Interview by-Natalie Solmer
I have appreciated Kalamaras’s work for a long time and felt it was an opportune moment to feature him in Indianapolis Review, as I was very interested in his latest book about his Greek heritage. He very generously answers my questions here and also offers two of his poems from his book, To Sleep in the Horse’s Belly: My Greek Poets and the Aegean Inside Me. Those poems can be found on the pages following this one. Here is more about George:
George Kalamaras is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014–2016). He is the author of twenty-three collections of poetry—fourteen full-length books and nine chapbooks—as well as a critical study on language theory. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he taught for thirty-two years. George and his wife, writer Mary Ann Cain, have nurtured beagles in their home for nearly thirty years, first Barney, then Bootsie, and now Blaisie. George, Mary Ann, and Blaisie live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and spend a portion of each year in Livermore, Colorado, in the mountains north of Fort Collins.
NS: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview with Indianapolis Review! I was excited when I saw your new collection, To Sleep in the Horse’s Belly, which your publisher, Dos Madres Press, has described as, “George Kalamaras’s chronicle of his Greek ancestry—literary, artistic, and familial. This book retells the lives of some of Kalamaras’s favorite Greek poets and artists, most often with his characteristic Surrealist outpouring and accretion of imagery, interlacing his inquiry with myth and the metaphor of the infamous Trojan Horse.” This book is an epic 300 or so pages and weaves together the lives of well-known and not so well-known Greek writers and artists with the lives of your ancestors, particularly your Greek grandparents (three of whom emigrated to the U.S. from Greece). It’s an immense and moving project, which Dos Madres says was “[t]wenty-five years in the making, with some poems dating as far back as forty years.” I am so curious about the origin story of this book and what the process of writing it was like. Were there really inklings of it forty years ago?
GK: Thanks for your kind words, Natalie! Yes, there were inklings of the book, To Sleep in the Horse’s Belly: My Greek Poets and the Aegean Inside Me, forty years ago, though I could never have imagined at the time how the book would develop and what it would have turned into. Forty years ago, I had embarked (along with the poet and my dear friend John Bradley) on a deep study of Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, and George Seferis, immersing myself in their poems (primarily through the wonderful translations of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard). Seferis’s incredible quote from his poem “In the Manner of G.S.” moved me deeply: “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me.” Being in my twenties at the time, I had been at a point in my life where I was beginning to reflect in a more mature way upon my ethnic roots and just what it means to be Greek. Greece’s golden age had long since come and gone, and the political turmoil of the two military dictatorships of the 1930s and late 1960s still hang like a heavy cloak around many of the writers of that era. I had also been reflecting upon what it means to grow up Greek. When my parents divorced when I was a child, my mother, brother, and I moved in with my grandparents, George and Helen Avgerinos. So I grew up much like my parents had, as they had parents who emigrated to this country. Growing up with my grandparents put me in direct contact with an immigrant lineage. My grandfather George Avgerinos came to this country from the Ionian island of Zakynthos, and he filled me not only with stories of his island but also with Greek myths and legends (his wife, Helen, was an “honorary” Greek—my one grandparent not of Greek ancestry but who deeply embraced that culture). My wife sometimes points out how close to a freshly transplanted immigrant sensibility I still am, as that influence in so many ways has been deep and lasting.
In any event, forty years ago, after completing my Master’s degree at Colorado State University, I wrote a small series of poems in honor of Yannis Ritsos, that great revolutionary who was imprisoned, sent into exile, and placed under house arrest time and again for his Leftist ideals. I also wrote a poem for Stratis Haviaras. And even earlier, I wrote several poems in honor of George Seferis, even using that great quote—“Wherever I travel Greece wounds me”—as an epigraph for one poem (that did not make it into the current collection but that appears in an early chapbook of mine). I had also reached out to the poet and publisher Dinos Siotis, who used to edit the important Greek press, Wire Press. I bought a few books, but Dinos was so kind to me (as I was broke at the time), gifting me a large box of Greek journals, books, and anthologies of contemporary Greek poets. He even published a poem or two of mine. His contribution should not be underestimated, as he expanded my knowledge base greatly (keep in mind, this is decades before the internet!). So, I have spent a large part of the last forty years reading about and studying the poetry of a plethora of modern and contemporary Greek poets. Their work has shaped me deeply, and I feel as if I have apprenticed myself out to them (along with many other international poets).
