Bruce Lader’s fourth collection of poetry, Embrace, is about the need for love and intimacy. Winner of the 2010 Left Coast Eisteddfod Poetry Competition, he has received a writer-in-residence fellowship from The Wurlitzer Foundation and an honorarium from the College of Creative Studies at UC-Santa Barbara. A New York City teacher for many years, he is the founding director of Bridges Tutoring, an organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina, educating multicultural students. We spoke to Bruce about his work and the poets craft.
AmeriCymru: Hi Bruce, and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. You won the Left Coast Eisteddfod poetry competition last year with your poem 'Iberia' . Care to tell us what inspired it?
Bruce: The night I wrote “Iberia,” the famous gypsy flamenco dancer, Carmen Amaya, and I danced a passionate duet at Los Gallos in Sevilla. The image in the fifth stanza of the poem, “gypsy fires dance duende from earth/ like poppies of blood/ flaming Andalusian mountains” refers to our unforgettable performance. Actually, Ceri, what really inspired the poem might not sound as exciting.
I was traveling alone in Spain in 1977 with a Berlitz handbook and a semester of high school Spanish. Being a fan of flamenco singing and dancing, I attended a flamenco performance in Sevilla. I wrote the poem in Mallorca, then flew to England for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, and visited Laugharne where Dylan wrote most of his poems. The friendly people I met in Wales are also in my memory.
The words and images flowed together in a single draft. It was an attempt to evoke the duende spirit of Spain’s culture. The sprung organic energy of poets like Dylan Thomas and G.M. Hopkins (who considered himself half Welsh) had already influenced me, as had the surreal poetry of Lorca. A Spanish friend in Brooklyn helped me translate the poem when I came back home, but I haven’t tried to get it published in Spanish. Poems often live with me many years before they’re ready to send out. I wasn’t satisfied with the last four lines and revised them in 2003 with the allusion to Don Quixote, then the poem was published by Talking River at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. After reading the Eisteddfod Competition poems on the AmeriCymru site, I thought it might be a good one to enter and was honored that Peter Thabit Jones chose it. “Iberia” is included in one of my full-length books that’s almost finished.
AmeriCymru: Your most recent collection, 'Embrace' marks something of a departure from earlier anthologies like 'Landscapes of Longing' . What prompted you to focus on personal relationships and the universal human need for love in this collection?
Bruce: I’d been publishing poems about love and eroticism in magazines for many years. The decision to include all love poems in one book took place after having many relationship experiences and being in a second marriage. Like many of us, I’m still trying to understand relationships and how to make marriage succeed. Just imagine all the trouble and time it would save if everyone owned talking social robots downloaded with different personalities. We could finally get rid of the problems involved in maintaining relationships. The Vicissitudes of Romance section of Landscapes of Longing, has poems focused on intimate relationships, and Discovering Mortality, my first full-length collection also includes poems about love.
The motive to write positively about love and sex went into Embrace. It’s about various conflicting and amusing moments between lovers. My wife, Renata, who is Polish, likes to believe that every poem in the book is about her, and that’s fine with me since she inspired the book and I want the marriage to survive. There are so many kinds of love that perhaps the need for it is what makes it universal. I don’t believe “romantic” love, as we know it in the western world, is universal, though the need for a kind of intimate loving connection with another is probably what makes us human and prevents total destruction. Contemporary poetry—in the US anyway—is losing the intimate author-reader connection. A thin line separates the personal from the sentimental, and experienced poets try to stay away from the greeting-card zone. That could be one reason there aren’t more poets writing about love affairs. It also requires a lot of strength to explore difficult conflicted feelings.
AmeriCymru: Your poem "How to Bring a Marriage Good Luck" contains a number of 'tips' to help maintain a healthy relationship. Care to tell us a little more about it? I particularly enjoyed the sparseness and finality of number 5:- "Cancel seven business engagements."
