Body Moves. He has received a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, a NEA fellowship, and an Open Voice Award from the National Writers’ Voice Project.
Ghent Reader: What was it about Michael Ryans course that captivated you the most?
Tim Sebiles: Well, mainly I remember these great poems, these strange poems, from all sorts of authors he read to us. He taught with such fire, and I feel fire inside. I feel fire about lots of things.
So generally speaking, in high school, you didn’t have teachers who taught that ferociously. They were competent, they were good, and they were fine. But, they weren’t turning red when they talked about something or slamming their fist on the desk about a poem. He was just really intense.
GR: So you resonated with his passion?
TS: Yes. To me he was clearly maniacal about poems.
GR: What did he say about your poetry?
TS: Ryan was already a young, somewhat great writer, but he wasn’t discouraging. It wasn’t like he was saying, “You’re clearly a genius.” He would try and help you and give you suggestions, but we were goofballs. We didn’t know anything about writing. I didn’t know anything about writing. I didn’t. I had a lot of imagination. It just needed to be shaped in some intelligent way, but I was filled with energy in my head. I always felt like I had a lot to say.
GR: Were you resistant to being shaped?
TS: Not really, because I’ve run into some young writers who seem really reluctant to listen to your suggestions. Not all of them, by any means, but some, and you’re like, “Don’t you get it you’re young? You have to learn things.” But people do think that if you can feel something, and you can write it, than it’s already finished. I felt it. I wrote it. It’s poetry.
GR: But you weren’t like that?
TS: No. I think I might have been saved, because I really didnt know anything about poetry. Now, with fiction I might have been more hardheaded. I had written stories for a long time, but I hadn’t written a poem. I mean I had written a love poem here or there, but to really write poems, I didn’t know anything about it. That kind of helped me really. So I didn’t feel like “No! It’s got to be this way!”
I think I was just so enamored by the idea of writing poems and being able to say all kinds of things that I wasn’t feeling wildly resistant to it. In addition, Ryan knew he was dealing with beginners. He wasn’t trying to micro-manage our poems. He wasn’t like “I know this is the fourth poem you’ve written, let’s go over every line.” He gave suggestions and talked about things like clichs. He didn’t try to be heavy handed. Had he of done that, maybe I would have thought “Well jeez! It’s my poem!”
Even in later workshops, Jack Myers, probably my main mentor in workshops, even Jack knew. Those guys knew we didn’t know anything. We knew a little bit, I suppose, but we knew a tiny fraction of what they knew. Even Jack would say, These are some of my suggestions, but it’s your poem. You have to make the decision.” That meant a lot to me. It means a lot to me now as a teacher, because ultimately, you’re not trying to take over anybody’s poetry. It’s your work. You have to make it work for you. Jack was one of the first to really say that to me.
GR: Did he find a style in you and encourage you to go in that direction?
GR: I wouldn’t say that. It takes a decade to have what one would call a style. To really have a mood that seems particular to you, that takes a while to take shape, but what my teachers might have noticed was that I was really energetic and passionate about writing. With that, I think they wanted to encourage me to keep writing, but they didn’t say, Ah! You seem to real great way of doing this or that now. I was 19 at the time. My main education with writing came the second semester of my sophomore year. From that point on, I was in workshops.
GR: How did you end up down in Texas?
TS: The short story is there was a wide receiver that played for SMU when I was still in high school, who I really admired. I thought I wanted go to SMU, because Jerry Mathias went to SNU. That was all. I thought I would be a great wide receiver, and I would be compared to him. That was really my whole reason. I didn’t have any other intelligence about it.
The other thing that attracted me to SMU: It was far fare from home, and I wanted to be somewhere like it was my own place. It’s a private school with, primarily, really rich Southern whites, which is crazy. What am I doing from Philadelphia down here at SMU?
A lot of people you met down there were already from enough money that their career in life wasnt a big concern. Then, there were other people, the Latinos, blacks folks, some Asians and so on, who were not rich. Mainly, the black people who were there were on scholarships — athletically and sometimes academically. Sometimes people were there, because they didnt want to wander that far from home, so you had black folk from Dallas going there. Nonetheless, there werent a lot of black folk there. It was like out of the 10,000 students there, probably, a 100, maybe 50 students were black. It was wildly, overwhelming white.
GR: Did that lead to a lot of material for you?
