You tell of a poet, of some time ago, who used to perpetually maintain a bowl of
over-ripened apples; the poet would then set these on his desk before him as he sat down
to write... for it was solely that specific aromasweet and funerealwhich
somehow inspired him to compose his best work. Do you have any rituals that you employ
when sitting down to write a poem?
I think that was Schiller. As I remember it, he would leave an apple in
his desk, so that it would rot and give off that sweet odor when he sat down to write.
I've always loved that story. Yes, I'm as ritualistic as they come. For one thing, I have
to write poems by hand and in a bold, dark ink. Flair pens are wonderful, but they can't
have a fine point. I have to have a certain kind of notebook, or the poems just don't look
right. I really need coffee nearby, and in a nice cup. You can't write beautiful poems
while drinking from an ugly cup. I used to smoke, and damn, I hated giving that up. Well,
this could get boring, but rituals should be taught in workshops.
In your class, you also tell a marvelous story about a
former student being inspired to write a most extraordinary poem after noticing a small
freckle on his hand one daypondering its creation and its impact on the future. What
is the most seemingly insignificant thing that has ever compelled you to write a poem?
Years ago, I was driving home from work one day when I saw a crow in the
middle of the road. He seemed to be guarding a small puddle of water. Since he wouldn't
move, I stopped. He squawked at me and wouldn't budge. I watched him awhile, and we had
what amounted to a conversation, though neither of us spoke the other's language. Then I
backed up the car and went around him and drove on home. Right after that I wrote a poem
called The Field of Crows, and, as a matter of fact, crows find their way into my
poems pretty regularly.
To whom do you show your work before sending it out, if
Right now I don't show poems to anyone while they are in draft. When the
poet Don Jones Lived in Fresno, we used to meet and show each other our poems once a week.
He was a very good critic. He moved, and for a time I met with Ernesto Trejo very
regularly to trade poems. He was so enthusiastic and encouraging that it gave me a real
Many of your more recent poems make mention of aging,
and the passage of time. What, poetically speaking, do your eyes see different now that
they did not, say, 30 years ago?
The passage of time, yes. I'm acutely aware of that now. I'm more aware
of the comedy of it all, I think, and of the terror of the situation, to borrow a phrase
from Gurdjieff. Poetically speaking, I see the paired opposites of most situations very
quickly, so that I am always aware of having a kind of double-vision. For example, I see
the beauty and the absurdity of a human trying to maintain some kind of dignity in a
difficult situation. Seeing things this way makes me laugh a lot, sometimes in situations
where it doesn't seem appropriate, but it is really only a manifestation of my
appreciation. I have that same double-vision about this interview, for example. Why should
anyone care? And yet...
How do you view the onset and emergence of online
publishing in poetry?
I'm excited by the possibilities of online publishing. I just love the
radical egalitarianism of it all. Can you imagine what a boost online publishing would
have been for the poets of the past? Shakespeare? The French Surrealists? John Keats? And
why not for us? Doesn't that make the poles of your psyche wobble, just to think about it?
In what direction do you see poetry moving in the
I have no idea, no clue. I think it is as unpredictable as the stock
market, or, more likely, as unpredictable as genius. Search the prophecies of Nostradamus
or the Book of Revelations. I think that even as we speak the Great Poet is among us,
ready to lead us in a direction that seems wrong to us in our blindness.
What are your thoughts on the criticism that
conventional poetry has lost its "edge", and has degenerated into either a
refuge for frozen, rote, threatened academics... or a venue pandering mainly to literary
self-interest groups (i.e. feminism, culturalism, victimism, etc.)? What "isms"
can you suggest that might give American poetry a good, swift, much-needed kick in the
Well, things are always degenerating, and, at the same time, something
new is arriving. The "isms" are pretty boring whether you encounter them in
ersatz poetry, in politics, or in conversation. But there is so much good stuff being
published right now. Or am I being misled by the three or four books I am reading? What
scares me is not the state of our poetry, of our art, but the state of our popular
When you stick your hand into a bag of bread... do you
skip over the heel?
