Bill Abbott has been involved in Poetry Slam since 1992 and is the author of Let Them Eat MoonPie, the history of Poetry Slam in the Southeast. He has attended regional and national competitions, hosted three regional events, and organized and hosted poetry events across multiple cities and states. He has been published in Ray's Road Review, Radius, The November 3rd Club, Flypaper Magazine, Jokes Review, The Broken Plate, Ghost City Review, and The Sow's Ear, among others. Having earned his MFA from Miami University in 2018, Mr. Abbott lives in Ohio and teaches creative writing at Central State University.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This book is poetry, and it’s my first actual book (that I didn’t copy at Kinkos) of poetry. I did write a history of Poetry Slam in the Southeast (Let Them Eat MoonPie) a few years ago, but I’ve always been a poet first. This book is a plus for me, but the new work (planned next book) is going in a different direction.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was always an avid reader, and I never cared about poetry. My freshman year of college, I was bored in my room and existentially in crisis. I grabbed a piece of paper and just started writing poetry. When my roommate came in, he saw it and said, “Oh, you wrote a poem.” I said I didn’t, that whatever that was, it wasn’t poetry. It was, but I only had read the stuff in English class. So I came to it on my own and learned on my own for a really long time.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A poem? An idea is enough, but I really have to get myself started. It’s quick once I start. When I was younger, closer to when I started writing, I wrote often. Now I have to work on starting. But my first drafts are close to my final drafts most of the time, partly because I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and my early work is clearly not as good.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m an author of short pieces, but the next book, I’ve known my direction for a while. This book is heavily crafted from my MFA program work (which had no advanced focus), which has been a lot of debt but a new start for my writing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love poetry readings. I love reading aloud. But that wasn’t the case from the start. I climbed onto stages in 1992 and sucked at it until 1996 or so. I just couldn’t figure it out until I did. But it transformed my writing, thinking about how a poem sounds.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
That’s a deeper question than I can answer, but I’ll try. I’m trying to personalize mental illness, give thought to disability, show people about the burden religion can put on people who doesn’t believe with the majority. And all of my poems don’t do that, but I can see these themes run through.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’d like to think we’re cultural leaders, and in some cases, I believe that. But I don’t think people fully believe that. Your average person doesn’t often read poetry, though I keep hearing people say that poetry is popular now because nobody has the attention span to read novels anymore. I disagree, but that’s out there.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Actually, I’m pretty easy to work with, but I think changing my work changes it from stage to page. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some poems edited change from something I’d read aloud to something on the page only. It’s different, not bad, and I’ve been moving that direction anyway.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Enjoy your successes. Don’t get caught up in thinking what you’ll do next to the degree that you’ll not enjoy what you’ve accomplished.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a routine, but I really should have one. What gets me moving the most is artificial deadlines. Give me a 30/30, and I’ll do it. Tell me what I need to write by when, and I’ll probably make it happen. If I were writing stories, I’d reconsider that, but poetry writing has always been a “when I feel like it” for me.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve bought a lot of poetry books by others over the years, and one of the best ways to write is to read. I read craft books and poetry books often, and if I forget for a while, I know it’ll slow my writing. I occasionally hear people say, “Oh, I don’t read poetry. I don’t want to have them influence my genius.” That’s nonsense. Maybe if you obsess over one or two writers, that would be a problem, but writers should read widely. There’s no better inspiration for me.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
“Home” like where I grew up? I’m not sure I have an answer for that.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m not a nature poet, never have been. Music can get me started (I prefer instrumental, especially rhythm), as can visual art. But research does a lot to get me started in writing.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In general, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Douglas Adams changed my life through their writings. Poetry-wise, I have so many writers I admire, and I’ll forget so many. Patricia Smith, Jeff McDaniel, BillyCollins, Hoa Nguyen, Tyehimba Jess, Matthew Olzmann, Allan Wolf, Tracy K Smith, Heather McHugh, Linda Pastan, Jamaal May, Maggie Smith, Asia Samson, Andrea Gibson, Layli Long Soldier, Laura Van Prooyen. And I recently discovered Ada Limon, who is a brilliant poet. That doesn’t include all the great poetry performers I’ve met along the way.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Have way more readers?
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m not just a writer. I can’t live off my writing at this point, and I don’t think I ever will. I’ve made my way into teaching college, and over a long time, made a career out of it. If I had gone in a different direction, maybe technical writing or some sort of business work that paid better.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I mentioned how I started writing. I wrote for years so people would listen to me, and I didn’t know how else to make that work. I was better at writing than talking, so I wrote so people would understand. Then, when I discovered spoken word, I realized I could read a poem on stage and have 50 people hear it, as opposed to handing a poem to 50 people, so it made solid sense. And I couldn’t draw, so art was out.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I was really moved by Tara Westover’s Educated most recently. In films, I really enjoyed How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but I love everything Neil Gaiman is associated with.
19 - What are you currently working on?
My next book. I think I’m getting close to a book worth.