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Portland Poet Tim Sproul

Portland Poet Tim Sproul

Photo by Scott McHale
Photo by Scott McHale

It takes a certain type of person to be a writer. Some people see numbers, learn how to manipulate them and get into finance. They get hitched at a reasonable age, purchase a house, settle down, watch their 401k. Writers see words and instinctively know how to string them together into something beautiful. Tim Sproul is one of those souls who pays attention to the poetry and music inherent in everyday experience. He’s out on the fringe of the scene, looking to alter the way we appreciate poetry. With his new book Newported, he has taken his poetic stories and set them to the music of Mike Coykendall, a local legend who has produced for Bright Eyes, M Ward, and Zooey Deschanel. The accompanying songs underlay his words and give them a texture that is as raw and distressed as an old coastal bar top, stripped down by the many elbows that have leaned on it over the years. I shared a shot of Fireball with Tim and listened to him talk about his process and his muse, the Oregon Coast.

ELEVEN: Can you tell me about yourself? When did you start writing?

Tim Sproul: I grew up on the coast and started writing poetry at an early age. I had a cool music teacher, Mr. Cohen, who created a prompt, so I ran with it and started writing poetry in the second grade. I enjoyed the sounds of poetry, and how it made people feel. The sounds of connecting one idea to the next, and flowing sentences into each other. I really enjoy the music of poetry. I feel that poetry is very musical. I sailed along and figured out that I wanted to do writing of some kind, but I had no idea how to make any money at it. So I thought that journalism was the way, but poetry always kept percolating along.

11: What is it about words that makes it click for you?

TS: I like to connect people who maybe are on the downside of advantage and are real, and are faced with real problems. I like the poetry of everyday people, and the dance of music and language. I fuckin’ dig it. I can go into a bar, and lay down a poem about a fisherman friend of mine who died and get fishermen there to pay attention, and to be real. I can hit it with hard consonants and then be soft. I like the musicality of poetry, how it can be hard and soft and beautiful and then light, and dark and stormy. That transition and unpredictability that poetry can bring. The other thing too about poetry is that I love pulling it out of academia and bringing it to bars and street corners. I’ve sat at places like the Sand Bar in Newport and heard conversations that are just beautiful in their sadness and pathos, and laments of dreaming and being bummed out, and wanting to do better. Being fuckin’ broke and then finding hope and connecting with people.

11: You’re soon to be releasing a unique piece of poetry set to music produced by Mike Coykendall. How did that all come to be? How did you guys come together?

TS: I’m friends with Willie Vlautin and I’m a fan of Mike’s music and literally it was at a show where I recited poetry to him on the street and he dug it. And he saw me perform poetry with Richmond Fontaine and dug it. Willie is such a story teller and he gravitated towards my storytelling and we just decided to put it to music. It just seemed natural. And then Mike Coykendall is like the Willy Wonka of music, he’s just a genius. He’s got such a broad palette. He produces on one-inch tape and in fact the CD I’m putting together was recorded on one-inch tape! So it’s fully analog. So we’re rewinding and going back and it’s all one take. So it’s all live stuff. With the poems, I kind of want to preserve the spontaneity and unexpectedness of live performance and not have it be a Pro Tools perfectly produced experience. Working with Coykendall has been awesome, he’s a unique cat in that way, recording on one-inch tape.There’s no internet at his house, there’s no cable TV. He’s got a flip-phone!

11: What are your thoughts on the local lit scene?

TS: I would say this–I would like to disrupt the typical poetry presentation of reverence, academia, and preciousness. And yet I want to elevate language, but make it approachable and fun. I want it to be a party. I think we can return to the spirit of poetry, and poetry that everyone can relate to, that is meaningful and culturally relevant by practicing it everyday, by telling stories in bars, and disrupting just the preciousness of the genre. And I think that combining music with poetry is just another way to relax people and make them feel good and get a groove going.

11: Not everyone would want to stop in a bar if there was a poetry reading going on. Can you combine storytelling with poetry? What’s wrong with capturing a moment in time and presenting it poetically?

TS: I think the best poetry brings you to a place, a real place and tells you stories about real people and confronts darkness in a way to create epiphanies of compassion and understanding. I think it’s important to understand the real problems that Americans face. I see it in Newport where I grew up. Where the fishing industry is fading because it’s overfished, and the economic disparity in this country is real.

11: Don’t you address that in one of your new poems? What is the name of that one?

See Also

TS: “The Sound of a Motorboat is Not the Same as a Motorboat on the Lake.” That experience is celebrating the beauty of Oregon, and the beauty of the coast contrasted by the challenge and the stress and the potential poverty of trying to make it work. Trying to make a living in this beautiful setting is very dangerous. There’s great tension there–between the natural beauty of Oregon, which is generally not fucked up, and trying to harvest what is there and do it safely and responsibly, and being inspired and having a happy life. I mean, there are very simple needs for the people who are working there. They want to catch fish, they want to do well and they want to have a shot of Fireball at the end of the day. I do feel like the idea of my book is centered on the Oregon Coast, and talks of the Pacific Coast, but it deals with universal concerns. Which are finding meaning with each other, finding respite and relief after a hard days work, connecting with family, not killing each other. It applies to farming, fishing, logging. You can even enlarge it to corporate culture.

11: Do you think that poetry is political?

TS: Well hopefully poetry is political. If it wants to be relevant, it’s gotta be political.

11: You talk a about music in poetry, are you a musician yourself?

TS: I’m a marginal guitar player, and inspired and moved by music every day. I find music and poetry are symbiotic. People who write great music have a poetic sensibility to them. My friends in town, like Willy Vlautin, Mike Coykendall, Bat For Lashes. I love her poetry from the very sort of abstract lyrical to the effusive like Walt Whitman–there’s just musicality in all those people that for me, feels like one thing. What I love about music and poetry is that it can be one line, it can be one single phrase that can trigger someone to another level of inspiration. That’s where music and poetry intersect. Just that expression, that emotion that comes out of it. »

– Scott McHale