Bruce: Ceri, I’m glad you like the fifth step. My brother asked me to read this poem at his wedding in Eugene two year ago and it’s one of my favorites. I want readers to imagine browsing through a bookstore, opening an old book of mysterious encoded spells and turning to a page on how to bring good luck into a relationship. The book of charms has been used so much that part of the last step is missing (maybe stolen) as indicated in the poem.
The poem is about the magic that can happen when we make time for ourselves and the loved ones in our lives. It takes time and effort to crack the secret encryptions of our relationships. Perhaps love relationships have become too much like “business engagements.” Step five seems to work almost as effectively as number six, the sensuous/erotic step, which has been proven effective through many years of personal experience. Five works better in theory than practice since a lot of us would settle for canceling even one business engagement if we could. The entire poem is intended to be a humorous satire on our struggles to balance our hectic lives and make relationships work. I have to voice a disclaimer that any of the tips in the poem help to maintain a healthy relationship, though sharing humor about love’s craziness can bring temporary relief.
AmeriCymru: How should we approach our reading of poetry in the 21st century? Should it be a comfortable/entertaining or an unnerving and unsettling experience?
Bruce: Perhaps when we read poetry, we should ask ourselves if the poems have a magical effect on us, if something in a poem invites us to read it again, if the subject and the way it’s written influence the way we think about, feel about, or perceive the world. The question is related to others like what is beauty in poetry, what kinds of challenges should poetry be offering, and how much risk should poets take with their work? That is to say, a lot of uncomfortable poetry challenges us because it deals with unpleasant subject matter, and at the same time its impact brings to awareness a sense of beauty within us. Since the question is perennial in literary history and argued among poets and critics, it’s hard to answer it adequately.
What can be inferred from this question is the issue of whether should poets focus on unpleasant subjects like suffering, evil, death, economic inequalities, and politics, or write comfortable feel-good poems, leaving to politicians and journalists the ugly, messy stuff about war and other horrendous problems that threaten our planet. I believe that poets need to address the important issues of their times. The challenges will be to interpret scientific breakthroughs in the fields of physics, biology, environmental studies, and technology. Recent discoveries are already changing the way we think about the origin of the universe and the meaning of life. The changes themselves are unsettling and poets need to address the problems.
I like to read challenging social and political poems that explore difficult age-old themes like the meanings of freedom, justice, and love in new ways that seem magical. My emotional and intellectual responses to themes like these are similar to listening to certain kinds of music like jazz and European classical, but I can’t speak for the ways that other readers approach poetry since, like music, what we look for, and find in poetry, differs depending on our life experiences and knowledge of the arts. Much of what I liked to read when I was a newcomer to poetry isn’t the kind of poetry I enjoy after four decades of reading and publishing, though I return to the classics and continue to get ideas from them. The second section of Landscapes of Longing is my interpretation of the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus from the viewpoints of 12 different speakers. I wrote them to get at certain truths about human nature that might be disturbing.
Poets provide lenses of experience for reflecting on the world. Poetry written from the perspectives of established religious beliefs will always be around and readers may find comfort in them. However, the dichotomy of comfortable versus disturbing is paradoxical in that poets with the ability to write about difficult emotional material can open a window of empathy for readers and provide them with opportunities to find comfort. Poetry concerned with the unpleasant real world we live in can be entertaining, comforting, and even spiritual to the extent that readers can connect with a poet’s emotions and share the knowledge, experiences, and wisdom in the poems. Poetry will continue to help us become better human beings and lead more fulfilling lives.
The experience of reading and listening to poetry is already being revolutionized. In the next two or three decades, poets will be projecting virtual sensory images as holographic text messages from computers, cameras, and phones. Poets and audiences will be able to participate in slams, open mics, and workshops in our living rooms, classrooms, and on our porches. Poetry books and magazines will be sold at supermarket check outs, as well as bookstores, for those of us who want hard copies in our hands. The proliferation of online magazines and social networking tools is only the beginning of how poetry will be popularized and marketed as entertainment. Many poetry publishers and poets will be marketed like other entertainment enterprises. It’s a good idea for poets and readers to invest more in each other. We haven’t done that enough in the past.
