Interview with Sid Gold

Poems that Tell Stories, Places that Linger, Images that Last: A Conversation with Sid Gold

by Ramola D

Sid Gold -1A native New Yorker, Sid Gold is a two-time recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Poetry, and a first prize winner in the California Poetry Society contest. Poems of his have appeared recently in Poet Lore, Loch Raven Review, the Southern Poetry Review, the Cimarron  Review, Tar River Poetry, Free State Review. His third book, Good With Oranges, is forthcoming from the Broadkill River Press. He is the author of two earlier poetry collections Working Vocabulary and The Year of the Dog Throwers. He teaches creative writing at The George Washington University and lives in Hyattsville, MD.

Ramola D: First, congratulations! on the release of your new book, Good with Oranges, and also on your receipt of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in 2014–in the book, you note the names of poems submitted pursuant to this award–had you had a book in mind then at the time of that award?

Sid Gold: In short, Yes! In fact, the submission deadline was July 2013 although the award was not announced until April 2014. The check arrived in May. I had been pointing toward a book for several years and when I began doing the “new style” prose poems, I felt I had the kind of material that would enable the new book to be significant in a manner different from the earlier books. I received acceptances for the new prose poems as soon as I began sending them out. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have sent more of them out!

Rd: That’s so interesting. I would like to talk about both your books, so I hope we can get back to Good with Oranges in a bit. Year of the Dog ThrowersYour other book, your second, The Year of the Dog Throwers, was released in 2010. What an intriguing title–and the eponymous poem, although in the middle of the book, offers hints of the conversational, character-filled, wryly humorous, sometimes surrealistic, sometimes elegiac tone of the book–weaving its way as it does from rumors of dog-throwing from an old hotel in Manhattan to insights into the life of the street and the dazzling, remembered figure of Pat (who was born a guy)–does narrative poetry come naturally to you? Not to mention riffing off of the characters in that way, with humor at base? Or is conversation a kind of frame you like to use?

SG: For a number of years I was probably considered a narrative poet more than anything else, a poet who drew primarily on his experiences living in cities. Working Vocabulary, my first book, reflects those aspects of my life & work more than the next two, certainly. Perhaps I was “streetwise”, perhaps not.

My feeling is that anyone who appreciates urban environments in these United States probably has a wry/ironic sense of humor–as a survival mechanism, if nothing else. And yes, there’s a part of me that does enjoy storytelling & listening–the pleasure of the “yarn”.

Growing up in working-class NY is a mother lode I hope is not tapped out, & a blessing for which I will always be grateful. That said, there has always been a lyrical side to my work.

Rd: One of the first things that strikes me reading your so-richly detailed work is that constellation of real people/characters who rise from your poems, whether it’s Tough D or Eddie or your aunt Louise, as sharply etched as in good fiction, and bearing their own stories and burdens, some of which your poems bring to us. Have you ever considered writing fiction? Exploring these stories and people and voices in poetry instead–what do you think poetry offers, that maybe fiction wouldn’t, or couldn’t?

SG: Ok, I should say from the outset that Aunt Louis is a completely fictitious character–although a number of readers find that hard to believe. There are a few “actual biographical details” in “Einstein’s Child”, but not many & nothing of great significance. That poem is something of a very compressed short story.

In regard to my writing fiction, I have a had a story project in mind for a number of years, a tale based on a true story related to me by a good friend who was very much a Baltimore character. He’s passed away now. Nevertheless, real people in disguise do appear in some of my narrative poems.

Working VocabularyRd:There’s also a real picture of place that rises, from that use of detail and gesture and memory–we can see those neighborhoods in the Bronx, from poems such as “Christmas: The Bronx,” and we can see the people who make up that place–as also from the poems of travel based in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the poems that cover bars, and locales in Maryland–how is place important to your writing? And again, that gravitation toward people-pictures, how do you see place as connected with people?

SG: My belief is that “Place,” an awareness and direct experience of a specific place, can very often be a determinant in individuals & of course artists of all stripes (that place, that time, those people). One’s “home ground” serves as a storehouse of material for so many of us, even if one does not get around much, i.e., Emily Dickinson.

Rd:What has place meant to you, in particular? Is it still important in your work now?

SG: Yes, I consider myself a “lifelong New Yorker” even though I have not resided there for many years. The New York of my youth will never leave me. In fact, when I visit, I feel at home again in about five minutes. “Place” probably does not appear as obviously important to my work in the prose poems, but it does creep in–all the places I’ve lived and also, of course, the road trips.

Rd: There’s a great weight of feeling in all the poems about family, your mother, your father, as well as about lost loves–I loved the poem “Twilight at St. Vincent’s” which you dedicated to your father, which reminded me–perhaps because of that elevated room–of Richard Wilbur’s poem on the death of his father. Who are some of the poets you might name as influences, in that quest to transmute feeling into language, indeed poetry?

