By Frank Watson
For over 35 years, at mostly inconvenient times, DM Lovic has been scrawling onto small scraps of paper: character ideas and lyrics, rhymes and observations that have been used in hundreds of songs, many poems, a few screenplays and a couple musicals. He's happy with more of this output than he'd like to forget, which makes him feel mildly successful in life. He lives with a wife who should have had less patience with him over their 19 years, a college-aged daughter he once called Little Bear, a middle son who is likely to outdo everything he's done creatively and youngest son who doesn't know the meaning of "shhh," in a red-brick house in the middle of the town to which he swore he'd never move back.
What is the background of your poem, "Thoughts on a Painting By Bouguereau (The Nut Gatherers)"? Where were you when you saw it? How familiar were you with the painting and painter before you saw it? What led to all the stories you are describing in the poem? Did you just look at it and imagine the elements coming to life? Did you read any analyses of the poem or listen to any lectures that deepened your initial appreciation? It seems you saw a lot more in the painting than a casual viewer might.
Well, you’ve really unlocked something here: a big truth behind how I feel poetry more than think it. Also, you seem to have unlocked my brain a bit, too, because it’s 6AM the day after I saw this question and I have been running this question around in my head from the time I woke up. Finally, I had to get out of bed and come work on the answer…
So, I was familiar with Bouguereau before I saw The Nut Gatherers. I have a print of a painting called The Shepherdess 1889 which hung in our house for quite some time before my wife replaced it (grr).
I belong to a writer’s group here in Pittsburgh called “Writers At Work.” The woman (now friend) who runs the group, Hana Haatainen-Caye, gave an assignment one week to write a 6 or 700 word story on the painting The Nut Gatherers. The mixture of the painting and the fact that had been assigned to put into words what I saw in it was a magical combination for me, because what I saw in there was something that had always been of extreme significance to me: innocence… and maybe, more particularly, innocence lost.
It gave me the opportunity to wrestle with my extreme unease with and in the modern world – a place I’ve never felt as if I belonged – and juxtapose it with the world in which those little girls in the painting lived (I assume there were real girls who posed for the picture in 1882).
The 1880s, for me, are the last years in an age I find myself wanting to go back to… just before the real turnover in our world from what was primarily an agrarian society to the dominance of the industrial age.
It’s a shift that I regret happened… and it bothers me to no end, apparently, because I can’t stop thinking about it. Ha. After these years, writers and thinkers “modernized” and “progressed.” For me, this forms a hard cut-off point. My interest in painters, novelists and poets stops in the 1880s.
There’s a lot than I could say about the machine-age and the effect I believe it’s had on us all, but rather than bore people too much, I’ll simply say I am of the belief that its effects are negative on the whole. We traded quality of life for quantity – and it was a bad trade, in my opinion.
Now, 140 years later, I really think our minds are incapable of understanding or experiencing the simplicity that those little girls in the painting understood and lived. We can only long for the ideal of it – but we can’t grasp it anymore. Our modern eyes and minds enter into the equation and ruin what once was.
(As for having read any analysis of the painting before I wrote the poem, I have no idea what academic “experts” see in the painting or know about its origin… Apparently, there are some modern “experts” who laugh at Bouguereau’s work and find it of no significance. Ha. I guess this is why I never listen to academic experts!)
Have you tried painting or have the impulse to express your thoughts and ideas through painting? Have any painters been particular influential to you, either in the development of your thought or creative way of thinking, or directly through your poetry? Have other paintings or artwork inspired you in a similar way as The Nut Gatherers?
Yes, when I was younger, I drew… Let’s just say it was a good thing I quit before I got to the paint set and made something truly lasting. However, I do find inspiration in people who actually knew how to paint…. I have a real love for many of the impressionist painters, including Monet, Renoir, Degas… and really, jumping out of the time period by a few hundred years, Pieter Bruegel, both father and son who painted scenes (sometime quite horrific) of Dutch peasant life in the 1500s.
