|photo of William Seaton by Dan Wilcox|
Rubee Rancourt: Giant Steps Press has just published your new book of poems, Planetary Motions. Would you to share what inspired you to become a writer and how your academic experience influenced your voice as an author?
William Seaton: Ah well, I was inspired by the poetry of Freddy the Pig in Walter R. Brooks’ children’s books and the scintillating display of the playful potential of words in Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strips. As a child I passed a bit of time with the likes of Ogden Nash and Robert Service, but I was interested in everything then including the sciences. By middle school I had decided that the likeliest professions I might follow were religious mystic (I loved the Evelyn Underhill books), socialist revolutionary (on the model of the Wobblies), or poet. I suppose I selected the most practical choice of the three.
Just as I was approaching adolescence, the Beat writers were attracting attention even from those who never read a word of their writing, and by the time I was in high school I was attending Paul Carroll’s Big Table readings at Second City in Chicago. Then followed the hip youth movement of the sixties when I went to the Haight-Ashbury in the days when we wanted not only to write great poetry but also to transform society. We declaimed poetry in the streets and strove to make each act of daily life into art.
As for academe, some may conceive the ivied halls as an isolated and remote realm, but for me it opened up the globe and the centuries past. I spent an absurd amount of time living on pennies in graduate school, but that allowed me to study many languages, dead and alive, and to feast on the broadest variety of writing while living on scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships.
The traditional canon is not, however, sufficient. To learn the real nature of literature requires familiarity with work outside the English Literature curriculum. To know what poetry can do one must know not only Keats, but Du Fu and Kalidasa and blues songs and anthropological reports of oral texts.
I did not always fit in. When I showed some Sappho translations to my Greek professor and asked his opinion. he said that he could not comment as he really cared little for poetry. In the most advanced Classics seminars we never did more than translate, construe, and note unusual forms. I am grateful for the knowledge gained through historical philology, but my goal was simply to read poetry.
Rubee Rancourt: You have been able to live what many consider a nontraditional lifestyle. Taking into account this unique lens on the world, what would you say has been the most impactful lesson or experience that has stayed with you throughout your writing career?
William Seaton: My inclination was clear from the start. I happen to have a college application essay I wrote ever so long ago. Probably imprudently, I said nothing about any specific career but simply said I wished to learn as much as possible and experience as much as possible. I was quite honest – I despaired of ever earning a living, so I pursued other goals. Although I led a gypsy career and never made much money, I cannot complain.
When I graduated from university and married my dearly beloved, she and I agreed that our first priority, apart from my evading the draft, was to see the world, so we worked as long as necessary, living on the super-cheap, and then spent almost a year in Europe and North Africa. Since then we have traveled all over and lingered to teach in West Africa. The experience of seeing up close how other people live, checking out other cultures’ visions, is really akin to reading which can place your consciousness suddenly in another gender or country or era. If there is a lesson available, it is probably “there are many ways to be human.” Second lesson is “all those ways have a lot in common.”
Rubee Rancourt: One of the many things that I appreciate about your work is the humor with which you convey deeper messages to your audience. Where does the inspiration for your humor come from and how would you say your authorial voice has evolved over the process of writing your books?
William Seaton: I regret the decay of light poetry. Poetry today is often passionate and loud when it isn’t too cool for any affect. Humor is highly poetic, using multiple meanings, wordplay, and sudden realizations for effect. Both the visionary and the comedian depend on poking and sometimes overturning preconceptions. Looking around in a slightly pixilated state of mind, leads to goofing in the sense of Philip Whalen’s Goof Book, looking at the world agog and grinning, recreational living, one might say. In performance, the most certain ways to stir an audience are transgressive sexual content, revolutionary social content, and humor. The last has, perhaps, the best chance of lasting impact.
Everyone has a unique voice, of course, and in the case of a writer there is the additional complication that the mind on the page is mediated by words and cannot be identical to the thought. Since Shelley: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” lyric poetry has often been self-dramatization. In Planetary Motions I have included several kinds of poems I had earlier excluded from collections as lacking gravitas. Let multiple voices coexist! I tend to shrink from the single continuous confessional voice, but language is such a subtle instrument that the ego always shows up on the page. Think of Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who wrote using dozens of personae with different names, styles, and ideas, but he is still discernably there behind each of them.
Rubee Rancourt: When reading “How to be a Poet” I was most impressed with the line “Think of when you’ve been highest and lowest and what the colors of the planets smelled like then.” What would you like people to take away after reading your books? And what would you say to other aspiring writers who wish to explore the world of poetry?
William Seaton: In my opinion writers have no privileged access to reality. All anyone can do is to record flashes of consciousness accurately enough that the reader might sympathetically see through the author’s eyes. A precise description of an experience of the world will be beautiful because people find humanity, the world, and the cosmos beautiful in the end, terrifying, too, but beautiful. Somehow in the end even tragedy and suffering may be redeemed by art. As the Buddha realized, we cannot alter the conditions of existence, but we can alter our own minds.
As for advice to aspiring writers, I would begin with the old prudential cliché “don’t go into the arts unless you can’t help yourself.” If you do, blessings upon you. Poetry is a performance skill, like lifting weights. Regular practice is the way to improve. Reading and workshops may play a role, but writing is the way to get better at writing.
|photo of William Seaton by Celia Seaton|