By Liz Blood
Liz was able to catch up with Bob before he headed to Minneapolis last week. They talked about Bukowski, the Poetry Machine, the importance of a great opening line, and his writing schedule.
L.B. How did you come to writing poetry?
B.S. I guess I fell in love with it in college when I started reading Bukowski. He makes it seem like such a noble thing to do—to be a struggling artist and live an interesting life. I partied a lot back then and he would write about being hung over and loathing and things like that. It really made an impression. It was one of those moments where I realized I could write about anything. It didn’t have to be a love poem or describe some beautiful tree. I could be vulgar and funny and heartbreaking, sometimes all in the matter of a few lines.
So that’s what I began doing. It was pretty bad but that didn’t stop me from writing quite a bit of it actually. Then when I got into my thirties, I just stopped writing poems. I was more concerned with writing songs and put most of my energy into that process. Around the time I turned forty I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, a writer, and we both realized that we hadn’t really written much poetry in the last ten years or so and that’s when we decided to start the Poetry Machine.
L.B. What is the Poetry Machine?
B.S. Well we began by coming up with a prompt or phrase and we’d send that to each other and then we’d write a poem and include the prompt somewhere in the poem. We started inviting other creative types—writers, musicians, actors, photographers and the like—to participate in it as well and it’s grown over the last ten years to include over a hundred participants. It’s a great way to get your self to write something once a week and it’s the only reason that I’ve got all these poems now. I don’t think I would have written any of them if it weren’t for this exercise.
L.B. What do you think makes a good poem?
B.S. Well, I think it needs to grab the reader’s attention right away. A great opening line is pretty important. Dean Young, who we’re lucky to have here in Austin is the king of the great opening line:
It's not only the word roses
lurking inside neurosis or the fact
that most of my formal education
occurred in the Midwest, so too
my summer job inhaling industrial
reactants should be considered.
In school it had been important to learn
the names of battleships, diseases, museums,
kings, the internal scheme of the squid
which is called taxonomy but outside, in the fields,
it seemed most important to know the names
of sex organs: vulva, Mount Olympus,
anadromous pod and that was called soccer practice.
Ultimately, it has to be interesting. It can’t just be big words on a page or rhyme well or have a certain number of syllables. None of that matters to me as a reader. I want to be moved, inspired to write something myself. Feel proud to be a human being because another human created magic just by putting certain words next to each other and made REAL MAGIC and if they can do it maybe I can as well.
LB: You’ve recorded three albums, written over 1000 songs, and have a Monday night residency at Saxon Pub in Austin. Tell me about the link between your music, or music in general, and poetry.
BS: Well, they’re both creative endeavors and you’re making something that wasn’t there before (hopefully). So that’s the similarity between the two. But they do require their own energy and attention, so in that regard they work against each other. It’s like having more than one child, when you are attending to the needs of one, the other is going to be neglected to some degree.
LB: I see you’re on tour now. Where are you headed today? How’s it going?
BS: I’m headed to Minneapolis today. I’m in Austin right now, but I’ve been doing a lot of touring outside of Texas on the weekends. I fly out, play a few shows, then come home. I play throughout the year. I’ll maybe take off two weeks a year and the rest of the time I’m playing shows. It’s something I really love to do—perform—but I have two kids and am married and I don’t like being away from home for very long. Luckily, I don’t need to be. There’s no huge, hot success that I need to deal with right now. I can take my time getting to the places I need to tour.
LB: Do you write when you’re traveling?
BS: In a way I’m writing all the time, but I don’t sit down to put it on paper but maybe once or twice a week and that usually happens when I’m at home. Personally I need to be alone when I’m working on anything that requires me to use my intuition. If there are others around, I get too self-conscious to lose myself in the process.
LB: How do you measure success?
BS: I want to be Elvis Presley. I feel like I am Elvis. So the fact that I’m not as popular as him is baffling and frightening to me. It makes me question my sanity. The world not recognizing me in the same category as him frustrates me to no end. I’m sure that inflated ego is something a lot of artists have. They think they’re really great. Of course they won’t say that. But I think to do anything—to make art or to write, you have to secretly have this idea that you’re really great at it. That allows you to do it. I’m extremely fortunate because I have this opportunity to do what I love to do. I love to perform. I get to do that a lot. I get to do it more than anyone I know. I get to write new material and perform new material, which is the lifeblood of performing. It’s the dream, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I’m playing a place tonight that holds 300 people, but I want to play a place with 30,000 people.
LB: Are you excited to work with Awst?
BS: I am really excited about this project. The chapbook looks wonderful. I can’t even tell you how happy I am with it. I would show it to anyone. And I’m psyched because this will be the first time someone besides myself has published my work. I haven’t submitted much work to outside publishers because I am really horrible with rejection. I kind of joke that I asked a girl out in 8th grade to a dance and she said no, so I became a musician. I changed my entire life so I wouldn’t be rejected again. The fact that someone is putting out my poetry fills me with a sense of sheer delight. I’m over the moon.
LB: I read this comment on a piece of art on your blog, and wanted to ask you how you respond to things like this:
So now you are working on a book of fantasies, not just your own words, driven by your personality disorder? And yes, there is a name for that....Acquired Situational Narcissism! Here are some FINAL words of advise...You might want to seek some professional help before you continue to post such "Artwork" that YOU deem appropriate with the rest of the world. It's not a good look!
BS: I really don’t know how to respond to that sort of thing, and so I never do. I don’t think my job is to justify or explain what I do. Maybe I would be more successful if I did, but I prefer to make the work to the best of my ability and if someone finds something to connect with, then great, and if they don’t well, there’s so much content out there, I’m sure they’ll find something somewhere else they’ll like.