John Roche | Interview

Kenneth P. Gurney. What got you started into poetry? What age?

John Roche. My first poems were written around age 16 or 17. My main influences at that age were William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

KPG. What is your favorite breakfast?

JR. I love the huevos rancheros at Duran’s Pharmacy. Also the “Saganaki Breakfast” you get at Greek diners in Buffalo, NY.

KPG. How much influence does your university degree(s) has on your writing of poetry and how?

JR. I don’t know about the degrees per se, but I’ve had some wonderful teachers who definitely expanded my definition of poetry and gave me encouragement. Folks like Robert Creeley, Jack Clarke, Charles Boer, and George Butterick, who turned me onto the Black Mountain College and New American Poetry traditions, poets like William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders, etc.

KPG. Is there any other endeavor that you are passionate about outside of poetry? How does it enrich you?

JR. I enjoy hiking, gardening, photography, reading, cooking, etc., but I’m not passionate about anything to the extent I am passionate about poetry. And the great thing about being a poet is anything else you are involved with has a tendency to work itself into your poetry. Sometimes that can be detrimental, however. Since the election I’ve woken up too many times at 3 or 4 in the morning with a poem in the mind’s eye that demanded to be written down then and there!

KPG. Tell us about one of your favorite poetry experiences.

JR. I really enjoy reading/performing with musicians, as has happened on a number of occasions, including a book launch I did in 2011 for my poetic memoir Road Ghosts at a club called The Bug Jar in Rochester, NY. We had many friends reading and a number of groups perform blues, jazz, electronic, even Irish music. A similar event a couple years later was a poetry-and-music benefit for the medical expenses of the Beat poet David Meltzer. Sadly, we lost David at the end of 2016. Then there’s an annual event I co-emcee up in Rochester with deaf and hearing poets. It’s called the Def Meets Deaf Poetry Jam.

KPG. Do you have a connection to the American Civil War? Relative who served? Visited a battlefield and have a story?

JR. I’ve visited several battlefields, including Gettysburg and the Fredericksburg battlefield. At the latter, I was especially moved by Chatham Mansion, which had been used as a field hospital. Walt Whitman stopped there right after the battle, searching for his missing brother. That started his career as a nurse’s aide for much of the war.

I also had a great-grandfather (on my mother’s side) who fought in the Civil War. According to my grandmother, he was wounded and later became General Grant’s personal chef. That may, of course, be embellished!

KPG. If you could wave a magic wand and place a poetry book into every high school english classroom as required reading, which one would it be and why?

JR. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It contains multitudes. And it’s a pathway to most everything that’s happened since, including Beat and Slam poetries.

KPG. Where was your last selfie taken?  With anyone?

JR. With Jules Nyquist, I’m sure. Don’t take many selfies. Usually get someone to snap our picture, as at recent holiday parties.

KPG. Recommend a poetry (or literary) website that you frequent.

JR. Jim Cohn from Boulder has a rich multimedia site called The Museum of American Poetics and then there’s Michael Rothenberg’s amazing online magazine Big Bridge.

KPG. What is your favorite National Park? Why?

JR. Hard to choose when each is magnificent in its own way: Acadia N.P. in Maine, Rocky Mountain N.P. in Colorado, Olympic N.P. in Washington, Great Smoky Mountains N.P. in Tennessee. But if I had to choose one I suppose it would be The Grand Canyon. Leaves you speechless each time! I had the chance to camp overnight (illegally) at the bottom back in 1971, when hippies could still get away with that sort of thing. Skinnydipping under a waterfall, meditating on a rock above the Colorado River. I do recall it was a long, hot climb back up! There’s a poem in my book Road Ghosts.

KPG. Do you have a dream that you work toward achieving. If so, please tell us about it.

JR. I guess it’s the dream of a world that’s safe for poetry “and other living things.” A world that values art and music and other forms of creativity not as commodities, but as possibilities. A world that embraces community as more than a buzzword, as a sustainable and peaceful yet dynamic reality. A world that scorns big egos who put their names on buildings.

KPG. If there is a little known poet you think everyone should read, who is that poet and which book of theirs should we seek?

JR. Theodore Enslin. He was a Maine poet whose exquisite depictions of nature and Thoreauvian self-examinations were surprisingly experimental, informed in part by his studies in music composition with Nadia Boulanger. Then, and Now: Selected Poems 1943-1993 (National Poetry Foundation, 1999) is a good place to start.

KPG. If you could be present at any moment in history as a safe observer or unsafe participant, what event would you visit and why?

JR. Ah, I just watched Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Paleolithic cave paintings in Chauvet, France, so right now I’m thinking how wonderful to be able to observe what may have been the invention of art. Poet Clayton Eshleman’s book Juniper Fuse is another useful guide to that imaginative reality. I did explore Sandia Cave here last fall. Just a small-scale introduction to the Paleolithic, but it gave me chills! And, of course, we have the various trails of the Petroglyph National Monument.

KPG. What reoccurring themes have you noticed in your poetry over the years?  Is there a point of personal experience you revisit often?

JR. The connection between poetry and magic, as thread reaching way way back to earlier forms of perception. The Poet as Culture-bringer. Joe the Poet is a character I employed in my book The Joe Poems, and again in the anthology that Beatlick Press in Albuquerque published, Mo’ Joe. I like to say “employed” and not “invented” because I think Joe was around before I discovered him. Anyway, he (or she) is a shape-shifting, time-traveling bard who shows up when it’s least probable. My old poetry professor Jack Clarke, in From Feathers to Iron, talks about the cyberneticist Costa de Beauregard’s idea of “momentary irregular incursions” as how breakthroughs happen, whether in a poem or in a society. Magdalena poet Bruce Holsapple has done some good work on that. We could use a visit from Joe right now!

And also the Poet as Truthteller, Poet as Witness (to use Carolyn Forché’s term. That’s why I’ve long been drawn to topical or issue-oriented or “political” poetry, realizing the pitfalls. Albuquerque’s Margaret Randall is a role model as someone who can write a poetry of engagement that never compromises its artistic integrity. I was so shell-shocked by the recent election (coup d’etat?) that I felt I needed to do something, and so have begun a series of small poetry anthologies on issues of the day, whose overall title is Poets Speak.

KPG. Green, Red or Christmas when you order Huevos Rancheros?

JR. Usually Red, but occasionally Christmas.

 

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