The Colorado Poet, #21, Winter 2012

Interview with Michael Adams

If You Can Still Dance With It (Turkey Buzzard Press, 2012)

Bob King: Your latest book is in three parts: “Stone Belly,” which you call an alter ego in your introduction; “Cold Mountain,” poems you call ‘interpretations’ of the Chinese poet Han Shan; and the last, “After the Ashes.” I’d like to take them in order, as they differ from each other in approach. So first, where did the name, or poems of, Stone Belly come from? Why the name of the persona?

Michael Adams: I began writing the Stone Belly poems back in the early 1990s.  I was looking for an alter ego to write under and I’m not very good at coming up with names and titles, and I think I was driving somewhere and listening to a mixtape (remember those cassettes you’d make up for long drives?) and Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), the great Louisiana blues and folk guitarist and singer of the 1930s and ‘40s came up.  I had been familiar with his music and the story of his life since my early 20s, of how Alan Lomax, the folklorist helped to get him freed from the Angola prison farm because of his music.  Since my alter ego lived and wrote mainly in the mountains, in rugged, rocky places, Stone Belly seemed like a natural.

 I found that writing through an alter ego in some ways freed my writing and I could write in ways I could not do using the first person.

I found that writing through an alter ego, in some ways freed my writing and I could write in ways I could not do using the first person.  I’m not a confessional poet, and I switch voices-- sometimes writing in first person, sometimes second, sometimes third person – often.  Sometimes I write in second or third person because what I’m writing about isn’t always my own personal experience.  I may hear a story and turn it into a poem.  My last book, Steel Valley,has several prose poems in the second person because the events recounted are things I observed but didn’t experience directly or stories recounted to me.  At other times the emotions in a poem are so raw and  personal that I need some objective distance from the emotions and writing in second or third person gives me that distance.

BK: In the short poem “Stone Belly’s Poetics,” where your title comes from, you start with “Stone Belly is not gentle / with his poems, does a jig / on the lines to see if they got rhythm,” and go on to say he/you “boogies with the beat” and twirls lines “to find where they bend / break.” After all that, “if you can still dance with it / you know a poem is good. This is certainly a way of describing your energetic free verse but how does it happen in practice? How do you use rhythm and line breaks in the process of composition? The poems in the first and second sections are basically short-lined, the ones in the third longer-lined—is this an indication of subject matter or approach?  Or is this breaking-and-dancing more a metaphor for the process?

MA: I’m a pretty obsessive editor.  Sometimes I’ll spend a great deal of time on a single word in a poem until I get it right.  The use of short lines and simple, concrete words – many single syllable words – in both the Stone Belly and Cold Mountain poems is quite deliberate.  I wanted to create the effect found in many of the Chinese poets where the language is as transparent as possible and the effect it creates is what matters.  When truly done well, the language is an immaculately clear window that let’s the image shine through. Han Shan, or Cold Mountain, was a master of that; I can’t touch him.  But the degree to which I was able to emulate that transparency is the degree to which the poems work.

When truly done well, the language is an immaculately clear window that lets the image shine through.

Now in Stone Belly’s Poetics,  I used rather deliberate end-line rhyme – “gentle/jig, rhythm/around” and internally “boogie/beat, bend/break” to create an effect of working with words as physical things, kind of like working with clay or stone.  In fact, I see words as very much real things with weight, shape, color , and texture. This view of words as real, concrete, physical comes down to us from Whitman, through Sandberg, Williams, and the Beats, and was quite prominent at Naropa, where I studied in the 80s. As I say in the poem, Stone Belly Comes to Himself, “I build with cracked and weathered rock”.  In fact, if I weren’t suffering from the physical debilitation of my cancer, I’d love to build a “poem wall” of cracked and broken rocks of native Colorado stone.

If I weren’t suffering from the physical debilitation of my cancer, I’d love to build a “poem wall” of cracked and broken rocks of native Colorado stone.

In the book’s final section, After the Ashes, the line length follows my breath.  My natural tendency is to speak in long lines, and  here I wanted the line length to reflect that.  Keying line length and breath is something I learned from studying the Beat poets, particularly Ginsberg, who had this great, long breath and used it to such effect.  But also Kerouac. Even though we think of him as primarily a novelist, reading him out loud, as in passages from On the Road, the lines just roll and roll like endless breakers rushing onto the land.  Charles Olson, too, and his concept of Projective Verse, with its emphasis on syllable and line and breath, were strong influences.  So rhythm comes from letting the natural breath shape the line.

