10 Questions for George Kalamaras
- By Katherine Keenan
“The poems of my friends will never be lost in layers of white death.
I read them aloud and hear them breathe.
Gene’s Dostoevsky & Other Nature Poems. Alvaro’s little broth
of a train in the distance boiling down to nothing.
This is not an elegy but a love poem.
This is not a love poem but a praising of hounds.
The day of no fire waits, here, inside wood smoke and snow.”
—from “The Day of No Fire” which appears in the Summer 2017 issue (Volume 58, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written.
One of the first poems I wrote that I liked and that still (maybe) holds up a bit was a poem about barns. I had been living in Colorado at the time, freshly moved from Indiana in 1980, and to my surprise I still carried the landscape of Indiana inside me in some pretty powerful ways, despite being surrounded by all that glorious mountain landscape. I wrote that poem in 1982, I believe—so, roughly thirty-five years ago—and it is called “Somewhere Inside Me a Gray Barn is Rising.” It explores literal barns as well as metaphorical barns (for me, “zones” of wholeness) in my psyche.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
There are so many, I don’t know where to start. However, the two most enduring poetic influences are the Chinese poets of antiquity (especially poets of the T’ang Dynasty) and international poets of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s who either embraced Surrealism or who were influenced by it. As to the former, I particularly cherish Wang Wei, Tu Fu (Du Fu), Li Po (Li Bai), Han Shan, Li Ho (Li He), and Meng Chiao. As to the latter, the Peruvian poet César Vallejo has exerted the most profound influence on my work, along with Vicente Aleixandre, Miguel Hernández, Federico García Lorca, Odysseas Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis, André Breton (particularly his manifestos and early poems), Robert Desnos, and the early Japanese Dadaists and Surrealists (especially Takahashi Shinkichi and Takiguchi Shūzō).
As far as North American poetry, I adore and am most influenced by Richard Hugo, Robert Kelly, Thomas McGrath, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, Jack Spicer, and James Wright. Furthermore, the early books of Robert Bly changed the way I viewed poetry and all these years later remain pivotal for me.
However, I read widely outside poetry. I find it essential to have a life of words not intended as poetry (but that is often still quite poetic)—books about the cosmos and our interaction with it. I’m deeply influenced by books on animals, biology, and the natural world, as I am with books dealing with the Eastern wisdom traditions. My favorite book of all time, in fact, and the one that has influenced my life and work more profoundly than any other, is Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. I first read it decades ago and still return to it, finding it as fresh and essential as ever.
What other professions have you worked in?
I was a stock boy in a grocery store as a teenager. I have also waited tables, have been a custodian, and I have worked in the steel mills and a brickyard in northwest Indiana. I also worked several years in record stores in the early and mid-1980s in Colorado.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Well, as the poem describes, there was a tremendous storm one night, ice and snow. I’d returned to an old book of Chinese poetry I had not read in some years, The Jade Mountain, which is a marvelous anthology. The wind was howling. The sound of ice and snow kept coating and layering the roof of my house. My hound dog was sleeping at my side as we sat in front of the fireplace. It was a very cozy feeling, but this coziness was also interwoven with the realization of the great force of nature to annihilate. This made me mindful of the struggles of the ancient Chinese poets, many of whom were forced into exile and/or who spent years wandering the countryside, often in the most trying conditions. I think that in having recently turned sixty at the time I wrote the poem, and returning to a book I’d not read in decades, I became thoughtful about the passage of time (clichéd as that may sound), but also about the deep connection I felt with others through poetry. In other words, I was thinking of the gift of lineage, in part through the layering of snow—just as the work of others always layers my own. I was thinking of poet friends who had left the body (like my dear friends, Gene Frumkin and Alvaro Cardona-Hine), as well as poets like the Chinese I have never met physically but whom I know “as friends” in my heart. And I was thinking about compassion—how does one learn to open one’s heart and, just as importantly, maintain that openness? Many of the ancient Chinese poets were highly attuned to practicing compassion—remaining open as much as possible to everything in “the world of the ten thousand things,” as they might say, despite challenging circumstances. My beagle-hound, Bootsie, always brings me back to the moment, and she always opens my heart—to joy and to a love of the most simple things in the world—despite any other distractions or concerns I might be experiencing. And she was sitting with me, fireside, during the storm as I was writing (as she almost always does, storm or not). I suppose all these elements coalesced in some way to help bring this poem out into the spoken world.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Yes. Mostly, it’s the woods in which I grew up in Indiana, several acres behind my boyhood home. I can often place my heart and mind there to feel grounded when I write—whether I write about that locale directly or not.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I rarely listen to “outer” music when I’m writing or editing. I find it distracting. It’s the music of the poem and the way one’s “inner” music interacts with the poem that I try to listen to as deeply as possible. And I mean the music of each word, each comma, each pause and silence between words. However, on rare occasions, I can do some editing while listening to classical music, especially that of my favorite composer, Brahms.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I try to elongate my meditation practice, to bring that sensibility (as much as I’m able) into my poetry. I like to sit in a comfortable, quiet spot, usually with my dog at my side, and converse with the silence.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
The person who normally gets the first read of my work is my decades-long friend, the marvelous poet, John Bradley. We met in 1980, so he has the long view of my work. We also share a similar sense of what it means to be a poet, as well as what our life’s work or vocation is. I completely trust his eye and ear. On some occasions, my wife (and colleague), Mary Ann Cain, gets the first read. She’s also a marvelous writer, and her responses are always generative, deeply attuned, and highly insightful. She has been reading my work since we met in 1979, so she understands not only my poetry but my life’s work intimately.
What are you working on currently?
I always have several poetry projects going at once. However, for nearly the last three years I’ve been immersed in writing poems that in some way deal with hound dogs (beagles, bluetick coonhounds, redbone coonhounds, Treeing Walker coonhounds, etc.). Dogs, as you can likely surmise, are an intense passion of mine. I especially love hound dogs. Dogs are completely present, and their love, alertness, and attentiveness to the moment continue to inspire me and garner my awe. The poem of mine in this issue is from that manuscript.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished a historical book on Chinese poetry, and another book on hunting dogs, and now I’m reading the wonderful short stories of Dan Gerber in his collection, Grass Fires, which appeared some years ago.
Purchase our current issue (Volume 58, Issue 2) here to read George Kalamaras’s piece “The Day of No Fire.”
GEORGE KALAMARAS, former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016), is the author of fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck, winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Prize, and The Mining Camps of the Mouth, winner of the New Michigan Press Prize. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.