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SunLit

Poet Art Elser looked back at life-changing events to fill his collection “It Seemed Innocent Enough”

He finds inspiration all around him, and in life experiences like serving in Vietnam. But his poetic role model was a woman who never stopped writing -- and published a book of her verse at 100.

Art Elser’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. His books include a memoir, “What’s It All About, Alfie?” five poetry books, “We Leave the Safety of the Sea,” “A Death at Tollgate Creek,” “As The Crow Flies (Haiku), “ “To See a World in a Grain of Sand,” and “It Seemed Innocent Enough.” 

The following is an interview with Art Elser.

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Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been writing poetry for about 25 years and started sending poems out to journals and anthologies for probably half that time with a reasonable amount of success. But I could not seem to have a book of my poems accepted. Then my first book, “We Leave the Safety of the Sea,” was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press. And then nothing for years. So I decided to self-publish since I could say that more than three quarters of the poems in my next book had been published in journals and anthologies. 

I figured that gave the body of work in the book credibility. And then two books, “We Leave the Safety of the Sea” and “A Death at Tollgate Creek,” won the Colorado Authors League poetry book award and two more have been finalists. That seemed to me to provide plenty of credibility for the body of my work. I just didn’t want my self-published books to be considered vanity press books. 

I continued to send books out to journals and anthologies with some success, and I realized when I looked through my later poems, that in many I was looking back through my life to life-shaping events and wanted to pull those into a new book, and “It Seemed Innocent Enough” was born.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

I’ve included these seven poems because they represent the range of poems in the book, my starting point in poetry, the start of my current marriage of 39 years, the experiences and trauma of my combat tour in Vietnam, the place nature has played in my growth as a poet and human being, and finally the meditations on the eighth and ninth decades of my life.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew? 

I’m pretty meticulous about keeping track of my poems, listing each one as I  finish it on a spreadsheet, marking in a column on the sheet when one is published and where it was published, the year I finished it, stuff like that. So when I decide to pull some previously published and newer poems together, I use the filter function in Excel to list just the poems that have not appeared in my previous books to give me a list of poems I might choose from to form a book. 

I selected poems on their merit, going through all the poems on the list. I then printed those and read through them several times, coming up with categories they seemed to fall into. I sorted them into piles for each category, sorted each pile into how they flowed best together, and that then is how the book was created. I didn’t need to do research except that which I had already done while writing each of the poems over the years. 

In terms of influences, my main influences were the events of my life, my family, nature, Vietnam, the works of other poets, poetry groups I belong to, the pains and joys of aging, meditations on the short road left in an unknown future. The poets who have influenced me the most and from whose works I’ve learned the most, my go-to poets, are Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Barbara Crooker, Joyce Sutphen, Tom Hennen, and Connie Wanek. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

The technical details of shepherding the book through selecting the poems, formatting the book, and then getting it through the publication process at IngramSpark were relatively unchallenging, except to get all the pieces to flow together. I had done it enough before. The most challenging part is doing the marketing of my books. I’m a poet, not a marketer.

I spent 30 years as a tech writer and learned that the marketers down the hall were a whole different breed. While I was writing how to use a piece of hardware or software to do a task, they were promising it would do that task and also wake you to hot coffee, buttered blueberry muffins, and OJ. Marketing is foreign and uncomfortable. 

Ted Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, told us in a workshop years ago that no one gets rich writing poetry or publishing poetry books. We do it for the love of writing poetry, not the fame of being published or the money. It is nice, of course to have a book like “It Seemed Innocent Enough” selected as a finalist in the CAL awards by other writers, my peers. But that’s not the real goal. 

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

A poet friend in Montana challenged me one day to write and swap a haiku with her each morning. We’ve been doing that since 2011. That starts my writing day. I have family and volunteer obligations that dictate most days, so I’m not able to dedicate a specific time to write. I just make sure to carve out a few hours each day. If I have no immediate idea for a poem, I write my thoughts and feelings in my journal. I’ll get an inspiration from my reading of other’s poetry, some happening during the day, an idea that shows up in my journal, a prompt from my poetry group. 

I generally work in the quiet of my basement office or dining room table. We no longer have kids around the house, so it’s pretty quiet. My wife needlepoints, and except for the times she finds she’s messed something up, she’s pretty quiet, too. I discovered that I concentrate so hard sometimes when I’m listening to a CD as I write, it will have ended half an hour before I ever notice. So I really don’t listen to music or the radio as I write. 

What’s your next project?

I was fortunate, because of my previously published books to connect with a publisher at a writer’s conference in Wyoming two years ago and have a book being published by Winter Goose Publishing in New Hampshire. It was to be published this spring but has been delayed by COVID-19. 

I’ve pulled together a book of haiku for my next project. A niece, who is an artist, is finishing up a set of line drawings based on my haiku, and I’ll drop them into the text and work with my cover designer to come up with a cover we like. I hope to have that out in November or December the latest. 

And I’ll keep on writing and when I have enough written and the mood strikes, I’ll pull together another book. My first mentor, Lois Beebe Hayna, started writing poetry as I did at around 60 and she mentored me when she was in her 80s. On her 100th birthday, we had a big party for her at the Penrose Public Library in Colorado Springs. She handed out a new book of her poetry to each of us. At 100! She published two more books before she died at 104. She’s my role model. 

Buy “It Seemed Innocent Enough” through BookBar.
Read some poems from the book.

Rising Sun