Interview with Poet Bill Abbott
On February 28th, Cincinnati poet, Bill Abbott, provided a reading presented by UC Clermont’s literary magazine, the East Fork Journal. Located in the library, Abbott read several selections from his book, (My Life and Other) Famous Train Wrecks of Ohio. The Lantern staff writer, Shannon Wells, had the opportunity to speak with Abbott about his work, his inspiration, common themes, and more.
Shannon Wells: If you could only have one poem in (My Life and Other) Famous Train Wrecks of Ohio, which one would you keep?
Bill Abbott: If I could only keep one, I think that I would probably keep – this is “which of your children is your favorite, right?” I would probably hold on to “The Hero of The Story.” It is a good one for that. I think I’ll hold on to that one.
Wells: What message would you want the reader to take away?
Abbott: I think that it’s a very universal kind of feeling. The feeling of falling out of a relationship. The feeling of being alone and having to redefine who you are, and the feeling combined with the loss of a parent. I think they’re pretty universal. I think that people have a pretty solid feel for it. Things happen and you can survive them. You can thrive past them. Things feel very hard, very big, and very overwhelming at the time. But it’s one of those things that you just get through, it’s just part of life. If anything, I’d like them to take the message of “it’s not the end of the world” – even if it feels like it is.
Wells: In consideration of the varying time periods, what is the symbolic order coinciding with the message?
Abbott: There’s a series of poems that have to do with my mom passing that spreads through it. There’s a series of poems about being single again that spreads through it. There’s a series of train wreck poems, just because, and I researched those individually to try to get a good feel for writing those into the book. With those primary threads, the poems are more or less in the order that they are written. They’re at least very close to each other so they kind of create a narrative. As you go through the book, it’s working from the same ideas going forward through it.
Wells: Upon finishing The Famous Train Wrecks of Ohio, how would you want the reader’s views on society to change, and what steps would fall within the meaning?
Abbott: There’s an awful lot of individual focus. There are not a lot of societal statements in this book. There’s still a societal idea behind it. There’s a poem about being creepy. There’s one poem in particular about an older man saying something to my daughter that was probably inappropriate. There’s a variety of snapshots of “this is what the world looks like.”
But most of it is more individualized, it’s more person specific. It’s more about going through something than it is about society. I’m not sure what I could tell people. I’m not sure what message they would get from the poem about Middletown, Ohio – other than Middletown is a very strange place. I’m not sure what they would get from the poem about Ohio, in general, other than Ohio is kind of a snapshot of the country outside of the big cities on the coast – that Ohio seems to define in popular culture, media, and so forth, what the country really is. I don’t know if I agree with that, but it’s kind of the impression I want to give with that piece.
Wells: In what ways do the train wrecks reflect dilemmas in society regarding “Doodlebug Disaster: Cuyahoga Falls,” “The Free Fall: Ashtabula,” and “Three Trains Passing in the Night: Amherst?”
Abbott: The stories in those poems are kind of showing the best and worst of humanity. There’s mention that a lot of the people that die in trainwrecks are killed by the looters that show up to take things, or, at the very least, are not helping. There are people that don’t help each other. But then at the same time, there are also people who were involved in the trainwrecks who are turning around and caring for the other passengers. It mentions specifically there was a silent film actress and her understudy who were in one of those trainwrecks and then turned around and were nursing other survivors who had been hurt worse.
So, it’s kind of a picture of both sides of humanity, but there’s also a very broad message that I want to make – which is that we try very hard to pretend that things never happened. We pretend, very hard, that we can cover up anything that was bad, anything that was tragic. We can make everything look normal and make life go back to normal again. Sometimes we do that too quickly.
Wells: Could you elaborate on the line, “But didn’t you know a penny could derail a train?” in the poem, “Derailment Philosophy?”
Abbott: It was what was said to me when I was putting a penny on the tracks. When I decided to write this poem, one of the things that I was thinking seriously about was this idea that a penny could derail a train. I did some research and the answer is, no pennies can’t derail trains, but it’s the idea that something small can make a big change. In that case, it’s something small that can create a disaster. That’s not really the message I was aiming for, it was more “something small can make a big change.” Biblically, it would be the David and the Goliath story. It would be someone, something that’s relatively small and can create change – can make things happen.
