Poet Of The Week

E. J. Evans

September 2–8, 2019

E. J. Evans is a poet and musician living in Cazenovia, NY. He has contributed poetry and prose poetry to many literary journals including Poetry East, Confrontation, RHINO Poetry, Main Street Rag and New Mexico Poetry Review. He is the author of the prose-poem collection Conversations with the Horizon (Box Turtle Press, 2019) and the chapbook First Snow Coming (Kattywompus Press, 2015). He plays the shakuhachi, ney and Irish flute. On Sunday, September 15, Evans will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Ba’sik in Williamsburg with Julia Knobloch and Lee Herrick.

[And speaking of love]

And speaking of love there’s been entirely too little of it throughout my life in my opinion but the terrible truth of human nature is that the more desperately you seek love and the more sunk in loneliness you are the harder it is to get this “love” you seek because the hard fact is that love is not something that one gets anyway it turns out after long seeking and struggle to be more of a discipline that one puts into practice a way of approaching the world and a very challenging one at that I sure wish I’d figured this out a long time ago but then I was for so long stuck down in a deep well of my own obscurely-cursed self and didn’t have the strength to climb out and I’ve met many many others who’ve lived a similar dark struggle most of them much worse than mine indeed so many who grew up lonely and afraid in loveless families like D whose first two husbands had each in turn abandoned her to raise her kids by herself and G who when she was a teenager had a baby which she gave up for adoption and then in her twenties she was raped by an acquaintance of hers who later killed himself and A whose young son was killed in an accident and J who endured terrible abuse from her father and brothers when she was young and was later married for many years to an alcoholic and drug addict and L who as a child witnessed her father murder her mother and I could go on but after many years I could see the problem was not me being unloved the problem is and has always been a universal and invisible inner human conflagration of rage pain and fear that is like a terrible silent despairing lament a secret global chorus addressed from these souls to the entire world why did you hurt me so much why why and spreading through us all from lover to lover from parent to child and on and on forever our shared nature and heritage as humans and there is no answer to this I have tried all my life to find one I’m getting old now and exhausted from the struggles my own but even more those of other people people I’ve cared about and my only response now is to address the world with as much clarity of mind and heart as I can and to be keenly vigilant and offer up whatever awareness I can muster so for example I rise early in the morning and watch the day slowly unfold out beyond the windows and I take into myself everything I can see and hear and imagine and remember including all the people I know and have known and I deliberately include them I give them space within me all the space they need and thus is my life renewed

—From Conversations with the Horizon, Box Turtle Press, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem

This prose-poem is part of a larger work, a collection of spontaneous lyric meditations on various topics that I thought of as explorations of my identity. All of the pieces in this collection were first written quickly and freely and then later went through many revision passes through the whole manuscript in an effort to make the language smoother. In this particular piece the topic that occurred to me to write about was love. I composed the piece extemporaneously, riffing on my thoughts on love without stopping to think too much about where these thoughts would lead, and just following the natural flow of my mind without interruption. As with many of the prose-poems in this collection, the progression of my thought and its conclusion in this piece turned out to be quite surprising to me.

What are you working on right now?

I’m assembling another book manuscript. This one is quite different from my recent prose-poem book Conversations with the Horizon. It’s a collection of more conventional lyric free-verse poems, written over a period of many years and spanning quite a range of my poetic thinking over those years. It reflects a lot of diverse poetic influences but is generally concerned with my ongoing inquiry into what constitutes human nature (which I see as the overall theme of the prose-poem book as well).

What’s a good day for you?

I usually get up early in the morning and like to start off the day with a couple hours of reading. Then I usually work on poetry for an hour or two. Then I move on to doing a couple hours of music practice. I consider that to be a pretty productive day for me. I also like to leave some open, unstructured time in my day, time when I don’t feel that I have to be doing anything in particular. I remember something that Christian Wiman said, to the effect that to be a poet you should have large amounts of free, unstructured time on your hands. Time to reflect, to find yourself, to just be a human being without any particular agenda. I’m very grateful to be in a position in my life now in which I can have that kind of freedom.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I currently live in the small town of Cazenovia, New York, a suburb of Syracuse. It’s a beautiful and peaceful town with nice people and I enjoy my life there. My wife and I live in a beautiful old historic house that has quite a unique and interesting personality. That house has inspired several of my poems. I live in a small town but I’m conveniently close to Syracuse which has a lively and interesting writing community, of which I’ve become a part. I try to stay connected to my writing friends here as much as possible. Before I lived in Cazenovia I lived in Ithaca, a culturally vibrant place that inspired me to venture out into many different directions creatively. And before that I lived for many years in Florida. I was not that happy there. I suppose it was because I never found an intellectual and/or creative community there that I could feel a part of.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

