A Conversation with Tim Seibles

Chapman Frazier Click to

fastanimalChapman Frazier is a Professor at James Madison University and has been poetry editor for the Dos Passos Review University, and guest editor for The Hampden Sydney Poetry Review. He has published poetry and prose in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Shenandoah, College English, The English Journal, The Cincinnati Poetry Review  and The South Carolina Review and has won several awards. He is currently working on a collection of interviews with contemporary poets from the U. S. and Northern Ireland, titled First Word, Last Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Frazier lives in Rice, VA with his wife, Deborah Carrington, and they are currently initiating a progressive, holistic educational program in Southside Virginia.

Late Shift

maybe dreams

from which I cannot return: the velvet

touch of Her lips, first light
fingering a cup: sacred dislocations

of mind— the way the right sound
becomes visible.

Where I am now
it’s later— the clocks have been amended

to include all the strange hours—

and Someone cracked my name
as if all my life I’d been locked inside.

I know the shelves stay stocked, big cars lead the chase,
there’s always more and more to eat.

But was that ever my country?

I was . born there.
And I’d go back if I could—

just to feel less lonely—
but what I took

to be a certain distance
was actually a late shift in myself,

a different kind of listening:
the voice, a thread of honey—

the jar tipped just enough to one side:


We belong to no nation.

One day we will hold the earth
again as if She were a love

Nearly lost, Her rainy hair tangled in our hands.

The soul is what we are.
Every life a word the wind turns to say.

And though trouble grows back like a beard,
an unchained blood governs my tongue.

I have seen the door that is not there

still open.

–from Buffalo Solos, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, © 2004 by Tim Seibles. Published by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Tim Seibles was born in Philadelphia in 1955 to professional parents and grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood. His father, a biochemist in the Department of Agriculture, was a first generation college graduate; however, his mother, a high school English teacher, descended from a long line of professional blacks who had access to wealth, land and education. This tension between family expectations for success and growing up in an inner city environment informs elements in his work. As a child, he read Greek and Roman myths of gods and goddesses and, in the schoolyard, he learned to fight. “All of us knew how to fight because if you grow up in the city—whether you were black or white—you better know how to protect yourself or you were probably going to get your ass kicked.” So, it’s no wonder we hear the street talk in his characters set against the parental expectations of decorum and success.

Seibles went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas in 1973 and chose to follow his love of language and story by becoming a full-time English major. During this time, he studied under Michael Ryan; and met a poet who would become a longtime friend and mentor, Jack Myers, a compassionate, mature writer with a cool fire who, “taught me the nuts and bolts of writing poetry.” After graduation, he started teaching high school in downtown Dallas with a distinctly diverse student body of Latinos, blacks, a few whites and a growing population of southeast Asians, primarily Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese. Though he had written steadily, Seibles first published Body Moves in 1988 with Corona Press on the urging of a friend. Then, after ten years of high school teaching, he cashed in his school pension to pursue his ambition by enrolling in a low-residency creative writing program at Vermont College. There, he re-connected with his mentor, Jack Myers and studied with Mark Cox, Susan Mitchell, and Richard Jackson. They all had very different styles and were instrumental in helping him discover his characteristic, unique voice. The poetry he wrote in that program became the core of his collection, Hurdy Gurdy, which was among four manuscripts selected for publication from among the many entered in the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s contest that year.

Since then, Seibles has published two chapbooks—Kerosene in 1995, Ten Miles An Hour in 1998—and three full-length collections, Hammerlock in 1999, Buffalo Head Solos 2004 and, the National Book Award Finalist selection, Fast Animal in 2012. The underpinnings of his work integrate politics, a mixture of popular culture, (including Saturday morning cartoons and the voice of Jimi Hendrix), street talk rhythms, and a range of musical and literary allusions that create a truly contemporary American voice.

