Interview with Vince Gotera: Poet, Professor, Editor
The following interview with poet and professor, Vince Gotera, was conducted via Facebook circa April 12, 2009. It originally appeared on Suite101, a now defunct site that ceased operation in 2014. Because Vince Gotera continues to practice his art and remains a mainstay in the world of poetry and music, I am offering this blast from the past to introduce new readers to this fine artist.
Vince Gotera serves as a professor in the department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa, where he served as editor of the North American Review from 2000 to 2016, as well as editor for Star*Line, the print magazine of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA).
Vince’s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals. He has published four books of poetry, Dragonfly (1994), Ghost Wars (2003), Fighting Kite (2007), The Coolest Month (2019), and a critical volume Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans (1994). He blogs at The Man with the Blue Guitar.
Interview with Vince Gotera
Linda Sue Grimes: How and when did you get started with poetry?
Vince Gotera: I wrote my first poem at age six. With my dad on a ferry boat, I noticed how bright the sun was and tried to describe it in a poem. Although it appeared in my school’s newsletter, I don't have that poem any longer, but I remember employing four-line stanzas, rhymed. I wrote poems in high school (lucky I had a teacher who assigned creative writing). I took poetry-writing classes in college. But I didn't start writing serious poetry until grad school, when it really became a life's work.
LSG: Discuss briefly your poetic philosophy.
VG: I have no fancy "philosophy." I just try to "show" more than "tell," which means I use images and real-life details as opposed to big abstract terms like "freedom" or "justice." I often use form (rhyme, meter, haiku, sestinas, etc.) and try to make that focus invisible with slant rhyme and rough meter. When I do that, my hope is that the poems seem like free verse to readers who prefer free verse but are clearly formal to readers attuned to forms. In this way, I hope to touch everyone.
LSG: How do you classify your poetry? Classic, Romantic, Modern, Postmodern, or any other class you choose.
VG: I'm going to plead the fifth here. Everyone's writing can be classified in all kinds of ways. I am a Filipino American poet, but my poems are also about many other things: rock 'n' roll, growing up neither white nor black in America, war, peace, love ... "just poems," you know?
LSG: What is your stance on activism and poetry, politics and poetry, or teaching and poetry?
VG: Poetry should not be just art for art's sake. Writing is a political act even if you’re consciously trying "not " to be political. So poetry can be ... no, "must be" ... used for activism. We "can" help make life and our world better through words. On teaching: yes, poetry can be taught. We can teach each other craft, mechanics. But style and sense, you have to learn that for yourself.
LSG: Discuss your favorite poet: how and when you first encountered him/her? Why do you admire him/her? How are you similar to/different from him/her?
VG: Tough question. So many great poets! Even within only the last 100 years, my favorite poet changes from day to day. Today, it's Yusef Komunyakaa, my poetry teacher. He changed my life with one sentence: "Why don't you write about being Filipino?" Then there’s Molly Peacock, a consummate artist in rhyme, meter, and "inherited" forms like the sonnet. Also Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Wilfred Owen, Carlos Bulosan, Lucille Clifton, Garrett Hongo, Denise Duhamel, Marilyn Hacker. All these poets work hard to say something crucial, something important for everyone in the best possible way. I hope I do that as well.
Update: Vince has graciously consented to answer the following additional questions.
LSG: I know you are a musician as well as a poet. For me, music was my first love. Was music your first love? How do you feel your poetry and music engage each other?
VG: The two passions "arrived" close together. The first poem I mentioned to you in the old interview above I wrote when I was probably 7, and I got my first guitar when I was about 10. So they kind of coexisted. For a time, I concentrated more on guitar until I was a teenager and then I began writing poetry again. During high school I played in rock bands and have continued to perform for the rest of my life as both a guitarist and a bassist.
To answer your last question, I don't know how much these two passions engage each other. I have not written many songs. I just don't think of poetry as needing to be accompanied by music. And the songs I play are written by others, so I don't engage with them as poetry either.
I play in a duo with my daughter Amelia; she sings and I play guitar. We do covers of music from the '50s till now, rock, soul, blues, pop, folk, even a bit of country and jazz. And I also play bass in church.
The two passions did coincide recently when I was doing a reading from the new book, The Coolest Month, at a local bar, and my publisher set it up as a poetry and music gig. I didn't realize he was going to do that but I went with it, and alternated between reading poems and performing some classic rock. So poetry and music didn't quite overlap, even on that stage. I'm playing a solo gig in a couple of months and I'm considering doing a few poems as well, with a little background accompaniment on the guitar, maybe. Baby steps.
LSG: So what are you working on now? Any new exciting projects in the works?
VG: Well, I'm now Editor of Star*Line, the print journal of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. That's a quarterly magazine of poetry, reviews, articles on speculative poetry, and art.
I had a collection of poems published recently, The Coolest Month, featuring poems written in April—National Poetry Month—over the last several years. That came out on April Fool's Day this year!
In the area of fantasy poetry, I'm working on a novella in poems about two mythical Philippine monsters—two aswang (she's a self-segmenting vampire and he's a weredog) who meet, fall in love, and try to live as normal humans. But it's difficult to give up monsterly ways, and when they birth a son, well, things become much more problematic and interesting! I'm also writing science fiction poems and the occasional horror poem. So I'm fully in the speculative poetry realm these days!
Insights from a Practicing Poet
While scholars, critics, and commentarians continue to study historically well-known and long-established poets, they also find it informative to interact with their contemporaries who practice the poetic arts. The influence of the past comes into full view when allowing the voice of the present to demonstrate its impact. Despite the individual choices that poets make, readers who have any level of desire to understand and appreciate the poetic arts can gain new appreciation from listening to poets talk about their work.
It has been an honor and a privilege to be able to share these insights from this practicing poet. Much gratitude goes to Vince Gotera for his participation in this exchange. Vince maintains a Facebook presence, as well as his blog at The Man with the Blue Guitar.
Vince Gotera - Minimalist Caricature
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes