Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
Birthday
December 31
Bio
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at robertisenberg.net.

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Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 22, 2011 5:29PM

It Seems I Am Now a Poet

Rate: 9 Flag

 Wander

First, the good news: My book, Wander, has just been released by Six Gallery Press. You can find it on Amazon, and if you live in the Pittsburgh area, readings are forthcoming. My editor, Nathan, handed me the first copy last night. It is positively beautiful. We clinked pint glasses and patted each other on the shoulders. I was, in a word, giddy.

            “What’s it about?” friends ask.

            “It’s a poetry collection,” I say.

            This halts all conversation. They look stunned, as if waiting for a punch line. They weigh their options, but they resort to honesty: “I didn’t know you even wrote poetry.” Sometimes there’s a slight break: “I didn’t know you wrote… uh… poetry.”

            But I do, apparently. No one is more surprised than I am. Me? People know me as a magazine writer. They know me as a playwright and actor. They know I perform comedy and work as a photojournalist. But poetry? What an old-fashioned pastime. Surely I gave that up in high school, along with my dream diary. What would compel me to do such a thing? If I really had to be so touchy-feely, so needlessly self-indulgent, could I at least learn guitar instead?

            “Well, congratulations,” they say, nodding soberly, wondering who the hell I am.

• 

The short story goes like this: I first wrote poetry for my creative writing class in high school. We learned sonnets and villanelles, but because I found these forms so irritating, I deliberately wrote verse in an Elizabethan tone: “What thou hast spake,/o’erleaps mine heart with truculence,” etc. Total nonsense. But fun nonsense.

            A year later, at the University of Pittsburgh, I took a creative writing class with Robert Gibb. He struck me as awkward and opinionated, even a little smug, but I liked him nonetheless. I didn’t know that Robert Gibb was among the most respected poets in Pittsburgh. Halfway through the semester, we started to write poetry, which, again, failed to interest me. So I wrote a funny little poem, written in the voice of Zeus. Zeus gripes about being a forgotten deity, how nobody pays attention to him anymore. It was cute.

            In workshop, Robert Gibb said something that changed my life forever: “Beware being too clever.”

            He said this gently, but it sent a shockwave through me, and through my very perception of the world. He explained that poetry isn’t meant to be clever; it’s meant to be honest. Comedy is clever. Mystery novels are clever. Even gubernatorial speeches can be clever. But poetry is a safe haven from cleverness. Poetry is direct and personal. Poetry describes, declares, unveils, exposes. In a world drenched in advertising and rhetoric, poetry talks plain.

            And just like that, everything changed.

 •

Like most literate 18-year-old guys, I read On the Road one drowsy summer, and Kerouac’s prose was pure adrenaline. Suddenly I wanted to roam the world, as free and expressive as those early Beats. I loved the long and zany sentences, the undertow that pulled me through paragraphs. Sure, Kerouac was a self-destructive asshole, but he was so cool. Every phrase felt like a wild experiment. Until On the Road, I had no idea what the English language was capable of. For that matter, I had no idea what people could do, with only a full tank and a map.

            Two years later, I was studying overseas, and I decided to give it a shot. I had tried short stories and newspaper articles, plays and humor. Why not poetry? It’s fitting that I started in Asia, thousands of miles from home, where nothing made sense and every sensation was new.

            I didn’t write much, but I came up with six poems I liked. They were kind of like Kerouac, but not really. They were very short, blank-verse pieces. As a reporter, I knew to keep things concise. They weren’t clever at all. And I loved them.

            In 2001, I sent these six pieces to the Three Rivers Review, a literary journal in Pittsburgh. They were hosting a poetry contest. Those six pieces were pretty much the only poems I had, so I submitted all of them.

            I won.

            To this day, winning that poetry prize is among my fondest achievements. I have done nothing so quixotic since. To hurl my entire oeuvre into the void is a gamble I almost never take. If I earn no more credit for my work, I don’t care. That tiny prize is worth gold.

• 

Poetry vanished from my life, and I went on to pursue other things. I might never have tried it again. I’d still be chuckling at that strange award I once won, were it not for Dan F.

