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On Writing and Poetry: Harry Calhoun in Conversation
“This is just brilliant. The whole interview is incredible… I’m… REALLY appreciative of some seriously good advice from a fellow writer.” Mark Howell, Senior Writer, Solares Hill
Harry Calhoun’s picture could appear beside the dictionary definition for “journeyman.” Living proof that not all writers have to be famous or stick to one type of writing to be successful, Calhoun has found frequent editorial favor as a poet since 1980 and was a widely published freelance article and literary essay writer in the 80s and 90s. In addition, he has edited a poetry magazine and a trade magazine for the housing industry and placed poetry and fiction pieces in magazines such as Thunder Sandwich and The Islander. He has been an award-winning marketing writer for multinational companies such as GE and IBM for the past twenty years.
Trina Allen is a freelance writer and editor who has read and enjoyed much of Calhoun’s work.
Trina Allen: Your poetry has gotten you the most recognition in publications. To what do you attribute your success?
Harry Calhoun: Absolutely no doubt, three words — three words, short attention span! That’s why I like my job now. Marketing writing is a lot like poetry. It’s frequently very short. It’s trying to express something in the fewest amounts of words and say it with the kind of spin that sticks with the person who’s reading it. It certainly isn’t poetry, but it’s the same mentality, just trying to say things really quickly and crisply. People think that poetry is flowery language or something that goes on and on, but usually it’s quite the opposite, it’s succinct and quick… trying to nail it in as few words as possible.
Allen: Is there any one poem that you consider your most successful piece?
Calhoun: Yeah, there’s a poem — ironically, a very short one — called “Leaving.” I always look at that as a success because I feel like it captured the feeling and the moment concisely and with compact verbiage.
Allen: I understand that a reviewer once surprised you with his take on your poem, “The Day after Christmas.” Can you tell me about that?
Calhoun: Oh yea. It was a really funny moment. I had the poem published in a little magazine, Taurus, where I was published pretty frequently when I was starting out. The poem was called “The Day after Christmas,” and I wrote it to compare the feeling of let down you get after Christmas to the loss of a love relationship — we had something great, like Christmas, and now you’re gone and it’s all mundane again. The reviewer said that he liked the poem, which was cool, but he said it was a scathing indictment of the commercialism of the Christmas season. He apparently didn’t get the idea that I was trying to tie it into a love relationship at all. And it surprised me, but it also showed me that poems and fiction are open to interpretation. Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean that he can’t interpret it the way he wants to. His interpretation is as valid as mine.
Allen: You have over 500 publications in magazines including Writer’s Digest, Private Clubs, Gargoyle, Mississippi Arts & Letters, and The National Enquirer and you have won awards for your promotional materials including an Addy award for best direct mail. What are your feelings about your success?
Calhoun: It’s kind of like looking at your resume and saying, “Gee, did I do all that stuff.” You realize that somewhere along the line you did it, but it almost doesn’t seem real. I feel some remorse for not having done more, particularly in fiction and poetry, but I also feel that it’s been a good, full career and I’m basically at peace with it.
Allen: Would you expand on your greatest success?
Calhoun: Yeah, actually I’ve bounced around enough that I’ve had some successes in different areas. I can’t really point at any one great success. Things that come immediately to mind were in my most fertile poetic period, which was back in the late 80s when I had a few chapbooks of my poetry published by small presses. That was really fulfilling for me. I was also having a lot of my poems published in magazines around that time and even after that — and I hosted a poetry reading and music series with my friend Mark Howell in Key West. That was a really great time in my life… but so is right now, being a marketing writer, which is obviously totally out of the publication realm. I’m still finding a lot of happiness doing that because its nice being at this stage in my career where I feel like I’m fairly good at what I do.
Allen: What advice would you give novice writers regarding a career in writing?
Calhoun: The first prerequisite is to have talent. You have no control over that. But beyond that, there are several things within your control. Here’s my top five list for writers, in reverse order David Letterman style:
CALHOUN’S FIVE SIMPLE RULES FOR WRITING SUCCESS
5. Read voraciously, especially in the genres you’re most interested in. One thing that amazed me as a poetry editor is that people who didn’t read poetry would send me poems. It’s like trying to walk before your legs develop. Reading gives styles to copy, styles that will help form your own personal style.
