I truly believe that if you are doing this whole “community” thing right, liking the poems can be a bonus. To some extent, anyone I have interviewed so far this month falls under the umbrella of “great human who also just so happens to write dope shit”. These are all people I like, and find myself inspired by. Maybe no one so far, though, has represented that more than Bill. When we met in the summer of 2012, it didn’t take long for us to make an instant connection, and become fast friends. We’ve done poems in each other’s cities, we’ve exchanged bad jokes to the annoyance of everyone around us at impossible hours of the night. And all of this is to say nothing of Bill’s work, which attacks all of the senses in a way that I still struggle to process. Bill manages to reach into his head, and present everything he’s ever thought, dreamed, or feared to an audience. Sometimes in less than three minutes. Watching poets from other places operate in their own communities is a true sign, I think, of what they’re made of. One of the greatest joys I’ve had was to make the trip to Bryan, Texas last year and see up close how much Bill has given of himself. And how much he is respected in his own backyard. Sure, I’m glad to call Bill a friend. But those poems, too. Man. Those poems.
I’ve talked a lot about origins with people this month. Where they’re from, and how that plays into the work they create. I’m overwhelmingly excited to do that with you because I’m not sure if there is any work that represents a point of origin more than yours. Texas bleeds through your work almost naturally. I find that to be a joy. How has living in the south made you the writer you are?
First off, this is really, really cool. I’m so honored to be a part of this project, to be included amongst writers that I admire, and especially to be approached by a top-notch poet and person such as yourself. So yeah, thanks Hanif! Ok, now that the gushing is out of the way, time to rant incoherently and hope I answer your questions. Here we go…
In spite of its flaws (and it has a heck of a lot of flaws) I do love this ugly, giant, ever-turning machine that is my home state. But let’s be clear: it is indeed a machine. It’s kind of a never-ending battle to carve out a home inside its unapologetic, idealistic cogs. Regardless, poetry is how I carve. Also, Texas and its aesthetic happen to be a well of imagery that I draw from generously. It’s pretty dang convenient.
Alternatively, my work is an active attempt for me to organize what is inside me and what is outside, to get them to fit, to figure out how they keep changing places, and how it’s all really the same anyways. Basically, any physical setting that appears in my work is guaranteed to be a mirror of some internal drama or attitude in myself and/or other Southerners. What’s outside and what’s inside blur together. So in my poetry, you see me approach intangible ideas externally and internally, all at once (tada!) Since my work owes so much to this overbearing nostalgia that I carry with me, by exploring Texas and the South, it’s like I am walking through the halls of my own upbringing and through attitudes I am most familiar with. Yes. Hope that makes sense.
One thing that your work really taught me early on was how conversations, or dialogue can work inside of a poem. The first piece of yours that I got hip to was “I Said, He Said”, where you’re having this ongoing conversation with your guilt. I’ve used that poem in workshops countless times to show how giving a voice/body to something that naturally doesn’t have those things can open up a lot of doors and spaces for good work to bloom. What influences that part of your writing?
Cool! Glad you could get some good use outta that awkward little beast.
I helped teach a couple high school classes yesterday, and I’ll repeat here what I told them: if you can take whatever big, scary, unhealthy thoughts are bouncing around in your head and fit them on a single loose-leaf paper, all of a sudden it’s not so big or scary anymore. You’ve literally removed this thing from your head entirely and put it onto the page. Now, this problem and anxiety you have isn’t gone or forgettable, but it is at least approachable. By wrapping your anxiety in poetry, you’ve attached words to it and given it a body. From there, you can take that piece of paper that is your unhealthy thoughts, and crumple it up, burn it, fold it into a paper airplane… or maybe you can read it to a room full of strangers and make real human connections with people who appreciate you for the battles you fight.
That’s where “I Said He Said” came from. It was bubbling up in my head like a fever (about half of my work starts this way), and I had to remove that irrational sense of guilt/shame from my head. So I gave it a body and a voice. And as simple as that, this abstract mess suddenly became a person I could face head on and talk back to. I could argue and reason with it. Which helps.
