Interview With Scott Silsbe


Scott Silsbe was born in Detroit and grew up down the river from there. He now lives in Pittsburgh. His poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and have been collected in the three books: Unattended Fire (2012), The River Underneath the City (2013), and Muskrat Friday Dinner (2017). He is also an assistant editor at Low Ghost Press.

The interview took place via Email over a three-month period. We spoke about poetry craft, the power of writing influences, the intersection of writing and music, and how the city of Pittsburgh has influenced Scott’s poetry.

T.C. Jones: Since I met you years ago in Pittsburgh I’ve always been a fan of your poetry. The way you focus on details of city life and mix those specificities with abstractions and cerebral lines. Would you say that Pittsburgh, the city itself, is the greatest influence in your poetry? Do you call yourself a Pittsburgh poet? Or a Rust Belt poet?

Scott Silsbe: Thanks. Pittsburgh is certainly a major influence on my poems—one of the greatest. And yes, I think of myself as a Pittsburgh poet. I’ve been here for about 17 years now, and I just find there to be so much to write about in and around town. It feels to me like there’s a real wealth of material just waiting to be discovered. I’m originally from the Detroit area and I lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan for four years, and I write about Michigan sometimes, so I suppose I can see labeling myself as a Rust Belt poet. But these days it’s mostly Pittsburgh that I find myself writing about. It’s where I spend most of my time. And lately I’m working on personal, pretty autobiographical poems about the things going on around me, so it’s just very natural that the city is in so much of my recent work. One thing that’s so inspirational to me about Pittsburgh is that the rich history feels like it is both on display and vanishing daily. There are remnants of the Pittsburgh that used to be, but the city is also changing every day—sometimes for the better, and frankly, sometimes not. And one thing I like to try to do with my poems is to capture or document things that I appreciate, things that I value, that I notice disappearing.

T.C.: I spent most of my life in Pittsburgh too so I understand what you mean about Pittsburgh’s history disappearing daily. For example, in your newest book Muskrat Friday Dinner your poem “Stinky’s” is an ode to the old neighborhood dive bars that are disappearing on the regular throughout Pittsburgh. Do you think dives like Stinky’s and Kelly’s in Lawrenceville or Pollack’s or Lou’s Little Corner Bar in Bloomfield will still exist in twenty years?

S.S.: I think dives like Pollack’s and Lou’s Little Corner Bar will always exist in some form or another in Pittsburgh. They’ll no doubt change over time—so yeah, maybe twenty years from now they’ll look very different to people like us. But I believe there will always be those kinds of places. I think that I lament the disappearance of some particular old watering holes for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s just a sort of sentimental attachment—I had good times at, say, Duke’s Bar or the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern and the fact that that bar is gone or closing means a closed chapter and no more of those fun times at that specific place. But another reason I think it’s a cause for mourning, if you will, is that to me those places represent a sort of culture. And it’s not to say culture can’t ever come out of a chain burrito shop, a juice bar, or whatever goes into a spot that used to belong to a dive. But for my money, the dive bar— especially in a place like Pittsburgh—is of a high cultural significance. And when we lose one here, the things they’re replaced with aren’t always as important or valuable to me.

T.C.: I think part of what makes your poetry powerful is how you are able to capture that emotional attachment without slipping into sentimentality. For example, your poem “Everyone Loses” highlights a depressing conversation at a Pittsburgh dive bar. I like how your poems aren’t playing to working classtropes, instead they capture a moment and allow the image to do the work. The reader is shown a slice of life without the judgmental posturing we tend to see in so many poems these days.

S.S.: It’s tricky—I like to write about stuff that is emotionally charged, but that means I’m always risking sentimentality. I guess I find that risk interesting or exciting. But yes, using image is key and using conversation is something that works for me as well. I find that, these days, most things I scribble in my little memo-pad are snippets of conversation, things people say. I seem to find endless inspiration in the things that come out of people’s mouths. As far as the judgmental posturing, I really enjoy some poems that are able to critique a situation or poems that are revelatory in some way. And I think I do that sometimes. But there are many times when it’s enough for me to just paint a scene—capture the moment, as you say—and let it speak for itself. I think there’s value in a poetry that does that.

T.C.: You hold an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. What was that experience like for you? What would you say to poets who are thinking about taking that route?

S.S.: Overall, it was a good experience for me—I feel like I learned a lot. Though if I’m honest, doing the MFA was a mixed bag. I got to work with some very wise and really helpful teachers—Tony Hoagland, Karen Volkman, Jean Valentine, Phil Smith, and others. And I formed important friendships with some of my classmates and those were invaluable and many of those friendships are still going strong today. But one of the things I feel like I learned while doing the MFA is that it seems like the academic world probably isn’t for me. I don’t care for all of the departmental politics. When I was working on my MFA, I saw a lot of competitiveness and bitterness among some of the writers who had been kicking around the department for years and years and that was a real turn-off to me. It felt like they were more concerned with their careers than either the quality of their own writing or with the work of their students. It was so objectionable to me that I struggled to put pen to paper for a while once I finished my MFA. I just didn’t want any part of that world. Eventually, I got over that and realized I didn’t have to be a part of that world and I could still write. As far as poets who are considering the MFA—my main advice is to get funding. Don’t do it without funding. In my opinion, it isn’t worth going into debt for. If you can’t find funding, just read and write a lot and you’ll be fine without it.

