POET INTERVIEW – WALTER WOJTANIK
December is apparently a special month for Poetic Bloomings interviews. Last year at this time, I scored an interview with Father Christmas himself. This year, it’s our very own Master Gardner and Poet Extraordinaire, THE Walter Wojtanik! Grab a nice glass of wine or cup of hot cocoa, put your feet up, and enjoy our visit!
MARIE ELENA: Howdy Partner! I must say, I’m wishing this was a real, live, sit-down interview.
WALT: So do I, actually. Two friends across a table pleasantly, a pot of coffee and a plate of those little Italian cookies, having a chat. Still, thanks for the opportunity to clear up some of the mysteries of the Mystic Walt, Marie!
MARIE ELENA: I’m looking forward to it. So let’s get rolling!
Let’s start with why you choose to write what you write. There are poets who intentionally write about life events they know nothing of. Then there are those whose writing is born of their own life experiences. You are mostly the latter. What do you get out of writing from your heart?
WALT: Robert Lee Brewer (a mentor and friend to most of us) wrote once of “confessional poetry.” It is surely the hardest poem to write. We can look at a beautiful flower and wax poetic and write the same beautiful flower. But that inward reflection requires a brutal honesty that many are reluctant to expose. So they go into areas that are “safe” or not well defined. And that’s great in most cases. Why would I write things of which I know nothing? There is no substance to it … no heart. That is what my poetry is about. I know the struggles I go through and the burdens it inflicts on me. And I will write that. I can complain and lament about how my health really sucks lately. But I’d rather write about how it feels to me, what it does to my writing and my relationships and my life. If it is ingrained in my heart, I will write it. Want a poem about the beauty of love? Let me tell you how it feels to me, maybe you feel the same way, maybe I’m full of crap. I lay it on the page and move on. It is cathartic, and I release it. And if it lingers, it will prompt other similar poems until IT releases ME. If there is sadness in my life, I express it, but with a hopeful eye. If there is joy, the rooftops are not high enough from which to shout. And if there is tenderness, my poems become passionate whispers. Experience flavors my poetry, and gives it a perspective that is vital to me and if someone else understands my heart, I’ve reached them; they are mine forever. I consider myself a hopeless romantic … no make that a hopeful romantic. There is a sense of good in everything we see. All we need do is open our eyes. Call me naïve. I’ve been labeled worse.
MARIE ELENA: “A hopeful romantic.” Yes, yes. I’m a believer.
Don’t let this go to your head Walt, but I don’t recall ever reading even a single stanza of yours that left me unimpressed. I’d like to ask something unusual of you — something I’ve never asked of any of our guests before. Please share two poems of yours: One you feel best represents you as a writer, and (and here is the kicker), one with which you were unsatisfied. And no fair intentionally writing a bad one. I want one previously written that you just plain don’t like much.
WALT: You’re asking me which of my “daughters” I love more. I have struggled with this question greatly. It’s the last one I answered. I have written poems that were bad in some way, yet still expressing something I needed to release. But OK, I’ll give this a shot.
One that represents me as a writer:
BETWEEN HERE AND NEVERLAND
Where have you gone young man?
Stuck in a place that binds you here?
Broader horizons beckon and sleep
does not appease your tired and weary soul.
You have no control over your destiny,
the best you can do is stay true and fly.
Release then from your earthly bonds. Fly
through the night to the second star on the right. You are the Pan!
Your heart is young though your weariness seems destined
to keep you sequestered. You feel pestered here,
perturbed by the restlessness of your captive soul.
Fly on, or settle into that eternal sleep.
For there is nothing to hold you to your sleep.
Your eyes move rapidly, and you try to fly
but fall, there is no soaring for your soul.
You are sedentary; a solitary man
who writes the words he wishes he could hear,
to offer support and the confidence to fulfill his destiny.
Solid ground has its advantage, and destiny
is only yours if you embrace it, but face it – your ambition sleeps,
keeping you from letting your fantastic mind escape here.
Stand tall and crow, let the people know your visions fly –
the eternal lost boy; Peter Pan in the trappings of a man.
It is that happy thought that releases your soul.
And nothing rests in the soul
for that which the heart has passion. They are paired, destined
to conjoin in the worlds you will have created. Fated as no mere man
before, for it is your voice that speaks. While their muse seeks sleep,
yours words are inspired, not tired. Arms spread, spirit light, you fly
taking that spirit many adventures away from here.