Then in 1998, my wife and I were spending the summer in a cabin in Big Timber, Montana, and I wrote a series of poems in honor of several great modern and contemporary Greek poets: Elytis, Ritsos, and Seferis, of course, but also poems for Constantine Cavafy, Andreas Embirikos, Miltos Sahtouris, Takis Sinopoulos, and others—all of which made it into the current book, although several of the poems underwent substantial revision, especially in form. So I had this core group of poems that had been hanging around since the early 1980s, as well as from a quarter century ago.
Another very important key here, though, was that one evening a few years ago I was perusing the website of Elizabeth Murphy, wife and co-founder with Robert Murphy of the marvelous Dos Madres Press. They had already published two of my books of poems (Luminous in the Owl’s Rib and We Slept the Animal). Elizabeth is a stunning artist and designer, and she has specialized for many years in painting icons. I was powerfully struck with her icons—of St. George, among others—in ways that brought me back deeply into my childhood, growing up in the Orthodox Church (although I am no longer practicing) and being surrounded at home with several different icons of saints. I was suddenly launched back into the Greek poems, feeling I had a toehold into how to revisit the older Greek poems and incorporating them with newer ones. So from there, the poems came at a furious pace, so I owe more to Elizabeth (and Robert) than I can say! Thus, it makes it all the more special that they were the ones to publish and bring this massive Greek book into the world.
NS-I was also curious about the structure of the book, which contains eleven sections which alternate between poems about Greek writers and artists and sections about your family. In addition, To Sleep in the Horse’s Belly is bookended by a single poem before the eleven sections and a single poem after the eleven sections. In the introductory poem, “Looking for My Grandfather with Odysseus Elytis,” you describe the speaker’s search for his/your grandfather, led by famed Greek poet, Odysseus Elytis. In this poem the speaker searches through Greece with Odysseus as guide and ends up a witness at his grandfather’s birth. He also encounters St. Dionysios / St. Dan who is an incredibly important figure in the book and who is in the title of the concluding poem, “Homage to St. Dionysios.” In this last poem, the speaker relays memories of the grandfather and the place of the saint in the household. This final poem evokes a homecoming at the conclusion of a Greek epic where the speaker is made whole in these gorgeous last lines: “When I emerged after many lives / Freshly Greek, once again, into this body / From the body of darkness / After a long night of wandering / Through seaweed and storms”; can you talk a bit about how you structured the book and the journey of its arc? I would also love to hear more about St. Dionysios as well!
GK: What a deep and insightful reading of the book’s structure, Natalie! I’m so touched that you saw all of that, as that was my intent! And it’s satisfying to be seen and read in such a deep way. First, I’m a bit obsessive about symmetry—in most of my books. All but one of my books of Bone Sutras, for example, contain five sections of thirteen poems each (with one book of Bone Sutras as outlier, adding one additional poem). I believe in the magical power of numbers, even on a subliminal level perhaps going unnoticed by the reader. You’ll notice that each of the sections of poems for Greek poets in this current book we’re discussing contains precisely twelve poems. And each of the alternating sections of poems for my family (so inventively titled “Four for My Family”!) obviously contains four poems. Twelve is a very significant number throughout history, and I go into some of the nuances of that number in the concluding “coda” poem for St. Dionysios. The number twelve is also the launch pad for the magical number thirteen. Thus, each section of poems for Greek poets culminates with the powerful number twelve, yet it simultaneously contains an element of “absence” as we await the magic of the number thirteen. (In this way, I hope to propel the reader on an unconscious level to want to fill that absence and to seek resolution by continuing on through the book.)
