Every Moment a Monument:
An Interview with Ephraim Scott Sommers
A singer-songwriter, poet, and essayist, Ephraim Scott Sommers is the author of Someone You Love Is Still Alive (2019), winner of the 2019 Jacar Press Full-Length Book Award, and The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (2017), winner of the 2016 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. Ephraim is an Assistant Professor of English at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina where he lives with his partner, Ann Reilly-Sommers.
LH: Can you tell us about your history with music and performance?
ESS: With Music:
My father has been a musician (singer, guitarist, songwriter, and drummer) for my entire life. He and his mechanic buddies built a jam room in the basement beneath my bedroom when I was about ten, so I received a master class in exploring feelings through what sounded to me like long and patient meanderings of sound, of figuring it all out by twisting and bending your instrument, feeling your way through it.
I didn’t understand this lesson then, but my father was showing me that you had to make time and space for art in your life. You had to cultivate and dedicate yourself to it. When he was gigging regularly in Black River or Stray Bullets, they practiced three nights a week. When he wasn’t in a band, he and a crew of about seven regulars still jammed every Friday night, religiously, and they still do, even though he’s in his late sixties. Another valuable lesson they taught me: find yourself a community of artists and make it thrive. They’d have barbecues and theme parties and never-ending jams and fishing trips and camping trips and backyard festivals. My mom was there, too, dancing in front of the band or frying up ham and grilled cheese sandwiches to sober them up at the end of the night. I grew up around a tribe of musicians, so it was only obvious that I’d eventually become a musician myself.
The musicians on stage are watching you just as much as you are watching them. We want to have a moment with you. The relationship between the people making the music in the front of the room and the people in the audience dancing to it is a symbiotic relationship, both groups feeding off of each other, seeing how far into the leaning fences of a song they can go together, each group of people wanting to be less themselves and more of someone or something else. It is for this reason that I believe the act of performing can be unlike any other act I’ve ever been a part of. I have never felt more holy and together and alive in a moment than when I have been making music for and with a group of strangers. I only ever want to do two things with a performance, and they are the same two things I’d ask of any performer I go to watch: play well and show the audience a good time.
LH: I’m curious, too, about the ways in which your approach to writing songs might be similar to/ different from writing poems in terms of style, inspiration, and storytelling.
ESS: Songwriting, like poetry writing or storytelling, is a craft that develops over time, and you’ll only get better if you’re willing to sacrifice something for it. You have to study the greats. You have to pull open the songs and look at their bones and their muscle tissue and figure out how they’re all coming together to form the song’s body. You have to take lessons from people who are better than you. You have to learn to listen, really listen, to a live band. You have to humble yourself. You have to find a way to learn from every single song you’ll ever hear, even if it’s a song you don’t like. You have to realize it’s not about liking or disliking anything anymore; it’s about asking, “What is there here for me to learn?” You also have to realize that the true artist is not in competition with other artists. You are in community with them. The true artist is only ever in competition with themselves.
If you can put in enough hours into any artistic medium, sooner or later, you’ll start bumping up against the limitations of that medium. Poetry and music feed into one another, but they are very different things. Both are very difficult to write well, and you still need to have a pretty high-level understanding of narrative structures (of fiction). The good news is that when I start running into the constrictions of songwriting, then I can pick up a poem and take off running with great momentum in a different direction. That’s the best thing about working in two mediums: you can race off in songwriting until you hit a wall, and then you can race off into poetry, BUT you get to bring what you learned in the other medium with you. I don’t have to stand idle when either songwriting or poetry writing has beaten me. I can still work. Each time I go back to songwriting, my study of poetry has changed me in some way and has allowed me to get a little further towards the song I want to write. The same can be said for moving back toward poetry and away from song.
LH: One of the central tensions in Someone You Love is Still Alive seems to be a kind of survivor’s guilt. Can you talk about how losing so many friends and loved ones influenced this collection? Has writing about the dead and naming them had an impact on your relationships with the living?