TS: You know. Thats interesting. I was such an idealist and I continue to be so horribly nave, maybe that a lot of things that were fairly clearly racist commonly went unnoticed. Unless, it was directed right at me, I just didnt give it much attention. There were things I wanted to get done, and I believed the world was going to be fine in about five or 10 years.
GR: Im wondering though, did you find it annoyingly white?
TS: There were moments when you felt pretty isolated, but I didnt feel under siege by white racists. That wasnt my feeling of the place, but you certainly knew that there were whole worlds where you werent going to be invited. The white fraternities and sororities were not going to say, Hey! Lets invite the black people to our parties. That just wasnt going to happen.
Now, there were a couple of weird moments. Apparently and I think this may have been one of those rumors that got blown out of proportion some white guy that was in a frat had slapped a black student. I dont know what happened. None of us knew what happened, but it became this really big deal. It was this white-guy-slapped-a-black-sister kind of thing. This, of course, is coming right off the 1960s when you still had a lot of militant attitudes, big afros. It escalated so fast, but nothing really came of it.
GR: But the weird moments never worked their way into your work?
TS: Well, I write about race, a lot of my poems deal with race. I wouldnt, however, be so wrapped up in those incidents so much as the general predicament of being black in this country. It wasnt like I was galvanized and made notes.
Race was something that always concerned me, as you can imagine, but I was also interested in trying to write about human sexuality. I knew very little about sexuality then. Mainly what I wrote was theoretical. It certainly wasnt from practices being 19, 20 years old. I didnt know that much about sex, but I liked sexuality and the pleasures there connected. I wanted to write poems that addressed it in some way that captured the complexity and enchanted aspects of it. Thats all that was with me race, sex, and craziness.
I always liked to imagine this strange stuff. I wrote this poem I think called The Moth Bonaparte, as in Napoleon Bonaparte. (Lord knows I should have known then that I had problems.) I wrote this poem about this moth that would attack people. I dont know why. What I wouldnt give to find that poem now, because it was crazy. The moth would just attack you and crash into you repeatedly. It was a tiny moth. It wasnt a giant moth, but it would attack you. I wrote that poem. Why? I dont know, but I loved it because it was out of my brain. So I had race, sex and, I guess you would call it, fanciful imaginings, which were just anything that came to my mind.
GR: Were you a big Sci-Fi fan, read comic books or anything like that as a kid?
TS: I liked science fiction fine. Comic books werent allowed. I did watch cartoons on television, and I watched my share of monster pictures. I liked it, but I wasnt totally addicted to science fiction. I did have a great affection for Greek and Roman mythology. For kids it wasnt the real stuff, the heavy stuff. It was Hercules and Zeus and this, that and the other. I would read myths as a kid and think Wow! This is just wild! So, who knows how those things feed into the idea that anything can be written down or that anything is possible. Maybe it did kind of feed that notion in my head.
GR: How do you decide when a thought comes to your mind this lends itself to fiction or poetry? Do you ever think this will never be a poem, this is only prose?
TS: You know I dont write that much fiction. Ive written my share of essays I guess, but about 90 percent of what I write is poems. So a lot of times if Im sitting down to write poems then Im going to write poems. So its not like when I sit down and write a line, I think that this couldnt be poetry. I think Well. It came to me. It must be poetry. It probably is a poem. That doesnt mean it will succeed or that it will be a good poem.
GR: How do you know when a line is going to stick with you?
TS: Its just a feeling.
GR: How do you work with it? Do you sit with it? Do you let it all go at once? How does the process work for you?
I bet you guys do the same things. It just all depends on the day. Some people may have a very strict routine. I dont. I liked to write in the mornings if possible.
I think about light and silence. I dont have to have it perfectly quiet, but its nice if it is. People ask if I write with music on and I say, Only if I have to. If Im out somewhere, like a coffee shop, and I really want to write, Ill do it. I would really it rather it be quiet. (And, if I ever had a coffee shop, there would be music certain times of the day and the rest of the time it would be silent. I really think silence is undervalued. Let me stop ranting about silence.)
Mainly, a poem can be something that Ive thought about for a long time, or it could be something that Bam! Just hits you. Youll look outside and see something, and it just starts. It may take you some place that youve never thought about. It may take you some place you have been thinking about, but you just didnt know how to get there.
Some things get revised sometimes for years. Its like it just wont finish. You think You know what this is just never going to work.
GR: Do you ever publish it and revise it again?
GR: So publication is sort of like the final revision for your poems?
