Interview with John Isbell,
18th October 2021
Photo provided by Margarita Isbell (John’s wife)
Today I'm delighted to interview John Isbell. I first met John in July 2017, on a poetry workshopping site. I liked him immediately, for making me feel welcome and for giving the impression that my comments on his poems were useful. Whenever he critiqued my attempts, he was kind and helpful, even when what I'd posted wasn't particularly good. These days John and I enjoy email contact and often workshop each other's poems amidst plenty of chat. Recently I read his book Allegro and, as someone who hasn't ventured into book publishing yet, I'm interested to find out about what it's like to be a book author, among other things!
So, John, thank you for agreeing to this interview! I thought it might be interesting to start by asking, how did you get into poetry? When did the journey begin?
You’re welcome, Fliss. Thanks for the invitation! Well, it seems I was writing poetry by the age of 9. Recently I stumbled across a poem I’d written as a child while sorting through my late aunt Frances’ papers, which were contained in a carved Chinese chest she picked up on her travels. The poem was in free verse and about rain, which remains a favorite topic.
I like rain too, John. Did you write anything through the teenage years?
Yes! I wrote appallingly bad verse in my teens and only began writing what I might call poems in my twenties, in French and English. A career teaching French literature involved a lot of talking about poetry and not so much writing of it until that career was brought to an abrupt end by madness, which began in 1996 and continued for about eight years.
John, I’m sorry to hear that. What a difficult time that must have been for you.
Thanks, Fliss. Yes, it was hard. Recovery was slow. But when I came out of it, I resumed writing in abundance, with some work worth keeping, some less so. I wrote a poem a day from 2012 until 2020 and thus generated quantities of poems in various genres: I now have 25 unpublished manuscripts besides the single volume of poetry I have published, a collection of rhymed light verse called Allegro, which appeared with a South Texas publisher in 2018.
John, a friend gave me your Allegro for my birthday last month and I’m really enjoying it! How did its publication come about?
Ah! I hope you had a lovely birthday, Fliss, and that Allegro made a small contribution to it. It’s a quick and happy story: my publisher, Steven Ramirez, and I share a mutual friend, Texas author Anne Estevis, who writes mostly prose but helped a great deal with preparing this volume for publication. We all met at a Rio Grande Valley writers’ group called The Write Stuff, back in 2016 or thereabouts.
It was indeed a lovely birthday, John, and receiving Allegro as a gift certainly elevated celebrations! It sounds like meeting Steven and Anne at The Write Stuff was a very positive move for you. I haven’t attended a writers’ group, although I have made some useful contacts online. Would you recommend meetings in person?
I would say that workshopping poems with other poets in person combines talk of nuts and bolts, of roll-your-sleeves-up craft, with the soaring window onto another universe of the mystics. Poets live at that interface and navigating it with others in conversation ranks for me among life’s great pleasures. It engages and expands the mind and senses. Yes, I would recommend it.
Thanks, John! Top tip there. Now let’s talk about the process of preparing the poems that appear in Allegro for publication. In the Acknowledgements, you mention a dedicated group of readers in England and America. Did you meet these readers at The Write Stuff too?
What a splendid invitation to bow to my readers! They are: Andy, Amber, Hermine, Bill, Maggie, Zélie, Alexander, Judy, and Margarita (my wonderful wife). None belongs to The Write Stuff, as it happens, though I also send poems to Lislott, Susan, and Anne who is indeed in The Write Stuff and is mentioned above. We relocated from the Valley to outside Austin about when the pandemic hit, and I have yet to join a workshop here.
Yes, it’s always good to give a little bow. Hooray for your readers, not least the wonderful Margarita! Perhaps you’ll join a workshop at some stage. Now, how did you decide which poems to include in the book? Clearly you’ve written quite a lot over the years; was it hard to select your faves?
Well, I had two overriding selection criteria in place: poems had to rhyme and they had to seem funny to me. It’s a book of light verse, after all. So I hunted through my manuscripts on the lookout for what might qualify – at the time, I was writing a lot of free verse – and I also bombarded Anne with new poems at 2 a.m. and at 3 a.m. for a period of some weeks as the book took shape. Rather unexpectedly, I found myself writing a good deal more rhyming and metrical verse thereafter – some light, some more serious. There is a song to it.
Rhyme and humour do sound ideal for a book of light verse, John. I like the notion of a song in how we write poetry. Once everything had been submitted, was there a copyediting or proofreading stage?
Anne is a first-rate copyeditor, as it happens, with an unerring eye for punctuation. We spent long hours reviewing layout and sequencing of the volume, cover art and so forth. It was a team effort.
