Here at Poetic Bloomings, Walt and I divvy up the responsibilities. Each is fun and fulfilling, but my hands-down favorite is interviewing poets. Today I have the honor of presenting our own Mike Bayles to you.
Mike, thank you for allowing me the privilege to discover more about this intriguing poetic voice that frequents our space, and share here with our poet family. It is a pleasure for all of us to be granted the opportunity to know the person behind the poems.
Let’s start with one of my favorites of yours, titled The Clouds:
drift, pass, whisper
as my thoughts
when I stand
along the side of a road
passages of memories
of friends when I’m away
of what we’ve done
and what we’ll do
when I’m back
of love, how it plays
out, its subtle ways
of how I find new life
in a smile, of how
words long to say
more than moments allow
of waving grasses and winds
the sun and gods
of what I believed
and what I believe
barn swallows erupt
from an open loft
of a tattered barn
some perch on branches
some swoop inches
over fresh pavement
of an open road
I take in wonders
the dance of life and death
@ Mike Bayles (May 14, 2022 version)
Marie Elena: There is beauty in poetic perception. You have discerned whispers of life and remembrances in the passing clouds. This, in itself, is charmingly insightful. There is also beauty in simplicity of language. Your use of humble word choices to create elegance and depth is impressive.
Which poem of yours is one of your personal favorites, Mike?
Mike: My favorite poem is How to Find Wausau. I enjoy the narrative and visual nature of the piece. The poem is very reflective, and Wausau is one of my favorite places in Wisconsin. I called in and read it for an online broadcast, called Rattlecast early this year. It was written for a prompt that asked that the title be a question and the body of the poem be the answer. It was a nice challenge.
How to Find Wausau
Take the span of US 151
from Iowa into Wisconsin
and watch currents of The Mississippi
as it converses with itself.
Watch the hills and bluffs
as they rise and reveal themselves
on either side of the highway
as you pass
through the Driftless Region.
As the tires of your van sing
listen to the land
as it tells its stories.
Turn north before reaching Madison.
You’re on another mission
and remember to travel light.
What’s left unresolved at home
will wait for you
while you live another life.
Watch the landscape change
before your eyes
to thickets of forest
and clustered lakes
although you can still find
a strip mall at an exit
Lose yourself in time
when the passing sun fades
and skies turn dark.
Take in all you can see
for you’ll never know
if and when you’ll return.
When downtown listen
as the barefoot girl
plays a painted piano
on the sidewalk
a sense of joy
can be found
in unexpected places.
Watch an older couple
in the park in the town square
as if in love for the first time
as children play
on the stage
of the bandshell.
just an hour away
you’ll spend the day in shadows
in wonders of The Great North Woods
and the secrets they keep.
@ Mike Bayles
Marie Elena: Rattlecast! How cool! It would have been fun to see you “in person” out there, and now you make me want to tune in more often. I’m timid, and have never recited poetry. I’d like to get over that. I know you sing karaoke as well. Since you sing on stage, I suppose you are not at all timid.
Mike: On stage I almost feel as if I’m an incarnation of Paul McCartney- but maybe I shouldn’t make such a comparison.
Through a period of many years, I blossomed. During grade school years, I could hardly talk to anyone, except to my father in a whisper, when we were out in public. I was a serious and good student in high school, but somehow felt constrained. I felt that my life blossomed in college. And I had to be social when I lived in a fraternity in Ames. When I lived in an apartment in Cedar Falls, I had to reach out to make friends. I always note that I wrote my first short story in a creative writing course at Iowa State University. Late in college I came further alive when going to blues bars. And someone I dated for four years I met in a blues bar in Des Moines.
Marie Elena: Mike, that is an amazing transformation. I’m glad you were able to get past hardly being able to speak. How did you discover you could sing?
Mike: One time I sang in a choir in the balcony of a church – sometime around fourth grade. People in the fraternity in Ames said that I couldn’t sing. But late in the year 2000 a waitress friend said that the bar had karaoke, and asked if I would sing. I said, Yeah, sure I’ll sing “Back in the USSR,” but I was just joking with her. Three months later I sang my first song, “All my Lovin’,” the first song The Beatles sang on The Ed Sullivan Show, when they first performed in America. It was very intimidating, but sometime later when a waitress danced to what I was singing, I felt that I must be doing something right.
Marie Elena: Such a cool story! I remember my sister and I being glued to that particular Ed Sullivan show. Us and everyone else in the country, I suppose.
Between reciting poems and singing karaoke, which do you prefer?
