The Colorado Poet, #19, Summer 2012

Interview: Tony Moffeit
Born to be Blue (Lummox Press, 2011)

Bob King: First, what can we say about Outlaw Poetry? There was an anthology called The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry in the late ‘90s but Todd Moore, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, writes that you and he started it in 2004. And I found more information at http://tonymoffeit.outlaw But what’s your take on the idea now in 2012? Is it a matter of style or attitude or subject matter of all of this?

Tony MoffeitTony Moffeit: 2010 and 2011 were significant years in terms of outlaw poetry because of the deaths of Todd Moore, who lived in Albuquerque, in 2010 and of Kell Robertson, who lived outside of Santa Fe, in 2011, two important figures in outlaw poetry, and the effect of the memorials, publications, and events honoring these two poets. Following the death of Todd Moore, a significant anthology was published in 2011, Working the Wreckage of the American Poem: Todd Moore Remembered, which yielded much material describing the outlaw movement in poetry. The volume was edited by RD Armstrong and published by Lummox Press, San Pedro, California. Also, in 2011, some of the poets in the anthology, Michael Adams, RD Armstrong, Captain Barefoot (Art Goodtimes), John Macker, and I participated in the Outlaw Poets Summit, a poetry tour with performances in Boulder, Denver, Pueblo, and Las Vegas, New Mexico.

There were additional memorials for Todd Moore, and also for Kell Robertson. These included poetry reading memorials for Todd Moore in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in 2010. Then, there were poetry reading memorials for Kell Robertson in Madrid, New Mexico and Albuquerque in 2011. There were multiple features in several issues of The Malpais Review, published in Placitas, New Mexico, honoring Todd Moore and Kell Robertson. In addition, a collection of Todd Moore’s autobiographical prose, Gangsters, Harlots & Thieves: Down and Out at the Hotel Clifton, edited by Theron Moore, was published in 2011 by Road/house – Saint Vitus Press in Albuquerque. Also, there are multiple essays and poems for Todd Moore and Kell Robertson on the website from France. 

Another recent publication in terms of outlaw poetry was Born To Be Blue, a book of my poetry published in 2011, by Lummox Press, which was a finalist for the Colorado Humanities and Center for the Book’s 2012 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. I appreciate your referring to this work and some of the poems in this work in some of your subsequent questions. 

By 2004, we [Todd Moore and I] felt we had enough outlaw poetry, essays, manifestos, email discussions and publications to create the outlaw poetry movement.

If the roots of outlaw poetry were in the publication of a little chapbook of mine, Outlaw Blues, by Todd Moore through his road/house press in 1983, and if the outlaw essay was introduced in my book of poems and essays, Poetry Is Dangerous, the Poet Is an Outlaw,
published by Floating Island Publications in 1995, Todd and I really cranked up our discussions of the outlaw and outlaw poetry in the year 2000, through an email correspondence that increased in intensity with each year, so that by 2004, we felt we had enough outlaw poetry, essays, manifestos, email discussions, and publications to create the outlaw poetry movement.
As a kid, growing up in Claremore, Oklahoma, I had listened to late night blues radio stations from the south, from Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. These bluesmen were my mentors, my shamans. My life was listening to the blues. During the day, I would work in my dad’s salvage yard, and sneak off and pound out rhythms on the dashboards of the busted up jalopies and write my blues songs and blues poems. People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would reply, “a blues poet.” They would say, “I’ve never heard of that.” And I would answer, “That’s because I’m going to be the first one.” That’s all I ever really wanted to do: to transfer the symbols, rhythms, and language of the blues into poetry. So after some years of writing my blues poems, I thought I’d better find out if there was anyone else who was a blues poet, maybe I wasn’t the only one. I searched and searched. I only found one other person who claimed to be writing the blues. His name was Jack Micheline.

I only found one other person who claimed to be writing the blues. His name was Jack Micheline.

I heard he was going to be at the Kerouac Conference in 1982, so, living in Pueblo, Colorado, I traveled to Boulder for the Kerouac Conference and saw his classic reading, for which he won an award. I was stunned. Because for the first time, there was what I was looking for: the blues plus something else. There was something greater than the bluesman. I got to know Jack Micheline and he gave a poetry reading at my house in Pueblo in 1984. At the same time, I was getting to know two other poets, Todd Moore and Kell Robertson. And, for the first time, I saw something more intense than the bluesman, and that was the outlaw poet, because Jack Micheline, Kell Robertson, and Todd Moore were about a whole other thing: being a law unto yourself, and transferring the intensity of that relentless individuality, that obsessive independence, into language, into poetry. And if I was obsessed with the blues, I was even more obsessed with the outlaw, whatever that was, whoever that was. And the poetry of the outlaw. For Jack Micheline, the poetry had its roots in blues and jazz and was extremely lyrical. For Kell Robertson, the poetry had its roots in the American south and west and in country and western music, which Robertson performed. His poetry had a strong narrative element. For Todd Moore, the poetry had its roots in his growing up in Illinois and the gigantic figure of John Dillinger. His poetry had a strong emphasis on innovative style and language. For all three, the best of their poetry offered a whole new level of intensity, a whole new approach to language, a whole new overflow of the lifestyle of the poet. Solitary voices out of the wilderness. Wild voices out of the forest. Rhythmic voices out of the jungle. You needed to get to know these outlaws, then you could get to know their poetry. They called themselves outlaws. It was more than poetry, it was a way of life. 