Generally speaking, occasionally, Ill publish something. Then, Ill look and say, Oh, that line should have been broken there. If it goes into another printing, Ill tell the publishers Look. Ive got to change the line on page But its not going to be a big revision. You might take out a comma or add a comma or break a line – if you want to change the shape of the stanza – but thats it.
Really, though, its pretty rare when I do that. By the time I think something should be in a magazine or a book I have gone over it and over and over it so many times that Im thinking This is all it can be. This is the best I can make it. And thats it; Im just done with it, generally speaking.
GR: How do you come up with an idea? Do you keep a journal and pull material from it kind of free write?
I dont free write, but Wait a minute. Let me see whats in my bag.
GR: So when you start with a poem its from the beginning.
Yeah. Well. Let me see. Let me find a graph or something. OK
Ive been working on these persona poems. I wont go into great detail about it, but Frederick Douglass is, as you know, is a famous, first internationally-known black intellectual. I wanted to do one in his voice then one in the voice of Anna, who is the black woman who worked in Maryland, not a slave, who gave him the money to run away. He runs north, she follows him, and later they marry.
Then, theres this figure very few people know about, Ottilie Assing. Shes this woman from Germany. Shes half Protestantand half Jewish. Apparently, shes this blonde, blue-eyed kind of stunner, so you couldnt tell she was Jewish. In Germany, half her family looked Jewish and the other half didnt. So racially she was alienated from her sister, who was dark-haired and dark-eyed and looks Jewish.
So, Assings parents die. She goes to America. Shes an intellectual. She speaks several languages, and she goes to this meeting of the abolitionists, and she hears Douglass speak. Well, they meet, and they become lovers. People dont know about this, and they were together something like 30 years.
She was the one who translated many of his works. People dont know who this woman is, but she translated the works. When he had to leave the country because of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Mason-Dixon Line essentially didnt matter anymore, he was in Massachusetts at the time, I guess. When it was clear that he could be hunted even there, it was her money that got him on the voyage to Europe. They traveled together. Thats when they became involved. It was very a complex type of thing.
So Ive been working on these personas: Ottilie Assing, Frederick Douglass and Anna.
Anna was not educated. Ottilie Assing was super-educated. Douglass loves Anna because shes a nice woman. Shes not stunningly beautiful, apparently, but shes nice and noble. And, she helped him get out of slavery. He was married to her. They had kids, but he was probably pretty much in love with Ottilie Assing, because she could speak to him on the level that he could speak. The books he read, she could talk to him about. After awhile they were all aware of one another.
GR: Did it go well?
It went ok. I think for Douglass because he was the center of things. It went pretty well for him. For his wife, not so well, because what was she going to do? He was the one she was dependent upon. He was making money, but she has children, what is she going to do? Im leaving with the four kids? She might have been able to do that, but it would have been pretty messy. All she could do was different kinds of labor, so shes kind of stuck. Apparently, shes not very happy.
Ottilie Assing wants to marry Douglass. Given the timing, its a mess. Hes a former slave. White people, generally speaking, have not been very nice to him. Hes trying to balance that against his passion for the woman, but I dont think he ever resolves it. There were periods where they were ferocious lovers and periods when he was just like No. Were just friends. Were just friends. I think this would drive her crazy. He would go in and out, but she was like always I want to be with you. I think it was tough on her, but he was calling the shots.
GR: How did you come up with this idea? Were you just reading about him out of curiosity?
Yes. I was just reading about it. I ran into a novel called
Douglass’ Women by accident really. I was teaching at a workshop in Washington D.C. We were all sitting around and this woman said, lets talk about what were working on. This one woman sitting at the table said Im working on this book about Frederick Douglass lovers. Does anyone know about Ottilie Assing? She starts talking about Ottilie and about Anna and all that. Then, three years later, I see this book on the shelves called Douglass’ Women, by Jewell Rhodes. So I read it, and it was a great book
There are certain kinds of intricacies that I think you can address in poetry differently, and maybe more shapely, than in prose. At least in my head, I mean Im in love with poetry, so I thought I had to bring them out as personas. Take them out of this longer work and make them into very sharp things.
So Im messing around. I have this line. Im listening to the tapes of Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, an American Slave. Of course, its not Douglass reading, but its a man who has captured something of the way he read. Douglass had this very elegant diction. What a beautiful vocabulary he had, and the capacity to speak, especially having once been at one time completely illiterate. Its just mind blowing that this guy made that kind of leap.
