To poet Mark Gibbons, a title like "The Imitation Blues" is less a mournful dirge than a celebration of his influences.
Gibbons, now in his early 60s, lists them right in the front of his new collection: Shakespeare, Charles Bukowski, Jack Spicer, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beats, Tom Waits. Locals like David E. Thomas and Lee Nye. At the start of the book, he introduces them with an admission: "We feed off of each other. We admire and steal the language that pleases our ears and souls. We are all imitators and we are all originals, that's just the reality of it."
It's a way of acknowledging upfront that all writers are part of a continuum and a tradition, whether they're borrowing from or inspired by other writers or music or theater.
"I think we're all copycats in a way – and not literally copycats – we just can't help ourselves," he said in an interview. "You read enough of other writers and it just gets in your head." When someone inspires you, you hear echoes in your own work, he added.
In keeping with Gibbons' everyday point of view, local artist Susan Carlson contributed an appropriate cover for "Imitation Blues": an assemblage sculpture in the style of famed artist Joseph Cornell's boxes of cryptically arranged found objects.
Gibbons' followup to 2014's "Shadowboxing," is a "collage of experiences," as he described it, peppered with elegies and tributes, along with poems critiquing contemporary society and religion, or himself or poetry. There are love poems for his wife and a remembrance of a trip to see his mother. In one, he sketches a poem through the eyes of the playwright Sam Shepard. There's also room for humor and pure wordplay inspired by rock, jazz and Beat rhythms, which serve well on two-lane road trip poems.
In "No Reservation," he takes readers on one such road trip, and spins out the abstract musings that occur during windshield time at night:
"Tell me there's a formula for this
A mathematical equation
For being alive.
Some day's we're meteors, some days, volcanoes;
Soon enough we'll be smoke and ash.
Vector or fulcrum, atom
Or angel, I believe in the
The Tao of Luck: That if
I don't give up (keep driving this truck)
tonight, I'll make it home."
Like any good writer, Gibbons writes what he knows. He was born and raised in Alberton. His dad was conceived in Ireland, born in Butte, and worked on the railroads his entire life. Gibbons studied English early, catching on to Jack Kerouac and the Beats, but worked a steady line of blue-collar jobs his entire life. He enrolled at the University of Montana in 1996 to earn his MFA, where he studied with local literary heavyweights Greg Pape, Kevin Canty and William Kittredge. One of his favorite authors, the San Francisco school poet, Jack Gilbert, was a visiting professor.
He looks fondly at his time there, but in a broader sense feels distant from much formal contemporary poetry.
"A whole lot of poetry that speaks to me, it's really outside that sort of norm," he said. He draws on "the everyday language of things."
"For me, sound really is important. I think that's the music in the poetry, is as much fun as any sense you might try to make out of it. 'Cause I don't know how to make sense out of a lot of things, particularly in this day and age," he said.
Following his own muse has paid off. In 2014, he earned the Artist Innovation Award from Humanities Montana. In giving him the statewide honor, the judges called him an “heir to a long tradition of male blue-collar poetry … pushing that envelope farther and farther out.”
Part of the award likely was his advocacy for poetry. For the past several decades, he's supplemented his day jobs by teaching poetry in the local schools. Currently, he works with third- to fourth-graders through the Missoula Writing Collaborative.
As such, he understands the interpretative element of reading poetry. From the writer's perspective, "we're listening to ourselves, we're fascinated with the sound of our voice ... or the things we think, and wonder if anyone else is interested in the things we think."
Then it's out into the world, where the reader may be fascinated by a poem the writer was ready to throw away.
"We're starting to enter someone's warped little world," he said. "The readers' world starts to come into it, and you start to make it your own."
He recalls an exercise with his students where he reads a poem and then asks them a question based on it: what a person said or did, or an object they used.
Often, they'll mention something that wasn't even in the poem, a sign that it evoked their own narrative.
While Gibbons is experienced at teaching children the basics of his craft, much of his own work is for adults. Note the influence of the Beats regarding Gibbons' content: sex, drugs and profanity make their way into the poems. Not as a catalog of decadence, mind you. He uses them the way one might among conversation with close friends as they'd come up in life.
The intimations of mortality are some of the most powerful. Gibbons is at his most brutally honest in "Full Circle," one of many poems about his mother Fern, who died in 2009, a month after she was diagnosed with bone cancer.
He checked in on her frequently, and the poem records a memory of stopping by and helping her clean up before "the bath lady" showed up.
The small, private action spurs a meditation on pride, death and family that will ring true to anyone who's cared for a sick loved one:
when you're born
but if you care
enough to care
who cares for you
it makes a little bit of sense
in this ridiculous escapade
to go the distance
whatever your body allows
and complete the circle
let others care for you
let them wipe your ass
let them clean
your s--- – really
it may be the only thing
as well as animals"
Asked about writing about loved ones with such honesty, he said it's a part of writing seriously about anyone. He remembers showing his mother a poem he wrote about his father after he'd passed.
"She said, 'It's the truth.' I said, 'That's good enough for me,' " he recalled.