AmeriCymru: Is the ability to write poetry a gift or is it the end result of decades of hard work?
Bruce: Another complex question. The ability to write lyrical verse is probably “a gift” related to the ability to create music. Most of what we consider to be traditional lyric poetry—stanzas with end-rhyme schemes set to classical metric forms that dominated poetry for so many centuries—have become less popular in contemporary poetry. The fact that a poem is rhymed and has classical Greek meter doesn’t necessarily make the poetry lyrical, in my opinion, only formal.
Rhythm is an open-ended resource for creativity. Modern and contemporary free verse that sings from an organic place in the poet’s distinctively voiced instrument is far more interesting, to me, than formal poetry and comes from decades of desire and hard work, though good formal and free verse both require lifetimes of commitment to craft. Commitment is about making poetry the top priority, and the willingness to sacrifice income and material comforts. A sense of being true to one’s poetic gift, a striving to get it (the gift) right, may be a poet’s ultimate responsibility.
I began as a lyric poet and all the poems in my first chapbook, Buoy on the Water, are free verse songs. Then I decided to blend natural cadences with narrative poetry so that I could more effectively relate what I know to readers. I like to let the content and rhythm of each poem determine its eventual form. The turn, or shift, in rhythmic direction that occurs in sonnets is natural for me and I have experimented with the possibilities of sonnet form. The ability to work with metaphorical ideas to convey feelings, especially extended metaphor, may also be inborn, and can certainly be developed.
AmeriCymru: How difficult is it for modern poets to find an audience? Is the internet an aid or a hindrance?
Bruce: Since the advent of the Internet and social networking, poets are finding the audiences they want a lot easier, and it’s a lot easier for audiences to find the poets they like. Poetry is becoming more of a viable product to larger audiences. Millions of viewers visit certain poetry magazine sites every issue, but I don’t think they carefully read more than a few of the poems on each site. I can read steadily at the computer for 20-30 minutes before my eyes get weary, but I can read a book or magazine in my hands for hours. The increased number of open mics, workshops, and literary organizations also makes it easier for poets to find their audience. The real difficulty is how to maintain the audience after finding it, since there are so many interesting poets in the marketplace and most of the audience is comprised of poets. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of audiences read poetry who aren’t also writers. This is a problem that publishers and small press, non-commercial writers continue to face.
Poets with Internet know-how and the time to social network are having good results. The Internet has been helping my work get published. Whether the Internet will influence the quality of poetry to achieve a higher or lower level over several decades is debatable; everyone has an opinion and it’s still too soon to conclude one way or the other. One of the dangers is that poets—beginners in particular—may believe that networking is a shortcut to learning the craft of writing and use it mainly to become popular. By focusing mainly on their audience, and not taking the time to read poets of proven excellence, many are neglecting better-quality poets who have spent lifetimes developing their craft.
AmeriCymru: What advice would you offer to anyone considering poetry as a vocation?
Bruce: Go for your dream—whether the dream is organizing poetry events in your community, writing poems to change the world, or winning prestigious award competitions. Reflect on why you write and the deeper meanings of your poems. Remember to write about the things and people you love; even experienced poets often forget this. Locate your inner comfort zone and take risks, research new subject matter of interest to you and try to write about ideas in ways you didn’t think you could, challenge yourself to write about a subject that is emotionally difficult—even if that poem doesn’t work, another one in the future could surprise you. If nothing in a new poem is surprising you, it probably won’t grab other readers. Write several versions of the poem, experiment with various rhythms, let the content determine the rhythm and free verse shapes of lines and stanzas, and use traditional forms to see what works better for you. Stretch outside your zone and keep learning. Ask for feedback about your writing from various poets whose writing you admire and from editors of magazines you value for the work they publish.