And then there is music – mainly blues, r&b, traditional music from the southern Appalachian, and country with a few -- Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Billy Holiday --worthy of individual mention.

My book Steel Valley [Lummox Press, 2010] is composed mostly of long line poems and prose poems, with a couple of poems that are specifically performance pieces, in which I play very close attention to meter and beat, with the idea that they can be performed with musical accompaniment.  Jimmy’s Song is meant to be performed with a 4/4 bass or rhythm guitar backing it up, while Homestead Blues is meant to be backed by a post-war guitar riff, ala John Lee Hooker.  The poetry I write for, and perform with The Free Radical Railroad [James Taylor III, Phil Woods, Jim Sheckells, and me] also are more oriented towards performance than is If You Can Still Dance With It.   My poem Good Luck is a good example of one of my performance pieces.  If any of your readers cares to watch a video of it, they can see me perform it at Innisfree in Boulder

BK: These poems seem to have a Buddhist or Zen consciousness.
Take one of the numbered sections of “Stone Belly in the Mountains”:
Stone Belly gazes into the black lake-- // A full moon, dark spruce, mountain of white granite // He tosses a pebble, // Heaven and earth tremble.” How do you view this consciousness in light of writing, or experiencing, a poem?

MA: I practice Zen and belong to the Great Mountain Zen Center in Lafayette.  I try to sit zazen for 25 minutes every day, and I do it most days.  I have studied and sat – rather on again, off again until the last couple of years – since my early 20s.  The act of sitting in zazen is simply to be present with your breath.  When something – an emotion, a though, a craving, a desire to scratch or get up or run screaming from the room – comes up, you acknowledge it, honor it, and then let it go.   Sometimes you sit with it and let it be without letting it take over. 

There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about Zen; it’s really very down to earth. 

There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about Zen; it’s really very down to earth.  It’s about spaciousness, letting your mind be spacious enough, big enough, to contain whatever comes up without being overwhelmed by it.   As you practice more and more, it’s possible to experience an emotion fully, even a very strong one, without letting it take charge.  Of course for most of us this is the work of a lifetime (or many lifetimes).  This sense of spaciousness is what I’m trying to get at in the this poem, the idea that the mind is so spacious it can even contain heaven and earth.   

BK: That consciousness comes out full force in the second section, based on poems of Han Shan. When I first started reading these, I got out my copy of Red Pine’s translation, looking for a poem that began like yours but there are something 300 poems and I gave up. Can you explain how carefully, or carelessly, you followed one or another of Han Shan’s poems? What that process was? What’s the match between you in the hills of Appalachia and a poet, or poets, in 9th century China?

MA: I spent a long time immersing myself in the poetry of Han Shan in several translations: mostly Red Pine but also Gary Snyder [Rip Rap and Cold Mountain], and J.P. Seaton [ Cold Mountain Poems].  So most of the poems in the Cold Mountain section come out of a general sense of Han Shan’s poetry gained through those three wonderful translators.  But  there are a few that are rather closely  tied to a particular poem.  My Cold Mountain #7 is taken from Red Pine #43

Four decades on the road
carrying a flower that withered
long ago.
Mountains beyond mountains, wearied,
he turns back.
the place he once called home –
young lovers grown old and careworn.
Friends and family –
no one knows him.
And Red Pine’s translation

A white crane carries a bitter flower
a thousand miles without resting
he’s bound for the peaks of Penglai
with this for his provision
not yet there his feathers break off
far from the flock he sighs
returning to his old nest
his wife and children don’t know him

          Red Pine

You can see the similarity of themes but addressed in very different language.  My Cold Mountain is a mid 20th century recluse in the mountains of southern Appalachia.  In many ways the mountains of West Virginia, western Virginia, and North Carolina are similar in topography to the mountains of southern China where Han Shan lived, although they are further north and colder.  Both are isolated, but not extremely so.  In both cases one can travel through them without too much difficulty if the way is known.  I even concocted a biography for my Cold Mountain similar to the biography that Red Pine posits for Han Shan: an educated man who was a fairly minor government employee who got caught up on the wrong side of a political coup and had to flee his family and the capital to save his neck.