SG: As a student, I read all the High Moderns, so we have, among others not as prominent, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Cummings, Yeats, Auden, Pound, etc.–all those folks–and their influence cannot be overestimated. I also read a lot of ’60s & ’70s stuff–the famous & the relatively unknown, but not as much ’50s stuff except for maybe the Beats.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a triumvirate of well-known Jewish poets during my own lifetime: Philip Levine, Harvey Shapiro, David Ignatow. I would not have minded being mistaken for any of those three gentleman, all gone now, unfortunately.

Rd: Yes, reading your work, I do feel a sense of echo of Philip Levine’s work especially. I too mourn his passing, this year, wasn’t it–and recently Mark Strand too–so many of our great poets, leaving us.

SG: In general, I feel a younger writer needs to absorb the influences of older, established writers and also find a way to escape those influences. We all need inspiration, but no one wants to be a copycat. My greatest fear regarding the accomplishments of those poets who, having reached their 80s and 90s, is that they will be forgotten and their work neglected. Some of them probably appear old-fashioned to students just beginning to write these days, survey-course anthology work that doesn’t speak directly to what they’re trying to do. That would be a shame. One does not need to read them in an evaluative mode, but just to learn what they were up to as writers, how they handled certain writing “problems.”

Rd: And then again, one wants to believe great poetry will last forever. I wanted to make a mention too of your poem “The Hostler’s Tale,” about your grandfather’s life in Russia in the Czar’s army, experiencing the perils of Jewish life there and leaving to emigrate to America–such a fascinating story, and how did that come about, is most of it true, how did you piece that poem together?

SG: “The Hostler’s Tale” has some meaty “facts” that were passed down to me by my mother, grandmother, and uncle, but some of the “embellishments” are poetic license. Both my grandfathers had “interesting” adventures getting to the US. They could have gotten into a lot of trouble, to put it mildly, and they were both very lucky. My debt to them is incalculable.

Rd: Do you think you’ll write more about their lives–whether it’s imagined or real? It’s always fascinating to read about historic times through personal, familial eyes.

SG: Actually, I still have poems about them that have yet to be seen by the public, so “Yes.” Those memories are down way deep, so they may result in material at unexpected times.

Rd:There’s a real love of jazz and the makers of jazz and blues that runs through the book–Coltrane, Miles, Thelonious Monk come vividly alive–this may be a leading question, are you a musician too? Does music influence the writing in some way? Do the rhythms of jazz enter the shapings of form as you write?

SG: I am in no way a musician and do not see myself as having much musical talent, but I have learned a lot–in many areas–by being a devoted fan of jazz and getting to know personally a number of jazz musicians. Both jazz and poetry in our society operate on “the margins” of our culture. Popular culture barely acknowledges the existence of either discipline. I’ve been told some aspects of my work are “jazzy”. That’s fine with me.

Rd: Your poems read as free verse yet are exquisitely shaped and carry their own lyric form–do you experiment with different approaches to meter and form when you write?

SG: I have never worked in traditional forms, although I do admire poems that use a particular form to good advantage. Occasionally I return to the poets of the 18th and 17th centuries just to read “how it can be done when done well.”

That said, I believe that free verse when shaped effectively and written for the ear as well as the page can embody some of the effects of poems written in traditional forms. In that regard, I feel that too many poets today write primarily for the page and not the ear, although I am certain those folks would deny my assertion if confronted with it directly. I read my poems aloud to myself A LOT and I will change a poem’s appearance on the page if it reads in ways I have not intended.

In addition, I try to use all of the devices in the old trick bag–consonance, assonance, alliteration, enjambment, slant rhyme, internal rhyme, etc. I truly appreciate it when a reader/listener picks up on a device in one of my poems.

Rd: The movement between poems of childhood and travel and memory of people and places known as well as musical heroes creates a sense of going back and forth in the book–what were some of the ideas behind how you arranged the book or pulled it together?

SG: In general, I try to keep the reader moving from one poem to the next. A poem is read & the reader wants to read the next. Working Vocabulary, to some extent, was divided thematically into three sections, but that wasn’t hard and fast, as I do not write for “themes.” Dog Throwers went for a mix and balance in each section.

Rd: Coming back to your new book, Good with Oranges, prose poems seem to occupy center stage here, although interspersed with more of Good with Orangesyour earlier forms. What lies behind the use of this form, an interest in experimenting with the prose poem, particular writers who may have inspired you?

SG: I could talk more about this topic than space allows. For one, I wanted the “sound of surprise”, as has been said about good jazz. I wanted to do something different but not different for difference’s sake, and I wanted a little more freedom in my work. I wanted to do something that perhaps some audiences might have had trouble accepting as “poetry” and demonstrate that it is “poetry” if done well/effectively. Some folks think I’m successful. Others probably just keep quiet about it.

