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Interview with Martin Elster, winner of Poetry Nook’s 94th Weekly Poetry Contest

By Frank Watson
What is the background to the poem, “Cherry Blossom Reverie?” Where did you hear Keiko Abe play? Did you immediately start thinking of the poem or did it start coming to you over time?
After the 2011 Japan tsunami and earthquake, there was a call for poems, stories, and artwork for an anthology entitled New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan. All the proceeds would go to the Japanese Red Cross. Here is a link to the book: 
I was interested in contributing something to the effort. Now, in my other life as a percussionist, one of the many instruments I play is the marimba, for which I have composed a fair amount of music. So while ruminating on what kind of poem to write, I thought I would pay homage to the influential Japanese marimba virtuoso, Keiko Abe. I have studied some of her music, have heard recordings, and have watched her on video. One of her most famous pieces is entitled “Dream of the Cherry Blossoms.” As you know, those flowers are an elemental symbol for spring in Japanese culture and make frequent appearances in haiku. Here are a couple of recordings of the piece: 

How did you make the poem into the terza rima form? Did it sort of naturally form in the way you were thinking or was there some particular motivation?
Great question! I have a fondness for writing in meter. So, chances are, I found a tetrameter line I liked, then another, explored some possibilities on how to develop them, decided to try terza rima, found it was going somewhere, and went with it. 

How has Japanese literature and culture influenced your work? What themes or images do you find persisting in your mind as you compose new work? I’ve found the image of Yuki Onna (Snow Woman) to be a haunting one that recurs to me, as well as the traveling monk-poets who capture so much essence in the most subtle of images. What other international influences have been important to you?
Yuki Onna leaving no footprints calls to mind a poem I once wrote called “The Black Dog of the Hanging Hills,” which, instead of leaving no footprints, leaves no paw prints! It’s a ghost story based on a local legend originating from Meriden Connecticut. But Yuki Onna seems particularly dangerous, freezing people with her breath or leading them astray so they die of exposure to the winter weather. Parents searching for their lost children are most susceptible to her tactics; when they take a child from her arms, they freeze in place. She also blows peoples’ doors in to kill them with the icy gust. That is, indeed, a haunting image, one which would be interesting to explore.

Since we are now talking about Japanese influences, another poem of mine which appeared in New Sun Rising is entitled “The Stonecutter.” It’s a verse rendering of a Japanese folk tale. I’ve read a lot of haiku and have written some, but find that writing it in English is thorny. I recently read some poems from a book featuring the two ancient Chinese poets Tu Fu and Su Shi. I plan to borrow that library book again and study it further. I was recently invited to contribute to an upcoming anthology of poems about Africa. The editor has already taken a poem about Cape hunting dogs. And I will give him a poem about the Kalenjin of Kenya, the worlds best distance runners. The book is due to come out at the end of the year.
What other international influences have been important to you?
Other poetic traditions which I have explored include the Persian ghazal, many of the early French fixed forms, an old Spanish form called the ovillejo, as well as Sapphics and hendecasyllabics from ancient Greece.
When did you first get interested in poetry? When did you start writing? 

At the end of 1999, a melody I was playing on the marimba, in mixed meters (or in poetry lingo, heterometric), kept running through my mind. I found myself putting words to it, and writing a series of poems, each with the exact same form, the form of the melody. After that little project, I read a small book of limericks by Warren Benson. All of the limericks are about percussion and percussionists. I found it quite entertaining and wanted to write my own, but on a different topic: dogs. After three years of writing about the canid clan, I had enough material for a collection and had it published in 2003 (with a second edition in 2005). The book was called There’s a Dog in the Heavens!: A Universe of Canine Verse, which is now out of print.

Do you have any other thematic works you’re toying with after There’s a Dog in the Heavens! or are you more interested in just developing a strong body of work to put in a diverse collection?

