Still More 5 Questions for Poets
May 15, 2014
I’m going to continue to answer these questions (this is Part 3 for me, but out of sequence with the original; you can find my answers to other sets of questions, here and here). Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 2 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.
And here are my answers:
1. What qualities or subject matter do you feel is missing in contemporary poetry?
In my humble opinion, there are four things lacking in contemporary (American) poetry: 1.) a sense of the history of poetry before Bukowski and the Beats; 2.) a belief that there are ANY universal truths; 3.) faith in the power of love; and 4.) thinking, deep and critical. Individual poets fill this void, to be sure, but generally speaking, the poetry that gets attention these days seems lacking in many ways.
2. What is your writing and editing process like? How long does it generally take you to finish a poem?
If asked that a year or two ago I would have said, I work late at night, usually while walking, and work on poems a lot in my head before I get anything on paper. When I do get a poem on paper it is long-hand first, then I type it up. Then I revise, revise, revise, until the poem goes where it wants to go.
Lately, however, I’ve completely changed my way of working. In part, because of two experiences: last year I wrote a poem-a -day for National Poetry Month and posted it on my blog: raw, unedited, and “unfinished.” (I’ve since gone over them a bit, but the originals are still up for all to see.)
Then, this year, I joined a poetry group started by Jo Bell in the UK. The group is called “52” and meets virtually, in a closed group on Facebook. It’s called 52 because the challenge is to write a poem a week in response to a prompt posted each Thursday. It’s been remarkably fruitful. Will anything survive the experiment? I already have 2-3 poems I feel are worth continuing to work on, and a few others that served their purpose as occasional verse.
The result is I’m writing quickly, much more quickly than my previous, more methodical efforts, and usually on my iPhone. Is it a better way of working? Only time will tell.
3. What Poets Do You Read?
I read any and all poetry I can get my hands on. I try to buy a handful of poetry books each year – I need to contribute to the poetry economy and, if I’m going to ask others to buy my books, I should support other poets. Most recently, I’ve bought and read collections by Jo Bell, Kathleen Jamie, John Glenday, Ada Limon, Ethan Paquin, Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott, and Robert Wrigley. And I’ve been reading a lot of Tamil poetry, in translation of course, both modern and classical.
I’ve also read Alfred Corn’s last collection, Tables, and thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with his work this year. I went back to Seamus Heaney’s poetry when he died last summer; such remarkable language and imagery. Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, which my mother-in-law gave me for the holidays last year, is still on my bedside table and I dip into it as often as possible. Frederick Seidel captured my attention two years ago. It took me an entire year to get through his Selected Poems, 1959-2009, but it was worth it. He’s a trip.
And, of course, Elizabeth Bishop remains a constant for me. I turn most often to her work.
4. What is an up-and-coming poet?
An up-and-coming poet, I guess by that you mean an emerging poet? It’s funny, when I won the Nebraska Review and Aldrich Emerging Poets awards back in the late 90s, I thought, “Okay, so I’m emerging, now what?” It took 15 more years for my book, FALLOW FIELD, to come out. Am I still emerging? Have I emerged? Am I up-and-coming? I’m glad to be up at all, frankly; as they say, the alternative is much worse.
5. Who is the best living poet?
Up until he died at the end of last summer, I would have said Seamus Heaney.
If by “best” you mean “greatest living,” I’d have to say Derek Walcott, at least in terms of the scope and breadth of his work. There is a real sense of history in his poetry. It is rich and full of traditions and truths that are both global and place-based. His thinking is deep and critical, and his poetry is full of faith in love. Take his “Love After Love”:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.