Mike: I’d first say that it’s like a mother choosing between her kids. I love both karaoke and readings, maybe even like each for the same reasons. I was first intrigued about the idea of living a creative life when I read articles in Life Magazine about The Beatles and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and about The Beatles and “The White Album.” With karaoke, I make the song “my own,” and with readings I’m sharing things I wrote. The songs and my poems – they’re all a part of me.
Marie Elena: That makes sense, and I can see the connection. What got you interested in writing poetry?
Mike: Our English instructor in fifth grade asked us to write a poem. I wrote two and
enjoyed the experience. I also wrote poetry, because I once thought I couldn’t sing.
Marie Good: I’ve found very many of us first experienced writing poetry when we were children, and often through a teacher. Did you continue writing this entire time? Or did you write those two poems, and then skip a number of years before writing more?
Mike: I didn’t do creative writing all the time. In college I was mostly busy reading psychology, sociology and social work texts and books, sometimes even in my spare time. But there was always a thread of writing in my life, such as when I did term papers, but there were occasional poems that I shared with a special friend in Cedar Falls. When I worked as an aide to social workers, I wrote articles and news releases for a running club (I did long distance running at the time.) Although I loved the children, I needed something more.
Then when my dad died in 1993, I got serious about writing to get on with my life. I also wanted to speak out for people in a grief recovery group, so people would understand our grief. I also wanted to write a novel, to emotionally understand my loss.
Marie Elena: I’m so sorry about your dad. That’s a loss we never really get over, and it sounds like you were very close to him.
I think music can be therapeutic. Have you ever written music?
Mike: A friend who played guitar asked for some lyrics, and I wrote some. He’d call me on the phone, and played some riffs over the phone, playing for the lyrics in different ways. But I don’t think he ever recorded them. He also did an interview of me as a writer for extra credit for his English course at Scott Community College.
Some people grow out of the creative arts: I grew with the creative arts.
Marie Elena: Do you have interests and talents in addition to being a poet and a musician?
Mike: I write fiction and occasionally win awards in short story contests. I do paintings in classes, and someone bought one of my paintings. I am very interested in psychology. I have been able to help some people. I am interested in environmental causes – we only have one earth.
Marie Elena: A well-rounded soul, you are! I’ll pry a bit deeper in a moment. But first, may I ask where you are from?
Mike: I am from Minnesota, where I attended grade school. I went to college in Ames and Cedar Falls, but I’ve spent most of my life in the Davenport, Iowa area. I am a life-long Midwesterner.
Marie Elena. Interesting. Have you chosen to stay in the Midwest by choice? I’m a Midwest girl through and through.
Mike: To be honest, I have often felt “stuck” in the Midwest and The Quad Cities. Once a friend and I talked about moving to San Diego, but I backed out when I thought about the cost of living there. At times I wanted to move from Davenport to Madison, Wisconsin, but did not.
Now I like being around Davenport, because there’s a great writing community and places to sing. There aren’t a lot of forests here, as there are in Wisconsin, but I like driving by farm fields. I’m not always sure this area fits with my personality. I’m not sure that people around here share my point of view. Some great venues have closed, and I’m not sure this area is eager to support the arts.
I feel my roots lie in small towns and farms, but I always want something more.
Marie Elena: Hmm … I suppose there are good things to take from both: the comfort and confirmation of being with people who share our views, and the stretching challenges of being with those who don’t.
What do you believe is the best thing that ever happened to you?
Mike: There were a lot of good things, but I think the best thing was a four-year friendship with a lady who moved from Maquoketa to Davenport.
Marie Elena: This intrigues me. Are you able to elaborate, without risking invading her privacy?
Mike: We met at the place where she worked. I had just been laid off from my final assignment for the 2000 Census, and she had just moved into town. She was standing under a bright light, and I was instantly struck by her beauty. She was dressed in white, and the first thing I did was to ask her if she was going to be a nurse. She said that she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She had moved into town to go to Scott Community College, something she never got around to doing. I had just been laid off from a job that I loved, for the 2000 Census. Field operations for the 2000 Census had ended. It would be eight years or so before I could work for them again.
My instincts said that she was someone special, and even a few kind words from her could make my week better. At times she was going with someone, but as I later found out, the guys she was seeing weren’t that good to her. I shared most of my published poems and short stories with her. I had a feeling that she didn’t read anyone else.
Marie Elena: How sad that it ended after only four years. May I ask what happened?
Mike: After a few years, I found out that she really didn’t like it in Davenport. Although we were close, we never really got together. She left town for a nursing school. I was glad for her, but we fell out of touch. I heard that she had gotten married, but I don’t think the marriage lasted.
