By Roz Kay
One night, Curt Anderson dreamed that his father reappeared from the afterlife and complained that Curt wasn’t looking after the car he’d inherited from him.
“I always thought that was kind of funny,” Curt says. So it became the poem Ghosts, in which his mother also comes back from the dead to interrogate him. The poem, like many in Curt’s newly-published collection The Occasionist, sparks laughter.
“That’s what I’m going for in a lot of ways, to surprise people,” he says. “Like any art form, and sometimes this is overlooked in poetry, there’s a need to entertain.
“What makes poetry special is that you have almost chemical reactions to things. A good poem is often like a good joke. It tickles something, it accesses something inside you, and you react to it almost outside your own control. I’m trying to make that connection while at the same time telling a story and being entertaining.”
The collection of poems—one of which, Good Morning America, received a Pushcart Prize nomination—reflects Curt’s view that poetry should cover “everything,” from the loss of a loved one to a funny event: exploring a range of emotions from different angles and with evocative imagery that both surprises and delights the reader.
The most autobiographical poems deal with the death of his father. Curt was working on his Master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State, developing a manuscript of poems, when his father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. It so happened that his graduate advisor was the poet Stan Rice, the husband of writer Anne Rice. He had published work about the loss of their daughter to leukemia.
“I went to him, as my advisor,” Curt says. “I said, I’m working on this manuscript and there’s no way I can’t write about this. I can’t avoid it. You’ve done this. What advice do you have for me?
“And he said, just report what happens, which was incredibly valuable advice because it’s death; you want to make big gestures. So I tried to report what I saw and what my father said. I took some poetic license in a couple of places but it’s pretty much what happened, as is the poem The Waiting Room, which is about the actual night of his passing.”
Balancing imagery and accessibility
Curt has a body of poetry that is much more abstract than the poems in The Occasionist. But in this volume, he wants to walk the line between imagery and accessibility. It’s hard to know where that line is for different people, he says.
“I know where it is for me and hopefully that resonates with others as well. You lose people; you lose lovers; you go to job interviews. You have many of these experiences, and that’s why the collection, I hope, reaches people wherever they intertwine with or cross-sect those sort of experiences.”
The poems in The Occasionist span around thirty years of writing, from poems he wrote for his Master’s degree to the most recent, The Whiteboards of Ecstasy, in which he pokes fun at the corporate world of meetings.
Some of his poems can wait patiently for years while he tries to figure out their endings. Others spring from nowhere, virtually fully formed.
“It’s like any creative endeavor,” he says. “I write little songs on my guitar too. These things just seem to be in the air. You access them, and you’re like the radio that picks up the song that’s playing.
“Maybe you flavor it a little bit with your experience, but the real wonder of it is that it seems like you’re tapping into something universal. When a really good poem comes, it almost writes itself. You looked under a rock and you found a diamond.
“That goes a long way towards convincing me of the grace of things.”
Color and music form motifs throughout Curt’s poems—perhaps not surprisingly, as he cites painting and music as the two things that influence him most.
“I see a lot of, for lack of a better word, resonance with painting as an art form,” he says. “I play music a little bit. I’m constantly hunting for good music and I think that’s the highest ambition for a poet, to write something that’s musical.”
Using color is also something that you learn with experience, he says.
“There are more resonances with color choices. A very beginning poet will use red and blue and black. You get more experienced and find out that there are colors that are also really interesting words. There’s a description in one of the poems of a dress shirt being acetylene blue.
“It’s trying to find ways to describe what we all see in interesting ways that are also musical, if possible.”
Taking whatever life experience brings
Curt’s poems have appeared in journals and been anthologized, but it’s been a long road to the publication of his own collection.
“I came to the conclusion at various times of my life that I was never going to get a collection published,” he says. “And people supported me and said, you should put that collection together and send it out. And you go through many, many rejections. It’s hard.
“So, my advice to a young poet would be, persevere and believe in yourself. Form a supportive group of fellow poets and writers, and just keep at it and don’t give up hope. You have to keep coming back to why you’re doing it, and you’re basically doing it because that’s who you are: you’re a poet.”
Curt is now contemplating some different directions for his poetry; perhaps more poems that express gratitude instead of unhappiness, or more about the workplace because that forms such a large part of our lives.
But whatever he writes about, he’s learned that he has no way of knowing how people will react.
“What often happens with poets is that you fall in love with a couple of lines or an image, and then you write the poem and people look at it, and they never notice the lines that you think are so brilliant. They just see the other stuff. So one of the things I’ve learned in doing this is that I don’t want and I can’t have control over what people think about the poem.
“They’re going to take whatever their life experience brings to it.”
© Roz Kay