The Fireman

I’ve been here for days.

The lever,
like the firm hand of someone’s father,
clicks into place.

I’ve been here for days,
it seems, before the water starts to flow—

a soft trickle, at first,
a whisper of piss, basically,
upon a symphony of flame.

My watch face is not visible
through the gloves, but
as the hose kicks finally to life

I can’t help but wonder
what time has just clicked,
firmly, into place.

I’ve been here for days,
in this desert.

Three-hundred sixty-three
to be exact.

And I can think
that this was someone’s house, or that
was where someone went to church—

but this is work,

to me,
that’s all it is.

This is a job I’ve gotten good at,
this is a body I’ve exhausted.

This fire, as it finally extinguishes
is just another clock I’m watching.

Justine’s Hands

Justine’s hands
sand down the details,
the rough paper smoothing
her edges unrecognizable.

It was early January,
some decade or another had just ended,

and I had spent
my fireworks budget
on cheap wine

which I would later spill
on so many cheap dresses, unsuccessfully.

Whenever I went to see Justine,
she was always working.

I would lurk in this corner, or that
the cobwebs and I, chit-chatting
idly in her general direction,

each of us equally ephemeral,
each of us equally likely
to become hopelessly entangled in her hair.

And all the smalltalk
I made there in her workshop
could not stop the big ideas
I had bursting in my brain,

like those fireworks I had forgotten to buy
would have probably done.

I had all this symbolic shit
I wanted to say to her
all this meaning I was desperate to impart
but I was just some guy, you know?

An interview with Timothy Volpert, by Dennis Etzel Jr.

785: Do you have a creative process? How do your poems come “to be?”

My poems usually tend to start with a single line (or image, but just most often just a single line with no context or anything), that I want to expand upon.  From there I just write and see what comes out, I suppose. Well, I guess I write in two stages: I start there, with the single line, and that I write by hand, then at some point I’ll type the poem up on my computer, and I edit while I’m typing. Editing is so important.
785: Your work has changed over the last few years. How would you describe that change?

Gosh, well, I guess I’d say it’s been a combination of how I’ve changed as a person and some conscious effort on my part to improve my writing and to hone my poetic voice.  The last few years of my life have been very full, to say the least, with both good experiences and bad. I’ve grown up a lot, I guess, and that reflects in the writing, I hope.  Also as I’ve continued to be exposed to more poets and writers, my vocabulary of influence has expanded–when I first started seriously writing poems, which was in high school, basically, my only real exposure to actual poetry was probably Edgar Allan Poe and A.A. Milne.  Since then I’ve gotten into the biggest influences of my life: Dylan Thomas, Jim Carroll, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, to name a few, and probably most importantly Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen–I’ve always been in love with that place where poetry and music intersect, and those two embody that so well.  Also, at some point my focus shifted to where every poem I write now, I write with the intention of reading aloud, and I usually do read them aloud, to myself, immediately after or during the writing process.  I feel like actually hearing it really helps filter out any awkward turns-of-phrase, or sounds that just don’t work in the poem, and for me poetry has always been foremost an attempt to create beautiful sounds.

785: You bring up two good points there–how poems have a certain sound to them, and that there is an association with music and poetry. I enjoy Smith and Cohen, too. I think there is a pop standard for lyrics to be devoid of metaphor or figurative language. What do you think about this?

Well, I agree that I think the standard for pop music is to be devoid of basically anything.  There are always two forces in music, the people who see it as a product and the people who see it as art.  Fortunately, the real artists are always out there doing what they do, it can just be harder to find sometimes.  But even within mainstream pop music there are some poetic gems to be found; Springsteen, for instance, is a pretty brilliant lyricist, and he’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Kanye West, for all his flaws, still drops a pretty impressive rhyme once in a while.

I’ll admit that I first came to poetry with a desire to write lyrics but no ability to write songs; along the way I also became enamored of poetry itself, and took a long detour down that road, before I just very recently came back to my original desire to play music and write songs (it helps that I finally had the time and focus to actually practice playing an instrument–turns out that helps a lot!), having been steeped for so long in pure poetry.

785: I think that is why lyric poetry is so dominant, and your poems seem to evoke the sense of the lyric. I truly enjoyed your persona poem “The Fireman.”  Have you experimented with persona? What other ways have you experimented in poems?

For a long time, I considered basically all of my poems to be persona poems. Even if that persona might seem to hew pretty close to my own personality, there was still a lot of element of fiction to it.  There still is quite a bit, but these days I allow myself to write something occasionally that is just purely me.  I was just really burnt out on confessional poetry for a long time, I wanted to tell other people’s stories, not just talk about myself.  But I’m also not a great storyteller, so I developed this style that I’ve always compared to those photographs where they zoom in so close that all you can see is the texture of an object, you can’t even tell what it is.  It’s so specific that it becomes vague.  “Justine’s Hands”, actually, was a specific attempt to zoom back out a little, to tell a story with a more concrete setting, and with two very distinct characters in a kind of real situation. And “The Fireman” is kind of another stab in that direction, but with a little more lyricism and abstraction mixed back in.  I’d say I kind of came at poetry the way, to some extent, I come to everything, which is to start off experimental, and work backwards from there, learning what rules I’d been breaking as I go along.

Also, I once wrote a poem by re-arranging clues from a crossword puzzle. It was better than I would’ve thought, but still not very good. The way crossword clues are phrased made everything end up sounding like newspaper headlines; there aren’t a lot of pronouns to work with.

785: I noticed hands also play a part in “Justine’s Hands.” I think hands are so personal. Do you find hands or other things coming up in poems? Do you see any other recurring themes in your work?

Hands are probably one, I think.  My band is called Paint Hands, in fact. Hands are the main way we interact with the physical world, so they have a lot of significance.  I find the word “listen” pops up a lot, which I think is both because it’s a beautiful word and because I like the idea of having that word built into a poem, especially if you are reading that poem aloud.  Another big theme for me is, I would say, the advancement of technology, and what that means to nature and our souls and all, but not in a completely negative way.  I’m pretty ambivalent about technology: on the one hand, I love all the information available from the internet, and the things it has made possible, but on the other hand there are a lot of legitimate concerns that the internet is just further detaching us all from each other,
from the rest of humanity.  If I were better at prose, I might write a lot of heavy-handed science fiction.  Other themes include death and relationships, you know, the usual.

[ July 2010 | Dennis Etzel Jr. | photo by Matt Porubsky ]

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