Though poetry is definitely an avocation for me at this point, I have been writing poetry most of my life. Like many writers, I use art to process a difficult upbringing. I was born and raised in rural Nevada, a landscape littered with nuclear fallout from above ground atomic testing, violent cowboys, and dysfunctional family systems, including my own. This landscape is largely the palette I continue to use in most of my work even though I have lived outside of it for many years now.
I have my M.F.A. in Poetry from California State University-Fresno. My most direct influences are Corrinne Clegg Hales, Kobayashi Issa, Philip Levine, James Galvin, Richard Hugo, and Jack Gilbert, among many others.
As far as my vocation, I teach things that have nothing to do with poetry.
Poetry From the Working Class
Though it’s very much a cliché to claim that art comes from suffering, I can only speak to my own art, which has most often been inspired by some of my darkest moments. Though the literary world is filled with a kind of poetry that attempts to transcend the mundane realities of our frail, human existence, I’ve never been a huge fan of that kind of art. I think it does a disservice to the work-a-day people who actually live through history rather than philosophizing about it from a safe distance inside their luxury vehicles.
And that certainly describes the people I grew up around. When you are born to a working class family, nothing is guaranteed. Not your health, your well-being, nor even the sanctity of your own body. Poverty does terrible things to people, as does grueling, never-ending farm work and manual labor of other sorts, as does isolation from the resources that people in population centers have access to. Though some of the most decorated poets seem to have a direct pipeline to Yale and other Ivy League schools and their associated contests and publishing series, the rest of us are interested in capturing the lives of ordinary people that a lot of mainstream contemporary literature has ignored.
Telling a Story: Poetry Non-Poets Can Understand
And at a certain point, those of us committed to immortalizing the people who history has largely forgotten realize that it’s probably not fitting for us to create poetry that only about .01% of readers could ever possibly comprehend. I have two degrees in poetry, one of which is a terminal degree, and many times when leafing through a contemporary literary magazine I find myself completely bewildered by the writing I find there. Perhaps it is simply the working class kid in me rebelling against a kind of art that seems tied to the upper-middle-class lifestyle that has continued to elude me.
Regardless, I think most poets who choose the working class as their central theme tend toward a more accessible, narrative aesthetic. That is certainly the case with all the poets I linked to above as my core influences (except for maybe James Galvin).
After all, story is a universal mode of communication that transcends history, language, and culture. If you want to have an experience with another human being that can bridge nearly any difference, try telling them a story. Even cultures that never developed a written alphabet have still recorded their history through stories passed down to each generation.
And that is certainly true in working class America where literacy rates and education levels typically fall well below the national average. I am certainly the only college professor or published poet ever to come from my family system, and possibly even my entire hometown. And the obstacles I’ve faced to attain a modicum of recognition for my work… well, let’s just say if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t have laid odds on me making it to where I am today, and I don’t think most would have.
If you want to learn more about me, the best way is to take a gander at some of my published work, much of which is available for free via online literary magazines.
Or, of course, you can be really brave and order my chapbook of poems to see just how far I’ve come.