Interview with Martin Elster,
3rd November 2021
Martin and I became acquainted earlier this year through our membership of a poetry workshop site. Not only has he offered useful critique on my poems, he participated in several threads I started by way of entertainment, not least a prompt for poems inspired by pieces of music. I was impressed by his contributions, to the extent that I asked Mike Burch whether he might like to invite Martin to submit to The HyperTexts (Mike is editor of THT). Mike agreed without hesitation and Martin’s page may be accessed here.
THT is just one of Martin’s numerous publication successes; others include Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Better Than Starbucks, Lighten Up Online, The New Verse News, The Oldie, Potcake Chapbooks, The Road Not Taken, THEMA, and anthologies such as Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, New Sun Rising, and Poems for a Liminal Age. He writes on a broad range of subjects and moreover has an impressive musical background, having performed as percussionist for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, The Connecticut Opera Orchestra, the Hartford Ballet, Mariachi groups, as well as other Connecticut ensembles. He is also a published composer. I have some musical ability myself and I'm interested in the relationship between musical composition and poetry creation, which has always seemed significant to me.
So, Martin, welcome! I’d like to start at the beginning of your poetry career, by talking about your first book, There’s a Dog in the Heavens! (A Universe of Canine Verse). I hope this won’t be too painful for you, bearing in mind your cherished rat terrier Wilbur (shown in your photo) passed away earlier this month; in fact, I rather hope it might bring you some comfort to consider all the poems you’ve written about dogs over the years. Is this how you got into writing poetry, your first point of inspiration, combined with your musical background?
Thank you, Fliss, for your condolences about Wilbur. He was a remarkable pooch and inspired quite a few poems. Dogs have, indeed, been a huge influence on my writing. What got me into poetry, however, was a piece of music I was playing for solo marimba called ‘Yellow After the Rain’ by Mitchell Peters. The main theme is in mixed meter: 3/4 3/4 4/4 3/4 4/4 3/4 3/4 3/4 4/4. I had the idea of putting words to it. It turned into a seven- or eight-line trochaic mono-rhymed poem. I thought it was a neat exercise and wrote another. And then another in the exact same form until I had enough (43!) to compile them into a little homemade chapbook.
43! What a lot. So what types of poems are these and when did you write them?
The poems are basically nonsense verse or light verse. This was in December 1999. That same year, Warren Benson (who was a percussionist and a composer) celebrated his 75th birthday with the publication of …And My Daddy Will Play the Drums: Limericks for Friends of Drummers. I read it and found it entertaining, which inspired me to write limericks about the world of canines. So around the start of 2000, I started writing dog limericks. After around three years, I thought I had enough material for a book, which I published in 2003 (with a Second Edition in 2005). The book is now out of print.
Oh, that’s a shame, Martin. How did your writing career progress after that publication?
After the dog book, I kept writing, now on other themes. I joined a poetry group, which met monthly in the library of a nearby town (Wethersfield, CT). That was helpful. I also found poetry workshops online. And, as you mentioned, at one of those sites, I met you, and am very glad I did! Your poetry inspires me. And I’m grateful to you for introducing me to Mike Burch, who has also become my friend.
Martin, it was a pleasure! As soon as we started exchanging poems and ideas, I saw some sort of potential in you and I felt confident Mike would pick up on that too. Have there been any other particular successes over the past decade or so?
The book of canine verse found its way into the hands of the editor of Yankee Dog (Bowser Publications), a newspaper for dog-lovers (and their dogs). Between 2009 and 2010, I was a contributor, and several poems of mine appeared in the paper. They also had a dog haiku contest for one of their issues, which I had the pleasure of judging. Also, for a few years during that period, my poems (not so much about dogs anymore) were appearing once a week in a newspaper called The Meriden Record Journal, on their poetry page ‘Pennons of Pegasus.’ It’s rare these days for a newspaper to include poetry, so I was fortunate to have a venue where I knew that people were actually reading my poems.
Hooray! And did that lead anywhere?
Yes! One day I attended a meeting of the poets whose work was appearing on ‘Pennons of Pegasus.’ On that occasion, I had the pleasure of meeting the poet Wes Hiatt and his wife. Wes had graduated from the same high school (Meriden High School) as Lewis Turco. Wes and I became good friends, but after he moved back up to Bangor, Maine, a few years ago, I had lost touch with him. I looked him up today and sadly found out that he passed away on July 6, 2020. Wes was a gifted writer, and I am forever grateful that I had the chance to get to know him.
For readers who might like to know more about Wes Hiatt, you’ve provided a link to his obituary.
Yes; all of this motivated me to continue writing and honing my craft, and I feel I’ve improved a great deal since I first put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) almost twenty-two years ago.
Wow, over two decades. It would be great to talk about craft now. Earlier you mentioned being inspired by a particular meter. I’m very interested in that, because that’s how it happened for me when I started to compose. I use the word ‘compose’ for poetry and music. Do you think your ability to write formal verse flows from your musicianship, for want of a better term?