ESS: At eighteen years old, I lost a friend named Andy to a car accident, maybe a couple months after graduation. It shook me awake. It reverberated bone-deep. It was at that moment at that very difficult funeral in my small hometown that I realized that all of this existence is finite. I hadn’t yet thought about the ending to a life and what that truly meant until that moment, sitting in that church with Andy’s picture in a golden frame on stage.
If our living is brief, then my purpose in writing poems became this: I want to make every single moment I have been alive into a monument. I wanted to “stop time” as Charles Simic once said. I wanted to use the poem to relive each moment.
I wrote a lot about the loss of friends and loved ones in my first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, and in a lot of ways, this second book is an answer to the central question that the first book poses, which is, “If you don’t believe in heaven / what then is holy?” The answer, in this new book to the first book’s question is, of course, the deep, profound, and singular love of another human being, my wife, Ann. The answer to that question is this mantra and my daily reminder whenever I feel that large darkness creeping in: Someone You Love Is Still Alive. I try to repeat it.
LH: You don’t shy away from writing about your darker personal history. At what point in your development as a writer did you give yourself permission to be unflinchingly honest about yourself?
ESS: I saw Philip Levine read in Kalamazoo about a year before he died, and I’d never seen a poet lean across the lectern and speak to me in that same direct and blue-collar way that my mechanic father had spoken to me growing up. I read Levine’s poems religiously after that. His was a poetry of bluntness. He wasn’t trying to outsmart you or make you solve some kind of word-play puzzle. He just wanted to tell the truth. His work was honest, gritty, dark, and in many of the poems, too, he was often complicit in the evil he’d write about. Levine gave me permission to write the poems I needed to. Another writer I return to often with that kind of straight-talking style is Kim Addonizio.
LH: Why, if you had to guess, do many writers hold back when it comes to revealing unflattering personal history?
ESS: If I had to guess, I’d say there used to be a commonly held myth (among the poets themselves) that they (poets) were some kind of savior of society, that they were the perfect humans, a voice for the downtrodden, the great educators of how to be kind and spiritual and deep, the prophets who would save the soul of America (or whatever country). Most of the poets I read now, though, and I think most readers in America as well, know that that’s just bullshit. I don’t want to read poems about perfect people with rich parents winning at everything. I want to read poems about people fucking up again and again and then trying to get it right. Doesn’t the second one sound more like what it means to be human?
LH: How do you approach fearless confessions with your students when it comes to their writing?
ESS: I believe the age of change can only occur after the age of recognition. We are (I am) currently in an age of recognition. America is and has been in one for some time too. This means we (and when I say “we,” I mean “I”) must admit how we (“I”) got it wrong.
But change IS possible. What kind, you ask? I tell my students that it’s the poet’s job, in my opinion, to show you one experience, the experience of what it has been like to have been a person in the world making mistakes and trying to figure this shit out. We can, I believe, be different than we have been, if we are willing to admit who we have been, each of us, when we were/are at our worst. Love is possible after great suffering. So is joy. So is a good poem. None of those come easy.
Do the poems we write change us? Yes. I don’t know now if I gave the poems permission or if the poems just decided to start confessing for me. In my experience, it’s best if we let the poems do what they want, and hope that we come out changed on the other side. And that’s the advice I try to give my students because each life, itself, is a great poem, and people matter more than poems do. Being a better human who is capable of change is intricately wrapped up with being a better poet.
I also suggest this advice when it comes to honesty in our own work, and it’s from Levine: “Don’t play fast and loose with the facts of this world.”
LH: A follow up to the above: During a time when many writers are concerned with purity, you write poetry that isn’t afraid to push the envelope, curse, praise a certain level of debauchery. Do you see yourself as a poet who brings out the sacred in the profane?