I haven’t aimed at such a book-length theme since then, but I have enough poems now to divide a collection into a few or several different topics, such as nature, science and SF, poems about life in general, as well as some light verse. Alternatively, I could put some chapbooks together on different themes. Now you’ve got me pondering!

How do you view your development as a poet? Where would you like to go? What are your goals?
By then I was seriously involved with the art, and continued working on my craft. I participated in a local poetry group, and later joined the online poetry workshop, “Eratosphere.” I found that critiquing other poets’ poems and workshopping my own helped me improve exponentially. I am hoping, at some point, to publish another collection of the work I’ve done over the last ten years or so.

What are your major influences?
I read a great deal of poetry, including much that appears in Poetry Nook. I enjoy both formal and free verse. I have a soft spot, however, for poetry in meter, and delight in poets of various eras, but especially the work of more recent poets. Edward Lear and Ogden Nash influenced me early on, especially while I was working on the dog book. The ballads of Robert W. Service and Rudyard Kipling, and particularly the lyrics of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur, as well as other early twentieth century and more modern formalists, have been important to my stylistic development.

What is your philosophy in writing poetry?
If you mean, do I have a guiding principal I go by, there are a few things I could say. I like this quote by Igor Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” That has something to do with why I like writing in meter and form.

I’m sure my background in music and, especially, percussion has been a big factor in my penchant for strong rhythm in my writing. I feel that my migration from composing music to composing poetry was a pretty natural thing. The two art forms have so much in common. They are both time arts with rhythm and cadence. 

I also think reading a lot, not just poetry but also fiction and nonfiction, generates ideas. Apart from reading, being in nature and observing the natural world, as well as people, play a big role in my writing. 

Another important thing is studying how to say things in different ways, using correct grammar and syntax, as well as finding the right voice for each kind of poem.
I’m very interested in how a poem sounds, the sonics of it. I’m forever tinkering with combinations of words to explore alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme and other effects, at times producing a sense of euphony, at other times dissonance, mirroring the content. For example, in the first stanza of “Cherry Blossom Reverie,” there are four words which begin with an “f” sound, and there is the alliteration/assonance of “cloud of flowers.” All this creates a mellifluous tone.

One of the most important things is taking time to revise. I am a big reviser.

A supportive friend is also great. And I have been fortune to have a friend like that. She moved far away, but we spend lots of time on the phone, and I often ask her for feedback on my work.

You mentioned you’re a big believer in revision. Realizing there’s probably a large range, how long do you usually spend revising vs the initial draft? How often do you save a “false start” through revision or do you find that it works best with a solid idea that just needs some polishing?

I suppose all of the situations you mention apply to my revision process at various times and with various kinds of poems. I have taken awful poems and completely reworked them into ones I actually like. And I’ve revised pretty good poems and made them worse. I try to keep all my drafts — just in case. 

Do you follow a regular writing schedule or write as whim takes you?
I’ve gone through various phases — at times writing a poem or more a day, at other times going by whim. Writing for a specific theme, let’s say for a journal or a contest, often motivates me and sparks my imagination. I tend to explore the topic in as many ways as I can before whatever deadline they have. Then I will write nearly non-stop until I get something I like.

What writing method works for you best? I.e., pen and paper, typewriter, computer, etc. Is it different for your first draft and final draft?
I generally prefer to write using my computer, though I don’t mind using pen and paper. I sometimes jot down ideas and lines on whatever paper is handy. If I’m out of the house and think of lines, and don’t have anything to write with, I try to memorize them until I get home. Lines will often come to me when I’m lying in bed at night or in the morning, especially modifications of a poem I’m working on. I also write during breaks or when I’m sitting between pieces during Hartford Symphony rehearsals.

What’s been your experience with publishing your work?
After my dog book came out, I began sending work out to various journals, most of it rejected. Honing my craft began to pay off, however, and progressively over the years I have had numerous poems appear in journals and anthologies.

