“I’ve been writing since I was probably fifteen years old… roughly thirty-five years,” R.m. Engelhardt said. He has walked the streets of the Capital Region poetry scene for decades, participating in the literary community in many ways: starting organizations, funds, events, and providing a solid example for new writers by continuously contributing his own work. He co-founded Albany Poets, started the The Troy Poetry Mission, and he has been published innumerable times. I got the chance to speak with him, learn about the lifestyle of a long-time poet, and how poetry has changed over years – on the page and in front of the mic.
To keep the lights on, Engelhardt has starred in many roles throughout the years: as a bouncer, a barista, a janitor, and even as an event promoter. He currently works in the insurance industry. “Over the years, I’ve written poems and short stories, mostly poems. A lot of it has to deal with life, life’s questions,” Engelhardt said, “Generally a lot of past relationship poems; things of that nature.” Sometimes he just writes political poetry. He has also traveled much of the United States East Coast, from New York to Florida.
In terms of writing process, Engelhardt said, “I don’t really sit down every day, and say ‘Hey I’m gonna write a poem or a short story,’ it comes to me when it does.” He used to write in bars, or coffee houses, on napkins, or in his journal. Now he sits in his courtyard, and when a poem comes to him, he plucks it out of the air and he writes it down.
Engelhardt talked fondly about his time during the early years of the Capital Region poetry scene. He has organized funds for animal rights groups, and for AIDS sufferers. He said that was what he missed about scene, compared to today, “There’s a lot of poetry readings, but you don’t see many benefits.” The scene was tight knit allowing for the cohesive energy that made benefits possible. He did say that the current energy is strong however; ever since 1999, when he co-created Albany Poets with Thom Francis Job, “There’s a huge amount of readings in the upstate New York area,” Engelhardt said. Social media has increased the number of events, but in Engelhardt’s view, the density of events makes organized benefits difficult to pull off, “People are just used to saying ‘eh well, I’m interested, but I don’t know if I’m gonna make it, so I’ll hit maybe.’” Newer or revived styles of poetry events like SLAM poetry are often limiting leaving out various styles in favor of a certain vibe.
In terms of new outlets for writing poetry, Engelhardt said that people will still write (pointing to poetry on Instagram as an example), but it will suffer the same ills as readings – oversaturation. He admits to using Instagram for promotion, but he said, “Instagram has not saved poetry. What happens after Instagram? Something will replace Instagram.” He expressed that these new outlets have diminished poetry in a certain way; writers resorting to using light verse, or simple writing. Yet he turned on the phrase. Writers will always write the way they want to write.
Engelhardt did write to journals, magazines, and numerous publishers over the past twenty-five years, “Unfortunately that does not pay,” Engelhardt said. The process made the whole endeavor even tougher. First, he typed out all of his poems, usually in five-piece batches. Then he’d go to Kinko’s, make twenty copies of his works, turn them into bundles, each with unique cover letters. He then sent out the bundles through the mail to twenty different magazines. “It was insane,” Engelhardt said, “because you would spend all this time and effort to send out your work. Then you’d have to get the postage to have return postage. You’d have to wait between three months to six months for them to get back to you.” It is hit or miss and even with the advances in technology the publishing process is still hard. Now with email submission available the bar to entry is lowered, and more people want to get published in the same or fewer magazines, which hasn’t changed the process of a response taking two to six months for work to be published.
As the interview wound down, Engelhardt told me about the first time he encountered poetry readings, and how he got in in 1995. He used to go to a bar in the Albany area called the QE2 to listen to punk rock bands, but, “I never went to the poetry reading on the last Monday of the month,” Engelhardt said. Finally, he decided to attend. He began talking to some poets and listened to the work of those reading during the open-mic. “After three months or so, I had a few drinks in me, and I went up, and I read a couple of my own haiku pieces, like three of ‘em. After that, I was hooked.” By attending open-mics like theses he met many the originals of the Albany poetry scene including: Tom Nattel, Paul Wineman, and Dan Wilcox. After twenty-five years, hundreds of published poems, events, and the creation of his own organizations, R.M. Engelhardt has become an atlas in the poetry movement, continuing the traditions started by his own mentors decades ago.