BK: Turning to “After the Ashes,” you give the origin of the poems as a response to your diagnosis of an “incurable cancer.” I imagined exactly what those poems would be like, expecting outpourings of traumatic emotion, and I was wrong.  You say you kept in mind Keats’ dictum of Negative Capability (“to remain in uncertainties, doubts, and mysteries without any irritable reaching out for facts and reasons"). Can you explain this a little further, this method of writing about what is surely a strongly personally emotional situation?

MA: A diagnosis of cancer, especially one that is incurable, thought treatable, and for which the median survival is 5 years, is, of course devastating.  Your world is turned upside down, and priorities and plans change dramatically.  It was over three months from my diagnosis to the time I began treatment, as they did more and more tests to determine the exact nature and genetics of my cancer.  That whole time I was experiencing no symptoms, which is quite unusual. (I was diagnosed because I went to Bonfils to give blood and was told my red blood cell counts were low, so I went to my primary care physician to began a series of blood test to determine the cause.)  Most people with  my type of cancer – multiple myeloma –are diagnosed because they are experiencing symptoms like bone pain or bones that break spontaneously, or extreme fatigue.

I strove to approach my emotions with some objectivity but without dulling the power of them. And I saw that my feelings were varied and sometimes quite contradictory.

That three months gave me an opportunity to decide how I would address my life in the face of the disease.  I said earlier that I am not a confessional poet, and I didn’t want to approach writing about my cancer as many people would expect, as you said “a great outpouring of traumatic emotion…”  At the same time, I wanted my poems to convey the enormity of such a diagnosis.  I strove to approach my emotions with some objectivity but without dulling the power of them.  And I saw that my feelings were varied and sometimes quite contradictory. There was a part of me that was terrified and filled with bitterness.  But there was also a part that viewed the disease and my prospects with equanimity, that was able to take it in and say “Let’s see how this plays out and if you can forge this into something positive.”  I came to call these two parts of me the Small Mind and the Big Mind.  My roshi said in a talk once that when we sit zazen the mind gradually becomes a larger and larger container.  We become more spacious and able to take in and examine very negative emotions without being overwhelmed by them.  Through the course of this cancer, and the rigors of treatment, the seven months of complete remission and now the return of the cancer, I have developed a capacity to look the bastard in the eye and not be overwhelmed or terrified by it.  There may come a time when I can no longer do this, but for now, I am still in charge of how I feel and respond to it. 

 The Small Mind is terrified of death. The Big Mind knows that life is infinitely larger than this one small life we have individually. 

The Small Mind is terrified of death.  It is the complete and absolute loss of control and the end of all we are.  The Big Mind knows that life is infinitely larger than this one small life we have individually.  I’m not talking about the survival of an individual personality.  The Big Mind doesn’t know what will happen at death, if there is any spark of the individual that remains, but that life and the world are so vast that it hardly matters. 

This, to me, is the meaning of Negative Capability, to say on the one hand that death ends it all, and on the other hand that it doesn’t matter, we are a part of life and life is so vast and mysterious we can never grasp more than a tiny portion of it.

In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath,  the preacher tells Tom Joad that each of us is just a tiny piece of one great soul.  And Whitman had this sense of something so vast that each of us is carried along on the great tide of life but few of us ever realize it.  We may experience this on rare occasions, sometimes brought on by nature or great love or great hardship, that the world is vast and beautiful beyond our comprehension, and that we are an integral part of that mystery and beauty.

In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Whitman addresses the reader far in the future:

It avails not – time or place – distance
     avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a
     generation or ever so many
     generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the
     river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living
     crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness
     of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d...

And in Song of Myself #52:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow
     from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under
     your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what
     I mean,
But I shall be good health to you
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Finally, I have striven, sometimes with great difficulty, to take a stoical stance toward my cancer.  I may have no control over the progress of the disease or the final outcome, but I do have control how I approach it.  I can choose to be the victim or I can choose to go down proud and fighting.  Almost every morning when I wake up now I give thanks for  another day being alive, for the sun and earth -- this marvelous home -- and for my wife, family, and friends.  And I make a vow to try to make the world a little better because of my presence, in whatever small way I can.

