As a poet, R.T. Castleberry has been publishing, nationally and internationally, since the early Seventies. He’s acted as co-editor/publisher of the poetry monthly, Curbside Review. Mr. Castleberry received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2014. His chapbook, Arriving At The Riverside, was published by Finishing Line Press in January, 2010. An e-chapbook, Dialogue and Appetite, was published by Right Hand Pointing in April, 2011.
His poems "Waiting on the Insurrection" and "Risking Phantoms" were recently published by Roanoke Review.
Emily Densmore speaks with RT Castleberry below.
Do you primarily write poetry or do you also explore other genres?
No boundaries. My identity is “writer.” I’m primarily a poet, because it’s what I’m most practiced at. But I’ve also done some book reviewing. I’ve had a couple of personal essays and short stories published. I’m a legendary “letters to the editor” guy. And I’m about 2/3 of the way through writing a novel.
I noticed that a lot of your pieces deal with current events or some type of everyday moment. Is this often the subject matter of your writing? Where does your inspiration come from?
Honestly, I don’t think they do. I stopped writing directly autobiographical poetry early on in my career. I found it too limiting. I like to work on a larger emotional and physical canvas than that. And anything that might appear to be drawn from current events is usually worked over and rearranged to something more universal and surrealistic. My approach to poetry is similar to a method actor approaching a script: Invest real emotion or memory into a (usually) fictional situation to lend it power and credibility. It’s also why I do research. I discovered early on that if I can get the physical details right, and the emotions right, the reader will follow me where I take them.
Also I think details play a big part when it comes to inspiration. Like every writer, I’m nosy. And so I spend my time watching. Watching how people interact with their corner of the street, how they walk or stumble down it, how they dress for it. When I do that long enough or closely enough, a line or phrase will come to me, or a situation will emerge that I can latch onto and use.
I write in essentially 3 styles: persona poems, where I take on a character; longer, surrealistic works, usually travelogues of some kind; and that lovely rarity, pure inspiration. Those tend to be short and are usually autobiographical to some extent. Although virtually every poem I write has an element of fiction in it. Or is edited for effect.
What purpose do you think poetry serves today? How is it relevant?
I like TS Eliot’s line: It takes up less space. Purpose and relevance? Well, there is an audience for poetry, whether it be page poetry, like mine, or spoken word. I remember being astounded a few years ago when I attended a spoken work reading. It was Saturday night and the cover charge was high at $15. But the small auditorium was full. And the audience was loud and appreciative. I live in Houston, Texas and there are readings somewhere almost every night. And a couple of long running reading series and an annual poetry festival. As long as there is an audience, either writing, performing or listening, poetry has a purpose and is relevant.
What do you think your purpose as a writer is? Do you just write for enjoyment or do you feel your work is serving a larger goal?
When I first started writing, as an angst-y teenager asking the Big Questions, I was trying to discover what talent I had that would help me stand out and get noticed. Writing was what I did best. I found I could put words on paper in a way that affected people. So I followed that talent. And over the years, I’ve worked very hard to learn both art and craft. And I try to stay dissatisfied, to continue to refine and push forward. Along the way I discovered themes, ideas and situations, a particular point of view, that compelled my interest. And hopefully, I write about them well enough that other people are interested.
Speaking on a more technical level, I notice that you often use anaphora and sound repetition in your pieces. How do you feel these poetic devices add to your poetry? How do you think the structure of a piece informs the poem overall?
Two reasons: I’m inspired as much by songwriters as poets. And by Gershwin as much as Leonard Cohen. Repetition is my version of a songwriter’s internal rhyme. It helps to focus on writing a memorable phrase and gives the poetry a rhythm and beat. The second reason is that my poems tend to be dense. There is a lot of information being presented, a lot of words are being passed. And I’ve learned that repetition helps the information to be presented more easily, in a condensed and powerful way. Those lines stand out when you read them or hear them.
As to structure, I let the poem take its own form. I’ve written poetry that have stanza breaks and poems that are one long stanza. Sometimes they have a rigid form; each stanza will be balanced at five or eight lines, for example. And sometimes the stanza stops when the idea runs out. No rules except those the poem makes.
What authors have influenced you? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Richard Brautigan, Carl Sandburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti early on. Then Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Eugene O’Neill for his passion and total commitment to his art. I like Ted Hughes. I like his idea of Nature as being savage. I like Anne Sexton. Muriel Rukeyser is an inspiration. A couple of my Houston friends are tremendous poets and I enjoy reading them whenever possible. But my reading tends mostly to non-fiction--history, biography, social sciences. I’m a huge fan of the historian Bruce Catton, who was a fine, witty writer. David Halberstam was always a favorite. Paul Fussell wrote two great books, one on WWI and the other on WWII, that I go back to pretty often.
Do you have any projects you’re currently working on?
Oh sure. Always working. If I’m not writing, I tend to go back and revise older pieces. I’m notorious for that. As to newer projects, I’m writing a novel, a military Western set after the Civil War. I’m a little over 93,000 words into it. I have a full length poetry manuscript that a UK press is looking at right now. And I have a chapbook manuscript pulled together. I’m about to go on winter break from the school I work at and I’ll be putting time in on each of those. I think I can add some newer pieces to the poetry manuscripts and improve them. My goal for next year is to focus on getting those manuscripts published.