ESS: If you believe that every moment we are alive is sacred, then it follows that you’ll believe there is holiness everywhere. It just might take some digging around to find it. A different reader might look at two men sitting on a barstool getting drunk as a cliché, whereas I might see a man having a final beer with his brother before flying off to the war in Iraq. What is more tender than the way two hardened blue-collar men must get a little buzzed before they can really tell each other how they feel, before they can each admit their deepest fears to each other, before one man can put his hand on the other’s shoulder?
A different reader might see a man and woman screaming at each other in a strip club as stupid, whereas I might see two people who are deeply in love trying to make an open relationship work. What is more human than this man who is so worried it will ruin their relationship, but he’s willing to try it because he wants to make his wife happy? If you really believe in the humanity of everyone, then you’ll see there is a monumental capacity for love everywhere. I write about these kinds of people because these kinds of people are my friends, and these are the kinds of stories I see every day. Remember, I’m a working musician. That means my church service on the weekends is usually making music on stage at a bar or a brewery. Each of us must make holy the life we have been given, the life we have earned.
JM: Much of your work manages to navigate complex and controversial issues, such as addiction, violence, sexuality, and mass shootings, without sacrificing art for advocacy. In other words, the poems retain their power and beauty instead of succumbing to diatribe. Can you talk about the process of writing poems that manage to engage with political issues without being defined or circumscribed by them? How might students grow in their writing of such work?
ESS: A literature teacher at San Diego State University named Dr. Lynda Koolish told me once that a poem will never be strong enough to hold up the weight of an entire political movement. She said a poem will always crumble under that weight. I believe a poem’s job is to remind us of the individual experience of being human. It’s the duty of the politician (good or bad) and the social activist (good or bad) to take a bunch of similar individual experiences and group them together as evidence they’ll use to make a larger argument about whatever it is they want to prove. I don’t say this to denigrate politicians or social activists, just to point out what I see as the major difference between those two identities and the identity/duty of the poet. That’s not to say that people can’t be politicians and poets. Perhaps we need more of them! I’d sure as hell back having Martín Espada as our next president!
We know, too, that anytime an oppressor seeks to oppress, they will try to group together minorities, strip them of their individuality, and seek to dehumanize them as a group. If you can strip an entire identity of its humanity and individual personhood, then it becomes much easier to get other people to oppress and hate said minority. Here’s why poetry can be a rejection of such evil: because it makes a reader focus on the singular and individual experience of one human being in the world. We call poetry a “humanity” because it is always reminding us of our humanness. We need poetry to do this. Poetry is a weapon against oppression.
But every artist has to decide for themselves what they want to write about. I tell students all of the time that you can write a poem or a story or an essay about how terrible war is or about how awful racism is, but if you preach the whole time about how terrible both of these things are in the general sense, you’re not a writer, you’re a politician. With every poem I write, I try to find an individual way in. I urge students to do the same. The self must be the lens through which to interrogate larger and more complex ideas because we have to remind the world as poets that there is a human cost to these ideas. You have to write about the individual experience when it comes to political and social issues because that’s where the nuance is, that’s where the world becomes full of mystery and messiness again, that’s where all of those neat little general borders we’d been taught to believe in begin to break down. You have to remember, too, that if we set out to write a poem “about” a certain subject, we become a slave to our intent, and the poem may fail. The poet, Sandra Alcosser, always used to tell me, “Subvert your intent, Ephraim.” I think that’s as good advice as any on how to write a poem “about” anything at all.
JM: You’re really good at making a poem feel sexy, which is no easy task. Given that many Americans are polarized on issues of sexuality and gender, writing about sex is inherently drought with peril, especially for those of us employed at institutions of higher education. Can you talk about the process of writing about sex specifically? How is it done well? What’s at stake?
ESS: Thank you so much for this complement. I was leery of writing about sex at first, but it’s a part of our human experience, so it goes that it should find its way into our poems. I think the question of whether or not to include sex in my own poems has to do with intent. Am I writing about sex to show off? Am I simply trying to be gratuitous? Am I just trying to make some imagined audience uncomfortable? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then I won’t write the poem at all. If I’m using a certain experience that might have to do with sex as a way to more deeply understand a moment somehow, then that seems like a much better place to start. Write to understand: I try to let that be my ultimate jumping off point. Also, it’s important to tell you that I do not think about institutions of higher education when I’m writing poems because I know they don’t think about me.
