Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Poetry Chain Gang (Volume 1) | Doug Van Gundy

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 6 w/ Doug Van Gundy)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Doug Van Gundy.

BT: When poet Ian Douglas suggested I interview you next, he said: “If you enjoy whiskey and talking poetry, Doug’s your man.” That said— would you happen to have a whiskey haiku/poem up your sleeve that you wouldn't mind sharing? If not, can you tell me something poetic about whiskey?

DOUG: First, I want to say that while I am from West Virginia, both of my parents are from Pittsburgh, so the chain isn’t completely broken here…

While I’m not much for occasional poems, this occurred to me while considering your very specific request:


Passed from glass to lips,
the spirit warms the body.
The body, warmed, sings.

The whiskey making process is a wonderful metaphor for the poetic process, because it needs time and darkness to mature into what it can be at its best, and if the process is rushed, the results can be both distasteful and disappointing. Making whiskey and making poetry both involve distillation, to my mind: the extraction and concentration of the essential.

That having been said, my little scrap of syllabic doggerel above is absolutely new and unconsidered, so make of that what you will.

BT: I see that you’re a poet as well as a fiddler— which one (poems or the fiddle) gets your undivided attention the most?

DOUG: The poems are the priority, without a doubt. But the fiddle is so tempting because the feedback is immediate—there is no waiting and watching, no postage and endless trips with the dog to the mailbox—when you pick up the instrument, the music happens upon demand and whoever is listening responds, for good or ill.

Music is something I do and love, but writing is something that I am; I don’t feel right without it. That looks awfully corny there on the screen, but it is absolutely true.

BT: There is a Langston Hughes poem called Daybreak in Alabama that begins: "When I get to be a composer/I'm gonna write me some music about/daybreak in Alabama...” Is there a place somewhere on earth where daybreak there would inspire you enough to "write [you] some music” or rather, a poem?

DOUG: Like many writers, I work best in the early morning and thus have a particular love for the hours around daybreak.

One of the sweetest mornings I ever spent was the first morning of a summer trip to Bruges, Belgium. I usually get up a little before the sun, and this morning was no exception. But, because of the latitude in Northern Europe, the sun rose at about 4:45 in the morning at that time of year. I got up, and without looking at my watch, showered and dressed and went looking for coffee, leaving my wife to sleep in the darkened hotel room. This popular tourist town was completely abandoned at that hour, despite being in full sun, and the effect was very eerie. It took me a little while to figure out what was going on, but by 6:00 AM, caf├ęs and bakeries were beginning to open, and I was able to get my coffee and chocolate croissant. But for the first hour of that day, I had this 15th century Renaissance city all to myself, and I have rarely been so content. The empty streets were paved with the golden light of dawn.

I guess now I have to write the poem.

BT: There’s a literary legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words only— a six word memoir that would tell the whole story; Hemingway wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” My six word memoir would be “Poor papa raised four free spirits.” What would yours be?

DOUG: “Doesn’t follow directions very well.”

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

DOUG: I’ve really enjoyed reading the responses of the other poets on your blog, and tracking down their work. I think that your readers would enjoy meeting Dan Albergotti from down in Conway, SC. Dan loves poetry as much (or more) than anyone I know, and is my brother of a different mother. Plus, he is a huge fan of Jack Gilbert, which keeps at little of that Pittsburgh sensibility in the air.

Doug Van Gundy’s poems and essays have appeared in The Oxford American, Ecotone, The Fretboard Journal, From the Fishouse., Goldenseal and other publications. A 2009 Pushcart Prize nominee, Doug teaches writing and literature at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, WV. His first book of poems, A Life Above Water, is published by Red Hen Press.

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