Yes. When I was a kid I had the theory that you should eat the dessert
of a meal first, then proceed to your next favorite thing, and so on. My reasoning was
that the world might end suddenly, or you might die of a heart attack, and you would have
maximized your possibilities while still in the body, so to speak. My mother just wouldn't
buy in to the theory, but I still think it makes a lot of sense. In fact, when I think of
how young I was when I first proposed and defended this theory, I have a new respect for
myself. It's right in there with Mill and Bentham.
If you could have a dinner and salon with any five poets
or writersfrom now or in the pastwho would you choose, and what would you eat?
This is difficult, but: Kit Marlowe, Rabelais, Baudelaire, James Joyce,
and John Keats. Wouldn't the words and images just fly? I just wouldn't say anything at
all, and John Keats would probably be pretty shy. But think of Joyce and Rabelais, their
enormous heads filled to capacity, and witty Marlowe, who would at last get credit for
having written the Shakespeare plays, and the acid tongue of Baudelaire. They would
probably wind up killing each other eventually, but until they did it would be grand. And
home cookingthey would love the food.
Who and what are you reading right now?
I am reading Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, a book about
London in the time of Chaucer, a book about the savings and loan rip-off of a few years
ago, an historical mystery novel by Iain Pears, and The Conspiracy Reader,
by the editors of Paranoia Magazine. All good stuff. I read several books at the same
time, and I read a lot at night, so the books I am reading change rather rapidly. I'm
having a storage problem. I can't stand to get rid of books.
Besides the possibly portentous word "exile",
do you have any other favorites in the English language?
I'm a cheap drunk with words. I remember getting high on the word
"the" when I was about three. I would say the word over and over to myself, and
suddenly I would sort of disassociate, you know. My head would feel enormous, and I would
get dizzy. In one of his letters, Dylan Thomas asks a friend if he doesn't think
"aerodrome" is the most beautiful word in the English language. Not a bad
choice. Lately I've become enamored of "tolling." Isn't that just a beauty?
Your son, Evan, is quite successfully making his own
name as a poet. Do you think your life and your work have influenced him at allin
much the same way, perhaps, that your own father influenced you?
Well, I certainly hope I have influenced him. Not to (after raising him)
would be odd, to say the least. Yeah, I can see the influence in his language, and, in
fact, in the language of all four of my children. My two girls will call me up from, say,
New York or Los Angeles, or my youngest boy will be talking, and sometimes they will say
something in that metaphorical backwoods way. It's comical, really, because they are both
aware of what they are doing and unable to say it any other way. It's a good thing. I
think Evan sees it as a positive thing in his own poems. The kids influence me, too. They
are always passing on things to read, for example. They discover the good writers for me
now, and the girls, especially, are always trying to make me less backwards, more couth.
To make mention of the use of poetry as a way to
liberate and exalt our own humanity (and strictly as a display of brazen pretentiousness),
I shall now proceed to invoke Kafka, who once said, "Art should serve as the axe for
the frozen sea within us." Do you agree with this statement?
Well, now I want to ask Kafka to come to dinner. That's a wonderful,
stunning statement. It spoils the pithiness of it, but I want to add "and the frozen
sea around us." I do think art leads us to better places and to better versions of
our unfinished selves. I have always said that my discovery of poetry in college saved my
life. People always misunderstand and think that I was depressive and on the verge of
suicide. I was never depressive, and suicide was never attractive to me. But I was lost in
our culture, you know. The commercial gaudiness of it, the religious fanaticism, the
self-righteous arrogance of people, the stunning self-centeredness of everyoneit was
all killing me. It's corny to say, maybe, but poetry changed my life.
Interview with DeWayne Rail
TCR 1999 March Feature
Rail's poetry in Issue Six