What Does A Poet Do After Last Call?
Write poetry, of course! The poems in Randall McNair’s third volume of Bar Poems, Last Call, are sardonic, wry, heartfelt, and poignant. McNair captures the ineffable in his latest collection.
Sandy Bliss: Folks who have read all three of the books (so far) in the Bar Poem series have remarked that the poems in Last Call are from a moodier, or more somber or depressed frame of mind than the poems in your earlier volumes. That’s an intriguing observation. Do you agree? How would you characterize the poems in this volume?
Randy McNair: I suppose if my readers say Book 3 was darker than the others, then it must have been. Personally, I feel like Book Three is funnier than the first two. But if I were to look at it more closely, I suppose I would see their point. It certainly had more poems about my home life, which has been rocky for the entire twelve-year period after my ten-year bender there at the Swinging Door Saloon. That’s probably what my readers are feeling. Frankly, I’m just pleased that they are feeling anything at all. I do try to convey my emotions in my poetry—the good, the bad and the downright cringeworthy.
SB: I’m interested in a paradox you described as “walking through darkness at the same time as I’m walking through the light.” Are there particular experiences in which you do that? Particular moods, or times of life, or times of day? Particular kinds of writing? Is there a trick to it that you can let us in on?
RM: Great question! I’m not sure exactly how I’m able to see the light through all the darkness. I suppose it’s just a poet’s sensibility. We poets are always looking at the minutia in search of some truth. And the only truth I’ve been able to find is that this world is hard. Living is hard. Loving is hard. But for every difficulty I’ve faced in my life, I’ve always been rewarded—either during the trial or shortly thereafter—with something of value. When I was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer, that diagnosis finally got me out of the profession I had chosen out of college, one that was quite literally killing me. It also triggered my long-term disability policy, which continues to supplement my income to this day, allowing me the freedom to write.
So, is there a trick I can share? Not really. Just look for the gemstone beneath the steaming pile of shit, because it’s always been there for me. And I’m no different than the rest of you.
SB: I’m curious about the paradoxes of writing poetry. On the one hand, it strikes me (as a prose writer) that poetry taps into the right side of the brain, but the linguistic precision that (good) poetry requires is a pretty left-brain function. (It is for me, anyway.) Do you experience poetry-writing to be paradoxical in this way? Or in other ways?
RM: Poetry IS a paradox. It’s a delivery vehicle for emotion yet consists only of words. How do we do that? Make people laugh, cry or cringe? Simply by typing letters that form words that paint images in our readers minds which, if done effectively, then trigger emotions. All with simple scratch marks on paper. The whole process seems to me to be one giant paradox.
It’s true that we poets may lean more on our left brain than the average storyteller, especially since we must worry about rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, etc. in addition to punctuation (whether to use it or not). But we poets are also lovers of language and story. Of course, it could just be that we are failed storytellers, and all we know how to do is elicit emotion by painting images with our words.
I’m not sure. All this deep thinking hurts my head.
SB: You mentioned in that panel discussion that you’re not good at writing on a schedule, or applying discipline to your writing, instead that you “write when the muse starts whispering in my ear.” Yet I saw somewhere that you thanked the CWC-Berkeley Branch members for helping you have discipline and accountability to your writing. How do you now see the notions of discipline and accountability in writing, in contrast to waiting for the muse to hop on your shoulder and whisper in your ear?
RM: Well, I’m still a slacker if that’s what you’re getting at. I still wait for inspiration to write. But I now see the benefits of writing more regularly, especially since my marriage has gone tits up. The more I write, the more I have the urge to write. So, maybe having a regular writing schedule will pay dividends for me.
Also, having a support group to workshop my poetry with has proven important to the quality of my work, and I appreciate the friendly peer pressure to get published so much that I’m thinking of starting a CWC Berkeley poetry submissions group, wherein we will meet once a month to submit our new work to a handful of literary journals that have deadlines at the end of the month. I think this will benefit everybody, including the club. The more we can get our work out there into the hands of the reading public, the more exposure the CWC will get.
What do you think of this idea? Should I move forward or let it die on the vine?
[I’ll let the poets in the CWC-Berkeley answer that question. —SB]
SB: You’ve described your writing process as beginning when you see or read or hear something that sparks a question or thought, and then the poem comes through you, and you transcribe, rather than write it: “I write as truthfully as I hear the words in my head.” Then what? What is your editing process like? Are you trying to make the ideas clear to someone who doesn’t have access to the inside of your head, or are you trying to make sure you heard them accurately or…?
RB: Another great question. As a poet, I have the luxury of finding inspiration in the simplest, dullest, most mundane things, like a ball of dust wedged in the folds of a curtain in the corner of a room, or a pantry full of glowing thought jars, or a guy who’s suffering from whiskey dick and flies naked out his window to start a whole new religion. Each of these are absurdly simple images, but each can convey some emotion if painted properly. In the case of the dust bunny, I awoke from a dream with only two words in my head—Corporate Taco. I then took off on an absurd flight of fancy to determine what those two words together had to do with anything, going from it being another term for a CIA agent, only to determine that they probably just referred to a rubbery taco served in the cafeteria at some sterile office building.
But that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say that anything I see, hear, taste or feel is fair game for a poem.
As for the truth telling, I believe that for a poem to be effective it should be emotionally honest. People who fake emotion drive me crazy, and so do authors. I’ve taken some heat for my depiction of my drunken self interacting with my wife and others in my poetry. But it’s only because I tried to convey the emotion as truthfully as possible, without filtering out the pain, or laughter, or just plain debauchery. If we writers cannot be emotionally truthful, why should we expect anyone to give a damn what we have to say?
SB: You’ve self-published your three volumes of poetry, and many CWC-BB authors have also self-published. I think for many self-published authors, publicity is a tough nut to crack. What have you done to garner publicity for your books? How would you assess the success of your PR efforts? I noticed that you offered a drawing for a kindle Paperwhite. How did you set that up, and what worked? What would you do differently?
RM: PR is not my strong suit and I’ve failed miserably in that arena. I have, however, been somewhat effective in my marketing efforts. I was fortunate early on, before I published my first book, to have found Amy Collins, Keri-Rae Barnum, and their company New Shelves Books. They’ve been my go-to for all things marketing since 2020, helping me learn the ropes and get my books out there into the hands of readers. Any success I’ve had as an author is a direct result of something Keri or Amy has taught me.
And I have had some success. Books two and three were both Amazon #1 New Releases, and Book 3 actually reached #1 in each of its three categories, attaining a sub-100,000 sales rank among all Kindle books. I think the best thing a new author can do to get their books out there is to create a marketing plan BEFORE they publish. How are you going to get your books into bookstores, libraries and to the top of Amazon’s tens of millions of books without a plan?
Again, I highly recommend Keri and her team at New Shelves. They’ve been instrumental in my success.Finally, I think book contests are a great way to differentiate yourself as an author. To be able to call yourself an “Award-Winning Author!” will, if nothing else, give you confidence in selling your book to a book buyer at a local bookstore or to your local librarian.
You can find Last Call at Indiebooks: https://www.indiebound.org/search/book?keys=mcnair&page=2
and at our Bookshop page: https://bookshop.org/books/last-call-9781735108094/9781735108094
Originally from Philadelphia and now based in Berkeley, CA, I’m retired from a career in environmental education, community building, and nonprofit administration. I’m writing a memoir in which I view my life experiences through the lens of my relationship with my brother, who was living with my son and me when he died suddenly in 2007. Despite a standard-issue dysfunctional family of origin, my two brothers and I forged bonds that allowed us to build meaningful lives. That’s the story I want my memoir to tell.