To live a life devoted to and in service to
your art, without compromise...
An Interview with
Poet, Denver Butson
U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, says that Denver Butson’s “imagination
unlocks for us the cells of reason and sets us loose in a world of dizzying
possibilities.” Collins selected Butson’s poem “Tuesday 9:00 AM” to be
included in Poetry 180, a grouping of 180 poems to be read in U.S. high
schools, published as an anthology, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry
by Random House in 2003.
Butson has published three books of poetry: triptych (The Commoner
Press, 1999), Mechanical Birds (St. Andrews College Press, 2000)
and illegible address (Luquer Street, 2004). His poems have also
appeared in The Yale Review, Ontario Review, Quarterly West, Caliban,
The Mid-American Review, tight, Exquisite Corpse, FIELD, Contemporary Ghazals,
SOLO, Crux, la petite zine, and Ontario Review, and in The Brink:
Contemporary American Poetry, 1965-present. Late in 2000, three of
his “drowning ghazals” were in Agha Shahid Ali’s anthology, Ravishing
Disunities: Real Ghazals in English on Wesleyan University Press. He
received a 2003 New York Foundation for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship
for his collaboration, Blood Works, with Pietro Costa.
During the fall of 2000, Butson served as the Ezra Pound Visiting Writer
at Brunnenburg Castle (Pound’s daughter’s home in the Italian Alps). In
1999, he was the first Ronald H. Bayes Resident in Creative Writing at
St. Andrews College and the first featured poet on FOX News Online’s “Book
Page.” Also in 1999, Joyce Carol Oates nominated his poem “Beauty or
Flight” for a Pushcart Prize.
A frequent collaborator with artists in other media, Butson has worked
with actress and filmmaker Rhonda Keyser on her film an unpredictable
thing (Solange Productions, premiere screening at The Williamsburg
Brooklyn International Film Festival in 2001), with visual artist Maria
Mercedes on The Cigar Box Project, with painter/sculptor Pietro
Costa on Blood Works, which premiered in New York in 2001, and with
Costa and photographer Cedric Chatterley on grace: for all the children,
published in a bilingual edition in Italy in 2003. Recently, several of
his poems were adapted for the stage by Keyser and performed at The Little
Theater in New York, and film director Kevin Doyle transformed Butson’s
poem “The Effigy Café” into a short film, which first screened
in Manhattan in the No Idea film series. The interactive CD, Denver
Butson: Solo Works and Collaborations (Digitram Productions, 2000)
has won awards throughout the South, including a “Merit Distinction” at
the 2001 Richmond Show and the “Silver Award” in Atlanta's 2001ShowSouth.
Butson has read at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Cornelia Street Café,
the National Arts Club and KGB Bar (all in New York City), as an annually
returning featured artist in St. Andrews College’s Writers’ Forum, and
at other venues throughout the U.S. and Europe. In addition to Billy Collins,
noted writers Jim Harrison, Edmund White, Agha Shahid Ali, W.S. Merwin,
Thom Gunn, Ned Rorem, Forrest Gander, and Theodore Enslin have praised
Butson earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from James Madison University
and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State
University, where he held the Richard M. Devine Memorial Fellowship.
More information about Denver can be found at his website
and illegible address can be purchased from Luquer
Lily: How did you first discover poetry? When did you write your
first poem, and do you remember what it was about?
DB: I’m not sure when I first discovered poetry. I know I liked
rhymes - Dr. Seuss, especially - as a kid, but who didn’t? And, my favorite
book when I was around 4 was called Oh What Nonsense!, which I still
have, which has great little Theodore Roethke and Shel Silverstein poems
in it. Then, in Kindergarten, an editor of a poetry book came to my school
and signed books. I still have my signed copy. It’s called
Shout and the editor, Lee Bennett Hopkins, inscribed it or me “For
Denver - Happy Poetry-ing.” I don’t think I wrote poems yet then, though.
A little later, I was interested in writing stories. In fourth grade,
we made books in school. I wrote a story about a guinea pig and a cat,
and my brother, Gary, who is now a painter, illustrated it. I still have
that book, too.
It wasn’t until much later that I started writing poems - 11th, maybe
12th grade. They were big, important poems about nuclear weapons and civil
rights, and of course my own feelings of being “different” because I was
someone who wanted to write poetry instead of playing sports or making
a lot of money someday.
Oh yeah, and in fourth grade, I “wrote” a poem to the new girl in school
who I was “madly in love with” - but I didn’t really write it; I copied
out of the encyclopedia. Good thing she had never heard it before - “how
do I love thee, let me count the ways.”
Lily: Who are your favorite poets? What is it about their work
that you appreciate most?
DB: I can never answer this question, because I’m always afraid
I’ll leave someone out. I like Montaigne’s quote about liking most whomever
he’s reading at the time. If that’s the case, I would have to say Garcia
Lorca and Anna Akhmatova and Russell Edson, because their books are next
to my writing couch at the moment. But tomorrow it could be Charles Simic,
James Wright, and Theodore Enslin. It really changes. I do know that
what I am particularly drawn to in anybody’s poems is a sense that the
poem has its own life — its own music and image and story, if that’s that’s
what makes the poem’s engine run — and the chance that anything could happen
in the poem that needs to happen. I also like to feel at the end that
what has happened in the poem (the music, the images, the story) had to
happen the way it did, that it was inevitable, to borrow and perhaps pervert
Lily: Who has influenced your writing career the most?
DB: I think my teachers have influenced my writing (I hesitate
to call it a career, maybe writing life) the most - early on, Deann Showers
(now Buffington) who encouraged me in high school, Lisa Russ Spaar, who
pulled me aside in college when I wasn’t writing at all and asked me to
join her poetry club, and then and still Ted Enslin, who was the “Distinguished
Visiting Writer” when I was in graduate school and who has remained my
friend and mentor ever since.
More than anything, Ted has shown me, through example, that it’s possible
to live a life devoted to and in service to your art, without compromise.
It may not be the prettiest, most comfortable life, but then again if
it were, what kind of art might come of it.
As far as my career as a poet, there probably wouldn’t be one
if it weren’t for Michael Carroll, who started The Commoner Press to publish
and did such a great job with it. And, Ron Bayes at St. Andrews College,
who has been such a tremendous supporter and inspiration over the years.
Recently, Pietro Costa’s energy has been infectious and instrumental in
the inception of Blood Works and grace and who made the publication
of illegible address possible.
Lily: Tell me about a day in your life. Do you write every day?
What inspires you?
DB: My day begins early - 5:30/6:00 AM - the earlier the better
for my writing. I try to go pretty much straight from bed to studio, stopping
off to make coffee and breakfast, which I take with me into my studio.
We just moved, so I’m a little out of practice in our new place, but I
like to go to my studio without having any words come between the dreams
I just woke from and the writing I’m going to. In the old place (where
my wife and I lived for the past six years) I would stare out at the Brooklyn
and Manhattan Bridges and the Manhattan skyline. Here, I have a great
view of sky and circling pigeons (there are a lot of people in this part
of Brooklyn who still keep birds) and the elementary school across the
street. Soon after I start writing, the kids start arriving. There’s
always something going on there — a forgotten lunch run or cried for, an
invented, insulting rhyme. Yesterday I heard a father and son singing
“Row Row Row Your Boat” in a sloppy round and then bursting into giggles.
I also like to surround myself with objects I love - found photographs
and notes, a wild horse’s skull a rancher gave me in South Dakota, old
If things are going well, I’m in my studio for a few hours every morning.
If they're not, I’ll read for awhile, write a letter or two, maybe edit
some older poems, and come out after an hour or two.
Outside the studio, I like to think that anything can be inspiring,
if you keep yourself open to it. Some things of course more than others
- those sudden swoops of birds always do it. Music. Walking and eavesdropping.
And finding things in the street. Children’s poems and art. Trains. Tom
Waits. Arvo Part. Miles Davis. Johnny Cash. Bridges. You know, the usual
Lily: Has there been a particular time in your life in which
you felt more inspired than ever before?
DB: Whenever birds fly up, I think I’m more inspired than ever
before. Traveling, or just after traveling. Being in artists’ studios.
I love to visit my brother and his wife, who are both visual artists,
and being among their paintings and brushes. And going to museums or galleries.
Sometimes I want to run from them and get right back to my work - but
there’s always lunch to grab in between.
Lily: Was there ever a time when you felt like you’d lost the
creative spark? Did you ever consider giving up writing? If so, what made
you change your mind?
