Award-winning Shelton writer's advice: 'Be specific and avoid abstractions'
To hear Michael Sweeney tell it, he started to write poetry relatively late in life, and is still learning his craft.
“It took me a while to get committed to poetry,” said Sweeney, a Shelton resident who teaches English, creative writing and poetry at Fairfield University.
“I started writing poetry at a career crossroads,” he said. “The next step was committing myself to poetry or scholarship. It took me so long to jump in the pool. It’s a lifelong process. It’s a long apprenticeship.”
But despite the delay, he’s made his mark in the poetry field.
To date, he’s published two books of poetry, Octagon Commonweal and In Memory of the Fast Break, and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, bestowed to individual poems, short fiction and essays that have been nominated by magazine and book editors.
Studied under Allen Ginsberg
A native Bostonian, Sweeney earned a master’s degree from Brooklyn College, where he studied under poets Allen Ginsberg and Susan Fromberg Schaeffer.
He moved to Shelton in 1976. “It’s my wife’s hometown,” he said. His wife, Patricia, is the reference librarian at the Derby Library.
He met her at the University of Bridgeport, where he was earning his master’s and she was in the doctoral program for American literature.
“I jumped into poetry once she graduated,” said Sweeney, who also teaches at Housatonic Community College.
Poetry spans the spectrum
Octagon Commonweal was published this year by Spuyten Duyvil, a publisher of what Sweeney describes as “cutting edge, experimental poetry.”
“It’s a long poem, 100 pages long, comprised of 730 one- to two-line stanzas,” he said.
A reviewer, Sidney Gottlieb of Sacred Heart University, describes the stanzas as “all one-liners, many of them aim for and earn a rim shot of approval.”
The theme of the poem is the octagon, referring to the eight-sided chain-link cage used to contain combatants in cage fighting, a form of mixed martial arts.
When he began working on the poem six years ago, “cage fighting had an unsavory reputation,” he said. “As I was writing it, the sport became mainstream.”
Sweeney was a student of martial arts for 20 years.
“Karate is my discipline. I find it to be a great mental discipline,” he said, and a way to “get to the spiritual through the physical.”
'Go beyond the cage'
“On the surface, there’s no spirituality in fights in the octagon,” he said, but in his poetry, the octagon is “a place where the fights and boundaries go beyond the cage.”
The word “octagon” is mentioned in every stanza, he said, not unlike the way the poet Wallace Stevens mentions the word “blackbird” in the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.
“The octagon changes shape from stanza to stanza,” he said. “You have to give the long poem some sort of framework.”
Many of the stanzas reflect local venues, while others evoke political and historical themes.
“My Patricia navigates Route 8 octagons in an ’88 Honda Accord, ” Sweeney writes in Octagon.
The poem also contains the following stanzas:
“Massachusetts octagons are maudlin & bellicose alternate Friday nights. … Anarchy can be contained inside the octagon” and “Once inside the octagon we’ll practice Achilles holds & flying arm-bar locks like we’re barbarians.”
Walt Whitman's influence
Sweeney is quick to acknowledge the poet who has influenced him the most.
“The big guy is Walt Whitman,” he said. “It took me a while to appreciate his vision.”
Sweeney’s first book, In Memory of the Fast Break, published by Plain View Press in 2008, has been a finalist for the Backwaters Prize (Backwaters Press) and the Nicholas Roerich Prize (Story Line Press).
Bill Russell's Shadow
Many of the 50 poems are sports-themed, including Bill Russell’s Shadow:
“The Garden yawned as Marques Haynes
dribbled through the New Jersey Rens
over dead spots in the parquet floor,
the Garden half-filled, holding in
winters of smoke & sweat as ushers
blocked aisles to the half court seats . . .”
An excerpt from Black Bears in White Hills paints a picture of familiar ground"
“… blink & it’s midnight at Saint Joseph’s Church with
its sandblasted yellow brick grim
as the Hunter’s Moon …”
“Immediacy makes good poetry,” Sweeney said. “You want to feel it as if you were actually there. There has to be a distinctive voice wedded to the rhythm.”
He urges would-be poets to “be specific and avoid abstractions.”
Poetry can mix the autobiographical with the imaginative,” he said, and he often uses contemporary figures in his poetry.
Is there another long poem on the horizon? “I’m on the verge of beginning something,” he said.
To order Octagon Commonweal or In Memory of the Fast Break, visit www.Amazon.com or the publishers’ websites.