He tells young writers that “after you’ve studied your craft and read heavily, you have to believe that what you have to say matters. Who knows what others will ever think of your work, but you have to approach your poems as if something amazing could be in your words.” But it is not art for art’s sake, it is art with an edge; the poem becomes the knife that slices through the haze of “pop muzak, murderously repetitive police dramas, spineless newscasts, insipid movies, and simple-minded talk shows.” He believes that “poetry can be proof that a dynamic awareness is alive and kicking, a constant reminder to ourselves and to our fellow citizens that being alert, both inwardly and outwardly, rewards each person with more life.” (xii-xiv, Buffalo Solos)

A Conversation with Tim Seibles

Chapman Hood Frazier: What strikes me about “Late Shift” is that it is different from a lot of the work that you have done. Many of your poems have a strong narrative sense, but in this poem you are working differently. It is meditative, contemplative, and very lyrical. This poem contains a very distinctive energy.

Tim Seibles: The title really says it all, “Late Shift.” The poem bears witness to a slight shift in how I understand things. It is one of those lucky moments where a particular development in your heart and mind finds its way onto the page. Many times we may change inside, but there’s no actual evidence of it. We may live a little differently or better, but rarely is there a marker for such a moment. This poem is one such marker.
If we are alive—inwardly—then, at intervals, we sense new understandings; we feel ourselves seeing in a fresh way.

Frazier: Well, the title, “Late Shift” fits. It sets up an expectation for the whole piece. It is the idea of a shift in awareness, that new way of seeing what you address here. When I was reading it through, it was a poem of possibilities, a looking inward and discovering that there is more to life than simply owning the big car and having more on your table to eat. It is teaching us a lesson about how we perceive.

Seibles: Yeah, I believe poems can offer new knowledge, not necessarily lessons like what we get in school, but maybe invitations to a larger appreciation of life. And also in that poem is the whisper of working late at night, being on the late shift—thinking late when your mind is receptive in a way that the busyness of daytime life won’t allow it to be. I mean, it’s easy to forget that writing is work; real thinking is work.

Frazier: In a weird way it reminds me of the Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream” speech. “I have seen the promised land.” And that ending just opens up. There is no punctuation and the phrasing is wide open. You walk through this door in the poem and you are suddenly standing in this new place. Is that how it happened to you as you wrote it?

Seibles: It’s so hard to say. You enter a poem and somehow reach a certain pitch of mind; some new vision comes to you and it is like suddenly discovering new territory. I was not thinking about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech consciously as I was working on that poem, but King’s words have always held great resonance for me. The promise of them and the moment in American history that his vision represents are probably with me in one way or another all the time.

Among other things, this poem is about trying to keep the faith, trying to remain hopeful about the future of human beings. It also grows out of a realization that I have only recently come to: that the world that I had hoped to see in my lifetime, I will not see. As a young adult, I was filled with utopian fantasies. I always lived with the notion that we would get things together on earth and have a good time on this small, amazing planet.

Then, bit by bit—with the election of Bush the 2nd, and others like him—you realize that we’re really far from reaching our true potential as a species. We are much too easily seduced by fears and hatreds to have a sane world anytime soon. At this point, I’d like to be helpful. I’d like my poetry to say yes to kindness and hell no to those among us who encourage all kinds of cruelties and insanities—like war, like the great variety of bigotries that continue to plague us.

I just don’t believe that it’s our destiny to live in quiet or not-so-quiet misery, to savage each other, and then die against a backdrop of meaningless, frenzied greed. I think it’s important that we say—with poetry or music or dance or painting or whatever else—that there are better, more expansive ways of being human. I know that any impulse I have in that direction grows directly from King, Neruda, Hendrix, Rumi, and many, many others. I mean what’s Virginia Woolf really telling us in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”? There’s more to being human than we’ve been willing to allow. She is scolding and encouraging everybody, everybody in the world really.

Frazier: Was there a triggering subject for this poem? Richard Hugo, discusses how a poem has a triggering subject and then a real subject that emerges, what was the triggering subject that brought this poem forward? Was there something going on in your life at that time? How did you come to sit down and write this?

