Alan Soldofsky on Awakening to the Extraordinary Quality of Ordinary Things

An interview with Alan Soldofsky, from The Write Stuff series:

Alan Soldofsky is the author of the 2013 collection of poems, In the Buddha Factory (Truman State University Press), containing a series of poems written while he participated in the Zhejiang Writers Conference in China. He has also published three chapbooks: Kenora StationStaying Home, and a chapbook that includes a selection of poems by his son, Adam Soldofsky, Holding Adam / My Father’s Books. Over the last three decades, he has published poems widely in magazines and academic journals, most recently in DMQ ReviewThe Georgia ReviewThe Gettysburg ReviewPoem-a-Day (poets.org, Academy of American Poets)Poetry DailyPoetry, Flash Rattle, and The Rattling Wall. His criticism, interviews, and reviews have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Narrative: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature, and Poetry Flash.  He is a professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at San Jose State University, where he has been on the faculty nearly 30 years. In 2009, he received an Artist Fellowship in Literary Arts in Poetry from Arts Council Silicon Valley.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I tell them I’m a college professor and sometimes I mention that I’m a poet. Or if they actually seem interested in knowing what I do I’ll tell them that I am director of Creative Writing at San Jose State.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

To find time to finish poems while managing to lead the SJSU Creative Writing program and also teach undergraduate poets.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

If the person asking me is a poet or wants to be, I’d tell him or her to find a way to work on their craft daily by reading poetry from a variety of eras and places, not just poems in English. It’s important to read translations, and to learn to try new techniques and styles through close reading and imitation.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to teach at a major regional university and to lead the Creative Writing program here at San Jose State. I know it is not easy to find a full time career in Creative Writing, and to work as a poet. I’m very pleased that my poems are being read and that my last book In the Buddha Factory is being used at a number of colleges and universities in California and across the country.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Not enough.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

For me art and music as well as poetry and other forms of literature are absolutely necessary. I would not have access to the richness of history, to traveling across the globe and through time. I would be terribly impoverished if I didn’t have access to the richness of imagination, which the arts provide. In my travels ten years ago in Zhejiang province of China I was amazed at how important art and poetry are to the Chinese writers and local officials I met across the province. Their experience of their history is indelibly linked to the art I saw. The many officials and writers I met were anxious to take me places that had resonance in Tang and Sung dynasty poetry, which they knew I had an interest in. I took Willis Barnstone’s and Eliot Weinberger’s translations of Chinese poetry with me on the trip. Art and poetry were the universal language I used to communicate with the many dozens of Chinese writers, journalists, film makers and journalists I met during the trip. I was excited by their interest and knowledge of American poetry and American visual arts as well as popular music. And they were excited that I revered (as had many of the modernist poets) classical Chinese poets such as Du Fu, Li Bai, and Po Chu-i. My hosts had learned the classical 300 poems by memory in school, and were happy to take me to sites mentioned in many of the most well-known poems.

Near the end of the trip, sponsored by the Zhejiang Provincial Writers’ Association, we traveled to the monastery Mt. Tiantai, near the city of Taizhou. Before we went up to the monastery at the top of the mountain, we stopped at a factory near the base in Tiantai City that manufactures Buddha Statues. Seeing this many small, large, and gigantic Buddhas was amazing. Though the company manager said he wasn’t a believer and that this was good business, he admitted that these Buddhas are works of art. Including the world’s largest Buddha, which the company was creating in a shed that seemed more like an airplane factory hangar, filled with busy workers on scaffolds. That 48 meter tall Buddha under construction, which I wrote about in my most recent book’s title poem, “In the Buddha Factory,” was destined for the temple in Downtown Los Angeles. A spectacular work of art, breathtaking to see the attention the workers paid to it. Art to bring peace and tranquility to a city’s urban core.

At the top of the mountain at the monastery, in the Goaqing Temple, there are 500 more gold painted statues of the enlightened persons (arhats). The temple built in, it’s guessed, about 598 A.D., is where the Zen Buddhist sect started. The temple, a spectacular 600-room building serves as shrine to the endurance of art, having been shut down during the Cultural Revolution, but then restored to being an active temple, drawing monks and devotees from across Asia and around the world. The temple’s Grand Hall of Sakyamuni, as great religious art does, inspires one to devotion to something greater than oneself. That’s the force of art and of poetry for me. If there is a place for me that embodies the force of what art is, it is in that place, where monks chanted sutras and lit incense at the foot of an ancient, enormous statue of the Buddha. The effect of such art is to wake up those who experience it, to enlarge one’s consciousness. That for me is the ultimate reason why art is a necessity. We need art and poetry to awaken us to the extraordinary quality of ordinary things. And to remind us we live in a world that is vaster and far more mysterious than the world we inhabit causally and unconsciously living our day-to-day lives.

What are you working on right now?

