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Interview with Ed Bennett
by Carole Bugge


CB:  I notice a lot of your poems are in first person, and that you write from the POV of characters in situations you yourself obviously could not have been in. Do you have a technique for placing yourself in these situations? Or do the voices just come to you, as it were?

EB: I guess there is a lot of “frustrated actor” in me. When an idea for a poem comes to me I play with it for a while and try to understand how the idea affects people or society. I don’t believe anyone can write a poem without at least some degree of empathy for the characters. This does shape the voice in the poems and, being somewhat lazy, I find it easier to speak from the first person. Also, I find that I can get more of an emotional jolt into the poem writing in the first person.


CB: Congratulations on being a finalist for the Ginsburg Award. Did that kind of recognition and affirmation spur you on in your writing, or were you already sufficiently self-motivated?

EB: I started writing poetry in college but stopped pretty soon afterward because of my job and about a thousand other distractions. I began writing again about twenty years later, a year before the Ginsberg competition. I was going through a separation and needed an outlet for my emotions and feelings. I was hurting and the process of poetry made me hurt less. Becoming a finalist seemed to validate what I was doing. I had very little support for my writing at that time in my life and this “outside” affirmation was what I needed to motivate me. I haven’t stopped writing since and, quite frankly, I’m not sure I would know how to stop now.

CB: Do you have a method or routine you like to follow for when and where you write? Do you set goals – i.e., a certain number of poems per week, etc., or do you just write when the mood strikes you?

EB: The Romantic Poets used to believe that one should write while in the grip of strong emotion. If that worked for me I’d be involved in a continuous epic as I drove to and from work on the interstate. I used to have one or two places where I would go during lunch hour, read some poetry or write some lines in my journal. I’d mull the lines over on my drive back home and then start revising and putting the poem together. I could probably write a couple of poems a week this way. Right now, I have a pretty unstructured work day so I’m writing when I can or when the mood strikes me. I’m not sure which technique is better so I always make sure to have a pen and pocket pad with me. As for setting goals as to the amount of poems I write, I don’t do that. I respect the Muse too much to force a poem. In the one or two instances that I tried to force something, it was usually pretty bad.


CB: I find it interesting that your job is in the tech industry. Do you find any parallels at all between that kind of work and writing poetry, or is it completely different?

EB: The only parallel I see is the need for discipline, whether it be in finding a time and place to write or in word usage or line structure. I do get inspiration from work and sometimes it forces me to see an object in a different light. In some ways, I’m glad that there are differences between writing poetry and technology because I would never want poetry to become a job. I should mention that some years back I was asked to write an engineering document based on some findings at a client’s site. The salesman said that he didn’t want any “boring technical writing” and that I should surprise him with my creativity. I sent him five pages in blank verse that are somewhere deep in the archives of Coyote Technologies. It was not fun – the hardest thing I ever did in my life was to describe Class 4 Tandem Switching in iambic pentameter.

CB: You have a degree in science and yet science and nature don’t figure prominently in the work you sent me. Do you ever find inspiration in science and nature?

EB: My earlier work did have a lot of scientific references in it. My degree is in Biology which is a Life Science and one of the ideas one takes away from working in this field is that living things have an effect on everything around them. One gets a kind of holistic viewpoint from Biology and small phenomena have more global implications. Even in the Physical Sciences, there are universal effects from the smallest particle or burst of energy. In some ways, I guess, I’ve gone beyond the nuts and bolts of the universe looking for the spiritual core that moves it.

CB: There is a strong sense of social justice running through your work. Do you aim for that consciously, or does it just sort of happen? Have you always been inspired by political events in your work, or is that a new development? Do you believe artists have a moral responsibility to point out society’s ills? Do you think that writers have the ability to sway public opinion?

EB: I was in college in the late 60s and was politically active in the 70s. Politics has always been ingrained in me from the political dinner table conversations of my father to my reaction against them. I believe that writers have the ability to sway public opinion and it needs to be done so continuously. The field of Ecology was unknown in 1960 and wasn’t born until Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring”. She was attacked for writing it by the Chemical industry and she was condemned in everything from scientific journals to Reader’s Digest. It was only because a President who wasn’t afraid to show his intellect actually read the book, recognized the danger and affected public policy to reverse the damage to the environment. Right now we see the chemical and oil companies trying to destroy the environmental movement. We have an intellectual president, now we need the book – something written with the beauty of Rachel Carson’s words.

Writers not only have the ability to sway public opinion, they have the obligation to do so. The Native American situation is something I find myself writing about because now, after living in the southwest, I’ve seen both sides of this American coin. In the north east the Native populations have been eradicated with the exception of a very few nations. Here in the southwest where Native Americans are more visible, there is a disparagement by the majority population that is sickening. This attitude explains the current idiocy over Immigration Reform and about every other anti-human attitude that is now allowed to have its own broadcast channels.

OK, enough. I’m off the soapbox. In answer to your question, let me say that I agree with Shelly when he says: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This may not be as accurate as it was in the 1820s, but every one of us who picks up a pen to create beauty has an obligation to speak out. There is an article in the May issue of “Poetry” where David Biespiel addresses the necessity of poetry to end its intellectual isolation and to get back into the public square to address these issues. He refers to poets who do enter the debate “renegades”. I don’t see myself as a renegade, just pissed off, so I write.

CB: I noticed Biblical themes and images run throughout your work. Do you have a religious background of some kind?

EB: Many writers used the Bible either as an inspiration or referenced the stories as part of their theme. Blake, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky and a host of others are examples. There is also the beauty of the language of the King James Version that lends itself to poetry and is also accessible enough for most readers. I once read that John Steinbeck used Shakespeare and the King James as his touchstones, even to the point where he took titles from them. As for my religious background, I go to church, try to do my best to my fellow human being and am awaiting my imminent excommunication.

CB: The theme of sexual desire is sometimes juxtaposed with Christian imagery. How do you see the role of religion in society and in art as we move deeper into the 21st century?

EB: When I was a senior in high school I decided to read some “modern” poetry. I picked up the Collected Works of Dylan Thomas and was completely blown away. Prior to that day, any poem that I read with a religious allusion usually lent itself toward some pious theme or moral example. Thomas juxtaposed sexuality with Christian and Pagan images into a complex and beautiful stew of poems. To this day, if I feel my work is in a rut I return to Thomas and get back on track with poems like “Altarwise , by Owl Light”, “This Bread I Break” or “Ballad of the Long Legged Bait”. As mentioned, the accessibility of the Bible and Thomas showing how to wield a religious image in the late 20th Century became my template for religious imagery.

Last June I went to Florence and spent days in the Uffizi, Il Bargello and Palazzo Piti museums. There are literally thousands of paintings and statues of religious art spanning five hundred years. We’ll never get to that level again, especially since those works were commissioned either by or as a donation to the Church. In the 21st Century, one either believes or not and therein lies the tension of the current time. I believe that religion has a place in art as an inspiration. I do not believe that the Church, any Church, has a right to censor any of the arts based on their belief system. (For the record, I believe pretty much the same thing about the Government.) You might remember back during the first term of the Giuliani administration in New York City, the churches led a hue and cry about some art work that they found offensive. Since a significant number of church goers also show up at the polls, the mayor and even the US Congress raised all manner of complaint about the art work. In reality, both of the works that were singled out were in poor taste and not many saw them as important art works. They would have flickered out on their own had it not been for the supposedly separated voices of the church and state who threw their tantrum into the national media. The art that offended them got a much longer than fifteen minutes of fame. The result was that a group of posturing yahoos in congress went after the National Endowment for the Arts.

Religion has a place in society but that place is not standing over us with a Prada slipper on our necks. They would do better to read their Bibles and clean up their own houses.

CB: I was very moved by your poem “Lily.” Is that based on a real person? If so, have you shown it to her family or other people who knew her? Do you use writing as a way to process loss in your life?

EB: I am asked that a lot. Yes, Lilly was based on someone I knew. Although the poem alludes to a greater difference in age, I was in my early 20 and she was in her mid 40s. Her family was unaware of our friendship and so they’ve never seen the poem.

I do use writing to work through loss of someone close. It gives me a chance to vent my emotions and, more importantly, to examine the loss. Loss of a relative or someone close sometimes becomes stuck in the amber of our memory and I believe that this stops us from moving on. The poetry that results from “processing” loss may not be the best one can write, might be over the top and trite but it makes one re-examine the experience. In some ways, it’s like being washed over by a stream and eventually being carried to a different place.

CB: Are there any poets in particular who have inspired your own work?

As mentioned, Dylan Thomas was an early influence. William Blake, John Donne, (both the early erotic work and the later religious themed work), Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot and cummings shaped my sensibilities in college. The one poet that has had the strongest influence is William Carlos Williams. His work is uniquely American and his language is accessible. He’s written such small, perfect gems as “The Red Wheel Barrow” and an epic, “Patterson”. He spent most of his poetic career looking for the “American foot”, a poetic foot that would define how Americans speak much as the iambic foot defined Elizabethan English. I think also there was an affinity with Williams because he was a physician as well as a poet, one more working scientist writing verse.

Right now, I try to read as much as I can from Dorianne Laux, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Charles Simic, Rita Dove and I’m sure I left a few out.


CB: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

EB: Read and write, think and speak out.

Read. One of the problems with poetry today is that there is a lot of it being written and, especially, posted on the web. Unfortunately, the amount of poetry books and magazines being purchased is the lowest it has ever been. One cannot write poetry unless one reads it. I don’t mean just one genre or time period. Every great modern poet has been influenced by a classical poet. Someone wanting to write free verse or metric verse should read the Elizabethan poets, sonnets, Beowulf, Byron – basically, all of the work that you didn’t particularly like in High School. When you read, break out the structure, scan the lines, and look up the words you don’t know. These poems are still around today because they had something about them that is lasting. Try to find it. Poetry has a long tradition and to practice poetry without understanding that tradition is like building a house without a blueprint

Write. One cannot be a poet unless they write poetry. Whether it is good or bad poetry is another issue. During the late 60s there were a few people who would define themselves as poets yet never wrote a poem. They missed the fact that to be a poet doesn’t mean one lives an affectation; it means that one plies their craft much as a carpenter shapes wood.

Think. What do I want to say and, more importantly, why do I want to say it? What exactly does this issue mean to me and to others? There is no straightforward answer to complex issues. A poet looks at ideas from every angle.

Speak out. As I mentioned, poets as well as every other type of writer has an obligation to speak out against injustice. There are outlets for writers to do this so, once you’ve seized on an issue and examined it, it’s time to get your work out into the public forum.

If you do these four things, I can’t guarantee you’ll become a noted poet, but you will probably become as curmudgeonly as I am and that can be its own reward.


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