Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tom Waits on Being Called a Poet

Inebreational Travelogue: Tom Waits on Being Called a Poet

Nancy Smith wrote a review at The Rumpus that celebrates Tom Waits and the book Tom Waits on Tom Waits. In said book Waits weighs in on the many things he’s been called over the years, namely “poet.”
It’s almost impossible to write an apt description of Waits, but every journalist in this collection makes a worthy attempt. Some of my favorites: “A mumbling sot on stage.” “A collector and researcher of bawdy stories.” “A half-buzzed derelict with the voice of a bulldozer.” “A gruff-voiced romanticizer of the seamy side of urban life.” “A practitioner of the fine art of conversation” “A Depression-Era hobo ridin’ the rails toward some unforsaken land.” “The teacher we wished we had.” “The greatest entertainer on Planet Earth.”
However he is described, Waits’s magnetic stage presence draws people to him. His live shows take on a theatrical quality, complete with spoken-word ramblings, chain-smoking, dramatic movements, and a lot of jokes. Waits is often referred to as a poet, a term he was quick to toss off in the early days.
“Poetry is a very dangerous word,” says Waits, “It’s very misused. Most people when they hear the word ‘poetry’ think of being chained to a desk, memorizing ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ When somebody says that they’re going to read me a poem, I can think of any number of things that I’d rather be doing. I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet—so I call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure, or an inebriational travelogue, and all of a sudden it takes on a whole new form and meaning. If I’m tied down and have to call myself something, I prefer ‘storyteller.’”
Then, a bit on his process:
For a long time, Waits admits, he was in danger of being overtaken by the low life he wrote about. He drank too much. He made bad friends. “I wanted to experience what it was like to be on the road the way I imagined it would be for the old-timers that I loved, so I would stay in these down joints because I was absorbing all the atmosphere in those places; the ghosts in the room. You want to be where the stories grow, and you think if you live in those places they’ll come up through the sidewalks and out of the cracks in the wall—and they do. But you have to be very clear about who you are and who it is you’re projecting, and there was a time when I was very unclear about who I was and I became a caricature of myself.”
Over time, Waits’s persona becomes both clearer and even more difficult to define. It’s a strange contradiction. Each of his albums are so profoundly different, it’s as if we learn about a new side of Waits with every album. Some of the most interesting interviews include insight into his creative process:
“The creative process is imagination, memories, nightmares, and dismantling certain aspects of this world and putting them back together in the dark. Songs aren’t necessarily verbatim chronicles or necessarily journal entries, they’re like smoke, it’s like it’s made out of smoke.”
from The Poetry Foundation
original interview in The Rumpus 9/26/11

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