Welcome to our new many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com.
Our first interview is with poet Wes Hazard.
I’m a stand-up comic and poet born and based in the Boston area. I’ve been doing comedy for 8 years now, having performed regularly since I was undergraduate. I began writing poetry just after I graduated when I started taking various workshops at an extension school and some adult education centers. After two years away from a formal education program I began pursuing my MFA at Emerson with a concentration in poetry, graduating in the spring of 2011. In the time since I’ve continued to write poetry, do stand-up, and work a day job. Over the last year I began to attend and perform at a lot of poetry open mics & slams. It’s been a fantastic experience. I myself continue to read my work, rather than slam it, but I find that my performance background in comedy thoroughly informs my reading, my presentation, and my understanding of the audience. I’ve never been published in a journal or review (and in fact have only ever submitted anything twice) but just about an hour ago I sent the final draft of what will be my first chapbook, A Month of Sundays, to my designer for a debut this week at my first feature reading, at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge on the 20th. I’m very excited about the book, the show, and what I hope to do with my writing this year.
I’ve recently been having discussions with people who say that poetry must – must always – be heard from someone’s voice. What’s the difference of reading a poem in a journal, or collection, and seeing it performed as Slam?
Well first I’ll have to second your experience and say that this is a discussion I’ve had on and off with many people over the years in workshops, at readings, over beers, and at slams. Eventually you’re going to get into a “read vs heard” debate, though I hesitate to even call it that. I certainly don’t wish to feed into what I see as the false opposition that some people like to assert between poetry that’s read on the page and that which is performed on the stage. There is, however, clearly a difference between the two experiences. Reading a poem in a journal obviously gives you much more time to spend with the piece. You can go back, read it again, see the punctuation and line breaks, repeat it to yourself, look up words or references that stymie or interest you, etc. As such, the poet can, in general, afford to indulge themselves a bit more, maybe be more oblique, esoteric, languid. That’s certainly not to say that they should or that a performance poet can’t do just the same, but I think the format allows for it more. As an audience member at a slam, I definitely expect the poet to engage me immediately and make me feel something with each piece they deliver (there’s usually a 3 minute time limit at open mics and competitions so it can definitely be a tall order). They’ll only have that 3 minutes rather than basically unlimited time I can spend with a journal piece, but being there, in the flesh, tapping into the energy of the room, they also have a lot more in their toolbox. They can gesture, modulate their voice, look me in the eyes, employ silence, and use all sorts of other sound & vision queues to get me where their piece wants to go. You lose some things; you gain at least as much. At the end of the day though, words translate to sounds AND images. If I read a journal piece I still hear the words in my head, so I think there’s ALWAYS a voice involved, no matter what. I collect lit quotes as writing prompts or just nuggets for thought and something Octavio Paz said in his book “The Other Voice” comes to mind: “The Poem is a rhythmical verbal organism, an object made of words said and heard, not words written or read.”
What subjects/themes do your poems embrace, and do those bleed over into slams, or into your stand-up?
My writing tends to tackle whatever I’m feeling most urgently about, and I imagine most writers are much the same in that regard. Looking at my work over the years, and especially after having just spent 2 weeks really immersed in my stuff while prepping my chapbook, I’d say the main themes are technology, religion, their relationship to each other in the 21st century, and the comedy theater that basic human relationships provide on a never-ending basis. In my stand-up I definitely address these things, but not in a particularly self-conscious way. My stand-up is more autobiographical, more story based than my poetry tends to be, though my poetry is, I think, very true to my life as well. The biggest relationship between the two is that I try to do everything with humor; it’s just my default approach to life. Sure, not every poem I write is crafted to make a reader or listener laugh (and even if it is it’s not necessarily effective) but that’s where my heads at most of the time.
