With thousands of poems and stories submitted to PoetryCircle—including over 500 among the editors' picks—a couple of Showcase features, almost a dozen front page selections, and several book-length collections in the Marketplace, Tom Riordan is no stranger to PoetryCircle readers. Less well known, though, is the man behind the work. This interview takes a small step toward rectifying that.
PoetryCircle: Tell us about your background, Tom.
Riordan: Sad New Jersey childhood till 14. Then fun high school in New York City. Drunken college and restaurant work in Boston, back to NYC as a drunken teacher. Then back to New Jersey sober to raise 3 wacky kids.
PoetryCircle: What’s up with the drinking? Was that a big part of your life for a time?
Riordan: Yes. I started drinking to unconsciousness at 13 or 14, did so daily by age 18, and kept it up till I was 32 or 33. Was in the bar/restaurant biz, so I got away with it. My personal life, though, was a series of disasters. My writing life, piles of shit.
PoetryCircle: What got you out of drinking?
Riordan: Not the two failed marriages! I fell when stumbling home, banged my back, and couldn’t stand up straight the next morning. Bent over in the shower, watching the blood washing down the inside of my thighs from booze-inflamed hemorrhoids—it was too pathetic! Then, once I quit—for the 1000th time—I lucked out. I had so much fun right off the bat, mostly thanks to a new girlfriend who was great and not a boozer herself.
PoetryCircle. And what got you interested in poetry?
Riordan: It was the most fun thing I did in high school. Still is.
PoetryCircle: Why was poetry the most fun?
Riordan: I’m not sure. It’s such a big challenge writing poetry, but one that doesn’t frighten me. I have faith in myself when I do it. And I love words. For me, hard crosswords are fun, too, so you can imagine how geometrically more fun poetry writing is.
PoetryCircle: What if a 6 turned out to be 9?
Riordan: I’d slap it hard upside the head and turn it right back around.
PoetryCircle. What do you think of red rocks?
Riordan: I’ve gotten pretty far without them, aside from driving to Death Valley once to interview the world’s toughest bastard, the Salt Creek pupfish. Believe me, that was enough.
PoetryCircle: Let’s hear more about the Salt Creek pupfish.
Riordan: Out in the middle of the desert, it lived, partied, and made babies for centuries in pisspools of about a gallon of water so alkaline, it would burn the flesh off your finger. That’s what they told me, anyway—maybe just afraid of my finger.
PoetryCircle. How does your writing life intersect with your family life?
Riordan: My family and my poetry are my life: the responsibility I love and the freedom I love.
PoetryCircle: Can you elaborate on that?
Riordan: Writing makes use of a lot of me. Being a father makes use of even more of me. The constant decision-making is challenging, and feels important. As with poetry, it’s probably less important than it feels, but I’m glad of that. Mistakes are made, eh?
PoetryCircle: And how about freedom? What does that mean to you?
Riordan: Everything. One reason I left home so young and went to New York City for high school, staying with friends most the time, was for more personal freedom. I need to do what I want to do, have always been terrible at taking orders or following conventions that run contrary to me.
PoetryCircle. So where does the humor come from in your poetry?
Riordan: Humor doesn’t “come” to me. It’s the air.
PoetryCircle: If you were counseling a young writer who wants to write poetry, what would you say to her about humor—and about poetry in general?
Riordan: Humor is poetry—crack things open and surprise us.
PoetryCircle: Could you discuss your writing routine? What’s your writing day like?
Riordan: Today, once my son left for school, I fixed an iced coffee and sat down to write for two hours. Then I swam for an hour and sat back down with lunch to write till he got home. I fixed him a late lunch, and sat back down to write!
PoetryCircle: Are you retired, independently wealthy, or what? How is it you can write all day?
Riordan: Since 1985 or so, I taught writing for a living. It takes up very little time; it’s all off the cuff. Some of that time was only part-time, since my wife works full-time and I take care of the kids, house, food, etc. A year ago, I stopped teaching. I may be retired, but have my ear to the ground for some new field, too.
PoetryCircle. What do you think of the afterlife?
Riordan: I’m liking mine. You?
PoetryCircle: Do you think poetry can be taught?
Riordan: Yes. No one pops out of the womb and invents poetry all by himself. What poet ever stops learning it?
PoetryCircle: What’s your advice to the younger generation of poets?
Riordan: Mental health: never force your mind to do what it doesn’t want to. Always feel free to follow whatever interests you. Don’t kill your brain and heart with substances any more than you must. Care about your writing, not who’ll see it. If by some freak lightning-strike it turns out to be important to the world, people will start bursting into flame whether they’ve ever read it or not.
PoetryCircle: What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made, either in life or as a writer?
Riordan: Drinking! As a drunk, I made every kind of mistake imaginable both in life and in writing, though not all of the mistakes made me pay. For instance, I never killed myself or anyone else driving drunk, though by all rights I should have. I didn’t become a parent during those years—dumb luck, too. My first drunk wife left me for a third drunk—he killed their daughter in a car crash. That’s what I deserved, too. Then I escaped alcoholism altogether. Dumb luck, too.
PoetryCircle: Tom, what’s your take on the online poetry scene? How have places like PoetryCircle inspired or challenged you as a writer?
Riordan: It’s invaluable to me to have readers I’m familiar with. Once I post the draft of a poem, not only do my PoetryCircle colleagues offer great feedback for me to use in revision, but I myself automatically see the poem with fresh eyes just by imagining those different, known minds looking at it. I do a ton of revising the minute after I post.
Selected work by Tom Riordan:
Six Hits: Poems by Tom Riordan
Tom Riordan: Horses and Ships
The Muse's Advisory
Reading at Wordsmith's
The Second Coming
Cracking Things Open: An Interview with Tom Riordan
Part of the PoetryCircle Showcase series.
Hugely enjoyed this interview. It should be a regular feature, Jay.
Ground control to Major Tom. A little bit of Tom is never Godammed enough. Rock on my brother from another mother.
There's something about former drunks I gravitate to. It must be the inherent pain that causes addiction and the superwo/man with his/hercape that exits that phone booth.
It doesn't matter what bad thing you did yesterday as long as you learned and don't repeat the thing today. I think all poets write better after and during adversity. You can't write effectively about heart break unless you've felt it, you can't write about Life unless you've lived it. Your poems have that grittiness that indicates coming through and still pressing on. I appreciate that.
You know when you read Tom's stuff you can see the thought there, the work he puts in. He seems so down in the trenches, really hammering away.And the results of his labor are quality pieces time after time after time.I really admire him.
Tom could be a magician. Or maybe he's a musician. I remember being 33, Tom. That is high time to quit. Unfortunately, some of us see more reason to continue at that age. Certainly there's more justification, more road ahead, so to speak. But it's not until your 70s that you see the wisdom of giving up, I think. Keep going.
Outstanding interview with remarkable candor. Tom's presence means so much to this site. While he publishes a lot of (quality) poems one thing that might get missed is how generous he is with offering (excellent) critique.
Illuminating look at a poet so liked and admired! Good to know that family and poetry are both the muse and the foundation of a life well lived. "People will start bursting into flames whether they've ever read it or not." Wise words. Great interview.