But, if there’s one painter that has entered most into what I’ve done creatively, it’s Vincent Van Gogh. Interestingly, he died in 1890 – perfect timing as far as I’m concerned, since he never modernized in the way post-1880s artists did…
Starry Nights and some other paintings of his that most people love? Meh… I love the stacks of wheat… the sunflowers… the peasants working… the rooms that grew more crooked as his mind wandered deeper into the territory of mental breakdown. The swirling colors. That wonderful, deep and dulled yellow he globbed on the canvas. I can’t explain it well, except to say he painted in the language my soul seems to speak… Many things I’ve written over the years take place in this very world that Van Gogh painted. He’s been a muse to me since I was 16.
Can you identify specific creative influences when you create a new work, or do they all kind of form mysteriously in your subconscious?
Definitely a sub-conscious thing. Like most writers, I take in everything pretty deeply. Many writers, it seems, take in physical details and are able to use these to enhance description and bring a world that doesn’t exist into what reads like a mental reality… My brain does not retain physical details very well at all. What it does retain are emotional and psychological details – the FEELING of things. So, I wrote earlier that I feel poetry much more than I think it. And this is why. I am writing from the feelings I’ve gathered over the years, not from the details of physical things.
What was the inspiration for "Plague Year?" How did you develop the theme? It seems to have a dark fairy tale quality to it.
The answer to this allows me to relive a great memory but it also reveals that I’m probably an awful person, so let’s get right to it! ha
In 2010, I took a break from the real world and taught half-time at a Christian school. (The misjudgment of the otherwise smart individuals who hired me should be excused… they were in a bind.) One of the classes I taught was British Literature. In the AP class, we had a lot of creative kids with whom I loved to share new story ideas. They got so excited discussing the ideas and gave me great material to think about!
So, one of these ideas came about after reading for class A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Dafoe. I’ll grant you, I don’t think he was trying to be funny when he wrote it, but the class and I couldn’t help but break into laughter throughout. It really is such a gruesome tale, one has the choice upon reading it of either sinking into a deep depression or laughing oneself out of one. We took the latter route.
At some point, as we read aloud, I stopped the proceedings to share a morbid idea… “What if this was a pop-up book for children?” The ideas started to fly and soon we had constructed a loose outline for A Children’s Pop-Up Book of the Plague Years, which included scratch-n-sniff, pop-out grossness and pictures of Death dancing through town, playing a flute to lure the infected rats toward his intended victims. Really, a brilliant idea when you think about it… haha.
The idea sat. A few years later, I met a brilliant artist who I thought would be perfect to illustrate such a book. In an attempt to woo him, I put together a proposal which, I thought, should include a more serious poem that would appear at the beginning of the book. Voila! On the Plague Year: London, 1665 was born.
Unfortunately, though he seemed very interested, he was also very busy. So, the Children’s Pop-Up Book of the Plague Years is still a concept ready to be snatched up!
What led you to the form or the poem? Did you evolve into this as you were working with your idea or did you set out to write in this way?
I hope it’s not too disappointing for you to learn that I did not aim toward any particular meter or rhyme scheme. Although I understand form, I have always been an intuitive writer. Unless I am writing a Shakespearean sonnet (which I have done once, I believe), Haiku or a Limerick (each of which I may have done twice), I simply write in the feel that appears on the tip of the pencil as I put to words an idea that I can’t shake.
There is a feel – a rhythm to every idea for me… and it usually bounces up and down but has obvious (to me) cut-off points when the bouncing should stop, or trick you and continue onto the next line. So, I feel poetry MUCH more than I ever think poetry. Wow. Yes. That’s the complete truth of it. It’s a song from inside – always. Whether it originates in there or is of other origins at conception, I’m not sure… though I have my theories.
What is your background? I feel a kind of musical element to the poem, how much has that influenced you on the poetry side? Who are your favorite poets, writers, musicians, artists, etc., and how have they influenced you? What about their work has had an impact?
