Interview with Ace Boggess
ACE BOGGESS is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Escape Envy. His writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. An ex-con, he lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where he writes and tries to stay out of trouble.
“Try everything. Do everything. Experience anything you can, but don't go to prison. It's been done.”
The editors of Eucalyptus Lit recently had the privilege and opportunity to speak with author and poet Ace Boggess about his poetic path and history with writing. His works, “Another Diagnosis” and “Anything Exciting Going on in the Outside World?” feature in Issue 1, Interconnection.
How did you start writing?
When I was a kid, I used to get these crazy ideas for long action-adventure novels. I was 11 years old, and I would think, “Hey, I think I could write a novel.” I would sit down at an old typewriter and type out a chapter and be so happy about it, and, of course, it'd be terrible. I wouldn't be really thrilled. Then, a month later, I'd forgotten about it, having already thought of another idea. And this went on for a few years. But when I was in high school, I started writing songs, and really bad rhyming poetry. I've moved on from there, having most mostly spent the early 90s writing different versions of literary novels, and building my poetry.
Why do you write?
I’ve had really bad social anxiety my whole life. My entire life has pretty much been defined by anxiety. Across all the different types of writing, I didn't really choose to write poetry. I chose novels. I spent most of the 90s writing novels; I would write a novel every year. I had an agent for a while, but never saw much success. I was getting kind of discouraged by then, and I was reading a lot of poetry and writing a lot of bad poetry. But then they started getting accepted by magazines, my poems, little things here and there. That encouraged me to go forward. As the 90s wore on, I found myself publishing more and more poetry. By the time I got arrested in 2006, I was writing mostly poetry; the entire time I was locked up, I wrote only poetry. However, the way I like to say it is that I always thought of myself as a novelist, and everybody else called me a poet.
How do you find your inspiration? What is your creative process?
Oh, everything is my inspiration. One of the things about these anxiety issues that I was talking about is that I wasn't able to communicate with a lot of people when I was younger. The things that I would want to say to people I wrote in stories or poems. I was kind of secluded as a child, because of the anxiety and as I got older, and started getting out in the world, I started seeing things with the eyes of a child, because I hadn't experienced things before. I had this fascination with everything that I experience, everything I see, and I just tried to write about it. I try to write something every day, even if it's just a few lines or a paragraph or something. And I’m usually talking about what I've experienced, trying to take photographs in words.
Many poets seem to have distinct themes or motifs that they tend to explore. What are some of these themes you tend to express in your own poetry?
I live a normal life and I'm fascinated by it. And I try to laugh: to pull some kind of humanity from things, and to just form this connection to the absurd. Everything is beyond crazy for a person like me to become a drug addict and go to prison for five years. That's pretty absurd in and of itself—and it may be absurd in a disturbing way, but there's also some comedy in it. One of the big things that made my book “The Prisoners” so popular was that I was able to laugh in all these really dark situations. Going back to when you talked about connecting to people—people would read that book, and they would laugh and they would not expect to laugh and that's what makes it great. And I'm still trying to replicate that thing that I'm seeing, even if the poem that I’m publishing is just a random encounter with some deer. It's silly, and it's silly to be so fascinated by it. But I kind of live in that silliness.
How do you balance your self expression, your view of the world, with creating work that can resonate with a broader audience?
That’s the trick, isn't it? I think that the biggest part of any kind of writing is trying to say what you want to say, but in a way that someone else will receive it. And it's not always easy. I've crossed lines at times and my writing doesn't always connect. In fact, I would say probably at least a third of the poems that I write ended up being scrapped after a couple of years. You just have to try to say what you need to say, and hope that someone else can relate to it. It's almost like the poem itself is a metaphor. And not just filled with thoughts and ideas, but the poem itself is referring to a different world. I want people who can understand that metaphor to read it. I want people to look into the poems and see my life and the lives of the people that I know, to see the world around me, the good world and the bad world, the beautiful and horrible things.
How do you share your poetry with the world?
