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Coffee with Jack Phillips Lowe

23 Dec

Jack Phillips Lowe is a native Chicagoan. His poems and short stories have appeared in Barbaric Yawp, Clark Street Review, Nerve Cowboy and Open Wide Magazine (UK). His chapbooks include So Much for Paradise, Pariah Tales, Revolt at the Internet Café, and Cold Case Cowboys. Lowe currently resides in Addison, Illinois, an enchanted land of foreclosed houses and fast food restaurants. In his spare time, Lowe serves as chairman for the Abe Gibron Appreciation Society.

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Coffee with the Poets

[Despite Jack’s edgy sense of humor, I (Christina) have found him to be one of the most amiable poets, and he takes his humor and wit quite seriously! I appreciate how his uniquely casual style has evolved my own perception of poetry, so here he is…]

Greetings, Jack. Coffee?

I’m sorry, but I don’t drink coffee. The bitterness and the caffeine don’t agree with me. And since it’s too early in the day for a beer, I humbly request a cup of decaffeinated black tea, please.

Fine enough. Black tea it is…

I returned to and very much enjoy your reading of “The Satisfaction, ” one of your most popular poems, via YouTube:

You admit that you don’t like doing poetry readings, that you prefer the written word as opposed to the spoken word. Why?

The short answer is that I just don’t do spoken word well. No matter how I try, I always end up (to my ears, anyway) sounding like a train conductor reading off a list of stops.

I think I did okay in the YouTube video—with plenty of help from my computer genius nephew, Joe, who skillfully assembled the whole project for me. But that was after much rehearsal, with Joe and his laptop as the only spectators. Put me before a live audience and I start stumbling over my own tongue like Ralph Kramden—“hummina, hummina, hummina. . .”

Still, I respect any poet who can do justice to oral reading. My friend in England, the poet Salena Godden, is a prime example of that. Her written work is lively and studiously crafted. When Salena reads her words aloud, though, her warm and personable voice just takes them to a higher level. It’s like she’s talking directly to you.

As for me and my thick Chicago accent? I think it’s best that I stick to the written word.

You did great; don’t sell yourself short. That poem is one of my favorites in your poetry chapbook, Cold Case Cowboys, which is very natural and “readable” as your poems are basically narrative. What’s your opinion on narrative poetry as poetry?

My opinion is that narrative poetry is poetry. I’ll never understand why some people insist on treating narrative poetry as the red-headed stepchild of verse. The ancient Greeks and Romans had no problem with this genre, which is at least as old as they are. Who would argue that Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes or Gwendolyn Brooks’ In the Mecca aren’t poetry? All of them are narrative poems. What about Charles Bukowski, who revived the free verse narrative poem back in the 1960s? Not poetry? No way.

On this subject, I take my cue from Ray Foreman, himself a terrific narrative poet and the editor of Clark Street Review, which specializes in such writing. By limiting oneself to an insular, navel-gazing format, it’s easy to get bogged down by the Overwhelming I—“I feel, I think, I want.” It’s just you yammering on about you all the time, which can get damned tedious, for both writer and reader. I’m not saying that this type of poem isn’t valid or necessary for some topics. But it’s like painting exclusively in one color. Eventually, you paint yourself into a corner.

About five years ago, I was feeling similarly cornered myself. I didn’t know where else to go with the Overwhelming “I” and feared I was washed up. Sure, I wrote narrative poems before, but like Dr. Frankenstein, unleashing some jerry-rigged monster on unsuspecting readers. Through Clark Street Review, I learned that narrative poetry wasn’t just a natural and time-honored form. It was also liberating and energizing to me as a writer. I wasn’t stuck in my own voice and viewpoint. I could create countless characters, with as many viewpoints to go with them. I could converse in their voices in addition to mine. I didn’t have to just say what I felt—I could illustrate it. Imagine going from using just one crayon to coloring with the whole 64-count Crayola Big Box. That’s how it felt.

I don’t mean to imply that writing narrative poems is easier. Quite the contrary. You don’t have the novelist’s or short story writer’s luxury of leisurely developing plots, characters and themes. You have lines in which to do these things, as opposed to pages. So you’d better have your flight plan filed, Sonny Jim, well before taking the runway.

In fact, that’s a good analogy for writing narrative poetry. The novelist builds a B-52 bomber. The short story writer, an F-15 fighter plane. The narrative poet, though, constructs a hang glider—canvas sailcloth stretched over an aluminum bird-skeleton. It’s you versus the wind and the raw elements. For this reason, with the poem, you have to reduce the narrative to its essentials. The language is concentrated; you’ve no room for extras. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in. But when it’s built right the narrative poem, like the other two aircraft, can soar high and far.

