Paul Brucker, a marketing communications writer, lives in Mount Prospect, IL, “Where Friendliness is a Way of Life.” Active in the early 1980s Washington, D.C, poetry scene, he put a lid on poetry writing when he went to the Northwestern University graduate advertising school in a questionable attempt to learn how to think like a businessman and secure a decent income. Nevertheless, he has succumbed to writing poetry again and has recently appeared in plenty of publications.
Fishbowl: So, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started writing poetry.
PB: It was soon after I learned to pencil my first words in school that I thought about not just copying from books but writing them. My second-grade teacher had other occupational plans for me – when our family left southern Virginia to move to northern Virginia, she gave me a book about the great physicians, signed by all the kids in the class. Next year, I wrote a long essay about a history book chapter and the teacher then told me to make the essay a lot shorter so I simply shortened my handwriting and turned it back in. Unfortunately, that began my career of writing indecipherably, like a doctor. When I was a newspaper reporter, I wrote great notes, however, I wrote them fast and often had a hard time figuring out the words from my scribbles. Ironically in my various jobs, some people called me “Dr.” Brucker although I don’t think I come across as clinical, didactic or professorial.
I think I wrote my first poem in sixth grade and it is along the lines of “Kristi” in your poetry review. It was about an innocent guy who was hung during the 1700s. Later, Mrs. Doris Rodin, my creative writing teacher in high school, encouraged my poetry. After college (teachers included Gregory Orr and Mark Strand), I sensed that poetry was my calling and kept my vow for years to write poetry for 70 minutes every day. During that time, I learned some poetry tricks and tips in a class by Peter Klappert, a Yale Younger Series winner. I also snuck into a writing course by James Dickey, although I was not enrolled at the college.
Fishbowl: How would you describe your style of writing? Where does it come from?
PB: Currently, I’m a magpie, gathering up lines from here and there. Typically, I like to have at least one or two solid poems that I’m refining. I often begin my writing sessions by doing self-hypnosis and then what I call “Fresh Lines,” simply improvising whatever comes into my mind and making associations from that. Sometimes a poem emerges from that activity. Sometimes I choose an anchor or subject for a poem upfront, such as a serviceman in WWI (“The Great War”), a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe (“10 minutes and 14 seconds with Edgar Allan Poe”) or a poet faced with unceasing rejection notes (“Thank you for submitting to our journal, but …”).
Some people say that all emotions can be boiled down to five basic ones: anger, fear, sadness, shame, and joy. Ah, to be more filled with joy or at least aspire to joy. However, sadness and fear are big for me. For instance, I’m really afraid of death. When I’m serious, I’m often dark. But sometimes I don’t take my lines or myself that seriously.
Fishbowl: What are you reading right now?
PB: I just finished an autobiography by Don Rickles. I’m reading work by the master hypnotist/magician Milton Erickson, who had a genius for tricking people into getting well. Also, reading some poetry by Billy Collins, wondering whether to take the $90 plunge and take his online line “master” class.
Fishbowl: So, shameless self-promotion time. What projects do you have going on right now?
PB: I’m relearning GarageBand ‘11, the Apple music software, and recently produced some sound poems. I’ve also recorded a couple of my poems with sound effects. I’m wondering whether to take the plunge into GarageBand ‘10, which has some pros and cons and, ironically, is the upgrade from ‘11.
Here are two pieces. “Justifications,” appeared in an anthology, “Essential Existentialism.”
Here’s the first poem I wrote after succumbing to write poetry again. I intend the title, “Keen Fitful Gusts,” (a phrase from a Keats’ poem) to be the title of my book or chapbook – if I ever get one.
Fishbowl: Any social media links you would like to share so our readers can connect and learn more about you and your work?
PB: You can check me out on Linked in. I’m in the market for work.
Fishbowl: So, tell us a bit about your featured poems.
PB: In my early days, I wrote short poems and wondered if I would ever have enough work to fill a book. No worries. Along came some quite long poems, which some editors said they really liked but that they were simply too long to print. And I found that audiences before long lost interest unless you’re a good slam poetry performer. People even started talking loudly among themselves when I read one during an open reading. So I started to focus on shorter pieces. I aim to write poems that are intriguing and complex, yet fairly easy to follow and understand.
Fishbowl: Let’s take a look at the pieces.
The Fudge Factor
Today, I pretend everything goes my way
and laugh for no appropriate reason.
I wear a fancy shirt with a fake designer label,
ostensibly 80% cotton, 10% rayon
and 10% God knows what.
I sport a newfangled mustache bought on discount
from the corner novelty shop.
Then, to make things interesting, I start to limp.
