The Poet's Story: Interview with CL Bledsoe
I first met CL Bledsloe in July of 2021 at a reading hosted by Steven Allenmay at Martha Washington Library in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a magical night of poetry! CL read first and I literally laughed and cried, immersed his powerful, but subtle, often surprising poems. I wanted to read more of his work and get to know this thoughtful, creative individual better. His writing consistently impresses me and, on a personal level, his insights, advice, and humor bolster my appreciation of humanity. Well, you'll see in his answers...
Thank you so much for being willing to do this interview with me! I have about a billion questions I want to ask but will try to scale it down. Let’s start with an easy one. When did you begin to write? Did you start out writing poetry or prose?
When I was a kid, I used to play writer. I would pull up a chair to the dining room table and get all my crayons and everything together and pretend to write stories. I was always writing when I was a kid. In school, I’d turn in poems for creative projects. I wrote thousands of poems. Literally. I counted. So I started out writing poetry, and I would try to write these stories—books. I didn’t really grasp the concept of a short story. But I never finished them. I didn’t know how.
In high school, I would make little collections of poetry that no one ever read. I would write as much as I possibly could, then pick a couple that seemed ok and write a bunch more until I had 50 I liked and call that a book. I’ve since published one or two of those poems, but by-and-large, they were terrible.
In high school, I started a zine with some friends. We got in a ton of trouble for it. There was talk of expulsion. We would write these bizarre stories and do all kinds of collages and stuff. I grew up in a very religious, very restricted community, in certain ways. So writing with my friends, writing silly stories that were also a big Fuck You! to the powers that be was formative.
I was also in a band in high school and college, so I switched from poetry to song lyrics.
So I’ve always hopped from genre to genre.
Amazing — How early you found your passion for writing. What kind of music did your band play? Have you written music since then? Might you speak a little bit to the difference in your process between writing poems and writing lyrics?
My band was what they used to call alternative, but with some punk leanings at times. Very loud and mostly fast, raucous music. Though we had ballads and everything. We played around locally, got some play on college radio in the area, played a bunch of houses and some bars, stuff like that. I’ve written a few songs since then, but nothing on that level.
Poems are very self-contained, for me. I write them in one sitting. I might go back later and edit, but I’m pretty much done when I hit save. If it didn’t work, it’s probably never going to work. Song lyrics are more collaborative. I might not necessarily have a strong idea at first, and kind of work with the music to let it influence me. As I performed songs, I would revise and edit them, so they evolved. I co-wrote a lot of songs, also, which was the first time I ever did that. Also, with a poem, I can write it and publish it and never think about it again, if I want. But with a song, I’d be performing it over and over. So, if I wrote something very personal and vulnerable, I had to contend with rehashing it over and over. And I had to perform it, so I had to muster that emotion for it.
I miss it. My band broke up because life got in the way. I keep thinking I’d like to get back into it. I barely play anymore, these days, and I doubt I could sing very well anymore. But I loved the camaraderie. We were just friends making art.
You have over 25 books published! Might you give us the breakdown, poetry to prose?
Do you mean how many of each? God. I don’t know. Let me count... I’ve published 27 books. Eleven novels. Three short story collections. And twelve poetry collections. There’s a short story collection supposedly forthcoming called Nobody’s Darlings, about my misadventures as a teenager. I have two collaborative poetry projects I’m shopping around, though those are hard sells. I have another poetry collection I’m shopping around about my daughter. And lots of stuff in the works.
These days, I primarily write poetry, but I’m revising a collaborative novel I wrote with a friend.
Writing a novel seems an awesome task! How do you approach that process? Do you typically start with an idea, characters, a plot, or what? Do you start with a detailed outline or just write and see where it leads? About how long does it take you to draft a novel?
I used to write a lot of novels. The only one I’ve written in probably the last five years was collaborative, which is a different animal. Normally, I need two or three big ideas that work together to get started. Like a good character and problem, a situation or maybe set piece to start at, and an idea about tone, for example. That can take weeks or even years to come up with them all. I might sit on a situation for a long time before I come up with something else to flesh it out. Once those things come together, I will jot a bunch of notes for the story. I might sit on that for a long time, again, until it really coalesces. When I write, I basically take those notes, one at a time, and sort of write until I get to that idea, delete that one, then get to the next. So it’s like a really loose outline, but I don’t use everything. And the notes are usually very basic. Like, “he works in a bookstore” or “his mother died recently.” Those notes might total to a page or two.
I might have several of these ideas going at the same time until one of them grabs me and I write it. I used to write a book every two or three months. Not always novels, and usually short books. My life has been much more chaotic and I’ve had much less time in recent years, so I haven’t been writing as much fiction. Like, I started what felt like a really strong idea a couple years ago, but then got sick and couldn’t write for a year and sort of lost the spark.
Do your short stories evolve similarly?
I usually have an idea that sort of drives the whole thing, when I write a story. I’ve written stories where I just had a scene and went with it to see what happened, but it needs to be a pretty big and evocative scene for that to work. It’s sort of like riffing on an idea. For example, a man died harvesting grapes from the vines my family used to grow, before I was born, and I wanted to write something about that, so I started with the scene as I’d heard it described, and then filled it in, exploring how my family probably lived their lives back then, in the 70s, what the atmosphere would’ve been like with the draft and political climate, the tone of the times, and ended up with a story about my brother growing up. Or, my mom was sick when I was growing up, with a degenerative nerve disease, so I thought what if she degenerated completely and there was nothing left of her but a mouth and a rib, and I explored that as an idea—how people would deal with it. As strange as it sounds, that ended up being one of my most personal stories. Some stories come from dreams. I have very vivid, cinematic dreams. A lot come from my life. But mostly, it’s me riffing on an idea or event.
How do your poems typically begin to form? From a word? An image? A feeling?
All of the above. Lately, they’ve started with a phrase or image, a nugget of an idea, which I riff on. Sometimes, I have an event in mind and write a narrative about it. There’s usually a feeling that I’m working toward, exploring. The phrase or image is a way to focus on that feeling. There’s usually something I need to say about it, a way to work through it. Lately, I’ve been dealing with some things in my personal life—a bad breakup, a death in the family, some health issues—and I know that if I just start writing, some of that is probably going to come through.
I'm sorry for your losses and troubles. I know what a comfort writing through the hard times can be and hope your writing serves that purpose for you and that things get easier.
There seems to often be an assumption on the part of readers that writing, particularly poetry, is essentially autobiographical. I've heard criticism of work that is not based on personal experience, as though the fiction is less worthwhile for being the function of research and imagination. But on the flip side, I've heard readers being disappointed that a piece might've just captured a snapshot of real life, as though that gives it less creative value. Might you speak to that a little bit? To what extent you're comfortable having your work read as autobiography? To what extend you think it may be the duty of a writer to capture actual events?
Well, I’m not big on prescriptivist ideas like “poetry has to be true,” which is something I’ve heard put out there. Camus said that fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. I think that holds for any art. Some of my poems are obviously not true, because they’re so surreal they couldn’t exist in the world. Even my seemingly “true” poems often have surreal elements, where they tiptoe from reality into symbolism. I think it’s naive to think that anything anyone writes is actually true. It’s all filtered through experience and perspective and memory and so much more. We present ourselves in a certain way, also, that may or may not be accurate. But there is a certain truth that a writer is trying to capture, and if they fail at that, the poem doesn’t work. I have a poem from the perspective of a character who is a motivational poster. In many ways, that poem is truer for me than some very revealing, autobiographical poems I’ve written, because the symbolism speaks more to my feelings than a simple recounting of events. So, in that sense my work tends to always be autobiographical because it deals with how I feel about certain things. My feelings are true. Or at least accurate.
Having said all that, aside from the obviously not true stuff, pretty much every poem I write comes from my own experience and is “true,” whatever that means. Because it’s a very selfish and self-absorbed act. I’m trying to work through how I feel about some experience. To process it and maybe absolve it. So, I have to capture that experience accurately to explore it effectively. It would be tempting to present myself in a certain light—maybe I write about an ex and want to present myself as a victim, but the reality is usually that, even if I was a “victim,” I am still culpable in at least some ways. And that kind of thinking is too simplistic.
I think that, for me, writing poetry is a way to learn to live in the world as a moral, aware person. It’s a process. I’m examining my experiences and reactions to those experiences to learn from them, or maybe to figure out how I really feel about them. It’s meditative. I do see that trend that discounts emotional connection in poetry, like you say; the idea that autobiographical stuff is less artistic. That, to me, smacks of nihilism. It’s an argument against sentiment, confusing it with sentimentality. Autobiography gives the reader a path into the poem, something they can relate to. Shared experiences. Without that emotional connection, I think it’s a hollow thing. Again, I’m not saying this is the only way. I’ve written some very experimental stuff, and as I said, some of my poems are very surreal and weird. Experiments are great and exciting, but for me, I want to actually engage with the reader as fully as possible.
Your poetry is among the best I've ever read. And I mean no flattery in that. It's thoughtful, musical, and powerful. Although I'm still working through reading it all. It sounds like life has somewhat slowed your writing pace, but you still seem to generate more original work than most people read. How do you find the time? Do you have a ritual you follow or just jot down bits on the fly as inspiration strikes?
Thanks. I don’t know how to respond to that, so I’ll pretend you didn’t say it lol.
I work a lot. I’ve worked at least two jobs at a time, if not more, for years. I was a teacher for a long time, and I still teach college, which is a time-suck. To be perfectly honest, I tend to write at work—on a lunch break or when things are slow. I steal time to write, because I have to. A few years ago, after I divorced, I decided I wouldn’t write when I have my daughter, because I wanted to stay present with her. But in the past, I was very driven to write all the time. I would write on vacation (not that I could afford to go anywhere very often). I would write whenever I could. I found that I had to rein it in and give it more structure. Because I would have these bouts where I wrote all day—several thousand words a day for a week—and then nothing for a month. So I decided to make a routine. I would write at a certain time of day, every day, for a certain amount of time, achieving a certain word count, which was more modest and doable, usually 1000 words. But that would vary, depending on the project and my timeline. I did this with poetry, also, though word count wasn’t the focus. But I would say I’m going to spend the next month or two writing poems, and do that every day. I do, sometimes, jot down a poem before a movie or pull over and write in the car, but generally, it’s more of a practiced, controlled thing. It’s a lifestyle. I’m a working writer.
Writing, I think, is an act of hope. You’re putting this aspect of yourself—maybe, in some ways, your truest self—out into the world in the hopes of making a connection. You’re saying, this is how I feel, and I hope that you feel this way too. I hope it helps—that’s my biggest desire with my writing; I hope it helps. Life is really fucking hard sometimes, and some writers—poets, TV writers, novelists, whatever—have really helped me. It’s hubris to think my work could be that important, but it’s still the hope. Even to entertain someone for a little while is a pretty great accomplishment.
Sometimes, you run out of juice, though. You run out of hope, or at least the ability to put more out in the world. Sometimes, you get tired.
I've had difficulty finding all of your work, at least the chronology of it online. And it seems to me with 27 books to your name and a boatload of insight and talent, you should be famous! But as it stands... Well, I know at least a lot of writers who value your work. Might you share with us your thoughts and feelings on publicizing and marketing your work?
I suck at promotion. My most successful novels are out of print. That’s a natural thing that happens with novels, and I promoted them a good bit. I’ve been focused more on poetry in recent years, though I’ve published a couple novels. I also co-wrote a fairly popular blog on Medium called How To Even, which was a parody self-help/how-to guide. I really have a hard time selling myself. I tried to convince someone not to buy one of my books one time because I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Promotion is tough. I sell books at readings—which is, I think, where most people sell books. I’ve done interviews and blog tours, and solicit reviews. I don’t know that reviews sell books unless they’re in the right venues, like newspapers or certain magazines. Or on Amazon. In recent years, I’ve been focused more on my daughter and some other personal issues and haven’t promoted too terribly much—not on the level I should.
But, to be clear, the vast majority of writers make very little, if any money writing. A friend posted a royalty check on Facebook recently for, I think, $30-something dollars for a poetry collection, and I had to point out that that’s not actually uncommon at all. Plenty of people make zero money, especially for poetry.
But I think you’re making an assumption that doesn’t hold water. Talent has nothing to do with success. I’m not saying I’m talented, and I’m not speaking from sour grapes, because I just said I suck at promotion, but regardless, it’s not about talent. It’s about self-promotion and luck. Look at the bestseller list. How many of these books are “great?” Are they the best books out there? Look at those massive success stories like Twilight or Harry Potter. How many of those are actually “good” books? (And we could easily define what “good” means, and this would still be true, I’m certain.) Some are. The Harry Potter books are pretty great. But some are not. Plenty of terrible books—poorly written, poorly edited, poorly conceived—are massive successes. Talent is great but it’s not really the point, when it comes to sales. On the flip side, if we look at the Nobel Prize, they’ve selected books with very low print runs that are pretty obscure. This is taking for granted the idea that the Nobel is a valid arbiter of talent, which I am not going to tackle one way or the other. But you see my point.
