Denver Quarterly 43.4 (2009)
The following concludes a long interview of me by Joshua Marie Wilkinson that appears in the new issue of Denver Quarterly.
JMW: There’s a lot to navigate for a novice poet/reader these days with so many books, journals, reading series, poets, blogs, presses, anthologies, etc. What’s your advice for somebody starting out in poetry writing?
This is the most difficult question of all, because it calls me out on the essential question, “Why write?” Since it is apparently not to make money, it must be for some other satisfaction, such as fame or a spiritual and/or political calling. I often heard the word “calling” while growing up. One was “called” to service in the church, a profession, or the arts. Having translated Hölderlin, I must have some interest in Transcendental Idealism and the motives of Romanticism, which lead toward inwardness and spirit. I should therefore counsel young poets, in allowing for spirit, to value language as incantation and magic.
I do believe that one’s ambitions in poetry should begin in innocence; that is, in the belief that one may see, know, and transform through words. Innocence includes irony. This perspective holds that communication is possible even in mysterious circumstances, like a Hart Crane or Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Because it is textured and dynamic, the world speaks. Because we come with certain moods and intentions, it speaks through us differently. The weight of a word varies by its use. It’s not simply what a stone weighs when laid on a scale. Why write? Because life is short, bitter, and sweet.
Spiritual ambition counsels poets to ignore the depredations of the poetry biz. All the getting and spending should be related to the investigations of sensation, memory, and language, not crafting one’s style in order to gain publication in the New Yorker, Paris Review, or Fence.
On the other side of this calculation lies the socioeconomics of poetry, for example, the assigning of value to one poet over another, based on: (1) the perceived importance of their works (2) their position in society, in other words, social class and (3) the good or ill they can do to you as poetry politicians. A young poet would rather have the respect and admiration of an important senior figure, who might further his or her aims by the giving of prizes, blurbs, and publishing contracts. The fiendish plan of the flatterer is to curry favor for as long as it takes to gain advantage over the generous patron; whereupon he withdraws his flattery and seeks to steal all that the patron possesses. See Goneril and Regan. Ancient and abiding, this kind of behavior has its counterpart in the selfish patron, who influences the novice to write in his manner and publicize his importance, but in the end creates an empty entourage. Not one among them is strong enough to surpass the patron, as the patron has arranged.
A true master instructs the student to surpass his own achievement, but no true master is ever surpassed. Think of Plato and Aristotle, Joyce and Beckett, Freud and Jung.
The language I am using is of the courtly era. Most of the politics and social structure of poetry are still medieval. That’s not a bad thing in itself. But many of us lack the graces of court.
On the side of innocence is the long-honored practice of gift exchange. I write the poem as a gift to you, on your wedding, death, or coronation. It is freely written and freely given. This is the world of samizdat and the manuscripts of court and church. Have you read the poems of Donne? Yes, I’ll hand you the tattered manuscript at dinner. It is also the world of the poetry workshop.
Most of the poetry economy is gift-based. But it is not free of self-serving behavior. For example, it is generous of an editor to publish his or her magazine of high standard. The loathing and melancholy appear when one editor publishes another in order to be published in return. Because the great majority of poets have something like a magazine, reading series, or website to offer in exchange, a lot of negotiation and politesse is required. The fact that so many poets are entrepreneurial says something about poetry’s artisanal economic base.
My advice to the student is to aim brilliantly, ridiculously high, which means not playing it cheap; to make friends of other poets they admire, as they are a comfort and help along the way; and, in addition to writing well, to found a magazine and reading series, not for the purpose of gift exchange, but because the poetry you believe in can only be served by you. You are putting your queer shoulder to the wheel. Found only what you can eventually drop by the wayside. The nomadic nature of poetry, as well as history, prefers it that way.