Emma Lee interviews Feature Poet, Bill Cushing

Emma Lee hooked up with feature poet Bill Cushing, teacher and author of the recent collection, A Former Life'

Bill Cushing lived in various states, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico before moving to California. As an undergrad, he was called the “blue collar” poet by classmates at the University of Central Florida because of his years in the Navy and later as an electrician on oil tankers, fishing boats, and other naval vessels before returning to college at 37. Earning an MFA in writing from Goddard College in Vermont, he now teaches at East Los Angeles and Mt. San Antonio colleges.

Bill has been published in various literary journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The San Juan Star and the Florida Times-Union. His short stories have appeared in Borfski Press, Newtown Literary Journal and Sediments. Bill’s poetry has been in numerous journals, both in print and online, including Avocet, Brownstone Review, Glomag, Mayo Review, Penumbra, Poetry Nook, Spectrum, The Song Is. . ., and West Trade Review. He had poems (one a Pushcart Prize nominee) in both volumes of the award-winning Stories of Music. In 2017, Bill was named as one of the Top Ten Poets of L.A., and this year Spectrum Publishing named him as one of the “ten poets to watch” in Los Angeles.

When not teaching or writing, Bill facilitates a writing workshop in Eagle Rock, California (part of the 9 Bridges Writing Community). He also performs with a musician in a project called “Notes and Letters,” a project that is available online through both Facebook and youtube. He is now in the pre-publication stages for a full-length volume of poems with Finishing Line Press, scheduled for release in mid-2019. That book is tentatively titled A Former Life

Emme Lee Interviews Bill Cushing

How did you start writing and what drew you to poetry?

Because I was a withdrawn child because of an overwhelming father, writing allowed me a release free of judgment. Poetry itself came unexpectedly. As a returning student, I attended a journalism conference called “Improving Your Writing,” actually a short lecture. The woman conducting the seminar told attendees, “If you want to get better at writing anything—reporting, commentary, whatever—write poetry.” Once I began, journalism never held the same interest. Poems became my vehicle for interpreting and presenting the world I perceived. It was one happy accident.

You say you were described as a blue collar poet when you were an undergraduate, would you say this described your work? Have you found the label limiting or an advantage?

 I wear that moniker with pride. After high school, I entered the Navy. I continued working as a marine electrician over the next 15 years, with time mixed in as a bartender, cabbie, truck driver, or salesperson. They say “write what you know,” and my experiences—as rough and crude as they were—provided great material along with a broader view of the world. 

Your collection A Former Life was reviewed in The Blue Nib and included a couple of poems inspired by Miles Davis. Is music a big influence?

I always loved music, especially classical. In fact, my “Bydlo” piece in the book comes from Pictures at an Exhibition, perhaps the most visually impressionistic piece ever. In high school, I went to a concert at Madison Square Garden, and Miles was the warm-up act. His sound completely captured me, and I was hooked on jazz. I even have a recent chapbook (Music Speaks) dedicated to music and its influences, and my jazz pieces dominate the material.

How did the collaboration Notes and Letters come about?

That resulted from a 45-year path Chuck and I took. We grew up across the street from each other in New York City’s Queensborough. I left town in 1970, first for the Navy and later for work, but in 2015, I learned we were both in Los Angeles. I invited him to a reading for Stories of Music since I noticed he had majored in music. Reuniting after 45 years, he said what inspired him to study music were memories of a fairly basic, mostly mediocre band I was in that played at parties around town. I was flattered but thankful he never came to me for any lessons. Before parting that evening, Chuck suggested that we collaborate, so our current stage activities were born.

Do you have a writing routine?

Not really: I write when I can and where I’m able. This is partly because I focus on my teaching, giving my profession priority, which doesn’t afford many opportunities for a definitive schedule. Once I retire, which is coming up, I’ll have more time. Of course that’s no guarantee that I’ll stick to any routine. After all, I also have a disabled son to look after, and I devote as much time as I can to him.

How do you go about editing/reviewing a poem?

To quote a painter I knew: “I know what’s right. I want to know what’s wrong.” Phillip Levine’s credo is that poetry both “oral” and “aural,” so I revise largely by reading my material aloud but also believe the best means of working toward one’s goals are writing groups. Belonging to such communities prove integral to improving the work. I seek feedback from other writers before sending things off. That option also allows me to hear how others might read my work since I often ask someone to recite my work. 

What poets have influenced you?

The poets I most admire include Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sharon Olds, and Levine although I don’t see my writing bearing similarities to theirs. I’m usually influenced by whatever I’m reading at the moment, which may make things confusing but also, hopefully, interesting.

What projects are you working on right now?

Lately I’m writing within more “traditional” poetic formats: odes, madrigals, so forth. By forcing myself within the boundaries of those structures, I’m trying to use language with greater effect and precision. Another device I’ve taken to is ekphrasis, writing work inspired by visual images. It’s been fun, and I’ve even constructed a chapbook (This Just In) built around those poems. 

What are you currently reading?

I’ve been reading Umberto Eco’s Memoirs of a Young Novelist, mostly because I admire his analysis on language and meaning.

Is there any writing advice or tips you’d like to pass on?

Two great views of writing are first, “write without fear; edit without mercy.” Related to that is my mantra that the key to writing is rewriting.

What’s next for Bill Cushing?

Once I retire, I plan to return to my MFA creative thesis, a memoir focused on my late wife and, in particular, dealing with terminal illness. That work is named Counting Down the Breaths, and I’m trying to pare it down to a publishable state.

The question I love to answer. . . “How does one define poetry?”

I’m not talking about its philosophical or spiritual meaning but its denotative meaning. It’s fun because, it seems, if one gathered ten poets to ask that, it would probably produce at least 18 different answers. First, I explored others’ writings: Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Khalil Gibran. Edith Sitwell called poetry “the deification of reality:” interesting viewpoints, but the superlative definition came at the most unlikely moment from a most unlikely source, while sharing a train ride with a Canadian poet. When I brought up the question of “what’s poetry” to check his response, he said—simply and without hesitation, “Poetry is the history of the human soul.”

That answer works literally and literarily. Recall that the Greeks used the poetic form to record events since rhyme and meter allowed for reliable retellings with no required literacy. As one subscribing to the critical theory of New Historicism, the statement also satisfied my belief that writing is more than a reflection of the writer; it reflects the writer’s existence, events, or circumstances.  His eight-word definition expanded my view and perception of the genre, allowing me to take a giant step in my approach to both reading poems and crafting my own work. 

Thus, “poetry is the history of the human soul.” Amen.

Read Richard Lance Keeble’s review of A Former Life by Bill Cushing