4. Remember that it’s all writing. Whether you’re writing a novel or an e-mail or a poem, it’s all writing and it all helps. Plus, if you’re like me and a lot of writers I’ve known, the very act of writing feels good — no matter what kind of writing it is. Writing this response to your interview question feels good, for example!
3. Work, work, work. Don’t let anything get in the way of your writing. Make it your job, even if you’re already working another job to support yourself.
2. Have goals — but don’t be afraid to change them. Not everyone’s career is like mine, and some people start out wanting to write fiction and end up doing just that. But if you find other genres that you’re good at, don’t be afraid to change your goals. The corollary to this is: Don’t have preconceived notions about where your writing will take you. I started out trying to write fiction, took a detour into poetry and then magazine editing and ended up as a marketing writer. My goal was always to be a successful writer — but the form that success took changed several times during my career.
1. And my number one rule for writers: Want it more than you want anything else in the world. Passion is everything. I’d recommend Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing for advice about writing for love rather than money. I honestly think that any success I’ve had is because I wanted to earn the title of writer — wanted to do it for a living — more than anything. I wanted it more passionately than anyone else I knew.
You’ll notice that I left off two of the usual tips for writers: Keeping a journal and setting a daily time or page limit for your writing. That’s because neither one was particularly effective for me. I think that if I had stuck with fiction I would find a journal more useful, but as a nonfiction writer and poet it just got in the way of my “real” writing … it was more efficient to get my job done than to bother with a journal.
As for setting a goal to write for an hour a day or one page a day, I find that having an assignment is more of a motivator than an artificially set limit. Don’t have any freelance assignments? Make them up! In my poetry heyday, I would often set myself the task of completing x number of poems so that I would be able to submit them to a given magazine. No daily time limit, just the “assignment” to have the submission ready in a week or two weeks.
Allen: Would you like to share any additional thoughts on the topic of writing?
Calhoun: Writing is writing… (It’s) a tactical thing… that takes passion. Some lucky people start out writing fiction and can do it– for them the linear path is best. Personally my career has been organic, which is a good way of saying I’ve been all over the place. I certainly didn’t start out thinking I’d be writing marketing copy and nobody could have told me I’d enjoy it as much as I do. I got my first marketing position because I’d written a lot of freelance articles and parlayed that into marketing. I wanted to find work in a more metropolitan area and the owner of a small ad agency in Pittsburgh was very impressed with some of my freelance writing and hired me as a marketing writer. I’ve been doing it ever sense.
I’ve had to change gears a lot. I’ve had to say, what are my goals now? Do I want to make some money? How can I make some money? Do I want to get published? How can I do that? As much of an emotional thing as writing is, it’s also a tactical thing. I found opportunities to parlay one type of writing into another or into the next step in my career.
I can’t subscribe to the idea that you’re a sellout if you don’t write fiction or poetry… Writing is just writing. If you’re accomplished at it and you’re good enough to get paid for it then there’s a certain amount of satisfaction to that, even if it’s a nine-to-five job like my marketing writing. It’s less bohemian than I though I’d ever be, having lived for a long time in a classic third-floor “writer’s garret” attic apartment. But whatever I do, if I don’t have passion about it then I don’t think I’d want to do it.
Allen: Some of your activities have included poetry readings, book reviews, articles in newspapers and magazines, and poetry, fiction, marketing writing. Which gave you the most satisfaction? The least?
Calhoun: I can look at myself as a journeyman or say I’ve had an incredibly varied life, however you want to look at it. I’ve gotten satisfaction out of the different phases of my writing. I’m considered one of the best writers for the major technology company where I work now. I get a lot of thrills of seeing my work on the Internet for audiences around the world. That’s exciting and I really enjoy that. I enjoyed seeing my poetry published and loved doing the poetry readings, including dabbling in performance poetry. That was a lot of fun.
There’ve been a lot of high points. I still remember getting my first article published and that of course was a huge thrill. It was back in the days when you still wrote on a typewriter and cut and pasted your stuff until you were happy with it and then typed it up on good paper to get it published. Fond memories.
Allen: It sounds like seeing your writing in print was one of the most thrilling things for you as a writer.
Calhoun: Definitely, those first publications were just great. The first thing I had published was a poem, followed by book reviews and my first article. It was nice to see my name out there.
Allen: What gave you the least satisfaction, or was the most frustrating early in your writing career?