            Dan is not only one of my closest friends—he’s also one of the most interesting and dynamic people I’ve ever met. He’s witty, curious, cocksure, and absurdly smart. He is obsessive about living life fully—he works hard, he plays hard, and the next day he works and plays even harder.

            A few years ago, we were hanging out at his apartment, an Oakland studio about the size of a small garage. Dan’s bed, couch and coffee table took up most of the floor space. His television was a gift from some relative, and he didn’t use it much. His walls were crowded with art, mostly the works of friends. I liked our late nights there, because they were full of wine and frantic pontification. It was the kind of place where words like “wisdom” and “soul” are used without much irony.

            Randomly, Dan picked up an anthology and flipped through its dog-eared pages. “Okay,” he said declaratively. “Now I’m going to read some poetry.”

            It was that abrupt. One moment, talking about an attractive bartender who loved to show off her tattoos; the next moment, fanning through pages, looking for just the right verse. I raised an eyebrow, because I assumed he was kidding, or messing with me, or just being weird. But then he said, “This is my favorite one.” And he read.

            The poem was a kind of monologue, written from the perspective of an old-fashioned lunatic. Every turn of phrase was mind-blowing. It was cavalier and self-deprecating at the same time. The words were clever, but not in a clever way. The contradictions made perfect sense. Everything was right about this poem, and I suddenly remembered the possibilities of the form.

            “Oh, my God,” I said.

            “I know, right?” Dan smirked, flipping to another page. “Here’s another one.”

A few more nights like this followed. People found this practice odd, especially my girlfriend, but they’d learned that everything I do is a little odd. My friends Billy and Dan P. joined in. Billy is a singer-songwriter, Dan P. studied poetry at Pitt, and we’d do exchanges. And then I wrote about Boston.

            The Boston series was a major benchmark—my first attempt at writing poetry in my post-collegiate life. I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt amazing. The cycle described a 2006 trip to Boston, one of the strangest journeys of my life. I stayed in a terrifying hotel, watched a guy get a hole punched through his cheek, made friends in a sexually frustrated Norwegian, and basically feared for my life for three straight days. The Boston cycle described these moments, in vivid and unflinching detail, and I loved them.

            Dan, Dan and Billy enjoyed them, too, and they encouraged me to keep going. (Dan F. is also a published poet, under a pseudonym). I wrote about Germany and Mexico. The cycles were similar, in that they documented a sojourn in a strange environment. I loved that something so brief could be so full of surprises. I started to publish them in various publications, mostly newspapers, which only made sense. The first was in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in their “Saturday Poem” series. I was astonished. After scribing hundreds of articles, somehow this little jewel gleamed brighter.

 •

The trouble with poetry is that nobody cares about it. Indeed, few people even seem to know what poetry is. They never think of their favorite rock-songs as poetry, even though that’s exactly what they are. They read some Frost and Whitman in school, and then they forget all about it. They think they know what a haiku is. They can recite a few famous lines. But that’s about it.

            I’m actually very sympathetic to this position. If poetry is that stuff you had to memorize and recite to your eighth grade class, you probably yearn to forget about it. Yet nearly every red-blooded American loves Bob Dylan, loves the Beatles, loves some Simon and Garfunkel now and again, and all these musicians are basically poets. Their lyrics are layered and complex. They conjure images. They tell stories. Sometimes the words are confusing, but people go along with it. People adore “Thick as a Brick,” “Purple Haze,” “Smells Like Team Spirit,” and so on. They not only enjoy poetry; they buy it, collect it, relish it, day in and day out. They listen to poetry in their car. They peal out liner notes and pore over every word. They just don’t think of it as poetry. But keep in mind that in many languages, such as German, the word for poetry is Lyrik.

            But modern Americans usually need something extra, like music or mild narcotics, to give poetry meaning. It’s hard to imagine “Sunshine of Your Love,” one of Cream’s most epic songs, without the music. We are not Nicaragua, where “you are a poet until proven otherwise,” as Salman Rushdie put it. We’re not Dublin, where dozens of readings and recitations are held every week. We’re not Japan, where haiku and tanka are written communally.