Rd: You also seem to be playing with language a lot more in these poems, in a more postmodern, meta-sensible kind of way–a sort of Ashberry’esque playfulness–is this a new direction?

SG: Language Poetry is a very big tent these days, so I do not want to generalize about it too much. I’ve always been open to what the New York Poets were doing, so I guess I was open to the work that eventually became known as the earliest Language Poetry. I also always liked playing with words and language from very early on-as a child, and liked the use of language for its own sake, not necessarily to communicate a coherent idea as its only goal. There’s a part of me that likes writing work that “defies exegesis” in the conventional sense, although, on the other hand, there is a part of me that enjoys an almost transparent accessibility. There is nothing inaccessible about the “Not Quite Love Poems”, for instance, although I’m not sure what critical language could be used to discuss them. All that said, some types of Language Poetry strike me as unnecessarily difficult and, perhaps, counter-productive.

Rd: These poems (the prose poems) feel capacious and multidimensional–there is often a bit of history or natural history interspersed with the stories and voices of people, sort of tessellated together with memory and experience, whether personal or collective–the whole comes across as a kind of pastiche in words, sometimes oblique, sometimes intense and moving, a way to explore difficult terrain, such as aspects of Jewish persecution in the Holocaust–do you feel the form accomplishes something a more linear narrative form can’t quite achieve?

SG: I’ve heard the term “collage” to describe some degree what I’m doing. As far as it goes, that’s not a bad description.

I consciously do want the mixture of large and small, recognizably significant and the not-as-significant (on a relative basis), the public fact and the private/personal fact, the actual and the fictitious, the potentials of language, the historic and the contemporary, the esoteric/arcane and the mundane/banal/pedestrian.

I hope there is something of a tapestry or panorama in each poem and that it succeeds in impacting the reader/audience in a manner that perhaps cannot be accounted for intellectually but still has a meaningful effect. I hope that mouthful of a last sentence makes some sense.

Rd: What a great way to think of a poem. Let’s talk about image, about creation. I love the beautiful shaping of language in your work, the aptly-chosen phrase–as in “the mossed light of the path” or “his features flickering on memory’s horizon like a grass fire”–how do you approach the creation of image in your work, what amount of revision do you subject your poems to?

SG: I try to advise younger poets to not be afraid to keep a poem “in the drawer” for a long, long time if necessary.

And I’m talking years here, long enough so that when it’s examined again, the writer is reading it afresh. That’s your chance to revise those hack-worn images that sufficed originally with something better now that you are a more experienced writer.

I will say that I revise the prose poems more than some  people might think. Otherwise, every poem and every image, etc. is different, with its own set of demands.

I like good, solid concrete images in general. At times in a poem, that’s all that needed, but at other times that technique may appear a bit prosaic. At such times, perhaps I seek out the surreal, for lack of a better term. Again, a writer has to learn to give it time and to keep returning to the same few lines until the image seems fresh and significant.

Rd: The most powerful poems to me often seem to be the personal lyric, with their variety of tones, from the lightly self-deprecating to the elegiac–the lovely Not Quite Love Poems or Swann’s Way–are there more of these in the works these days? Will you continue to write lyric poems?

SG: I already have done so. If I have time to allow my consciousness to open up, those poems have a better chance of surfacing.

Occasionally I delve in “that drawer” filled with folders. Fortunately I find myself still finding things worth working on again. Sometimes it turns out to be a single stanza worth keeping and developing into something else.

Rd: There seem to be poems in this book too that have a lighter, more delicate feel to them, the shorter haiku-like or James-Wright-like poems–and they create an interesting counterweight to the density of the prose poems. Is Chinese/Japanese poetry something you are also exploring?

SG: I love traditional Chinese and Japanese forms, but I’m not sure I will ever be able to do more than merely attempt to emulate that “atmosphere” of those poems. If I can do that well, it may be enough.

The best examples of those forms are beyond compare–the compression, the precision!

To write well with that degree of brevity one must have a great deal of confidence in oneself and in one’s audience. The authority of a lasting tradition certainly helps too. I’m not sure I can acquire that element merely because I desire it.

Rd: What kind of things are you currently working on? What may we expect in the near (or further) future?

SG: I am currently working happily away on the prose poems, most of which are now a bit shorter (a tad) than most of the prose poems in Good With Oranges.

And, as mentioned above, I still write “conventional poems”, two of which appeared in the current issue of Fledgling Rag, edited by Lee Hinton, a fine poet himself. I’ve learned that some venues are appropriate for the prose poems, some are not.


For More Information

Visit The Broadkill River Press, Sid Gold’s current publisher’s site and pick up copies of his book Good With Oranges

Visit Sid Gold’s web page at The Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

Read some of Sid Gold’s work online at The Innisfree Poetry Review.

Read Sid Gold’s poem “Wild Dog” at The Baltimore Review.


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