by Pamme Boutselis
John Sweet is currently living in the upstate wastelands (just to the north of that river with the Native American name that runs about 10 miles north of the border). He is firmly opposed to dogma, rhetoric and zealotry in all forms, as well as all political parties, organized religions, officially labeled philosophies and schools of poetry. Most of the important facts of his life (and many of the not-so-important ones) can be found in his writing, along with a healthy dose of half-truths, red herrings, clever forgeries and murmured innuendoes. Sweet has published over a dozen collections of poetry and is widely published worldwide.
Have you always written?
I started young, 12 or so I think. We lived on a hill, a mile or two outside of a small town, before the age of personal computers; the cable companies didn’t go outside of town limits in those days (no profit in it), no satellite dishes, etc., etc. We had four channels of TV and FM radio. I was a music freak from a young age, got into writing through music, which I still believe, is the best way to go. Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Doors, Zeppelin, Black Sabbath—bands whose words were totally profound to a 12-year-old. I had lots of free time on my hands and an active imagination, so I started writing my own lyrics based on existing songs. I turned a bunch of them in for a creative writing assignment in school and was very lucky to have a totally awesome English teacher, who encouraged me to keep at it, then helped steer me towards work by actual poets. I don’t think I actually wrote anything worth keeping until I was in my early 20s, but I filled notebook after notebook with everything that popped into my head.
Why poetry? What is it about this medium that continues to draw you to it?
I painted for a long while, but it got to be too much of a financial burden, and I had no place to store the paintings that I couldn’t sell. Poetry is cheaper and much more portable. It’s possibly even more rewarding. I always had a hell of a time figuring out when a painting was finished (the curse of abstract art). Poems are much easier to end.
Poetry, for me, is a great way to try and translate the visual into a different medium. I love the brevity of it, the compression of language. I like being able to put across complex ideas and emotions in a single sitting. It’s almost like sculpture, peeling away superfluous layers to reveal the heart of something. It’s a continual evolutionary process. A poem I wrote yesterday is pretty similar to one I wrote last month but, personally, I can see a huge difference between those two poems and one I wrote five years ago. I don’t mind revisiting the same images or topics over and over. It’s a challenge to try and do something different each time.
Mostly, poetry provides a catharsis that painting didn’t. I liked my paintings to be “pretty” (for lack of a better word), but with poetry it’s sometimes like I’m picking at wounds and scabs, just trying to open them up and get all the ugliness inside of me onto paper. I get worried sometimes when people write to tell me that they enjoyed a particularly nasty poem of mine that they’ve read. “Enjoyed” seems like an odd word to use for a poem that deals with genocide or a murdered child. I’m not sure who to worry about more, really, me or the reader.
Your poetry is visceral and often starkly brutal in its imagery. Where does this come from?
Again, it’s the whole catharsis thing. I’m not a fan of shock art, be it music or movies or whatever, and I try to avoid that approach in my own work. I don’t write to shock or to titillate, or even to rub anyone’s face in ugliness. I need to get the words and the ideas out onto paper. The ideas and subjects are things I feel strongly about (as does everyone, I’d guess). They’re things that need to be addressed, in my opinion, or at least put out in the open. Not every wrong can be righted—and evil seems to be a big part of human nature—but acknowledging the darkness seems to me to be a step towards maybe confronting it and taking action.
When I first started reading “serious” poetry, I’d trawl thru every independently owned bookstore I could find, looking for work that really knocked me out. I wanted something that spoke to me in plain English, something that wouldn’t sound out of place in an everyday conversation, but not a lot of the poems read like that. I’d read the blurbs on the back covers of books, and adjectives like “raw” and “real life” would be used, but the poems inside the books almost always ended up being cloudy and obtuse and stuck on the concept of capital P POETRY. I was listening to a lot of punk music and post-punk music at the time, and what I was really looking for were poems that read like those songs sounded. That’s when I started trying to write the poems that I’d been hoping to find, trying to take a lot of the POETRY out of my poetry to see what I was left with.
How important is it to you to share your writing with others?