And so we pen, words and thoughts that are clear
when expressed “from the chest”. The best the soul
can offer, filling your coffers with a wealth of love safely
tucked away to shadow your days. But it is your destiny
all the same, straight on ‘til morning – no time to sleep,
Peter Pan lives within the very spirit of this man.
Man was placed here to give of his being,
freeing his sleeping and generous soul.
It is your destiny to fly, you know! And don’t forget to crow!
This best expresses my writing style. First, it is written in sestina form, a form I had embraced as my own a while back. They were a challenge that I wasn’t going to let defeat me. I notice I don’t write too many of them lately … I need to return to it. Along with Oz (go figure), it’s one of the subjects I like to delve into on occasion: Neverland – Pan and the lost boys. At times I’m Pan – the adventurer, the prankster, the punster – never sure what I want to be when I “grow up.” Other times, I am a lost boy, craving for acceptance and a place to belong. Plenty of abilities, but a waning confidence that keeps me running with the pack and never truly breaking free. More times than not, my poems are instructional, giving my view on things. They are full of life. And love. And humor. They break my heart open. They heal it shut. I believe words can hurt and heal. I like to let my words glue people together; make them feel less fractured. Making me feel less fractured by association.
A poem I’m not crazy about:
THE STICKY WICKET
Caught in the act,
hand in the cookie jar,
do you come clean
or stay as you are?
Stepping in quick sand,
mired in the muck,
will you own up
and come out unstuck?
It may be inadvertent,
or maybe subconscious,
but if premeditated,
it will play on your conscience.
Character is doing the right thing,
even when there’s no one in sight!
Rialto W. Jenktaw
On the surface, not a bad poem. What sticks this in my craw is the name at the end. I had gotten to a point where I questioned everything about my “ability” and my poems/writings. The lost confidence of the lost boy! Was my work really any good, or did my name draw people to read? Pompous and arrogant? Yeah, I reached those levels too. So deciding to write under a pseudonym like Rialto W. Jenktaw (An anagram of Walter J Wojtanik), or Castlebaum, or Vincent Van Wendt became a futile attempt at trying to hide behind my words. The style didn’t change, the sentiment or subject matter rarely varied. Just the name. And I had written some good pieces as “someone else.” So not being a bad poem didn’t matter much. Hiding my skills under a bushel basket mattered a great deal. Now I only write under my real name. No reason for those other slackers to get credit for my work.
MARIE ELENA: Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine someone with your talent (and recognition thereof) feeling the need to hide. Now tell me, what is the hardest thing about being Walt Wojtanik?
WALT: Maintaining the man I am and not trying to live up to some persona people believe to be me. I am not arrogant, and I am far from competitive. I live simply and love with all that’s in me. Cut me, I will bleed. Hurt me, and I will feel pain. I’m merely human and I happen to have a way with words. And it’s hard enough to be human. Being one of Walter and Irene’s baby boys isn’t that bad of a deal then. They made me to be the way I am. So I guess the hardest thing about being me is continuing to make them proud as they look down from their “lofty place.” I’m happy you honor me with this interview in December. Both of my parents passed at Christmas. Giving me a chance to look up to the heavens and tell them I love them and that I was finally accomplishing something for which I’ve worked extremely hard, is special. Thank you for that.
MARIE ELENA: You’re welcome. I know Christmas time is accompanied with a complex set of emotions for you. I can’t even imagine. You really have experienced some tough losses, along with your own challenging health issues. How do you deal with what life throws your way? What advice do you have for folks going through difficult times?
WALT: There is really no secret as to dealing with all life can throw at you. It’s called life. You live it. Otherwise it would be called death, and I’m fighting my posterior off to stave that one! I look at it this way. There is always someone out there worse off than I; sicker than I. You have children with cancer barely entering a life and dealing with “other” things. You have widows of war who have to “right their ship” and carry on for their families. You have elderly people looking for some dignity in their final years. I’ve dodged many “bullets,” and am grateful to Him who has spared me thus far. I honor and praise him daily. I surround myself with the love of family and friends near and far, some I’ve known a long time and best friends I’ve never met. You pegged me as “Mr. Romance,” and so I will give the right answer here. Love. Keep love close. Love in your heart for others, and the love people offer you to comfort and provide some peace. Love one another, and no time is truly difficult. Anyone reading this interview please know that even if it appears you are alone out there, you are not. Someone loves you and will be there for you even if only in spirit. I love you, and you’ll get through it!
MARIE ELENA: Beautiful, and full of hope. And yes, you are a master of romantic poetry. I’m sure you could teach a course in it. If you did (teach a course), what would Lesson #1 be?
Romantic Poetry 101
Open a vein and let your heart spill onto the page.