T.C.: Academia can definitely be difficult, especially with the departmental politics and feuds that happen probably at every campus across the country. For a long time I ran counter to the literary academia establishment—though my stance toward academia has softened more recently. That said, I have always appreciated the work you have done for the literary world outside of academia and you are proof that a writer doesn’t need academia to keep writing. Let’s talk for a moment about one of the teachers you had while you were at the University of Pittsburgh—Tony Hoagland. What was it about him that drew you to his work, and as a student how did he impact your poetic style?

S.S: Tony was an excellent teacher and a very big influence on me. His book Donkey Gospel came out when I was doing my undergrad stint at Western Michigan University, and it was a really important book to me. I loved how it was so conversational and at times witty, wise, bitter, and tender. When I heard he was going to be teaching at Pitt, it was definitely a selling point, a reason I wanted to study there. He was such a great teacher for me for multiple reasons, but the main one was that I felt like he understood what I was doing with my poems and why I was writing the way I was writing. He showed me the limits of the way I was thinking about the whole thing. In short, I was writing very lyrical poems that were more interested in sound than they were with sense and Tony helped me see that if I paid more attention to the meaning of the words I was using, my work could only get stronger. I remember Tony railing against fragmentary work in praise of sentences. And if you look at his work, you can certainly notice beautifully-crafted sentences. So that’s another thing that stuck with me. But also, one thing in general that I’ll always remember from working with Tony was his passion for literature—for books, for reading, and for critical thought about the written word. It was serious business. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be fun. But his devotion to educating himself with an understanding of the world of literature was impressive and inspirational. Being around that made me a little bit snobby in the sense that I don’t take my fellow writers seriously if they aren’t devoted to studying the literature that’s come before them, if they aren’t interested in or excited about reading books.

T.C.: You say that Tony Hoagland helped grow your passion for literature in general and encouraged you to respect literary influences and those who’ve come before us. Who are some of your literary influences? What literary lineage has shaped you as a poet?

S.S:  There’s a lot of literature I appreciate. At this point in my life, the work I really love is stuff that is approachable and that feels very personal to me. Some names—Jack Gilbert, Philip Levine, Frank O’Hara, Etheridge Knight, Elizabeth Bishop, Nazim Hikmet, Mary Oliver, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski. As far as a literary lineage, I feel like I’m kind of mutt. Some of the Confessional movement from the ‘50s really speaks to me—John Berryman being my favorite of them. And I think you can see some of that Confessional strain in other poets I really admire, like Richard Hugo and Paul Zimmer. One of my first teachers was a guy named John Rybicki and he was a major influence on me. He studied under John Woods, who was friendly with Robert Bly and James Wright. So if I think of my poems in terms of a lineage, I believe there’s a strong connection with those poets of the Deep Image School. One of the great things about working with Tony Hoagland was—due to his great knowledge of literature—he was able to help me trace literary lineage lines. While I was working with him, I was getting into the poems of people like Larry Levis, Dean Young, Tomas Tranströmer, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin. And Tony pointed me back further to people who had influenced them, namely the French Surrealists. Tony hipped me to the anthology of French poetry Paul Auster edited, which turned me on to poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy. And reading them was very eye-opening to me. Finally, my fellow poets in Pittsburgh are an extraordinary influence on me. They might be the biggest influence on my work. I am endlessly inspired by the people I consider my peers here—Dave Newman, Lori Jakiela, Kristofer Collins, Don Wentworth, Bob Pajich…the list goes on.

T.C.: You chose a career path outside of academia, adjuncting, and that life. Could you talk a little bit about your career path since you graduated from the University of Pittsburgh MFA program and how the path you chose has impacted your writing life?

S.S.: I started working part-time for a used bookstore while I was completing my MFA. I had decided to get my MFA with the idea that I would use it to teach. But, as I said earlier, while I was working on my MFA I figured out that I’m not really suited for the academic life. So after I finished, my boss at the bookstore asked me what was next, and when I didn’t have an answer, he asked me to start working for him full-time. So that’s what I’ve been doing for over 12 years now. I work in our storefront on occasion, I work most days at our warehouse, and once in a while I help my boss pack book collections. I like the work. I’m a book lover, so I enjoy seeing all the things that pass through our shop and warehouse. And I find it to be an inspiration for poems here and there. Sometimes, a book title or a caption for an illustration will catch my eye, and I’ll have to make a note of it and save it for later for a poem. I can think of two poems specifically in Muskrat Friday Dinner that got their titles that way. And I find material in the day-to-day affairs. For one thing, my boss is a pretty quotable guy. But also, for example, going into someone’s home to pack up their book collection—I usually come out of that situation with a story.

