Interviews
Anirban Ray Choudhury

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INTERVIEWING JEFF WALT

You have been writing for a while now – So how did it all start? What prompted you to dabble in poetry?

Ironically, I started out writing fiction—not poetry—in high school.  I took a creative  class in college hoping to hone my comprehension of craft as it relates to fiction.  The teacher was a poet, so the focus was completely on poetry not fiction.  I was a bit miffed, but instead of dropping the class I decided to take it on as a challenge.  I never went back to fiction.

Elsewhere you have been quoted as saying "… a writing life demands solitude". Could you explain this solitude – how has it evolved over the years vis-à-vis your poetry?

Life often becomes work (a job, kids, a house, a lawn, dishes, etc.), so there is little time for play, which equals a lack of creativity in society.  I try to open my days in such a way that all experience is looked at from a slightly tilted angle.  For example, while standing in line at the post office I’ll recognize that I’m getting pissed off because of the long line.  Instead of just being pissed off and steaming about it, or letting it ruin my day, I think of how to transform and transcend that experience into a poem, look at it as a  collective experience, a way of finding the life beneath the situation.  Solitude for me has evolved from simply taking time to be alone to using it as a centering device:  I could be in a room of full of noise and still find the solitude beneath.

Your poems have often been described as "deeply personal" where imagery takes precedence. Have you consciously developed this style and stayed away from experimentation? How do you see yourself evolving as a poet in the days to come?

I do feel experimental, but probably not in the sense that you mean.  I think I’m still at a level with poetry where just playing with craft seems like experimentation.  I feel like there is so much to know about craft, the history of poetry, etc., that I get overwhelmed at times.  I wish I could say that I consciously developed my style, but it is evolutionary and still evolving.  I truly believe that the process of writing has more control over it than I do.  Regarding imagery: many of the books that have helped me along the way do stress imagery (“Best Words, Best Order” by Stephen Dobyns; “Nine Gates” by Jane Hirshfield; “The Discovery of Poetry” by Frances Mayes, to name a few).  I remember a quote by Degas who said he didn’t paint what he saw, but would enable them to see the thing he had.  I feel similarly about imagery in poetry.  Right now I’m simply trying to go deeper in the symbols, images, moments, scenes.

Also, I feel everyone’s poems are deeply personal.  The trick is:  are you just reporting the facts—which I’ve definitely done in early work—or are you connecting with humanity in a collective sense.  Are you transcending victimhood, the experience itself? Will the reader walk away knowing more than that you broke up with your boyfriend and that you’re pissed?  Does that experience connect to the larger world, the collective spirit of being alive?

Let us digress a little from apolitical art per se – what is the importance you would place on the social responsibility of art? Should art keep itself restricted to the gradual evolution that it might bring about in the society, or should the artist be willing to take some of the chip on his own shoulders to actively challenge the social equilibrium of stagnation? We see now, as we have done in the past, specie of artist-activists who are nothing loath to picking up the pen or the brush as an instrument to wield rebellion – how much are you in agreement with their modus operandi?

I’m not very political in terms of taking on dramatic or drastic stances around situations or ideas that others would happily “wield rebellion” upon.  I’d say I’m more of an existentialist and support the idea of the “gradual evolution” of art; however, that said, I think the artist who “actively challenges the social equilibrium of stagnation” is part of that natural, gradual evolution, too.  I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t necessarily see them as separate.  I think we need artists—people in general—who are doing different things in terms of art and activism.  If the two cross then I think that is an area of exploration.  Is it for me?  Not right now. 

While the Internet has definitely given a thrust to art, there has been a lot of compromise in quality through misuse of this newly found unlimited freedom of expression, as also through the dipping of the readers' concentration span. As an artist, how would you rate the curse/blessing of the Internet?

I love the internet and see it as a giant encyclopedia.  Like anything, people find ways to abuse it, but I personally haven’t experienced that a lot in terms of art.  I like being open to the changes in the world, including technology, so I suppose I view the internet as more of a blessing than a curse. 

And in passing, could you tell our readers as to which is the poem the writing of which has been the most satisfactory?

I learn a lot from each poem which is my primary source of satisfaction, so it is hard to exact the essence of that and boil it down to one poem.  However, in terms of the poems you have, probably “Looking for What is Lost” because it addresses a departure from writing about certain subjects like childhood—or at least childhood in a way that I had been.  At the time of writing that particular poem, I was also exhausted by the loss of subject matter.  I was reading about Rilke, and I felt kinda “lost” in terms of poetry, so I thought, Hey, why not write a poem about that experience.  However, in the end—and as in the poem—I was left still feeling frustrated and “not knowing where to look next.”  I eventually crawled out of that space and found ways to push forward into new realms.

© Anirban Ray Choudhury July 2005