I also enjoy this fascination you have with history and the blues. Pieces like “An Astronaut” really combine the two in a really beautiful way. When I was out in Texas last, we had spot conversations about bluesmen we liked, and how they operated within our art. How did you gain the relationship you have with blues music?
Against my better judgment, I’m gonna talk about my dreams now (oh God, here we go…)
Ok so in my dreams, I’m usually navigating this one sprawling city that I keep returning to. I’m going around, absorbing everything around me and it’s a lot like other cities I’ve see, but also totally different. I dunno – it’s big, and the best way to describe the sensation of being there is to say that I feel swallowed by it. I feel like a very small thing and I’m completely washed up in this dream-city-thing.
Music does that to me. But it’s more convenient because I can get that overwhelming feeling and still, ya know, stay awake or operate a motor vehicle or write or whatever. I listen to the kind of music that shows me how small I am, that feels foreign and stretches all around me. See: Teebs’ Ardour, Isis’ Panopticon, and more relevant to your question – the songs “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson and “Lonesome Dog Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins.
That ineffable feeling – to be swallowed up in a place I’ve never been to, and couldn’t access by any normal means – I want my poetry to do that too. I really, really wanted “An Astronaut” to do that. I hope it worked, at least halfway.
I have to give a shout out, though, to Shaan Heng- Devan for opening my eyes to Blind Willie and his story. “An Astronaut” was born as a two-person piece between us, which I’m still very proud of. His part in telling the story really offers up so much more than I could, and it was an honor to share the page/stage with him.
Speaking of the last time I was in Texas, I was honored to feature at Mic Check. Which, still, is one of the coolest features I’ve done. I even got to revisit prom, and that experience was much better than my actual prom. How did you get involved with Mic Check, and how is your role changing within the organization?
Oh man, I could go on and on about Mic Check, but I’ll do my best to keep it short. Mic Check in Bryan, TX is the first place I started reading; it’s where, while living in Austin, I returned to every Sunday; and it’s the reason I happily moved back to Bryan. It’s a diamond in the rough and I still think that it’s one of the best if not the best, venues in the nation (but I’m biased.) I started reading there when it was 4 poets, 4 audience members, and they were the same people. But thanks to ran things before I took over, it’s grown to where we have people shoulder-to-shoulder inside the venue, people listening in through the windows, and I’ve even seen ranchhand/cowboy types sitting on the roofs of their pickups, drinking beer and listening to poetry until 1 AM. I got involved in Mic Check thanks to its welcoming atmosphere, and stayed for the people who made that possible. I wouldn’t be the writer/person I am today without them.
For the past two years, I’ve served as Mic Check’s president (we are a 501c3 non-profit), and have been in charge of hosting slams and open mics, workshops in the local community and in a local juvenile justice center, co-directing and assisting in poetry festivals such as Texas Grand Slam and Texas Youth Poetry Slam, and a bunch of other random duties. This coming June however, I’ll be preparing to depart for grad school and will hand over my position to the ever-lovely Madi Mae Parker, who I know will do amazing things with the rest of our directors. Also, if y’all haven’t met Madi, you should fix that. Yep.
I’m not sure if I have ever heard a better, more honest poem about a parent, and that parent’s aging than “Kitchenfire”. I heard it for the first time at NPS 2012, when we were just getting acquainted, so I wasn’t sure if I could ask about it in the way that I wanted to. Now that we’re a bit closer, I’m wondering what your relationship with that poem is now. So many of us at our age look at our parents, very aware of their mortality. But not too many of us write about it in that way. What pulled that out of you?
That’s high praise, Hanif, thank you!
I’ve been staring at this question for a good half an hour trying to settle on a response. I want to give you an answer that satisfies this great question and the reader, but also respects the bigness of what I’m feeling. Hmm.
Ok so: when I was 11, a giant splinter broke off a wooden handrail at school and nearly went all the way through my hand. Without thought or feeling or words, I quietly dropped my books, ran to a teacher, and had it pulled out of my skin all at once. I was more or less in shock. It was all weirdly simple and unremarkable.
