Fred Whitehead - I've got so much I'd like to ask you, it's hard to find a place to start. So, I guess we can begin with a little about yourself. Where are you located?
Michael Czarnecki - Since 1984 we have lived on Wheeler Hill, in the town of Wheeler, Steuben County, NY. Our house was built by our Amish neighbors in 2012, after our first house (also built by them) burned to the ground. We live off-grid on 50 acres, which consists of a 25-acre organic hayfield, 10 acres of mixed hardwoods, two five-acre fields we’re letting grow back to woods and a beautiful pond which I swim in as much as I can.
F.W. – I know you are originally from Buffalo. What prompted a city boy to move to a place like Wheeler Hill?
M.C. - It was the experiences I had during those thirty-thousand miles over three years of off-and-on hitchhiking. Prior to that, I always enjoyed getting outdoors, out of Buffalo, into the hills to fish or hunt or hike. But the experiences I had on the road, staying with people who lived simply in the country, people who had gardens and animals, heated with wood, etc., had a major effect on me. I realized that maybe I didn’t need to stay in the city. Maybe I could live in the country, have a garden, heat with wood. So, when the hitchhiking period was over, that’s what I did, moved to the country in late 1974. I’ve been a country person ever since.
F.W. - Nature and living in the country play a big part in your poetry?
M.C. - Yes they do, because they play a big part in my life. I try to make my poetry and my life all of one piece. There is no separation. Most of my poetry comes from my life experience.
F.W. - What got you interested in writing in general and poetry in particular?
M.C. - The first poem I ever wrote was in English class, my junior year of high school at Hutch Tech. Mr. Kerr, my English teacher, after going over song lyrics as poetry for two days, gave us an in-class assignment to write a poem. I didn’t know what to write but then came up with an idea and when I finished the poem I remember saying quietly to myself, “Wow, I wrote a poem!” I haven’t stopped since. Mr. Kerr saw my excitement and encouraged me to keep writing.
F.W. – Did you continue your education after high school?
M.C. - After Hutch Tech I attended UB for a little over two and a half years.
F.W. - Did you major in writing while at UB?
M.C. - I didn’t major in English, but was pursuing Philosophy, History, Political Science. I quit the second semester of my junior year because I still didn’t know why I was going to school. But I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to buy a backpack, tent and sleeping bag and go on the road with my thumb. So, that’s what I did.
F.W. – Yes, you've mentioned your "hitchhiking days". How did that factor into your writing?
M.C. - The hitchhiking days didn’t directly factor into my writing. But, those 30,000 miles, off and on over three years, had a major influence on me, on who I became. So, in that way, it did affect my writing. I always went east because everyone else then (1971) was heading west – to the Rockies, to California. I backpacked in the mountains, arrived at Acadia National Park for the first time, stayed in peoples’ houses a third of the time without ever asking. And, some of those houses were in the country, which was a new experience for this east side Buffalo boy. After the hitchhiking was over I left the city for country living and have never looked back.
F.W. - You still log a lot of miles doing poetry tours. You are one of the few touring poets I have met. How do you go about setting up tours and are there any 2017 tour plans?
M.C. - It’s been almost 23 years since I stopped doing other work and devoted my life to poetry. There’s been a lot of trial and error along the way. It’s been quite a learning process.
I’m presently working on booking a tour for next spring and then will be working on another for autumn. Having been doing this for so long, I’ve built up a nice following across the country. A friend asked me recently how many of my venues are repeats. I wasn’t sure so checked back on the last 60 venues – 40 of them were places I had previously been to!
So, like the spring tour I’m booking now, I often start out with booking some venues that I’ve already been at. Then I work on contacting places that are new to me. Also, because this is what I do for a living, 90% of the readings I give and workshops I facilitate, I receive an honorarium for. Public libraries are my main venue. Almost all of them have some kind of programming budget.
I’ll be doing two month or so long tours this year, one in spring, the other fall. Both of these will take me out west to California and Oregon, with readings along the way. In spring I start out in Coldwater, Michigan and will end up in Pasadena before heading to Northern California and Southern Oregon. I’m still booking readings and workshops for that one. In fall, or maybe starting in late summer--possibly to see the full solar eclipse (August 21) in Eastern Oregon. I’ll book readings out west and then on the way back home. Those are yet to be set. In between I’ll do other closer to home mini-tours. A few days in the Adirondacks--I’ve been going to Indian Lake for 20 years now, facilitating an annual workshop and giving a reading. Tupper Lake nearly as long. Then maybe a short New England tour and possibly a couple of weeks in the Midwest. I enjoy touring and hope I can continue to do so for some time to come.
