Cameron Conaway interviews Twitter-famed poet, Larry Lawrence, a.k.a. @TheAmericanPoet.
Perhaps no other poetry personality on Twitter has more followers and does more for poetry yet is still without a full-length collection of poetry from a reputable press. Sure, he’s published poetry here and there, most recently in Broken Circles: A gathering of poems for hunger. Sure, the poetry industry, like the book industry, is more-than-ever catering to those already famous rather than supporting up-and-comers. But Larry Lawrence, known on Twitter as @TheAmericanPoet, is a constant stalwart and one of our country’s greatest social media warriors for an underappreciated and some say (but don’t they always?) dying art form.
It is often said that poetry predates literacy. That it began as an oral tradition, rhythm and meter used to aid memory. Some even say the intensive and disciplined reading and studying of poetry has helped shape more great minds than any other field. Ancient works like the Vedas (1700 – 1200 BC), influential thinkers like Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) and recent relative to poetry’s history, William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) are all just a few of poetry’s renowned works and people. (For science folk out there, even Einstein wrote poetry.) But, for as long as poetry has been around there have been those unsung heroes, the nameless people who made it their mission to preserve the works and espouse the deeply enriching educational values they contain. Heroes like Larry Lawrence, @TheAmericanPoet. He agreed to answer a few questions for us here at The Good Men Project so let’s jump right in.
Larry, you’ve got thousands of followers out there in the virtual social media world, but before we get into that, can you first tell our readers a bit about the man you are in reality?
I’m really much like the person you read about in my poems, on my blog, and I try to be honest and genuine in my tweets. I spend a lot of time with my teenage son and always did ever since he was born. My father left before I turned three years old, and I was lucky to have two wonderful grandparents to raise me. As you can guess, this had a major impact on me while growing up and the choices I made when getting married and starting a family. My wife, my son, and I spend a lot of time together. Teaching in the town where we live enables me to be actively involved in my son’s life. It also allows my wife to be more deeply rooted in her career as an educator in an urban community and a strong activist for children who are English language learners. Our weekends usually involve soccer games, training or following on television. We travel every summer together to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Washington, DC, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As a family we have developed some lasting traditions from our many trips.
How does being a teacher of gifted and talented young children spark or otherwise inspire your own work in the world?
I always say that I am fortunate to work with the young people who will be running the world some day! Many of my students have a natural ability to understand how things happen or work. I joke with them and tell them they’re smarter than me and compare myself to a basketball coach. I can’t dunk a basketball and never will, but I can get my players motivated to do their best in the game. Most of my students bring with them strong work ethics and values from home. When I was growing up, I was one of them. I spent all of my years in elementary school, junior high, and high school in advanced classes and was quite involved in the arts. I think this background gives me a connection and a better understanding of their strengths and talents. When I am at work, I remember some really amazing teachers who left an impact on me at a young age. I have always tried my best to give it my all when I am working with a group of students. Consequently I always hoped that someone was teaching my son and caring about his growth and education.
What is it about the genre of poetry that fires you up so much? How did you come to it, and what has fueled your passion for supporting the genre and the writers within it?
Poetry, for me is about capturing the feeling, a moment or mood that occurs in life. Writing is an attempt to strike the same emotional response or chord in the reader. When I am reading someone else’s work and I’m able to feel their moment and connect with what the poet is saying, then it’s great poetry. I was born with a gift or curse, (depending on how you see it) for remembering people, places, and events. This ability enables me to “write it all down.”
One of the first poems I ever wrote was after a moment that occurred one morning on my way to drop off my son at daycare. He was probably less than three years old at the time and it left such an impact on me. I felt moved to try and write it down because I wanted to share it with others.
THE VICTORY BRIDGE
Today I tear up,
rolling down 35 South,
rumbling over the bridge.
We’re riding along,
hurrying, have to get to work,
we can’t be late.
Sun glare on the windshield,
my beat up, Ford truck.
The boy strapped in his car seat,
shares his newfound faith with me:
“It is a beautiful day,
and we should thank God for it!”
Only three years old,
way too young to be so wise.
I began writing plays in high school and went on to study theatre at Rutgers. I read plays for 15 years. I call myself a “serial reader”; I stay with one topic until something new grabs my attention. I read exclusively about the Civil War for a many years and then the Vietnam War for a few years. One day in the bookstore I happened to be standing in the poetry section and picked up a Bukowski book and began reading it. I then went on to read the rest of his works and after about 20 volumes, branched off to the wide world of poetry. Now I read nothing but poetry. I am currently working on a reading challenge that I created through my Twitter profile. (It can be accessed by the hash tag #52poetry.) I put a challenge out to my followers to read 52 books of poetry in 2011. I’m not sure how many are still hanging in there with the challenge, but I know a few will make it. I will too!
As for supporting other poets, I always felt that if I tried to help promote others and share their work, then they would reciprocate. It’s the old cliché of “what goes around comes around,” and I find this especially true of the poetry community. I’ve met many poets in person and on the internet that make an effort to help, share ideas, collaborate, and offer advice. Rarely have I met a hateful angry poet who would like to see a fellow poet fail at creating or developing as an artist. They’re generally “good people.” Unfortunately they’re far flung around this country and the world, so that’s the idea behind using social networks to connect and create a sense of community. I don’t have any poet living down the street or on my block. At least I don’t know of any.
Under the “Bragging Rights” tab on your Google+ profile it reads: “Dreams of finding his book on the bookstore shelves before the books and stores are all gone.” Can you tell us your feelings and/or experiences both as a poet trying to get published and as an observer watching bookstores disintegrate? Some reports estimate that actual books sales are down 50% in recent years (and sales of poetry may even be worse) as we’ve ushered in the age of the eBook. How do you feel about all of this?
Even as a child, I had a special attraction to bookstores and visiting bookstores. It’s like walking into a bakery for me. It smells great, and I want to buy everything. Luckily it’s something my wife and I have in common. At some point the many bookstores began the whole coffee shop concept, and people began to hang out. They gave us a place to purchase books, exchange ideas, and have a cup of coffee together. Borders closed about four years ago in our town, and it was very upsetting for our entire family. My wife used to say it hit her particularly hard because “we raised our son in that bookstore.”
I’m not anti e-book. As a teacher, I know that reading comes in many forms and shapes and they’re all good. Reading is reading. I must admit that I purchase most of my books from Internet sources for obvious reasons. Even some of the best bookstores have mediocre poetry sections. Ordering online gets me what I want and it arrives on the doorstep.
When I visit Washington, DC, I look forward to visiting the great bookstores that the city has to offer. On our last visit we stopped and shopped at Politics and Prose, Kraemer books, Busboys and Poets, and Books a Million. I know the bookstores are disintegrating, but I would say in many cities and communities they are going strong. Pardon me if I sound like I’m doing a commercial for these folks, but when I walked into Politics and Prose I said to my wife, “Check this out. Look at all the people who love books, who are into learning, and who feel at home here.” It made us realize that we didn’t have anything like this nearby. It made us wish we lived in this neighborhood.
You’ve got a collaborative poetry chapbook with Anastasia Miklojcik titled, A Strange Kind of Food, but what’s next for you?
I took a Saturday class at Rutgers as part of their continuing education program with a fine poet and great teacher, Christine Hamm. She helped us put the chapbook together, suggested starting a blog, and encouraged us to take more classes. Since then I have written over 300 poems, began using Twitter, and submitted to hundreds of literary journals and publications. I have had a good rate of success with submissions, and the thrill of acceptance emails kept me submitting. I began putting together a self-publishing project but began to rethink the chapbook about midway. I may still go through with it. Perhaps I need another class or mentor to guide me through the process of getting a book of my poetry published. Clearly I need to focus more energy on attaining my goal. It seems to always be on my mind. For me, it’s not about being a rich and famous poet. It’s more like being a singer; all you dream about is driving in the car one day and hearing your song on the radio.
Larry, on behalf of The Good Men Project and poets around the world: Thank you.
—Photos by Larry Lawrence