Interviewed by Olga Rukovets and Tara Tatum
In your poem When did we first, the speaker seems to question our need to philosophize over simply experiencing the world. Do you view this impulse as negative? Do you think poetry is an extension of this need to intellectualize the world around us?
The speaker is not questioning our need “to philosophize.” She is questioning the validity of our egocentrism: our need to see ourselves as the center of the universe, a desire which has caused irreparable harm not only to our understanding of other peoples and to the creatures that share this little blue marble we all live on, but to the planet itself. The poem begins simply enough: “When did we first/ entertain the notion/all this was made for us?” And then the poem traces that notion through history and finds that even now, millions of years later, we with all our “smart” devices are no better than that poor, shivering, inconsolable soul who first came up with that egocentric idea of human centrality, and thus human dominance. It seems to have been built into us, this me, me, me. And it is destroying us.
Do I think poetry is an extension of a need to intellectualize the world around us?
No, to me poetry is just the opposite: it is a way to make sense of the world around us as it impinges on us, and the roiling emotional world within us, without intellectualizing it. To recreate it, raw and unspoiled, and make its kernel of emotional truth immediate and accessible.
What was the inspiration behind your poem Frame It?
I must admit, I smiled when I saw this question. Not because of the question, but remembering the day I began writing it.
I go to a small town in northern Georgia to write. The town, to put it mildly, has fallen into disrepair. It is abandoned, empty—no shops, no facilities. Often I am the only one walking the streets. All it has is a post office and a park which no one visits. In other words, it’s a ghost town. Down the street from where I stay is a house that I have watched disintegrate over the years into a shambles. Actually the last time I was there, I noted that the property had, in the past year, been condemned and the plot scraped clean. But I am getting ahead of myself.
On the day this piece was written, I went out for my usual walk and saw how the morning sky resembled a Tiepolo painting, so breathtakingly blue gorgeous it was: heavy with golden cumulus and streaked with birds, the air rinsed clean although there had been no rain. It was as if that forsaken little town had been visited by the gods. And then I remembered how the people down the street had thrown their old mattress out on the street—for garbage pickup I imagine—and how it was all blotchy and sex-stained. Why else would Aphrodite want to take a peek? The whole sight, surely a painting worthy of the National Gallery or the Louvre.
This year at the Chattahoochee Valley Writers Conference, you taught a workshop about “two good ways to assure a viable rough draft,” one that focuses on direct observation from experience or memory, and another that focuses on pure language creating experience. Can you elaborate on why you chose these two types of drafts? Do you think all poetry drafts fall into one of these two categories?
Well, I am practical, and all I had was an hour to accomplish much. I wanted to include writing time and have the participants leave with at least two rough drafts. Actually, had I more time, the workshop would have included a third way which is a combination of those two. In the years I’ve been teaching I’ve made up many exercises, exercises that have proven very successful. That is to say, exercises that not only engage the writers but (sneakily) plumb emotional depths. I am into emotional depths. Do I think all poetry falls into one of these three categories? Truthfully, I don’t ever think of poetry fitting into any category. It’s bigger than that.
As an experienced poetry educator, do you find that the concerns and tendencies of your poetry students have changed significantly over the years? Or is the process of writing poetry the same at its core regardless of the Zeitgeist?
I don’t know that I would call myself an experienced poetry educator, if what you mean by poetry is the writing of it. For twenty years at the University of Indianapolis I taught American Literature, all the poetry including modern and contemporary, grammar, mythology, composition, Honors Lit. and, quite at the end, one course on creative writing a year. And I am still dedicated to the idea that students should read and be familiar with literature, not only the literature of our times—who’s in and who’s out—but the works from Homer on. Here at Georgia College I work with the grad students on their poetry. Notice I did not say “teach.” I work with them. Although I find students in general have changed, the ones dedicated to writing poetry have not. Or that is to say, my students have not. They are all hungry to write something meaningful. Certainly, technology has had an effect on all of us, but I am still a believer in the old school, that writing poetry is a form of making art, and as such, it is difficult. That is to say, writing a scribble on your smartphone and handing it in, is not good enough. The muses of poetry are not amused.
Are there certain themes that you gravitate towards in your writing?
Death, love, loss. Is there something else? Concerning images, I find myself invariably going back to the images from childhood—the ocean in particular. And then there are trees. We live in a house surrounded by a forest, and having been born and bred in the heart of New York City, I find that watching the forest change each day has been a little miracle and the source of many poems.
Do you remember the first poem that moved you? Does it still resonate with you today?
I don’t know as I can remember the “first poem” that moved me, for I have been steeped in poetry ever since I was a child. We used to have to memorize poetry in elementary school. Too, I was in the school’s oratory contests–imagine it, on stage, a red ribbon in my hair, a little curtsy, and reciting poetry. Just ask me and I’ll give you the whole of “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” But I do remember one incident you might be interested in. I was vacuuming and heard someone reciting poetry on the radio. I had no idea who was reading or who the poet was, but I recall being nailed-to-the-floor stunned, and I knew—even though I understood not a word—that whatever that was, it was beautiful and right. Later on, I came to find out it was the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I later taught. And I tell you, no matter all the years I taught those poems, lived with those poems, I am still thrilled by them.
On your website, you describe our society as one “of click-on instant gratification where we’re bombarded by messages promising paradise” as a reward for consumerism. What place do you think poetry has within this kind of society?
I said that, wrote that, many years ago. And I think things have gotten worse. Ads are everywhere, even in movie theaters and as soon as you turn on your computer. What type of toilet tissue I buy seems to be of paramount interest to the world! You ask, what place does poetry have within such a society? I imagine on the surface quite little. But that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. To many of us who pursue it—”the bubble work that only fools pursue,” as E. A. Robinson said—it’s a lifeline. A something to cling to that has meaning in this world. I remember being in New York City two weeks after 9-11. And there, all over the neighborhood of the disaster site where blasted-out windows of surrounding buildings looked blankly out over the great destruction, there, everywhere I looked, were posted poems. Poems taped on storefronts, on lampposts. Poems on windows, taped to brick walls. A myriad of poems. And not poems about the terrible thing that had just happened, but nature poems, love poems, funny poems, serious poems, beloved poems, Robert Frost, Denise Levertov, Keats, Robinson, Hopkins, Yeats…You name it. And why? Because when we are reduced to the basics, reduced to the very center of ourselves, when we need to be fed something that makes sense, there is poetry. And that has always been the case.