the writing end of the community, very rarely is it we have published
scribe who actively tries to push the very place he came from, as
opposed to bolting for a coastal city for life. But today we
examine the career of an accomplished poet who not only paid his dues
on a national level, but is continually trying to spark the creative
fuse of promising newcomers at home.
If you haven't seen the name Christopher Leibow around town, you're not looking hard enough. From his array of published works (like last year's In Praise Of Small Things), to his creative gathering known as Cabaret Voltage, to his miniature pamphlets of randomized works, and even his discrete compositions that have been spread throughout downtown. The localized haiku mastermind has been pushing creative boundaries while trying to open a few eyes in the process. I had the chance to chat with Chris about his works and career to date, along with his thoughts on the writing and poetry community at large. All with some samples of his work for you to check out.
Gavin: Hey Chris, first off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Christopher: I'm Christopher Leibow and I have lived in SLC off and on over the past fifteen years; there seems to be a strange gravity that keeps pulling me back here, but its been worth coming back. This stay has been the longest.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in writing, and what were some early influences on you?
Christopher: Writing came late to me. Not surprising since I'm a late bloomer in everything. Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle and I just woke up. I played around with it in my late teens and wrote my first one when I was eighteen, I don't know where it came from, I did not live in a house of readers... I think we maybe has a total of ten books in out house and two of them were phone books. It was some years later reading Neruda's Residence On Earth that I began to realize that poetry was a part of me in a deep way, and that has only continued and its beauty is at the core of who I am.
Gavin: You went to Antioch University and got your MFA in Poetry. What made you choose their program, and what was it like for you over there?
Christopher: Low residency programs allow you to work and still get your MFA. I love some of my peers, from the program, and I has a few great mentors. Chris Albani and Carol Potter, a few others I'm still really close to. But It definitely wasn't worth the money. Anyone want to help with my student loans? ...Please?
Gavin: What personally drew you towards the art of the haiku?
Christopher: That's a good question. I am a love poet and have written many poems exploring the space between two lovers, the space that can give perspective in being able to see an "other" and the longing that comes with that, but I was saying too much. That space is necessary. In reality the thing that is most beautiful about love whether it is love for a lover, out children, our fellow human beings -- there are those small moments or simple gestures; where that space is bridged and time stops, whether it is through joy, beauty or the sorrow of another and the compassion that comes from feeling it... it can by transcendent. I think that is what the haiku can capture in a few words; the words get out of the way. You and the things that you're writing about become one, there's no separation. When you write one and you get it right, these two things that you have no connection to... in a flash, you're there. As an example, I wrote a haiku about a father and his baby. “Sleeves rolled up, giving his young son a bath, the new widower.” So father and son, but there's a new context where you see him giving his son a bath, and the context that his wife has died gives new context, and you feel for those two things that a moment before were only moments in your head. Now there's an emotional response and you have compassion for that character in that poem. That's the power of haiku.
Gavin: What eventually pushed you to start performing your works?
Christopher: Poetry is an aural tradition. There's a need of the physical alchemy of reading face-to-face to another person, the sharing of energy of the writer, their heart, body language, their experience telling to another, "here this is what I know/feel how about you" -that type of communication is becoming endangered in our face-space-twitter-fied world. We will lose more than we will gain.
Gavin: What was the public reaction to them at first, and how did it make you feel to hear that?
Christopher: Well... Most of the first poems were read in bars. Its a double-edged sword. So if you are reading in those venues, its a rough ride. Depending on what you read you gotta have a pretty thick skin. But there are times when you are in a space of powerful vulnerability or as a lover once said to me, intense tenderness, and something happens, even in a bar, people's walls come down and their in this strange sacred space that shows up unannounced and its weird to see people crying at a bar. Well... unless its last call. Same thing with music too, I think there are certain times where the show is an emotional experience, and they don't happen often and everyone doesn't get it, but there's that face-to-face aspect that opens us up to that experience.
Gavin: How did you first go publishing your works, and how did you end up picking and choosing what would be submitted?
Christopher: There are two ways really. Starting with local journals and working your way up to national ones, and of course online is a big way these days. But there's so much bad poetry online that you need to filter through tons of stuff to find something that's going to move you. I think we choose what we think is out strongest work. Maybe not your favorite, but the strongest. That's hard, because the average submission to acceptance rate is one out of 30-45 submissions. I remember, mine was about one out of 25 and thought I was doing pretty good, but I also remember getting five rejections in one day. You gotta have thick skin and believe in what you write.
