Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Way a Door Waits to be Opened: In Conversation with John Guzlowski

DCW: I don’t know if you have ever seen Nardwuar’s interviews, but he always leads with this question, which I think is an important one: Who are you?

JG: Who am I?  That’s an impossible question to answer. 

Let me explain what I can’t explain: I did my dissertation on the sense of the self in contemporary American literature.  The focus was on the postmodern notion that there is no definable self.  I can not explain who I am nor can I explain who you are.  All I can give you is a sense of my self that is a fiction I’ve created or agreed to, or in part created and agreed to. Likewise, I can’t tell you who you are.  You are a fiction I’ve created based on the bits and pieces of you I know. 
So who am I? 

I’m a 71-year old guy with bad knees, vertigo, eyes that go in and out of focus, polyps in my left nostril, arthritis in my elbows, two broken feet that never heeled properly.
I’m also a writer who writes poems, novels, and essays about stuff that has nothing to do with all that. 

I write about snow and sparrows, the world in the morning, the world at night, the friends who are still here and wondering where I’ve gone to, and the friends who are waiting in their graves for my memories to give them some breath.

I write about God and aging, my wife and my family, the way a door closes and the way a door waits to be opened.  

I write a lot about my mom and dad, the lives they had after they left the concentration camps.

I write about standing at a bus stop in Chicago in the pearly gray rain waiting for a passing crucifixion just the way I did when I was a kid 50 years ago.

So who else am I?

I’m also still what I once was: a kid born in a refugee camp after WWII, growing up in a Polack neighborhood in Chicago, listening to my mother tell me how she saw her mother raped and killed by the Germans, dreaming of Walt Whitman and Dostoevsky, listening to my father telling me about how he watched German soldiers ripping the breasts off women with their bayonets, reading everything there was, going to schools and colleges and failing until I didn’t, dreaming with Kerouac on the roads I took, finding friends and losing friends, teaching and marrying and having a family like no family I had ever had, and growing and growing and growing.

And still that’s not who I am.  It’s just a story I tell my self.

Just yesterday, a friend I had in 6th grade got in touch with me on Facebook.  I haven’t spoken or written to this guy in like 60 years.  I asked him who I was in 6th grade.  He wrote back, “You were a tall, skinny, bad boy.” 

I was surprised.  I think he had me confused with someone else.  Or not.

DCW: You taught at the collegiate level for a few years. I think I remember you mentioning that at times you used to commute by plane. Can you tell us how teaching has informed you as a human being? What about your craft? How has teaching informed your writing, or vice versa?

JG: I started teaching in a university as a grad student in 1973 and finished as a full professor in 2013.  40 years.  How did that inform me as human being?  I think the most profound influence was on how I interact with people.  I was a shy kid.  I didn’t like to talk, didn’t like to put myself forward.  Part of this I think came from being an alien, a foreigner, a person who wasn’t from around here.   I was the outsider, I couldn’t speak English, didn’t know shit from Shinola when it came to being an American, didn’t know about pilgrims or Independence Day or Bing Crosby or Aunt Jemima.  And my parents were even worse.  The way I reacted to all of this was to pull back, hold back.  I didn’t like to talk to people, didn’t like to tell them what I was thinking or what the weather was like or what time it was because if I did they might recognize how alien I really was.

Somehow I found myself teaching, and teaching forced me to talk and to tell people what I thought I was thinking.  Just like this.  Without all those years of teaching what I would be writing right now wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be reading it.  I wouldn’t even know who you were or who the fuck I was.

Ditto with the craft.  Spending 40 years reading what writers wrote opened me to the possibility I could put words down on a paper that would somehow explain all the stuff I couldn’t explain.  The great writers I was reading always seemed to know what was going on in the world they were turning around and around in.  And I wanted to be that kind of person too.  Making sense for a moment of everything.

DCW: How important is travel to a writer, poet, artist? How has travel helped to shape your point of view?

JG: Travel – if you’re paying attention while you’re doing it – will teach you one of the most important lessons you can learn as a writer.  You are a stranger, and you are not a stranger.  You’re in the story you are living, and you are not in the story you are living.  When I travel, I am always looking for what I don’t know, have never experienced, but what I always realize is that what I don’t know is in fact part of what I know. 

I think a lot of this in some way reaches back to where I came from.  I wasn’t born here.  I was born in a refugee camp in a country (Germany) where my parents had been enslaved in concentration camps because they were considered subhuman.  I was a stranger in Germany, and a stranger here in the US.  Traveling now – and I travel a lot – reminds me I’m a stranger.

How does this impact my writing?  If I didn’t feel like a stranger, I probably would never write, probably I wouldn’t see the point of writing.  I would just assume that my views and ideas, my vision, was just like the vision everyone else has; and then what would be the point of writing it down. 

DCW: Do you believe in inspiration? What keeps you coming back to the work?

JG: I absolutely believe in inspiration, the muse that speaks to me.  When I first started writing, I thought the idea of a muse was just a gag, some bullshit left over from the Greeks.  But then I met a terrific poet named Gray Jacobik who said, “Listen to your muse.”  And I thought she was kidding me too, but she wasn’t.  She believed all writers and artists have a muse, someone who speaks to them. 