DB: I’m very ritualistic about my writing, superstitious, and
I used to think that more than a day without writing would mean that I
would never write again. Or, I’d finish a poem or a group of poems and
think, “that’s it. I’ll never do that again.” But, there’s something
compulsive about it after awhile. Making things. It’s like nothing else
that I know of. I’m not sure I could give it up. Sometimes I think it
would be a lot easier. My friend Pietro Costa, the sculptor and painter,
says it would be much easier to just have a job, come home, and watch tv
and then go to work the next day -- a lot easier than having to make a
living and have this whole other life that demands sweat and time from
you. Easier maybe - I certainly would have a lot more time on my hands
- but I think that people who make things must make things. We
don’t have another choice.
Lily: Has there been a moment in your writing career when you’ve
felt that you’ve finally made it, that you’re finally a successful poet?
DB: A lot of these are funny words to me - career, made it,
successful poet - when put all together. I’m sure there are career
poets out there - but really I think they’re more likely career grant-winners
and teachers, rather than poets. Maybe it’s because I don’t make any money,
really, at it that I have a tough time thinking of it as a career, but
I also think that that kind of thinking also pollutes what happens when
you write. Career bankers, for instance, are always thinking about getting
ahead, making the right deal, talking to the right people. I think about
making poems that have some sense of magic in them, that are honest, that
have a life of their own. If I start thinking about succeeding as a career
poet in my studio, my writing morning is over.
I like to think about what my teacher and friend Michael Mott (another
teacher who had a tremendous impact on me) told me after I had my first
poem accepted by a major literary journal, Quarterly West, when
I was in graduate school. He asked me how it felt to see my poem in the
magazine, and I told him it was kind of oddly disappointing, like I expected
it to be more exciting. And he said that the real time to celebrate writing
is after you write a good poem, not after someone publishes it, that when
that stops, you’re writing for the wrong reasons.
That said, I do feel most successful as a writer when I have a good
writing morning - though it’s usually not until much later, weeks and months,
that I know if anything I wrote that morning was any good. And, I feel
that my career as a poet is going the best when I have several good
mornings in a row. I guess it’s then when I’ve made it, when I go into
my studio and emerge a few hours later, having made a few things in the
Lily: What do you hope to accomplish through your writing - for
yourself? For others?
DB: I never really think about this - accomplishing anything.
Again, maybe this is my own superstition, or simplemindedness, but it
seems to pollute. I like the sounds of words when they’re put together
well. And, if other people seem to get that from my poems, than I suppose
I’ve accomplished something.
Lily: What has been your greatest writing acheivement so far?
Your proudest moment in regards to your work?
DB: I’m proud of my three books, because I worked really hard
on them. I think I most proud of triptych and illegible address
because I had so much say in the design and the look.
Some other proud moments - reading to a couple hundred people in a
small village in Southern Italy in English and having some of them say
afterwards that it didn’t matter that they didn’t understand English, because
they just loved hearing the poems and they could tell they meant something.
It also made me really proud that Elio Pecora, a very respected Italian
poet, read each poem in Italian after I read it in English, and I could
hear the reactions to my words in translation.
I’m also proud that some of my favorite writers, and people I respect
the most, have had such positive things to say about my work - Ted Enslin,
Tomaz Salamun, the late Agha Shahid Ali, Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin, Jim
Harrison, Edmund White, Michael Mott. It’s a great feeling, and sometimes
I have to put it out of my mind completely when I’m writing, because I
might actually believe that they meant it and weren’t just being nice.
And recently I’ve gotten some fan letters or e-mails from children
who have seen “Tuesday 9:00 AM” in Poetry 180. I’m really
proud of those letters because the kids say things like they don’t really
like poetry but they liked my poem, etc.
Lily: What was it like to have your work accepted for Poetry
180? What are your feelings about Poetry 180, its mission, its
at reaching high school students through and by poetry?
DB: It was a great honor to have a poem chosen for Poetry
180. It’s funny because I got the letter on the way out the door to
meet my wife for lunch and saw that it was from Billy Collins and The Library
of Congress and thought “great, now he’s going to solicit money from poets
in this seemingly personal way like Richard Wilbur for The Academy of
American Poets” and I threw it in the recycling box. I took a few
steps away from the door and turned around to retrieve it “just in case.”
