The following interview appears in the 2015 edition of R2. This interview was conducted by Alison Liu.
George Bilgere is a Pushcart Prize winner and the author of six books of poetry. He received his MA in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis and his Ph.D. from the University of Denver. His work has appeared in Billy Collin’s 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday, Ploughshares, and The Kenyon Review, among others. Currently, Bilgere is an Associate Professor in English at John Carroll University.
Your poetry is both so accessible and humorous. Can you talk to us about what it’s like trying to find a balance between humor and solemnity in writing?
"Well, it’s true that most of my work is built around trying to find this balance. I think a successful poem should be like an exciting musical composition: lots of shifting in tempo and cadence and tone. So I like the idea of keeping the reader off-balance by moving unexpectedly from the somber and austere to the funny and comic. If you’ve ever read a collection of poems by an extremely gloomy and angst-ridden poet you know how tedious it can become. I don’t want my readers to get complacent. Someone, I forget who, once said that the world is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think. And since all of us both feel and think it only seems natural for poetry also to wear both the mask of tragedy and the mask of comedy. It’s taken me a lot of practice to and that balance. Too much humor and your poem is just a joke. Too much darkness and you risk dull sentimentality. When it’s right, when the balance is achieved, I rely on my ear to tell me so. Or my disgruntled readers!"
Do you have a favorite joke?
Sadly, the best jokes are those that can’t be shared in public, don’t you think? The very nature of the joke is subversive, often cruel. A joke that’s polite and careful to offend no one usually isn’t very funny. But okay, I do like talking dog jokes, and here’s a favorite: guy walks into a bar with his dog and says to the bartender, I have a talking dog. And the bartender says, okay, let’s prove it. And he asks the dog, what’s that thing over our heads? And the dog looks up and says, “Roof! Roof!” And the bartender says, not bad. Now what’s that stuff covering the trees out there? And the dog says, “Bark! Bark!” I’m impressed, says the bartender. One more question. Who’s the greatest baseball player that ever lived? And the dog says, “Ruth! Ruth!” And the bartender gets angry and says, this is nonsense, both of you get the heck out of my bar, and he throws them out. Outside on the sidewalk the dog looks at his owner with confusion on his face, and asks, “Dimaggio?”
For some reason that kills me.
Do you think poems can be used to tell stories, or are characters in poems more of a prop to convey certain emotions?
I do often use characters in my poems. In fact, I guess there are almost always people in them. And I want to say something about the humanity, or the vulnerability, or the wonderfulness, or the sadness, or the silliness, of that person. So I guess, to answer your question, the two are inseparable. To me, Jerry in “The Problem” is both kind of funny (he’s one of millions of amateur writers writing about fantasy realms) and kind of sad (he’s one of millions of amateur writers writing about fantasy realms).
What’s the first book you’ll read to your son when he’s old enough to understand? Michael is twenty months now, and I love reading things to him like The Polar Express primarily because he’s in his Train Phase and I loved my Train Phase. And I really do think he kind of “gets” it at some level, if only in the sense that he responds to the mystery and beauty of the illustrations as they pass by him while the words I’m reading become a vaguely musical if not entirely comprehensible soundtrack. And I’m very good at saying both “choo choo” and “whoo, whoo,” which he loves to hear. But when he’s old enough to really understand a narrative, I’ll be reading him Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped. These books are essential reading to anyone interested in running away from home and becoming a pirate.
Some of your poetry employs details from your personal life. How does the idea of sharing part of yourself with strangers affect you or your writing?
My poems do tend to be about my own experiences. And more and more, at least in the last few books, the poems tend to be about me, as a character, moving through the world. And generally I portray myself in one way or another as a kind of foil, as a kind of comic figure, a victim of the world’s peculiarities or my own insecurities. Look at a poem like “The Ineffable,” in The White Museum. That character, who is similar to but not exactly like me, took a lot of work, and life, to develop, and I’m sticking with him. I like my poems to somehow address the fact that reality isn’t always a comfortable t for me. It’s the tiny ways we fail to move smoothly through the world that interest me. And if I can make a stranger interested in that persona, if a reader can somehow connect or empathize, I feel the poem has succeeded.
In what ways does teaching affect your writing?
I think I have the ideal job: I teach poetry workshops at a university, and I write poetry. The school is very nice about giving me time to write my poems, and my students
are very nice about giving me new approaches and insights into writing all the time. For one thing, they’re new enough to writing that they don’t mind asking the obvious questions, things like “why do poems have to be written in lines?” And I find myself thinking about things I hadn’t thought about in years, and thinking about them in a fresh way. Also, when I give my students a writing assignment, I do the assignment myself, and share the results with them. It’s encouraging to them to see how often their poems work better than mine. Of course, I’m not always happy about this, but such are the perils of teaching!
It is often said that poets, more so than other writers, must sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. How do you begin to write a poem? Is there a process that you go through when you are writing?
My feeling is that inspiration is what happens when you’re already at work on the poem. You’re plugging away at something, hoping that somehow the draft you’re working on will take o into some exciting new direction—and every now and then, very rarely, BAM! Inspiration comes along and lifts your crummy little poem into something better than you thought you could do. It’s a thrill. But yeah, I don’t think “inspiration” is something that suddenly just strikes you as you’re strolling down the sidewalk. You have to go looking for it.
At the risk of sounding cliché, do you have any advice for the aspiring writers that read our magazine?
Yes—and it’s always the same thing. Read. Read read read. Find out who’s writing the good stuff and read it. Go to your library and look at the poetry journals. If you see a poem in there you really like, or a poem in a contemporary anthology, go find a book or two by that poet and do your best to steal from him or her. Imitate, borrow, steal. That’s how every poet, every musician, gets started. And then, as you work and grow, you find yourself slowly becoming—yourself. It just takes a while to get there.