If we include the prefatory and concluding poems as unnumbered “sections” (which they sort of are) and add those to the eleven primary sections of the book, we come to the number thirteen. In addition, if we ignore the prefatory poem momentarily, treating it, say, as a mere preface, and add the coda poem to the eleven primary sections, we arrive at the number twelve, a number whose significance (as I’ve said) gets explored throughout that coda poem. (Even the name St. Dionysios, as I say in that concluding poem, contains twelve letters, if we count the period in “St.” as a letter!)
So the entire book is highly structured around the numbers twelve and thirteen.
On a more practical but equally important level, I decided to alternate every other section, as you’ve said, between poems for Greek poets and poems for my family. In writing the book, I kept going back and forth between these two kinds of poems, and I soon realized that they fed one another, gathered energy, and accreted. It was important to me to keep returning in every other section to my family—as that’s where my love of Greek poetry and culture first arose. Yet it was equally important to return in every other section to Greek poetry, for that has offered me a parallel kinship; it is another kind of family for me, and I came to this family of Greek poets (and visual and musical artists) only by embracing my Greek roots.
And, yes! The opening and closing poems bookend the collection, as you say. Thanks for your keen eye. Since St. Dionysios is the patron saint of Zakynthos, and since I grew up with his image displayed prominently, he felt like the most appropriate guide to take me back to Zakynthos to witness my grandfather George Avgerinos’s birth (my maternal grandfather after whom I am named). Of course, he is accompanied by Odysseus Elytis, so in the opening poem the speaker is wandering like Odysseus does, embarking on his own odyssey; this helps connect this prefatory poem to one of the main themes in the book and, obviously, to the book’s title. Odysseus drops off in the coda poem, and the speaker is left with St. Dionysios as his guide, a representation of his family as guide, where he can now step fresh from the ancient “myths” into a familial embodiment of those myths. (On a side note, and for the astute reader, my family always referred to St. Dionysios as “St. Dan.” As I say in an endnote at the back of the book, most sources translate Dionysios as “Dennis” or “Denis.” But I suspect my family referred to him as “St. Dan,” as he was ordained a priest in 1570 as “Daniel.”)
St. Dan was not only the patron saint of Zakynthos but also the patron saint of our household. And I heard many stories (often magical and powerful) about him that my grandfather brought from Greece and into our lives. One powerful story is that St. Dan even forgave and harbored the murderer of his own brother. Another is that he would leave his coffin (his body remains preserved in a church on Zakynthos that contains his name) and guide seafarers into coastal safety on particularly stormy nights, his slippers in his coffin often appearing wet in the morning from his nightly journeys. Whether such stories as this last one are true or not, they contain a powerful metaphorical message that can comfort and heal—a message that fascinated and enthralled me as a child.
NS-To Sleep in the Horse’s Belly is overflowing with image-rich, complex, and evocative poems, and it’s difficult to choose just one to discuss! I would like to hear more about the challenges you may have faced in writing about your ancestors, particularly those you have never met. You do this gracefully and with care. For example, in an excerpt from the poem, “Journey from Nemnitsa in Kyparissia,” you write:
“And it was spoken unto, into, me
that my great-great-grandmother—nameless,
her birth and death dates unknown—gave birth
to each son on a small cot
in their home in the village of Nemnitsa,
no longer even called that. Changed, now,
And the Angel handed me poems stitched
into goatskin, the words, the rhythms
of George Seferis. Of Odysseus Elytis.