When I was putting together poems for the book, I stumbled upon this realization: I found that writing about sex, for me, is much more interesting when I’m using a more playful tone. Let’s be honest: sex is funny. Nakedness is funny. Sometimes, sex is awkward. Our desires contain multitudes. If we laugh at ourselves a bit more, then I find that it removes some of the objections people might have when reading a poem which might contain certain sexual experiences. Not all poetry must be serious. As Sophocles taught us, we have to temper the tragedy with comedy.
JM: Can you talk about what it’s like to write deeply personal experiences that you and your wife have shared? Has this kind of shared vulnerability impacted your marriage in meaningful ways?
ESS: You know, I consider myself to be a damn lucky S.O.B. Ann is a person who has allowed me to be exactly who I am and to write about whatever I want without fear. If I’ve written something about the two of us that I think might be a little too personal, she and I always talk about it. I let her read the poem, and to be honest, I have found that it has allowed us to have a deeper communication with each other about all sorts of things in our relationship and in our ideas about the world. It’s definitely drawn us closer together. She is an empath. She is a special education teacher. She is the best human being I know. She has a way of challenging me to be a better human being, and I am deeply grateful that she is my partner.
All of the things I’ve mentioned above about reading and writing and music have taken so much TIME for me to learn, and it is all of that TIME and SPACE that Ann has given me to create that is, perhaps, the most valuable gift of all. A brutal truth of being an artist is this: someone we love will always be standing in the way of us making our art. It is for these reasons that I wrote a book about Ann. I wanted to make a monument of our love because I’m aware every day of the sacrifices she makes to be with an obsessive artist like me. I try to praise her every day for that.
LH: What projects are you working on now?
ESS: I just finished a memoir called We Kneel at the Church of Each Other, and I’m submitting that to presses right now. The memoir's speaker (me) has an obsessive-compulsive personality, and as a child, he witnesses a plane crash. This leads him to become, in the book's first chapter, suspicious of his family's traditionally Christian form of faith. As the book continues, however, the speaker's scope widens to interrogate with nuance many of America's most deeply held systems of belief: in family, in country, in science, in sexuality, in alcohol, in economic class, in gambling, in beauty, in violence, and in love. Ultimately, this speaker searches for (and in some ways finds) a very non-traditional and unexpected form of faith, but he does so while acknowledging this paradox: any belief can be deconstructed, AND still, despite this, we must believe because to do so is, in many ways, our greatest unifier.
Are you able to write and/ or create music while promoting your current title?
ESS: I play about 72 music shows a year, so I’m always writing songs and wood-shedding them in a live format. Writing-wise, I find that I work best when I get momentum over the summer. Right now, I’m trying to recharge the tanks with my reading and music listening in preparation for my next project which could be a new album or a new book of poems. I’m not sure which just quite yet. I’ll probably end up working on both at the same time.
LH: Do you have plans for travel, shows, or other adventures in 2020? Will you ever come back to Joshua Tree to give a reading or perform music? Please?
ESS: I’ll be playing shows all over the Carolinas in 2020 and perhaps a few in California over the summer, but I don’t have many readings on the books quite yet. My press is working on one in Pittsburgh in the Spring. I’ll be booking more readings this month for the coming year. If you’re reading this (shameless plug), have me out for a reading!!
I’m not sure I’ll be down in the desert (Joshua Tree) in 2020, but perhaps we can make something happen if the timing is right!
I just wanted to tell you again, Lauren and Jonathan, thank you so much for the opportunity, the time, and the space to discuss my new book, Someone You Love Is Still Alive. Y’all have been so good to me, and I am forever grateful!