Unfortunately I don’t know Brooklyn well from my own experience. It has a reputation as a culturally rich and lively town, particularly for literature. I get the sense that Brooklyn is just alive with poetry. I want to try to get to more literary events in Brooklyn and get to know more Brooklyn poets. I did a reading with Dell Lemmon and Jill Hoffman at the McNally-Jackson bookstore on 4th St back in June of this year and it was a wonderful experience. The McNally-Jackson staff were extremely helpful and kind to us.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Poetry community is very important to me, especially as I’ve always been something of a literary outsider. I need to feel an intuitive connection to other poets. It is part of what keeps me going. When I meet another poet, no matter what kind of poet they are or what their personal characteristics are (age, ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc.), I immediately know that I have something vitally important in common with that person, because I know we have struggled with very similar issues in trying to bring poems into the world, and I know something about the nature of that struggle. To feel that connection, however subtle, is an important part of my life as a poet. On a more concrete level I like to go to as many readings as I can and buy other authors’ books, small gestures that reaffirm our solidarity as a community of poets. And being a part of the community means being willing to give back to the community a bit, for example by helping out at poetry events, serving on boards or planning committees, or in other such support capacities. I’m also fortunate to be a part of a poetry group, my most immediate poetry community, that meets periodically in Ithaca to share our work and offer critique. I’ve been a part of this group since 1997 and we still meet regularly.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

First of all Walt Whitman has to be acknowledged as probably the most important seminal figure in American letters. I discovered his work as a teenager and his poetic voice has been with me ever since. For me, he has been a liberator. Marianne Moore is another whom I discovered very early on and whose poetic voice seemed to be speaking directly to me. Her influence has been with me ever since I first read her. Delmore Schwartz was from Brooklyn and I’ve always been intrigued by his strange literary genius. A contemporary Brooklyn poet whose work I’ve followed and enjoyed for a long time is D. Nurkse.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I’ve always been interested in poetry, ever since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until I took a workshop-based poetry course from Fred Muratori many years ago that I was finally inspired to commit myself to poetry writing in earnest. Fred is an excellent poet and critic who got his master’s from the creative writing program at Syracuse. He and I are still good friends all these many years later and we still get together to talk about poetry. He is a very perspicacious reader and generous with his help, and I value his insights greatly. Along the way I’ve taken brief workshops with other poets such as Sharon Olds, Jean Valentine, Carl Phillips and Dave Smith, all of whom I learned from. But it was Fred who first got me to start thinking like a poet.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal made a strong impression on me. It’s emotionally complex and intense, but with an exhilarating feeling of spiritual expansiveness to it. Rekdal’s lyrical skill is amazing. She blends mythological themes with a ruthless exploration of the whole inner emotional landscape of a human being, including tragedy, trauma and transcendence.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Nox by Anne Carson, the complete sonnets of Shakespeare, the Divina Commedia of Dante.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m usually reading three or four books concurrently. I read widely in poetry, fiction, philosophy, history, cultural criticism, essays, Greek and Roman classics, and memoirs. I don’t have any system to my reading and I often choose my reading material impulsively. I try to keep my mind open to all different kinds of literature and different literary styles and points of view and to keep challenging myself to read works by authors who are unfamiliar to me. If I can be said to have any goal in my reading it would be this: to try to comprehend the entirety of the human situation. Which sounds rather crazy, I know. I find memoirs especially interesting because I’m always very curious about other people’s lives, and especially about how different people go about constructing meaning from the raw material of their life experiences.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’ve always wanted to write some poems that have scientific themes but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. When I was young I was mostly interested in science, and I still have some scientific interests. I’m not sure yet if it’s possible for me to incorporate such themes into my poetry. I’m still thinking about it. Something else I’ve always been interested in doing is collaborating with artists of other genres, such as musicians, dancers, filmmakers, performance artists or visual artists, to incorporate my poetry into a multi-artistic work of some type. Creeley used to do a lot of stuff like that.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

My study at home is the place that is by far the most conducive to reading and writing for me. Sometimes I enjoy reading or writing in a café, but usually I find it’s much easier to concentrate at home in my study. I usually have to really sequester myself, especially when I’m working on a poem which for me is a process that requires intense concentration.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Sadly I don’t know Brooklyn (yet), except for the McNally-Jackson bookstore, which I love.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate all my egregious mistakes and blunders,

And what I have screwed up you have probably screwed up as well,

For every broken thing that has taught me as good becomes a teacher to you.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is, as I imagine it, the nexus in the mind where art, imagination and boldness come together. Perhaps this is true of the real-world, physical Brooklyn as well. I look forward to the exploration.