Michael Catherwood is an Omaha poet who has worked as a truck driver, weed whacker, and garbage man, among other occupations. He currently teaches at Creighton University and is an associate editor at Plainsongs. His poems have appeared in Agni, Black Warrior Review, Borderlands, Burning Bush 2, The Common, Louisiana Literature, Midwest Quarterly, New Plains Review, Poetry South, Solstice, Sycamore Review, Red River Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, to name a few.
Mike’s latest book, If You Turned Around Quickly, is forthcoming this summer (2016) from Main Street Rag. http://mainstreetragbookstore.com/?product=if-you-turned-around-quickly and he has another book, Projector, due in 2017.
I have met Mike many times at readings and social gatherings, but this is the first time we have sat down together for an in-depth conversation. We meet for coffee at Crane’s near 120th & Pacific. He’s sturdy with short-cropped silver hair and beard and warm brown eyes behind wire-framed glasses. Mike is a good listener, so I end up with the feeling that I’ve done more of the talking than a good interviewer really should.
Eve: Thank you for being a part of my summer blog project, Mike. Tell me a little about your background. When did you start writing?
Mike: I was thirteen or fourteen. I wrote song lyrics in a singy-songy cadence that had someone dying or something gone terribly wrong. Plenty of emotion but little substance. The Doors were one of my favorite bands, and I was taken with their metaphors, even though I didn’t know a metaphor from a wrench.
Eve: What did your friends think about your early efforts?
Mike: (laughs) Well, I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, so writing poetry wasn’t something shared with others.
Eve: (laughs) I would think not. Was there anyone who encouraged you to write?
Mike: I had a great English teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, who thought I had something to say. In some respects, it’s amazing I ended up taking writing seriously.
Eve: That brings me to my next question. Your first book, Dare, has been dubbed “rough edged, working class poems.” How did you became a poet in the first place and how did your many work experiences inform your poetry?
Mike: I worked as a delivery driver for the county, driving a large truck, working in freezers, unloading boxcars. I worked hard. Then after getting in some unnamed trouble, I needed direction and started taking classes at UNO in creative writing.
Well, it took me 12 years to get my BFA from UNO. There I studied with Art Homer and Richard Duggin. I met some great students there: Erin Belieu, Susan Aizenberg, Dean Sifford, Jim Thorne, John Rice, Denise Brady, Alison Wilson. Rick Hauge, Steve Langan, and many others.
Eve: I don’t understand how we were in the Writers’ Workshop at the same time and know so many of the same people, but never really got to know each other.
Mike: (laughs) Well, I do seem to recall being at a party at your apartment one time, back in the day. I guess what I’m saying is we all encouraged each other and talked shop and drank cocktails and slapped each other on the back. My subject matter was greatly influenced by my working-class background and where I grew up. I felt those stories could be interesting.
Eve: They certainly are! Speaking of old times, I remember running into you years ago at the Dundee Theater at a showing of that movie about Charles Bukowski. It was called Barfly, and I think everyone in the audience was drinking beer. Were you influenced by Bukowski?
Mike: Maybe a little bit at first (laughs). Not so much, though, really.
Eve: Who are your biggest influences, then?
Mike: That’s a tough question. I’ll give you three faves: Weldon Kees. His imagery and subjects can haunt me for days. The alienation he communicates is stunning. No one has written poems like him. Not even close. His influence on me as a poet was visceral.
Second to Kees is Donald Justice, whom I got to briefly work with at Arkansas. Justice is controlled and beautiful and precise.
Third, Jack Gilbert, whom I also worked with at Arkansas. Gilbert was a working class Pittsburgh poet who reminded me of a hermit who was struck by poetry lightning. Both were absolute geniuses with technique and emotional honesty. And beautiful and gracious people.
Eve: What themes do you keep coming back to, or have they changed?
Mike: I don’t think much has changed for me as far as themes. Maybe the characters are a little different, but the same subjects move me to write:
Loss. Dust. Bars. Landscape. Paintings, Sculpture. People met or known. Work. Death. Sky. Cars. Silence. Landscape. Architecture. Travel. Childhood. Science. Family. Mischief. Remorse. Film. Rivers. Buildings. Chaos. Habit. Danger. Small victories. The masses. Cities. Towns. Loneliness. Photographs. About anything.
Eve: (laughs) I love it! Some people think poetry is all about lofty, intellectualized language, and that it can’t be any good unless it’s hard to understand. But I love that you write about real life. Would you call yourself a confessional poet?
Mike: Not really. But I avoid ambiguity as much as I can. One of my teachers, Miller Williams, said something to the effect that it’s easy to be vague; it’s difficult to be clear.
Eve: What about form? Poems in your upcoming book If You Turned Around Quickly have been praised by the likes of Greg Kuzma, Twyla Hansen, and William Trowbridge for being “disciplined” and “well-crafted” and “amazingly intricate.” How do you go about deciding what form a poem will take?
Mike: Well, they are all very kind. I do write some formal verse. I’m not exclusively a formalist, believe me, but I often find form helps my poems become something larger and fuller. Even when I write free verse, I am extremely aware of the line and stanza and its interdependent parts. A poem can be like a carburetor: many moving parts and duties that feed the energy to the poem’s subject. A kind of fine-tuning goes on.
