Michael S. Begnal, author of Ancestor Worship
How did you become a writer?
I guess the earliest stuff I wrote was song lyrics for the various bands I was in when I was a teenager. Not long after that I started writing poetry in free verse, probably trying to emulate the writers I dug at the time. Many of which I still dig now. But at some point, later, I figured out that poetry is not just simple self-expression, that it’s actually about other things, like, oh, language, images.
What collections do you have out, and published by whom?
In reverse chronological order, Ancestor Worship was published in 2007 by the Irish press Salmon Poetry; Mercury, the Dime came out in 2005, and The Lakes of Coma in 2003, the latter two published by the Pittsburgh-based Six Gallery Press.
Do you read your reviews?
Does it matter to you whether they are good or bad reviews?
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter at all, in the sense that of course I prefer them to be good reviews. But it doesn’t upset me if someone doesn’t like what I’ve published. Once you put something out there you can’t control how it’s going to be perceived by other people. You can’t stand over their shoulders and tell them how to read it or why they should like it. People’s perceptions of your work can be pretty arbitrary and subjective, and that’s just the way it is. I suppose the worst thing would be simply to be ignored and not have a book reviewed somewhere at all.
Has a review ever changed your perspective on your work?
I still believe in my own writing whether a review is good or bad. Most have been good so far, anyway. I keep waiting for the blistering attacks, but they haven’t happened yet. Maybe next time. One journal gave a bad review to The Lakes of Coma a number of years back, but I can’t say that it did anything to change my perspective. However, a few people whose opinions I respect have made private criticisms from time to time that I have found to be worthwhile.
Do you read a great deal?
Of course. I’m kind of suspicious of poets who claim they don’t read other poets, and I have heard a couple people say that. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Poetry is part of an ongoing history. You can’t know what good writing is if you don’t read it. That said, one must always be as original as possible.
What do you think is the most integral quality to developing as a writer?
Maybe realizing that it’s not all about you, even if it is about you to a certain degree. Realizing that the poetry is in the words on the paper or the words spoken in breath. That while it may be infused with deep feeling, poetry is inherently about form. This is not to say you have to write in a formalist manner. But poetry is intrinsically an artistic mode of expression. If not, then standard prose would be enough, right? Well, speaking for myself I guess. But here’s what I mean. One time Jack Kerouac was asked how he liked fame, and he said, “It’s like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street.” That was a poetic response. He didn’t say, for example, “I feel lonely and alienated.”
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
That is a hard question to answer, because most of the writers I used to think I was being influenced by, I see now aren’t really very similar in style to what I have actually written. But, Kerouac has always been very important to me, and still is. I suppose I used to think that I was writing like him even if it wasn’t ultimately that true. Amiri Baraka is also majorly important. In my mind I think Baraka has been influential in some way, but I don’t know if anyone else would see that. James Liddy, the Irish poet, has permeated my sense of what it means to be a poet. Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, an Irish Gaelic poet who died in 1729, sometimes comes to me in dreams. His work is unsurpassable. So is that of drunken 8th-century Chinese poet Li Po. Let’s see, when I was 19 years old I met Lawrence Durrell and told him I was a poet, and he smiled this big smile and told me to do it. Also, the music of the Stooges is an endless source of artistic inspiration.
Do you think about your body of work?
Of course. I’m not sure quite how you mean, but I am a serious writer so I do think about those kinds of things.
Do you have a lot of work in progress?
The next collection is done.
Do you have the whole poem figured out before you write it?
The poem comes into being in the process of writing it.
What is a typical day for you?
Wake up, finish off the beer sitting by my bed from the night before, open another one, start writing.... Just kidding. Sometimes I wish that was the truth, though. Occasionally it is, or something like that.
If you could have written one book in history, what book would it be?
Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin.
What would you be doing for a living if you weren’t a writer?
Well, it’s not that writing is a living in itself. But maybe it is if you take into consideration my related gig as a college writing instructor. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I suppose the only other alternative career I could imagine for myself would be if any of the various bands I used to be in had made it big and I was a successful rock’n’roller. If not that either, then maybe the Post Office or something.
Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry) is available here