1. The title of your book suggests there are different ways we can hear these poems. Could you talk about that a little?
About three years ago, I was looking in my vinyl record collection for some music and came across album covers that said “Available in Stereo and Mono.” These albums were from the 50’s (a great Della Reese Album, one song of which wound up in my novel) and 60’s. I came of age in the 60’s, graduating Firestone High School in 1965 and entering what was then Western Reserve University. Somewhere between 1960-1966, I think, stereo emerged. I was around fourteen when I received my first stereo record player. The nifty turn-table drew down 90 degrees to be parallel with the table it sat on and I unlocked the needle, loaded a stack of records (eeeeeeya!), and had a couple hours entertainment (and a lot of scratches).
My title poem has a passage about Peter, Paul and Mary. Theirs was my first stereo album and you could hear their individual voices — Paul in the left speaker, Peter in the right, Mary in both. It was magic. Different voices separated and yet blended. It pulled together everything else in the poem as a ‘conceit’ to illustrate how society once worked.
2. More than half of the poems in the book, the core of the book, are sonnets. What is it about this particular form that satisfies you as a writer?
I majored in English at CWRU with a special concentration on the English Renaissance and the early 17th century ‘metaphysical’ poets. Sonnets had just blossomed during Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare and Spenser were sublime practitioners. To me they were a charming lacelike structure. Reading them was like looking at a spider’s web of connections. I like the precise limits and yet the flexibility within them. Arguments could be eight lines with a six line answer, or 12 lines with a two line retort, or, as in several Shakespeare sonnets, 13.5 lines of complaint and a half-line turn around. That last method is memorable in an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet from the 1940s and it was as fresh as ever. I found that I had a knack for the structure and enjoy it tremendously.
3. The figure of the dog keeps reappearing in the book (“Dog-eared,” “Giacometti’s Dog,” “Faulkner’s Fyce”). Is the dog a kind of foil for the speaker? Why is the appearance and reappearance so fruitful?
Dogs teach people a great deal. I grew up with large dogs and, as a boy, they were my shadow. We didn’t need leashes to roam the woods. My dog always had time for me. I didn’t really remark on it then, but they listened. From college until I had children, I had no dogs. They were too much of a hassle with landlords and single hours or even new job hours which often broke for an evening’s entertainment.
When my youngest child was about four, we bought a dog and she grew to be like Nana in Peter Pan. Sheba treated the children as her puppies. My daughter, Mimi, would play board games with her, making all the moves. Sheba thought I was her husband and would bark whenever my wife hugged or kissed me. I taught her to bark whenever I said, “What do you think of Wittgenstein?” As Sheba grew older, I saw she grew to accept her limitations. Sad as it was, she taught me a great deal. She taught me to slow down. She taught me to look around at all the beauty around me. Dogs are very self-accepting.
Our dog, now, is Max. He’s a big lug. He’s often slow on the uptake but eventually performs. “Sit” can be like waiting for a crane to lower a concrete block. While he’s completely different in personality from Sheba, he too has this nonchalance, this sense of self, this peace with himself and with the timelessness of living as a beast. Ironically, Max thinks my wife is his wife and he barks at me whenever I hug or kiss her. So it’s my turn in the box, as they say.
4. In this book I noticed Robert Young, Clint Eastwood, Billie Holiday. Does your work often involve popular culture figures? How are they useful?
These just came to mind and were best suited for what I wanted to communicate. With the exception of Maria Callas and Billie Holiday (singers), I usually stay away from stars, as their pantheon changes. I picked Robert Young because of the impact of Father Knows Best on America of the late 50’s and early 60’s. I also picked him because my fathering was more like Ozzie Nelson’s or Homer Simpson’s. I remember my eldest son and I rolling off the family room couch at Simpson episodes and another non-animation series, Titus, whose father (Stacey Keach) was outrageous. I selected Robert Young/Father Knows Best because, unfortunately, I’ve had terrible communication problems between myself and my daughter. It is my daughter’s teenage voice in the end of the poem and it isn’t “Kitten” (Lauren Chapin) either. So I used that Father Knows Best memory to bridge a gap. For those who remember Father Knows Best, they probably also remember Robert Young in 30’s movies, like Northwest Passage where Young had a completely different persona — something not fully addressed in the poem but true. Parents once were people, individuals. Once you have children, your self becomes history for a number of years.
Clint Eastwood has had a remarkable career. The reference to him was during his Dirty Harry years, where he hadn’t fully emerged as the genius he is. He is a remarkable actor and an even better director. The genius he has shepherded over the past 10 years is landmark. But it was his tough guy image, his Rawhide guy that voiced itself in that poem.
Many of the poems of the collection are sonnets. They are older works and more rigid. The free verse is within the last 10 years. In many ways it’s more approachable. That’s why the first part of the book is new poetry. I want people to pick it up, look at the first couple of poems and chuckle.
5. What relationship does your poetry have to your everyday work in public relations and advertising? Do they share similar traits or sources or ways of movement?
None whatsoever. My career in advertising was a brief period in the mid 1970s. Work was focused on pedestrian objectives. My PR career was mostly high technology. While it seems boring to many, it fascinated me how things work. I can thank my science education at CWRU for my ability to understand what these engineers were saying. But as for relating to my work, not at all.
I went to a San Jose poetry society meeting the other day. I was startled at how everyone was grounded in local weather, local culture. I’m out there floating somewhere between As You Like It and King Lear through to Faulkner’s trilogy. My creative mind is timeless and my self-perception is as an ageless kid, and I’m startled when I look in the mirror at how not true that is.
6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make these poems possible?
I would not be who I am without my education and experience at CWRU. It’s more than CWRU. I began there attending Western Reserve. I still refer to “Case” as “Reserve”. This university is very much in the mold of the Connecticut Western Reserve and the new America’s first Western migration. CWRU is an incubator for looking at things — like Michelson-Morley. This heritage and history are significant. I thought it was a big deal to be part of an institution begun in 1826.
The English department of the late 60’s was overwhelmingly impressive. The college was old-school, 19th century. I felt as if I were attending Oxford. What I learned about poetry and literature was immensely deep. The ambience of the campus, wearing a 3-piece suit to a Shakespeare lecture out of respect for the instructor and out of a false sense of maturity, changed my outlook.
James G. Taaffe taught me freshman honors and several late Renaissance / early 17th century English courses. He also became my advisor. He went on to be a dean at the school and eventually moved to the University of Alabama. Professor McFarland was my Shakespeare professor. He was mesmerizing and his book on the tragedies is still great reading. Arthur Adrian taught Victorian Literature and did so with gusto. I can see my Renaissance English teacher, remember he graduated from Yale with his PhD and he taught me the value of the term a “common place” and all about Ralph Roister Doister and early Tudor literature. I can SEE him, but can’t remember his name. Professor Robert Wallace taught a seminar on Wallace Stevens. I also liked Professor Wallace’s poetry and his campus readings. With his fiery red hair, Wallace certainly LOOKED like a poet when I had him in the late 1960’s.
Just about everything I experienced at CWRU changed me. Don’t forget, when I graduated, the first Vietnam War march on DC occurred. It was the beginning of Black Pride (which resulted in the self isolation of my black friends at CWRU, because of the movement). Soon after, the women’s movement began, changing everything.
That time was magical to grow up in, particularly in Ohio. My years at Western Reserve and then CWRU were the most magical. My closest friends today are from that time.
“I went to a San Jose poetry society meeting the other day. I was startled at how everyone was grounded in local weather, local culture. I’m out there floating somewhere between As You Like It and King Lear.”