INTERVIEW | The Third Degree: Tim Staley
Tim Staley signs all of his emails: “Your friend in verse, Tim Staley.” It came through my inbox several times as we set up this interview, and I didn’t know what to make of it at first. We eventually met at Beck’s Coffee in Las Cruces, and I can now tell you that it’s an absolute truth. Tim Staley is your friend in verse.
Tim teaches at Onate High School in Las Cruces, New Mexico and sponsors “Poetry Out Loud,” a program for spoken word poetry where students start local and move to national level competitions. He also runs his own small press, Grandma Moses. In fact, Beck’s Coffee had several copies of Dingleberry Peak, Grandma Moses’ most recent chapbook, sitting on their shelves. You can find it there or here.
Poetry needs a champion in every city and Tim is one of Las Cruces’ most dedicated. He recently received the Arts in Education Award from the Doña Ana Arts Council. I believe he totally deserves it.
He is a father, a husband, an NMSU alum and a damn good friend of poetry. He is the author of Lost On My Own Street, released in April by Pski’s Porch Publishing. Buy it here.
His chapbook The Most Honest Syllable Is Shhh is forthcoming from Night Ballet Press in 2017.
Nate Wilkerson: Can you talk a little bit about finalizing the book design and the editorial process before publishing Lost On My Own Street?
Tim Staley: So, I got to pick out the cover. My editor said if I had an idea, I could use that or he’d do one. This is actually a piece of my art that I did in Atlanta in the late 90’s. It’s an etching. So that worked. The order of the poems was already done. My editor didn’t do a ton of editing. He took it in the Word format and put it in Endesign. For me, I needed it to be someone I didn’t know and I didn’t care what size press. I think ten years ago, I had all these really big ideas, like I’m gonna use it for this and that. And we did five rounds of proofs and one of those rounds I hired my buddy who is a tech writer, but it was pretty hands off as far as editing.
NW: And you have publishing expertise – you run Grandma Moses Press. How long has that been around?
TS: Well, I say since ’92 but that’s when I was making little tapes in Alabama but it wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that I started the press itself. The thing with my chapbooks is they’re small and they fit in your pocket and so that’s one way we differentiate ourselves. You know they’re all photocopied and its okay if they’re a little bit off-center. So yeah, that started as me publishing myself because no one else was. Then eventually I started publishing other people. And now that I’ve got people who want to publish, I’ve taken my books off of there so that it’s more about others.
NW: Having that experience with Grandma Moses, did that change your approach to getting your book published?
TS: I wasn’t having a whole bunch of luck with these big places. You know, I entered contests, I did the whole thing for like 10 years. How many hundreds and hundreds of dollars, maybe up to a thousand that I’d spend. And that was just what I did, I’d enter these things, big ones and small ones. I’d do the AWP one and the Yale Younger Poets, and at first I didn’t want to enter the smaller ones and I wasn’t winning of course, and then I was getting the runner-up. They say that’s what happens before you actually win one. So I was getting encouraged.
NW: It sounds like that rejection letter that says “Keep Submitting.”
TS: Yeah, and that’s what sustains your efforts. Those “no buts…” But what happened is people would send to Grandma Moses and they are saying where they’ve been published and then I just created a database and I just started going down those. And there was a bunch I didn’t even know about. So yeah, starting that press was definitely what led to me learning about these mid-level presses.
NW: What’s changed now that the book has been published?
TS: I was getting published at these little places, you know, magazines and journals on the internet you know whatever. And you know, the book came out in April and it was exciting, but what was even more exciting was that people were reading it and talking to me about it. But sitting down to write is the exact same as it ever was. It’s still just that act of sitting down by yourself. It’s still the same whether you have one book or a hundred. You’re still just trying to do something cool you haven’t done. The books you know, are kind of an interruption from all of just sitting down and doing it. I like the idea of working on a book. I have another chapbook coming out next year from Nightballet Press. The poems in Lost On My Own Street were written over ten years.
NW: One of my favorite threads in this is a consistent going to and coming back from nature. I wonder about your relationship to nature and how you see it appearing in your poetry. Do you write while you’re out there or do you save it for when you get back?
TS: I do write while I’m out there. I feel like it’s kind of a religion to me. I would rather worship out there, where God is in the river and the rocks. I can think out there better than I can in the city. You can just sit by a river and the thoughts are really clear and there’s not a lot of distraction and I can concentrate on really dense stuff too. I mean I can concentrate on really dense stuff, like literary criticism. I could take a book of criticism on T.S. Eliot and I can have patience for it out there. Somehow at home I can’t be like that. You also don’t have to deal with anyone else’s schedules or desires, on a real selfish note. You know, after three days I’m ready to come home and get out of the heat, but I’ll write while I’m out there and try to figure stuff out.
NW: Do you still get a chance to go out?
TS: Yeah, I go out with my daughter. In fact, next week we’re going on our third daddy-daughter trip. I asked “How long can you backpack” and she said “ten minutes.”