T.C.: What other than literature and your work inspires you? I know you’re a musician and music lover. Can you talk a little about that?

S.S: You’re right—music is a very big part of my life. I play in a couple of bands, I collect records, and, as you note, music serves as an inspiration for my writing as well. In a very autobiographical poem in Muskrat Friday Dinner, I reference how my mother was a beatlemaniac—one of those crazed girls who chased after limos. When I was growing up, there was always music around me and it was stressed early on just how essential it is to life. And playing music with friends is some of the most fun I have. So I guess it’s no surprise that my poems reference music and musicians pretty regularly. In addition to music, I find film to be a significant influence. I feel like I learn something about narrative from watching old movies—something about how to tell a story through image and dialogue. Maybe something about framing—about directing an audience’s gaze. Photography is another art form I’ve come to really appreciate. I think that all the arts inform each other. Or at least they help inform me. For me, listening to an old Otis Redding record, watching a Jean-Luc Godard movie, or looking at a book of photos by, say, Teenie Harris or Robert Frank are all actions that help me understand different ways of going about creating. A great record or film is an educational tool to me as much as it is a piece of art or entertainment.

T.C.: When did you first start collecting records? As a fellow vinyl collector I know the feeling when the obsession of collecting overtakes you. My experience was in Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill fifteen years ago—just being in that room piled high with music, it was almost as if standing in the middle of all those records I could almost tap into all that creativity that surrounded me.

S.S.:  I must have been around 20 years old when I started getting serious about record collecting. I think it’s partly a nostalgic thing for me—I have vivid memories of growing up and looking at my parents’ copies of albums by The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Led Zeppelin, etc. And I know some people go crazy over having pristine copies, but I’m a sucker for the snaps and pops you hear in a copy of a record that’s been listened to and loved. You’re hearing the history of that particular copy, and I like that about it. It certainly can become an obsession and I suppose it has for me. I remember recently showing my friend Kurt a copy of a Volcano Suns record I had just acquired and he said, “Are you trying to get every great record on vinyl or something?” and I said, “Well, yeah—that’s the idea.” And yes, there is definitely something magical about a record store, especially one as amazing as Jerry’s. It’s like being in one of the great art museums of the world—The Louvre or The Uffizi Gallery or something. So much history, so much to discover! And I love the chance involved with record shopping. You never know what’s waiting for you around the corner, down the next aisle, and if that album or single or whatever will become an essential piece of music to you, will alter you in some way, will change your life. How did that record end up there in the first place? What journey did it take to get there, on that shelf down that aisle, just waiting for you and the four singles in your wallet to come along? I try not to become too attached to objects, but records, well…I’m hooked on those. Like, if I’m out of town for a stretch of time, I start to miss them.

T.C.: I understand your sentiment about missing your records while you are gone. While we evacuated north for Hurricane Irma in September I remember thinking that if the storm directly hit Miami that all of my records and books would be gone. I know I should have been worried about other things, but the idea of losing that art and the memories that I had connected to them was a terrible feeling. Luckily, the storm spared us the worst of the damage. But let’s end this interview with one last question. What projects are you currently working on? Do you have another book on the way?

S.S.:  Oh man—yes, I can relate to you worrying about your library like that. And I think you make an important point too. It’s not just the stuff—the books and the records—but the sentimental attachment that goes along with many of the items in our libraries. This is a book that, say, my father gave me when I was teenager and getting into poetry. Or, this is a record that my lady-friend gave me early on in our relationship. But to get to your last question…I had a book of poems come out earlier this year and I’ve been spending time trying to promote that, but it feels like that’s winding down and I’m getting going on other projects. I’m working on a chapbook-length collection of poems about other poets. I noticed that that was something I consistently write about in my work, and I decided recently it would be fun to see them collected in one volume. I still have some work to do on it, but I’m seeing some progress. I’ve been dabbling in some prose-writing—doing some nonfiction writing (in the form of music writing and reviews) and trying my hand at fiction—but that still feels pretty new to me and I feel I need to spend more time honing my skills before I really get anywhere with it. And finally, I’ve started work on a new full-length book of poems. I’m thinking of it as a follow-up to Muskrat Friday Dinner in a sense, but I think that it’s going in a bit of a new direction for me as well. I feel like the political events of the last year or so have had an impact on me and therefore my poems and that’s something that I believe will be apparent in the next book. I’ve always considered the very act of writing poems in this country in this day and age as a political act. I got that from Stanley Kunitz. There’s a quote I like from him. It goes, “To live as a poet in this culture is the aesthetic equivalent of a major political statement.” But some of the things that have been going on in our country in the past year or so have had such an effect on me, on those around me, and on the people of our country that my poems have become more politically charged than ever before. So I’m noticing a change or shift in tone in some of the new poems. It seems to be happening in the songs I’m writing these days as well.

By T.C. Jones