Think of the most beautiful Valentine card you’ve ever seen. Lovely loving words contained in a heart. Open your heart and let your words free. You can’t be afraid to express EXACTLY what your heart envisions. My poetry blog is called, “THROUGH THE EYES OF A POET’S HEART” and my tag line reads, “My heart envisions what my eyes refuse to see!” Without “heart” there are only rhyming words, and rhyming words alone do not a poem make. I don’t really care who knows how I feel and who I feel it for. One of my major “flaws” is my intensity. It has scared people away. Especially women. I AM NOT a lothario by any means. But I have had many relationships fail because of it, when my shyness finally allowed me to release it. So what did I do? I dialed it back and in the process lost a big part of me; I was not true to myself. Those who find my words comforting and comfortable, get it. I have always prescribed to the notion of love as NOT being a give and take. Love is a give and give. We all possess this desire to love and be loved. So romance is universal, and don’t let macho guys fool you ladies… they crave to love and be loved equally as much. I write the romantic poetry that I wouldn’t mind hearing written about me. It’s never too late to bring your heart out of hiding for some loving wordplay.
MARIE ELENA: Teach it, brother. 😉 And in addition to poetry, you write music and plays. I think it is obvious where your heart really is, but perhaps I’m wrong. If you had to choose one of the three, which would it be, and why?
WALT: Best case scenario: I use my poems as lyrics to songs I inject into my musicals. The surprise answer is music. Music is the reason my poems “sing.” It is the root of my poetry. I am a self-taught musician; and was somewhat of a prodigy (other people’s assessment, not mine). My first true poems were written as lyrics of a love song I had written at the age of 13. I was very shy with this expansive imagination and the “girl of my dreams” was still six years of hard sleep away. But the resulting words allowed me to embark on this delusion that I was a writer. So I guess the “wrong” answer would be “Music and Lyrics.”
That first song’s lyrics:
DAYS LONG GONE
Lyrics by Walter J. Wojtanik – © 1970
Long ago, I dreamed I’d see a face,
filling up my space with love and tenderness.
Gentle wind, blowing through my hair,
knowing you were there for me. Alone.
Seeing you, a vision for my eyes,
take me by surprise and never let me go.
Hearing you, and all the songs you sing,
the happiness you bring just being you.
In DAYS LONG GONE I held you.
Where did you go?
My arms are empty now, but my heart still knows.
The DAYS LONG GONE are fading deep in my mind.
I wish you well, but baby, I’ll wait to find another love (like yours).
Yesterday, there was magic in your eyes,
stars filled up the skies and you were by my side.
But, today the stars all disappear,
and I’m left standing here all alone.
In DAYS LONG GONE I held you
Where did you go?
My arms are empty now, but my heart still knows.
The DAYS LONG GONE are fading deep in my mind.
I wish you well, but baby, I’ll wait to find another love (like yours).
The “why” is simple. Static words on a page read nicely. Even spoken, they have a bit more gravitas in the tone and inflection of the reader. But sung, the melody can be haunting all on its own. Add the expression of the lyrical poem and it is a living breathing work of some import. So I will always think of music and words as joined at the hip. But that’s just me.
MARIE ELENA: Those lyrics are SO YOU. What an amazing write at the ripe old age of thirteen. Geez, Walt!
So what do you have in the works right now? Anything you can share?
WALT: The ever-elusive serious collection of my poems that I have envisioned as a trilogy of books (I write too many damn poems) is being assembled. The series entitled, “DEAD POET” covers the scope of life I have written in my poems. The first book “DEAD POET: Once Removed!” is in the final editing stage. Down the pike there will be, “DEAD POET: Not Quite Yet!” with the third being “DEAD POET: The Pre-Posthumous Poems.”
(We’ll talk about another “project” [labor of love] in a moment).
But the really big work I have going on right now? I was given the green light to write my screenplay. The powers that be (in the West Coast city that knows of such things), think my proposal is worth its weight – it was given a legitimacy, announcing that I have a good idea and story, and they think it will translate well onto the screen. My limited poem submissions of late are a direct result of this breakthrough. There are only so many hours in my day. But I still try to pen at least one poem a day to stay true to my roots. I have gotten tremendous support and encouragement for this project from pretty much everyone that knows my work, or that I tell “my secret” to. Unfortunately, not all approve of my writing. I had read a quote written about Rembrandt that stated his greatest works were done in the throes of great turmoil in his life; the loss of his wife and three of his four sons. Now, I’m not making myself out to be Rembrandt, but I can understand how such angst can be translated into something almost beautiful in nature. The “heart” in my poetry languishes in this stew. And the confessional reaches beyond poetry.