Gavin: You've been published in journals like Juked Poetry Motel and Barrow Street. How is it for you seeing your work in publications?
Christopher: At first its really something, and it is important for a writer to establish some cultural currency, but just pick up any journal with poetry in it. The first time you get published its really amazing. There is a sense of pride that you've been “accepted by the academy.” On page 427 is my poem, and there are 500 other poems. I try to read as many as I can. Somehow even when our poems get accepted, they all seem like the thirty other orphans trying to get picked by the poetry couple looking for a new kid. I put stuff out to be published but it's not a high priority because its more about the cultural currency and respect... but who's reading them? Most of these poems go in and no one reads them, just by the editors. You get a couple hard copies, put them on a bookshelf and impress a woman, but that's about it.
Gavin: How did the idea for the book Drawn On The Body come about?
Christopher: I think it was just a natural progression. I had just started working on a haiku and it was a natural shift of topic, where else in our lives is the moment more powerfully experienced than during love making? What moment can be the most transcendent? Time stops, the "other” becomes more important than ourselves, the static, the worry, the isolation all go away. When you're making love with someone, not just fucking, making love with somebody... you have that connection. Eroticism can be the most simplest thing, like a woman drinking a glass of wine and licking her lips. That moment is etched in your brain forever. It made sense to go in that direction, and also have some fun with it. One of my favorites... “Warm summer patios, I push aside her panties, ahhhh summer dresses.” Its that joy in that sexual expression and being with that someone who you are that comfortable with, and that the world around you ceases to exist at that moment. Erotic love is one of the most life affirming aspects of out being embodied, hence a celebration of that through erotic haiku.
Gavin: I read you were nominated for a Pushcart Award. How was that experience for you?
Christopher: I must admit it was a big deal for me, really cool. The Pushcart is for the best poems of the year in all the small presses. Its a big one and many senior established poets get nominated and not accepted. Publications enter them because they believe it was the best they published that year. It was a nice affirmation to all the hard work, that at least one poem was acknowledged.
Gavin: How did you meet up with Eric Tanner, and what made you decide to help him out with his work and push him to release his works?
Christopher: I met Eric a half-dozen years ago at DI when he was just stacking books. I saw him around once in a while, we got to talking at a coffee shop and he told me he wrote poetry. I read some and his poems were good, he loved poetry, I respected him and wanted to help him get his words out. I offered to put together a book for him and for whatever reason he said okay. So we put out the first edition of Rhythms Of The Moon, and then I was running a poetry reading called Cabaret Voltage and I had him come read. It was really great, I think it was transformative for him to have an outlet, have his voice heard instead of ignored and marginalized. It was really a beautiful thing to watch that happen and give him a sense of purpose.
Gavin: Last year you released the book In Praise Of Small Things. How was it for you putting that together and what did you think of the reaction to it?
Christopher: It was beautiful and life affirming and changed me in a lot of ways. I think a lot art, especially now, there's an attitude that it has to be dark to be legitimate. I'm a love poet, I've got some dark love poems, trust me, but I've got some very sweet love poems. But you get to a point where you're tired of dark. Dar for darkness sake is the biggest joke in the world. Dark and light coexist, but you can't look to far in one direction. That's not our human existence. People who are really into haiku call it Haiku Mind, being in a space where we are so aware of the moments that haiku becomes the way you think. The reaction to the book was what I expected. Haiku required you as a reader to slow down. You don't read poetry, especially a haiku or any form of poetry, for information - but we are so information oriented that we get confused with poetry. Its not about information but a translation of emotion. I think Kenneth Koch said something like "do not read a poem, let a poem happen." The poems confused some people, not the poems themselves but who wrote them. These poems are very different and I think some were thinking like "wait, this is the guy who writes all the sexualized poems, the dark longing poems, the anatomy poems and now there are flowers, kites and children. There poems are sweet! What?" Its a language experience and isolating at times being apologetically masculine and yet with a childlike tender heart. Most people don't believe it. So in a way In Praise Of Small Things was to prove them that it was possible.
Gavin: Around town I've seen the small haiku samplings, like the recent Here And Now. What made you decide to give handouts of your work?
