Poet John Sweet


Featured Poetry

the poet runs out of words

number 29, 1950, second attempt

the collapse of the human cathedral: a premonition

to starve in a home

a footnote to the season of rust

poem as a noose

stealing the title to atwood's notes towards a poem that can never be written

the body dissected and the cancer laid bare, (later)

building something darker in the ruins of the human cathedral

a cold spring afternoon in the world of darker truths

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© 2002 Itzhak Ben-Arieh

Tryst Interviews John Sweet

waiting for the fever to break was one of the first poems by john sweet that I read in Ariga which literally knocked me off my feet and left me gasping for air.  It felt like a moment of epiphany: I was convinced that john was one of the most definitive voices to arrive in this century.  What instantly struck me about john's poetry was how dark, moody and unpretentiously stark it was.  I was inspired to do a search and found a plethora of writing at Burning Word where he is a featured writer.  After I read every one of his poems at Burning Word and several other sites I wrote john a fan letter and got to know him on a personal level.  I found john to be a warm, caring and witty individual with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.  I also believe he is a serious poet.  If I had to personify john's poetry it might be to Muhammad Ali in that his words pack a punch; they bruise and still sing.  Shades of melancholy mixed in with expressed vulnerability draw me back to his poetry repeatedly.  After almost a year of correspondence and dedicated reading, I am proud to present Tryst's Featured Poet, john sweet.


Mia: John, I’ve read several bios where you write in third person describing yourself as: violently opposed to all "schools" of writing, and to anyone who insists on attempting to "define" poetry.

Along with your poetry, your bios make for interesting reading.  Would care you to name any specific schools of poetry or movements that you are violently opposed to and why?

John: what i don't like, i guess, is the need to categorize every writer. it's a cop-out.  categorizing leads to marginalizing, reducing their work to generalities.  it's a way to avoid thinking about what a writer might actually be saying.

margaret atwood is a great example.  people who call her a feminist writer are missing the point entirely.  it's an enormously inadequate description.  her writing is so incredibly complex it can't be summed up under one catchall heading.  i try to take writers on a one-on-one basis.   the beats, the new york schools, the west coast poets........  it all gets kind of stupid.  poetry is messy, and these attempts to clean it up are insulting. it's like politics - you take a bunch of general similarities and give them a name and a straitjacket. it just seems like a bad idea.

How would you react to your own work being studied in an academic setting in the future?  Would you feel as if you had been “pigeonholed” into a certain school of thought?  And if that happens, which “movement” might best describe your poetry?

it would be interesting to see my work presented in an academic setting.  what would future generations have to say about the bleeding horse, or the burning girl, or the god of starving dogs?  it seems unlikely, though.  the poems i remember being taught about are ones that tended to fit into the "tradition" of poetry.  i'm all for changing that.

about six years ago, a high school senior wrote to ask  if she could interview me for a class poetry project.  i agreed to it, and had already received a list of questions when another letter arrived.  the idea had been shot down by her teacher, who said that the report had to be on a "known" poet, one who already had books written about him/her.  for this girl to actually show that kind of initiative and pick a LIVING POET to write about was too much for her teacher.  maybe a college professor might take pity on my work...

i seem to mostly be considered a SMALL PRESS POET, which is nice and vague, and i really can't argue it.  it defines where my work tends to get published, and not what the work is about, so it's a fair compromise. some editors have gone off the deep end and labeled me a racist, a woman-hater and (my favorite) a writer of "contemporary urban street poetry".  it definitely was a struggle growing up on the mean streets of owego, new york.

In Volume 3, Issue I, of Snow Monkey Press you wrote: Over the past ten years, I’ve received a fair amount of polite brush-offs from editors who feel compelled to tell me that there is no room for politics in poetry. This seems to me to be a dangerous sort of ignorance. All self-expression is, to some extent, political. The rejection of politics in, in itself, a political act.

Could you explain what is political about your poetry?

i don't really feel that there's ANYTHING political in my writing.  politics is a group sport.  what i voice is my own opinion.  unfortunately, opinions are frequently confused with political ideas.  if i write about religion, it's seen as political.  if i write about rape, it's seen as political.  if i buy my son a t-shirt made in pakistan, it's seen as political.

some editors, i think, have perceived my writing as political simply because my views are different from theirs.  some of them have actually told me that what my work was being rejected for was the ideas and opinions, not the quality of writing.  who knows.  maybe they were just trying to spare my feelings.

i try not to preach in my writing (i save that for interviews).  i try not to sensationalize.  i try to keep my wife from driving to the houses of some of these editors and throwing rocks through their windows.