MARIE ELENA: Do you know how proud I am of you? Please do keep us posted as much as you are able. We’ll all be watching with great interest!
Confession: I’m feeling quite full of myself, keeping such extraordinary company! As I mentioned earlier, Santa himself made it over here for an interview last Christmas season. I hear he has a book coming out, and I understand you have an insider’s view. When can we expect that to happen? Anytime soon? Can you share a poem from the book? Perhaps an illustration?
WALT: And here is the OTHER project in the works. It started as a simple poem for a Poetic Asides prompt. The idea of that piece was of “every man, world citizen, as Santa who at the end of his hard journey returns home with the last gift in his bag, a “frozen wisp of a sigh”; a kiss for his true love. It ended with the tagline, “I Am Santa Claus.” I’ve always garnered the feeling that we are ALL Santa Claus. And with the wide acceptance of that first poem, many subsequent “I Am Santa Claus” poems sprung forth, enough for its own blogsite and book. People now refer to me in the guise of the Jolly Big Guy, and I accept that mantle with pride. A universal symbol, purveyor of joy and love? You can’t buy that kind of publicity! 😉
The book “I Am Santa Claus” was envisioned as a chapbook initially. All the poems were of Santa Claus and Christmas. The majority of the poems end with the “I Am Santa Claus” line. A former classmate, Cathy Milosevich – who is a talented graphic designer and artist – had read some of the pieces, and offered to illustrate the book. Unfortunately, Cathy could not continue due to health issues and her caring for her brother Donnie (who sadly passed a few weeks ago). My daughter Andrea had suggested I look at some sketches made by her friend Brian Winkler, whom I have found to be very talented in his own right! Brian has agreed to add his illustrations to the “I Am Santa Claus” project.
Sketches by Brian Winkler
But, I Am Santa Claus was missing a certain element. Truly, the legend of Santa Claus as the good and benevolent elf was incomplete. And in keeping with the saying, “Behind every successful man is a good and caring woman” I felt “I Am Santa Claus” needed the grounding influence of his “Mrs. C” to balance the verse. It was my good fortune that at this point in time I received an encouraging e-mail for the book that contained a brief poem written from the point of view of Santa’s “better half.”
The note came from an unexpected source, my (and many of your) very talented poetic friend, Paula Wanken. With that, Paula has come on board to provide the voice of Mrs. Claus. In our collaborations for the PA Somonka Form Challenge, Paula and I found that our voices blended well and she would be the perfect compliment for the “I Am Santa Claus” endeavor. The fact that one of our Somonka was a Santa/Mrs. C poem didn’t hurt matters either.
The book is targeted for April-May (a strange bit of timing, but not totally so I am told, for a holiday release).
Brian, Paula and I are very excited for this opportunity. I love it when a plan comes together!
MARIE ELENA: Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I can’t even BELIEVE you and Paula kept that secret from me!
Just kidding … sort of … but seriously ecstatic for you! What a perfect combo!
Okay, so on with the poem:
Three-hundred and sixty-five,
if I add one, it’s a leap but
I let the spirit take me, it makes me
keep Christmas alive. I have survived
in an immortal mantle to handle
the cheer all through the year.
Why me? I am just a spritely old elf,
I pride myself with being the key
to unlock the mystery. I am Father Christmas.
I don’t miss much when it comes to celebrating,
for as much as you are anticipating that morn,
I was born to keep the torch of Christmas
aglow. I know all things good and bad,
and it’s sad that the bad can outweigh
a sleigh full of joy. Every toy and gift
will uplift the spirit (as I hear it),
but the fire fades by New Year’s Day.
So let it be known throughout the land.
I take a stand for the season of Love.
Mrs. C and I pray to the Heavens above –
(We know which side our Kringle is buttered on).
And I have come to this revelation.
The Christmas celebration is a time of elation;
it is the dawn of Creation and the blessed
station we proclaim. Call me what you will,
but the thrill of Christmas should fill
your stockings right up into your night cap;
every day of every life rife with a breath.
I am an advocate for Christmas’ cause,
all year ‘round, I am Santa Claus!
MARIE ELENA: As with all of your I am Santa poems, I find this utterly enchanting. Thank you for sharing it, and for giving us a sneak peek of the illustrations. They are adorable, with that special old fashioned, classic touch!
Last year, I had asked Santa where in the world he most likes to visit. I have a similar-yet-different question for you: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose, and why?
