Interviews by Carla Martin
Photographs by Ezekiel Espanola
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Interview with Chris Nielsen
Chris Nielsen was the featured poet at Dagny’s Open Mic Night in January. Here are four poems from the selection of thirteen he read:
The trees, the trees, the trees.
Sun hot above the canopy
cool breeze, shade green below.
Flakes of sun filtering through
briefly flickering like fireflies —
lighting, darting, disappearing.
Insects buzzing, mingling in.
Birds add their songs
to the peaceful symphony.
Lying in the forest grass,
poetry in motion all around.
Breathe it in fully,
holding on, holding on.
Troubles slowly escape,
feeling each one blow away.
Does the wind ever get so full
it cannot carry any more?
No wonder it sometimes howls.
Water from the stream is calling,
moving effortlessly on its course
over sand, rocks and logs.
Making a path in its own way,
through over and around.
Falling, gathering, flowing,
giving life as it passes.
Carrying away as it departs to
river, lake, sea, skies, clouds, rain.
Drinking from the stream,
living is refreshed.
The green meadow flourishes,
graceful flowers grow.
Sunlight journeys to earth
giving vital energy to all.
Bees and birds carry on,
the spirit here is strong.
The trees, the trees, the trees!
Sometimes a quiet notion…
Your hand on my shoulder,
my arms around you,
gazing into each other’s eyes.
You whisper into my ear
just what I want to hear.
How many times
must this dream play on?
Hope it never ends,
wishing it had never begun.
Three went on a trip;
a man, his wife
and a friend
over the hills
so the friend could fly.
Stopped for a drink
along the way
In the parking lot
the man, his wife and friend
parked their vehicle.
Two “friendly” guys
were driving by in the parking lot.
They had a 1964 Ford Galaxie —
faded powder blue patina,
on their rear window,
a rebel flag decal.
They must have noticed
the wife was black,
the husband and friend
The two “friendly” guys
waved and laughed loudly,
said, “Have a really great night
The man, his wife and friend
had a drink and companionship,
got ready to resume their trip.
More laughs and waves from the two guys.
Eerie feeling, insincerity?
Back on the road,
right rear wheel comes off.
Vehicle fishtails and careens,
finally comes to a rest.
let creativity burn
sketch draw paint the way to peace light
on the edge
from the abyss
nullify anger despair
poured out from the soul
before the world can see
show what you have
the very act
makes a better place
believe, create, thrive
Q. What poets have inspired you? What have you learned from them?
A. I have been inspired by many poets over the years. One of the main ones and first ones was Robert Frost. He is quite eloquent in his poetry, even in his short poems like “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which essentially taught me how to write poetry by what to leave out and how to put in just the bare essence needed to make the poem. Yet he has longer, more flowery poetry as well, which is also excellent, like “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A poet that I discovered at a younger age was Gary Snyder . He really spoke to me on his topics of nature and Zen. Also his writing style—he was more free form than a lot of poets from long ago. I learned a lot from him and feel he is also a poetry mentor.
There have been more poets like Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda and many others. E.E. Cummings is also quite amazing. His brevity and the way he twists words and phrases around makes you laugh. He delivers his message in a very entertaining and yet sparse way. Another poet I’ve read recently is Gerard Manley Hopkins. The way he uses speech that is quite alliterative and descriptive is inspiring. His theme of nature also resonates with me. Other poets that have inspired me are Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac.
Q. Your poem “Sometimes a quiet notion…” describes a lover dreaming of his dear departed one, ending with the poignant lines: “Hope it [the dream] never ends / Wishing it never begun.” How has the emotion of grief affected your journey as a poet?
A. Greatly, because after taking care of my wife for two years while she had terminal cancer, there was no time for anything except being her 24/7 caregiver. After she passed, I was grateful she was not suffering any longer, as well as extremely grief-stricken—even suffering some depression–from her loss. After 31 years of marriage and knowing her even longer than that, not having her in my life was devastating.
So, unbeknownst to me, I started writing poetry. I would wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts and I started writing them down to capture them. As I did that, I used various methods: writing on loose paper, notebooks, my phone, computer, and finally, one day I realized I was writing poetry! I was going back and finding poems that were more complete or going back and editing poems. I heard about a poetry manuscript prize and needed about 50 poems to have a complete manuscript to enter. I realized I had more than 50 poems. So I edited and compiled and entered my manuscript. I knew I had no chance of winning the Walt Whitman prize, but I had won because I now had a complete manuscript of over 50 poems! So, I didn’t know I was writing poetry until the words came and took on a life of their own. I’ve heard there is a book called “Poetry Saved My Life” and I feel like it certainly rescued my life, enhanced my life, and was an outlet for my grief.
Q. Your poem “The Trip” and “Imagine Being Rosa Parks” touch on the subjects of prejudice and social injustice toward African Americans. Yet you are a white male. What have you experienced that could add to our understanding of these sensitive issues?
