The below is an excerpt of Andy Kuhn’s interview of George Bilgere. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request.
AK: You grew up in post-war suburbia, like a lot of us, but unlike a lot of us you have written poems that capture both the golden promise and the bitter disappointment of that era. Judging strictly by events recounted in the poems, your family was initially comfortable, as your Dad’s business selling cars thrived for a time. His alcoholism and your parents’ divorce wrecked all that, and your family went through some not only emotional but literal hard times.
That leaves a mark, which shows up in the work in sometimes unexpected ways. In one poem you internally address a pimply kid slaving away doing the grottiest jobs in a restaurant. The poem “Bus Boy” starts with a mock-elegiac rhetoric that contrasts with the setting, and what seems to promise to be an I’ve-been-there-pal kind of stance, which is comfortable for the reader, who may expect the poet will conclude with something conventionally encouraging, however ironic. But at the very end there’s a big swerve:
Like you, I was of the slime of alleys,
of the same immemorial cigarette butts
and rotting cottage cheese.
And like you,
I dreamed of a certain waitress,
and of driving a fork into the forehead
of the night manager,
and of spitting in the soup
of plump, complacent, well-dressed diners
who snapped their fingers at me.
But most of all I dreamed of being clean,
and cool, and never, ever again
slogging through the world’s filth and stink,
which is something I have achieved,
as must be perfectly obvious to you.
Bilgere, George (2014-01-21). Imperial (Pitt Poetry Series) (p. 17). University of Pittsburgh Press. Kindle Edition.
In the last line you emphatically distance your new self from this struggling loser in an in-your-face way that reads as harsh, and maybe anxious. It’s not an unmixed pleasure for the poet to see how far he’s come from having to do those nasty jobs—it seems he’s got to remind himself, and the reader, that even though he’s casually dressed, he’s spotlessly clean, sporting a smashing woman on his arm, and out of “the world’s filth and stink” forever. It’s reads raw, neither emotionally nor politically correct. Is that the effect you intended? Does an early experience of loss sharpen your appreciation for and pride in everything you’ve won back for yourself?
GB: As for the lack of political correctness that emerges in the work that looks back on my family’s often tumultuous past–in poems like “Bus Boy”–that kind of startling ending has become a characteristic trope, a favorite toy in the Bilgere bag of tricks. Billy Collins says somewhere that he likes poems that are up to some mischief, and I like ambushing the reader’s expectation that a lyric poem today is almost required to provide a little shot of good cheer and comfort in the form of an uplifting insight at the end. I take pleasure in turning that particular apple cart upside down from time to time.