A stranger asks what happened to me.
I say a near-fatal war wound.
Since I distinctly hear coins jingle in his pocket,
I ask for spare change
and he declares he has none.
Later my boss, back from vacation,
says he likes my mustache
but I can tell he doesn’t mean it.
He inquires about my limp
and I inform him that I had a slip and fall
because the cleaning lady left the floor sobbing wet.
Later, Purchasing calls to grill me about an order I placed.
I instruct them to refer to section B, disclosure three,
knowing there is no such thing.
I then relax, admiring the “graduated with honors cum laude”
diploma framed on my wall – from a college I never set foot in.
I phone my latest girl to make a date and say I love her.
I know, of course, this is hypothetical – contingent
on how well I really understand who she is
and what love is.
But, that’s part of the fun –
to base one’s life on being what one is not,
to attempt to attain what might not be.
Today, I don’t have to wear a clean shirt
or say I’m sorry.
I don’t have to be special
or laugh when I’m not amused.
Today, I don’t have to wait in lines
because I so desperately need to piss.
I don’t have to pay the electric bill,
the hospital bill, or the guy who goes by the name of Bill.
Today, I don’t have to endure Terri’s loud, constant, annoying laugh
or speak drivel or listen to your drivel.
I won’t have to embrace the perennial philosophy
that lasts for five minutes between intervals of despair.
Today, I’m not required to protect the environment,
mow the dandelion-filled lawn or trick or treat for UNICEF.
I don’t need to breath slowly
and think positive thoughts.
Today, I’m unable to do anything,
anything at all.
I was in the crowd that cheered the restored monarch
who cannot dictate his own initials,
who proclaims we are as holy as we will to be.
I’m told the occasion has been richly illustrated
with pictures of places and art.
This helps me think our world, our home,
is a safe, quiet place
inhabited by brothers, like you,
who I may not recognize
but who, like me, are soothed by a lover’s presence
and exchanges of blood.
Rumors still swirl about Kristi,
her abused corpse situated on Primrose Hill,
her days hurried by, all gone and past.
Certain individuals affirm
the glimmer of a chocolate almond bar
always caught her eye.
And if she were really decent,
she wouldn’t have entered apartments of other men at night
to hold and squeeze them in bed.
When the detectives showed me her likeness,
I swore, “As God is my witness,
I never saw her before.”
Though, of course, I’ve heard many speak ill of her.
But God is not my witness.
He left without a goodbye
and never sent yours truly a postcard,
unless he sent it to the wrong address.
Despite what certain individuals proclaim,
I still respect the law and the people who enforce it.
So why must timeworn guards sneer
and stare furiously at me?
I lie here among cows and pigs
in a rickety pen, till it’s time for slaughter.
What will become of my little dog Robinson
and the periwinkles adjacent my window?
The only friends who stand by me are air and water,
soon to be transformed into stars
as a sacred stone is passed hand-to-hand.
I see no alternative, no available options.
But I proclaim you are different.
For you, there still may be time.
For you, there still may be a chance
to assemble a tolerable life for yourself.
When you’re tired of asking for money, tired of starving
and freezing in the great outdoors with no place to sleep.
Tired of wearing inappropriate, skimpy clothes,
of being turned down for being fat, ugly, black or Jew.
Sick of being scolded with bullshit clichés,
like she’s coming around the mountain,
and you’ll surely perceive if only you believe.
When you’re exhausted by your complaining or by justifying how you feel,
done in by disco dancing, yodeling, and making poker faces.
When you’re furious by well-meaning reminders
that many others are far worse off than you.
When you’re simply tired,
tired of being unloved.
Then it’s time to honor the fly, which buzzes by the dumpster.
Time to recognize him or her as a kindred spirit,
your portal to participate and revel in nature.
Then it’s finally time to do the shrug, the proverbial shrug,
to embrace what’s so with no self-centered strings attached.
Time to give and fully receive the gift of self-compassion.
A mother held a miserable baby to her bosom,
wondering if it would turn out to be
a loiterer, a murderer, or me.
She said there’s something wrong,
terribly wrong with it,
something she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—define,
help it overcome, or come to terms with.
She was always on the verge
of voicing disapproval
for something inappropriate it said or did,
such as speaking its truth.
It was needy, a pest.
She couldn’t teach it to like itself.
Not her job. Not anybody else’s job.
Desperate for a word or look of encouragement,
I looked to others
for games, information,
I overpaid for pills and wisdom,
peddled to make people
feel better about their situation and self.
See for yourself. I now live
on ingratitude, hurt, and venom.
My back leans against the wall,
the amoral, immortal wall.