They called themselves outlaws. It was more than poetry, it was a way of life.

So, who is the outlaw and what is outlaw poetry? According to Jack Micheline, in an interview by Joel Scherzer and me, published in the April, 1985, issue of The Bloomsbury Review, “I’m like an a cappella singer, a man with a lone, solitary voice. I feel like I never fit any category. I consider myself a spirit. I’m a high light. I’m trying to bring light to the world. I want to sell a lightmare. I really want to sell light. I want to put it in a package, but I don’t know what kind of package to put it in.” So, outlaw poetry begins with the outlaw poet. A separate, sometimes marginal individual, whose independent way of life transfers over into an electricity of language and the other side of the coin, a ghost language, as Micheline says, “I consider myself a spirit.” When I saw Micheline at the Kerouac Conference, I immediately recognized the outlaw as visceral, electrical, and also, pure spirit. I could tell he was selling light.

Through the memorials for the deaths of Todd Moore and Kell Robertson, the richness and power of their writings and their personas have shone through. The essence of outlaw is about forging a new consciousness. To experience the writings and personas of Todd Moore and Kell Robertson is to experience a relentless lifeforce, a shuddering intensity.

Todd Moore died at the peak of his creativity. He was writing at an amazing pace, usually daily coming up with either a new poem in his Dillinger series (in which he was creating a new and slender line in poetry), a new essay on the outlaw and outlaw poetry, or the short, compact poems which have been called “poetry noir” or “killer Zen.” Kell Robertson was working on a new collection of poems shortly before he died, a collection called “Slow Dancing On the Edge of Oblivion.” These two writers turned the world upside down, came at language and life from a different angle, and a large part of their legacy is called “outlaw.”

BK: You use a lot of parallelism in some poems. In ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” the phrase “I want…” begins a lot of the lines. Or in “I Don’t Want to Tell You” the title phrase is used initially as well. What are the advantages of parallel poetry to you, particularly in relation to spoken word?

Perhaps most important is using parallelism to build a kind of conjure power, being the medium in a kind of séance or spell, giving the poem a kind of incantation.

TM: The advantages of parallel poetry, particularly in relation to the spoken word, are the ease of reading the poem, the momentum that is carried in the poem, and the enhancement of  the spontaneity of the poem. Perhaps most important, however, is using parallelism to build a kind of a conjure power of being the medium in a kind of séance or spell, a poetic trance, giving the poem a kind of incantation. 

BK: Using parallelism and repetition as you do, and being a good and striking reader of your own work, I wonder how that interacts with your lineation of printed poems. One passage in “I Want to Sing a Hard Blues” really caught my attention in this regard. The poem begins with parallel lines (“i want to sing a hard blues / i want to sing an outlaw blues / i want to sing a blue light blues/” but as it picks up steam the line enjambments break up: “it’s a hard blues coming down it’s / a hard beat coming down it’s a / hard word coming down it’s a hard / feel coming down falling down / breathing down going down…” I thought the line-breaks were a way of telling the reader how to read it aloud. Is there a connection for you?

TM: Astonishingly, you selected a poem that yielded a whole new experience for me. The poetic process is fascinating. This poem, “I Want to Sing a Hard Blues,” was written as a kind of talking blues, but written for the page. The line-breaks are important as a way of telling the reader how to read it aloud, but in a much different way. The whole poem is important because as I was performing the poem, to blues guitar riffs, I spontaneously broke out in song for parts of the poem, and other parts of the poem I did not sing, I read as a poem. Like a jazzman discovering his first improvisation, I discovered a new method of using a poem that was written first for the page and then transferred to performance through alternately singing and reading the poem.  I cannot tell you how many years and how many performances occurred before I discovered this process. And like a jazz musician, every time I perform the poem, I sing different lines and talk different lines alternately, in keeping with the improvisational process. And coming to this process spontaneously made it even more important. It evolved out of years of performing songs and performing poems. Then, suddenly there was the enormous act of performing a poem that was partly sung, partly read. 

BK: You are probably a good poet to ask about the relationship between song/music and poetry, or the differences between them. Actual blues, for example, have a fairly strict formality in verse and chorus whereas your poems, in my opinion, have more connection to jazz and riffing. Coltrane, that is, rather than Robert Johnson. How do you think these two forms connect for you?

