An Interview with Bob Holman

Bob Holman

Poet, teacher, and impresario Bob Holman talks about riding along on the tip of an eyelash, the importance of orality, and how performing is editing.

Are there any habits or tactics that you use to help feed your creativity?

I'm a poet, I guess, because the tempo of a poem fits into my life. If I had a different kind of discipline, I'm sure I would write infinitely long novels. Poems ride along on the tip of your eyelash and can come and go in a blink. It's important that you be there when they want to happen. And the way to be there is to give yourself time to percolate; you can read, you can walk, you can sit there and dream.

The other part is to be ready when they are. Which is to say, a notebook and a writing implement are your passport. I love writing in darkened theaters and at art museums. But it's also important to have [these tools] beside your bed so no dream gets lost.

What do you do when you're feeling creatively dry?

I read. There are a few marvelous exercises I love. I studied with Kenneth Koch at Columbia, so I'm in love with imitations -- writing imitations of the greats who came before you. Finding out your own tastes as a poet, creating your own lineage is part of the job.

The thing to remember about a poem is that it is not made of emotions. It's not made of wisdom. It's not made of your most secret interior life being vomited out on a page. It's made out of words. So start with words -- what word is working for you right now? And put that down.

If you need a word, I also suggest going to the bookshelf and saying, well whose word do I need? I find myself often needing a John Ashbery word, so I just go to Ashbery, and I open him up, and I find a word in there that's going to work. All poets' vocabularies are distinct, so what kind of word do you need? If you need a Wanda Coleman word, you're going to go to Wanda. Translating experience into words, all you need to do is open your eyes to the silence like John Cage did, and the poem's right in front of you.

[a poem] is not made of emotions. It's not made of wisdom.... It's made out of words.... I find myself often needing a John Ashbery word, so I just go to Ashbery, and I open him up, and I find a word in there that's going to work. All poets' vocabularies are distinct....

Bio

Dubbed a member of the "Poetry Pantheon" by The New York Times Magazine, Bob Holman has previously been crowned "Ringmaster of the Spoken Word" (New York Daily News), "Dean of the Scene" (Seventeen), and "this generation's Ezra Pound" (San Francisco Poetry Flash). His latest collection of poems, a collaboration with Chuck Close entitled A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, was exhibited at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum during the Venice Biennale and published by Aperture in fall 2006.

Holman ran the infamous poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café from 1988 to 1996. In 1995, he founded Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records, the first-ever major spoken word label. In 1996, the TV series he produced for PBS, The United States of Poetry, won the INPUT (International Public Television) Award. He is Visiting Professor of Writing at Columbia School of the Arts, Founder/Proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, and Artistic Director of Study Abroad on the Bowery, a certificate program in applied poetics.

Bob Holman on the Web: The Bowery Poetry Club, Bobholman.com, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, by Bob Holman and Chuck Close

As a long-time proponent of spoken and performed poetry, how does orality fit into your writing?

Let me tell you that the discovery of "orality" as a consciousness has been maybe the most inspiring notion that I've come across. The book that's the bible of this is Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy. You can tell right from the title that we're no longer in the dichotomy of literacy and illiteracy. Who wants to be illiterate? Nobody wants to be illiterate.

And yet, of the 6500 languages that are extant right now in the world, only 700 of them are written down. People born with a mother tongue that isn't written down are, according to this map, illiterate. Wrong. They're living in an oral culture.

We are so in awe of the book and the power of the book that we've forgotten the power of the musicality of sound and the magic of sense nested in sound. How does cow come to mean "cow"? It's working with that line -- can orality enter into a written poem? can orality enter into text? -- that's given me both a boost in my writing and performing and also given me a mission -- fighting for the rights of languages themselves. Everybody's fighting for the preservation of species, but who's fighting for the preservation of languages, which are in fact the souls, the consciousnesses of culture itself?

Do you find that working out loud, on your own and in performance, taps different parts of your brain?

Well, you don't even have to work out loud to hear. Do you see words pop up in front of your head? Only when I heard the poet Robert Creeley read did that work for me, because he placed each word in the air the way his words are placed on the page. Generally, as Whitman and Ginsberg have stated, the line in a poem equates to the breath. It is a physical thing. What I'm doing when I'm writing is, I'm hearing the words. Even if I'm not talking, I'm listening as I'm creating.

When you're performing, that's also part of the creative process. It's not just a presentation of a finished piece. [When reading,] poets will find themselves leaving out words, adding words. And if you leave out a word on the same poem over a period of time, I challenge you to think that maybe that word shouldn't be there. Performance is another step of editing. Sometimes words will flow from you that need to be added. Most of the time, there are parts that you skip over. But, either way, writing a poem continues as you perform it.

Is there anything that you've figured out along the way that you wish you'd known at the start?

I recently had an old girlfriend contact me and tell me that I had given her a poem the last time we'd seen each other, which was a million years ago. And she had been carrying that poem with her ever since. Oh my God -- that's all you need.

So she sent it to me. And I realized what a good poet I was at seventeen years old. And what I was, was free. What I was, was I didn't know so much then, so I was free to write whatever I wanted to. So rather than just stand here and say, what do I know now that I wish I'd known then, it's like, what have I forgotten?

If you're sitting down to write a poem, the first thing to do is to forget that you're sitting down to write a poem. And not to censor yourself in any form when you're writing. Later on you can censor yourself all you want. It's called editing, and it's necessary to take that poem from this originating explosion into the crafted art that's going to allow it to live alone.

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  • Hi/Once Gene Redmond said that we should call you/cause Painter/Poet/something to share/My husband Steve Stoller has been painting for forty yrs. I've been poeting less/We live in the Bronx and the tipm of Lake CHAMPLAIN/then my son saw your wife's painting at the Met/we met at the grand/slam at the 3rd St. joint. I studied with Etheridge Knight/you and I also in Drumvoices. I like your interview and think that we could communicate some time....

  • you impress at every curvue of the word, either written or spoken...
    hope to see u, hear u peform on 27th tomorrow in delhi

    with love
    inder salim

  • Great interview. I like how Holman pointed out that poems are not made of emotions, wisdom, or your secret interior life . . . they are made out of words. I think many writers, myself included, have wasted time and energy by not fully realizing that truth.

    The cool thing is that once we finally operate on that principle, we sometimes get a reverse effect where the interior emotions spring to life from the assembly of words.

  • fascinating flip on literacy and the almost 6000 languages that are not written. cec, you need to include sound files for your written poems. orate!

  • “orality as a consciousness,” & languages species endangered by print. I feel guiltily monoglot.

  • just had a conversation about that practice in painting, how it used to be a standard method for teaching and also about how natural it is to work with someone else's music....yet i've heard people talk about purposely not looking at other people's work so as to remain "uninfluenced" (like that's desirable or even possible!).

    thanks for another wonderful interview.

  • Another great one! I love Holman's idea of choosing different words from different poets, and the "copying" exercises. I just read a good book on writing poetry by Mary Oliver (a wonderful nature poet) and she suggests the same thing to her students and readers. Painters have been using it as a tool for years. I'll have to check out Holman's poetry!

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