WALT: Loveland, Colorado? I don’t know, it just sounds nice, doesn’t it? Or are there any places in Maumee you want to tell me about? *Marie dials her Realtor…*
Anywhere where the skies are blue most of the time. Where the breezes never blow so cold that you’d want to escape to a warmer place. Somewhere where the people have a smile on their faces, and carry an extra one for when you misplace yours. Where the children are raised to be respectful of their elders and others AND of themselves, and grow to love with a full heart and a strong conviction. Anywhere that love flourishes in your heart and doesn’t need the aid of a poem to spark it, only to express its existence would be a good place. It’s a little place I’d like to call…Utopia. And falling short of that, Sheboygan!
But seriously, I don’t travel well. So home would be wherever my heart finds its place. Once there, it’s where I’ll stay. I’m a small town guy in the home town of his father, and his father’s father and his father before him. I think that continuity says something about my background and upbringing. And yet, being in Buffalo, New York all my life, I could stand to be somewhere warm most of the time, maybe somewhere southwest of this frozen tundra! My bones ache.
MARIE ELENA: I like the way you think. And speaking of home, go ahead and brag about your beautiful daughters – and tell us how you have coped all these years with being the only male in the house.
WALT: Daddy’s girls they will always be.
Melissa, my oldest, had gotten married earlier this year, and I have been gladly replaced as the “main” man in her life. Her husband Ryan, is a good man and treats her well. Beautiful and intelligent, she is a teacher (although having a hard time as many are, finding a permanent position). She is creative and like her father finds her expression in verse. She is one of my two biggest fans! There is no more caring and devoted person I’ve ever known that can shine a light on Melissa.
But the one that could beam as brilliantly is my youngest girl Andrea. Andrea is Melissa’s junior by eight years, but she has closed the gap quickly in that they have become the best friends I hoped they could be when they were growing up, not always the case, but they share something wonderful now. Andrea is majoring in Communications and is very sports (hockey, mostly) oriented, so she has a plan, and I won’t dissuade her ambition. Headstrong and stubborn (she comes by those attributes genetically) she will be a force with which to be reckoned. As you can see, they are both beauties and they carry themselves well. I am very proud of my daughters.
As for being the only male, well, after having served as an Asst. Girl Scout leader and PTO president for both girls, I like to think our bond grew naturally from that involvement. Their mother worked evenings (no knock on her, she did what we needed to do at the time – it gave us both time with the girls and they never needed to be in a daycare program). I was home with our daughters, basically taking that role and filling the maternal gap in mom’s stead. Melissa and Andrea became my biggest fans and harshest critics (although never too harsh). I love my girls very much.
MARIE ELENA: It shows, Walt. It shows.
Earlier, you eloquently and honestly answered my question about what is hard about being Walt Wojtanik. Now on the flip side, what is the best thing about being you?
WALT: The best part of being me? I get to work with and get to know some incredible people that I’ve ‘met’ on this journey. People that want to hang around me and have fun; who do not expect anything from me besides my friendship and support. I’ve been blessed with a multitude of talents and getting to choose my favorite medium is a bit daunting at times. But it beats not being able to do anything well. It used to be people wanted me to post to their blogs or many of the other poetry sites thinking it would give them credibility. Little did they know the honor I felt being able to put my words alongside theirs. You remember that was a part of the reason POETIC BLOOMINGS came to be. As much as I love sharing a blog with you Across the Lake, we were able to showcase many of our favorite poets through their work and interviews such as this. I was glad to take a back seat to the Jacksons, Shlenskys, Prestons, Clarkens, Kolps, Wankens, Kemps, Buttacis, Parsons, Halpins, Blakes, Poseys, Gosselins, et al … they have become the stars. It’s a pleasure passing that torch.
MARIE ELENA: Warm smiles over here. There can’t possibly be a better response.
Now, last question (you know what’s coming): If we could only know one thing about you, what would you share with us?
WALT: In response to your opening remarks let me clarify this: I don’t own a red cape. There is no “S” tattooed on my chest. The last time I tried to leap a tall building in a single bound, I gave myself such a nasty bruise. I need my glasses to see, not to change identities. I don’t even have a Kryptonite (if you discount beautiful eyes and a dazzling smile). Contrary to common belief, I am NOT Superman/Super Walt. I’m a normal … ok strike that… regular guy just trying to make people’s lives better; positive living through poetry. I have a way of expressing that which my heart feels. If my words touch you in any way, let me know. If they make you wretch, drop me a line. Either way, read all you want. I’ll write more! I’ve been blessed with all of this and all of you. If I sum it up into one thing, it would be this: I am happy.