Calhoun: I’m glad I made the decision to go away from fiction. I started out in the mid 70s writing it. I read tons of fiction, of course, but fiction was hard for me and continues to be difficult for me to this day. I guess my biggest regret is that I never had a major fiction work published. I had a few short stories published, but it’s not my strong point. That’s the thing I regret most and like least about my career. I have to give myself credit for making the decision to let go of this and do other things.
Allen: Was there a writer or poet that you admired and hoped to emulate in your early writing career?
Calhoun: Actually, there were several. When you asked the question I immediately thought of three or four writers: Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, and W. S. Merwin, an American poet who I really admired. I definitely was influenced in my poetry by both. I also thought about Ernest Hemingway because I really like the conciseness and crispness of his writing — I definitely tried to emulate him for a while.
And then I finally realized there was one writer that influenced my style more than any other: Harlan Ellison, best known as a science fiction and fantasy writer. Besides writing entertaining stories, he would do these really interesting introductions to his stories, and they were always written so conversationally– this really drew you into them. A lot of times today, even as a marketing writer, people say that my style is breezy and conversational, and I think I owe a lot of that style to Harlan Ellison because I was deliberately trying to copy his style. I liked the way it sounded and what he was doing.
And Charles Bukowski, the German poet and fiction writer who adopted LA as his home, definitely influenced me. I started out reading him in the 70s and quickly became a fan of his gritty, no-nonsense style, his humor and his accessibility. In the 80s, I got his contact information from a fellow fan and began a correspondence with him that lasted from 1983 until just before his death in 1994. I published his work in Pig in a Poke, a little poetry magazine that I edited for most of the 80s and even put out a small pamphlet of his work. He was an inspiration because he was a well-known writer who still kept in touch with his small-press roots.
Allen: You started a critically acclaimed magazine in the 80s called Pig in a Poke, which you published from 1982 to 1989. What gave you the idea for the magazine and why did you stop production?
Calhoun: It’s interesting. I still see online references occasionally to Pig in a Poke and other magazines from around that time. Some of them, like Thunder Sandwich and Black Bear Review, are still going right now. What gave me the idea for it? At that time I had only been published as a poet for a couple years. I was working as a book reviewer, and when I say working I mean I was being paid in copies of the books I reviewed. I wasn’t making any money. I was working another job and trying to find my success as a writer.
There were a lot of small-press poetry magazines at that time. I really liked the way their editors did business. They were usually really fast in replying. They gave advice. They were more conversational in their letters. It was a kind approach and I really liked it because as every writer knows those rejection slips can be impersonal and pretty tough to handle. I thought I would be good at editing a magazine and I also thought it would expose me to a lot more poetry, which it did, most of it really bad poetry. Definitely I got to know a lot of poets in the scene.
I published Pig in a Poke out of my own pocket for a number of years, which is why basically I stopped production because it got to be too much of a drain on my finances. But also its time had passed with me. I started to work in marketing and get real-world jobs. I didn’t have as much time for it as I had had before. It makes me think that possibly I could revive it on the Internet because that’s more of an immediate medium that printing it myself on paper.
Over the course of the years from 1982 to 88, I held a series of Pig in a Poke poetry readings at Hemingway’s in Pittsburgh every year. They were successful and a lot of fun.
Allen: Do you believe such magazines and chapbooks are a good way to get work published today?
Calhoun: If your goal is to make money, they’re a terrible idea. But my goal was not at all to make money. It was to get my poetry exposure, to get people to read my stuff and respond to it and tell me how to improve and to connect to it in some emotional way. In that sense, the little magazines are good because it is a bit easier to get published in them than the mainstream magazines. Some of them are of surprisingly high quality, though. Usually what you get from them is editors that are quick to respond and respond with a lot more empathy– they actually will give you advice or tell you what they like or don’t like about your poetry. And that’s really valuable, especially for a young writer or someone who hasn’t done it for that long. Plus, because they are fast to respond and cheap to produce there was the thrill of getting to see your work fairly quickly. It is not quite as immediate as the Internet is today, but you could get a poem accepted and within a few months you could see it in print. And you got to share your thoughts with others. It was fun.
Excerpt from the interview in Thunder Sandwich #25, January 1, 2005.
To read the interview in its entirety go to http://www.thundersandwich.com/ts25/index.html.
By Harry Calhoun
It’s like a door closing.
I want it to be gentle, noiseless,
Japanese. Reopen it and apologize
to the wood if it slams.
But humidity swells this
beyond what it should be
and the squeak and push
to close it sounds
as if I beg
to be let back in.
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