Do you believe that your writing will change how we approach writing poetry in the future?  What are your perceptions and truths about the future of writing?

i hope that, like me, other writers will choose to write as a reaction to what came before them.  the past doesn't have to be negated, but mindless imitation isn't a substitute for creation.

i started writing because the work that i was being taught in school (dickens, eliot, frost, cummings if the teacher was feeling really radical) offended me.  it had nothing to do with the life i was living in a small redneck town in reagan's america.  poetry doesn't need to be (and SHOULDN'T be) an insular thing, but how are you going to figure that out reading work that was written by people who died years before you were born?

again, the phrase "political poetry" starts to get thrown around, but why? maybe it's just a way to diminish a person's ideas.  maybe it's inevitable in this society, in this day and age.  maybe people spend too much time being frightened and confused without doing anything to change.  the whole late 20th century writing scene seemed burst wide open with the explosion of the zine scene in the 90s, and then the arrival of the internet. writing could go either way from here.  i'm a cynic by nature, but maybe an overwhelming flood of voices trying to be heard could be a good thing.

What artists, writers (if any) have influenced your own writing?   Do you believe that your writing, in turn, will influence future writers?

reading the work of dave kelly, my college poetry professor, really opened my eyes to what poetry COULD be.  he was the first poet i encountered who was putting all of my theories onto the page and making them realities.

raymond carver - the importance of brevity, and of straightforward language.  diane wakoski - taught me the beauty and challenge of creating a personal mythology that existed comfortably in the real world.  margaret atwood - the absolute power of words.  the depth and many profound facets of the vents and things we take for granted or see as ordinary.

1970s/early 1980s punk rock - how to channel anger and discontent into something creative.  many of the bands happily embraced the punk label, but the truly great ones strove to break free of it and make music that couldn't be pigeonholed.

pollock/dali/tanguy/rothko/richter - emotions and fears on canvas.  an entirely different language.

Some of my favorite lines in "the poet confesses": the poem slips into my blood/at five in the morning/without a sound.  When do you find the time to write?  How many poems in a given period do you write and where does your inspiration come from?

these days, i take the minutes where i can.  early in the morning, late at night, when everyone else in the house has tired themselves out and is taking a nap..........

when i walk, i compose stanzas in my mind.  a lot of them slip away before i find some paper and a pen.

in a good month, i'll write 40 or so poems.  when i get jammed up, only 10 or 20.  if i go more than two days without writing, i start to get a little cranky, and force myself to sit down & get some words on paper.

i'm not a big believer in "the muse".  if you want a poem, you have to work for it.  occasionally, i'm proven wrong and a fully formed piece will spring up out of nowhere.  i take gifts wherever i can find them.

inspiration/subject matter comes from daily life - mine, my family's, friends', stories from the news....  i seem to be working mainly in non-fiction these days.

What is the most significant change you've noticed about your poetry from when you first began writing 19 years ago until now?

when i started, i was looking for a voice.  it took me about 10-12 years to get to a place (stylistically) that i was happy with.  these days, i have my voice, and now i'm looking to see how much i can do with it.  from baby steps to big steps. i have much more control over how the words fall onto the paper.  i can take more chances.

my writing is, admittedly, a pretty dark and gloomy affair.  i've been working at letting some light in occasionally, but without compromising what i do.  some people have picked up on the (very) black humor that comes into play occasionally.

What questions from editors, or things about publishing in general really annoy you?

themed issues of publications are irritating.  i try not to submit to those.  i hate being told what to write about.  i need to grow up.  i can see the point of "bio notes" included with submissions - it helps the editor see the writer as a human - but they seem irrelevant for the most part.  the things that matter are about me are in my poems, if you look for them.

one of my biggest grievances is against editors who advise writers to "study the history of poetry" before they begin writing.  bullshit.  if you want to write, write.  there seems to be an attempt in some quarters to keep poetry insular and irrelevant.  it's the 21st century, so why not write like it?

Mia: Where do you honestly see yourself in ten more years from now?

a father, a husband, a state worker (very depressing, that last one)......my guess is that i'll still be writing poetry but, more and more these days, it's tempting to just walk away from it.

i think it's important for a writer to take his/her writing seriously but, occasionally, i let the big picture blind me.  Poetry won't cure cancer.  it won't cure aids, or bring about world peace.  then again, maybe it doesn't have to.  i need to keep reminding myself of this.

Is there anything personal you’d like to share with the readers?  And if I may, congratulations on the expected arrival of your baby in December.

i think i may be more frightened of the new baby's arrival than i was of jonathon's, now that i DO know what to expect.  yikes.  the only writing wisdom i swear by (and i hate poets who offer advice), is to take the poetry that you write seriously, but not to take yourself seriously as a capital P POET....unless you do happen to write the poem that cures cancer.


John, your candid answers are so refreshing.  Thank you for your time and contributions to Tryst.

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