After a grueling quiz with poet PS Conway, administered by your Fictional Cafe poets Yong and Vera, along with me, your founder, on the six most fascinating drinking establishments in Ireland, an explanation of a potato famine, and a perfect recitation of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, we have anointed PS Conway our new Poetry Writer-in-Residence for 2024-25. Delighted with his perfect score we capped his nomination with this interview below, which confirmed him as an excellent choice.
Another P.S.: we choose a Fiction Writer-in-Residence and a Poetry Writer-in-Residence every two alternating years. Expect to see, and read, a lot of PS’s captivating poetry in both images and words.
JACK: Hello, faithful members of Fictional Café’s Coffee Club. I’m here with Vera West, our former Poetry Writer-in-Residence, to interview Vera’s successor, PS Conway, Fictional Café’s 2024-25 Poetry Writer-in-Residence. Vera loves Fictional Cafe so much she asked to stay involved, so she is now our Poetry Barista, and there’s no expiration date for that. She may be with us for the rest of . . . her life? I don’t know. But that’s the plan.
VERA: And I love it.
JACK: She’s a prolific writer and has just finished an epic poem entitled Plucked, an excerpt of which was recently published on FC.
PS: I have it sitting in my tray and am planning to read it this weekend.
VERA: Ohh, I’m on the plucking posts. Yeah, good!
JACK: So welcome to our creative family, PS. You’re a busy poet as well.
PS: Well, when it comes knocking, you’ve got to answer.
VERA: Those moments of inspiration are magical, aren’t they? I mean, magical.
PS: Oh yeah.
JACK: When did you write your first poem?
PS: I’m not sure I ever wrote poetry in any meaningful way until 2020 – the COVID lockdown. That’s when I really started writing – and rewriting. I’d taken a took a long hiatus from writing. As an English major in college, I’d always kind of fancied myself as the next William Faulkner or Toni Morrison. I think every writer at some point has that vision for themselves. But for me, I always made this analogy about how there was this locked closet in my brain of pent-up creative energy. And it wasn’t a standard closet. It was kind of a walk-in closet. Once the door had opened, I haven’t even found the back of the thing with all these 30 years of unused creativity. It’s just exploding out right now. I think I’m up to, I don’t know . . . I’m looking at my files . . . probably 500 poems in the last three years. And they just keep coming. Tidal waves. Some are good and some are crap, obviously. But you know.
JACK: Obviously, yeah, yeah, yeah.
PS: It’s a walk-in closet of creativity, something I always bring myself back to. It’s not just a closet, right? It’s a deep closet. You can’t see the back of it. And there’s just all this stuff in there that needs to come out.
VERA: So with all those poems you’ve written, how have you seen yourself evolve as a poet? Because that’s a lot of words and a lot of growth, yeah.
PS: I think my [Microsoft] Word file is almost a novel in length: 90,000 words. One thing, Vera, is I think my accuracy in writing has gotten better. Where I used to be more stream of consciousness, now there’s a precision to it. Also, decisions for the right word. If I want a rhyme, the rhymes are naturally happening, right? If I don’t want a rhyme then it’s more just a free flow. But it just feels like the vocabulary has improved as the precision of the writings improved. I could tighten things up a lot better. It’s not, like, verbal vomit as some writing can be.
VERA: Is that like the saying, “Write drunk, edit sober?”
PS: Oh my God! It’s funny you say that too. Both my daughters write, my oldest in particular, and she and I joke about that all the time.
JACK: Did you begin with the images to accompany your poems right from the start, or was that something that came along later to give more, depth and meaning to what you were writing?
PS: I was watching other artists do it on Twitter, so I can’t say it was an original thought. I see a lot of people pair art to their poetry but it works for me.] Now it’s integral to what I do. I post my weekly blog. The imagery is essential to it. It’s amazing. One week if I have a bad image, the readership falls off. And if I have a good one, the readership increases. If, God forbid, I actually write something dark and it has a dark image, it shuts down like there’s nobody’s business.
VERA: Ohh, really.
PS: Because so much of my readership are seniors, people who are really appreciative of poetry, perhaps who had a life in the arts, they don’t like the dark imagery near as much as a happy, sunshiny watercolor. You know, soft pictures. It’s a really interesting experiment.