Of Yannis Ritsos. Reminding me
that I’d been born a Kalamaras in a riverbed
I enjoyed learning about your family history and getting to know these figures in the book; I also write about my own ancestors and sometimes come up against certain challenges. What was it like for you to address your ancestors through your poems, and did you have any reservations or feel any sort of particular responsibility for their portrayal and relaying of their stories? I also was curious about how much research went into this book and if your family gave most of these details to you? One problem I have is that my grandparents were very secretive and didn’t talk much about Poland and the Old Country, but that was mainly due to trauma.
GK: Well, let me first address something not asked but hinted at in the above passage. It was very important to me to write about my great-great-grandmother on the Kalamaras side of the family, for even though I have a very extensive written genealogy of the family, there is little known about her; even her name remains a mystery. Greece, like most world cultures, represents family in a very patrilineal fashion. Like many women, my great-great-grandmother is nearly erased, at least in my family history. Yes, all of her sons emerged from her body. Think about that for a moment. A human being emerges from someone’s body, and yet that someone’s name is lost. I found that troubling and knew I needed to honor her and address that absence, granting her a kind of immortality in the poem.
As to your main question, though, I did not find it particularly difficult to write about family. Of course, one normally wants to honor their heritage. Honoring can take many forms, from praising, to critiquing, to revealing family secrets. It’s all contextual and largely dependent upon the consciousness and goals of the person writing about family. I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong way—provided the writer aims to tell the truth (as he or she knows it) in a way that taps into a higher purpose. One of my great poetry teachers, Judith Johnson, has written and lectured extensively on what she calls “a poetics of generosity.” That’s my predisposition as well, and having Judy as a role model only enhanced my understanding of what that means. But generosity need not be praise but a form of telling that acts as a conduit into something larger than the self. (By the way, it’s been a great gift to have had several extraordinarily generous poetry teachers over the years—with whom I later maintained friendships—two at Indiana University, Philip Appleman and Roger Mitchell; two at Colorado State University, Mary Crow and Bill Tremblay; and two at the State University of New York-Albany, Don Byrd and Judith Johnson.)
Thus, in writing about family and in trying to get into the mindset of my lineage, I kept asking myself, “What’s the deeper purpose here?” In other words, I focused on how I might enlarge my own consciousness as well as the consciousness of my reader in the telling of my truth. That’s the “particular responsibility [I felt that I had] for their portrayal and relaying of their stories,” as you have so eloquently phrased it. Again, how can I enlarge consciousness—my own and that of the reader? If you get into that zone, writing about family—even telling tough truths, it seems to me—has a deeper and richer purpose that moves beyond storytelling for the sake of storytelling only.
Unlike your family, it appears, mine readily related stories—both from the Avgerinos and Kalamaras sides of my family. Dinners were always full of stories of what my family lovingly referred to as “the Old Country.” Sometimes I would hear the same stories over and over, but I never grew tired of them. In addition, at least twenty years ago, my father, Bill Kalamaras, gave me an extensive written genealogy of the Kalamaras tree (including my grandmother Stavroula Kalamaras’s family tree from her Demopoulos side). It makes for fascinating reading. And I have been continually struck—and deeply moved—that I have “come through” these people, that I contain parts of them in my genetic and psychological makeup. Both the Avgerinos and Kalamaras sides were poor, hardworking folks, struggling to survive in Greece. I often marvel that they never could have imagined their progeny (me) receiving the kind of education I have, teaching at a university for a few decades, and being able to “retire” and continue writing. I read about their lives, I look into their eyes in old photographs (several of which I include in the book), and see their hopes and dreams reflected back—in part—in me.
It’s mind-blowing, and I can’t quite get my head around it all!
One further note here is that Kalamaras is derived from Calamari, squid, due to the use of ink derived from the squid. Thus, Kalamaras in Greece means “writer” in the broadest of terms. How was it, I often wonder, that I was born a “Kalamaras,” and how has that shaped my destiny and vocation of devoting my life to poetry?