First off, I think every writer in the world would love to answer this question with the expectation that others will read it. It’s sort of the writer raison d’etre.
My background with writing poetry is very much intertwined with music and lyrics. I started writing poetry when I was 11 or 12. My love for music – highly melodic music that was interesting lyrically – preceded my beginning attempts to rhyme. Sometime in the late 70s (I was born in 1970), I found some albums in the basement, which included movie and stage soundtracks like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music and Westside Story, as well as the Grandaddy of all highly melodic music that was interesting lyrically – Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band!
God – what a rush of memory that brings back! So, yeah – there’s my initial reservoir of inspiration. I was mesmerized by it all – the complexity of lyrics sung so sweetly – intertwining melodies, rhythms and rhymes. I don’t think I could have been any more tripped out by this discovery had I discovered a stash of pot in the basement! The music and words hit me like a drug and I suppose I became addicted to it all…
So, when I started writing poetry a couple years later, I had some very high expectations for myself. The simple stuff kids write at age 11 or so was simply not good enough for what I wished to accomplish. I wanted to write like those great writers of Broadway musicals, or like John Lennon. So I started to write “lyrics.” Not to music, just lyrics to songs that might be composed. Notebooks and Notebooks full of lyrics. God –Awful lyrics!! Haha.
Skipping ahead to 9th or 10th grade. a teacher in my school decided to start a Humanities class. We studied great painters, sculptors and, of course, poets.
Two of these poets really blew my mind… John Keats and Edgar Alan Poe, The particular poems that did it for me and set me off on a lifetime of rhyming were Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Poe’s The Raven.
Each of those poems is highly lyrical and melodic. They’re also, topically-speaking, whimsical and fantastic. Those adjectives just seem to fit the ideal form I had in my head of what words, at their best, could be. So, I found that I began to write in this style from the 1800s and, since I have never felt like writing any differently since then, I continue to do it today!
My love for music continued my whole life and I was inspired all along by some really great songwriters like: Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart (of the pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein songwriting team Rodgers and Hart), Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Andy Partridge of XTC, Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith, Morrissey of The Smiths, Steven Sondheim.
Do you follow a regular writing schedule or do you do it as the inspiration comes? What is your day like?
Well, writing for me has become like all the other interests that I have… a one-off hobby as I get inspired. Keep in mind that I wrote pretty obsessively for over 30 years before the well started to dry up! I actually became a musician in my later teens and wrote hundreds of songs.
Then, in my mid-twenties, I started to write screenplays, too. I’ve also written two musicals (most recently in 2010-2011). I really would put my output as a writer up against anyone I know. Now, that means nothing on its own of course, because, obviously, it could all stink! Haha. But, I’ve definitely put lots and lots of words to paper over the years. And, as my wife will tell you, I have all the notebooks to prove it!
How do you see yourself developing going forward, poetically or otherwise?
Going forward, I see myself regressing. Little joke.
It’s hard to say. Life is complicated right now and that’s, I’m sure, a huge part of the lull in output. I have a family – a wife (Alane), a daughter in college (Emma), a ten year-old son (Jude) and a four year-old son (Eli). I also have a full-time job, a business I started and about five other hobbies I continue to not be able to do…
Some years from now, when things slow down a little (assuming I make it there -- not being morbid, but life is clearly unpredictable, so I try not to be presumptuous) I see myself writing a lot of poetry again – and finishing an epic, Irish-inspired poem I started some years back which is stuck at about 75% complete.
I won’t change any, as a poet, at this point, I don’t think. It’s like with guitar… I got as good as I was going to get at about 25 years-old. It’s all been a plateau since then. I believe the same is true of my poetry, which also peaked and stabilized around that time.
How do you like to begin writing? Straight on the computer, pen and paper, etc?
Always on paper first… since I started at age 11. Notebooks…. An idea at first – a little ball of energy in my mind that represents a very full and complete thought. Then I allow it to become a feeling (somehow) instead of a thought… Then, a first line, usually, before anything else… Then short descriptive paragraphs of what each stanza will say… and then the hard work – wrangling and wrestling words to bend into the proper shapes at just the right moment for the just the right number of beats.