Marie Elena: Certainly a bittersweet story. It sounds like she served a purpose in your life though, and you in hers.
Mike, what would you say is the worst thing that ever happened to you?
Mike: Losing a job, and being cut off from Unemployment. But a friend put me up and helped me survive. On the good side – a change of scenery helped my writing.
Marie Elena: Oh my. That’s really tough. I’m glad you had help through it. Might I be on the right track in suspecting this friend is the lady from Maquoketa? 😉
Mike: The person who put me up was someone I met in a discussion group, called, “Independent Scholars.” That was a group where people could present scholarly papers without having to be enrolled in a masters’ degree program. First, she employed me to help clear out her father’s house, so it could be sold. He had died some time earlier. Then she put me up when I needed a place to stay. She said that she put me up because she liked my poetry. She was strictly a friend who I helped with different things. I also had the morning task of walking her King Charles Cavalier Spaniel each morning. He was my pal, and my reason to get out of bed on the mornings when I felt down. He adored me. I worked part-time (very part-time) as a dish washer and did odd jobs for people in town.
Marie Elena: “My reason to get out of bed on the mornings when I felt down.” So very many people can relate to this, Mike. Pets are delightfully uplifting when we are struggling.
How great is it that this difficult life event help spark your writing! Was there something about this particular “scenery” that prompted creativity? Or was it just that it was different?
Mike: Around the time I was moving out of my apartment building I felt that I needed a change of scenery to write. A lot of poets travel. It was a change of scenery, a small town. It was even inspirational looking out the window of my room, or spending time in a park when I walked the dog.
Marie Elena: What would be your career path of choice?
Mike: I consider myself as a social worker wannabe, who didn’t quite become one. I’ve been an aide to social workers in a child welfare program; a customer service representative and research interviewer in call centers; and a highway flagger, controlling traffic for construction and utility project scattered throughout the Midwest. Travelling for my assignments has deeply influenced my writing. Now I’m semi-retired.
Marie Elena: I remember you saying something to Mary about aiding social workers. Thank you for your help with children in need, Mike. I admire that greatly. Do you have any specific story from that work that touched you, that you are able to share?
Mike: I have written some drafts of stories about foster children. I have always wanted to understand what the experience was like for them. And I will get out a foster child story!
I loved the kids. I got paid to throw frisbees with some, and was part of homes when I supervised visits between parents and their children.
There is one story I can share: A mother had a breakdown, and was hospitalized. The grandfather came to live with the kids (two teenage boys), but he couldn’t manage their behavior, so he moved out. I was assigned to live with them to provide emergency supervision, until they could be placed in foster homes. For a period of two weeks, I barely had time to go back home, to sneak in a run and shower. Once at a dinner one pulled out a butter knife and threatened the other. I just shook my head. I had to instill discipline by refusing to cook for them until they washed a sink full of plates, utensils, and pots and pans. But they were really nice kids. I even took one of them along with me when I was a volunteer at a running race put on by the local running club.
Marie Elena: You obviously have a huge heart. Thank you for what you have done. Let us know when you get that book written.
You mentioned being a flagger. I’ve never actually known a flagger! That seems to me like a lonely, long day of work. Am I right?
Mike: Some days as a flagger were incredibly long. Sometimes one of my ankles hurt after work so much, that I could barely walk. I watched traffic, of course, but hours spent gave me much time to observe rural scenes. The first rule of writing is when you want to write – don’t. First observe. I’m still grateful to the people who gave me the job, and for a while, I stayed in touch with them.
I rarely felt lonely when I was observing things. And sometimes I waved at drivers who passed. I met a lot of people when I was flagging. My best friend back then was the local library where I could go and write after work, if work was finished in time.
Marie Elena: First observe. That’s great advice. And may I just say, for me, it takes extraordinary eyes to see how to help others as a flagger. God bless you!
I commonly ask my interviewees about their faith. Are you a person of faith, Mike?
Mike: I love to experience the spirits of nature. It was a profound experience working in the forests of Wisconsin. I tell friends to follow whatever path works for them, but I don’t get into religious discussions.
Marie Elena: I’d love to hear more about the forest experiences that struck you so profoundly.
Mike: I was just in a sense of awe when working in or near the Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin. I really feel that was a spiritual experience. I feel that being in nature was healing. The first time up there when a hummingbird hovered by me was amazing. A fragile moment of trust, until I shouted out “A hummingbird,” and it disappeared. I was always intrigued about cabins and bars and grills in the midst of tall trees. And in arial photos, the forest seemed to go on forever.