Seibles: Funny that you should ask, Hood. I’m really interested in the pre-Christian, pre-Judaic, pre-Islamic religions that came from goddess-centered cultures. I’m trying to develop a more earth-centered way of living and thinking. I think we might be better served learning to love the Earth before we chase whatever or whoever’s in the sky. Why not try to bring heaven here? That is not to say, the patriarchal religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam don’t have anything to teach us, but given the world that has evolved under their governance, how can anybody not think something’s missing, something has gone terribly wrong?

Frazier: Do you remember who or what you were reading back then?

Seibles: Yes, I had been reading When God was a Woman by Merlyn Stone and another book simply called Goddess, I think. I don’t recall the author’s name.

Frazier: Did you read Bly’s essay on the feminine, “I Came Out of the Mother Naked” in his 1973 work, Sleeper’s Joining Hands? In it he examines the feminine archetype and its role in the development of consciousness. I think he grounds his work in Jung or, more precisely, Erich Neumann who wrote The Great Mother and The Origins and History of Consciousness and examined the role of the feminine in an archetypal sense. These were out of Princeton University Press, I believe. Bly examines the four feminine archetypes: the good mother, the ecstatic mother, the teeth mother and the death or stone mother.

On one side of this dynamic cross are the positive aspects of the feminine, the earth and ecstatic mothers who control sustenance and creativity. On the negative side are the stone mother who represents catatonia and the teeth mother who represents insanity, destruction, and dissolution. It is really fascinating material.

Seibles: Sounds fascinating, but I haven’t read any of those books. I shall pursue them. I’m not recommending that we simply replace the religions that currently dominate the world with news of the Goddess, but I am compelled by the idea that there was wisdom in those “pagan” understandings that we still desperately need. We need to find our way back to a passionate embrace of this life—to love the world at large and our own bodies, as fragile and erotically mischievous as they might be. If we see this planet and all its life as sacred—capital S—we will do less harm to each other and to our Earth.

Frazier: How did you decide to locate this poem in the book? I find that to be a really interesting issue. How do you, as a poet, decide where to place poems in some sort of meaningful context in a manuscript?

Seibles: If you notice, on either side of the poem are other poems of a related vision. “In a Glance” is kind of a quietly erotic ecstatic poem and the poem that follows, “Anthem,” is a kind of prayer of erotic/spiritual yearning. “Late Shift” has whispers of both. That section of the book, the third section, has poems that are explicitly erotic as well as more subtly erotic poems. I think the erotic and the spiritual have been falsely dichotomized. I think both are actually braided together like a rope within us. So “Late Shift” is in the center of this section because, for me, it’s the quintessence of a certain grasp of things.

Frazier: You sound like Rumi here.

Seibles: Well, I love Rumi. I mean I only know his work in translation, but I think he had it right—tying the erotic and spiritual together, referring to the divine as the Beloved and himself as a Lover. How beautiful! The idea that one might approach the divine as one would approach a beloved, with a passion that is both embodied and beyond the body. All love seems to work this way, but this culture generally perceives sexuality as something suspicious, something to be ashamed of and hidden.

We spit on the very thing that we long for most which is connection: an erotic union is no less essential than a spiritual union, and I mean all kinds of erotic unions between consenting people. It drives me insane that explicitly sexual material is rated X while explicitly violent material is rated R or even PG. What’s the message? Killing somebody isn’t as bad as a blow-job? Talk about total lunacy!

Frazier: Yes, I know what you mean. Let me ask you something technical. When you were working on the poem, did you do a lot of revisions with it? What is your revision process like?

Seibles: I didn’t do a lot of shuffling, but I wanted there to be a lot of silence in the poem, so that I could capture a kind of meditative pace, the slow walk of the realizations that came to me during the writing of this poem. I wanted there to be a sense that one is taking very deliberate steps towards a new understanding. Originally, it was longer and I kept paring down to what seemed the most essential. In the final drafts, I worked the spacing a lot.

Frazier: So, space and spacing became really important to you? How do you use spacing in this poem to get the effect that you want? It sounds as if you are doing more of it during the revision process then actually during your initial composing, right?

Seibles: Right, so if we look at that line, “I was born there.” I could have easily have written: “I was born there.” But what I was trying to do is to give the reader a sense of the deliberate movements of thought, the hesitations, the being unsure about what’s coming next.