F.W. – My grandfather had a home on Tupper Lake for a while. Beautiful area. How do you go about booking new places?
M.C. - When I’m approaching a new venue, I always check the library’s website first. Find out who the director is, see what kind of programming they present. Then I make a phone call. If I can’t reach the person I need to talk to I almost never leave a voice mail. I’ll just try again until I get to talk to the person. I then let them know I’m booking a tour, and I’ll be in their area and wondered if they would be interested in hosting a literary program. Besides poetry readings, I also can do multi-media programs with words and my photos, oral memoir performances and also present a Palm of the Hand Memoir workshop, a method I developed over 13 years ago and which has been highly successful. Usually they are interested in considering booking but it very soon come round to what I charge. I have a standard response to that. “I usually get paid anywhere from $150 to $1,000.” Often there’s a little comment about how they can’t do $1,000, and I respond saying I wish that there could be more of those. But then I say that libraries are one of the wonderful institutions in America and whatever would work for you would work for me. More often that not lately, I book two programs – a Palm of the Hand Memoir workshop and a poetry reading.
F.W. - What goes into deciding where you might take your poetry when you hit the road?
M.C. - Various things. Where do I want to explore? Who do I want to see again? What venue do I want to return to? When I set up a tour, I keep three things in mind. I realized a few decades ago that I have a triangle foundation for my base. It’s a fluid triangle, where sides can change length. The three sides are creativity, nature and human relationships. Life-wise, I try to keep those as much in balance as possible. When booking a tour, I do the same. Obviously, it being a poetry tour, creativity is covered. As far as the other two sides of the triangle, in planning a tour I consider what places I want to get out and hike in, what new geographies I want to explore. Besides bartering books for someone’s couch or spare bedroom, I also do a bit of camping. In the last year I’ve incorporated tours with hiking/camping in places like the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Yellowstone National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Redwoods National Park, Northern California and Southern Oregon, pacific coast, etc. As I mentioned earlier, there is no separation between poetry and life for me. It’s all intertwined.
Also, having been doing this for so long, and returning to venues repeatedly, I have met a lot of people throughout the country and a number have become good friends. That plays a big part in deciding where I want to tour. I’ve realized in the last couple of years that the people side of my triangle is maybe the most important side. So, I try to make it back to places regularly where those friendships have developed, where those new friendships may emerge.
F.W. – As well as giving readings around the country you are also a publisher. Tell us about Foothills Publishing. When did you start Foothills?
M.C. - The first book released by FootHills was in 1986. Susquehannock: A Literary Anthology of the Upper Susquehanna Watershed, co-published with Walt Franklin’s Great Elm Press.
F.W. - What was it that got you interested in publishing?
M.C. - I was hearing good poets at Poets Theater, a monthly poetry series in Hornell, NY started by Bea O’Brien, who didn’t have books out. I felt that was something I could help out with, and meeting Walt there, who was already publishing poetry chapbooks, was a big influence.
F.W. - Do you take submissions or use other means to pick the poets you want to publish?
M.C. - FootHills has not been open for general submissions for a long time. When we have in the past, I would get overwhelmed and just couldn’t keep up. For years now, the new poets we publish are either poets I’ve met along the poetic road or poets who have been recommended to me by other FootHills poets. There has been no difficulty acquiring good manuscripts. Also, once you become a FootHills poet you have an open invite to submit again.
F.W. - I know that you do small runs, about how many books do you produce of a given volume?
M.C. - For chapbooks, we look at a 200 run. Spine books, 300. If we sell out of those we’ll do a second run and more if need be.
F.W. - All hand collated and stitched?
M.C. - Yes. Chapbooks since the mid-90s, spine books since 2000.
F.W. - How many people, if any, help you with the process?
M.C. - My wife, Carolyn is the production person. At times someone else will help out--our boys, my daughter, a friend.
F.W. - Do you find your process to be guided by a more personal connection with the poets that you are publishing?
M.C. - Yes. I feel we have a good relationship with our poets and have had many wonderful responses from poets we have published. I love when I go out on the poetic road and meet one of them for the first time. A number of the people we’ve published have become good friends over the years.
