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Interview: American Poet Ron Gavalik

American Poet Ron Gavalik

Ron Gavalik is a writer, poet living in Pittsburgh PA. He has written several poetry collections, and has been digging deep into the mysteries and beauty of his creative expression through poetry for many years.

As part of my Creating Awesome series, this interview examines the experiences, events, locations and other influences that may have contributed to Ron’s creativity as a writer and poet.

By discussing these issues with creative people such as Artists, Writers, Filmmakers and Business People, and exploring their background, work history, influences and interests, we attempt to peel back the layers of the creative process.

American Poet Ron Gavalik

Early Life Experiences

Where did you grow up?

Hello, Andrew. Thanks for inviting me for the interview. I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, between Forest Hills and Braddock. As the former epicenter of the world’s steel production, I was raised by Catholic trade unionists. My mother was a janitor in a manufacturing center. Her father was a boilermaker. My father was a railroader. His father was a steelworker. You could say I was born with a little grit under my fingernails.

Describe a favorite place from your childhood that you can easily visualize? Now explain how this might have impacted your ability to write fiction?

The back porch of my grandparents’ house overlooked the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock and the Kennywood amusement park across the Monongahela river. (Kennywood is one of the oldest amusement parks in the country.) I’d say leaning on the porch rail at dusk and gazing down at that flame stacks from the mill and the illuminated roller coasters really fueled my young imagination. When I first sat down at the typer to become a storyteller and poet, the words poured thick like bloody oil from my fingertips because of those memories.

With that said, I’ve penned only a few fiction works. In the early days, I had a few short stories published in literary zines. Several years ago, I authored a mediocre urban fantasy series titled Grit City which is now out of print. The bulk of my early career was spent pursuing factual truth in journalism. After the age of 40, I began to pursue my personal truth through raw, gritty poetry.

My poetry has snagged me accolades from many readers and reviewers. The Pennsylvania Bridges news magazine referred to me as an “innovative new voice in American poetry.” The Pittsburgh City Paper ranked me as one of the best local poets.

Most of my readers compare my work to the late great Charles Bukowski because of the honesty of the work. However, between you and me, I like to think the work reflects Dylan Thomas.

What era was your “coming of age” years?

I’m 46 years old and I grew up around the horrible neon lights and pastels of the 1980s. My coming of age years (19-28) took place in the 1990s. Before the internet really took off, the South Side of Pittsburgh was known for its gritty art culture. Painters and musicians squatted in abandoned factories after U.S. Steel offshored manufacturing, leaving the city in a depression. Hip coffee houses (before Starbucks) served $0.40 cups of java to painters on the streets and gave writers a place to network and create.

Young Gen-Xers found a lot of solace in our respective arts. I ran a small zine that was sold in multiple shops around the city. We featured writers, photographers, and visual artists from many disciplines. Many people these days say Gen-X was the apathetic generation. I couldn’t disagree more. We’re the ones who suffered the biggest brunts of capitalism, and we survived through creative struggle and very real, very human connections before social media.

What is your earliest childhood memory, that relates to your creativity or craft?

Watching my mother and grandmother fistfight each other.

Let’s be real, baby. In the 1970s and 1980s, life in Pittsburgh was rough. Back in the day, everyone knew the mills and manufacturing centers were going to close. Nixon opened trade with China. Japan had recovered from the war. Companies hated paying good wages and adhering to worker safety. The nightly news regularly talked about layoffs. That shit really strung people out. My family suffered hard when the worst came, and that led to a lot of raw feelings between family members.

Multiply those troubles with my mother’s deep depression and rage issues, my grandmother’s manipulative personality, and yeah baby, I witnessed from an early age how people who love each other can really fly off the handle. Those family struggles and the brutal fights I had with neighborhood kids whose families also struggled, will forever influence my work.

Today, the city and surrounding communities have significantly improved. I mean, we’ve become the damn Silicon Valley of the East. Google is here. Robotics companies are here. Some of the world’s top medical research is here. But it wasn’t always that way. When I was a kid, the adults really thought we were heading for another great depression, and it showed.

Talk about a happy moment in your life that might have contributed to your creative talent.

Fishing with my mother’s father, pap. No matter how shitty life became, pap was always my saving grace. Our times spent quietly fishing at a local lake provided me with a real sense of patience and reflection. His wisdom and deep Catholic faith monumentally influenced my life and my work. Because of his impact on me, I wrote the introduction of Gothic Riot Dreams to illustrate our relationship.

