Dr. David B. Axelrod, Suffolk County, Long Island’s Poet Laureate, maintains a website at www.writersunlimited.org/laureate where he offers his services to the public. Dr. Axelrod has published in hundreds of magazines and anthologies. He is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards including his being the first official Fulbright Poet-in-Residence in the People’s Republic of China. The New York Times described him as “A Treat!” He has shared the stage with such notables as Louis Simpson, Galway Kinnell, X. J. Kennedy, William Stafford, Robert Bly and Allen Ginsberg and performed for the United Nations, the American Library Association and hundreds of venues. He has been translated into fifteen languages.
Dr. Axelrod’s nineteenth and newest book is How to Apologize (Paradise Islands Press, 2009) was selected as a Small Press Review pick of the month. Visit his website at http://www.poetrydoctor.org. His complete credentials can be viewed at www.writersunlimited.org/CV.htm.
He’s interviewed here by David F. Hoenigman.
David F. Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?
Dr. David B. Axelrod: My patch of local fame is coming to a formal ending officially on April 1st, 2009, when my two-year term as Suffolk County Poet Laureate ends. I just spent six weeks doing just about nothing but helping revise, edit and publish nine chapbooks by young poets as part of a mentoring program I made my pet project for the two years. I’m relieved—and proud—that it went so well. (Folks can see a bit of it at www.writersunlimited.org/laureate.)
Now, I have set myself two goals. I have nineteen books, of varying sizes that I have had published, and, as I write every day—as often new poetry—I will be thinking what would make a proper twentieth title. That is a monumental enough number—twenty—that I should not rush to print. I would want it to be strong work.
I also have promised myself I will do something with a website I have toyed with for years: www.thebestpoetry.com. There, I thought I might give all my poems to the public in a format that would actually not just attract some attention to myself (“Mommy, watch me!”) but be of use to the general public.
DH: When did you first start writing?
DA: I wrote my fist short story at the age of 10 and I still have it, wrapped in plastic because the cheap math paper I wrote it on is actually crumbling now! You know you are old when paper you wrote on is turning to dust! My first published poem was in the Beverly High School literary magazine, the Aegis, and it was on the occasion of the launching of Sputnik!
Things up here in heaven
aren’t too good right now
because that nasty, noisy Sputnik
is causing quite a row.
It breaks up chorus practice.
It wakes us from our sleep.
If we could only find a way
to stop its beep beep beep.
I don’t think I’ve ever done better than that!
DH: When and why did you begin writing?
DA: Sometimes I joke that, if I had been a better reader as a little kid, I would have become a novelist not a poet. Poems take less time to read—and, let’s face it, less time to write. For my part, I suffered mightily as a child—from actual abuse at the hands of a brother and others—and it gave me ample reason to write. Over the years, some people have told me—angrily—that “all your creativity comes from negativity.” Clinically, one could say much of my writing is a part of a post traumatic stress syndrome. However, I would prefer to think that I discovered something I can do well, and, in fact, I take great pleasure in writing poetry. It took me years, I will grant you, to realize I didn’t have to be in pain to write a good poem, but now, even poems that address painful subjects are a joy to write.
DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer and who or what has influenced your writing?
DA: I was lucky enough to have two fine teachers early on who encouraged me toward poetry. There was a fellow named William Cooper, my high school English teacher, who had me reading T S. Eliot (“Prufrock”) and even John Milton (“Paradise Lost”) and loving it. While I gave in to the demands of the time, and actually started college as an engineering major, it was Dr. Robert Tucker, at the University of Massachusetts, who convinced me that I could “make a living as a poet,” so I was able to get my folks to keep paying my tuition when I switched to English as a major! Thereafter, it has been a joy. For all the egos and in-fighting, a number of very fine and well-recognized poets have been friends, mentors and advocates of mine all through the years. Poets are a good lot. Yes, there is a literary mob, and yes, there is a nasty streak of “politics” in who gets the prizes and who is included in the major publications, but a lifetime of poetry has been a good trip of me.
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
DA: For a number of reasons, people know that I have never lost my identity as a New England poet. Though I’ve been on Long Island since 1969 (more than twice as long as I lived in Massachusetts), I would still call Massachusetts my home. But Long Island has been good to me, and—except for having to drive the Long Island Expressway in traffic—it is a rich environment providing enough cultural activity and a couple hundred miles of coastline for recreation!
Thus, I am content living here—even as I plot my departure to somewhere warm. I have said that I grew up with a large dose of “Frost.” He was a major influence on me in poetry, but I’ve had enough winters and frost that I need a change of climates. We’ll see if I can be a rival for my good friend, Edmund Skellings, who is poet laureate of Florida.
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?
DA: My good friend—the fine poet and very generous X. J. Kennedy—has said I am a “one of the most original American poets now writing.” He is the editor of what is still the most –used anthology for introduction to literature classes in American colleges. He has also referred to my writing as being in the “American grain.” What I think that means is, that I am writing poems that: 1. are either first person, or at least experiential; 2. imagistic; 3. as often 12 to 20 lines long; 4. as often they have a specific set of characters, a setting and even tell a story; 5. they have no set form Those are the quintessential ingredients of contemporary American poetry. I fit that mold mostly. But the thing he says about being “original,” is the real compliment. I’d like to think that I have a wit sufficient that I have created some genuinely good lines. A true test of a poet is if he can renew the language—or better yet, invent new language. Maybe I can rise to that.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
DA: I feel compelled to say something beyond factual and possibly bland recountings in this interview. For those who read to the end of interviews, there should be a reward akin to the unravelings of a good murder mystery. So… Paranoia, sour grapes, delusions of grandeur aside, I have to say, there is a strain of American poetry—and poets—that really brings us all down. If one goes to the AWP conference; if one hangs out at some of the “major” M.F.A. programs; if one checks the lists of awards given annually, or just reads what’s now in the Academy’s pages or in the pages of P&W’s newsletter, the in-crowd continues to congratulate each other while keeping a toe firmly wedged at the bottom of the door to keep all others out.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to communicate through poetry. I’ve had some fine rewards and, mind you, I am grateful, but like the bolgia of Dante’s hell, there are circles within circles and getting to the top, or in Dante’s case the bottom, is not allowed for many! Beyond my desire to 1. do no harm, and 2. try to help others, I truly resent and hope to defeat the elitist bastards who as often damage poetry with their exclusionism. I’m a populist poet.
Yes, there is clearly a “standard” to maintain and the real politik is that only a few can ever retain the top positions. But good work should distinguish itself. I expect a good poem will be open, not so opaque as to put off a reader. A good poem should have interesting language. A good poem should make a pleasing music. There is so much crap out there that passes for poetry!
There are a number of very famous poets who write poems that are somewhere between pretentious and mediocre, and they win all the prizes, and they are published everywhere. I suppose, push come to shove, I wish I could be one of them…
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.