You can see the exaggerated stanza breaks. Those are really long silences when I read it aloud –like 5 or 6 seconds because I’m dealing with some… –I don’t know if the concepts are difficult— but, they are not the kinds of thinking that we do normally. So by spacing it in a different way, I want people, by reading it or hearing it, to move into it in a different way… to feel themselves becoming conscious in this almost dreamlike fashion. That’s how it felt to me.

Frazier: I was wondering about the way that you composed the poem. Was it all written out at once or was it written over time?

Seibles: I wrote this poem, the body of it, over a three-day period. After the first stanza, I thought, I’m either going a little mad or this might be important. Then the next day I added the next two or three stanzas. Once I got to: “A different kind of listening….” I knew I was in a new place, a place unlike where I usually write from.

I think all poems have elements of the mysterious in them and moments when we say, that is a strange thing. But this poem, as a whole, seemed to be coming to me from a distance that I was not familiar with but that sounded true. It took me three days to write the whole thing and then I started cutting words and adding spaces, adding silences.

Frazier: How did you determine your line breaks?

Seibles: I was trying to suggest a kind of difficult thinking. Like in “Places–/ maybe dreams/ from which I cannot return.”

I wanted the breaks to suggest something of the labor of contemplation: I’m on the verge of learning something, but I don’t know what. So then you get: “the velvet/ touch of Her lips.” I’m hoping that there’s a sense of word-by-word pursuit of something that seems to stay just ahead of comprehension.

Frazier: Your poetry doesn’t generally tend to be obscure but this is a dicey one in that regard.

Seibles: Yeah, I know. People may want to kill me. But, (continues reading) “the velvet/ touch of Her lips, first light/ fingering a cup: sacred dislocations.” People might wonder what the hell does that mean. I’m hoping that what it suggests is being tripped out of your own mind into what should be apparent. Where we are most comfortable in our heads is where we do the least real work. If you get lost or dislocated then you feel around to find yourself, re-clarify where you are. I think all poems invite us out of our complacency. It’s just a matter of degree. This poem is trying to take a really unfamiliar way, so it asks the reader to walk in the shadows, in the scary part of the mind for a while. Of course, my goal is clarity, but you can’t sacrifice the poem for the sake of clarity. Some poems require a few shakes of the head, a few re-reads, a few strange reconfigurations of what’s what. Again, the difficulty should be organic, not manufactured to impress the reader or to prove the poet’s staggering intelligence.

Frazier: So, as a reader, I want some kind of order, some type of marker to follow and I look for that.

Seibles: Exactly, once the mind is dislocated, we are able to see differently. Like everyday, I walk around this neighborhood, but I don’t see it. I’m familiar with this area, so I really don’t see it. I’m blinded by habit, what is remarkable disappears into the everyday ho-hum. But if you drop me in Minneapolis I’ve got to really pay attention to find my way. Being dislocated means you have to work to figure out where you are and where to go.

This can be a good thing if the work, the extra attentiveness is rewarded—and I like to think this poem does offer something useful to the mind and spirit. It sure woke me up. So I’m hoping the spacing, the invitations to pause in silence, give the reader time to work more comfortably into the complexity of this poem.

Frazier: So the “shift’ is what we see differently, perceive differently. It is within you. But then there are other shifts in the poem that underscore this notion. Like your shifts in point of view from singular to plural, shifts between one type of stanza to the next, and even shifts between the particular concrete narrative or series of images to a more generalized abstract observation of the world –a commentary of sorts.

Seibles: Yeah, but I can’t tell you that I did that consciously. It’s like musical improvisation. In a conversation, your mind moves in surprising ways, but you don’t practice that. It’s the result of a lot of talking; your mind just moves, faster than you can explain. Think of a sax player after years and years of practice, he can play faster than he can think. I think poetry is a way to witness this same feature in speech. Sometimes we find ourselves moving inwardly faster than we can understand. A poem can capture those movements; a poem is a kind of photograph of the mind at work.

