Joe Safdie has been lurking in and around the poetry world for 50 years; his first chapbook, Wake Up the Panthers, was published in 1974, while he was still an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz. His ninth book, published last year by Spuyten Duyvil, is The Secular Divine, a hybrid chapbook of poems and an essay. It was preceded in 2021 by The Oregon Trail (from the same press). This year two books will appear: a collection of his essays, Poetry and Heresy, will be published by MadHat Press, and a Selected Poems featuring Greek mythology, Greek to Me, is on tap at Chax Press. His talk on Charles Olson and Brooks Adams for the American Literature Association is on YouTube; other poems, essays, and reviews can be found in Jacket, Jacket2, Rain Taxi, Caesura, and Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.
Thanks for joining me for this interview, Joe. Thanks also for answering the following questions!
- Who are your literary influences or inspiration?
I studied with Ed Dorn and, through him, became more familiar with the Black Mountain School (Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Levertov) than I’d already been. But almost anyone I’ve read and responded to are “influences,” a word I feel slightly uneasy about. Anyway, that would include Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake. In the 20th century, Yeats (of course), Pound, Williams; contemporary writers would include Alice Notley and Billie Chernicoff . . . this list could stretch out a bit!
- At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
I don’t know that that’s a decision one makes; it more or less found me. But a general tendency to conceptualize the world through language certainly helped.
- What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?
It’s messy, and books are piled up and strewn all around. Occasionally I get the feeling I should be more organized and go on a cleaning jag, but it doesn’t take long for the piles to accumulate again. This, by the way, carries over into my writing process, lots of notes on various slips of paper. Occasionally I look at the work product of other writers and it seems so neat and clean, without any cross-outs. Bewildering.
- What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
I’ve been able to write with lots of distractions; I often have the TV or music on while I’m compiling notes. I understand that this is unusual, but then, I don’t associate writing with meditative calm. Similarly, poetry readings shouldn’t be like going to church or synagogue. I often miss humor in contemporary poetry.
- Who or what is your muse?
I’d like to be able to answer this question, because I gave an online talk about the muses not long ago for the Centre for Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred in London. I’m also a big fan of Hesiod’s Theogony, which introduces them in western literature. But as they give advice that’s both true and false, I can’t.
- What do you read that people wouldn’t expect you to read? What’s the trashiest book you’ve ever read?
I read sports sections – the Athletic, Sports Illustrated, SF Chronicle – fairly religiously. I’ve written quite a few baseball poems, which I hope someone will collect one day.
- There’s a fair bit of interest, scientific and otherwise, in the links between creativity and insanity. How crazy must someone be to be a good author?
Not crazy, but definitely not a fan of “normal” systematic and/or cause-and-effect thinking.
- We’ve all heard the advice that authors should “write what they know.” But fiction emerges from imagination and creation of new worlds. Do you feel a tension between what you’ve experienced and what lives only in your mind?
No, because what I experience is automatically in my mind. When I was teaching, I was fond of saying “Write what you don’t know.”
- Has your education helped you become a better writer?
My education has shaped everything I write: a key date was August of 1973, when I transferred to UC Santa Cruz from UCLA and took a class in Ezra Pound’s Cantos taught by Norman O. Brown. After that, as I say in my latest book, Greek to Me, nothing was ever the same.
- Do you belong to any writing groups or communities, either online or offline?
I belonged to the Buffalo Poetics List and other listservs during the 1990s, and I found the contact with writers I’d never communicated with very helpful; I’m currently part of a small group of writers who communicate by email and Google Docs, which is invaluable. And then there’s Facebook.
My most recent book, from the same press that published The Oregon Trail (Spuyten Duyvil) is a hybrid chapbook, half essay, half a short collection of poems, called The Secular Divine (cover by Basil King):
Finally, two (!) more books are coming this year: Greek to Me from Chax Press, a selected poems from Greek mythology, and Poetry and Heresy, a collection of essays, from MadHat Press.