            Of course, American poets don’t do themselves any favors. I have attended dozens of poetry readings through the years, and most of them—not half, most—are miserable ordeals. Slow, stroppy, and haphazardly organized, the average poetry reading in Pittsburgh will knock you into a coma. The emcee is usually sleepy or incoherent, and the readers always look nervous, like virgins facing a Roman orgy. They don’t know how to speak into a microphone. They don’t pause between poems. They editorialize absolutely everything. Sometimes the explanation of a poem is longer than the poem itself. When I attend these readings, I go to “support friends.” As soon as the torture is over, I give these friend a curt hug and saunter hastily out the door.

            I hate saying this. I hate disparaging a group of people that means well, works hard, overcomes shyness, and reads personal work to a roomful of strangers—or worse, friends. Poets are usually eccentric, and because their craft is so obscure, it’s no wonder that they create exclusive cliques and clubs. But Americans can pick any pastime they like. Why would they pick poetry? It’s not fun or coherent, so why bother?

             Here's what makes the difference: When you see one great reading, you suddenly understand. My friend Bernadette Ulsamer is funny, sharp, and knows how to command a stage. My publisher, Michael Simms, recites his own work in a warm barritone, like a storyteller at a campfire.

             The bottom line is that poetry is hard to read aloud, but that's the tradition, handed down since the Egyptians. From Sappho to Beowulf to Tennyson and Ginsburg, poetry is meant to be performed. It's malleable and inexpensive and unapologetically personal. Why bother? Because sometimes, it bowls you over, turns you inside out, exfoliates your very soul.

 

• 

In a traditional rubric, Wander should not exist. Poets are supposed to submit their pieces, one by one, to a vast array of literary journals. They must wait for weeks and months, and they should get a bundle of rejection letters. They should pay exorbitant contest fees, up to $25 per poem, until they are completely broke. Poetry is supposed to come from suffering and toil. Everyone seeks approval from somebody else, but approval is rarely given. Eventually, something is accepted in a no-name review, and the poet must beg friends to buy a copy. I have seen this scenario a hundred times. Sometimes authors publish a collection, but only when they’re old and gray and have taught endless classes at a small liberal arts college. That is how the game is played.

            Here’s the root of the problem: What is “good” poetry? People have strong opinions, but they all conflict. One person loves Maya Angelou, another loves Khalil Gibran. Another says that Maya Angelou and Khalil Gibran are feel-good hacks, and everybody should read Charles Bukowski. Still others recoil at Charles Bukowski, calling him a drunken misogynist, and everyone should read Billy Collins, former poet laureate, because his work is so thoughtful and accessible. More people despise Billy Collins, because he’s so blandly suburban, so middle-of-the-road. Some only read lesbian feminists. Others only like Slam. Plenty of academics don’t trifle with anything written after World War II. Meanwhile, my friend Billy wants to see “form” poems revived, with numerical meter and rhyme schemes. And on and on.

            All I know is this: I met the guys at Six Gallery Press, and they are awesome. We shared some beers, shared some stories, and then I shared my 80-page manuscript. They read it, they liked it, they decided to publish it. Simple as that. I have no idea if Wander is good, but it is one of the most honest things I’ve ever written, and I am overjoyed to share it with the world. I knew this chance wouldn’t come twice, and if there’s one thing I remember from Dead Poet’s Society, it’s carpe diem. My hope is that people read Wander and feel something like I did when I first read On the Road—a kind of primal excitement, a desire to see and hear and touch everything. Wander is a tactile book. There’s not a lot story, just things happening all around. The interactions are momentary, as happens when you take to wanderin’.

            I don’t compare Wander to my previous book, The Archipelago, because they’re so very different. Yes, both about travel, both concerned with the global family, but vastly divergent in approach. The Archipelago is a symphony. Wander is jazz. I hope that people can dance to it.

 • 

My friend Laszlo shook his head when I told him about Wander. “Well, congratulations,” he said, “but I’m not gonna read it.”

            “Really?” I said, laughing at his brutal honesty.

            “Afraid not. I don’t like poetry. Never have, never will.”

            “What if I told you there are pictures?”

            He smacked his hands together. “Ooh, pictures! I like pictures!”

            And it’s true. But not all of them are photographs.