That’s what this poem was. It happened because it had to. It was a realization: that there’s some giant splinter inside us called Age or whatever, and I had to yank it out, see for myself what it looks like, and show others. It was to hurtful and scary to leave alone, I had to remove it and dress it up for others to see. Images of wedding cakes, God, knives, ovens, icing, etcetera simultaneously rose in my head and I used those to wrap up and hold this intangible idea that we’re all staring at blankly.
That’s the best answer I have for you my friend. The poem really just hit me over the head, and continues to do so every now and then when I perform it – especially when I read it recently with my Dad in the audience. I was on stage, asking the questions that weigh us both down. And it was strangely comforting to sit with him in the room, and share in the quiet confusion that followed in place of answers.
We’ve talked about your writing process before, and we’ve even collaborated on a piece, so I’ve seen how you begin, first hand. It almost begins as a cluster of images, and blooms from there. With your use of images, though, there’s nothing sloppy. Why is imagery so important in your work and what makes a good image, for you?
I try to avoid from general valuations of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anything, but I will say the images that ‘work best’ for me are those that are authentic. By authentic, I mean imagery that is presented not as subservient to the meaning/argument of a piece, as a mere tool to get the point across, but rather as complementary to the meaning. An authentic image I think is one that springs up from some dusty corner of the writer’s imagination, and can be appreciated by itself. But when a poet is able to sculpt that image in a way that, as absurd or surreal as the image might be, speaks to and is grounded in concrete reality – that is how an image succeeds.
For example, Kevin Burke has a poem that begins: “I would kiss an anchor into you / if it meant you would stay.” The first line presents a tangible, surreal image, the second (for lack of a better term) anchors it in real life. It goes something like this: “Hey, look at this cool thing that I see,” and then “Hey, this is why you care; this is why it’s important.” If your poem is a house, good imagery forms the structure, the decorations, windows, and doors; great imagery does that, while also grabbing you by the collar and pulling you into the house.
That is why imagery so important to me. I have always had an overly-active imagination and vivid dreams, but didn’t have a reason for it. Poetry has given me a way to understand the mechanics of my imagination, to give purpose to it, and, out of all this raw marble in my skull, to sculpt something worth viewing. I’m trying to look internally and pull out something that can wipe clean the smudged lens through which we view the external world. I think I read something like that in Carl Jung book. Anyways, I like the idea that these symbols and images in my head mean something, that they carry some precious truth. I feel responsible to discover it – even if I have to wrestle the images down onto the page and force them to tell me what that truth is.
We’ve also talked about Texas, and the south in general, having this weird disconnect from the rest of the national scene, in some ways. What I have loved about bringing you out to Columbus is that you are doing some things with your poems/voice that people in the Midwest just aren’t hearing. I imagine the reactions are often like my reaction when I first heard your work. It gives kind of a permission, tells us where the boundaries are, and shows us how to go through them. You’ve been able to travel with your work. Talk about this idea of a regional voice, and the reception of what you do in the Midwest/northeast/etc.
I feel like I learned a lot just by reading this question. So thanks! To be honest, I think I have enough of an ear to pick out regional variations in style. But I don’t really have a sense of my place in that environment, how I differ or what new ideas I might be offering. Again, the appeal of traveling for me is to feel small and overwhelmed in a new city and new poetry. So from my perspective, it’s the opposite case: I find that my own ideas of what poetry should look like become stretched and broken. I spend too much time at home self-absorbed in my own work anyways, when I’m in a new city, I like to enter with a fresh set of eyes as ears and gain as much of the local poetry as possible. I try to absorb it all in an uncritical way. It’s as if I’m taking the camera lens off of me and pointing it outwards.
Bottom line: it’s surprises me (in a really good way) when my work is well-received in a new place, I suppose because I’m not really thinking of how I do or don’t fit into the community. I’m too busy being starry-eyed in admiration of other poets and feeling grateful for the whole experience.
We don’t have to dig deep into specific religious beliefs here, obviously. But the use of religion and religious imagery in your poems has always been really intriguing to me. In a poem like “King Cake”, you actually open up a conversation with God, in a way that I think everyone can relate to. Where does that come from? What role does religion play in your work, and how did it get to that point?
