If you see Jeff Rath at a poetry reading, he may look familiar. And if you live in Lancaster city, he should—he’s the rugged but friendly face behind the counter at Dogstar Books. Jeff is the epitome of the working-man’s poet, with a look that’s weather-beaten, observant, and real. “I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve been dirty all my life, working dirty jobs, you know? And I still wrote poetry.” he said. Although he is both well-read and published, he also points out that he certainly doesn’t consider himself “a denizen of any ivory tower.” Jeff writes what he knows, with poetry sourced from the places he’s been and the experiences he’s had.
We met with Jeff in Dogstar Books to talk about his experiences here in Lancaster, as well as his relationship with (and contribution to) the city’s literary community. It may have been the influence of sitting surrounded by books as we chatted, but our conversation also seemed to find a comfortable center in poetry itself, its attraction, and its importance.
How long have you been writing?
“I’ve been writing for 50 years. I started when I was 15, after I read Carl Sandburg’s “Four Preludes to the Wind”, so you can blame Carl.”
What do you write?
“I’m a poet of the inner landscape. I think that’s because I spend so much time inside my own head. I try to write about things like most of us probably think about, or wander about. I deal a lot with people I’ve met or things that’ve happened. They aren’t directly transcribed into the poem, but they certainly inspire the poems I write. I’m not a great philosopher, so I don’t deal with any real efforts in trying to put a philosophy on paper. Because I don’t really know what my philosophy is—haha—except you know: that life is hard and everybody dies in the end. It’s not really an uplifting note, but that’s kind of the way I view things. I guess it’s worked so far.”
Jeff is the author of three books of poetry, all published by Le Hinton’s Iris G. Press: The Waiting Room at the End of the World, In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart, and Film Noir. A self-proclaimed fan of film noir movies, Jeff reminisced about the trips he’d take to the movies as a kid, saying of the book, “I wanted to set it up like an old movie-going experience…There were the previews, a selected short, and then the main feature.” Although Jeff’s other books of poetry have pervading themes, they are not held together in such a conceptual way. Film Noir is broken into these sections for the cinema affect, but they also carry a nostalgic sadness, as if the stories are being transmitted to the reader through black-and-white.
Poetry is a very private thing. Do you think it needs to be shared or expressed to other people, like-minded or not?
“The reality is that everyday people don’t think a lot about poetry. To them, they have this idea of a poet, and it’s very often not right. It’s not me, it’s not you… A lot of people have this concept of poetry being that thing in grade-school when they made us learn the poem and stand up in front of the class and recite it. And that’s poetry to them, and it was awkward and it felt funny and it rhymed all the time. People don’t see the value in that. But I truly see poetry as valuable as any other art. It’s kind of like the mustard seed—I mean, you take a poem and all that’s jammed in there in 15, 20 lines…and there’s a lot of stuff. It’s stuff that a lot of people aren’t willing to get down and look for. Poetry is really this solid nut, this solid kernel of thought and feeling. And it’s just so tightly wound, the language is so specific. To me that’s the most important thing in the world, to be able to focus all that energy and thought into that small, compact package. That’s its value. It’s almost like abstract art—you look at it and it’s what it means to you.
I think maybe the key element of poetry is communication. My goal is to communicate something, to someone else. We all experience life through our own lens, and I think it’s important to communicate what you see or how you see. That’s what poetry is about, communicating these little, almost eye-blink experiences, you know? And we all have them. It’s just not everyone sits down to write about them. And I think that’s part of what we do… translate common experiences through our view of them to someone, somewhere. That’s how I know I’ve succeeded. When someone looks at it and thinks, yeah, I get that. I see it that way. That’s when you know you’ve succeeded. You know, most of us who write poetry toil in obscurity. It’s a lonely, lonely preoccupation. Le and I will talk and wonder sometimes why the hell we do it. It certainly isn’t terribly rewarding, if you’re looking for a reward. I’m looking for something beyond a reward I think. Whatever that is I don’t know. I know you can’t want to do this to make money, that’s the reality. You’ve got to be in it for something else.”
How long have you been in Lancaster? How have you been involved with the local literary community?
“I came here in ’85. This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. I moved around a lot as a kid. When I first came here, I was still writing poetry. I remember there was a thing up at the library—which was the first thing I discovered—and it was poorly attended, as many poetry things are. I read there a couple times. And I wasn’t any good back then, but I don’t think I was responsible for [the reading] dying. After that I was involved in a literary group for awhile in the late 80’s early 90’s and we read a few times down at the arts center. But other than that I didn’t do a whole lot.
Around 2000, I found out that Borders was doing a reading series. I went there and checked it out and I thought… this is really what I’m looking for. Because until then, since I had left college, there wasn’t anywhere to read poetry. I grew up in an old mill town and not many people around are all that interested in poetry I guess, or I couldn’t find anyone who was. So when I came here I really enjoyed going to the Borders readings. And there was one in York, too, so I’d go back in forth between the two and read stuff and try to improve what I was working on. It really helped me to hear other people, and meet other poets. Many of them I’m still quite friendly with now. I’ve made some close friends.
In 2008, right after my first book had been published, we were approached by someone from Barnes and Noble. He wanted to set up a reading series there. He featured Le Hinton, Gwen McVey, Barb Strasko, and I. After that, Le and I started the reading series that is still going on there now, although I no longer help with hosting it.”
Jeff co-hosted the reading series at Barnes and Noble (The Lancaster Poetry Exchange, every third Wednesday at 7pm) for three years, and then stopped because, he said, “Well, I really just didn’t like hosting.” However, after that, Jeff went on to host readings at Dogstar Books. After they moved the store in 2012, he started up a monthly series at the new location, which he ran for a year and a half. We wondered why someone who doesn’t necessarily like the work of hosting readings would start another series on his own. So, we asked Jeff if he thought that writers feel a responsibility to create spaces for poetry to happen. He replied, “I think there should always be venues for this stuff, especially in a place like this. And if you aren’t putting something out there, you’ve got to be questioning what you’re doing in the art.”
Can you tell us more about the series at Dogstar?
“Without patting myself on the back I’m really quite happy with how those turned out. Most nights we had around 20 people, but depending on who the feature was, we’d have up to 40, 50 people. I think I was able to have some pretty interesting folks to come and read. We had people coming on a regular basis, which is really what you want. You want those people there as a basis to build on.”
How did you find features for the monthly readings?
“I attend other readings outside the area, to get new blood here—people who seem interesting, or have some really good stuff. A lot of times, when you’re a poet, you’ve got to get the message out. You’ve got to get the poetry out. So sometimes you travel to show your stuff, and sometimes you meet some good people in that. If it’s someone special, the feature, people will come to hear that person. I’ve always tried to find someone with some specialness. Like Jim Warner, who’s probably the best I’ve seen.
It’s a venue for those of us who really aren’t all that well-established. And what happens a lot of time, even in open readings, you hear people who’ve got a little bit of magic. Le and I will both do this, we’ll listen to someone for awhile and then approach them and ask them to read. You know sometimes people just come out of the blue and you wonder, “Where the hell have they been?” That’s what’s important with running a reading is that you’ve got to be able to do the ground work. That’s the problem with me, is that I just don’t have the energy for it anymore. But I’m hoping now that we set this good foundation, it won’t be hard for someone else to take it up and continue it.”
The reading series at Dogstar was local literary staple, a place for new voices both local and regional. It was well-organized and well-attended, something many writers looked forward to each month. Although this series has been on a hiatus, you can look forward to some more readings at Dogstar (hosted by The Triangle) starting on April 17th with feature Michael Czarnecki. Thanks for chatting with us, Jeff!