Why do you write?
To live is to write, to write is to live. Everything else is just filler.
What books do you read?
I read around 300 books or so a year. Roughly half fiction, half poetry with a few non-fiction books; roughly ten per cent thrown in for variety. I actually keep a list of what I read, have read, extending back a number of years so when I pick a number like that it isn’t arbitrary.
Specifically, I like literary fiction but I am a sucker for noir. I can be seduced by a twisted mystery. Character is important and good writing. I don’t mind a plot, though it isn’t essential. Most experimental prose writing feels like medicine to me now so I don’t feel obligated to read something just because it is supposed to be innovative and good for my mind and body. Same goes for poetry, though I am a more eclectic reader of poetry than prose. A really good idea, well executed, is as important as a strong sense of language. I detest phony intellectuals, exclusionary cliques and arty academics. You know who you are.
What inspires you?
Most recently, I was inspired by an Art Exhibit called Extreme Art ,which featured non-traditional objects as the medium for creating art. Non- traditional items would include, among other things: garden hoses, twist ties, blood samples, crack bags, pills, statues of Elvis and so on. That set me off for three and half years.
If you don’t learn from the world around you, you might as well be dead. One of the joys of reading is discovering new ideas and new approaches and a unique way of viewing a subject. When I was working in a bar and commuting by bus to and from work there, I used to have all the free material I could ever w ant in this lifetime or the next. I kind of miss the religious zealots handing out pamphlets and asking leading questions like ,”Where do you think you are going to be when you die.” My usual replies often caused consternation. Their world view did not incorporate the 55 Bus from Albany to Schenectady as “hell on wheels” and my most likely destination to death. Especially if it was a Friday during the warmer months. I was accused of being, among other things: Satan, one of his minions or worse. Ah, the good old days.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?
I cannot remember ever wanting to be anything else though for awhile I imagined being a professional athlete but that necessary growth spurt never came.
How Do you deal with rejection?
I weep copiously. Actually, I usually don’t let it bother me and move on to more important things. Constructive criticism is good. Nasty stuff you can ignore. The really ignorant stuff, you write many letter to the editor about and, hopefully, never succumb to the temptation to mail them. I used to say with pride: I have been rejected by everyone. But the Internet changed all that to …just about everyone.
Who are some writers you admire?
I used to worship at the feet of James Joyce but that leads to some really bad places for a writer as there is only one Joyce and that’s the way it should be. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery but it is death to a developing writer finding his own voice. There are so many writers I admire the list would be different every time I made one. I don’t think anyone who came of age in the 60’s, as I did, can ignore the influence of Bob Dylan. Allen Ginsburg howling certainly made a huge impression. I can’t ignore Bukowski, though, I think people read him for all the wrong reasons and he has spawned a whole generation of writers who, regrettably, have read no one else. Sylvia Plath also falls into the wrong reason category. I much admired Ted Hughes at one time, though after Sylvia offed herself it became clear, she was the superior poet. I have like a thousand poetry books in the room I am typing this in and I could just start listing names and still leave out hundreds of poets. I like Alan Shapiro, Transtromer, Carruth, Berryman, Lowell, Michael Casey, Cid Corman, small press oldies but goodies like John Bennett, Winans on and on…
Is writing the only artistic medium you do?
I have no other artistic talent at all. I used to fool with collages but my efforts are mostly lame.
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
Pay attention to those grammar lessons and learn the basics. And most of all, take Latin this time.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Read all you can and learn from what you read. Pay attention. Write all the time even if what you write is no good. Learn from your mistakes. And most of all be persistent, no matter how discouraged you get: if you give up, you never get anywhere.
What is your writing process?
If it can be said that I have a process at all, it would be to have some sort of idea in mind when you start. I don’t need prompts but I often write to them. Prompts could be a title, a news story, a piece of Art, a great play in a baseball game, watching a symphony with the sound turned off, creating dialogue to a particularly bad movie, whatever works. Start at the beginning, that is once you have the opening phrasing, go with it wherever it takes you. A good start, though, is essential as everything that follows should be part of an organic whole . You might be surprised at the result of free association, within a vague structure of an idea, title, image, resolving itself so the author learns from the creation what the piece is all about and where it is going. One editor says your poems always read as if you were free associating something. Well, that’s because all of them are free associations. That doesn’t mean they end up exactly the way they were written down first time through.( yes, I do write poems in long hand but not prose. I’m not completely crazy) Revising is not cheating, it is essential. A typical poem goes through three versions. Maybe four. Though some many more. All poems are not created equally, though the process is virtually the same for each.
Alan Catlin is a widely published poet in the US of A and elsewhere. His most recent book is “Books of the Dead: a memoir with poetry” about the deaths of his parents. He is a retired professional barman and the editor of the online poetry zine misfitmagazine.net.