NW: Do you feel a difference between your poems as they exist on a page versus how they exist when you read them?
TS: I can say that readings are a good time to figure out about rhythm issues and about phrasing things, that maybe doesn’t happen when you read it to yourself. You know you can talk about how poetry started like that, as this oratory art and I like the slam poetry, performance poetries and stuff and some people poo-poo that. Again, it’s just being open. I’m like “all poetry is poetry” I don’t want to say that one type of poetry sucks and another type is cool. It’s like hey, great, we’re all doing this. So yeah, I enjoy the reading part of it.
NW: I probably should have asked this earlier, but I want to ask about place. There are poems in the book that are very Alabama, and poems that are very Las Cruces. How do you see your relationship to cities and places influencing your work?
TS: The book was coming together over the years. This is probably the fifth iteration of it, completely shifted. Over the years I’d be adding and shifting and it started right after grad school with maybe three of the poems that are still in there. Things hadn’t happened yet, at first, like the Sylvia thing hadn’t happened yet, and then it did, so I just kept adding what I thought were the best poems and the Alabama poems were added at some point in the process and then that was one of the things that the editor said when he first accepted the book was that he liked the Alabama poems. So I added a couple more. And I’m in love with New Mexico and the energy in this state, so I’m thrilled to be able to honor that. But, the Alabama thing is complicated, because you know, I think the race situation is sketch and that’s something I tried to get at. For example in the poem “50 miles outside Montgomery” I’m trying to talk about race but also celebrate the nature there. And same with the poem “Home, Sweet.”
NW: Is that the one that opens “At the corner of Rosa Parks/And MLK/There’s a Taco Bell?”
TS: Yeah. You know, I guess my thing with Alabama is conflicted. I’m getting closer to saying what I really need to say. It kind of ties in with the title too. It’s the place I’ve lived the longest. And I like being very specific, and very concrete, too. Because even if a reader hasn’t been there, if I can be exact about it, it can become real for them. It keeps it honest, I guess.
NW: A number of the poems are dedicated to Sean Branson. Who is that? Is this meant to be an elegy for him?
TS: When I was doing my MFA it was just three of us. Me, this guy Joaquin, and Sean Branson. He was really cool, one of these poetry in the blood type guys. Just stayed up all night writing, lived by himself and kind of a not great cleaner of his house. His kitchen was literally a mountain of beer boxes. He’d have a party at his house and you’d be talking to him and then you’d be like “where’s Sean” and he’d be in the back room at the typewriter and it was normal. It was just understood that at any moment, he might leave the conversation to go write. Anyway, he started coming to workshop all pale, and then eventually he missed a few and one of his buddies went to his house and found him dead. It was his death that kind of started the book. Somehow, having the tools to write, having gone to poetry school, it was finally the right darkness. Instead of trying to manufacture a fake darkness or highlight someone else’s darkness and I think that’s where the title of the book came. You know it didn’t come from someone else’s darkness. It came from when things that were normal or easy to understand were turned upside down. And that’s kind of where the title came from.
NW: And that blends into these other moments of darkness that are pretty profound. The birth of a child and then the illness of that child. I wonder too, as the book is published, and there are some intricate and traumatic details, how do you balance this piece of art in the world that addresses this incident and your daughter’s own understanding of her own experience? Is there any question in your mind about if it’s okay to share that experience with the outside world?
TS: It’ll be interesting when she can read. She’s only five now and she only seven months old when that happened. So it’ll be interesting to see, you know maybe later she’ll say “I can’t believe you wrote that.” I didn’t feel like it was too much. My poetry has always been pretty personal and I’m okay with that. Some of the poems, when we were closer to that time, were hard for me to read out loud, I would get choked up. Especially this one line where it says: “you can write poems instead of crying.” But I would cry every time I would say that, like I had missed some immediate moment because I was putting all my energy into the poems. I wrote all those at the moment. We were actually waiting for her to get sicker, because she was low on the transplant list and you have to get sicker and sicker to move up. So you’re actually waiting for her to get closer to death so they’ll save her. And finally she did get sick enough. We were in the hospital and there was only one parents bed in the room with her, so my wife would stay with her at night, but I would go to the Ronald McDonald house that was like a mile away. And every night I would go write that stuff. It was very cathartic and my wife didn’t have that and she can’t really listen to some of those poems, still. You know, she hasn’t dealt with it in the same way. I got it out. I think I was successful in not making it just this diary, you know, of boohoo, my kid’s sick. It feels like a way to keep the book centered, but there are lots of detours that are pretty funny. I am trying to be funny. When I’m writing, I make myself laugh.
NW: Do you think poetry needs more humor?
TS: Yeah. And to be friendly too. I don’t think people can afford to be dicks. Poetry is a very small club. The Washington Post said the only less popular art is opera. So here we are at the very bottom and there’s still all this snobbery. And maybe I’m not big enough to be that way, but I just don’t think we can afford to be mean to each other. It should be this cool thing where we can all be friendly.