Everything I write is for myself, which I think is the most important criteria of any artistic process. Obviously, though, I choose to put it out there for others to see, so sharing what I’ve created definitely carries some weight. I don’t consider myself to be a confessional poet, but there’s a lot of autobiography in what I write. Of course, there’s a lot in there that isn’t autobiography, too. I like to keep everything as convoluted as possible by writing lots of autobiographical stuff in the 3rd person, stories about other people in the first person, etc. etc. I change names around when names are mentioned (sometimes), and I reserve the right to deny any and all accusations from people who suspect I may have written about them (it happens sometimes). Very passive-aggressive. Ultimately, I like the work to be the focus, and not me.
I had two internet-type stalkers a few years back who initially approached me because of my writing, and one guy who I found out was plagiarizing my work (and getting published with it). He might still be doing it; I’m not sure. I know he was called out by a few people, but I’m not sure if it had any effect. Things like this make me start to rethink the idea of sharing my work. I stopped writing for about six months after the plagiarism event—just couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of someone wanting to steal the work of a pretty unknown, middle-aged poet for some sad little version of fame and glory. Ultimately, I think the writing becomes an addiction, and then once I have all of these poems filling up notebooks, I say to myself, “Well, why not put them out there….?”
Along with whatever work is floating around the Internet in e-zines, I have a blog of mainly poems, photos and self-promotion that I sometimes manage to successfully update on a regular basis.
Having written poetry for so long, what changes have you experienced in your writing? Do you approach it any differently?
It’s been evolutionary, really, and I’m not sure if I’ve fully evolved yet. My “writing in a notebook” approach has been a constant, but I’ve always tried to keep open to new ways of expressing thought, different verse structures, rhyme schemes, etc. I stopped using punctuation and capitalization years ago because I was getting too hung up on proper comma placement and nonsense like that. It was taking my focus away from the thoughts expressed, which I think is always the most important part of a poem. I’m still primarily punctuation-free, but I like to mix it up every now and then, when I feel I have a piece that benefits from more clearly delineated pauses and stops.
For a looooooooooooooong time, I never swore in my poems, but then one day I finally realized there are some topics and moments and basic statements that just need some goddamn cursing in them to drive the point home—or at least that’s my justification.
My main goal is still to keep things simple and straightforward, to use the language as a means of clear expression, as opposed to getting bogged down in it. I have nothing against Ezra Pound or Charles Olson, but I seriously doubt that all of the people who’ve ever raved to me about how great “The Cantos” or “The Maximus Poems” are have actually sat down and read them end to end and fully understood them. More power to them if they did.
The biggest evolutionary change in my writing has probably been a paring down on the word count, a moving away from a more traditional “poetic” sort of poem to something simple and clean. Emily Dickinson had the best of all possible worlds, probably. Simple, clean and poetic.
How much of an influence is music, art and photography on your writing?
Music and visual art are easily two of the biggest influences on my writing. I love the challenge of trying to express what I’ve heard or seen into poems, trying to write something using a Cubist approach, or an Abstract Expressionist one.
Again, arriving at poetry through rock music is highly recommended. Sometimes a great sounding song really falls apart when you sit down and read the lyrics with no musical accompaniment. I like to try and invert that by maybe writing something good enough NOT to need music, or maybe even something that can create in its own music while being read. I listen to different kinds of music, depending on whether I’m creating or revising, but music is a near constant in my house.
There are poets whose work I enjoy but, in general, I don’t look to poetry for influence or inspiration. Visual art, I think, may have a slight edge over music for me. At any given time, I’ve got books of paintings by Pollock, Dali, Tanguy, Kahlo, Bosch, Tanning, Marc, Klee, etc., lying around open and more stacked up on my dresser waiting their turn. And some in the car. And on the dining room table.
What takes your breath away?
Nature. Always and forever. For all of the darkness that seems to pour out in my writing, I’m still floored by the natural beauty of the world around me. Someone reviewing a book of mine a few years back tossed a few disparaging comments at me and then concluded his piece by calling me part of the new breed of “gritty urban hipster poets.” I loved it. I was floored by how far off base he was—or maybe my writing was just too obtuse.
Read Sweet’s poems, “sunflowers in autumn,” “over/out” and “dali, drunk on the eastern bank of the tioughnioga river in the year of my birth.”