As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing poet and author Richard Merli.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to poetry?
I was smitten by poetry the first time I heard it. It was the magic of language. It had rhythm; it had rhyme. It spoke to me in ways other languages did not. I remember being powerfully drawn to it the first time I heard Robert Frost read at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?
I’ve got a couple of exciting projects right now. First, I’m hoping to publish a second collection of my poetry next summer to reach a broader readership. I think my first collection, The Light of Ancient Stars,” served as an icebreaker, or introduction of my work to readers. I’ve also expanded the breadth of poetry published in our quarterly literary pub, October Hill Magazine (www.octoberhillmagazine), which I launched in 2017 as a platform for new authors of poetry and short stories. We are publishing more new poets than ever.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. What is your definition of poetry? Can you please share with us what poetry means to you?
I would define poetry as writing in which form, rhyme, patterns of sound, and imagery are used to convey a specific message, such as an idea, an experience, or an emotion. Poetry is simply the form of writing in which I feel most comfortable expressing my emotions, ideas, and perceptions of reality. It is my language.
What can writing poetry teach us about ourselves?
Writing poetry teaches us to write with great discipline, to distill our thoughts and emotions down to their bare essence. It can teach us to reach beyond mere thoughts and to delve into and examine our own emotions. Poetry teaches us a great deal about ourselves.
Who are your favorite poets? Is it their style, the content, or something else that resonates with you?
Among the so-called Romantic poets, I’d name Percy Shelley and John Keats. Among American poets, my list would include, first and foremost, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson. The Romantic poets never cease to impress me with their mastery of language and their uncanny ability to rhyme words. Poets such as Frost and Jeffers are experts at conveying ideas and feelings through the use of simple language. Yet it has been remarked that their poetry is “deceptively simple.” That is, they convey meanings not readily apparent through their words. That takes great talent. Dickinson and Millay both conjure beautiful imagery with an economy of words.
If you could ask your favorite poet a question, what would it be?
I’d have two questions: What inspired you to write your greatest poem? And how soon could you come back to life and continue writing poetry?
Poetry can be transformational. Is there a particular poem that spoke to you and changed your life or altered a perspective you held in some way? Can you share the story?
Yes, William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus. I read it early in my college years. It transformed my outlook on life. We are not mere passive agents in life; we have the chance to master our destiny. As Henley writes with a sense of great determination: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” It altered my perspective on life.
Today’s world needs so much healing. Can you help articulate how poetry can help us heal?
I believe that finding and shaping poetic words to express a traumatic experience can bring healing not only to the author but to his or her readers. Poetry provides us with its own language and its own way of sharing common experiences. We often think of healing as something taking place on an individual level. But poetry can also serve as a tonic to heal grief and loss among families, among communities, and even among nations. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there was a collective outpouring of grief, loss, hurt, sorrow, and anger. Much of it took the form of new poetry written by those who were touched by the events. I would venture to say that not only did the poems of that time help to record our perceptions and experiences of those events but that many of them helped in some way to heal us, individually and collectively.
We’d like to learn more about your poetry and writing. How would you describe yourself as a poet? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style or main message?
I’m very much a traditionalist. I rhyme the last word of each line with the last word of alternating lines – in other words, A-C, B-D. I feel it imparts a rhythm and music to my work. I work very deliberately with pen and legal pad. I go back and revise my work many times. One of my favorite works, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is a political work about the great German theologian, pastor, and spy (?), who frequently took to the airwaves during World War II to condemn the barbarity and inhumanity of Nazism and the Nazis. He was hanged by the Nazis two weeks before the Allies liberated Berlin. In the poem, I imagine a small songbird landing on the sills of Bonhoeffer’s cell window and keeping him company with the song right up until the end:
“And yet you languish in your cage.
The songbird does as free birds do.
You have fallen victim of your age.
The songbird sings no more for you.”
What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?
I hope to share with readers my observations and perceptions of nature and the natural world because there is poetry in life and in nature; the emotions and perspectives of my inner world, which are my response to life’s experiences; and my outlook on people, some famous and some not-so-famous, who may serve as symbols of human tendencies, whether good or evil, kind or cruel or simply the tendency to overlook and forget. We all bear witness to our common humanity. My wish is to share my experience of my own humanity and life.
In your opinion and from your experience, what are 3 things everyone can learn from poetry?
Number one, the discipline of writing. You must write with an economy of words. Number two, an appreciation for the beauty of language. There is nothing more beautiful than a perfectly-turned, poetic phrase. Number three, empathy for our fellow men and women. Sharing poetry, especially in public readings, creates empathy among members of the audience for the author. Most interesting, the poet often writes to that audience because he or she has great empathy for the pain, suffering, and experiences of other people, communities of people, or nations.
Based on your own experience and success, what are the “five things a poet needs to know to create beautiful and evocative poetry?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
First, a poet needs to be able to tell his or her story or deliver a message in very concise language. A poem is not a short story. Second, a poet should be able to conjure a specific image in the reader’s mind. In other words, the reader must see what the poet sees. Third, a poet must be able to engage the reader in the subject matter. A poem must do the heavy lifting of making the reader care about the subject matter of the poem. Fourth, I believe a good poet needs to take risks with his or her poetry to be provocative. The poem must challenge readers to think about not only the self-evident truth but the larger implications of what the poem says. Finally, I believe strongly that any good poet must feel passionate about his or her subject matter. If you don’t feel inspired or challenged to write about a particular subject, experience, person, or emotion, then why write about it? Don’t give readers a plain piece of glass; give them a mirror in which they can see a beautiful or startling image or experience and reflect upon it.
If you were to encourage others to write poetry, what would you tell them?
Follow your inner passion; don’t be afraid of it. Tap into that inner passion and see what kind of journey it takes you on. Find your inspiration in people, in events, in your experiences, and in your own emotional landscape. Life will provide plenty of inspiration. Never doubt your abilities or your reason for writing poetry. Rather, keep honing your skills, reading the great poets, and following what moves you. You were drawn to the craft for very good reason. Do not fear rejection. When adversity comes – and surely it will, even for great writers – have confidence in the work you have written. One hundred publishers may reject your work. But the 101st will offer you a contract to publish your book. Becoming a published author is not a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon.
How would you finish these three sentences:
Poetry teaches us how to see the greater truths and the beauty in life, even when it’s not so beautiful.
Poetry heals by enabling us to share our experiences, emotions, and universal truths with others, not only within literary communities but across oceans and national boundaries. Poetry is a universal language?
To be a poet, you need to perceive the reality of everyday life – whether it’s beautiful or ugly – and not be afraid to share it with others. You must be willing to embrace the beauty of language and to use language in a way that awakens, enlightens, and inspires others to join you on your journey. To be a good poet, you must write poetry that says: “Come away with me.”
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment, Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I’d say, Justin Heyward, the lead singer of The Moody Blues, is one of the top three rock and roll bands of all time. The lyrics of his songs are often ethereal and poetic. He finds the true beauty in images and emotions and then somehow has the talent to put them to music. I’d love to know what has inspired him to create some of his greatest works.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow my work via my author website, www.richardmerli.com, or follow the latest issue of my literary magazine at www.octoberhillmagazine.com. They’ll find the latest in creative new poetry voices there.
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.
An thank you! It’s been my pleasure.