Frazier: The poem in built with all these paradoxes: “Someone cracked my name/ as if all my life I’d been locked inside.” And the imagery too: “a thread of honey” is a metaphor for the voice that we listen to in ourselves. These associations are so beautiful and provide a thin thread that links all these disparate images together.  Did the “honey” association come early in the writing?

Seibles: When you pour honey, you can keep raising the jar until the thinnest stream, a perfect line, a thread continues to fall. Sometimes a line of thought seems that thin—as if the slightest interruption would leave us lost, unable to find that exact thread ever again.

That idea that there is a perfect kind of line (and I love the idea that there is a sweetness associated with it) came early. The truth would taste good and be sweet, right? I mean if we think about Rumi there’s a kind of ecstasy that accompanies his revelations. I think there are ecstatic moments in this “Late Shift.” It’s quiet, but loudness is not a requirement.

Frazier: The soul is what we are… .

Seibles: There is a sense that when you enter a poem you really do set out for another place. This is the true beauty of consciousness: you experience something—a play, a poem, a painting, some good music—and your mind is different from that point on. Either by writing or reading a particular poem, you can be changed. Learning is transformative. Nobody reads a poem to remain the same. Nobody writes a poem to remain the same. All of our serious reading and writing embodies the desire to be awakened, to be drawn out of our daily stupor, to be new. So I hope that sense of traveling is apparent in this poem, that sense of leaving one understanding and arriving at a new possibility. I hadn’t thought of soul this way before working on this poem. Now, this new sense of my self and others is a part of my life. This is not to say I don’t return to a general bone-headedness on a regular basis, but I also have this to return to and be reawakened by.

Frazier: Who really influenced you as a teacher? Did you have an influential teacher?

Seibles: My first creative writing teacher was Michael Ryan. He was really full of this contagious fire. He had an MA, MFA, and a PhD; he was an intellectual and emotional hurricane. Ryan’s total engagement with poems made me see that the writing life was a valuable life. He would get so caught up in the imaginative power of a particular piece that he seemed ready to leap up on his desk. Sometimes his face would turn red or he would read a poem and actually walk out of the room to recompose himself. I got the sense of raw passion from Ryan, while Jack Myers, my long-term mentor helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of making a poem. He walked me through a lot of poems, my own and those of others, so I could see what was doing (or not doing) what. Both of these men were crucial in my early development as a poet. As I entered my 30s, I actually worked with Jack for a semester as I pursued an MFA.

Frazier: Well, that’s an interesting distinction the notion that one is a poet/teacher and the other a teacher/poet. What does that bring to the table for you? How do you see these roles in your own teaching? As a poet/teacher what advice would you give to teachers?

Seibles: If we’re talking about middle school and high school teachers, I think it would be a good thing to get a copy of Billy Collins’ Poetry 18, which gives students a wide array of poems to read, one for every day of the school year. The selections from standard textbooks are often so narrow that students can’t find a way in to poetry, but with a wide variety of accessible contemporary poems, most students will find something to connect to. I mean, I don’t expect every student to fall madly in love with poetry, but a good education will, at least, give all students the chance to fall in love with poetry.

Also, you don’t have to quiz students on every poem or sweat them about getting the right meanings. You get read a poem aloud, ask for a few observations or comments and move on to your grammar lesson or onto the short story you’ve assigned. If you give them the chance to enjoy a poem without the pressure of analysis students will surprise you with what they think about poems. The pressure to explicate and use the proper terminology at all times is a poetry killer. As they become more comfortable with poems, terminology can be introduced as a way to facilitate discussions and, naturally, the rigor with which the ideas in poems are addressed can be increased bit by bit.

Imagine if we’d been quizzed on music the way most of us were taken to task as we learned poetry, I think the popularity of music would not be anywhere near what it is. People grow up taking from music what they can; unfortunately, most people grow up thinking of poetry as something they “got wrong” in school. That’s a crime against the idea of poems. That’s a crime against the human heart.

So many students—and their teachers—are afraid of poetry. There’s absolutely NO reason for that. Poems invite us to think and feel in a variety of ways. That should be a pleasure not a punishment.