I make a vow to try to make the world a little better because of my presence, in whatever small way I can.

I have made C.P. Cavafy’s poem, The God Abandons  Antony  (which was the inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s song Alexandra Leaving), kind of the anthem for my struggle:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn
     them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that
     is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes
     like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with
as is right for you who proved worthy of
     this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the
to the exquisite music of that strange
and say goodbye to her, to the
     Alexandria you are losing.

BK: The last poem, “The Ones Who Get the World Ready,” starts out with you at a certain time of night, “just man who can’t sleep / and doesn’t want to bother his wife / with his restlessness” but it ends by focuses on those “Ones” of the title, the early morning trash-haulers, truck drivers, bakers who work “clutching at the anchors / that will secure us all for one more day to our common lives.” That’s quite a generous and expansive turn, it seems to me. What is it in poetry, or in writing poetry, that gives you a way to experience this whole?

MA: That poem is, in a way, a reprise of many of the poems in my last book, Steel Valley, which is both a celebration and an elegy for the place and way of life I grew up with.  I lived the first 31 years of my life in an aging suburb of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River, and  in my twenties in the City of Pittsburgh itself.  As a child I could walk two blocks to the top of the bluff along the Mon and look down on the greatest concentration of heavy industry – steelmaking – in the world.  During college and in the 3 year interval between college and graduate school, I worked in steel mills, as a window washer, as a sorter for UPS, along with other blue collar jobs. Of course that way of life and the steel industry are largely gone from the Pittsburgh area.  Many people, like me, fled the area in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the Steel Valley, even after 30 years, has never recovered.  As a young man with few if any useful skills, I made wages that young people can only dream of today.  As a child my neighbors were blue collar and ethnic.  I heard Slovak spoken almost as much as English.  So that blue collar, ethnic way of life is in my DNA.  I have great respect for “Trash haulers and policemen, paper carriers, nurses, truck drivers, bakers.”  When I wrote that poem I was writing by the light of an electric lamp, in a house heated by natural gas.  Few of us ever think of the people that bring us these things, except when something goes wrong, yet they really are the ones “clutching at the anchors/ that will secure us all for one more day to our common lives.” 

I find that poetry too often
either completely ignores or,
worse, disdains blue collar
work and working people.

I find that poetry too often either completely ignores or, worse, disdains blue collar work and working people.  Jared Smith, who I have the great fortune to count as a friend, is the best poet writing today who treats work and working people with the respect and seriousness they deserve.  And Philip Levine’s What Work Is is one of my favorite books of poetry.  I find myself going back to both of these poets time and again.  I have read my poetry to audiences at labor and union gatherings and find the attendees as involved and focused as any audience of poets, and with questions and comments that demonstrate levels of insight as acute as any regular poetry audience.  

I believe that this lack of attention to the lives of ordinary people is one of the main reasons that present-day poetry, especially academic, MFA centered poetry has gone off the tracks.  It’s mostly poets writing for other poets, rather than writing as bards or emissaries to the larger public.  I think this is the public function of poets – and the poet inescapably has a public role in society – to take the concerns, hopes, and fears of ordinary people, really listen to them, refine them – squeeze out everything but the essence – and give them back to the public as art. 

Kenneth Rexroth said in his essay Unacknowledged Legislators and “Art Pour Art”  that “Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations which can be made from immediate experience.  It organizes sensibility so that it is not wasted.” And it is in this organized sensibility to the real and immediate concerns of ordinary people that the power of poetry to change the world lies. 

It is in this organized sensibility to the real and immediate concerns of ordinary people that the power of poetry to change the world lies.


We have an obligation to write not only for each other, but for the world and with the belief that our words hold a power as great or greater than any weapon..  Czeslaw Milosz once asked, “what is the good of poetry if not to save people or nations?” Of course we must be very careful going down this road, as a great deal of dreadful poetry has been written in this cause, even by otherwise very good poets, yet it can be and has been done successfully.  I believe that poets who can get beyond rhetoric and the drive to push an agenda and can walk among the people, listening more than talking, should make a serious attempt.  What do you have to lose, but the opinion of other poets, which is in the big picture a small thing?  

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Too many contemporary poets start small and end smaller. They don’t bite off more than they can chew—they bite off so little they don’t need to chew.
(William Logan)