Tim Seibles: ‘We need laughter as much as the capacity to be serious’

Acclaimed poet is one of several special guests at Savannah State University event for National Poetry Month

click to enlarge Tim Seibles: ‘We need laughter as much as the capacity to be serious’
Portrait of Tim Seibles by Panhandle Slim

IN A unique event marking National Poetry Month, Savannah State University will honor some of the great voices in modern American poetry, from the written word to storytelling to hip-hop.

There will be readings, workshops, and the unveiling of a series of portraits by local artist Panhandle Slim, commissioned by Estuary, SSU’s literary magazine.

The honorees, each depicted in Panhandle Slim’s signature colorful style, are Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Kendrick Lamar, Tim Seibles, SSU adjunct instructor and Walt Whitman Award winner Sjohnna McCray, SSU adjunct instructor and storyteller A. Jamal Toure, Geechee author and storyteller Cornelia Bailey, and SSU lecturer and hip-hop legend Edward Fletcher, aka Duke Bootee. 

Their portraits will be unveiled in the lobby of Payne Hall on Thursday, April 21, at 4:30 p.m. Bailey, Fletcher, Toure, Seibles and Panhandle Slim will be in attendance. 

National Book Award nominee Tim Seibles will also hold a student workshop and two public readings. The Philadelphia native is the author of five critically acclaimed books of poetry and is professor of English and Creative Writing at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

click to enlarge Tim Seibles: ‘We need laughter as much as the capacity to be serious’
Jennifer Marsh
Tim Seibles, National Book Award nominee

We spoke to Seibles last week.

Poetry seems to be in kind of a renaissance. The last time I remember poetry getting so much attention was the big Spoken Word open mic boom. Did that sort of fade away?

Tim Seibles: Oh, people are still doing open mics! That's not going to fade away. It's not as big a fad as it once was, but people are still very serious about it.

I always tell them it’s great to perform well and recite and be dramatic, but it will be that much better if you know what you’re doing and where you’re going with your writing.

If a student says, “I only want to be a spoken word artist,” I might say, well, you probably don’t want to be in my class. But let’s see what happens when your spoken word poems are subjected to critique, and you’re pushed to find ways to improve them. If they think their work is beyond critique, they won’t last long.

If someone doesn’t want to write poetry that will stand up on the page as well as it does out on the air, that’s fine, it’s their business. But it’s not my approach.

Let’s turn that around. At this stage of your well-established career, how might you subject yourself to critique?

I don't take workshops so much anymore, though I've certainly taken many, many workshops over the years. What you hope is the things you learn both as an undergrad and a graduate student, and in writing workshops, will continue all your life. One of the ways is to read poets you think are doing things you may not know how to do, but things you just like very much.

There comes a time you realize there’s only so much other people can teach you, and then you have to be smart and careful enough to make the best decisions about your work.

Someone like Toni Morrison or Langston Hughes, for example, later in their lives you wouldn’t tell them how to write! The thing you have to remember, though, is they have fought hard to get where they are and are more critical of their own work than others might be. If your ego isn’t out of control, your standards will keep getting higher and higher as you age as a writer.

You will hold a workshop with Savannah State students. As an educator, do you find poetry has trouble translating to a 140-character social media world?

Reading has fallen to some extent into the shadow of the Tweet, of the glowing screen, of the video game. Reading patiently and thoughtfully has become somewhat under siege in the last 20 years. Students are less patient as readers and consequently less patient as writers.

Truthfully even with a sonnet, in terms of serious reading some students find it a little intimidating, because they’re not used to sitting down to read, to really spend time looking at a poem. What it says, how it says what it says, why the author chose this word rather than another word.

Right now because of the speed of screen culture, some students have lost the feel for reading patiently in long and short form.

You aren’t afraid of long form poems.

No, I’m not! (laughs) When you work at the longer end of the spectrum you gain more and more knowledge about how a poem or story moves. Now, if I'm writing a haiku, of course I only have three lines in 17 syllables. You can only mess it up so many ways! (laughs)

Do you ever discourage young poets from topics they just might not have enough life experience with?

No. You have to let them write what they feel they must write about. If they don't have a complex grasp of issues of poverty and racism, well, let them feel moved to begin. If they feel compelled to write, you've got to let them go, and say this is how you might do this more convincingly.

Maybe they begin by talking about one event. Then you get them trying to imagine scenarios in which poverty plays a part, prison life plays a part. Add a dimension to get closer to the kind of perspective that would make the poem more convincing.

You’re known for writing on serious topics such as racism and poverty, but your sense of humor is never far away.

I very much believe that poetry should be able to be extremely serious, and also to enter realms that tickle us.

It’s a reflection of the whole spectrum of human feeling. By all means, be morbidly serious if you must be. You can write about something as serious as death, but at the same time we need laughter as much as the capacity to be serious.

I like to run the gamut as much as I can. That’s rooted in the way I was taught at my first workshops. Teachers would read poems of all kinds. I want that same wit in what I do.

You write about many topics particular to the African American experience, but your work covers a lot of ground and is relatable to pretty much anybody. Do you sometimes feel pigeonholed as a quote/unquote “black poet?”

Well, I often find my books in the Black Literature section of bookstores. I don’t mind that too much. It does allow people to find my work more easily in a bookstore.

My goal is to be in as wide a spectrum as I can. I know black life, I lived in urban Philadelphia. And I’ve also been lucky enough to spend time outside of urban settings. I find beauty in all kinds of things.

I love the urban dialect black people speak. And I love the elegant English of Shakespeare. Each carries its own freight.

But if someone says, “He’s a great black poet,” there are two ways to take that. Certainly, I’m black, I’m proud to be black, and I’m always glad when someone likes my poetry. Poetry reflects my experience as a black man in America, but it’s also Poetry with a capital P, encompassing whatever territory is my wont.

To call me a “black poet” is correct, but you never hear someone called a “white poet.” Langston Hughes, for example, is a black poet but he’s mostly a great poet.

I don’t know, maybe we should talk about someone like Walt Whitman as a “great white poet.” I generally want people to be more aware of what they’re saying.

None of us gets a pass. Everyone is to some extent beholden to the social context you live in and how you live in it.


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