So, coming to the narrative poem was like rediscovering myself as a writer. It’s the genre that I (primarily) want to continue working in, because I get such a kick out of it. For this rejuvenation, I thank Ray Foreman and the poets of Clark Street Review, who continue to inspire me.

Great! Something else I really love about your poems is the nature of the “flourishes” that conclude most of them.

Ah, yes. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoy them. Others I’ve heard from don’t share your enthusiasm. To each his or her own.

This, though, also pertains to the narrative poem. With a narrative, you can’t just stop. A story requires a proper ending. To simply slam the door shut, a la The Sopranos, smacks of English 101-style showboating and results in nothing more than a pissed-off, unsatisfied audience. I happen to respect whatever readers I have too much to be rude to them for the sake of a literary cliché.

Beyond that, a poem’s ending is the natural place to make your point. It’s like a cymbal-crash at the end of a song. It’s underscoring the main idea of the piece. For those who don’t agree with this practice? It’s my party and I’ll “flourish” if I want to.

Good for you. Yet another standout feature of your poems is the prevalence of popular culture (movies, television, books, etc.). What value do you see in Richard Brautigan, for example, or why do you place so much emphasis on media and entertainment?

Books, music, films and TV are the things I use to feed my creativity. I don’t see them as objects fixed in time. These works are part of an ongoing dialogue called our culture. They’re as alive now as the moment they were first released, in that they continue to help push that dialogue forward.

Example? I once saw a silent movie called Mickey. The movie was made in 1918 and it starred Mabel Normand, a then-famous comedienne. So taken was I by Mabel’s humor and personality, I sought out her other films and read her biography. This led to my writing my poem about Mabel, “WTF?” Maybe one person will read my poem, be moved to seek out Mabel Normand’s films and be enriched by the experience, as I was. So the dialogue continues, unlimited by time or place.

Here I’ll share “WTF?”

Laura and David Clawson spend the night
in adjoining rooms a world apart.
She’s in the living room, Facebooking on her first iPhone
which she bought after saving six months for it.
He’s in the kitchen reading a biography
of Mabel Normand, the silent film funnygirl.

David isn’t a fast reader,
but he burns like a fuse through this book.
To him, Mabel seems like a lost friend found.
David learns that the comely Ms. Normand
was a sharp feminist battling in a man’s business—
armed with a tongue that was even sharper.
Mabel ate ice cream for breakfast,
made and spent money by the truckload
and used men like sticks of Doublemint gum.
Rock & Roll before rock was invented,
Mabel even managed to check out by age 40,
just a heartbeat before soundies arrived.

For half a minute, David wants to go in
and tell Laura all he’d read.
Learning was a joy they once shared.
Then David recalls the monster mask
Laura made of her face
whenever he interrupted her surfing.
Without lifting her eyes from the screen,
Laura would grunt, “WTF?”
cutting her man off at the knees.
David neither understood nor responded;
Web was a language he never could speak.

Instead, David decides to say nothing.
He goes to the fridge and scoops himself
a dish of chocolate ice cream.
He takes it to the kitchen table
and pretends he’s sharing it with Mabel.
There, they sit and David tells Mabel
everything he read about her that night.
The flickering black & white beauty listens closely,
smiling through a free-and-easy expression.
Mabel doesn’t say “WTF?”
In fact, she says nothing at all.

As for Richard Brautigan? He’s one of my favorite poets and a major influence of mine.  Brautigan made poetry out of everything.  The first moon landing, the Andy Warhol starlet Ultra Violet, a moth in a room in Tucson, Arizona.  And he manages to say something memorable, if not poignant, about them all. His poem “What Happened?” tells the story of an old woman, who went from being the darling of the Class of 1927 to a blue-haired pariah, abandoned by everyone, including her kids, because she “make[s] them nervous.” Immediately, you picture this lady in your mind and start speculating about her backstory. And Brautigan’s poem is only eight lines long!

I eat that kind of stuff up with a spoon. It’s what I aspire to do with my own work: find memorable subjects in everyday places, unusual analogies, surrealism and a sense of fun. Referring back to the aforementioned cultural dialogue, I recently wrote a poem based on one of Brautigan’s. His 1970 poem, “The Amelia Earhart Pancake,” is about him abandoning the “Earhart” title after trying, and failing, to

Like I said, it’s an ongoing conversation. Read Richard Brautigan’s poetry—it’s a mind-blowing ride, for all the right reasons.

“The Amelia Earhart Pancake”

I have been unable to find a poem
for this title. I’ve spent years looking
for one and now I’m giving
up.

Richard Brautigan November 3, 1970

“AMELIA EARHART PANCAKE ’14”

Richard Brautigan spent years
searching for a poem
to match up with a title:
“The Amelia Earhart Pancake.”
He quit on November 3, 1970.