VERA: Yeah, I think just like music. Pictures can set a whole vibe, right?
PS: I don’t know about you, Vera, or you, Jack, but when I write, I love to have classical music playing in the background. It becomes white noise. But there’s something about it: I can’t listen to lyrics because my ADHD kicks in and I’ve got to listen to the lyrics, so I just can’t cross-function that way. But something without lyrics sets a tone, for lack of a better term.
JACK: Yeah, I’ve got music going all the time. I’m on these YouTube sites playing classical music. It’s just a deep well of great stuff. And there’s so many composers who we’ve never heard of who wrote symphonies and classical chamber music. Stuff like that. It’s great stuff.
PS: Do you guys ever find like the type of music changes what you write if you’re playing something in the background? I have.
JACK: Sure, of course. Of course.
VERA: I like to listen to a lot of Maroon 5 and hip-hop stuff when I’m writing romance because, I don’t know, they’re explaining a lot of feelings and then I feel it too. I don’t know, something weird happens and I’m kind of all over the place. I’ll listen to like classical so I have that violin background, but I also like to listen to rap too.
JACK: And . . .? [pointing over Vera’s shoulder at an old photograph on her wall]
VERA: Yeah, that’s the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, so I like jazz and I’m just all over all over the place. So it definitely depends on my mood and what I’m writing, and maybe what my focus is that day. You know, that plays with you.
PS: Yeah, I’ve been drumming since I was eight years old and was raised on jazz, big band especially.
JACK: You say you try to write every morning, right?
PS: I do. I’ve always been an early riser, and I’m one of those annoying people who’s instantly alert and awake when I wake up. My wife hates it. She needs her half-hour of coffee to chill. I want to have a conversation, and she’s just like, “Dude, you’ve got to back off. This is too intense.” So I channel that intensity into my morning writing. That way my writing doesn’t interfere with my primary job—right?
JACK: And you’ve just started a new a new job, right?
PS: Yeah, I have. Thanks. I’m really excited about it, vice president of sales for a medical software company. I’ve been in sales forever. This is just another extension of me. I’ve been in healthcare forever, too. So it should be fun.
VERA: I wonder if you ever get sneaky. That’s when you’re supposed to be working, but you type (a poem in) an e-mail and send it to yourself. Sneaky, right? I did it with a lot of poetry early earlier on, but I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like you have that kind of time, PS.
PS: Right. I’m not gonna lie. I’ve definitely done that.You know how it is. I mean, you guys, right? So you know when your muse hits you on the head. It’s the right moment, and you have to write. I have to get it out of my head. It can’t wait.
VERA: And there’s just nothing more inspiring than feeling like you’re sticking it to the man by getting a couple of lines of poetry out when you’re supposed to be toeing the line, right? It’s the poet part of you saying, “Yes!”
PS: I think at heart I really am a nihilist. I don’t really believe in a lot of things, but I have feelings about a lot of things, and this is just one of those. Right.
VERA: Yeah, yeah, one of the simple things I guess.
PS: Simple pleasures, right?
VERA: I don’t think anyone would care. You get breaks. But for me, it just feels so dangerous. I like it.
JACK: Do you do a lot of revising?
PS: This is something I talk about with a lot of my writer friends. I don’t. I like the organic process of clearing out my closet, you know, kind of keeping it in metaphor. When a poem comes out, sometimes I won’t like a certain word. Or a certain couple words or a phrase. And that’s where I spend my time, you know, tweaking a little bit, but embarrassingly, I probably spend more time looking for matching imagery than I do on revision.
VERA: But poetry is a little tricky, don’t you think, PS? Because sometimes it could reshape everything you know.
PS: Yep. And it’s not like writing, you know, a book? I’ve tried that process before, and how it all ties together is so important, but poetry is so loose comparatively. It’s funny, we had this evaluation for my last job. One of the criteria was following rules on a zero to 100 scale and I scored a one. That’s my personality. That’s why I love poetry. There are no rules, right?
JACK: You’re Irish, a land of famed writers of both poetry and prose. Have you been?
PS: Yeah, I think last year was our sixth or seventh trip over. Our first trip was for my wife’s and my honeymoon. When I think of Ireland I get choked up a little bit. Its people are playful, they love to bust chops, they love to tease.