I finally came to believe it after that.  What I noticed was that thoughts and words were always popping into my head, and I didn’t know where they were coming from, but there they were, and I had to write them down immediately because the muse wasn’t going to whisper twice what she whispered once. 

Is the muse real?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have to listen to this voice and write down everything that it says to me because some of this stuff is really really good.
By the way, I wrote a poem of advice to a creative writing class once and it touches on the idea of muses, and here’s the last stanza:
Fourth, find a muse.  I’m not kidding.  Mine is a mother
of two who died in the snow outside of Stalingrad,
shot in the forehead by a German foot soldier
from a little town in Bavaria.  She comes to me
when I’m busy grading papers or talking with friends
and she begs me to remember her children, all the children.

What will this muse do for you?  Ask her, she’ll tell you.

DCW: Who were some of your favorite writers to teach? Who are some of your favorite writers to read? Why?

JG: My favorite writers to teach are pretty much my favorite writers to read. 
My favorite poets are: Whitman, Dickinson, Robert Frost, Tadeus Rozewicz, Milosz, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, TS Eliot, Ai, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Donald Hall, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

My favorite prose writers are: Toni Morrison, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Dostoevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Kerouac, Emerson, and Paul Theroux.
Why do I like them?

I like serious, gloomy writers.  I like writers who talk about everyday things too, tools and hammers, car parts, branches and limbs of trees, the way a head turns when a person feels too much sun on the back of his neck. 

When I was teaching creative writing, I always was telling students to make sure their writing had everyday things in them, things like hands and arms, feet and lips in them.  Someone recently asked me what good writing was and what good writing wasn’t.  There’s a long answer and a short answer.  The long answer involves criteria and personal biography, the short answer involves a simple statement.  Here’s the short answer.  What I feel is “good” is what touches me.  All the writers I mentioned above touched me, shaped me, mothered and fathered me. 
Here’s a poem I wrote about reading that tries to get to the heart of this:

What Reading Means to Me

Sometimes, you’ll be sitting in a car
Reading a novel you’ve read before
Waiting for your wife or husband
To get done with the shopping

And you come to a part
About something so close
To you that you feel the writer –
Even if she’s making it up –

Must have in some past life
Lived that moment you lived
In some life, lived a pain
So hard you want to take

The writer’s hand and hold it
Against your own chest
And say nothing.

DCW: We’ve chatted about music a bit. Why do you think music is such a powerful avenue for self-expression? Do you see a relationship between poetry and music? What do they do for each other?

JG: I tend not to draw lines between the different types of art.  Music, poetry, prose, art, photography, dancing, movies, theater?  All of them wash over me and clean me and shake and spruce me up and get me moving toward the next moment and the next word.  It’s always been this way for me since I was a kid.  One moment I would be reading a Spiderman comic and the next minute I would be reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the next minute I would be listening to Son House sing Dead Letter Blues and the next minute I would be humming the Midnight Sonata and staring at a painting by Salvador Dali or Monet.

I love to sing and I love to shout out my poems and I love to watch a movie or a TV show that is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. 

But I know that not everything feels this way, and when I think about the power of music I think a lot of that power comes because music is the first art form we’re introduced to.  Before a kid reads a book or watches a TV show or anything, he’s probably listened to his mother sing a lullaby, and he’s heard his dad singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Heartbreak Hotel.”  And the kid will carry this music and this memory through his life, and he’ll listen to every single song to see if it evokes the memory of his mom singing a song about a deep well and the little girl peering into it.  And even when he’s on his deathbed the kid will be thinking of that song, remembering it like it’s the passageway to heaven and soon he’ll be hearing her sing it again.

DCW: What does the writing process look like for you? Where does a poem “begin”? How do you know when a poem is “finished”?

JG: The writing process pretty much looks the same all the time.  I hear a phrase in my head, a combination of a few words or phrases, and I like the sound or the image or the thought, and I write it down.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, as soon as I start writing the phrase I heard in my head, it will lead me to another phrase and another phrase and another phrase.  I don’t try to force it.  I just try to let the words lead me to where they want me to go. 

If I’m lucky, I’m finally sitting there at my desk looking at about a dozen lines, or 20 lines, and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got.

What follows is generally a slower process of revision and playing with the poem.  When I was teaching creative writing, I used to tell students that editing wasn’t editing, it was really experimenting.  When you make a change to a poem, you’re experimenting with it, playing with it, trying to see what else you can do.  Sometimes this process takes a couple days, sometimes longer. 
How do I know I’m finished?  When the poem sounds right.  When I can read the poem out loud and it feels fluid and like it came from me immediately without hesitation or any kind of editing, that’s when I know it’s finished. 

DCW: Thank you for your time, John. I truly appreciate it. Is there anything else you would like the people to know?

JG: The only other thing I want to tell people is that they shouldn’t get discouraged when their poems don’t seem to work or they can’t find an audience.  Even if you are the only one reading your poems, they are still working, still doing their job on you the writer, opening you up to what’s inside you in a way that will make you happier and happier with your creativity as the years go on.
Remember that always, and buy one of my books.  Thank you.

John Guzlowski's writing appears in Rattle, North American Review, and other journals.  Echoes of Tattered Tongues, his memoir about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany, won the Benjamin Franklin Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer/Montaigne Award.  He is the author of three novels and a columnist for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy.

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