Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his forthcoming collections are The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, 2014) and Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013), a chapbook. His recent poems appear or will soon appear in West Branch, Indiana Review, Zone 3, Diode, Bayou, Yemassee, The Cincinnati Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Tavel is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
~Interview by Christopher Ruff
The Fourth River: Can you talk about your path as a poet? Not that typical poet’s bio stuff, but the writers, the teachers, and the moments that led you to choose this life of words.
Adam Tavel: One of the biggest influences in my writing life was, and remains, David Hillenburg, my sixth grade English teacher. When I met him, he was only in his second or third year of teaching and seemed like a strikingly irreverent figure among the other hum-drum faculty of my junior high: tall, lanky, with long sideburns and a wacky tie collection. His classroom was idiosyncratic in ways that I’m sure is outlawed now, with pictures of Elvis, a cork board littered with a dozen of Bukowski’s PG-rated poems (though the occasional word was still blacked out with marker, CIA-style), and a large list of behavioral commandments, most of which sought to differentiate the nuances between ‘nose scratching’ and ‘nose picking.’ He wasn’t a rule-breaker and he didn’t incite rebellion, but he did challenge us to think for ourselves and be as creative as possible. Among other things, he had us read The Phantom Toll Booth and Sounder, and he certainly was the first person in my life who seemed genuinely invested in poetry. He was also the faculty advisor for the school’s literary magazine, so we bonded pretty quickly once I showed an interest in writing beyond my mere assignments. I’m glad to note that we’re still close friends all these years later.
Certainly there have been many other influences, too. My mother was an aspiring journalist in college, so I had an early appreciation for language. In college and graduate school, I was blessed to study with more brilliant professors and writers than I can count. Perhaps the most critical mentor, though, was my undergraduate mentor, labor historian John Hinshaw, who was unbelievably patient with me—I would ambush him during his office hours, an essay draft and new poems in tow, and he always took the time to read everything I wrote. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to realize that I consumed so much of his time, especially with material that had nothing to do with his courses. I try to remember these moments now, when my own students sheepishly ask for guidance with assignments for other classes or timidly slide me one of their poems or stories. Continue reading