NS-I have to mention that including this new book we have been discussing, you are also the author of twenty-three collections of poetry (fourteen full-length books and nine chapbooks)! In addition, you have recently retired from your position as Professor of English (and are now Professor Emeritus) at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where you taught for thirty-two years. What has the journey been like for you over the course of your very prolific career? Do you have guidance for folks who are working towards publication of their books?
GK: I’m not sure I can answer this question adequately, Natalie, but let me try to speak to it, or at it, or within it. As far as my “journey,” as you so beautifully put it, I think Odysseus and I would find camaraderie! While I published two chapbooks in the mid- to late 1980s, I didn’t publish my first full-length book of poetry until 2000, several months before I turned forty-four. I consider that “delay” a great blessing. Not only were those early unpublished book manuscripts not at the level I would now expect of myself, this also gave me time to develop on my own without receiving praise too early for a first book that I may have then wanted to replicate. Robert Bly said something very powerful years ago at a reading I attended in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In an offhanded comment in which he was trying to make a point, he said, don’t publish your first book until you are forty-three! That will give you time to mature and allow you to sidestep the desire to keep seeking the same praise for later books.
Of course, he was picking an age out of the air—but that’s what happened to me. Exactly. I was forty-three, about to turn forty-four, when the book appeared! What are those odds? I sometimes wonder if his words found a way into my unconscious, where they gained a toehold and were made manifest. Careful what you say and think, as they say!
Now keep in mind, I’m not saying this is the path for everyone. I know many wonderful poets who published their first book at a much earlier age than that (and perhaps that was the right path for them). But I am saying that at least for me this delay was a gift. It also gave me perspective on just what it means to publish. Writing poetry is a practice—an attentiveness practice—first and foremost, and it has very little to do with publishing. Yes, I realize, I am speaking from a position now of immense privilege, and I certainly understand and value the importance of having an audience for one’s work. But what I am trying to emphasize here is that publishing is the least important part of engaging in the practice of being a poet. Writing poetry is an attentiveness practice, a meditation, a way to attempt to dissolve the smaller self into a larger sense of Self that is less constrained by ego, by the relentless drive of the “I” to be noticed and loved.
My very favorite quote of all time about being a poet (among many, so this is obviously very special to me) comes from the poet Gary Snyder when he says in his incredible book The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-1979: “[as a poet I] hold the most archaic values on earth . . . the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.”
I try to remember these words every day and recite them to myself as often as possible, almost like a mantra. This is what it means to me to be a poet. This is what I have been called to. This is my practice.
In saying this, I am not trying to sidestep lending practical advice. And I believe in poetry so much that I feel a responsibility to give some practical advice that addresses your question in a more direct way as well. If a person is working toward publication of a book, the best advice I would have—on a practical level—is to not rush the book. Allow it to sit and simmer, to shift, to tear itself apart and rebuild itself into something different, to become what it wants to become rather than try to force it into something you think it should be. In other words, poetry is an organic form, and I truly believe the poem is alive. I believe firmly that the poem knows more than we do. A poet should try to recognize this. A poet should attempt to interiorize his or her consciousness as much as possible and learn to listen to the poem (or book) and see what it wants. Now, on an even more practical level, it is vital to read as much poetry as possible—even poets with whom you think you do not necessarily connect. Read it all. Learn from it all. Listen to various sounds, textures, and rhythms. Branch out and be so in love with poetry that you breathe it, eat and drink it, bathe in it. Think less about oneself. As Judy Johnson has said, engage in “a poetics of generosity.” Attend poetry readings with an open heart, and remain attentive to other poets, helping them develop their work. These are just some of the ways to honor the path of poetry onto which we’ve been called. The more we practice this love for poetry, the more it will open to us.
The more you do this—in a generous way and not for any ulterior motives—the more your heart and mind will open and allow the “deepness” of poetry to enter and enrich you. But one must do this with as pure of a heart as possible; do it for the love of poetry, for the practice. As the great Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, says—and I am paraphrasing here—perform action for the sake of the action and not for the fruits that it may bear.
