This interview first appeared on Justin Bienvenue’s author website.
What can you tell us about your latest book, “god-chaser”?
The poems in “god-chaser” are all about relationships—between lovers, friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters, gods and men. Most of it is either autobiographical or mythological, and most a bit of both.
When did you first start to write and appreciate poetry?
I wrote my first poem when I was 10. I actually still have it—my dad, who was a picture framer before he retired, framed it. I’ll only say it’s exceptionally silly and involves unicorns.
That was a couple months after I read an autobiography of Judy Blume, which was when I decided to be a writer.
As appreciation goes, of course I was into Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss when I was little. In middle school my dad bought some adult poetry for me, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” and Ferlinghetti was my favorite poet from then until I fell in love with Louise Glück’s work.
What can you tell us about the type of poetry you write?
I like to learn from whatever sort of poetry I can get my hands—or ears—on. Because they have such strong presences in Albuquerque, slam and literary poetry have influenced me in recent years, though I don’t think my work quite fits in either category. I also like to blend lyric and narrative poetry. I would’ve characterized “god-chaser” as primarily lyric, but my publisher, WordTech Communications, has an imprint for lyric poetry and they published it under their hodgepodge imprint, CW Books.
How has it been to have your work published regularly in magazines?
I’m grateful to all the journals that helped my poems find readers. On the other hand, I think it’s a problem that publishing poems in magazines before publishing them in a book is the standard drill. The books I’m working on now—one a verse novel and the other a verse memoir—are cases where the poems are meant to be read together, though some can work on their own or in small groups.
How has your degree in creative writing helped your work along the way?
I wrote most of the poems in “god-chaser” while I was a student at the University of New Mexico—between 10 and 15 poems as an undergrad and most of the rest as a graduate student. Though I’ve added and removed a few poems since then, and revised a few others, “god-chaser” is recognizably the descendant of my thesis.
Of course I worked closely with my thesis director, Lisa D. Chavez, on revising the poems and organizing the book. Another great influence was Tani Arness, whom I took a poetry workshop with my first semester at UNM. Her teaching was a catalyst for me—that was when I went from merely showing potential to actually writing anything good. My very first creative writing teacher (in high school) was Ellen Pickus, who taught me to stop rhyming. Though I still sneak one past myself now and again.
What’s your interpretation on poetry as a genre and writing form?
Truthfully, I don’t think about that too much. My dad always says, “art is what artists do,” and I am content to say, “poetry is what poets do,” and leave it at that.
What do you find most intriguing about mythology?
The way we write our gods and heroes tells so much about how we see ourselves. I was reading and studying some of The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid in a class during the early period of the war with Afghanistan and right around when the war with Iraq started. The professor, Ron Shumaker, pointed out the differences in what qualities the Greeks and Romans prized in a military man. The Illiad and The Odyssey trumpet the wiliness Odysseus exhibits with the Trojan horse and other adventures, while the Latin tale roots heroism in the camaraderie of men who trust each other with their lives. I contrast those ideals in “Odysseus’ Abandoned Crewman Discusses Cyclops Etiquette.” While Odysseus sought out the Cyclops island for glory, losing many men in the process, Aeneas lands there by accident and leaves as soon as he knows what lives on the island. To me, President George W. Bush seemed like Odysseus, willing to sacrifice any number of lives to prove himself, while a friend described his experience of military relationships at the ground level more like Aeneas’ band-of-brothers leadership style.
I also like to put ancient stories together with the present world and see how much—and how little—they clash.
How have you found your work to be compared to other poets and authors?
Oddly, I don’t think anyone’s told me my poems are similar to anyone else’s, and I don’t think I can judge.
Aside from influences what else would you say inspires you to write?
Most (maybe all) of my poems start with three elements: a real world observation, an imagined character, and/or whatever I’m obsessing about at the moment. I carry a little notebook to record these bits and pieces in and periodically go through them, figure out which pieces go together and then tease out the rest of the poem.
What have you found most satisfying about being an author and poet?
Sometimes while I’m reading a poem I get so absorbed I sort of forget I wrote it. I was a reader before I became a writer, so experiencing my own poems as a reader satisfies a deeper urge. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens every time I read “Yossele,” a chapbook about the golem of Prague and the rabbi who created him that I co-authored with Robert Arthur Reeves.
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