Frazier: You mention that students need to read more contemporary poetry. What do you think about what types of poetry to have them read?

Seibles: Well, if teachers start with “The Wasteland” students will be overwhelmed by the complexity, the high-handed obscurity. There are plenty of readily accessible poets that have a lot to offer hungry young minds. Even poets who are not considered great can lead young readers into the rich world of poems. I mean, like that poet from the 60’s who was so popular…what was his name?

Frazier: Are you speaking of Richard Brautigan?

Seibles: Yes, Richard Brautigan. He may not be a “great” poet, but his work is really approachable and thoughtful, so it’s a fine place to start. Or with someone like, Charles Bukowski—you’d have to pick the poems carefully. He can be pretty raw if you know what I mean. But once you’ve established a level of comfort between the students and poetic language, you can go deeper and deeper. You can go back in time or have the students dig into more highly respected 20th and 21st century poets. There really is no limit to the level of discourse you might invite students to through poetry.

Frazier: What about music? Do you use songs in your poetry writing classes to introduce students to poetry?

Seibles: I think you can, but if start with lyrics then students think that poems are just lyrics without the music, which is not true. I tell my students all the time that songwriters have instruments that compliment the lyrics in the song and so, if you take the lyrics away from the music, a lot of times the words are pretty dull.

They are good with the melody, but often they are really thin without it. Take for an extreme example, “I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah. I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” It sounds okay when the Beatles are singing it, but otherwise it’s almost nonsense. So, I tell students that while song lyrics most often need music to effectively grab your ear and heart, a good poem is enough unto itself. The language of a poem is both the music and the message. And, of course, if we listen to speech we hear in the rising and falling of inflection and in the variety of emphases syllable by syllable, word to word, we find something very much akin to melody.

However, if a teacher is more comfortable with song lyrics s/he should start there. The teacher should probably start wherever they feel their footing is solid and then move forward. Another book that can really be helpful for a high school English teacher is A Surge of Language. One of the authors is Baron Wormser, a fine, soulful poet. It gives you a nice framework for approaching poetry.

Frazier: What about the students who are not strong?

Seibles: For them, I would say song lyrics would definitely be cool place to begin, but why not also get a book of haiku. Xerox a few pages of examples and turn the kids lose. Most anyone can make a run as 17 syllables– or don’t even sweat the syllables, just think in terms of three lines. The class could work together on one haiku each day for a week and learn how the poems work with image. From there, the walk to more complex poems is a pretty straight line. The key to teaching poetry—writing it or reading it—is to not make the early stages labor intensive. It’s crucial that the study of poetry begin as a pleasure.

Frazier: What about hip hop?

Seibles: Again, if you take away the bass and drums you’re left with not much more than thin lyrics and a lot attitude, but sure, rap is in the family of poetry; start with Ludacris or SnoopDog if that can be an effective point of departure. The only problem with starting with lyrics of any kind is that the students become much too wrapped up in rhyming, which brings can be a pretty big obstacle to developing their sense of the power of natural speech, of free verse.

Frazier: Thank you for allowing me to visit you in your home and for taking the time to discuss your work.

Seibles: My pleasure.

Bibliography of Works by Tim Seibles
*Poetry Collections
Seibles, Tim. Fast Animal. Wilkes-Barre: Etruscan Press, 2012.
Seibles, Tim. Buffalo Head Solos. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Press, 2004.
Seibles, Tim. Hammerlock. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Press, 1999.
Seibles, Tim. Hurdy Gurdy. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Press, 1992.
Seibles, Tim. Body Moves. San Antonio: Corona Press, 1988.

*Chapbook Collections
Seibles, Tim. Kerosene. Bristol: Ampersand Press, 1995.
Seibles, Tim. Ten miles an hour. Santa Barbara: Millie Grazie Press, 1998.
*Honors and Awards
Fast Animal nominated for National Book Award, 2012
Featured in the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s Public Poetry Project, 2011
NEA Fellowship, 1990
Open Voice Award from the National Writers Voice Project
Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellow