Benjamin Schmitt dropped the manuscript for Dinner Table Refuge into the PunksWritePoems inbox a few months ago, and I knew I wanted to publish it when I got to When zombies attack part 9. The pieces are deeply personal but accessible and often humorous. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Benjamin about poetry, Kevin Costner, the Packers, and his job as a reviewer for At the Inkwell.
PWP: Start us off with a little background information. What do we need to know about Benjamin Schmitt?
BS: I have a deep fear of clowns that I discuss in some of my poems. I have lived in five different states in five different regions of the U.S. so when people ask me where I’m from it can be a rather complicated answer. Growing up I was a jock, a nerd, a stoner, an outcast, and popular at times, so when I watch The Breakfast Club my loyalties are evenly split. I am a husband and father with a five month old daughter, so if you see me on the street chances are I will smell like spit up breast milk.
PWP: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
BS: So I’m just going to come out and say that I had this weird obsession with Kevin Costner movies as a kid. It was so bad my parents thought I had a crush on him. I have probably seen every Kevin Costner movie made before 1997 at least five times. After that I was old enough to be totally ashamed of this fascination. Anyways, because of all these movies I watched as a kid, I probably wanted to be Robin Hood without an English accent or an attorney out to tell the world the truth about how the CIA murdered JFK.
PWP: I appreciate your candor. I have been known to make horns on my head with my index fingers and say “tatanka”, so I am not innocent of the Costner effect. I am curious, though…did your falling out with Kevin Costner have anything to do with Waterworld?
BS: No, I actually liked Waterworld when it came out. I remember seeing it in the theater with my very reluctant father, who is probably still angry that I made him watch that with me. It wasn’t really one movie that broke the spell, it was more of a gradual awakening. The moment I knew for sure that I was done with Kevin Costner movies was when The Postman came out and didn’t have the slightest desire to see it. I’m proud to say that to this day, I’ve only seen like 30 minutes of that movie, which is probably 30 hours long, 40 if you have the director’s cut.
PWP: Is there a particular person, or people, who inspired your interest in poetry?
BS: In tenth grade I didn’t own a car. Therefore, every day I would have to wait for an hour or so for my mom to get off work and pick me up after school. I usually spent this time in the public library a couple blocks from my high school because I liked to read and they had free internet (a hot commodity in the late 90’s in Idaho). On one of these days when I was waiting for her, I stumbled upon a book of poems by Anne Sexton. This book opened up a world of possibilities to me. I had been writing poetry since I was seven, but I had no idea it could be like this. What is so captivating about Sexton is the courage she had. She was a woman writing in the 50’s and 60’s about issues like menstruation, abortion, and depression before the country felt comfortable discussing these topics, especially with someone of her gender. Her courage inspired me to take risks in my own work and to talk about some of the pain I was experiencing as a teenager.
Admittedly, this led to some horrible poetry on my part. And even after reading Sexton and moving on to the Beats a little later I still did not think there was any way that one could make a living from poetry. I tried any number of other creative endeavors, I was in bands, I made movies, I wrote some lousy novels and screenplays but I would always return to poetry. Poetry was the constant in my life. It is the best way I have found to express all the joys, disappointments, and mysteries of my human experience. When I decided to stop running from poetry and embrace it I read authors radically different from Sexton who opened up even more possibilities. Some of the most important of these are Cesar Vallejo, Wislawa Szymborska, Guillaume Appollinaire, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Also, The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire and the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson have gotten me through some tough moments in life. Finally, some contemporary American poets that gave me hope that I wasn’t making the worst career choice ever when I decided to become a poet in the 21st century are Kim Addonizio, August Kleinzahler, Matthew Dickman, and Dean Young.
PWP: I think we all start off writing some truly awful poetry. Your poetry reads like personal vignettes until the robots and aliens show up. Can you tell us how you’ve come to develop your voice as a poet?
BS: When I begin a poem my purpose is usually to try and further my understanding of an idea, event, person, place, object, etc. I am setting out to explore something, not only on an intellectual level but on an emotional level as well. I want to know why it is significant and why it affected me in a certain way. But such an endeavor can be a rather lonely journey. Therefore, I try to write in a way that is inviting to a reader so that they will feel comfortable accompanying me into regions that may otherwise be awkward for them. Personally, I love the awkward. I think our most awkward moments are also some of our most truthful. In my writing, I can think of no greater honor than to discover a truth with a reader.
I’m also a huge science fiction fan and I take the genre rather seriously as a powerful philosophical force. Unlike almost every other male of my generation I didn’t see the original Star Wars Trilogy until my early twenties, at which point I was able to process it on a much deeper and objective level than I think I would have if I had grown up with it. My favorite science fiction books and movies are the ones that discuss difficult topics by using cyborgs, time travel, or aliens. Because technology is developing so fast and because pop culture is saturated with sci-fi imagery, I don’t feel like it is too much of a stretch to insert a poetic narrator into some of these scenarios.
PWP: I completely agree about the role of science fiction. How would you describe Dinner Table Refuge? And what do you hope readers will take away from it?
BS: In college and the years shortly after I mostly hung out in bars. In a bar, especially a dive bar, you can talk about anything you want for the most part. There is really no structure. In fact the idea of structure is completely antithetical to the spirit of most taverns. This was a welcome escape from the strict standards of my protestant upbringing that often required a level of propriety difficult for a child. As I entered my thirties, a couple of phenomena took place that seemed like a regression. First of all, instead of going to bars, many of my friends started having dinner parties. These were all very structured and seemed to have some kind of strange agenda beyond people just meeting up and having a few laughs. There was very little freedom in these social situations, especially when family was involved, as I couldn’t really speak about what was on my heart. Also, over the last decade, social media has replaced much of our personal interaction. In some ways I enjoy social media but I think all of us need to be a little more critical of it and the toxic behavior it encourages. There seem to be some unspoken rules in the Zuckerbergian realms of social media, and some have had their lives ruined for not following them.
Now these are just my own personal experiences. My guess is that many people love dinner parties and are upset with me for disparaging them. Others may have come to this interview from a link on Facebook and are laughing at me about this. But regardless of your feelings about dinner parties or social media, I think we have all been in certain social situations where we couldn’t be ourselves. Dinner Table Refuge is meant to be a sanctuary from this. It is a space I found as a writer where I can talk about the things that are troubling or uplifting me without a fear of anonymous trolling or the ire of an anxious hostess.
I hope readers will take away a similar sense of freedom. I hope they are able to explore notions of family, gender, race, politics, religion, and zombies outside of a structural framework that passes judgment on them for their emotions. This is a book divided up into the four courses of a meal. It begins with dessert, continues with the main course, this is followed by appetizers, and the book ends with salad. I want readers to have fun with this book outside of a normal fixed sequence. In fact, I would encourage them to have food fights with the words, smells, lines, tastes, and stanzas of the book in restaurants all across America!
PWP: What are some of the biggest challenges working as a reviewer of poetry books for At the Inkwell? What are some of the rewards?
BS: There’s a great quote by Lev Grossman in regards to book reviewers. He says “The critic’s job isn’t to change my mind about whether or not I like a book. Not anymore. The critic’s job is to make me a better reader.” This is where I begin as a reviewer. I really don’t see myself as a literary taste-maker, more like a diarist. I’m charting out what my experience with the book was like. This can be difficult, because sometimes I will read lines, stanzas, or even entire poems that piss me off. I think the easy way out is to get hung up on these and attack a poet over these sections. My job as a reviewer isn’t to drag writers through the mud though, it is to honestly discuss where their book belongs in the great poetic tradition.
What I love about this job is when a book truly surprises me. When a poet offers a word or a turn of phrase that completely upends my understanding. Also, I love any job that allows me to advocate for poetry as a form and poets as individuals. Poetry is the underdog of the American arts community at this point and I feel honored to fight for it and to share the words of its modern practitioners.
PWP: Tell us about your writing space.
BS: I usually write at night. I have read that some poets like to write in the morning but I have always been a night person. I love the idea of going to work while everyone else is falling asleep, like a superhero or something. Above my writing desk is a painting of Frida Kahlo with a monkey. I love this painting of Frida’s because in it her neck is elongated making her look more like an animal while the monkey has a very human expression. I like this idea of shifting roles. On my desk itself is a photo of my lovely wife, a cup holding a number of pens, a stack of notebooks, and a laptop. Surrounding this is a chaotic assortment of materials for all of the workshops I teach.
I do all of my rough drafts in longhand in cheap notebooks. I then type them up for editing on my laptop. I use a PC because it is much better for writing. Once a poem is finished I save it on an external drive and then move on to the next one.
PWP: The zombies are at your front door! Your loved ones are all safely away with food and weapons packed. What items of personal significance do you grab on the way out of the back door?
BS: First of all, I would have to grab some books. The books I would take are The Master and Margarita, 2666, Lunch Poems, The Flowers of Evil, The Bedbug and other poems, The Brothers Karamazov, The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Shadow of Sirius, Consider the Lobster, The Butterfly’s Burden, and View with a Grain of Sand. There are many more I would like to take but I only have so much room in my backpack! The Louisville Slugger that my grandfather gave me would be a necessity, not only for its sentimental value but for its value as a bludgeon against the undead. I would bring some notebooks and pens for writing because I would have to tell this tale. I would also bring a sock monkey a friend in college gave me, some letters from my wife, a beer stein that belonged to my other grandfather, and a blanket knitted by my mother-in-law to stay warm!
PWP: I know you are a Green Bay Packers fan. Going back to the defection of Mike Holmgren and Matt Hasselbeck’s overtime declaration of “We want the ball and we’re gonna score”, there has been a pretty healthy rivalry between the Packers and the Seahawks. How is it being a Packers fan in Seattle?
BS: Hahaha. Yeah it has been pretty difficult. The Fail Mary game was hard to endure. The funny thing is that most of the people I worked with at the time, adamant Seahawks fans that they were, totally admitted that the Packers were robbed in that game. I just wish Pete Carroll could come out and admit that. Then there was the NFC Championship game last January in which we basically robbed ourselves. After that it was really hard passing #12 flags and jerseys everywhere while holding back my vomit. But at this point I think the whole thing is kind of funny. I actually look forward to those awkward encounters when people learn that I used to live in Wisconsin and they give me this nervous look before asking “but….you’re not a Packers fan, are you?” I laugh and answer with a resounding yes so that the whole room knows it. As I said, I love the awkward.
PWP: I’ve found that in general, football fans are willing to admit when their team got away with one. Are you ready for the (drum roll)…lightning round?
BS: Bring it.
PWP: Consider it brought. Choose your weapon: Star Wars Blaster Pistol, Star Trek Phaser, or the Noisy Cricket from Men In Black?
BS: Star Wars Blaster Pistol.
PWP: Is a hoodie more of a sweatshirt, a jacket or a Thneed?
PWP: Tacos…Hard shell, soft shell, or throw it all in a bowl and call it a salad?
BS: Hard shell.
PWP: Socks…Fun fashion accessory, all my socks look the same, or necessary evil?
BS: Necessary evil.
PWP: Cake or pie?
PWP: The Pyramids…Built and designed by humans or they totally had help from ancient aliens?
BS: Built and designed by humans.
PWP: *Quickly tabulating the results* It looks like you scored a 4 out of 6! Good job! (For the purpose of learning and growing together, the correct answers are that a hoodie is like a Thneed because it is something that everyone everyone everyone needs and that socks are a fun fashion accessory.)
BS: Ha! Socks will never be fun for me!
PWP: I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Last thing before you go. Where can people connect with you online?
BS: Thank you Jason, it was great speaking with you! If you go to my website you can find an archive of my work. Here is a link to that: http://bens25.tumblr.com/
I am also on Facebook and Twitter, trying my best to be critical in my social media participation: