Interview with Alan Britt

Alan Britt Poet at Ashvamegh

Alan Britt served as a judge for 2013 The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award. He read poetry and presented the “Modern Trends in U.S. Poetry” at the VII International Writers’ Festival in Val-David, Canada, May 2013. He read poetry for the 6×3 Exhibition at the Jadite Gallery in Hell’s Kitchen/Manhattan in December 2014. Also, sponsored by LaRuche Arts Contemporary Consortium (LRACC) he read poetry at the Union City Museum of Art/William V. Musto Cultural Center in Union City, NJ in May, 2014. His interview at The Library of Congress for The Poet and the Poem aired on Pacifica Radio, January 2013. A new interview for Lake City Lights is available at His latest books are Lost Among the Hours: 2015, Parabola Dreams (with Silvia Scheibli): 2013 and Alone with the Terrible Universe: 2011. He teaches English/Creative Writing at Towson University. In this interview, Alan shares his views with Alok on various issues and contemporary poetry.

Alok Mishra: What is poetry to you? Why do you write poetry?

Alan Britt: Poetry represents many things to me. On the serious side, poetry has the power to put me in touch with a meaningful and often spiritual existence. Reading and writing poetry are vehicles for exploring the total human, the emotional, psychological and spiritual human. The better one understands oneself, the more clarity one gains about the universe. I mean universe as perceived by the senses and engaged by imagination. Of course, the universe is both infinitely small and infinitely large, yet best experienced through the particulars of one’s environment. One could go on forever qualifying the objective universe, but one thing is certain: we can only know the universe as we experience it through its particulars. Without intense experience we have only a counterfeit notion of existence. The herd animal known as humans is all too willing to follow blindly, to allow others in positions of authority to decide what is meaningful, and that is how cultures are created. The herd then adopts the culture and adapts the personal self to the social norm, thus, creating an artificial personal identity. We humans have at our disposal five senses and a limitless imagination, the combination of which can create a wonderful existence. We can squander our magical senses and infinite imaginations and instead choose to surrender ourselves to a close-minded church or greedy government. If so, we then become one of T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men” or Duane Locke’s “slave mentalities.” But I prefer a path similar to William Blake’s and García Lorca’s attraction to infinite imagination. I experience meaningful existence through a cat purring against my chest or by paying close attention to a male cardinal’s northeastern dialect. Through these experiences I am spiritually enriched and removed from the dreary values of my culture. Such experiences sneak into my poems and allow me to create a unique reality, a linguistic reality. Since I resist limiting myself when composing―which is how I recognize limitations and expand boundaries―I occasionally fall victim to the fatal attraction of mimesis. However, I believe in learning from my frailties and evolving in the process. On the lighter side, poetry is likewise a vehicle for moments of frivolity. So be it . . . I enjoy the lighter side as well.

Alok Mishra: What inspires you to write most of the time?

Alan Britt: As alluded to above, my inspiration to write poems pretty much comes from anywhere and everywhere: a purring cat, a bird’s “full-throated ease,” an unending variety of music, plus the occasional diatribe against abusive power structures that want to degenerate the quality of life for so many of us. The latter, of course, is a useless folly that provides a simple but albeit temporary therapy. So, poetry is both an exploration of imagination that provides both the expansion of soul (whatever that is), plus a refuge from the banality of my culture.

AM: Which poets have inspired you?

Alan Britt: Goodness, the list of poets who inspire me grows daily. I could bore you with the usual litany of modern greats such as Whitman, Dickinson, Lorca, Neruda, Trakl, Ritsos, Akhmatova, but let me add a few living poets to that list: Patty Dickson Pieczka, Anthony Seidman, Silvia Scheibli, Ruxandra Cesereanu, Rich Ives, Ye Chun, Rob Cook, Alberto Blanco, Steve Barfield, Bina Sarkar Ellias . . . there are so many more! There is excellent poetry being written all over the planet. If you want to experience some of it, read any issue of Paul B. Roth’s The Bitter Oleander.

Alok Mishra: When you are writing a poem, what do you prefer most, sir – the thought that inspired you or the result/the effect you wanted to achieve?

