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Monday, March 8, 2010

Contributor Spotlight: Phil Estes

As I typed this in Gmail, Google suggested the dunks of Michael Jordan and Love Poems Love Poems

The few times journals have asked for a contributor note about my process I always consider lying. This has led me to imagine the story I would provide:

"Every Sunday night I sit at my computer and type up 200 poems. I don't edit or revise because the muses have told me everything I need to know. After the 200 poems are done, I eat a thick steak and smoke a cigar. I don't read anything and all my work comes strictly from my imagination. Then I drink something expensive, like red wine or a microbrew. The muse kind of looks like Scarlet Johansen and is funnier and sharper than me, like all the women I know."

Instead, I'll be serious and reference Charles Bukowski. When he signed his contract with Black Sparrow founder John Martin in late 1969, he was asked to write a novel--Martin started the press to publish the Buk's poetry, but knew novels usually sold better. A week and a half later, Bukowski sent him a draft of Post Office. Martin asked him why (and how) he could write a novel draft so quickly. Bukowski said he wrote it out of fear.

(I reference Bukowski because he was my gateway to poetry. He taught me honesty and self-efficacy with my line and lead me to guys and gals who did it more sophisticated-like: John Berryman, Frank O'Hara, James Tate, Charles Simic, and Russell Edson, which lead to K. Silem Mohammed, Daniel Bailey, Anne Boyer, Sam Pink, and Rae Armantrout.)

Fear drives me. My student loan debt piles up, I live simply and mostly alone--my friends are great and some are women funnier and sharper than me--but I don't socialize a whole hell of a lot. You will never see me dance. I drive a 1989 Mercury Cougar I keep running with punctual oil changes and tune ups. I eat a lot of hummus and falafel from a local Middle-Eastern grocery because it's cheap--$7 for a quart of hummus, $3 for the falafel mix. The hummus lasts a week, the falafel mix about a month. The only beer and wine I drink come cheap from supermarkets or Dave's Stagecoach, the only bar I drink at in Kansas City.

This fear is not only material--the old car, the debt, the faux monasticism. The thought that I have nothing to contribute, that I blow smoke up my ass and everyone's ass, scares me. I tend to stay up late and work through language in bed. If something clicks I get up and write it down. Some nights I think I'll remember this stuff in the morning and don't write it down. I always forget when I wake up and try to catch the "spirit" of the language that came to me. It never works; I always feel like the GM for the Portland Trailblazers who drafted Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan in 1984. If I don't write it down at night, I get the Sam Bowie line in the morning, not the Michael Jordan line. The Bowie line has bad ankles, never lives up to potential. Someone else, up at night when the Scarlet Johansen-looking muse sneaks into their room, gets the Jordan line. The people who keep their mind open, who do the leg work with language, reading, and drafting also get the Jordan line. This fear gets deeper and darker from there, beyond pithy references. I'm from a rust belt place with no voice of its own. I want to bring legitimacy to Dayton Ohio, to my imagination, but is it all bullshit? Is it worth pursuing?

"Parties in the afterlife are a lot like parties in Dayton, Ohio," my poem forthcoming in the next issue of HFR, stems from growing up in that rust-belt and moving further into the interior. When looking at regional maps, Ohio may claim to be part of the Midwest along with Kansas and Missouri but it's personality is very different. There's beauty in reclaimed factories and gray downtowns on Sunday afternoons in November. I spent those afternoons in cars, strip malls, or at home in front of television sets or with books. The people of the defeated-city are much nicer and know loss more intimately. Fear drives Dayton people and we all bubble up with an experience we all want to share, but rarely do. We are also all Napoleons--our dreams are big, we fail at them, we fail at relationships, we overreact. Achievements made go unnoticed.

Poetry is this holy thing--it's still sacred, even now. To capture the feel of where I'm from--one of the most economically devastated places in America right now--with poetry, and to do it successfully, is extremely important. West of the Mississippi, the South, New York: these places all get a voice in poetry. Why not a bullshit town in Ohio? I'm afraid I fail at it. Everybody has a voice, I guess, and everybody wants to bring legitimacy to the place they're from. That's what I still like about Bukowski even though I don't read him much anymore. He wrote about where he was from--Los Angeles--in an honest way and gave a voice to this lower-class/lower-middle-class life. I want to do this for where I'm from. Sometimes this seems insurmountable. I have hummus in the fridge and no money, but lots of time.
Phil Estes' poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Front Porch, Gargoyle, Kitty Snacks, Lamination Colony, NOÖ Journal, Madison Review, Portland Review, West Wind Review, FRIGG, and others. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he is finishing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. His blog is His poem, "Parties in the afterlife are a lot like parties in Dayton, Ohio," is forthcoming in HFR #46.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

great post. funny and generous.