All my life I have been fascinated with the poem and the song, and the relationship between the two, both in performance and on the page.

TM: I agree with you that my poems have more connection to jazz and riffing, closer to Coltrane than Robert Johnson. The latest evolution of my poetry performance, alternately singing and reading the poem, is closer to jazz than to blues. All my life I have been fascinated with the poem and the song, and the relationship between the two, both in performance and on the page. My first impression, or should I say wish, is that there should be song lyrics that work as poems on the page. In fact, there are many anthologies which include song lyrics as examples of poems. I would say that largely these examples of song lyrics as poems are unsuccessful. What currently fascinates me most are those poems that can be partly sung and partly read. Even in other people’s poems. For instance, at one of Kell Robertson’s memorial readings, I partly sang and partly read one of his poems. And these poems can work successfully on the page. In fact, usually, they are written for the page, rather than to be performed. They are only later performance pieces, alternately sung and read, after they are poems.

The four outlaw poets I have talked about, Jack Micheline, Todd Moore, Kell Robertson, and me use music and performance as an important part of being a poet. Jack Micheline wrote songs as well as poems and often used a jazz sax musician to back him. Todd Moore made many recordings backed by an assortment of jazz groups. Kell Robertson wrote hundreds of country and western songs and sang his original songs as  well as read his poetry in performance. I sing both original blues songs and country and western songs in performance, backed by guitarist Rick Terlep. I also read my original poetry to Terlep’s guitar backing. Jack Micheline, Kell Robertson, and I often have original song lyrics in our books of poetry. However, our most important poetry has echoes of our songs, but are not actually songs. You are exactly right in that my blues poetry is closer to jazz poetry because of the improvisational nature of the work.

BK: A lot of the poems in this book carry the vivid details of your part of the Colorado landscape—the desert, bars, train whistles, Mexican food, Pueblo, San Luis. Is this simply because you live here and write poetry, or do you find something in this landscape that resonates with you or your aesthetic project?

TM: The Southwest is a huge metaphor, a huge archetype. It is no accident that three of the outlaw poets I have discussed are associated with the Southwest. Todd Moore and Kell Robertson lived in New Mexico. I live in Colorado. How could I live anyplace else? I need that wide sky. I need the freedom of the wide open space. I need those mountains in the distance. I need the feeling of being on the frontier of something.

I once met Arlo Guthrie and asked him to describe his father. He said he could sum up his father in one statement: “He’d rather write than eat.”

I would like to mention a folk singer, songwriter, and fiction writer who influenced me a lot, a great Southwest spirit, and that is Woody Guthrie. I once met Arlo Guthrie and asked him to describe his father. He said he could sum up his father in one statement, “He’d rather write than eat.” That pretty much sums up the outlaw. What is it about the Southwest? All the great bars, saloons, and cantinas, where the great characters hang out. Those lone outlaws who live in shacks are important. Those highways and back roads full of mystery, full of conjure are important. Those voodoo snake women dancing by themselves are important. Brushing shoulders with the hard drinking, hard living, hard singing is important. The figure of Billy the Kid is important. The gunfighter as a metaphor for the outlaw poet is important. The gunfighter, like the outlaw poet, as a law unto himself. Mexican food, margaritas, and Marguerita are important. The wildness of the Southwest is important. The vast and endless sky is important. The vast and endless landscape is important. Prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and trickster Coyote are important. And weaving through it all a mysticism, the dance of the ghosts of the dead, the dance of the ghosts of the living, a mysticism found in the physical, the spirit of the desert, the prairie, the mountain.

BK: You’ve published 20 or more books since your bibliography started in 1985. What’s the secret? How do you do it?

TM: Two secrets. The first is to always have multiple manuscripts on which you are working. I am always working and reworking four or five manuscripts at one time. So, if an editor is interested, I have at least one manuscript suitable for that editor. The second secret is working regularly with a musician who backs your poems with music. Reading your poems to music helps hone the poems, ignites ideas, and tightens the rhythms of your poems. It also increases production, because it forces you to write poems that can be read to the music. If you cannot find a musician, then it is important to simply read your poems into a tape recorder and listen to yourself. The poet’s voice is crucial to the poetic process and reading your poems aloud allows you to come to the poem in different ways.

I hear about writers looking over each other’s poems and manuscripts. For years and years I was vehemently opposed to this, feeling that the outlaw poet’s independence and individuality should not be compromised. Then, all of a sudden, in 2000, I began a ten year email correspondence with Todd Moore, in which we looked over each other’s poetry and essays, talked over ideas about poetry and poets, and discussed the world in general. I still cannot believe that I found a kindred spirit in which the electricity of the communication evolved into a daily occurrence. His enormous energy was contagious and would inspire ideas for poems and manuscripts.