Oh man, God and stuff. Hmm. I’ll try and keep it short:
My weird and tenuous relationship with God has been, well, dramatic. My personal belief informs my understanding of the experiential world, and more importantly, vice versa. I’ve observed a lot of horrible, unfair things happen to good people in my life, things which God, as I understood Him/Her/It, couldn’t explain away or account for. I won’t go into all the resentment I’ve felt towards God, and how I’ve had to abandon and then re-approach the whole idea again and again. I will say this however: when my understanding of God no longer fits the world and what happens in it, whenever ‘God’ just doesn’t cut it anymore, I simply stretch God and make Him/Her/It bigger. I just love the idea of God too much to let go, so I edit God as I see fit – in whatever way that will make me a more compassionate and loving person (William James’ “Varieties Of Religious Experience” gave me permission to rewrite God, and Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions” convinced me it was worth doing. I highly recommend both books.)
Poetry is how I do that. It is how I chew God up and spit It back out, reformed. And it’s all about how God does the exact same thing to me. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I’m ok with that.
Either way, I think my more “religious” writing is accessible to most because I permit God to appear on the page, instead of tearing God out of the sky and forcing It on the page and onto others. I like to address God more or less as an idea to twisted, bent, challenged, and tested, rather than as an unapproachable and untouchable truth. And even if I address a being that my audience doesn’t believe in, I’m think I’m asking It the right questions at least, the ones my audience wants to ask along with me. When I yell at God in my own way, I could just as easily be yelling at a wall or a cat or a blank sky or whatever: it doesn’t matter who/what the recipient is. It’s the yelling that matters. Hope that answers your question!
Um. You totally just toured in Australia. Like, for real. People liked your poems enough to bring you to another country so that you could say them. TELL ME ABOUT IT.
Ah man! I’m still trying to digest all of it haha. The whole thing is still so overwhelming to me: I went to Australia because of my words. My words took me there. Like, people wanted to hear my words, and actually enjoyed hearing them, and because of that I was able to make new friends and have wonderful experiences with them and I can’t even handle all of this dumb, shiny gratitude that’s pouring out of me. My heart is slow-motion exploding into confetti as I write this. So, sorry for any typos.
I am so, so thankful for the wonderful human beings that brought me out there and reintroduced me to genuine hospitality and love. I’m grateful to remember what that looks like, and can’t wait to practice showing it to myself. It’s great to shake hands with happiness like an old friend, and feel so at-home on the other side of the globe. Australia is, and has been, approaching slam and spoken word from a fresh perspective, and work hard to treat their poets well and do amazing things with the craft. It was a privilege to witness.
(All of this is cliché and I don’t care. It was great. I look forward to returning!)
Give me your five best puns.
Ah, Hanif, my friend. Puns must happen organically, amongst friends, ideally while eating too much cheese and/or burgers and/or pizza at a diner at 3 AM. It is not unlike happening upon a baby unicorn in a wooded glen, or spying the Lord’s face burnt into Texas brisket. Puns are a gift from the heavens that I offer only to the dearest of companions. I could not, in good conscious, reveal to the general public my top 5 (our ears are too small, our minds too weak, to encounter such joyous, heavenly sounds!) But I will leave you with one of my favorites… the lush land of Punnery is my kingdom, and I am, truly, a most generous king:
“Welcome to the World Condiment Festival… Mayonnaise a lotta people here!”
Dude. Thank you so much. I’ll see you at the wedding, where I expect you to high five everyone, including our parents.
GOOD GHOST BILL MORAN was a proud member of the 2011-2013 Austin Poetry Slam national teams, as well as the 2012 & 2013 Austin Poetry Slam Champion and 2013 Southern Fried Haiku Champion. He has has co-directed the Texas Grand Slam two years running, featured at venues and taught workshops nationwide and internationally, conducted long-term poetry programs at a local juvenile justice center, as well as released four books and a CD. In the fall, he will begin pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Louisiana State University. But for the moment, he is the president of Mic Check, a non-profit poetry and spoken word organization based in Brazos County, Texas. He loves it with all his heart. Also, he is convinced he has the Gulf inside him. He appreciates your concern and well-wishes, but swears he is OK. Really.