Setu Interview: Alan Walowitz

Gopal Lahiri

Gopal Lahiri in conversation with Alan Walowitz

Speaking Ill of the Dead’s Coffee (2019)

Ever the good host, my friend
offers coffee at the close of the meal,
takes count, and heads for the kitchen,
though soon enough comes the shout from within:
I can’t find the coffee
or that thing you use to make it in.

When asked why I’d declined,
I remind the other guests,
as if they hadn’t figured out by now: Coffee,
he doesn’t know the first thing how.
And I add: Not to speak ill of the dead,
but Wendy didn’t know much, either.

Some look mildly shocked
and others a little more than--
as if someone had revealed a long-unmentionable
family secret, like Grandma wore no underwear. 
Or a bandage had been ripped off
a healing wound too slow.

As coffee is served--weak and bitter--
my friend says, Sorry about the coffee,
but I know enough to know he really doesn’t care.
Then: She always made it so well--,
though maybe he means to remind us
what too much living alone will do.


Alan Walowitz (http://alanwalowitz.com/) has been writing poetry, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so, for more than 50 years. He’s studied with poets Estha Weiner, Fred Marchant, C.K. Williams, Carol Muske, Colette Inez, and Stephen Stepanchev, among others who might not want their names mentioned with his. Though writing poems can be quite lucrative, he earned the bulk of his fortune as a teacher of secondary English for 34 years, mostly in New York City public schools.  He also served as the Coordinator of English Language Arts in White Plains, NY public schools from 1992 till 2004.  Since then, he’s taught at Pace University, St. John’s University, and for the last 15 years at Manhattanville College in Westchester, NY. His poems can be found on the web and off.  He’s a Contributing Editor at Verse-Virtual, an Online Community Journal of Poetry, and his poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2017 and 2018.  Alan's chapbook, Exactly Like Love, is available from Osedax Press.  His full-length book of poems from Truth Serum Press is The Story of the Milkman and other poems. The title poem was featured in an article in The New York Times on April 17, 2017. In this frank and free-wheeling interview, he talks with me about his life, his teaching profession and his colleagues and fellow poets, his writing style and way of words, his role as an editor and his reading of poets and future projects. He concludes, ‘Whether you’re a poet, a teacher, a plumber,  or policemen. I hope you’re lucky enough that a mentor finds you.  If you’re not so lucky to be found, go out and choose someone who will be willing and able to help you find your way.’  

GL: Very briefly tell our readers about yourself. Your life as a poet and teacher?
AW: I’ve been a poet for a lot longer than I’ve been a teacher, though the arc of my teaching career is easier to trace.  Teaching was not a calling for me.  In college, I hadn’t prepared to do much of anything at all, and then realized I needed to earn a living. A job was available, and I became a teacher of English.  Later, I became a school administrator.  I now teach new teachers how (and how not to) teach.  Although these are often teachers of science and math, I do read my poems to them from time to time.   It’s academic freedom!-- and, at the same time, it might be good for their souls.

GL: What inspired you to write poetry? Do you think you were meant to be a poet?

AW: I always liked to write, and it was something I was told I was good at.  I wasn’t much good at anything else, particularly not science or math, which, as kids in the 50s and 60s, we were told would provide us a good future.  My mom used to write little poems to me to remind me to clean my room.  I wrote poems, in response, explaining why I’d rather not.  My 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Poteat, included poetry-writing assignments, along with some of the dreary poems from the canon that were on the curriculum.  My poems were mostly amusing, rather than serious or revealing of early adolescent angst.  However, writing them brought me more joy than most other school assignments did.  Writing poems still brings me more joy than just about anything else I do. 

GL: Who introduced you to poetry? Why is poetry important for you?

AW: My first-grade teacher, Miss Hutchins, had the class memorize Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Land of Counterpane.  I can still recite it from memory.  Memorization, an undervalued practice, allows any of us to carry poems around with us in our heads.  You never know when you’ll need a poem.  I need them all the time and having some in my head is even better than having them in my smartphone. My friend and former English teacher-colleague Willard Smith used to like to say, “We all need our daily dose of metaphor.”  I think that’s true.  Metaphor serves as a wonderful filter for the daily traumas of our lives.  It also has the power to enrich the parts of our life that are worth celebrating.   

GL: What is your daily writing routine? your work ethic?

AW: I have a very shoddy work ethic.  I write or revise some old or new work pretty much every day, but there’s no particular time I like to work.  I write directly on my computer.  The word processor has been a great boon to my writing practice.  At one time, I wrote by hand on paper, then moved to the typewriter when I had something worth typing.  Then, I’d type draft after draft as I’d revise--sometimes I’d end up with twenty or more typed copies.  Some of my writing colleagues, I know still prefer to write with pen and paper.  My fine motor functions have gotten so dodgy with age that I can hardly read my own handwriting, anyway. 

