I’ve asked John Buckley to be interviewed as he has some fantastic things happening in his life. I met John Buckley through the Valley Poet’s Society that hosts the open mics in Glendora, CA at the Village Book Shop (the last reading was Saturday, May 19, 2012—a fantastic reading! So many people read great pieces!). We bonded a bit through our MFA application processes this last open season. Anyway, without further ado.
K. Andrew: Thank you for taking the time, let’s start. When and why did you begin writing?
John: I used to be a visual artist as a kid, until I discovered Greg Gardella could draw better than I, so I gave up drawing and switched to writing. I wrote to get praise and acceptance from other people. I wrote to make the other boys and some girls laugh, spewing the scatological, pornographic adventures of Captain Camouflage. That was in middle school. I knew the value of transgression at a young age.
The unfortunate side of my being motivated by external factors is that I remained a shitty craftsman. There’s some Hemingway quote about when you find a great line in your story, take it out. It’s drawing attention to itself, not moving the story along. It’s not a load-bearing wall. But I was all about the great single lines, the quips, the isolated jokes. I think that’s why I stopped writing for so many years; I saw the dead end but didn’t know how to avoid it. I needed to grow in other, non-literary directions first. Then I turned into a poet.
K. Andrew: I think growing in other directions is important. It informs writing. Speaking of that, where did you grow up? Has that influenced your writing?
John: I grew up in Sylvan Lake, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit. I suspect it influenced my writing by being a rather sedate place to live; if I wanted excitement, I usually had to manufacture my own. I ended up relying on my imagination quite a bit throughout my childhood. Then again, that’s probably true of most kids, except for the boring ones.
I also went to private school, but as one of the poorer, weirder kids, which led to a certain degree of seething frustration and envy. Actually, shit, there’s a certain degree of seething frustration and envy in the Detroit area in general, due to the poor economy and our collective memory of our past glory days, Mighty Motown. Add that to blue-collar machismo, plus the bravado and humor needed to maintain one’s pride under tough conditions, and maybe that explains why some of my poems’ narrators play the role of snarky underdogs, brash yet ironic.
K. Andrew: Yes, I’ve noticed that, and I think it’s a great voice to the style of poetry you write. What inspired you to write your first poem?
John: I excreted a few crappy poems while my first marriage failed, and I squeezed out a few other wretched nuggets in 2008. But the bug didn’t bite and leave me permanently infested until March 2009. I’d been giving my old college housemate relationship advice in what I guess is a highly allegorical way. She said I should write a self-help book. I tried, but instead of generating heart-wisdom or life lessons or whatnot, I created poems. Lots and lots of poems. One day, I wrote twenty-seven poems. It was crazy at first; I felt like a twelve-year-old who had discovered masturbation and his dad’s abundant porn collection at the same time.
K. Andrew: That is an apt analogy! Moving away from life experience, what authors/poets have most influenced your writing?
John: I’m currently trying to get a lot of local Southern Californian poets’ books before I move back to Michigan. I think the first one of those I bought was Paul Suntup’s Sunset at the Temple of Olives, which still inspires me. Before that? Uh, Billy Collins. Tony Hoagland. Albert Goldbarth. I adore Louise Glück’s “Purple Bathing Suit.” I signed up for the Academy of American Poets’ daily poetry email. That sends a lot of good stuff my way.
K. Andrew: Reading is important for any writer (and any person). Tell us what your current projects are.
John: I’m going to have to get three manuscripts in shape throughout the rest of 2012: my full-length collection Poets’ Guide to America, a collaboration with Martin Ott, a good friend and an amazing writer in all genres; my solo collection Sky Sandwiches, which recently got picked up by Dr. Anna Faktorovich over at Anaphora Literary Press; and my second chapbook, Leading an Aquamarine Shoat by Its Tail, which Leah Angstman of Propaganda Press is editing right now.