In terms of the craft of stand-up influencing my performance style when I’m reading my poetry: Oh yeah, big time. If nothing else stand-up will teach you a lot about respecting the audience’s attention and what you need to do in order to hold on to it. I mean, that’s obviously a requirement on the page as well, but performing live I think you need to appreciate that everybody has their own life and their own set of things they could be doing aside from coming out to see you. I don’t take that lightly, and strive to give people a show, in whatever scenario it is that I may be on stage. As I said, I don’t consider my readings on stage to be slam poetry in the strictest sense (though the line can get pretty fine at times). Slam is something I definitely want to begin doing in earnest, but for right now I think I’m a reader on stage who uses a stand-up skill set to enhance that. For instance, if I’m doing a longer poetry set and I have the time, I tend to inject a fair amount of patter between pieces that gets the audience engaged, sets up the work I’m reading, eases emotional transitions between poems, etc.
Now, you said you haven’t submitted very much to journals or reviews, has there been a reason for that?
In a word: laziness. Yes, that’s probably been it more than anything. I decided to enter an MFA program for many different reasons. But certainly not least among them was the structure that such a program would provide, an environment where new work was constantly demanded of you. That’s something which I’ve found is just built into standup because of the nature of the club & open mic circuit. You take a bit around for weeks and weeks to different mics, building on it, tightening it, etc until it gets to some semblance of “done” (though that’s debatable). Over that time other comics see it over and over and over again. The audience may change, but I tend to regard fellow comics as a core part the audience I’m performing for (they’re great arbiters of what’s funny & original). After a while, I certainly feel a pressure and a desire to move on from each bit and focus on the new stuff. That older, tested, material is still there, and still valued and can be used at any moment, but it’s not what I’m most excited about. In this way I find I’m really channeled into writing more and more stuff for stand-up, it just sort of happens. That’s what the MFA program provided me, that “it just sort of happens” of creating new poetic work. I fully realize that many people would scoff (perhaps rightly) at the notion of “needing” a formal (and damn expensive) academic program to kick them into writing poetry, and believe me, I understand that, but for me, where I consider myself a comic first, it was a good choice.
When I graduated from my program I found I no longer had that, and to be honest, my writing output significantly declined for the better part of a year. But then I started attending poetry mics & slams for the first time and I found that the live aspect, the talking with other performers, the act of being on a circuit, that gave my poetry writing what performing comedy constantly has always given my standup, an arena where new work (at a high level) is expected and necessary.
This getting into the groove of writing again is causing me to generate a lot more material, which in turn is giving me more ammo, so to speak, to go out and submit to journals and such. I enjoyed my MFA program, and I think I got quite a bit out of it, but since I’ve finished it I’ve had a lot more time to look at my creative and professional goals and dedicate more of time to getting serious about them. A large part of it is just getting older and realizing just how much you need to do if you’re going to get where you want to be. Going forward I’ve dedicated myself to working harder than I ever have to produce the kind of art that I want to produce (both in writing and comedy), more of a focus on submissions and publications is part of that.
After an MFA, I know it is rough to maintain a full time job while also finding time to write. How do you negotiate your time between work and writing?
Finding time to write can definitely be tough, and for me it’s been a bit of a discovery. I think the main thing is to make sure that writing is a part of your life, as a necessity. For me it’s been that way with stand-up since I started. I’m compelled to go to open mics and other comedy shows. I experience a definite sense of malaise if I go more than one night without getting a set in, as a result of that you sort of build your life (or what remains of it after a work day) around performing and working on your material. It’s not so much time management as fulfilling a need. In the past year I’ve started to feel the same way about poetry (again, it was a craft that I took up well after I’d been doing & loving comedy) and now I find myself sacrificing socializing & leisure activities in order to write to the same degree that I already do in order to tell jokes. Like anybody, I wouldn’t mind getting more sleep, but I’m pretty happy about the enhanced focus of the last year.
How long have you been working on A Month of Sundays, and can we expect to see and hear your old or new work, a mix?
I’ve doing the nitty-gritty work of putting together the actual chapbook (poem selection, ordering of pieces, talking to a designer, etc) for a month now, but the poems have been in progress for some time. This is my first publication after years of writing so I had a decent amount of material to choose from, and I chose to include the work that I was most proud of. Some of the pieces are more than 2 and half years old, one piece was finished 4 days ago. Going back to the beginning of our discussion, I chose to include the work that I find works best on the page and not necessarily my favorite stuff to drop at a mic.
You can follow Wes Hazard on twitter at @weshazard