I’m writing new poems and working on compiling my next book, which I’ve titled Charts (For the End of Days). The centerpiece of the collection is a long, serial poem, in 20 sections, from which the book gets its title. “Charts (For the End of Days)” is a 20-section fragmented narrative in the tradition of William Carlos Williams’ long poem Paterson, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. One. The sequence presents a collage of daily events that occurred in May 2011 leading up to The Rapture predicted by Rev. Harold Camping, an Oakland-based fundamentalist Christian radio broadcaster. In “Charts” the poem’s speaker constructs a poetic montage reflecting the world’s social and environmental disintegration as I experienced it in San Jose, sliding irresistibly toward apocalypse. Ironically, although the world didn’t end as predicted, I had the experience of nearly dying from a ruptured appendix. The more I worked on it, “Charts” became indirectly a narrative investigation of the breakdown of my body. In desperate need of repair, my physical self became a metaphorical vehicle through which I experience the broken world. I’m still adding poems to the collection, shorter lyrics that reflect on the effects of serious illness, and family members’ interaction with the health care system. A few poems that I’m revising describe my own near-death experience from a ruptured appendix in 2011 and bouts of hospitalization for gallbladder disease. I’m also working on a group of dramatic monologues for the collection written in the voices of several different personas whom I imagine inhabit the back alleys of Silicon Valley where the high-tech sheen is considerably dimmed by poverty, cultural marginalization, environmental pollution, and community/family breakdown.

I am also working on compiling an archival-researched anthology of Bay Area poetry titled Through the Western Gate: The Poetry of the Bay Area and Northern California from 1849 – Present. 

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I most admire poetry that surprises with its daring and/or its craft. I enjoy reading poems that take me in somewhere I didn’t expect the poem would go, that incorporate idiomatic language and diction, but is used in unexpected ways. For me, the greatest pleasure in poems come line by line, in the combination of words and sounds, in an expected but clear turn of a metaphor. I enjoy surrealism as long as the poem’s surface is literally clear and the language works to delight me line to line. I cannot forget the late James Tates’ line from “It’s Not the Heat So Much as the Humidity” from his second book The Oblivion Ha-Ha, “I will sigh noisily as if an old and / disgusting leg had finally dropped off.” I’m a fan of the early poetry of Charles Simic. I’m a fan of Mary Ruefle and Tony Hoagland. I’m also a fan of poems which can embody the landscape with transparency that transcends the literal. For that reason, I’m a fan of the work of Gary Snyder and Robert Hass. I suspect what appeals to me is how the words themselves become used as art objects within their poems. The poems yield not only great visuals but great sound effects. Their syntax works almost in opposite ways. The long discursive sentences and longish lines in Hass’s poems is quite a different music than Snyder’s paratactic, staccato syntax. The last lines of poems like Snyder’s “Hay for the Horses” or Hass’s iconic blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” from the final line of “Meditation at Lagunitas.” In both cases, I’m attracted to the lucidity of the diction in the line, which seems benefited a great deal from these poets interested in the language strategies they’ve adapted from classical Chinese poetry they’ve read in translation. I’m also a big fan of and much influenced by good translations of Tang and Sung dynasty poetry. I’m a fan of Tony and Willis Barnstone’s translations and also translations by Eliot Weinberger. It’s the speed of perception that enthralls me in classical Chinese poetry. It’s the speed and acuity of the poem’s perception that thrills me in most poems I return to. That’s what enthralls me in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop—her ability to use language to augment both sight and vision.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

What discourages me now about life in the Bay Area is the high cost of housing in places like Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. Or even in Santa Cruz. That’s what I wish I could change. The Bay Area once had livable pockets of affordable housing where artists and writers not only could live but formed communities. The Bay Area was once host to the largest population of poets and writers anywhere in the U.S. except the New York tri-state area. When I came to North Oakland in the 1973, I found a two-bedroom apartment near CCA campus for $150 per month. I could afford to volunteer as host of a show on KFPA radio and only work part-time because the cost of rent was so reasonable. Young poets especially and writers and other kinds of artists are hard pressed to survive in the Bay Area. Without some kind of fellowship or a decent paying job—one which often precludes writing by the way—young writers and artists have to become entrepreneurial. But with so much more time required to chase after an income, the quality and style of life in the Bay Area for many people in the twenties and thirties suffers disproportionately. The type of community and community life we enjoyed as young poets simply isn’t available to young poets and writers who come to the Bay Area now.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

One of the strangest sights I’ve seen was in China in the Yiwu International Trade market, which is the world’s largest wholesale market, known as Commodity City. The place contains about 10,000 stalls of merchandise, mostly cheap merchandise like plastic key chains, combs, hairclips, scrunchies artificial flowers, and plastic drink umbrellas. The building is humongous—46 million square feet. On the upper floors there were miles of stalls selling Christmas ornaments, and a whole wing devoted to neon-lit plastic Jesus’s. I’d never seen anything like it. The next day, going out to a small rural village in the mountains of Zhejiang province, I was invited inside a small house, a hut really with a dirt floor, and a fire pit for a stove. And setting on the concrete porch outside the front door was a teenage girl and her Mom inserting the plastic wings of hairclips into their spring-loaded metal clasps. I’m sure they were manufacturing for Commodity City.

Today, after the disturbing carnage in Paris, I saw another strange thing. Across from the coffee shop in my San Jose neighborhood where I like to get a latte and a bagel in the morning, I saw a homeless man pushing two shopping carts. What was so strange is that he had streaming from his soiled wide-brimmed straw hat a 10 foot streamer or ribbon in the French tri-color. He seemed to be marching down the street pushing his carts, signing to himself the “La Marseillaise.” Strange and powerfully stirring in a day after such an unimaginable tragedy.

What are some of your favorite smells?

My favorites are: the smell of sage after a rain, the smell of mint, and the smell of a sugar pine forest.

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