Lots of laying on the back in frustration, pacing around rubbing my forehead and chin and a little jumping up and down and swearing. Finally, it’s all there on the page in a first draft. So, I get ruthless with myself and weed out anything that sounds clichéd or sounds like anyone else’s work, or sounds anything less than intelligent.
Final trimmings involve trying different sound (word) combinations that fit the syllables to see what feels and sounds right when read aloud. As a last step, I give it to my sister Laura Lovic-Lindsey who will usually tell me how much she loves it… which is why I give it to her and no one else!
What recommendations do you have for beginning poets?
Young poets… young poets who are real poets in their souls hardly need any recommendation from me as they will be obsessively writing and thinking it’s all extremely important work! Haha! This is GOOD, by the way, I am NOT mocking it. God, I miss those days when I was so inspired and so convinced that what I had to say was going to matter. The truth is, it really might! You only know in retrospect if your feeling about this was correct or not. In my case, I had limited reach, to be sure. Life got in the way, perhaps – but that was a good thing I would never trade for artistic success, so what can I say?
I can only give the advice that every older person who’s done it for years gives to every younger person who doesn’t want to hear it… WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. It REALLY is the only accurate answer to that question.
Hm… But, perhaps there is one more addition that could be helpful… (This only applies to people who are good self-assessors and know they have a talent. If you don’t know that you’re one of those people, it’s really best to make it a wonderful hobby.)
Don’t get in your own way by overthinking it all or trying to meet someone else’s expectations. Find YOUR voice and if it goes against the grain, ALL THE BETTER! Believe in it even some stodgy professor turns up her nose at you… Believe it when you’ve received your 100th rejection letter…
I’m convinced that the only reason people don’t end up winning at SOME point is that they give up before they get there. Of course, good distractions get in the way and I could have a lot to say about the inherent goodness of dropping your personal goals for things like someone you love and loves you back, or kids… but that’s a personal bias.
What is your philosophy on passing on your creative endeavors to your children? Do you believe that the creative practices can be taught or do you think it's the type of thing you either have or you don't? Given that your sister, Laura Lovic-Lindsey, is also a talented poet, it seems that the creative gene runs in your family to some degree.
I have three kids – Emma is in college, Jude is 10 and Eli is 4.
Part of the reason I’m okay with my writing being somewhat in recession at the moment, is because they are showing their own artistic inclinations and I’m much more excited about seeing them do it than I am about doing it myself. Emma, I believe, is a writer who doesn’t know it yet, but Jude has been obsessed with creativity since he was < 4 years old. He started writing and illustrating books at age 4 and has found many outlets for creativity since. I have my eye on that one… he has all the creativity I had in my prime but 10 times the ability to focus. Eli… we’ll see. But, as you said, the genetics are probably there for them.
As for purposefully passing on something – teaching them to be able to do what I do… blah. I’m of the belief that you are born having been sprinkled with a particular level of potential creatively… and that potential will make itself known to you at some point and you can choose to exercise it by doing it over and over again – and if it was “meant to be,” then it will be. There’s no sense, in my opinion, trying to squeeze juice out of a dry orange, as it were. Weird metaphor. But, I don’t think it NEEDS to be nor CAN be taught in any way.
I do, however, believe that parents can either fan into a flame the creative pilot light in each child’s life, or they can snuff it out. Creatively speaking, it’s my job as a Dad to watch and notice where my children show artistic promise and then do subtle things to inspire and encourage them on that path, so they want to discover more. I don’t go overboard with this because half of the process by which the gift comes to full fruition is the struggle to get there. Handing it to them fully, to me, diminishes the gift…
One of my great hopes as a parent is that my children will outdo me creatively. That would be such a satisfying gift to receive. It’s not a necessary gift, of course, but I do hope it happens.