But I have I to be careful not to squeeze the life out the poem. That can happen. Sometimes the form impedes where the poem wants to go, and I’ll leave the form at the altar. I feel successful if the reader doesn’t realize the form.
Eve: Do you have a regular writing routine or schedule that you follow?
Mike: Time. That can be tough. I have bursts of energy that help me along. I work fast and for a set time. It helps to be methodical. Most of the time I have Fridays off from teaching, so I tend to get up early, maybe 5:00 or 6:00, grade papers, then either work on a poem or send out poems.
When I was in school and working full time as a truck driver, there wasn’t a lot of time. I would discover images and explore cadences, making mental notes, and carry those in my back pocket, sometimes literally. It was good training. Because the same thing still needs to happen.
Eve: Some writers feel that teaching takes away from their writing energy. How does teaching figure into your creative life?
Mike: For me it isn’t teaching that drains the writing energy. It’s grading papers.
Eve: (interrupts) Amen to that!
Mike: As a teacher, I’m enthusiastic about writing, about finding a subject, about caring what goes into a work. And I mean it. So that makes it easier. Kind of like being a priest, right? Father O’Brien gives you the host, and he believes it’s the body of Christ. It’s not a burden to him; it’s what he feels he must do. I guess that’s how I live it. I really mean it.
Being an adjunct teacher is rather transient. But every year, a few students will say something kind to me, and I’ll understand that I’ve helped. That makes me happy.
Eve: What has been your biggest setback? Have you ever considered giving up your writing?
Mike: In grad school I had a number of bad breaks personally, girlfriends, deaths of very close people, excesses. I stumbled through those years a little broken. But I kept at it, maybe not as much as I should have, but enough to keep me in the game.
Then I met my wife Cindy, and many things changed. The clouds lifted, and I felt a direction I had been lacking. I might not have considered giving up writing, but you have to breathe to write, if you get what I mean.
Eve: I understand that you’ve been through a serious illness recently. Are you willing to talk about it, or how it’s affected your work?
Mike: Yes, I have finished chemotherapy, but I’m still undergoing other treatment. I want to write about it at some point, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. I am still processing it, and it’s hard to put into words. It’s very complex. I don’t want it to be about me.
There were people I’d see every time in the chemo room, and there was a sense of camaraderie. And then the next time, they’d be gone. But I don’t want to focus on death, either. I’m not reckless, but I accept that we’re all going to die. I want to celebrate the victories, the spirit that prevails even though we are forced to confront suffering.
Eve: What’s your advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
It is getting harder to place poems. Technology I think has helped flood the market, for better or worse, and there’s been a proliferation of MFA programs. Find writers whose work really means something to you, who make you consider the world around you, who sing to you. In your own work, look for beauty when it’s hard to find, when you’re at your lowest. Don’t be afraid to live fully and be alone.
But be around people who want the same thing you do. Encourage others and yourself. Work hard at words, at being honest with them, at allowing words to reveal new paths to you. And reward yourself when something good happens. That one was hard for me to learn.
Eve: What are you proudest of as a writer? What are you happiest about?
Mike: I write short essays for Plainsongs, and sometimes the poets I write about send me a short thank you note. Those notes make me very happy.
I’m proud that my poems are mostly understood and honest. I think my voice and subjects are approachable. Someone once told me they liked my poems because they mostly “take place outside” rather than in the prison of the mind.
I’m happy when I get poems published. I feel lucky that I will have had three books of poems published. I was in the Sahara for ten years after my first book, Dare. It’s dusty and lonely out there.
Eve: You may not have had a book published during that time, but it wasn’t a drought, either, if you were working at other jobs, yet still continuing to write and send poems out. I heard you say that you’ve done as many as sixty drafts of some works. That’s obviously not luck.
Mike: Well, I do feel fortunate. As a writer, I’m proud to be read and to be a part of a large mass of other writers who work in the silent crevasses of rooms and in cracks of dim light at dawn. Well, I’m mostly joking here. To call oneself a writer or poet feels a bit fussy, and I don’t come from fussy people, I guess.
Read more about Michael Catherwood at http://michaelcatherwood.net
The following poem is forthcoming in Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry.
Perhaps that moment just before a wreck,
realization of love, or collapse
from fever, an empty feeling trapped
in the chest. This is a poem about death,
about my father, brothers, and mother
whom passed. I feel guilt to go along
with the hollowness, an empty prolonged
penance. I count all my excess. Terror
in blind nights, fights, gun shots, jail, mischief.
But I enjoy sunshine. I run my bike
up to 120 miles per hour,
the blur of road a tapestry of wind, believe
in the curl and collapse of strong light.
Then I slow down, plant annual flowers,
trim my lawn, kiss my wife, watch the flickers
glide to the feeder, their splashes of red
faint and alive with grace. Daily the dead
come, sometimes they suddenly can appear.
We are behind them, wandering along
through the steady decay of our days,
seized in hours and weeks and displays
of indifference. I listen alone
to the ceiling above, and while night turns,
their sincere smiles hover, glow, and rise,
descend into my chest. I receive them all.
My guilt lifts and I spin like a dervish
under sheets. Through the window, morning light
shimmers and dims shadows on the still walls.