Look across the fields.
See the unfortunates who writhe on crucifixes.
(Of course, in some way, it’s their lack of luck –
Or their choice.)
How beautiful to live
although he’s busy
judging and loving someone else.
How beautiful to live
without the deceit of a guiding light.
Six feet from the table, an ordinary drinking glass
half full of milk, sprinkled with a little brown sugar
and three teaspoons of industrial-strength formalin
bought with a coupon for only $3.99 a bottle.
Suitable window screens etched with 16 meshes,
constructed with copper, which though higher in price
is more economical in the long run.
We were overcome quickly
in the strategic areas they sprayed.
But the quantity used was insufficient,
so several of us revived
To crawl and escape through cracks
and continue to develop under floorboards,
ceiling hangings, moist ground or stones.
Others found a corner, an edge or object to rest on,
such as the rim of your beer or freshly made sandwich.
Despised, unwanted guests who never leave,
We fastidiously use our forelegs to remove muck
that comes in contact with our eyes.
We recognize and respond to your slightest movement
and see lights and colors you can only wonder.
Our mothers usually mate just once
and store sperm for several batches –
A hundred eggs at a time
on carrion, garbage, or feces,
in your piggeries, dairies, outhouses,
or whatever’s at hand.
In eight days, we are fully grown
and can carry more than a hundred diseases.
Pity us for we live briefly
and turn to ice when temperatures drop
below fifteen degrees.
Pity us for we have followed you for millenniums
as you spread from Arabia around the world,
as you searched and found safe haven,
while we have yet to find our own.
Fishbowl: The humor in “The Fudge Factor” quickly made the piece my favorite in your collection. Equally detectable in the poem is a certain ‘edge’ that seems to thread its way throughout the other narrative pieces. What do they say about ‘life’?
PB: I was reviewing my “Fresh Lines” improvisations from a year or so ago and noticed that I made a list of fake, imitation, and make-believe things. At that point, a narrative occurred to me about a practical joker con man and “The Fudge Factor” was born. Life? I often dwell too much on how I’ve been passed over, short-changed, or marginalized. And I realize I must counter that edge with self-responsibility, integrity and the courage to come to terms with what is so.
Fishbowl: There also seems to a recurring theme of ‘absence’ present, especially in “Kristi” and “Mama’s Boy,” where God seems to have turned a blind eye. How difficult is it to tap into your sense of pathos and be vulnerable? Is catharsis found there?
PB: Yes, I have a sense of God being another face in the crowd and I’m afraid of the eternal nothingness of death. Often, I wish I could just take my self-imposed blinders off and enjoy a much more comprehensive, even-handed, and less self-centered vision of life. Then, I could use that vision to write from. Meanwhile, I think there’s a lot of strength and beauty in being vulnerable in poems. I wrote in one poem, “Your mother called. She said she never loved you.” In another: “And tonight, again, I’ll either kill or to try to please my father, but either way, I’ll never earn his blessing.” These lines are not autobiographical in a literal way, but they are deep and cathartic to me. Actually, I think I’m quite lucky to have had my parents and sister (artistic, good people, all of them).
Fishbowl: Having read “Self-Compassion” and “The Fly,” I am curious about your fascination with the little, winged critter and the concept that we might think of ourselves as “kindred” spirits (an idea I love by the way). How might we compare?
PB: Twice, I called out friends who were about to swat flies. I scolded them with my belief that “all life is sacred and a gift to cherish before it expires.” I did a lot of research on flies before writing “The Fly” poem. Similarly, I did a lot of research on alligators (my spirit animal) before writing a poem about – you guessed it, alligators.
Fishbowl: What is next for Paul Brucker?
PB: I’m looking forward to seeing what poems may emerge from my “Fresh Lines” or to choose my next subject. How about a contemporary version of a Grimm’s Fairytale? I’d also love to have a poem finally accepted by a major league publication. And to have a book, if not a chapbook published, not self-published.
Fishbowl: Great, Paul! Any parting thoughts? Advice for aspiring writers out there?
PB: Hey, I’m an aspiring writer too. My advice: To handle rejection, grow a thicker skin and see the glass as half full. (They tell salespeople to keep accumulating a lot of “no’s” because that makes you closer to a “yes.”) Expand your horizons. Be introspective. Read and write a lot. And aside from the usual clichés, be true to yourself and speak your truth.
Fishbowl: Last question… What would you want the epitaph on your gravestone to say?
PB: The closing lines from my poem, “Pecking order song,” resonate:
Blame not my lute, for it must sound like a lute.
Bottom line: I had no choice.
I was a poet. I did my best. Farewell.