On April 24, 2014, I revived the cause.
Dig this, Rich:
it’s a pancake so light,
it disappears somewhere
between the pan and the plate.

Jack Phillips Lowe

Thank you for bringing this issue to closure! Much appreciated. I did read a Brautigan paperback recently, Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, and found it to be an entertaining read.

Okay, delving into poetry and “society,” you and I have discussed the mutual disappointment that poets, particularly in America, seldom support each other by purchasing books or penning reviews; we have to work so hard to sell our words if we want them heard. Feel free to expound however you choose.

Wow, where do I start? Sometimes, it seems like certain members of the literary community prefer to exploit that neighborhood for their own benefit, like the Once-ler in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, instead of living in and contributing to the community in order to help it survive and grow.

For instance, it boggles my mind that a poet like Fred Voss—who’s so utterly American—has a larger following in the UK than he has in his own home country. Voss’s latest chapbook, Tooth and Fang and Machine Handle (Liquid Paper Press, 2013), totally rocks. It deserves to be on the New York Times Bestseller List. Yet, Voss’s very worthy effort receives only a fraction of the readership of the often dubious titles which occupy that list. And that’s truly unfair, because Voss’s work speaks to the masses.

The poet Gene McCormick is another case in point. Gene’s poems are approachable, insightful and vividly descriptive, to the point of being “mind-movies.” His chapbook, La Vie en Rose: Paris Today (Chicago City Press, 2014), is all these things. Reading Gene’s work in a small chapbook is like finding Billy Joel working the piano bar at the local Holiday Inn. After a while, you wonder why people can’t hear what’s so plainly there. Unless, of course, it’s because they’re not listening.

I believe in a writer actively promoting his or her work. I’ve no time for that Emily Dickinson/J.D. Salinger “reticent artist” crap. If the writing’s worth doing, it’s worth sharing and, gentle snowflakes, the world ain’t going to come to you. When Cold Case Cowboys was published, I spent as much time banging the drum for the book as I did writing the poems that are in it. I believed in my words and in your artful chapbook design and obviously, felt they deserved to be seen. So I tried everything my budget would allow—YouTube, Craigslist, Goodreads, Amazon.com, e-mail chains, flyers sent via snail-mail and lots of Old School networking. Got some nice reviews and sold a couple copies, I did. But at the end of the day, I finished up feeling like a hot dog vendor at a vegetarians’ convention.

Of course, I can’t tell anyone what to do with their time and money. Lord knows, everybody’s budget is stretched to the limit these days and I’m no different. So, I’ll just tell you what I do. If a magazine publishes my work, I subscribe to it. When a writer I like publishes a chapbook, if I can afford it, I buy a copy. If there’s a writer or editor whose work I enjoy, I drop that person a brief note saying so. I feel less like the Once-ler this way.

I understand. Thank You for your compliments and for setting a fine literary example for our fellow Americans. You have persevered with your efforts as only a small percentage do. What keeps you motivated in this regard?

First, I’m a stubborn bastard. I, for real, actually know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But because I’m also a smartass, I will keep that number to myself.

Outside of that, I just truly enjoy writing. I’ve been playing this game for nearly thirty years. I long ago abandoned any notions of “fame and fortune.” These days, it’s all about arranging words on paper in a meaningful way and then getting those words into outlets where a like-minded audience, however small, might read them.

Nothing else I do in life brings me as much fun and satisfaction as writing does. As I get older, it keeps my mind from atrophying by making me wrestle with ideas and concepts. Gray matter exercise, if you will. I feel most alive when I’m writing. That’s why I keep at it.

Excellent. I hope you keep at it for decades yet! Thank you for your time and a most enjoyable conversation.

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(For an example of Jack’s most recent work, read “Where the Wheels Fell Off” at The Bitchin’ Kitsch, a literary ‘zine in which Jack features his favorite British comedian/explorer, Karl Pilkington. “I’m kinda proud of it,” says Jack.)

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2 Comments

Posted by on December 23, 2014 in News & Reviews

 

Tags: , ,

2 responses to “Coffee with Jack Phillips Lowe

  1. Gene McCormick

    December 30, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the compliment, Jack. Further, I share your dislike of coffee–being a Diet pepsi guy–and reading aloud. I’m wrong on this, but have always felt narrative poetry was like blonde movie starlets and other people’s kids: should be seen and not heard.
    –Gene McCormick

     
  2. Cathy Porter

    January 1, 2015 at 5:17 am

    What an wonderful interview! Thanks Jack for the poems….and for an interview that didn’t put me to sleep, but rather, made me more inspired to keep writing!!

     

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