Tim Seibles, Contributor Spotlight
Contributor Spotlight Tim Seibles is a commanding, dynamic presence, particularly when he reads his poetry. Tall, charismatic, he stands behind the podium and gives animated voice to poems that are, at turns, grave, inventive, and hilarious. His primary subjects from the start have been sexuality and race, and somehow, Seibles has always been able to engage, not alienate, people when he addresses these delicate topics -- an attitude he wishes could be adopted by society overall.
The author of two full-length collections, Body Moves and Hurdy-Gurdy, and a just-released chapbook, Kerosene, Seibles was born in Philadelphia in 1955. His mother was a high school English teacher, his father a biochemist for the Department of Agriculture. As a child in Germantown, Seibles loved to read, especially books on Greek and Roman mythology. He wanted to write science fiction novels, yet his obsession was to become a professional football player. He chose to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas because his idol, Jerry Levias, one of the first black college players of prominence, had gone there. Seibles had not played organized football until his senior year in high school, but he was athletically gifted enough to make the SMU team as a freshman walk-on. To his chagrin, however, a new coach immediately instituted a wishbone offense, focusing on the running game, and Seibles, a wide receiver, hardly stepped onto the field.
He quit in his sophomore year, just as poet Michael Ryan was starting a creative writing program at the university. Seibles, always willing to try anything, took his workshop, then more workshops with Jack Myers and John Skoyles, and before he knew it, he had discovered a new passion. He read James Dickey, Mark Strand, Ai, Morton Marcus, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Walker, Leroi Jones, W. S. Merwin, and countless others, and he loved them all -- "the rhythms, the radical visions, the sense that there was a place for deep, unbridled feelings," Seibles says.
After graduating, he substitute-taught English and worked as a stereo salesman, writing poems on the side. He had no plan for his life, really, and he certainly didn't think he'd stay in Texas, but he drifted into teaching English full time, first at inner-city North Dallas High School for eight years, then at the Episcopal School of Dallas for another two. Though he found the innocence of most teenagers compelling, he was frustrated that many of them had already become apathetic and cynical about education.
Seibles, on the other hand, remained relatively naive, particularly about his poetry. "Being young," he says, "you just don't know that you're outnumbered." He kept writing and sending out poems, undeterred by the "millions of rejections," then enrolled in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Vermont College in 1987. Under the tutelage of Mark Cox, Jack Myers again, Richard Jackson, and Susan Mitchell, he developed a fondness for longer, sprawling poems, captivated by "how tension and momentum are sustained in a narrative." In 1988, Corona Press published his first book, Body Moves, and shortly afterwards, he retired from teaching high school, cashing in his pension, and rushed headlong into the poet's life. He received fellowships from the NEA and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (where he became the Writing Coordinator), won the Open Voice Award for poetry from the National Writers' Voice Project at New York's West Side YMCA, and published his book, Hurdy-Gurdy, with Cleveland State University Press. For the last year, he has been living in Cambridge, and in the fall, he will teaching creative writing and literature at the college level.
The poem "Ten Miles an Hour," on page eighty-eight of this issue, is a telling example of Seibles's abiding concerns. He began the poem sitting in Logan Airport in Boston, musing about the speed of light, watching passengers of multiple races and nationalities milling about the airport. Nine months later, when the poem started taking shape, he almost put it away. "It seemed too giddy and weird at first. I thought people would say I was oversexed." But he liked the hip, homeboy voice, its rhythm and pop, and decided, "The roof is coming off, you just have to take it to the bridge."
Seibles explains further: "I was, and still am, interested in how we, as people and artists, can cultivate hope for a future that isn't simply a prolongation of nightmare. There's a real sense that the world isn't working, that it's become this bloody, ugly, consumptive, diseased, fearful place that's unlivable. I'm interested in asking how we might see beyond this without putting guns to our heads. 'Ten Miles an Hour' became an emblem of mad hope -- for a wilder, freer, sweeter world with all these different people of different races, with the erotic realm representing a utopian locus of pleasure and possibility and connection."
Kerosene, his new chapbook from Ampersand Press, is an extension of this meditation on race, and he uses various personas for expression, including Malcolm X and Quai Chang Caine, the character on TV's Kung Fu. "The book," Seibles says, "moves between the polarities of delight and rage. Largely, it's about the sense of alienation that accompanies being non-white in this country." He does not support violent revolution, nor does he subscribe to any separatist ideologies, which he thinks are "short-sighted and cowardly," but he warns that we are nearing a threshold, beyond which the only response to racism and its persistence can be rage. "If you're black, there's a growing feeling that things are being squeezed around you, as if your body is taking up too much space in America. There's a kind of power wielded by people of privilege, mainly whites, that they're completely unaware of. It's as if you're in a room with a giant. You're so small, the giant doesn't realize you're there. He throws his arm around, knocks you to the ground, and he doesn't even notice. And maybe he won't until you burn the house down."
Seibles loathes the idea of reaching that level of impasse. Ultimately, he wants to promote reconciliation by asking us, as a nation, to reconsider the dynamics of power between whites and non-whites. "For society to work, we're going to have to take a hard look at what assumptions people who are white Americans can make that people who aren't cannot make, and how that damages our connection to one another. We don't want to spend the rest of our lives angry, do we?"
In the meantime, he'll keep two photographs in his wallet -- one of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of Jimi Hendrix -- that he has carried since his days at SMU. They helped form Seibles's credo in college, which, he admits, might sound corny and idealistic and quaint, but is more relevant today than ever: "Love, peace, unity, harmony, brotherhood."
Kerosene is available for $7.00 postpaid from Ampersand Press, Box 642, Creative Writing Program, Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI 02809. Copies may also be obtained through the Grolier Poetry Book Shop's mail-order service in Harvard Square by calling (800) 234-poem.