I've been submitting since before the Internet, in the old days when everything was postal mail, and you could stick three or four poems in an envelope and send it out to magazines that you found in the 400 page volume of poetry markets from that year. I just do it. I take my poems and mostly just edit them once before I send them out. The ones that come back, I edit and send out again. I don't let anything sit. I don't think about them too much once they're written. I let them go where they go and sometimes they find good homes. Sometimes they languish, sometimes I lose faith in them. But I just do it, keep doing it and keep doing it. And eventually, some of them stick. Some of them I find I didn't even realize that they were what they were. Sometimes I write things that I think are throwaways and they turn out to be really good. Sometimes I write things that I think sound like poetry and it turns out they’re not. It's just life.
How did your time in prison change how you write? How did it influence your own writing? And do you feel that your writing is different?
I think it made it more honest, a little less romantic. And also more focused, because like I said, I was writing novels mostly before that point. I mean, my dream was always to be a famous, successful novelist—a dream that was completely shattered by the early 2000s. Even so, I started having successful poetry; even though it seemed like little success, it was a lot of little successes. And they became bigger successes and they fueled me to go forward. When I got to prison, by that point, I had stopped writing novels. I kept writing poetry after the first year or so when I got accustomed to things. I just put myself entirely into poetry. I started from scratch because I didn't have any of my own poetry with me. I read and reread, as I still do, every volume of Best American Poetry that I had sent to me and donated to the prison library. So that I could go and read them again and again. And I still do that. And that’s the best thing I think you can do to grow as a poet, is to just pick up every volume and read. You see the way things are and the way things were and you really get a grip on what's been done and what's not being done.
Do you have a favorite poem or poet that you've read?
Actually, I do. David Lehman wrote these two books called “The Evening Sun” and “The Daily Mirror.” He was writing a poem every day, and he was just giving the day of the year that he wrote them. And then he published those two books. When I read them, they completely blew me away. I still reread those constantly.
Do you see yourself as a poet having been changed or influenced by either David’s work or any other work that you've read? And how do you think that change manifests in your writing?
Oh, yeah. I write a lot of poems based on questions, and they are almost a direct result of reading his books. When I first started writing these poems, I was trying to recapture the energy that I was feeling in his poems. His poems are really kinetic and just very fast and free flowing. Another author that often influences me is Adam Zagajewski. I’ll read his poetry and then actually feel my way of thinking change as I'm reading. But pretty much any poets that I read a lot of, I will feel their work when I'm writing and I'm gonna go, “Yeah, I remember reading such and such poems, and this has got that same sort of feel.” And that's usually when I know I'm doing something right. I'm not the kind of person that will steal other poems, or poets’ lines, but I will totally steal their feeling.
What advice do you have for young writers?
I've been asked that question a lot. So much, in fact, that I used it for one of the question poems. So, I'm going to give you that poem:
"Do you have any advice for young writers?"
If you step on a rattlesnake's head,
don't lift your boots. If you step on its tail,
say excuse me, as good as any option, and polite.
That's definitely a poem that you would write. I like it.
You can laugh at it. You have to be able to laugh. You're going to survive a lot, and you've got to be able to learn to laugh.
And I'm really thinking about that piece of advice because I'm still not sure what it means.
That's the point. There is no advice—there is no good advice. If you are in an MFA program, I imagine you're going to have one professor pull you to the left and one pull you to the right and one pull you up and one pull you down. And they'll all tell you these different things and you've got to figure out a way to find what's true and what's real. The best things you can do are read, write, and submit. If you do those three things, you're gonna have success. Even if you're really not any good—and I say this from experience—you're eventually going to have success. And no matter what anybody else tells you about what works and what doesn't, you have to find your own way. Some people write better in the morning, some write better in the afternoon. Some write better in the evening. Some write better on a notebook or computer or a voice recorder. Just try everything. Find out what works. That's the best advice. Try everything. Do everything. Experience anything you can, but don't go to prison. It's been done.