Christopher: Where else would you want your words to be read than in the community in which you built it? I've had a few people come up to me and recite one of my haiku back to me on the street. And it also goes back a bit to orphan poems. Let me tell you, that means more than a few contributor copies from some journal in the Midwest and there is something strange about these little books. If I can have it read here and impact the community, then those poems have homes. They have made it all the way down to Orem, Filmore and even Beaver, and a friend took some back to Vernal with her to leave at laundromats. These little poems in these little books... aren't orphans... as they would be in some "Must Be A Journal." More people have read my words this way than in a "publication." One of the funny things is at NoBrow, Joe tells me that women would pick them up and gasp saying “Oh my!” Then put them down and sneak them into their purse.
Gavin: Are you currently working on any new projects or simply working on new material for now?
Christopher: Still working on the haiku and making haiku movies, the one called Blue I actually made a video for. Its just a picture of a teacup I caught tree branches in reflected in the image, and then superimpose the words over it as you hear the wind. But now I am working on finding ways to use them in a public setting. Abandoned buildings, alleys, kites, haiku in a shadow, brass etching, stuff like that. And it may be ignored at first but someday someone will see it and experience that art. In a sense, wake us up. Oh, and the Hundred Kite Tree this summer. I'm making paper kites from 3-12 inches and I'll hang them in a tree to fly and be seen.
Gavin: What’s your take on our local poetry circuit, both the shows and writers you see around town?
Christopher: Some good writers. Its very strange. Its funny with poets, because we can't make money at poetry we have to find another economy, a cultural economy instead of a monetary one and that creates too much politics, too many camps, and who's hip and who's political enough, a strange echo chamber exists with its own hierarchy and its all dressed up in this curious pseudo-inclusive narrative about the Salt Lake poetry scene where everyone is accepted, but in reality its really fragmented. When I started Cabaret Voltage, one of the ideas was to bring all kinds of poets together and create a community. It happened a little bit, but you just saw the little tribes. I'm an academic poet, I'm a slam poet, I'm a “I don't know what I am” poet. And they just don't mix well. And I think more than anything its because of that cultural currency. “The acceptance of my tribe is so important because I'm not going to get anything else out of poetry. I won't get fame, money, probably won't get laid out of poetry, so what am I going to do?” And their identity becomes so important to this tribe that it becomes more important than the poetry. And the thing is its not just young kids or slammers, its the University! They got that same damn attitude. When I did Voltage, if you were a first time reader or if you had seven books published, I treated you exactly the same. And you'd be surprised how many people got pissed off and annoyed by that. You and this person both have something to say, you may be fancier or more educated at it, but what they have to say is equally important. Its supposed to be a community, we are human beings expressing our humanness. And maybe we are but just not in the best light.
Gavin: Is there anything you’d change about it?
Christopher: No. Too tired. Somebody else can do it.
Gavin: Who are some writers you believe people should be checking out?
Christopher: There are a few I've been enjoying lately. Zen and Haiku by Ryokan who wrote in the 1700's, Issa is a beautiful writer who wrote about fleas and spiders and stuff like that, or Nick Virgilio who died a few years ago. Also the lyric poets, Li Young Lee, his father was a Christian preacher and there is a spiritual edge to him but I think its really profound. And Rae Armantrout who writes some of the best around. It may sound corny but Hafiz who is a Persian poet, really good. He's got a line for a poem which was probably meant for God but it works for a lover too, and it says “All my words are a pretense front, all I want to do is chain you to my body and sing for days and days and days and days.” Doesn't get much better than that. And always Neruda, especially The Captain's Verses.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?
Christopher: Puppet theater, haiku explosions, shadow haiku, and performing three weddings. And who knows, maybe I'll be discovered by a haiku conglomerate and make it big in Japan and blow this lousy town... Did I just say that out loud?
Gavin: Finally is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Christopher: Well I'll tell you, I've been very lucky with Cabaret Voltage and The Urban Lounge has been really good to us, they really support us. NoBrow really supports poets and they've been great. Club Orange was great, they supported us for a while. The biggest plug I have is for walking. Get out and walk. Get out of your car, even off your bicycle, and just walk. I've been walking for two years now, get out around your neighborhood, see people and have them see you. Talk to the homeless, talk to the crazy people, talk to the people in the shops, talk to people wherever you go. We have a beautiful city with beautiful people here, and the only way you're going to discover that is by walking and talking.