his time on anyone, no matter their race or color, unless they are a paying client or one of the suspects he must interview to unravel the puzzle. Race is irrelevant to Wolfe in that regard.

One of the challenges of reading Too Many Cooks is that, as the title suggests, there is a huge cast of characters, thus many, many suspects. If you do dive into this novel, as I hope you will, don’t go crazy trying to keep everyone straight. Rex Stout, through his mouthpiece Archie Goodwin, does an excellent job of reminding you of just enough to keep tabs on who is who, and why he/she might have motive to kill the victim.

So to sum up. . . Too Many Cooks offers up the following:

Wolfe as a fish out of water.

Accurate portrayal of race relations in the South, with Wolfe being an equal opportunity pursuer of the guilty.

A slue of suspects, but Archie keeps them straight for us.

The usual hilarious interactions between Wolfe and Archie, as well as Wolfe’s magnetic persona that draws everyone towards him, like flies to the spider.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Catchy Rookies: A Selection of New Music

I've been exploring some new music lately. On Pandora ( I created several act-based stations for myself—Bob Dylan, Grant Lee-Phillips, Marillion, Love and Rockets, They Might Be Giants, Alternative / Indie, and Psychedelic / Garage. Pandora plays music that aligns with the style of the acts you specify. Using the “Quick Mix” option, I get a nice variety of music, new and old.

This playlist is entirely new acts, playing recent music. I’m defining “new” here as any act that debuted in the last 5 – 10 years, since it does a take awhile for some bands to rise to public prominence.

The playlist was created using an account on Imeem ( This website allows users to upload songs, search for new stuff, and create playlists to share.

Generally this playlist reflects my overarching taste in music. I love interesting or poetic lyrics. I love strange sounds and experimentation. I love hard-driving rock, but also intimate acoustic songwriters. The predominant trait of my favorite music is that it is slightly weird, never run of the mill.

So I’ve test-driven these selections. I hope you try them. Let me know what you think.
Catchy Rookies

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Star Trek (TOS) Book Review: The Pandora Principle by Carolyn Clowes

The Pandora Principle (1990) by Carolyn Clowes is predominantly an adventure designed to reveal Saavik’s origin. As such, it does a nice job of making sure the origin story is vitally important to the Spock-centric adventure of the Enterprise. This one is set just prior to the first Trek movie, the Motion Picture. Clowes novel effectively sets the stage for Kirk being relegated to a desk job, as he is at the beginnings of both movies. Cleverly putting the focus here on the Spock/Saavik dynamic, the author sets a brilliant trap for Kirk, having him out of the way, locked in vault for most of the novel.

Saavik’s origin, as told here, held my attention for the most part. (I seem to recall a different Saavik origin from DC Comics.) I felt that Clowes used the technique of withholding information a bit too often and for too long, I suppose in an attempt to build suspense. Personally, I find action oriented stories to be more suspenseful when the eminent danger for the main characters is the cause of tension, not something unknown and unexplained that is lingering out there somewhere. Probably Clowes heavy reliance on that approach was my biggest complaint.

The Spock/Saavik relationship was quite moving at times, with excellent bits of comic relief. In particular, I loved the conversation when Spock explains Pon-far to Saavik and further, her reaction to the tale that is “Amok Time.” Saavik plays the role of fresh audience, reacting with such abhorrence for how Spock’s betrothed treated everyone involved. Mainly through their interaction we get a glimpse at how Spock might have been as a parent. His long suffering and patience are completely in character. And it’s only one such as Spock that can tame the wild beast that Saavik seems to be when he finds her.

The new (unofficial) Romulan weapon was quite frightening, a virus that instantly consumed all oxygen. I was delighted that Dr. McCoy out-sciences and out-logics Spock in coming up with the antidote.

McCoy also gets the funniest line in the novel, “What am I saying? I just told the Big Bad Wolf to go cheer up Little Red Riding Hood!”