F.W. - You are involved with the Cloudburst Council. I had the opportunity to sit in on one of the meetings when the group was in Buffalo in November. Can you tell us what that is and give a brief history of the council?
M.C. - The Cloudburst Council is a gathering of poets initiated by Alan Casline and Jennifer Pearce. The first Council occurred in the spring of 2012 at the Gell Center, near Naples, NY. It’s a Friday through Sunday event with 30 or so poets. Readings, panel discussions, food, drink and camaraderie. Last May was the fifth annual gathering. We have also started having smaller seasonal gatherings in various locations. This summer we had one on Wheeler Hill, coinciding with our Wheeler Hill September reading. The November meeting in Buffalo at Dog Ears also included an open to all round robin reading.
Each spring Cloudbust Council Gathering is centered around a certain theme and partially directed by a reading from the I Ching. Two years ago the theme was the Beat Generation. What’s really important though, is the camaraderie afforded poets with these spring gatherings. They are serious, but playful. Scheduled, but loose. Intense, but light.
Cloudburst Council is also fluid, in the sense that this is what has gone on so far, but who knows what form the Council will take as we move forward. Bottom line though, is that it has been a wonderful exchange of life and energy of the poets who have attended.
F.W. - What kind of business were you in before or have you always been a working poet
M.C. - I’ve written poetry since 1967 but never thought you could “be” a poet for your life’s work. I never had a career. Mostly worked in various retail positions, including some management. The last “job” I had, before devoting my life to poetry, was selling wine for a local Finger Lakes winery. I quit that work in 1994 and have never looked back.
F.W. - Can you say a little about the Rt. 20 book and the possibility of a film about it?
M.C. - Yes, my “Twenty Days on Route 20” book, a haibun account of a journey I took along the longest US highway, from Boston to Newport, OR is being adapted into a movie script. Sandra Campbell, a screenwriter I met nearly two years ago at an AWP conference in Minneapolis, was fascinated with my life as a poet and then was completely taken by my book. She read it a few times, sent me a 14 page outline of the script and presently is finishing up the first draft. She’s very excited about the possibility of having a movie made from the experience. Once she’s finished the first draft, I’ll go over it, then she’ll revise and start getting it out there into the places you get movie scripts out to. Worst case is that we self-produce it. But that’s a last case scenario. She feels good about the possibility of finding someone who wants to take on the project. We’ll see what happens down the road, but it’s been a real honor for me to have her be so excited about my book that’s she’s put a good chunk of her life into getting this script done.
F.W. – I'm looking forward to seeing that happen. Thank you.
Follow the links below to learn more about tithe Cloudburst Council and Foothills Publishing.
Michael also posts a new spontaneous poem each day on his Facebook feed. Here are a few for you.
Daily Spontaneous Poem #687
in front of wood stove
I soak up fire’s warmth
gaze out through dark window
into an early autumn night
thoughts reach out to find you
somewhere beyond dark hills
though many miles distant
I hope they come right through
Daily Spontaneous Poem #711
somewhere further on
in time, in space
that moment longed for
will it actually occur
will it be passed by
a missed opportunity
what could have been
that one sweet moment
where life might change
forever, forever gone
Daily Spontaneous Poem #722
thousands of miles traveled
another twelve hundred to go
diverse landscapes experienced
so many people connected with
yet, night walking Pacific shore
camping in North Dakota Badlands
standing in motel parking lot
leaving friend’s house in pre-dawn dark
same stars shine in clear night sky
everywhere I happen to be
Daily Spontaneous Poem #749
“Woman in the Dunes”
memories of a month ago
hiking with friend
over dunes to ocean
two different times
once in end-of-day light
once as stars shone above
dunes, ocean, friend
now, all so far away
Daily Spontaneous Poem #763
thick fog settles in
over snow covered fields
I think of ocean shores
Acadia part of my life for decades
California only last few years
so many miles away, how many
more chances will I have
to scramble along rocky coastline
slowly amble over Pacific dunes
lose myself in thick seacoast fog
Daily Spontaneous Poem #767
this morning we tilted
as far away from sun
as we ever will
from here on out
slowly at first
a few seconds per day
in two weeks
a whole minute more each day
nearly three minutes a day
eventually light will overcome
Daily Spontaneous Poem #696
when will I see you again
time flows on so swiftly
there is so much else to do
you are only miles away
you are only time away
yet miles can be barriers
time can be prohibitive
our last time together
will there be another
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