Yes, I do think so. I have set poems to music, and that was a great way to get a feel for word-rhythms.
What else have you composed?
I’ve composed both traditional scores as well as experimental music. By the way, I like your term ‘compose’ for both music and poetry, as the two art forms are intimately related. Although I think I mostly just ‘feel’ the ‘beat’ (i.e., metrical feet), practicing is essential, no matter how natural one’s feeling for rhythm is.
Practising is fun too! But I think you’ve also put in a lot of study hours, providing some pretty solid foundations.
That’s true! I studied music composition with teachers through most of high school and all of college. Right now I’m reading through The 20th Century in Poetry (edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae), which includes a poem (‘These Boys’) by one of my favorite contemporary poets, the late John Whitworth. And speaking of Mr. Whitworth, he often composed poems based on the melody of a song. What better way to demonstrate the intimate link between music and poetry! Incidentally, when someone says, ‘I’m not really into poetry,’ just say to them, ‘Every time you listen to a song on the radio, you are hearing poetry.’
Funnily enough, I often think of myself as a lyricist before a poet. Let’s zoom in on some specifics now. Are there any poets you’d say started you off in your poetry career?
Some of my early poetic influences were poets like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, and Robert W. Service (when I was writing those canine limericks). Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur were quite inspirational for me as I branched out into other forms and subjects. I’ve tried my hand at many of the standard forms, including the French repeating forms.
Additionally, I’ve experimented with nonce forms. One technique I’ve played around with makes use of a kind of contrapuntal phasing between the meter and the rhyme scheme, where each has its own individual stanza-length. It’s possible that this is my own invention, as I’ve not seen it used before.
That’s interesting, Martin! Perhaps we could take a look at an example of this technique?
Yes, we could: I use it in my ‘Seasonal Journey.’ The metrical pattern is a repeated three-line unit: trimeter, trimeter, pentameter; while the rhyming pattern is a four-line unit: AABA BBCB, etc. (i.e., interlocking Rubaiyat stanzas). So the metrical units and the rhyming units go in and out of sync (or phase) with each other. They come full cycle every twelve lines (3 x 4 = 12). This is a technique I’ve seen (and heard) in musical compositions, especially the early experiments of Steve Reich. But I haven’t seen it used in a poem. Perhaps it’s analogous to the phases of the moon or to the seasonal cycles of bird and insect migrations, each autumn flying away from their breeding grounds, and each spring returning, then repeating the cycle annually. I’d like to think that this form is maybe appropriate in a poem about birds navigating by the stars and constellations, themselves cycling perennially.
Even before your birth
you sensed the stars round Earth
would aid you in your migratory flight.
There surely is no dearth
of peril in the night:
tempests, towers, artificial light.
The cat, the fox, the hawk—
at dawn or dusk—invite
adversity. Yet all your instincts lock
together with your flock
on the most unerring arrow
in all the world: the coruscating clock
which sends you on your narrow
way to land in Faroe
or in Australia. Every constellation
lies hidden in your marrow.
By learning the location
of the North Star and others in relation
to that familiar mark,
you’ll reach your destination.
O Vega, Capella, Arcturus, gracing the dark—
over the shore, the park,
each edifice in the stark
cold air—lift up all those who must embark!
(Poetry Nook’s 263rd Weekly Poetry Contest honorable mention.)
Ah, I see. Congrats on that honorable mention! I love the imagery in the poem and the connection with cycles in the natural world is pretty cool. As I recall, a lot of poems in your book Celestial Euphony are about nature. Is that one of your favourite themes?
Thanks, Fliss! I’m glad you enjoyed the poem. Yes, nature is a favorite theme and the book also has fantasy poems and science fiction poems, as well as light verse, poems about music, scientists, love, and the ways in which we humans interact with our environment.
Quite a range, then! And how did the publication come about?
Well, the publisher is Plum White Press, which is an imprint of Poetry Nook. Nearly all the poems in the book have won or earned an honorable mention in Poetry Nook’s weekly poetry contests. The publication came into being thanks to a prompt by Frank Watson, the editor of Poetry Nook. After six poets were nominated in 2019 for the Pushcart Prize, Frank invited us (the nominees) to submit a manuscript of our poetry if we so desired, which Plum White Press would publish.
That’s great! I’d like to mention that there’s a brilliant review of the book by your good friend and fellow poet Siham Karami, which can be accessed here. Let’s talk poetry plans now. What’s next for you?
Thanks for mentioning Siham’s review. It is, indeed, incredibly good. Thank you, Siham! And what’s next for me, you ask? Great question! I’d like to put together another poetry collection. I’m also thinking about composing more poems about quirky Wilbur. Other than that, just keep writing, reading, and occasionally submitting.