Marie Elena: Sigh … that sense of awe in a forest … there is really nothing quite like it. If we could, my husband and I would live in a forest.
Mike, you mentioned you’ve been able to help people, psychologically. Please tell me a bit about that.
Mike: In college I wanted to become a psychotherapist/family therapist, but it didn’t work out. Helping people had become a purpose in my life. I read a lot of books about schools of psychotherapy. But in college I successfully worked for crisis lines where I helped people, and maybe even saved lives. To this day, the crisis line experiences I proclaim were the best for me in the field.
I have touched many lives – through volunteer work, two years of taking calls on crisis hotlines, through child welfare and employment training work. I even tried to help some drivers who I stopped when controlling traffic, maybe putting a human face on construction work. And I’ve helped students find books in a community college book store.
My book, Breakfast at the Good Hope Home, a literary collage, helped families touched by Alzheimer’s disease. A magazine publisher in Wisconsin kept ordering copies of my book for families he knew who were touched by the disease. A woman, who lost her husband of 47 years, actually wrote a touching letter back to me.
I always felt that I had to fictionalize the loss of my father to find a sense of closure. My goal when writing a book has always been to write something good, but I found that with Breakfast at the Good Hope Home, I had also written a book that helped people. It has helped families touched by Alzheimer’s disease.
Marie Elena: Mike, what lovely human traits in you. Thank you for all you do for others, and for obviously seeing needs where not everyone might think to look.
I want to purchase your book. Were you yourself touched by Alzheimer’s? My mother had it. It is such a heartbreaking disease. I’m so thankful she passed before it played itself to the end.
Mike: I’m sorry for your loss.
My father, Robert Bayles, died from the disease in 1993. I wanted to fictionalize my experience to deal with the loss. In the process, I learned a lot of how the experience affected me. I did a presentation for the Davenport Public Libraries about “The Family of an Alzheimer’s Patient.” Now I’m writing about life after loss and discovery.
Breakfast at the Good Hope Home, can be purchased directly from me, at P.O. Box 2129, Davenport, IA 52809-2129. The cost is $14.00, with shipping and handling.
Marie Elena: Thank you. I’ll be ordering that, and I bet others here will be as well. I’m sorry to hear that is what your father had. Such a horrible, horrible disease.
Okay, last question. I’m putting just a bit of a twist on my “usual” last question. Instead of asking what is the one thing you would want us to know about you, I’d like to know this: Is there anything about you that might take us by surprise?
Mike: The most humorous thing to share is this: During my last semester of living in a fraternity, I slept in a crawl space between my study room and the ceiling to get some peace and quiet. It was also very dark. Some people might not know that I played the clarinet when I was in grade school, and that for about twenty years I was a long-distance runner, who once ran a marathon.
Marie Elena: Slept in a crawl space?? Oh my goodness, Mike! That IS a surprise! That gives me anxiety just thinking about it! You must not have a drop of claustrophobia in your blood.
Mike: It was cozy to me. I had room to move around.
Marie Elena: What a way to end our chat, Mike! It has been so interesting learning more about you. All this last question has done is left me wanting more. Thank you again for being willing to do this, and for your openness. It has been a pleasure.
For more from Mike, check out the following.
Books: Threshold (poetry collection, 2013 Book of the Year Award- the Rockford Writers Guild), The Rabbit House (poetry collection, 2014), The Harbor I Seek (book-length poem, 2015), Breakfast at the Good Hope Home (literary collage, 2017), With Suitcase and Bag (poetry collection, 2021) Pending Publication- Second Hope (includes a sequel to Breakfast at the Good Hope Home, as well as a short story collection, and a poetry collection).
I contributed works to the books Ten Stories, Nine Authors (edited and published by Edward Grosek, 2016), and These Interesting Times (The Midwest Writing Center, 2021).
Magazine/Anthology, Selected Credits
Poetry: Lyrical Iowa, The Rockford Review, The Out Loud Anthology, Plainsongs, Coffee Ground Breakfast, Big Muddy, Star Poets, and others.
Short Stories: The Rockford Review, The Out Loud Anthology, Northern Stars (flash fiction), Feelings of the Heart, and others.
Print Coverage: The Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 17, 2017.
Online Coverage: Saturday Is For Sharing.
WVIK Public Radio: Art Talks (twice), read an essay of mine for a news break for the five o’clock news, contributed a poem for the Don Wooten Show, Scribbles.
Progressive Radio: Nurturing Your Creative Spirit