Interview with Bill Abbott
Bill Abbott is an author and poet. In 2014, he published Let Them Eat MoonPie, a book that tells the story of poetry slam in the Southeast from 1992-2000. He lives in Ohio and teaches at Central State University. Photo from Cherokee.
Q: What advice would you give to a high school student aspiring to be a poet?
A: Write. Write a lot. And read a lot of poetry. There’s so much out there, and you should absolutely embrace it. I’ve always heard other poets say, “Oh, I don’t read other poets’ work. I don’t want them to influence my style.” That’s nonsense. You don’t know what’s out there if you don’t read, so you don’t know if you’re accidentally stealing. You also can learn a lot from reading others’ poetry. I’d advise, if you’re worried about influence, that you read widely. Read different poets.
So read, and write. Grab a craft book or two. If you write a lot, don’t worry about it. That’s just the process of becoming better. After the first year, I wrote 3 poems average per day for 3-4 years, then slowly lessened my numbers. And looking back at those, I’m pretty horrified. Good ideas, bad writing. It works out that you’ll become better as you go. The journey is important.
Q: You’re the author of Let Them Eat MoonPie, a history of poetry slam in the southeast from 1992-2000. Can you describe this book? What compelled you to write it?
A: The book was a labor of love, a chance to document the history we were involved in making. I was always involved but never a top performer. I really learned my writing by being on those stages, and I wanted to explain where it came from. It was important to document who people were, what they were doing, and why it mattered. Some of those poets no longer write, some have passed away.
Q: As you wrote this book, how did you organize all your research, interviews, and notes?
A: I have spent my life writing notes for everything. Notes were everywhere. I just had to get them into some reasonable order. My notes were in chronological order already, and I was very involved in the poetry scenes around that region. Interviews weren’t really difficult, as I was still in touch with most of the poets. So I sorted my notes out, my materials, and started writing.
Q: Would you consider poetry more a written or oral art form?
A: Yes. I mean, there are different ways of approaching writing for stage vs for page. I learned on stage. I started writing with absolutely NO background on what poetry was. I read a few poems in classes, but I didn’t even think I was writing poetry when I started. I very slowly got that education over my lifetime, but I figured out the basics of writing on my own, and that started with spoken word. But there’s so much stuff that doesn’t work on a stage, by me and by most poets.
Q: What does your writing process look like? What role do editing and rewriting play in this process?
A: Since I spent so much time learning how to write, I internalized the editing process somewhat. I don’t edit much, except as I go. I will do line edits while I write a poem much of the time. But since I was writing for the stage, I was writing constantly and getting up in front of people with new work constantly. And I didn’t often go back and edit anything; I just moved forward and applied what I learned to the next poems. So I’m a rarity in poetry, in that I don’t spend much time on rewriting and editing after the poem is done. And in some ways, that’s something I need to work on. But I also have a person or two I can ask for edits for poems I’m pushing to publish, and that helps.
Q: Where do you find poetic inspiration?
A: Life is full of things to say. Politics, current events, all that sort of thing. And I often pull from there, but I also keep myself open to inspiration from other places. I read widely and think about what I can get from it. I research things. For example, for the last several months, I’ve been writing a series of poems about cryptids, which is close to ready to be put together as a book. To do that, I was really open to learning a lot about cryptids.
In a more general sense, I find that I write more when I read more poetry. I also write more when I give myself a series of fake deadlines. For example, April is NAPOWRIMO (National Poetry Writing Month), so I make myself write 30 poems in 30 days every April, and I find excuses to do that some other months. If I don’t, I’d write much less rarely. The first few years, as I said, I wrote constantly, but the longer I write, the more I have to give myself reasons to keep writing. Life gets in the way, so sometimes you have to push your art to the front. It’s worth it.