A. Well, since I was married to a black woman for over 30 years, I experienced first-hand what people of color can go through in the form of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. I feel like, even without being a person of color and just being a white person, I got to peek into the world of what it is like to wake up everyday being a person of color– where you know some people discriminate without knowing anything about you. “The Trip” was a true story about how two men with a rebel sticker on the back of their car, sabotaged our car, unbeknownst to us, as we were driving down the freeway at 65 miles an hour and one of our wheels came off. It could have killed us. Only because my wife was black is why this happened, I’m sure.
At times over the years, I’ve thought about some of the pioneers about civil rights, like Rosa Parks, and wonder what it would be like to be in their shoes, knowing that they were putting themselves in a situation where they could get harmed or even lose their life. That took a lot of courage. To me, it is important that people do have empathy and put themselves in other peoples’ shoes. That was what I was trying to convey in that poem—what would it be like to be Rosa Parks, sitting in that seat. I think it is a good thing to think about. Poetry can convey that message.
Q. Your poem, “From Darkness,” is like a clarion call for people to create. What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
A. Write! Think, write, and especially when you have thoughts, don’t discount yourself and say, “Oh, that’s not good.” Just write it down anyway. It’s not harming anyone. You want to save that thought and come back to it later and say “Oh, that WAS important!” One lesson I learned the hard way was when I was waking up in the middle of the night, and still sometimes do, and think “Oh, I’ll write this whole thing down tomorrow, and you wake up in the morning and you go, “I can’t remember what that was!” So I taught myself to always have a paper and pencil, or my phone—something to capture my thoughts when they happened. When the inspiration happens, you have to get ahold of it then and receive that gift, and then once you have that gift in hand, you can develop it even more later. But you have to be in tune to receive these gifts of inspiration, because that’s what they are—a gift.
I think reading is extremely important. Like the old expression goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Well, good literature, good reading material in, and maybe that will inspire us and help us develop. It helps to see how a gifted writer or poet has dealt with a subject—giving us thoughts that never occurred to us before. To constantly read and take in ideas and be inspired by all kinds of writing is important. Sometimes I feel like I can’t read enough and I always want to read more!
Q. What would you say is the current climate for poetry in America?
A. Well, there are more poetry events and poetry readings. I think there is more of a climate for young people to be involved in poetry. When you go to our local poetry readings, there is a great mix of younger and older people and in-between, male and female. You get a wide range of diverse culture from each person who is participating in these readings. In our world wide web, we are constantly being exposed to new poets from around the world. It’s really a wonderful age we live in. It seems that poetry is growing, not diminishing at all. It’s becoming more important in all of our lives, especially to those who read and write poetry.
Interview with Lucy Fitzgerald
Here is the poem Lucy shared at Dagny’s Open Mic Poetry Night in January 2019:
Where you are
is some dilapidated
factory in Michigan
A smell of rusted steel
and excreta stains the
stale dead air
Perpetual machine whining
drowns out their screams
Each cubicle the same:
Shackled in their all-fours position,
milk drains out of their mammaries,
their skulls transfixed,
their naked flesh on sale
for cretins to explode semen into them
and keep lactation flowing
Each cream pie in tandem
with an estrogen shot
Their torpid skeletons
in a forever state
Sometimes a pump malfunctions
and crush an appendage or two
A young boy gets called
to mop up the mess
A nightmarish kind of summer job
Laborers drive bloodied cargo
to fill grocery stores,
Even with a taste of carrion
in each mouthful
Even with a
growing stack of cadavers
with shriveled milk ducts
decaying in queue for the butchers…
Still, why waste good meat.
Q. What inspired you to write this poem? What is your back story?
A. I got the inspiration for “Factory House” from a conversion amongst fellow hedonists. They were discussing the pleasurable aspects of human breast milk and how it’s a commodity. To which I imaged a dystopian future where the only source of milk is from humans and compared it to the capitalistic horror we see today.
My ‘back story’ is a difficult question to answer. I imagine it’s typical for me to say that I come from a ‘dark’ background. When I’m not fighting the urge to use or self-harm, I’m in a row with my own head trying to overthrow its melancholic tyranny.
Seldom do I have a chance to channel these energies into my writings and scribe in the darkness.
Q. Do you like to read poetry? What poets do you enjoy and why do they inspire you?
A. I’m very selective when it comes to poetry. Naturally, I surround myself with poetry that I know will give me inspiration or affect me in some way.
I absolutely adore Baudelaire. There’s this amazing thing that happens when I read Fleurs du Mal; his poetry simply sends me aloft and cures my myopia.
Q. What advice would you give to other folks in Bakersfield who might like to write poetry?
A. My advice would be to never give in to the voice that says, “Give up” and “You aren’t good enough” etc. It’s easier said then done, but if you keep with it, the pay off is stronger than any doubt you’ll have. Bakersfield has focused ears. Its artistic culture will truly hear your voice.