NS-Another major achievement in your career has been serving as Indiana Poet Laureate from 2014–2016. You created a wonderful resource for poets, the website/blog, The Wabash Watershed. I am actually currently on the committee for deciding the next Indiana Poet Laureate, and I am so excited about the future of poetry in Indiana! Do you have any thoughts or hopes you want to share about this subject, and do you have any advice for future poets laureate?
GK: Well, this sort of echoes and dovetails with part of what we’ve been talking about. Being poet laureate of one’s home state—as great of an honor as it is—should be viewed by the laureate not as a personal accomplishment but as a service. When I was laureate, I always tried to see the deeper purpose rather than dwell on the obvious honor. I felt I was called to be laureate in order to serve, that is, to act as an ambassador of poetry. I felt I was called to share with others in the state what I had learned in my decades-long practice (to share not only the reading and writing of poetry but also what it means in one’s daily life to be a poet). So, I suppose my advice for future laureates would be to get out of the way of the accolades and of identifying as best as you can with the projections of others as to your worth as a poet. Sure, it’s a great honor to be named laureate. However, keep asking yourself what the deeper purpose is and what you can do for others with this honor, not how you can feather your own nest.
As to the first part of your question (sorry I’m not answering in the order you asked!), my thoughts and hopes revolve around Indiana continuing to fund and support such a worthy pursuit as poetry and the sharing/teaching of poetry. We have been fortunate to have had all wonderful laureates so far in the history of the program, so another significant hope would be that future laureates embrace the position and that the general public—which has already shown a huge interest in the activities and outreach programs of the laureateship—continues to remain open and engaged, as the Poet Laureate program is an incredible asset to our state that should and must continue.
NS-My last question to everyone I interview is always about Indiana. What are some of the places or things you admire about Indiana, particularly in relation to the literary and arts world? I know that Indiana isn’t necessarily nationally known for such things, but Indianapolis Review is my little contribution towards changing that. I know you spend a portion of each year in Colorado now that you are retired, and I wonder if having that perspective has also changed the way you view Indiana as well.
GK: Okay, Natalie, here’s the short answer. The woods. The woods. And, of course, the woods.
This is what I admire most about Indiana. If you recall, far back in our country’s history, Indiana was the great Northwest Territory! (Isn’t that mind-blowing to think of?!) Amidst fields of corn and soybeans, amidst the steel plants of northwest Indiana (near where I grew up), it is easy to forget how wild Indiana once was, how the Wabash River and other waterways, including the Ohio on our southern boundary, served as major arteries bringing people, trade, and commerce into this country. So even amidst the felling of trees and the clearing of space for people, I keep thinking about and loving the Indiana woods that were and those that still are.
The woods are still there, beneath our feet, as an energy current, even when cleared.
So when I think of Indiana I will always think first of the woods. While I was born in Chicago, my mother, brother, and I moved to northwest Indiana to live with my grandparents when I was very young. And we lived on a few acres of thick Indiana woods in the small town of Cedar Lake. My childhood environment was magical, surrounded as I was by oaks, sycamores, elms, shagbark hickories, and maples. Living just forty-five minutes from Chicago, I had the best of both the worlds of country and city life (as we received all the Chicago t.v. and radio stations).
As to your question about “having perspective,” I’d like to backtrack and say I got a large part of that perspective early on, not as much now in “retirement” (by the way, we have started not using the word “retired” much at all, as it was starting to make us feel old, even containing the word “tired” in it, so my wife brilliantly stated one afternoon that, “We haven’t retired—we have only left teaching in order to become fulltime writers”!).