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"Clever, but not in a clever way." My favorite ping in this piece. Congratulations!

I'm drawn to poetry as a moth is to a flickering candle. I often feel I've had my aesthetic wings singed. I sense poets write for other poets - and this impression is supported by poets' comments on other poets' poems, here on OS. An insiders' argot, a quick wink among the cognoscenti, gentle patronizing of the blundering efforts of the prosaic to praise, probly for the wrong reasons. Yet I keep coming back, enjoying what I enjoy no matter how correct or off the mark, and with the occasional singed wingtip.

I hope Wander does well.
Ah yes, poetry, my dark secret, hardly shared with anyone. I've been writing it since I was 12 and I hardly showed anyone any of my work -- until recently.

This piece reminds me that there are kindred spirits out there, honestly recording, with meter, rhyme (sometimes, at least) and spare (and yes, even clever without being clever in that way) wording. And the vast majority of folks out there who can only recall poetry as this hateful, vile, boring thing they had to deal with in 8th grade Lit class, or brushes with it with a girlfriend who loved Sylvia Plath, Keats or Bronte.

God, do you recall having to dissect a poem? It is singularly the worst experience, beyond even having to dissect a cow's eye or a frog in biology. It stopped me writing poetry until I started reading, on my own, Shakespear's sonnets and plays. Now that dude could spin a line.

You write this so well. It's funny, insightful to the overall collective of people's ideas of poetry, and also clear, concise and has a drive to it. I am now looking forward to finding some of your poetry. I will have to look into "Wander" and see if, like Kerouac's "On the Road," it relights a fire.

Excellently done, sir!
-r-
I forgot to mention how enchanting is your cover. It is, indeed!
I second pretty much everything Chicken Maaan said...aw, hell, I second everything the bird said, OK? We squabble now and again, but we both belong to that miniscule subset among poets calling themselves doggerelets. The rule is to try to be clever cleverly...or at least with rhymes and sing-songy rhythms. Hail, Wander!
yes yes yes.

I write poetry. I have no idea if its good although sometimes it feels ecstatic. But that could be undiagnosed schizophrenia for all I know.

I love this piece, btw. I love your journey. It felt warm reading it.

Congratulations on your book. It is a wonderful thing to have even one other person think your creation should be made permanent. I can't imagine how delightful it is to know others agree and purchase it. I am very happy for you.

I suspect you're right that poet's groups are static. I've just written the CT poets society, asking them to allow me to submit my work, even though I'm not a member. I'd like to be read by other poets. And critted by other poets too. I don't want to read to them though.

I can't imagine what it's like to listen to poets read their poetry, one after the other after the other. Poets aren't actors. And they're not necessarily good readers either. They're poets. If they're anything like me, they'd rather poke out their eyes with chop sticks than stand up there and read their work out loud.

I have actually twice tried to contact our local chapter, but no one answers my emails. It's possible they all contracted ptomaine at the most recent christmas party. That was in 2008. I read the minutes. I'll bet it was the crab dip.
oh, I've been working on a post myself about creativity and poetry! This is in response to dunniteowl's comment in response to one of mine on another poetry blog.

So please come on over and jump in and discuss. All of you. I'll probably do something I NEVER do and even send out a PM about it. You are free to ignore it though. God knows I ignore everyone else's. So don't read my PM. just come.

It will be finished pretty soon.
Cheers! Congrats! Love seeing the editors feature a poet on the cover! That rarely occurs! You have now set the bar so the rest of us poetry writing wanabees must raise our game!
I was so excited to see an EP for poetry. I am so happy for you and your book, I hope some day I see an EP for an actual poem of yours.
I hope your book is a tremendous success.
rated with love
I don't think I've ever really read an account of how someone becomes a poet...wonderful, interesting post! Congratulations on your book!
A-and not one fookin' poem in the entire piece.
Shocked? I'm speechless.
Of course, American poets don’t do themselves any favors. ... Because sometimes, it bowls you over, turns you inside out, exfoliates your very soul.

Gold, dude. So fun. Weirdly, this is all I can find for the 16th.

http://www.sampsoniaway.org/pittsburghliterarycalendar/event.php?EventID=78