My practical advice is to spend a lot of time writing. Learn the poetry press market and network as soon as you can, but not at the expense of sacrificing needed writing time. If you’re spending more time networking and promoting than writing poems, schedule more writing time. Use search engines like Duotrope’s Digest to find publishers looking for your kind of work. Also develop the craft of prose, if you can, to complement poetry and help build a career. Join writers’ groups and societies, writing meetup groups, book clubs, men’s and women’s centers, attend poetry readings and workshops, and get into college writing programs. Develop a routine of writing and/or submitting every day. Don’t worry if your work doesn’t get published the first five or more years you submit; unsigned rejection slips and email responses with no comments are disappointing, but they don’t mean anything about the quality of your writing. Search for other magazines and book publishers and believe in your talent. Support other poets and they will eventually support you if you stay committed.
Read a variety of international poets living and dead. If you don’t enjoy the process of reading and writing poetry, read other genres. Maybe fiction or nonfiction is better suited to your talent. Poets need a lot of time to write, independent publishers expect them to spend a lot of time to promote their books, and the books bring little if any profit to the poets. A very small percentage of poets are fortunate enough to find commercial publishers. Anyone who believes they can earn a significant income from publishing only poetry should choose another occupation. Some money from poetry can be made from teaching workshops and courses, but the work is harder, travel expenses are involved, and the hours are much longer than in other vocations.
My rewards from poetry have come from the dream of being a poet who writes inventive poems that others understand and enjoy. I also get a sense of fulfillment from being friends with other poets in writers’ groups, and reading my work in print alongside poets whose work I admire. There have been exciting surprises—the $150 and publication in The Seventh Quarry that came with winning the Eisteddfod Competition were unexpected bonuses. There are poetry contests that offer thousands to the winner. However, the chance of winning any contest is like a lottery. In other words, I’m not going to leave my job as director of Bridges Tutoring. Besides, I enjoy helping students develop writing and reading skills and they have inspired many of my poems.
AmeriCymru: Where can people read/purchase your work online?
Bruce: My thanks to anyone who reads this interview. People can find excerpts of my books and purchase them from my author site at www.brucelader.com. The books are also available from the publishers, but you save shipping and handling costs by emailing me directly at email@example.com. Plus, you will receive a FREE jewelry gift of your choice: one pair of beaded earrings or one FREE beaded bookmark for any copy of Embrace, Landscapes of Longing, or Discovering Mortality that you order. My wife, Renata, is Polish and an award-winning artist who crafts gorgeous gifts. She made the complimentary jewelry to help launch the books.
There are YouTube videos of my readings and interviews, and magazines like Poetry, New York Quarterly, Harpur Palate, CircleShow, Centrifugal Eye, Earthshine, and Contemporary Verse 2 have archived my work online.
Here are links to my readings and interviews:
AmeriCymru: What's next for Bruce Lader?
Bruce: Diolch/Thank you, Ceri, for this chance to introduce myself to AmeriCymru members and visitors.
Radio interviews and public readings in NC to promote Embrace and Landscapes of Longing will continue. A chapbook of my antiwar poems is due to be published soon. The title is Voyage of the Virtual Citizen and the publisher is Lummox Press. The book is about a Special Forces soldier and his experiences from enlistment through his adjustment to civilian life and coping with PTSS (which reminds me that I’ve been reading Alun Lewis’s Collected Poems, thanks to my friend Mary Perkins-Gray, an excellent Welsh poet). Toward the end of 2011, Červená Barva Press will publish Fugitive Hope, a full-length book of poems about ways that hope is lost and regained.
I’m always busy working on new poems and publishing in magazines and anthologies. I have been working on three chapbooks and a new full-length manuscript and querying to find interested publishers. Anyone is welcome to email me and talk about life, poetry, and the interview. I have edited poetry manuscripts for authors to submit to book publishers and magazines, and have edited papers to help students meet course and degree requirements. We could also talk about those possibilities if you like.
Pob hwyl/All the best to your organization.