What was your first job and how did it influence your decision to become a writer?

My first job was retail sales when I was 16, in the sporting goods section at K-Mart. Honestly, I don’t think it influenced my work one bit. I’ve never written about it, and I’ve never used one of those experiences as a metaphor. I did like the job. They paid us in cash every week and I made $4.25 per hour. Thirty years later, kids are only getting $7.25. Shame. That’s what happens when unions are destroyed – the worker’s voice is muted.

If I had to venture a guess on the first job that influenced my work, it was probably right after high school when I worked as a lot attendant for a car dealership. It was my job to wash and gas up used cars. I worked with some degenerate mechanics and salesmen that would have cut my throat for $50 if they thought they could get away with it. Those sad men often laughed with sick, desperate chuckles of the damned.

Interests and Influences

What music do you listen to?

In no particular order: indie rock, metal, alternative from the 1990s, classical piano, jazz, classic rock. I don’t listen to music when I drive. I’m usually too far in my own head. Music is an experience to me, not background noise. I sometimes listen to music when I write, but not often. The more abstract the music, the better it is for the creativity. Pink Floyd has pushed me in interesting directions.

What is your favorite movie? Why?

The Insider with Russell Crow and Al Pacino. It’s a film about the decline of American corporate journalism in the 1990s as the web took off and news organizations were being quickly bought up by large corporate entities. The plot deals with the true story of a tobacco scientist who blew the whistle about nicotine manipulation to hook smokers in the 1980s. That’s fascinating by itself, but the poignant truth about the loss of democracy in the media makes for a powerful true story. I think people need to understand that. Truth has been lost to consumerism and convenient narratives. My work helps readers identify with truth through personal struggle.

What is your favorite book(s)?

That’s a long list. I’ll cut it down to the essentials: The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Post Office by Charles Bukowski, everything written by Dylan Thomas, everything written by Chuck Palahniuk, and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

The Outsiders was the first novel I enjoyed that was assigned by a junior high school English teacher. To this day, I identify with the class disparities of the characters, and how we can find true beauty within struggle, if we try hard enough.

Who is your favorite author(s)?

As I mentioned earlier, my favorite poet is Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gently into that goodnight…”) But my favorite fiction authors are Palahniuk and Bukowski.

Who would you consider your biggest inspiration?

Pap.

What first got you interested in becoming a writer?

I excelled in my high school English classes when it came to reading comprehension and writing assignments. The intuitive emotional intellect was just there for me. After years of watching struggle unfold before me, I’d learned how to read anyone’s expressions and make solid assumptions about their feelings. I started taking the work seriously when I was about 20. I’d decided to write a short story about my teenage years. The story was shit, but the experience of writing seriously gave me wings. I knew then, this would be my life’s ambition.

Who is your favorite character, written by you or any other writer, from a book or movie? Please explain how you relate to that character and why they are important to you.

Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill. Tarantino is no slouch. He built that character to be an interesting blend of: kung fu master, Clint Eastwood, mother, lover, and fighter. On top of all those traits, he gave her a true sense of ethics which I admire. I don’t often get caught up in fictional characters, but yeah, Beatrix Kiddo does it for me.

Another character that really does it for me is the father from The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Depressed, starved, ruined, yet he trudges forward with a sliver of hope.

What do you fear most?

Being forgotten.

Why is that your greatest fear?

There are poets who write for the here and now, corporate servants who profit in real time from their work, and when they’re gone, their stuff will be pulled from the shelves. My work is written as snapshots of moments in time. I need people to give a damn about the work in 50 years, 100 years, 300 years. To think that my life building all of this is in vain, that’s enough to drive me absolutely mad.

World Building – The Creative Process of American Poet Ron Gavalik

Where do you get your ideas for your stories?

I’m a free verse poet. While it’s true that much of my work reads as quick stories, booksellers classify me as a poet. The ideas come from observing life and my own experiences. The pieces published in Sidewalks are mostly observations of madness I’ve witnessed and lived on the streets of Pittsburgh. While most of my readers prefer Slag River Sins or Hot Metal Tonic, I have a personal affinity for Sidewalks. That’s because those observations made an impact on me and they have influenced other work.

What genre does your work fall into?

American poetry.

Why did you choose this genre, or What draws you to these types of stories?

It chose me, baby.

Many writers use pieces of their own life in the creation of their characters and the stories they tell. How do you feel about this practice?

