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Healing Words: An Interview with Poet Anthony Butts
by Lisa Albers

Anthony Butts' visual impairment and early label as a "problem child" have not kept him from attaining success as a poet. His collection Fifth Season earned him the Small Press Book Award. He is currently an assistant professor of English at University of Dayton. This interview was conducted via electronic mail.

You said that you started out as a pre-med student and that poetry "chose" you. How did this happen? When did you realize your new course in life?

I realized that poetry chose me when I felt more overcome by the need to write than I was by just about any other thing, except maybe the need to study and to continue dating! But I found that poetry felt more sustaining than the other two endeavors, although I wanted all three.

You also said, "For me, poetry has always been about healing people." Who is healed by your poetry?

Even though I face very tough issues in my poetry -- mistreatment in intimate relationships, social injustices on a day-to-day level, and the alienation that all of us often feel -- I'm certain that I'm not reveling in misery. I've always hoped that my poetry would reflect my own worldview, which is that people don't need to pointlessly suffer. We suffer when we try to meet our goals, and that's good suffering. We endure and become stronger, smarter ... I write in a way that I hope is always clear in order that people may look into the mirror of my verse and see themselves and their own suffering or their own joys.

How has your visual impairment affected your writing career? Did you find people surprised or skeptical that you could write?

People have always been surprised that I can do anything. And I've been very resistant to anyone who pats me on the shoulder too much, especially when I hear worlds like 'you're the best black writer I've ever heard speak.' The nerve of some people to be void of any tact! I don't want to be a circus act, or the best 'black' poet. I want people to maybe someday say that I'm the best poet, and that I happen to be black. My bitterness about this has lessened to a great degree, but I still keep people like that at more than just arm's length.

What advice would you give to a student from a disadvantaged background with dreams of publishing his or her writing?

I would say that the disadvantaged should attend poetry readings, even if they cost money. I remember shelling out a few bucks for each poetry reading that had a cover charge; most don't, by the way. But I learned a lot about composure from those artists, even when I didn't want to write like them or even be like them. There's something about the written word that will never die.

How often do you write? Do you find it hard to plan writing time in the midst of your teaching and other work?

I write in spurts, which is very unusual for poets. I always hear people tell me about how they write every morning for at least two hours. I don't write like it's a job ... I write because I need to do it. I gather notes, mentally and on paper, and I begin to write when I feel the urge coming on, when I feel like I've seen enough of something and I just can't take it anymore. I try to wait until I'm not too heavily affected by someone else's distress or joy. I just see something when I'm sitting around that is the final piece to some puzzle I've been working through in my mind, and then it's time to write.

[Lately] it has been terrifyingly rough on my time for actually producing poetry. But, because I know myself, the urge to write always wins out, if only in its week-long spurts. For instance, I'm currently working on a crown of sonnets--seven linked sonnets that comprise one unified poem--and the editing of a five-page prose poem for my next book "Deluge." I've put off this work for the past few weeks, but have felt the urge within me that says 'now is the time' and 'I feel like I can say these things now.' I make time, and that's always worked out for me.

Originally appeared in Intermission Magazine and The Loose Leaf.  Reprinted with permission.

You can contact Lisa Albers at modernscribe@earthlink.net


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