GL: Do you have any preferred style of poetry you like to write in? Is there a recurrent theme you keep returning to? Who are some of your biggest influences in your poetry? 
AW: I suppose readers would consider me to be mainly a narrative poet.  I like to tell stories.  Anyone I know or meet is liable to turn up in one of my poems.  This has created some difficulties because I don’t always tell the truth of an incident, an encounter, or a relationship.  Sometimes, to make a better poem I need to be oblivious to the facts.  I like to say--and I’ve always liked to tell my creative writing students--that the narrator in your work is not always the author, even if  the narrator calls him or herself “I”.   (My poem, The Young Mortician, is an example. I have no interest in necrophilia!  Rather, I’m very interested in death and unusual occupations.) A poem isn’t a presidential news conference, or a trial, or a report of a fender-bender you’re sending to your insurance company.  In poems we have to allow ourselves alternative facts, as distasteful as those are when we hear them from a president.  A poem’s a hunk of art, sometimes beautiful, sometimes a little unwieldy, sometimes not ready for prime time.  But I’m hoping to capture something that feels like it ought to be true.   For instance, the incident in my poem Speaking Ill of the Dead’s Coffee, took place after a dinner at my friend Arnie’s house.  It didn’t happen exactly the way it’s portrayed, but  I’ve tried to capture something true about Arnie in the wake of the death of his wife, Wendy.  I have poems about Arnie Eliezer that go back fifty years.  I don’t think he minds that I lie about him.  I guess should ask him.

GL: How does a poem begin for you? Are there any forms you have not tried but would like to?
AW: Someone asked me recently if I observe life through a poetry-filter. That is, am I always on the lookout for a poem?  I suppose the answer is yes, I’m always looking or listening for a phrase or an incident that might end up becoming a poem.  I don’t know if I like that in myself.  When I was young, I used to take a lot of photographs.  Then, I realized that the camera was standing in the way of having experiences.  I’m sure this is not true for everyone who takes pictures.  I’m sure, for many, taking pictures is part of the experience and does not block them from it.  For me, it does.  I hope I don’t do the same with my poetry-filter, my poem-detector, that I used to do with my camera.  I have enough psychological baggage in feeling apart from things, rather than feeling a part of things, that I’d hate to think that my poetry is making me too much of an observer, rather than a participant. 

GL: What is your daily writing routine? Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? Does your teaching profession or New York City life have any influence on your poetry?
AW: The happiest I ever am as a writer is when I go to bed late at night in the midst of working on a poem--with the knowledge that I return to it first thing in the morning.  At moments like that, I’m very certainly a morning-writer.  Then, when that poem is “finished”--as if any poem is ever finished--there’s a moment of elation and then comes the denouement in which I realize that the poem wasn’t what I had hoped it would be and I have to begin the process again.  A new poem might not appear for a while, sometimes not for a couple of days, sometimes longer.  Fortunately, since I’ve been writing so long, I have lots of old poems, never completed--or never completed satisfactorily-- that I can turn back to and work on while waiting.  The Young Mortician was written, first,  when I was in my 20s, in the late 1970s.  I’ve come back to it many times over the years, and it’s still a young man’s poem, sort of romantic, in a way.

GL: Tell us about your two poetry collections, The Story of the Milkman and other poems and Exactly like Love.
AW: I started writing poetry somewhat seriously fifty years ago in 1969.  I was lucky enough to study in college with a wonderful poet and poetry teacher, Stephen Stepanchev. He encouraged me to publish very early on and I simply wasn’t ready. I had a few things published when I was in my 20s and I entered an MFA Program in Writing thinking that would help me.  I didn’t last long in poetry or in the MFA Program.  I needed to learn to earn a living--how to teach-- and I needed to grow up, gain some patience, and to find my voice.  I found my way back into poetry after I retired as a full-time teacher.  Even then, I was loath to try to publish my poems.  When I finally made the attempt to do so, I discovered the online world had made audiences easier to reach.  The online world helped me to find Osedax Press and the wonderful editor and publisher, Morgan Adams, who helped my chapbook Exactly Like Love come into being.  It also helped me find the talented publisher Matt Potter who has shepherded my full-length book The Story of the Milkman and Other Poems.  Prof. Stepanchev died in 2017, soon after his 102nd  birthday.  I’m happy to say that he got to see some of my poetry in print, so many years after he first encouraged me to get them out there. 

GL: You are the contributing editor of Verse Virtual. Please share your experience of editing the journal and also the impact of social media in our creative mind?
AW: I actually do very little editing for Verse-Virtual.  Publishing V-V is a one-man operation and that man is the eccentric, committed, and energetic Firestone Feinberg.  I get to be called “Contributing Editor” because, fortunately, Firestone likes my poems well enough to put them in Verse-Virtual each month.  My unofficial duties as Contributing Editor, however, require me to meet Firestone for coffee and a pastry from time to time; then, we tell each other stories, some of which are true.  Fire is a very wise man who has taught me that social media--the online world--is the future of poetry; that, for the most part, the only readers of poetry are other poets; that I ought to write shorter poems with more white space; that Donald Trump could never, ever be elected president of the United States.  Firestone is right most of the time; unfortunately, not always.