You mentioned the influence of your music background in your penchant for rhythm and meter. Could you talk a little more about your music background? What similarities and differences do you find in composing music vs composing poetry? Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated by the intersection and relationship between music and poetry. In particular, my favorite singers tend to be beautiful lyricists, such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom are also poets. But I’ve also felt other forms, such as jazz, are conducive to poetry and have tried to explore that, despite my weak musical background. So I’d be interested in your thoughts and insights on the matter given your background in both forms.

One of the really fun things about composing music and poetry is that, when you start, you have no idea where it’s going till it gets there. It’s like going for a hike in the woods, getting totally lost, observing the various trees, ferns, wildflowers, the wildlife, the wind and clouds, the music of the birds, searching, searching, and finally finding your way back out, but via a completely different path from any you might have expected. If you allow the poem to lead you along on whatever trail it wishes to take, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the end. 

But here are some more concrete similarities between music and poetry: they each contain, in various degrees, rhythm, expression, and emotion. We see everywhere the rhythms in nature: The cycle of glacial advances and retreats (due in part to the wobbling of Earth on its axis), the 11-year cycle of sunspots (the sun having a bad case of ache), seasons, tides, hearts beating, lungs breathing, ocean waves breaking, wings flapping, whale and bird song, crickets chirping, atoms and molecules undulating, and superstrings (the one-dimensional objects in string theory) vibrating like the strings of a violin at different frequencies which produce all the elementary particles. The orbiting of two neutron stars generate gravitational waves, which detectors have recently found. The universe itself might contract and expand rhythmically (in some theories). The music in poetry and the poetry in music perhaps echo such universal rhythms. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music “the universal language of mankind.” 

And there are musical compositions whose titles allude to poetry or song, yet don’t actually contain words, such as “The Poem of Ecstasy” by Alexander Scriabin or Songs Without Words by Felix Mendelssohn.

There are also big differences, however, which relate to notation and logistics. Notating a score can be enormously complex, and then you need to bring musicians together (each with their own part) to rehearse and perform the piece; whereas you can write a poem almost anywhere as long as you have a pencil and some paper, and recite it to a friend or whomever is willing to listen. 

Music publishers nowadays don’t feel like reading through a score; they’d prefer to simply hear it. That could be challenging for the composer. Editors of literary journals, however, don’t mind reading through a poem, though they may also like to hear it. So I have found that it’s generally easier to get a poem published than a piece of music.

As far as my music background goes, I had piano lessons when I was about 6 years old, then went off on another path for a bit drawing pictures, and then (in fifth grade) began studying percussion. I began composing quite early — some music for piano, then percussion ensembles, and then for band, orchestra, and chamber groups (both tonal as well as modernistic and aleatoric pieces). I attended The Hartt School of Music, doing a double major in composition and percussion. I auditioned in my early twenties for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and have been playing with them ever since. I’ve also played with several other local Connecticut orchestras, as well as Medieval and Renaissance groups, and for many years played marimba and percussion in a mariachi band.

Speaking of the songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and songs in general, they are not just music, but poetry. Music is poetry in the larger sense of the word. I recently purchased an anthology called The 20th Century In Poetry (edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae). One of the poems which appear in the book is “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Why not? It’s among the best poems of the century.

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to recently? What attracted you to it? What influence, if any, has it had?
Besides the poems in the aforementioned book, I’ve been reading poems online (including at Poetry Nook). I recently read a number of poems of John Clare, the nature poet.
Also Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which I found delightful. Now I’m starting on her House of Light, New and Selected Poems, as well as Long Life, which are essays.
I regularly read science news at Science Daily. I just finished a couple of physics/cosmology books, one entitled Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin and the other Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos, by Seth Lloyd. I often get ideas from reading about nature, but especially from observing it firsthand. I frequently watch the stars and planets on clear nights, and study the plants and creatures in my neighborhood, mostly while walking, sometimes with my rat terrier. 

How did you hear about Poetry Nook?
If I recall, I did a search for certain kinds of poetic forms and, by chance, found this great website. And I’m glad I did!