I’m glad I did, because as I was walking, I read that Billy had chosen
the poem (it was entirely a surprise, because I didn’t even know about
the project and there was no submission process).
I think the book is a good idea and think there should be more of them.
Billy Collins has particular tastes, and I would love to see a whole series
of these things from all kinds of poets. It would be a whole different
book if Russell Edson edited it, for instance, or Amiri Baraka.
Lily: You’ve participated with other artists in a number of collaborative
projects. What has it been like to work with other artists? What are the
most rewarding aspects of it? When the project is finished, do you find
yourself connected still to the artists you’ve worked with? Do you remain
in contact with them?
DB: I love working with other artists and have worked with a
number of them - musicians, filmmakers, sculptors, painters. It’s always
a great reminder of how the artistic process works, how important it is
to be open to possibilities, how randomness and chance connections can
lead to the most exciting marriages of word and image or word and sound.
In all cases, yes, I’ve remained in contact and open to future collaborations
with all the artists I’ve worked with. I find the process to be invigorating
both of me and of my work, and hope to keep doing more of it.
Lily: You’ve had a number of collections of your own work and
work with others published in a relatively short period of time. Do you
find yourself always looking forward to the next project? What drives you
to keep creating the amount of material needed for each collection?
DB: Yes, I’m always looking forward to the next project. And
always writing new stuff for whatever comes up next. Most of the time,
I’m not thinking about a particular project when I’m working. For
instance, two of my collaborations - The Cigar Box Project with
Maria Mercedes and Blood Works with Pietro Costa used poems or fragments
of poems that I had written before the projects themselves were even conceived.
I tried to write new stuff with those projects in mind, but ended up finding
that already existing work fit better.
Lily: If you were reviewing your latest book, illegible address,
what would you have to say about it? What is the particular theme or message
that the writer wished to impart to its readers? What will readers find
familiar to this writer’s previous works, and what is new and different?
DB: Well, these are tough questions, that I don’t think I can
answer. I hope the book is good, think it is, but am not sure. I think
it’s better, more of a piece, than the other two books, and I think that
my writing has gotten more mature, whatever that means. I hope the more
fragmented stuff is doing what I think it is and suggesting possibilities
rather than limitations. I don’t know.
Lily: When do you anticipate the publication of The Invention
of Your Sleeping Body? How is this latest collection coming along?
Are you finding the creation of it easier or more difficult than past work
DB: As I said we (my 9 months’ pregnant wife, Lester the cat,
and I) just moved, so I don’t know how much focus I will have on finishing
Invention of Your Sleeping Body anytime soon. The poems, I think,
are mostly there, but the process of putting them together takes me almost
as long, maybe longer, than writing them in the first place. A large part
of this book is this series called “Junk Shop Photos” which I may
try to publish as a chapbook before, or it may grow into its own collection.
I will also be working this summer on translating selected poems of Elio
Pecora (with native Italian speakers), so that might be the next thing
finished, before The Invention of Your Sleeping Body. And,
Works, my collaboration with Pietro Costa, is still in the works and
will go to press, once we find a printer who is able to print it.
Lily: What do you like to do when you’re not writing? What keeps
you busy in your spare time?
DB: Lately, it seems like I spend too much time chasing money.
I don’t make much teaching and editing, and I need to make more with a
baby on the way. What I would rather be doing is cooking and gardening
(believe it or not, I share an organic garden in Brooklyn behind Pietro
Costa’s studio which yields enough to keep us in greens and tomatoes and
herbs and squash and eggplant and peppers and figs and peaches during the
summer) and listening to music and playing music. But the real focus lately
is Rhonda’s belly, which we sing to every day. I also give the baby a
“fact of the day” - like “the moon doesn’t drown when it goes under water”
to ruminate over in the womb.
Lily: What advice can you offer to aspiring writers?
DB: The best advice I ever heard came from an older writer to
my friend, the fiction writer Patrick Ryan - “Keep your ass in the seat.”
I think that’s a start. Also, keep the focus on the work (not on career
moves, or ego) and try to stay open to possibility, inspiration, chance,
But, this is advice I give myself all the time, so maybe the advice
should be: “Don’t listen to other people’s advice. Find what works
for you and stick to it. Make it a rule or a set of rules if you have
to, but always be willing to break the rules, even your own, when they
don’t work for you anymore.”