So OK I have this line:
In 1830, I might have been twelve, and already a rare beast marked time in my head, one whose incessant growls meant to drive me mad unless I could open my skull and unpin this ruthless thing.
OK. So, that comes to me, not just like that, but close. And I think, Thats the voice. And, its not only the voice, its the cadence. I know I read it kind of fast and rough, ragged, but when Im writing Im like This is how he would speak. The poem is called Douglass a Last Letter. The whole poem is in his tone, and basically summing up his life.
Once I have that cadence in my head and a feel for the diction then lights start to go on, and Im like, “OK.” Its like youve been knocking on the door and all of a sudden the door opens. Then, youre in. Once youre in, you know its going to be a poem. Now, whether its going to be a great poem or not, thats up to someone else. But you know its going to take shape.
GR: Then you begin to pick up its heartbeat, you know?
Absolutely, thats it exactly. And then Ottilie Assing. I have to give you her opening line…
Shes been divided all her life, because she was Jewish, half Jewish, half Protestant. She identified with Jewish people, because of the way they suffered in Germany. Her father and sister looked Jewish and were stabbed at and beaten up all the time. Her mother looked like her.
Shes this beautiful woman, who could walk down the streets anywhere, and all people do is like Oh, isnt she beautiful. If she walks with her sister, people were like Why is she with a dirty Jew? So shes always split. So I come up with this line for her
I came to this world with dissonance,
My soul out of tune,
My blood a mismatched birth.
And, I was like: Im in. Once you hear that, youre in. And, youre like Ah! Yes!
GR: So its that first line for you thats most important?
Yes if you get it right. You could write 12 first lines and it still not be right. But I have been thinking hard enough that when I came to that — this was not the exact line but its very close to it then its just a matter of time. Thats it. Just patience and keep listening.
Youre trying to be true to these characters even though I dont know any of these people. I only know them in theory and through books. Thats all. With that, you start to travel with the language. It takes you to this other place. So if I were Ottilie Assing, in love with a black intellectual, in a country where they didnt even think black people are human, what would that be like? What kind of dynamic would that be? And, then, you find yourself traveling further and further into this weird thing.
Shes white. She knows what that means in relation to Douglass. She knows how he might perceive her, because shes white. She identifies with the plight of black people but she is blonde and blue-eyed. She looks like anything but someone who would identify with black people. But she fell in love with this man, so she carries this conflict with her from Germany in one version and to America in another.
Then, there is Annas poem, which is not as finished as the others. Shes an uneducated woman, who cant read really and speaks relatively broken English. Now, shes able to function, but in terms of an intellectual society, she could not hold conversations among intellectuals, which, of course, means a lot of different things. On the one hand, fuck intellectuals. On the other hand, my husband is one of the great intellectuals of the world. So shes caught in a weird place.
I had to keep her character really simple because anything high faluten in the diction would sound phony. So I started the poem:
I remember crabbing
Because she use to like to catch crabs when she was a kid, not just for fun, but to eat. And so I start
I remember crabbing,
So fast and bright you had to duck
Or get knocked down.
Or something like that Now Im thinking Im in. Thats probably how she would speak. Of course, its all in my own delusional mind. I dont know any of these people. But Im thinking I believe that voice, and then you continue.
So those are some of the ways I approach poems, but all poems are different and these are personas. Personas are different from other poems like when Im dealing with the poems from right out of my own head. Thats a different thing.
GR: So you need to be authentic to the people in some way?
Right. For them, you think well these are people, they might speak this way. When Im writing poems from my own head, I have to think does this sound true? Thats all I have. I cant say who would say this? Im saying it, but that doesnt mean anything. I could be another way. Does it sound real in some way? Once I feel that, then Im in, I can pursue it, I chase it. If it works, wonderful. If it doesnt, well, it didnt. All you have at least all I have is your integrity.
All you have is the idea that you believe in language. You believe in the power of words to connect people. Then, you do everything you can to make language resonant and radiate so that it will do this magical thing, which can bring people to a place theyve never been too. Thats what you do. If you do it really well, people are like, Wow. I never thought of it that way. If you dont do well, people are like, I dont really get what youre talking about. But thats all you have is the will to say I think this is something we can share or we can sit with.
It doesnt mean youre going to draw the same conclusions I have. It just means that if I write well then you can hear something that reminds you of some aspect of your predicament as a person. The poem becomes a meeting place if its written clearly.