As it should be, in my view! Anne sounds excellent. And it must have been so exciting to see the book taking shape. I must say, I do like your cover art, including the handsome chap who appears on the back cover! But let’s talk about the content now. I’m particularly taken with your clerihews, not least this one:
Is a dish
some will consume with gusto.
I will only eat it just so.
Are there any poems you’re particularly proud to see in print?
Hmm. I must admit to having a soft spot for the clerihews. It’s a fine form and I think underutilized. Thank you, Edmund Clerihew Bentley! I also was happy to pair ‘Morning Duties’ and ‘Serenade’.
Yes, I appreciate that pairing, John. The breakfasting in ‘Morning Duties’ has a pleasing warmth to it and the imagery in ‘Serenade’ is lovely, not least in ‘The toys and dolls in their array / await the morning.’ Any other highlights for you?
Really, I enjoyed the whole volume, from ‘Dedication’ to ‘Envoi’, but I was happy to see some mad poems survive – ‘Functional Sonnet’, ‘The Cigarette’, ‘Pig Sonnet’ – and a very early poem, ‘The Prevention of Art’. Light verse is such a joy: for instance, I got to use the name Myfanwy to open ‘Lemonade’, that was a treat.
Yes, a treat indeed. I found ‘Functional Sonnet’ pretty engaging, seeing in ‘his theory Dante could be improved’ no small writer’s ambition! ‘The Cigarette’ is amazingly descriptive; I’ve never smoked, but I was rather entranced by it. I enjoyed ‘The Prevention of Art’ too, as a charming tribute to your wife.
Thanks, Fliss! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
You’re welcome, John. Now, let’s talk poetry plans! What are you working on at the moment? Are you hoping to publish another collection?
I’m working mostly on two manuscripts: God-Seer, about psychosis and comparative religion, and To Our Alien Overlords, in which our alien overlords get mail. Both combine free and formal verse. I submit both to contests, and God-Seer just made finalist in the Richard Snyder Memorial Publication Prize, so that was nice. I got a note from the publisher. But I continue to edit all my manuscripts periodically.
As you know, I’ve taken a look at God-Seer and To Our Alien Overlords; the combination of free and formal is appealing and the subject matter in both MSS is fascinating, really. Congrats on making finalist! Are you going to continue submitting to contests for the most part? I ask because I remember you had a poem published in the September issue of Snakeskin; is this a direction for you too?
Thank you very much, Fliss! I appreciate the good word. I do still submit to contests on occasion, but am also starting to follow your lead of sending things off to journals. I also just heard that The Ekphrastic Review is publishing two more of my pieces, so it’s been a fruitful week!
You’re welcome, John. And congratulations again! It’s fun to submit to journals and The Ekphrastic Review is a great read. Do you continue to workshop with fellow writers these days?
Not in person, sadly, until I find a good writers’ group in the area. I do a bit of trading poems with friends, and my wife hears everything I write, which is good for me and for my writing. I should really do more, though. My main poetry correspondent these days is likely Ms. Felicity Teague – a generous and astute reader!
Ah yes, I’ve heard of ‘FT’, I believe. I’m in touch with one ‘JI’, whom I’d describe as generous and astute, coincidentally! I hope you’ll find a good writers’ group soon, John, and it’s nice that ‘Mrs I’ is on hand to listen. I wonder whether we could finish with a poem from Allegro, perhaps?
I’d be delighted! Is there any chance you would pick one? My only immediate thought would be the Envoi that closes the book.
Go, little book; depart from me
into the world. Decidedly
we’ve laughed, we’ve shed a tear; we’ve seen
a thing or two. A magazine
does no less and is thrown away,
you tell me. At the end of day,
is that my fate – am I a brief
distraction? Is the tree in leaf
so soon to lose what made it green?
I say, I’m not sure what you mean;
for wit and grace will always find
a ready heart, a willing mind,
and those traits are your attributes
(we flatter when we’re in cahoots).
So you move on. A bumblebee
will visit blooms successively;
the blooms will see bees come and go,
they’re hardly loyal. Here below,
that’s how life plays out. As we part,
I think of this, and steel my heart.
John, ‘Envoi’ is one of my favourites, as it happens, especially for the bumblebee and blooms. But if I had to pick a number one, it would be another clerihew, in fact the last in the group:
The tufted titmouse
will not grouse
or complain about cold weather,
being all afeather.*
And the asterisk is for a little note underneath: ‘This last word is not in the dictionary. I sometimes say the same of gullible, to surprise the unwary.’ So you get a bonus rhyme!
I like the poem itself because it introduced me to a bird I hadn’t met before and I love the word ‘afeather’. As you might recall, I enjoy making up words and I’m pretty keen on birds too. So it’s all working for me!
John, many thanks for sharing your thoughts today. I wish you every success with Allegro and all your future projects!
You’re welcome, Fliss, and thank you!