Interview with David Tetz
Here are the lyrics to the song David shared at Dagny’s Open Mic Night in January 2019:
Through Sadness and Love
Lay down your head loves and worry about not a thing
For I will be here, I’ll be watching you
You can dream if you’d like or you can just close your eyes and let sleepiness slowly fall into you
But don’t be afraid of the night for darkness it helps us appreciate light and in the morning you’ll wake, feel that sun on your face
Feel and sing, sing it out sing
Cause you make my heart sing, it sings for you sings
Cause I’m filled with love, love, love
Sadness and love
And you’re filled with light, light, light
Darkness and light
So give me all your kisses, kisses, oh my little Misses I need all your kisses, I always will
Walk with your head held high, let nobody put you down
You are lovely, you’re brave, and you shine so bright
And though trouble will find you, love, just hold your ground
You are stronger than what they can throw at you
But don’t be afraid to feel sad for tears help us fight through the times that are bad
Yes even tears have their place, feel them run down your
Feel and sing, sing it out sing
Cause you make my heart sing, it sings for you sings
Cause we’re filled with love, love, love
Sadness and love
And we’re filled with light, light, light
Darkness and light
So have all my kisses and hugs, have my voice and all of my love
You always will
Here is a link to the YouTube video for this song and the album link-
Q. What inspired you to write this song? What’s your backstory?
A. This is a sad story but don’t be afraid of sad stories, they add depth to our happiness.
I wrote this song for my daughters after tucking them in for the first time with their mother truly well and gone out of the house. She was a victim of the opioid epidemic and had initially tried rehab but it didn’t work out and when she checked out of it she checked out on all of us and never came home. That first night of tucking them in and realizing she wasn’t coming back I felt such a need to leave some kind of advice behind for them regarding how to navigate through the world with a gaping hole in their hearts where their mother used to be. I was in a really fragile state myself and I didn’t at all trust myself to make good decisions and so I wanted to be sure to leave them a survival guide in the best way I knew how, through a song. I designed the music to imitate the graduation ceremony song as we all were shifted that day and forced to grow up in ways none of us were really ready for. I needed them to understand that we were going to be very sad, and that’s okay, and we’re going to be very angry, and that’s okay, and that we really needed to focus on expressing these things outside of ourselves so that we didn’t poison ourselves with unexpressed emotions. I also wanted them to understand that they were loved unconditionally and that they had the strength within them to not only survive this but also be strong and capable women out there in the world. The trouble and the darkness will come for us sometimes, that’s the nature of being alive, and so you gather up the love and the light and you anchor yourself within it so that when the sadness comes you let it flow through you instead of drowning in it. Easier said than done, I can attest to that, but it was important for me to pass that on to them. This loss they experienced so young will revisit them again and again for the rest of their lives and I wanted my own love and support to also be there for them always in the form of this song.
Q. Do you think songwriters are poets? What songwriters/poets do you enjoy and why do they inspire you?
A. While I do think lyrics and poetry are related to me they are two very different things. It is almost like a novel versus a graphic novel in the sense that you are expanding your tool kit to add spacing, shading, light and shadow, lines, space and negative space. The lyrics are simply a single part of a much larger whole. Although lyrics are the strongest aspect of my songwriting I have access to all these additional tools to help convey various meanings. I can write a terribly dark and sad verse but sing it using a really light and pretty melody and that will add an additional layer of context that wouldn’t be there without the melody. I could also speed up the rhythm and add layers of anxiety or anger. I could use the exact same line and the first time whisper it nearly tearfully and the next time shout it in a rage and those exact same words will come across and hit you in the chest with almost opposite meanings! So I look at them very differently. I have tried poetry and I’ve found that I’m not able to express myself properly within that format. Personally I need to be able to perform the words and add cadence and tone and emotion. The poetry I enjoy the most hits you from the page without it needing to be expressed in front of you whereas to me the best lyrics are embedded into the rest of the song and are more powerful within it than outside of it.
The songwriters that I am feeling the most right now are Kendrick Lamar, Stephin Merritt, John Darnielle, Sufjan Stevens, J Cole, Ani DiFranco. There are hundreds more. We have a lot of great songwriters out there in various genres who we should be soaking in and appreciating.
Q. What advice would you give to other folks in Bakersfield who might like to write songs and poetry?
A. Realize that fear is worthless. Realize that laziness destroys your ability to accomplish your goals. Most of the people I’ve talked to really WANT to create but have bought into this form of paralysis that is largely imaginary. You don’t need talent and you don’t need time. You need commitment and work ethic. No matter how bad you are or how busy you are you can take 10 minutes a day every day to sit down and work on your craft. It doesn’t need to be an overwhelming time commitment, it just needs to be consistent. If you committed to 10 minutes every other day within a few months you’d realize that you are making movement and getting better.
The other important thing to remember is to let your first draft be bad, just get it out of you first, You can work on it later!
Occasionally inspiration can hit you and you can get a lot out at once but that isn’t really where the craft of songwriting puts its work in, that’s all in the editing. The editing is where you really get to lock in and stretch your legs and see what you are capable of…but you can’t edit without a first draft to work on.
Get it out! Spill out whatever it is onto the page and don’t try to perfect it as it flows out of you just get it all out! And once it is all out there, then you can really get to work.