Phil Estes on Catullus, Age 29, and His Latest Chapbook


Do you think you’re anything like Catullus? Has he been a major source of inspiration for you?

I don’t think I am much like Catullus; he was way ballsier. Probably the closest I am to him is an anecdote: Catullus wrote some poems making fun of Julius Caesar; his dad supported Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and had him over for dinner. When Catullus heard he was coming to his parent’s place he hid, worried that Caesar would want to kill him over the poems (they’re pretty nasty but good). Caesar heard he was there and he wanted to meet him–he loved the poems. The only aspect I relate to is the fear I am going to get offed; I’d hide in a second. The difference between me and Catullus is, I wouldn’t have faced him unless I was really drunk. But then, Catullus was really drunk. He was much more eloquent than me I figure.

A couple of years ago Catullus became a major source; I head about him before that, but I didn’t read him because a couple of older guys told me Catullus “gets whiny” and “you can’t read Catullus after age 29.” But they either didn’t read him or they got all classical in their aesthetic tastes and bailed.

Peter Green, who translated him, said something like he was in his 70s and still read the guy. It’s hard to describe: he’s still worth reading beyond a certain age (who’s heart doesn’t break after 29? who doesn’t think pornographically?).

In “Oklahoma is not unlike ancient Rome, only with blue laws,” you go from a first stanza about Catullus dying to a second stanza about porn – HOW? Were these two things edited together or did they just come to you, one after the other?

They kind of just came together.

Your final draft of this poem has three more stanzas than your first. Why did you keep writing? How do you know when to stop?

I had a handwritten draft that looks more torn up. I don’t know when to end. It used to be “I will end on a punch” but that gets too much.

Your chapbook, Children of Reagan, came out earlier this year. Any thoughts, hopes, regrets, people you’d like to thank, things you’d do differently? What’s next?

The chap turned out good; my friends Greg and Robin (who run Rabbit Catastrophe) always do a great job with book design. I miss them (they are in Kentucky, I am in Oklahoma now). They always believe in me. Some of the stuff from that chap is in a manuscript I’ve been sending around. No go yet, but it is early.

If you could tell an aspiring poet one thing, what would it be? 

Don’t call yourself a poet, let other people do that when you’re not around; they probably don’t anyway.


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