Every writer should write what they know. If you don’t know your truth, put down the pen and live a while. Figure out who you are and what makes you tick. Why do you cry over a movie, but crack jokes at a funeral? Why did you love that user from the past? The answers to the questions about one’s life make for the best stories.

How much real life do you put into your stories?

Everything I write, be it poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, all of it is grounded in my truth.

How do you transition from working a day job, generating the necessary creative energy needed to string hundreds or thousands of words together to tell a story?

I’m a freelance writer. That life keeps me in poverty, but it does give me the time to pursue my creativity. If one is so motivated, the work can unfold anywhere. I once stopped performing oral sex on a woman to jot down some notes for an idea. We can write on the shitter. Pull over on the side of the road for 20 minutes. Do what you need to do. But don’t force it. If the words aren’t pouring out of you, go do something else. Wood crafts come to mind.

What do you consider to be the greatest threat to human life on planet Earth?

Two things: nuclear war and global warming. Humans are fucked up creatures. Sometimes I really believe we’re not happy unless we’re miserable.

Half of the American population doesn’t even believe in the anthropocene, that we are the biggest contributors to the current climate. Meanwhile, the residents of the Marshall Islands may have to soon relocate due to rising sea levels. Last year, the world passed the atmospheric carbon threshold, and now major catastrophes are guaranteed for the next generation.

How do you think the world will end?

I have no idea, but I’m sure it will be humanity’s fault, and it’s going to be painful. There will be no smooth end to the human race.

Connecting With Readers

How do you feel about social media? You and I first met on Twitter and have had a few interactions there, but do you use any other platforms to connect with your audience?

Sure. I live in the modern world and I have to meet new readers to keep up those relationships. I have Facebook and Instagram. Those are my goto platforms. Twitter is a shitshow of politics and rage and celebrity culture. I rarely use it these days.

Please talk about any experience you might have with writing for other platforms, websites, publications etc, and does it help your writing ability. If so, how?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a freelance writer. All of my outside writing time is spent with my clients. My personal writing time is spent on my poetry. I haven’t pitched a story to a newspaper or magazine in years. I’d rather meet new readers on my own or through social media.

If you could write for any website or print publication, paid or not, which one would it be and why?

I’ve considered writing erotica. I suppose if I ever do, I’ll pitch it to some of those platforms. But I doubt that will ever happen. Some of my poetry has brushed erotic, but that’s because it’s my truth. My readers appreciate that raw, no holds barred approach.

I think it’s fantastic that you’re willing to engage with your readers and hear what they have to say. How long have you been doing this and how did you start? How has it helped grow your audience?

Back in the 1990s, I learned to listen to readers when we ran our little zine. People would call me on the phone or find me in a coffee house. Sometimes they’d contribute something. Other times they just wanted to chat. My readers are my lifeblood. They’re as important as family or lovers. Without them, I am nothing. While I know some arrogant writers believe themselves above it all, I find the best of my work comes out of me because of my relationships with readers.

What other methods of connecting with people do you engage in, to help increase your readership?

I occasionally hand out business cards to people who seem interested. I attend the occasional poetry slam to meet people. I chat with people in bars and cafés. I just live my life and what happens, happens.

I’ve also done some Facebook advertising. Again, we have to navigate the modern world. But I’ve found that approach to be rather cold, and the people who’ve responded rarely support my work. They’ll consume the freebies, but unless there’s a human connection, their wallets remain in their pockets, the dirty freeloaders.

How can people find out more about you, and if they want to how can they connect with you?

Hit my website: PittsburghPoet.com. You can also connect with me on Facebook. Say hello. I mail out signed copies of my books directly from the website. This way, I have the chance to write little notes and build connections with new readers.

More importantly, I have a Patreon subscription service. That’s where readers can access my work before it’s published and get free signed books. I also give insider information about what inspired each poem. On a monthly basis, I mail out handwritten poetry on stationary and poetry stickers as collectibles. It’s an enjoyable way to share my work with devoted supporters.

What are you currently working on that readers might be interested in learning more about, and when can we expect to see it released?

I publish new work every week on Patreon. That’s the best way to stay up to date and to get free signed books. However, my next collection will be titled Lovers are Future Enemies. It will be a collection of free verse about dating and relationships. I hope to see it released in the late summer, but we may have to wait until the fall. Gothic Riot Dreams was my last collection, and it just came out a few months ago. I recommend checking it out.