In any event, as to perspective, like many young people, I couldn’t wait to leave where I was raised. After our undergraduate education at Indiana University in Bloomington, my wife, the writer Mary Ann Cain, and I moved to Colorado in 1980 for our Master’s degrees. The odd thing is that as much as I had thought I’d wanted to leave Indiana at that time and experience the world, when I got to Colorado, all I could do was reflect upon and write about Indiana! Imagine that! There I was surrounded by all that monumental beauty, and my consciousness was then even more deeply embedded in Indiana barns and woods and cornfields! (You may recall, when I was laureate, I produced a series of seventy-five poetry videos–with my former beagle Bootsie at my side–a series which I called “A Gray Barn Rising,” and those can be accessed at my laureate website, The Wabash Watershed: https://www.wabashwatershed.com/a-gray-barn-rising/ )
After we completed our Master’s, my wife and I both wanted to continue our education, so we moved to Albany, New York, and received our doctoral degrees at the State University of New York-Albany. Guess what? When I first got to Albany, all I could write about for part of that first year was Colorado! So, what does that tell you? The heart can be a restless thing, yes, but also we need perspective on a place and a sense of “home,” a perspective we can sometimes only get upon leaving a place.
Anyway, you’re correct. While our primary residence is Indiana, we often return to Colorado for part of each year. It’s a land my wife and I both feel deeply connected with having lived there and then visited for a few months a year, off and on, for the last forty-three years, as we often returned there even when we moved away in 1987.
When we got our teaching positions in Indiana in 1990, I was able to re-experience Indiana in a more mature way, from the perspective of someone who had been gone for ten years and who had returned to his home state. That and—just as significantly—serving as poet laureate, allowed me to immerse myself once again in Indiana in even deeper ways. And here I must once again return to what I’ve said about the woods. Colorado is gorgeous, but it has immense forests, not woods. As much as I love forests, there is something so deeply comforting to me about the cozy, intimate embrace of the Indiana woods, as if I am being held very closely by the land.
In fact, when I served as laureate, I would drive throughout the state for various engagements, and I took to listening to books on CD. I had an opportunity to return to one of my favorite books, which I’d not read at that time for forty years, Thoreau’s Walden; or Life in the Woods. Of course, many of us likely remember what he says near the opening, a passage I have memorized in my woods-crazed blood: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
But I have only touched so far on what I love most about Indiana. Its diversity enthralls me as well. (Remember, just a short distance from my home woods, I grew up in the shadow of the steel mills of Gary and East Chicago, Indiana—where I even worked summers during my undergraduate education.) You also rightly mention the Indiana arts. I am also deeply impressed with Indiana’s artistic offerings, especially its literary scene (the Indianapolis Review is part of that, so I want to thank you for holding such a vision of the Indiana Arts in your labor of love!). Fort Wayne, where I live, has a thriving poetry community, and when I was laureate I had the opportunity to experience other literary communities as well—large and small—from city events in Indianapolis, to a wonderful, intimate group of local writers in Wabash, to everything in-between. What I witnessed firsthand everywhere I traveled is that perhaps less visible than in some other states, Indiana loves poetry and the arts and is hungry for even more. (Last spring, in fact, the PBS NewsHour even showed a special segment on the artistic murals in Fort Wayne!)
Let me close by saying that Indiana remains a major theme in my writing. In fact, I have another book of poetry just out from Wolfson Press (Indiana University South Bend) about growing up in the Indiana woods and my love of hound dogs: What My Hound Dog Is Scenting Through the Sloughgrass Is a Way of Scenting Me. My wife and I have nurtured beagles in our home for nearly thirty years (first Barney, then Bootsie, and now Blaisie), and I’ve always been enthralled by beagles, bluetick hounds, redbone hounds, Treeing Walker hounds, and others. Just one of the many things I love about hounds is their get-up-and go enthusiasm for adventure and their equally relaxed “couch-potato” selves who love to lay in front of the fire, dreamily. I’m excited about this book because writing it gave me an opportunity to revisit two of my greatest loves: hound dogs and the Indiana woods!
Thanks for your engaging questions, Natalie, and for all you have done and continue to do for poetry throughout our state.