Wells: Why was the poem “Wikipedia Entry” saved for the end of the book?
Abbott: That was a publisher decision. They decided that if I had included the “Wikipedia Entry” at the beginning before people really knew what the book was talking about, then it might have confused people too much. So, they thought it was better placed at the end instead of the beginning.
Wells: How have the authors Neil Hilborn and Friedrick Nietzsche impacted the style of the poems in Famous Train Wrecks of Ohio.
Abbott: Neil Hilborn is another poet. He is a stage performance poet and I really like what he does. I was reading his book and I came across that quote, right before, or right after my mom died. I’m not sure which anymore. But it struck me at the time probably right after my mom died. It was a combination of reading that and my daughter talking to me about “hey, why can’t we put all this stuff away” that led to that piece.
Nietzsche is a philosopher from many many years ago and I was really just using his quote. His quote is fairly broadly known even if you don’t know anything else about what Nietzsche had to say about philosophy. So that was really just a jumping-off point into making a funny poem.
Wells: Do you have a special place to go to when you write?
Abbott: Not really. I write wherever I am. I can’t really think of anywhere in particular that stands out. I prefer to write on the computer. I prefer to type rather than hand write because it’s faster to get the ideas out. But I know there are reasons to handwrite too, but as far as method goes, I’m more of a typer than a writer.
Wells: I found the dedication at the front of your book interesting. I was wondering what you were apologizing for and how it has impacted the theme in Famous Train Wrecks of Ohio?
Abbott: Those are my children and I had never dedicated a book to them. Not that I’ve put out a lot of books at this point, but I had not dedicated one to them. At the same time, I mention them in some of the poems, and I didn’t ask their permission or anything like that. So, my apology was kind of a preemptive – “hey I’m saying things about you, nothing bad.” But my dad was a preacher, and I remember him talking about me from the pulpit more than once. So, by writing poems about my children, I felt like I probably should apologize.
Wells: Upon finishing “Buckeyes,” is the poem more of expressing how Ohio seems to be skipped over, overlooked, judged, or joked about in a way? How is Ohio represented with all of the stereotypes?
Abbott: We definitely have the stereotypes. Are we “overlooked?” Not really. We’re a flyover state just like most of the rest of the country. As I kind of say in there, it’s New York, it’s Los Angeles, and it’s Ohio, and there are plenty of memes to that effect on the internet. The one that stands out in my mind is a picture of two astronauts looking down on the planet. One of them is holding a gun on the other one and the first one – the one not holding a gun – is saying “wait it’s all Ohio?” The other one says, “it always was.” I think I saw that one after I wrote the poem quite a bit.
But it’s that idea. I don’t think we’re overlooked; I don’t think we’re ignored. I do think that we’re stereotyped to some degree. Flyover country is a fly-over country, and it always will be. So, I think that we have a big impression of ourselves. We decide who gets to be president. We get to this, we get to do that, but I don’t know that we stand out that much.”
Wells: When referencing “Lost Time: Kipton,” the very end of the poem states, “but the only way to keep the trains on time is to believe in it to the second.” How can these poems relate to what has been experienced during the pandemic and to get back to where we were in terms of picking up the pieces of what was left behind and moving forward?
Abbott: I really think that we do need to move forward. Everybody talks about how, during the pandemic, “we need to get back to normal,” and we’ve broken normal. Normal no longer exists the way it used to. The idea of time being such an important factor – “time” being we need to be here at this given time, we have to work for that amount of time, everything needs to be on schedule, is something that I hope we re-evaluate. It is something that I hope that we change. I’m not sure that we will, and I don’t think we will easily. But there’s no going back to where we were in 2019, 2018, whatever the case.
It’s a different world now. The pandemic has redefined us. So, the idea that we need to monitor things to the very second, for train schedules back then, back when most of these train wrecks were happening, then time was much more important. We couldn’t be calling each other up easily or messaging or anything like that. We didn’t have computerized systems watching over the trains. A watch that was off by two minutes could spell a disaster and it did spell a disaster. So, I’m still making the point about time in it that we still think that time is super ultra-critically important, and there’s more time to be spread out. There are more chances to do things without a timetable than it used to be and I really hope that we can eventually embrace that idea.