Interview with John Rybicki

This Thursday night (Dec 6th), at 8:00pm, the poet John Rybicki will be reading selections of his righteous verse in Woodside Cottage and answering all questions poetical.  John will also be holding a writer’s workshop for students Friday afternoon (Dec 7th) at 4:00 in James House.  What goes on in John Rybicki’s brain?  Read on for the interview and come see him later this week!

Cole: First off, I’m just curious, how long have you been writing poetry?

John: Well, I can give you the story of how the writer was born, it’s not that long.  It was the night Billy Colts and I broke the world record for how many garages you can climb in an hour.  We’d just finished our James Bond-esque operations: you know, invade each yard, shimmy up telephone polls, climb atop fences, whatever it took to get on top of these garage roofs.  We had our ninja suits on and we were doing the cat rolls in the grass and all that.  It came to the end of the hour and we had conquered 63 garages.  We came out of the shadows into the spotlight of a street light on Cumberson and Brunswick, and all the kids in the neighborhood came pulling magnetically towards us.  There was this moment of just pure juvenile wonder, It was like God rammed my spine through the earth like a new axis.  All the houses felt like they were on a carousel along with these kids, just swirling in an orbit around me.  I stepped out of my boy skin and said, I’ve gotta write this down.

C: And when was that?

J: Oh I was like 11 or 12, something like that.  It was Detroit so you know if you put your back against my house and spit hard enough you’d hit the wall of the next house over.

C: The next thing I wanted to ask was about your first poetic moment.  Was that moment you just talked about “the one,” or do you think there’s something else buried further back?

J: What a question.  I’d say our whole life, the entire span of our life, is a continual barrage of poetic moments, only in adulthood we get sterilized into linear thinking.  We accrue an armor, and scar tissue, all that stuff.  But I’d say that felt like the moment, in retrospect—that felt like the moment as an adult looking back.  I was always hanging out on the curbs, climbing garages, going to the ballpark, playing cards, baseball, gum chewing.  But now in looking back, man—it’s just like a lot of the time I feel like I’m racing against my own death trying to harvest, or transcribe, all these moments.

C: When you sit down to write, how do your poems first take shape?  I mean when these moments are all racing past you, how do you first begin to harvest one of them?

J: I guess, amidst the blitz of living there are some moments where—I don’t know, a bolt of lightning goes through your chest, or suddenly you’re turned inside out—something you see or recognize in the moment hurls you towards a pen and paper.  In all these moments when poetry is just sizzling in the world around you there are always a few high octane moments.  Those moments seem so precious, so sacred, that you’re willing to invest your time on this earth in writing or trying to leave a spiritual record.  Something that was holy to you, and something that seems holy to the world.  It’s about the rarefied air of the poem.  You know, as a writer and a teacher I get very evangelical about that one.

C: So if that’s how your writing process starts with each poem, how do you know when you’ve finished one?

J: Well, Yeats revised his great works into his old age.  I think it’s useful for any writer to develop alliances with other writers to help determine the flaws in your work.  You also have to let it cool.  When you come back to it, a day or a week later, having dedicated decades of your life to language, you do develop a discerning eye to comb through the text, or listen for acoustical nuance.  You always want to throw a party when you get to the end.  Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s kind of like a locket, you know?  With a living picture inside.  Yeah, the white space is kind of like this locket that you fold around the poem when it’s done.

I remember though one time when I got a poem into poetry magazine and I showed the poem to my wife, she was like, oh my God, dude, why didn’t you let me look this over first.  Other times I’d write like five or six drafts.  My wife would tell me, aww dude, you had it in the second draft.  Hemingway said, if he only had to rewrite it ten times he was lucky.

C: These next questions are a little sillier:  Three writers to take with you to a desert island?

J: I’d have to take Billyboy Shakespeare, the collected works in one volume.  I’d take Cormac McCarthy.  He has a very diabolical outlook on the human species, but he’s a linguistic magician.  For my third…I want to say Flannery O’Conner, but she scares the shit out of me.  I think I have to put a few birds on the fence here, I know that’s kind of cheating…I’d say, Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, if I had to answer quickly.

C: Do you have a favorite letter of the alphabet?

J: Are you kidding me!  That’s beautiful!  The moment you asked me the question I remembered gazing, with such fascination, at the alphabet hovering above the blackboard in my class in third grade.  I remember imagining they all looked like paratroopers waiting to jump out of the plane.  I’d say the s, for the way it whispers and how it lulls.  And the o.  The sound just conjures something.  It’s like the wolf howling from the ridge, the repetition of the o sound in the language is just—my god.  It subverts intellect, you don’t even know why.  Poets really create music with language, you know.

C: And your favorite punctuation mark?

J: The colon, unequivocally, is the only punctuation I would kiss on the mouth.

C: Any particular reason?

J: Yeah, because writing is about seduction, and how you entice the reader to keep reading.  There’s lots of tricks involved.  But with the colon it’s like there’s something tantalizing that hasn’t been answered yet.  It makes you kind of a voyeuristic reader.  You want to know what comes next.  It’s the most seducing kind of punctuation in the language bar none.

C: And just a last question, do you have a favorite place and time of day to write?

J: It’s changed over the years.  I used to be a nocturnal writer.  Because of my wife and the sunshine I’d just have too much energy, I couldn’t feel my own skin, and late at night I’d calm down a little.  Even then I’d write for a few hours in the morning and then a few more at night.  But now as I’ve gotten older, I have less energy during the day, and at night I just want to go and cool down.

C: And your favorite place to write?

J: That’s changed over time too.  It also coincides with losing my wife, after her long trial with cancer.  Now in the morning I just want—ache—for contact of some kind.  The local library where I live, the people there are my guardian angels.  That’s a crazy response to writing, but when I get up in the morning, after all I went through with my wife, and losing her, I can’t—I have an almost junky like need to be around people that care about me.


John Rybicki is the author of three collections of poetry: When All the World Is Old (2012), We Bed Down into Water (2008) Traveling at High Speeds (1996).  His poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2008, Poetry, Paris Review, Field and Alaska Quarterly Review.  He lives in Michigan with his son, where he teaches poetry to young writers through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project and Wings of Hope Hospice.


READING in WOODSIDE COTTAGE – 8 pm, Thursday Dec. 6th
–Short Q&A and Book Signing to follow

WRITER’S WORKSHOP in JAMES HOUSE – 4 pm, Friday Dec. 7th
–Bring some copies of your writing to workshop in a group with the poet and others!
More info on facebook:
Poetry Reading and Workshop organized by the Poetry Reading Group. Contact:

Sponsored by the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities’ Student Arts Fund:

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