VERA: I’d get along great there.
JACK: Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
VERA: Do you feel that playfulness comes into your poetry?
PS: In some of my more lyrical pieces. Yeah, I think I have an Irish muse. I don’t know what her name is. I call her Maeve for now. But like, she’s in there somewhere and when she comes, it’s a very distinctive energy when I write. I don’t want to sound weird or too metaphysical about it, but it just is. It’s an energy. It’s like, you know, donning your poet hat and then donning your characters’. You have these personalities because you hear these voices.
VERA: My favorite corporate jargon is continuous growth, but it’s so true for an artist. Though I think that’s such a wonderful thing that, like, you’re never done, you’re always going to be growing and changing and evolving. And I think that really, for an artist, continuous growth is the best gift.
PS: Yeah, yeah. People who like to travel are the people who have the most to share in their writing because they’re looking at other people. They’re looking at circumstances and situations and they’re coming to different conclusions about things. Everybody’s got a story. Everybody. If we close ourselves off to those kinds of relationships where we can’t learn and grow from other people, then there’s nothing to write about.
JACK: Who are the four or five poets whom you most admire, living or dead?
PS: Keats, Yeats, Poe, T.S. Eliot. I could give you quite a list. Recently I’ve gotten exposed to Sara Teasdale, who is not a really well-known poet. I absolutely love her work. She breaks my heart every time I read her poetry. And, you know, she ended her life by suicide. There’s a sadness there that I find—I don’t know. You hate to say that darkness and sadness are appealing, but there is something, I don’t know, profound about her writing to me.
And I think I lean towards certain poetry movements, you know, as a student of poetry. New Formalism is something interesting to me because I don’t try and challenge myself to write in iambic pentameter. I like to write the sonnet. I like to write kind of traditional poetry with a modern spin to it. And I like Marilyn Hacker or Molly Peacock. I mean, some of these New Formalist poets are brilliant in that capability. They feel modern, but there’s a touch. There’s almost like, an homage to history. The way they write, I am very drawn to their writing.
JACK: Where do you think your poetry career is heading?
PS: I’m very accomplishment-focused. So when I do things, there’s an element, there’s a competitive element to me that says I need to achieve something by doing this. With poetry, for me, I would love to stay regularly published. I’ve got my first book, Echoes Lost in Stars, coming out with my publisher Literary Revelations Publishing House—we’re shooting for a Saint Patrick’s Day release right now. Continuing to publish, continuing to remain relevant, continue growing and watching, see what I can do as my nascent skills continue to expand. That’s the challenge piece of it for me. And if I could end up someday with something published in the New Yorker or one of the big brands, I mean that would be really cool but won’t happen until, you know, I’ve written enough. When I’ve got enough legacy in writing and people know who I am . . . maybe a hundred years from now?
JACK: Nice. What would you like to achieve personally and for Fictional Café as our Poetry Writer in Residence?
PS: I would love to draw more talent to the site first. I’ve got a good network of artists I know and work with, and I think in time they’ll be pretty easily convinced to publish their work with us. It could be art and or poetry. But probably a little bit of both.
VERA: Yeah, I’d agree.
PS: It’s hard to show your work to the world. You’re so vulnerable. My publisher wants me to do public readings of my poems. I can speak in front of a group of a thousand businesspeople and give a presentation. I have absolutely no problem with that. But it’s different because of the intimacy of poetry. It is so personal. I’ve gotta keep working on that.
VERA: Ohh yeah, that’s a weird experience. I mean it’s weird to read and hear your own voice. It feels a little pretentious, at least for me. But it’s good, though, and it’s a natural thing for a poet. Poetry was always spoken. It’s just a weird thing to do in this day and age for some reason. I don’t know. But you should do it, a hundred percent.
JACK: What’s the favorite poem you’ve written?
PS: That is a difficult question. It’s almost like picking your favorite kid, right?
VERA: But remember, unlike your children, your other poems won’t know you have a favorite.
JACK: I love that, Vera. All right, guys. This was a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much, and Vera, please pass the Fictional Café crown and sword to PS.
VERA: All right, bye.
PS: Take care, guys. Talk soon.