GL: What do you see as the role of poet in modern-day society?
AW: It’s not that we are Cassandras, doomed to see the future and then not to be believed.  Rather, we poets are largely correct about conditions in the world, and we’re on the right side of history, but no one would even think to consult with us! Poetry is better than ever, and is more available than ever, and is more prescient than ever.  I also think poetry takes on the great issues of our time more frequently than it ever has.  There’s also a lot of bad poetry out there, and some of it is probably mine.  I don’t think bad poetry does much harm.  Most of us are working alone, anonymously, and we’re trying to make little works of art, one at a time, out of words.  It’s all hand-made and, and when it’s been made with love and care, it makes the world a better place. 

GL: What are you currently working on? Also, what are you reading at present?
AW: My next project might be a “duo,” a chapbook written with the talented poet, and my west-coast pal, Betsy Mars, author of the chapbook, Alinea.  Betsy and I have already written a bunch of poems on similar themes.  We’ve written some of these intentionally, and some of these quite accidently, and others by dint of our friendship.  Now we’re hoping to put these together into some coherent form and get them out into the world.  Another brave publisher, Tommy R. Thomas of Arroyo Seco Press, has agreed to publish it once we have it all together, and, though it might take a while, I’m looking forward to seeing what it becomes. 

What am I reading?  I read a lot of poetry online because so much of it arrives in my inbox and in my Facebook feed every day.  But on my desk is Robbi Nestor’s Narrow Bridge, Robert Wexelblatt’s Fifty Poems, and my teacher, Estha Weiner’s at the last minute--all wonderful books of poems that often make me wonder why I even bother.  Also, on my desk is Jane Liddle’s fine book of flash fiction, Murder.   I continue to be addicted to reading The New York Times, but I’m trying hard to cut back on my consumption of Trump-news.  Reading it seems to do little good.  Plus, I save articles obsessively to my Pocket app, and manage to read them at a much slower pace than they arrive in the app. 

GL:  What final words would you like to share with us?
AW: I mentioned above that Stephen Stepanchev championed me and my poetry before anyone had ever read a poem of mine.  He sent opportunities my way when I was young that I mostly squandered, but, in retrospect, were way beyond my meagre talent.  I’ve been lucky enough to have three important mentors in my life.  In addition to Prof. Stepanchev, George Cohn, an amazing teacher and teacher of teachers, taught me much of what I know about how to teach and how to treat people.  George died in 2002.  I lost another mentor, Marvin Rosenblatt, just this past month.  Marvin was a master-teacher, a master-psychologist, and he knew how to have fun.  He taught me how to work with and talk  with teenagers, which has been such an important part of my life.   Whether you’re a poet, a teacher, a plumber,  or policemen. I hope you’re lucky enough that a mentor finds you.  If you’re not so lucky to be found, go out and choose someone who will be willing and able to help you find your way.   


The Young Mortician  (1977)

Sometimes here alone at night,
I listen for the dead to speak.
I stop by the box of one
dead of a still unutterable cause,
her young face fixed
but touched by life
in the curl of an unruly hair
or the way her lips were left
half-smiling when the blood was drawn.
And if I'm patient and I wait
and let the quiet be,
I find the good in death
here in this life,
hoping and not hoping hard.
I stand dumbfounded, out of breath,
and hear the voice 
where it was left,
trapped inside the body.
……………………………………………………………

10 comments :

  1. This interview enables the reader to understand the wonderful reach of Mr. Walowitz's writing. His sensitivity, depth of understanding of human thought and feelings are outstanding.
    I particularly applaud his vision in asserting that we all profit from "good models" and his instructive vision for each of us to seek out and learn from exceptional people.

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    1. Thanks for your kind reply, Dr. Bassuk. I continue to be lucky enough to have exceptional people in my poetry-life and my "real"-life. You're one of them.

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  2. Congratulations to Gopal Lahiri and Alan Walowitz for the stimulating conversation. Alan's quiet humor is a winner. Thank you Gopal, for charting the course.

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    1. Thanks Sanjeev. It's thoughtful questions that make for a good interview.

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    2. Thanks Sanjeev for your kind words! Alan is a winner all the way!

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  3. Pretty sure I was one of the guests requesting coffee that day Al. Didn't expect Starbucks, but don't remember it being all that bad. And btw, unlike her husband, Wendy was competent in just everything she did...her coffee was always wonderful !!

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    1. This is exactly why we need poetry--to correct faulty memories and the vicissitudes of the so-called historical record.

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  4. It was my great good fortune to have had Alan as my supervising teacher when I was a student teacher of English in 1984. I was young and terrified and clueless. He somehow saw me capable of teaching and showed me, with superhuman patience and skill, how. Like Alan said in the interview, finding a good mentor is invaluable in writing, in teaching, in life.

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  5. And I never wanted to have a student-teacher after Holly.  I just knew no one else would be as good, as eager to learn, and have the patience all these years later to read an interview with me!

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  6. An amazing poem, The Mortician!! Wow. So is the interview. My sincerest apologies for taking this long to finish it. I loved the response about your mentors. So so sad. And the process stuff....so thoughtful.... This should be spoken aloud at a poetry book launch....lol, the next one. It's too good to very buried online.
    JZW

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