MICHAEL ECK Special to the Times Union
Section: Arts-Events, Page: H1
Date: Sunday, October 29, 2006
R.M. Engelhardt wears black sunglasses in the shade. He chain-smokes Djarums until his head is wreathed in a clove-scented cloud. And, in the middle of the day, he sucks down coffee like a trucker on a midnight run.
Engelhardt, in case you haven’t already figured it out, is a poet. But he doesn’t just walk the role, he talks it, too. In fact, he’s been speaking his poetic mind in public for more than a decade, at least on occasion as the host the long-running Vox and School of Night readings series, both of which he founded, fostered and produced at local nightclubs. Engelhardt, 42, is one of the leading lights of the Albany poetry scene, and he is finally, rightfully, celebrating himself with the publication of “The Last Cigarette: The New & Collected Poems of R.M. Engelhardt” on his own Dead Man’s Press.
He calls the work, which includes selections previously published in journals, online magazines and in his own chapbooks, “a handbook of my life.”
Q: Why do you write poetry?
A: Why do people breathe? Why do people make music?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I wrote a Greek myth when I was 12 years old. We were studying Greek myths and my sixth-grade teacher freaked out. That was my first clue it was like, hmmm, I did something interesting.
When I was about 15 years old, I was a Doors fan. I liked Jim Morrison and all that. Then I read (Danny Sugerman’s Morrison biography) “No One Here Gets Out Alive” and he made references to Blake and Rimbaud and other poets. Of course, being an introverted, quiet kid, in junior high, with glasses, the whole thing, I spent my time in the library, in the corner, reading all those books.
I started writing a lot at that time. It’s just a part of life. It’s who I am.
Q: Your work has been published and you’ve performed it as well, which do you prefer, the page or the stage?
A: Actually, I’m more partial to the page. I’ve written more than just poetry. I’ve written prose pieces and things like that, which are also in the book. I like the craft of writing itself.
I do enjoy performing, but I find lately that I’m staying in more and writing, rather than going out all the time.
It’s kind of crucial that you have a place where you can share your work with other people and perform your stuff and get feedback on it, but as I’m getting older I see that the form and the style in the clubs is changing, with poetry slams and poetry battles.
I’m old-school, and my style is different from what’s coming out now. You won’t see me doing any slams in the future. I’ve done them before, but it’s not for me.
Q: Why Albany?
A: I’m a sixth-generation Albanian. That’s one reason. My family’s been here since 1890.
Albany is where I grew up. It’s a part of me. A lot of people I know have died here. Their memories are here. It’s my city. It’s my town.
I tried Florida, just to see what it was like. I thought maybe I would stay in the Keys there’s a great quality to the way it’s laid back there but the funny thing was, I had nothing to write about. It wasn’t like Hemingway-land. It was more geared toward parrots, bad shirts and rich eccentrics with long beards.
Albany is it. I’ll probably live here the rest of my life.
Besides, in Florida it was very hard to find clove cigarettes.
Q: If you could trade places with one writer, who would it be?
A: I’d love to be in the Renaissance era, when poets were rock stars. But if it had to be one person, it would probably be Baudelaire or Poe but hopefully with a happier life and a nicer mustache.
Since I was a kid, Poe has been one of those influences that’s been inescapable. His work, his stories, they’re phenomenal. He had an imagination like you wouldn’t believe. At the same time I wouldn’t want to end up in his shoes. He died alone, and nobody wants to die alone.
Q: What do words mean to you?
A: Words are powerful. Words make a difference. They can create and destroy. They can open doors and close doors. Words can create illusion or magic, love or destruction. … All those things.
Michael Eck, a freelance writer from Albany, is a
frequent contributor to the Times Union.