Alan Britt: The answer here is clearly the act of writing itself. I rarely have an effect in mind before I commence a poem, so such a result or goal is largely foreign to me. The writing process often launches me into an altered state, which can be blissful or even agonizing at times, but mostly I experience expansion and ultimate freedom when writing. I can write about a wooly caterpillar, a golden eagle (both sublime), or an invisible quark swaddled in a smoky lace of patchouli as she dances naked upon my eyelid. Wondrous.

Alok Mishra: Do you also feel “belatedness” as most of the poets do?

Alan Britt: “Belatedness” in the sense that every literary theme has been used up, written and rewritten? Nothing could be further from my consciousness. Poets haven’t begun to discover all there is to discover. As mentioned earlier, for the most part I don’t begin poems with a theme or destiny in mind. I’m inspired by a churning inspiration to enter the altered state, again sometimes inspired by stained glass designs on the translucent wings of a swallowtail butterfly, or sometimes by words that use their little scissors to cut large openings in the camouflage that conceals objects. Through intense observation there are infinite ways to create poems. Poems are not imprisoned by themes.

Alok Mishra: About readership of poetry, what you have to say, sir? Will it ever be restored to the once celebrated height it was?

Alan Britt: Well, this endless debate over the practical value of poetry. To me poetry is like bread, water and sunlight itself. If my spirit, my sensibility is to survive, I need to digest poems. So, for me poems are practical. But “restored to (the) once celebrated height” . . . I doubt that poetry ever was so celebrated as we imagine. Until a hundred years ago the vast majority of folks couldn’t read a newspaper, much less extract wonderful nuances from Marvell’s “Coy Mistress” or Tristan Tzara’s “Approximate Man.” We have more people reading and writing poetry today than throughout the history of our planet. Conventional poetry, poetry that echoes what folks pretty much already know, poems that fit like domestic keys into familiar locks, thus, requiring little or no reader imagination are still, as they always have been, the most popular award winning verses, so the battle to evolve poetry beyond the banal is challenging. In this sense little has changed. But, if one knows where to look, one is rewarded by a plethora of exciting poetry exploding from the pores of poets of every nationality, in every culture and from all corners of the globe. For some of us poetry is already celebrated.

Alok Mishra: In creation of poetry, what you think is more dominant – the thought or the emotions? Or you think both have the same share? I have seen some poets who deny either emotions or thoughts. What do you say about it?

Alan Britt: Imagination has the ability to fuse intellect and emotion into a single entity. A wonderful quote from Juan Ramón Jiménez goes something like this: “Intelligence usually tramples the flowers of instinct, but ah, when it cannot!” Jiménez says don’t allow the intellect to dominate emotions. Blend the two into what we translate as “instinct,” or, as I like to think of it, intelligent emotion. I value intelligence as well as emotion, but I adore a marriage of the two.

Alok Mishra: The old rules, sir, are being forgotten in poetry writing today. I have seen and read some poets who even forget or deliberately do not use punctuation marks in their poems. Do you support it? Should a poem not end with the last line?

Alan Britt: I feel that poems should be whatever poets want them to be. Every conceivable nuance is available for poems. We’re only scratching the surface of poetic possibility. 3-D poems, poems that literally stimulate one or all five senses, individually or simultaneously, poems combined with music and/or visuals, and holographic poems will be the norm someday (assuming illiterate humans don’t destroy the species before then). A few humans will evolve, and as they do their art will evolve with them. Perhaps these humans will evolve because of art. Who knows? But, for the moment, poems tell me where they want to end, and in order for me to succeed I must pay close attention to their whispers.

Alok Mishra: The last question to you, sir, what is the future of poetry? Do you support Arnold who said it is “immense”?

Alan Britt: Poetry is indeed immense. I’d like to say that it’s as immense as the universe, but we’re not close to knowing much about the universe, which could, by the way, be a living, breathing organism of which we play an infinitesimal small role. Again, the notion that poetry is immense is likely as old as the first creative mind to conceive a poem. I do subscribe to Blake’s notion of seeing “a world in a grain of sand, / And heaven in a wild flower,” plus holding “infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour.” I need only return to the stained glass joy on the translucent wings of a swallowtail butterfly to feel the vibration of infinity inside my bones.