I’m also gearing up for the summer submission season. Every three months or so, like maybe September, late December, March, and June, I try to send my stuff to as many places as I can. Right now, I’m waiting for June to start so I can get going again.
K. Andrew: Those months are interesting times to submit. Do you have a reason for those particular months?
John: Yep. I start my submission year in September, before school work gets too hairy. More importantly, it’s when many better-known journals open their gates to submissions. Winter break begins around mid-December, so after the holidays are out of the way, I have plenty of time to submit again. Then I wait for spring break, more or less. After that, I wait for summer break. I also plan on mini-frenzies of submissions in October and August, for certain journals with quirkier reading periods, but September and the three seasonal breaks are the times of the major craziness.
K. Andrew: That sounds like a good system! What is the latest news about your writing?
John: Besides the stuff I just mentioned? Uh…well, I just finished doing the thirty-in-thirty challenge for the first time, writing thirty poems in thirty days throughout April, National Poetry Month. I’m proud of myself for sticking with the whole program all month long. Of course, less than two-thirds of the resulting poems should ever see the light of day.
K. Andrew: That is a lot of poetry to be writing in a month! I’m glad you found several you liked, that can be difficult. Here is a question a lot of writer’s ask: when did you first consider yourself a writer?
John: I’ve always and never considered myself a writer. All the time I was writing to get attention and affirmation from others, I was also resisting defining myself as a writer. I didn’t want to feel predestined. But I knew. Inside, I knew. I tried to drown, starve, choke, and smother that inner voice, but I knew. I’ve since given myself up into the hands of fate. At least I was born to be a writer, not a serial killer or child molester.
K. Andrew: At least, yes! Though some would argue that poetry is… well never mind! Tell me what has been the hardest part about writing for you.
John: Being consistently disciplined. One of the reasons I’m so proud about the thirty-in-thirty endeavor is that I usually just don’t write like that. Usually, about two or three times a year, I get the urge, the itch, the lightning, the diarrhea, whatever, and write two handfuls of poems over the course of a couple of weeks. I’m a creative spazz, not a dedicated workman.
Oh! The other hardest part about writing for me — actually, it’s probably even harder than the discipline issue — is self-evaluation. I have a terrible time gauging the quality of my work, aside from being able to identify the real steaming turds. The great stuff? The good parts of the mediocre stuff? The salvageable parts of the not-so-great stuff? I just don’t know.
K. Andrew: Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share?
Yes. Aim high, to avoid the writing-as-pooping analogy I keep relying on too much.
John: What else? Hmm. Good writers are good readers. How can you know whose brilliant structure and content to steal if you don’t read widely?
K. Andrew: Excellent advice! Now to the good stuff. What was the best moment in your writing career thus far?
John: Let me get this stray thought out of my head first.
K. Andrew: Of course!
John: The second journal ever to agree to publish my poetry, mere weeks after I started submitting for the first time, also gave me a Pushcart nomination. But I was too stupid to appreciate that I’d just gotten lucky. I’ve written better stuff since then, but I haven’t been nominated again.
The best moment in my writing career has really been all of this year. I got into a good MFA program. I found my place in certain circles of the Southern California writers’ community. I’ve got two-and-a-half collections of poetry coming out. Life is pretty sweet lately. Maybe too sweet. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, checking my body for darkening, irregularly shaped moles, waiting for my wife to leave me, listening for my heart to skip a beat, then seize. But I guess I’m doing an okay job at remaining cautiously optimistic.
K. Andrew: Those are moments to be excited about, and it is understandable. Stay strong and write more great poetry! And again, thank you for taking the time.
John: Of course, it was my pleasure.
John F. Buckley lives in Orange County, California with his awesome wife, but will be moving east this fall to attend the University of Michigan’s MFA program in poetry. His work has been published in a number of places, one of which nominated him for a Pushcart Prize in 2009. His chapbook Breach Birth was published on Propaganda Press in March 2011. He has some other books coming out, too. You can find him reading and listening in the poetry circuits of Southern California.