As a writer, I cherish opportunities to nerd out with other writers. They are, to my frustration, few and far between due to the drone and demand of everyday life. Recently though, I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing the winning poet of the Open Community Poetry Contest, hosted by Hennen’s Observer and weeks later I’m still grinning over it.
In terms of writing alone, Neil Silberblatt has my respect. As an English major in college, you come across some terrible poets while you’re learning to pick out the good ones. Neil is a great poet and his winning entry, “Madison Avenue,” is a great poem. With terse language and a brisk, almost staccato rhythm reflective of the city itself, he paints a picture of New York that is by turns vivid and stark in its presentation of the wealth-and-poverty spectrum. I wondered a bit about the poem’s apparent emphasis on “real” and “fake” although Neil assured me he was offering no commentary on our society’s values. Maybe I read too much into it, but the beauty of poetry—good poetry, and great poetry—is that it’s meant to draw out responses from the reader, sometimes even where the poet didn’t intend it to happen. I’d say Neil Silberblatt has that gift, and that he’s mastered the language of the city that is his home and his muse.
“As one who was born, raised, and reared in New York City,” Neil said, “and who has lived and worked for much of my life in that borough, I carry it deep in my heart, lungs and intestines. I will forever bear its imprint.”
Not only is he a great poet, he’s a fascinating conversationalist with a witty sense of humor (and let me tell you, that combination is getting harder and harder to find in today’s writers). In an interview conducted over emails and Facebook chat, we discussed everything from shop talk to the proper pluralization for groups of animals--including writers--to the advantages and failures of technology. I was amused to learn that we are both old-fashioned enough to share a distrust of toaster ovens and a love of typewriters.
“The click of the keys is like a siren’s song—but I’m being poetic,” joked Neil.
Like any two like-minded literary souls, we ended up talking about our favorite great writers, and I found out that Neil’s high school Honors English teacher and writing mentor was renowned Irish-American author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank McCourt.
Reminiscing about the huge impact his mentor had on his writing career, Neil said, “I learned so much: the cadence of words; the flow (as important as the actual words); the discovery of your literary voice (he taught me that I had one) and using less, but saying more; not to throw words on paper any more than an artist throws paint on canvas; using humor to express tragedy and vice versa.”
Speaking of humor, Neil admitted that Mr. McCourt also had “a wicked sense of humor,” telling his students jokes and anecdotes that are still remembered to this day, at least by this grateful pupil.
“The greatest praise any writer can receive is for some future writer to say ‘I had this great teacher once, who really instilled the love of the written word,’” Neil said, speaking of his own desire to teach poetry. The sentiment so clearly mirrors his abiding respect for his former teacher that I have no doubt Neil will perpetuate the cycle and go on to inspire eager future generations of writers.