Bookmarks: Micah Towery

Poet Micah Towery studied at Binghamton University and Hunter College before becoming an instructor himself at Indiana University in South Bend. He share selections from his new book Whale of Desire and other recent works at Library Express at The Mall at Steamtown with special guests including Joe Weil, a former teacher, on Saturday, March 8 at 3:30 p.m. The poems in Whale of Desire ($12) have been described as “little miracles of lyric intelligence pitched against a skeptic’s need for faith: faith in God, faith in other people, faith in love and faith that daily life means more than its repetitions and its downward spiral toward death.”
How long have you been writing poetry? How did you come to it?
I grew up musically inclined but always tinkered. Kids are natural tinkerers, like the old country parson doing scientific research in his back garden. I came to capital-P Poetry in high school when I read and started trying to imitate TS Eliot.
Tell me about your writing process. Do you write every day? Do you have a place where you like to write? Walk me through your ritual.
I never gave up the tinkerer approach, so I don’t have a ritual to speak of. I am productive with long stretches of unstructured time. It often starts with some skimming, different books or topics. Ideas converge. Then, as Dickinson says, “a formal feeling comes.”
The poems in your book have a spiritual leaning toward Christianity, though I would never micro-label Whale of Desire as being a “Christian” book of poems. Rather, religion or spirituality seems to be a doorway into your pieces. How do writing and spirituality work together for you?
Because most expression springs from inner life, I think most writing is spiritual. My own inwardness has been explicitly shaped by the Christian tradition–from the Apostle Paul to Augustine, Theresa of Avila to Dorothy Day. Still, readers connect with concrete experiences, so I strive to say what Robert Francis says: “My inner world and outer make a pair.”
There are literary allusions and poetic homage throughout the entirety of your book. I see influences of Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney and Robert Hayden, just to name a few. Who can you name as other inspirations or poetic predecessors to your work?
Too many to name and growing all the time! As my teacher, Joe Weil, used to say, “Learn from all. Be loyal to none.” It’s probably better to name my teachers and what I learned from them: Maria Gillan taught me instinct and poetics as a democratic art; Christine Gelineau firmly grounded me in the 20th century poetry; Tom Sleigh gave me access to the classics and a sense of both tradition and lively continuity; Joe Weil taught me that love and self-giving, an openness to the world, creates the only truest art.
What was the process of publication like? Did you submit to many places or was it a more organic process?
Most blind submissions happen through contests these days, but those fees add up! Contests also give the veneer of accolades and accomplishment but don’t always deliver enduring work. I had submitted to some contests but ultimately figured I could wait for the right opportunity. It came faster than I thought: Joe Weil and his wife Emily started a new press and said they wanted mine to be their first book. Small-scale, relationally-driven publishing has always been the norm for poetry. Poetry is more professionalized these days (‘Welcome to po-biz’ writers joke). That’s a boon for some talented folks, but other deserving writers have definitely fallen out of favor undeservingly. I just feel lucky Joe and Emily gave me a platform to share my work.
You have a reading on March 8th?
It’s Saturday afternoon at the Steamtown Mall, 3:30 p.m. in the Library Express. I love libraries, and I love public spaces where people wander in and out. I loved the way Pete Seeger turned his solo art into collective experience. He released control, invited others to have input. I want poetry readings like that. I want people to interact with me and each other. I want people to go out for a good meal after. And buy the book, of course.

Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and dc.
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