Yes, I do see your point. And agree that there's no necessary correlation between talent and "success". I just sometimes wish there were. So let me ask you this — who are some of your favorite writers?
There are so many, and I’m really all over the place. Kundera, Calvino, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett. So many books. Tristram Shandy. Moby Dick. Tom Jones, Russian novels like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Pelevin. I also read a lot of graphic novels—not really superhero stuff, but sci fi and indie stuff.
For poetry, I like the New York School a lot. Big influence. Tate and Ashbery. Levine. Sexton. Plath. Hecht. Michael Gushue and Joseph Ross are friends whose work I really admire. I like your book quite a bit.
I'm grateful that you'll be reading at the DiVerse Gaithersburg Poetry Reading Series at Java Junction on March 12th. Could you talk a little bit about readings, particularly about your thoughts on poetry as something to be spoken/heard versus something to be read on a page?
Thanks for having me. It’s really an honor.
I’ve written poetry that was meant to be read, and then ended up in situations where I was expected to read aloud from the book, which was weird and didn’t work. I have different styles in different poems, but in general, I move pretty fast, at least lately. I feel like an audience has to really be listening to catch all the little fiddly bits, the puns and quick changes, which is asking a lot. But I also use a lot of internal rhyme and move in such a way that is meant to be read.
Personally, I love readings. I love open mics. I love to meet poets I maybe didn’t know and hear new stuff. Some of my best friends are poets whose work I fell in love with, so I basically stalked them and made them become my friends lol.
I find readings to be rejuvenating and exciting.
And for my last question -- wanna start a band?? Ha, just kidding (maybe). But for my next to last question, who are some of your favorite bands or musical artists?
I was in a band for years and loved it. I barely remember how to play, and I can’t sing anymore. So it would need to be a punk band lol.
I’m all over the place. I love punk—gotta say Bad Brains and Fugazi (post-punk I guess) since we’re so close to DC. I like folk, some, like Iron and Wine, Joni Mitchell—I like the 60s folk like Melvina Reynolds where they’re talking politics or social issues. Kathleen Yearwood—a kind of experimental folk musician—is one of my all-time favorite artists ever. I like some jazz, though I don’t claim to be an expert. Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Bill Evans. I like some metal but I’m not as well-versed as I used to be. Classic rock is pretty close to the top of the rotation. Jethro Tull, Mountain. Zeppelin. The Who. All kinds of stuff, though I’m not generally a fan of pop or modern country. I like some older country, though.
If I wanted to suggest an introduction of your work to friends, what might you recommend? Maybe provide a couple or a few books and where they can be bought.
One of my more popular poetry collections is called Riceland. It deals with my childhood. My latest collection Shoveling Mud Into Rushing Water is a kind of sequel. Both are on Amazon. Though, to be honest, I don’t usually read from them. My collection Grief Bacon is probably closer to what I read live.
For novels, my book Man of Clay is a pretty good introduction. https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/man-of-clay/ It’s about a Civil War plantation owner who buys a golem as part of his plan to destroy the world. A touch of steampunk, historical, a love story…a little bit of everything.
Excellent! Thanks! I'm excited to read them all! And really to re-read them because I find that I gain more insight every time I return to your work. I look forward to hearing you read live and in person next Wednesday, March 2nd at 7:00 at Poetry at the Port, hosted by Indran Amirthanayagam at Port-au-Prince Haitian Restaurant in Silver Spring, and with DiVerse Poetry on March 12th at 1:30 outside Java Junction in Gaithersburg. Thanks so much for speaking to me and sharing your work with the world!
Bio: Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than twenty-five books, including the poetry collections Riceland, Trashcans in Love, Grief Bacon, and his newest, The Bottle Episode, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and The Saviors. Bledsoe co-writes the humor blog How to Even, with Michael Gushue. He’s been published in hundreds of journals, newspapers, and websites that you’ve probably never heard of. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter.