Questions and Responses
from The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Winter 2009
Editor's Note: In this feature, 4x4, which will appear in each issue of the magazine, four of that issue's contributors will answer the same four questions. The result of this procedure is something of a hybrid berween essay and interview, but with four voices instead of one. Our intention each year will be to find four writers with varying backgrounds and perspectives so that the conversation between their answers is as interesting and stimulating as the answers themselves. For this inaugural edition, we have two poets who have published numerous books and two who have yet to publish a full-length volume. One of our respondents lives in rural Scotland, another in New York City. Two are university and college professors, another a playwright. Our intention, then, is to make a space for as many different sorts of answers as possible. In this new way, we hope the conversation will grow and continue. —Nathaniel Perry
1. Our first question is one close to the heart for editors, I suppose. Despite the ever-changing and whirling world of reading, not reading, publishing, not publishing, electronic and mobile media, etc., poets keep sending poems to little magazines, and little magazines keep on publishing (with new ones emerging every year). Why do we do this? For you, as a writer and/or reader, what good are these little journals?
2. In this issue we are publishing three poems by Philip Murray, a poet who published widely in his career but never published a book (until a friend very recently put out a book of selected poems at a small press). Mr. Murray is little known, but a very capable poet and one surely deserving of more readers. Somehow, though, that recognition never materialized. It seems there are always a handful of 'lost' or 'forgotten' or 'underappreciated' writers out there (the poetry of George Scarbrough comes to mind, or even the fiction of James Still). What writers, to you, are deserving of more recognition—or, if they are already perhaps well known, what writers are deserving of a different kind of recognition or assessment?
3. There has, as always, been a lot of recent talk and writing about the value of workshops, and writers have always seemed to gather together for one reason or another. For you, what is or has been the usefulness, whether through a workshop or otherwise, of making and maintaining friendships with a community of writers?
4. One could make a decent argument for the case that all writing, to an extent, is nature writing. Describe, if you would, your relationship (in poetry or otherwise) with the natural world.
1. Certainly every poet starting out feels a particular pleasure and validation with that first appearance in (most likely) a very little magazine. My first published poem appeared in the second issue of The Quest (Spring 1966), a journal that I don't think lasted very long. The cover featured all of the contributors in alphabetical order (and the same size type). W.H. Auden had been persuaded to contribute something, and there he was at the top, and there I was further down (but no lesser, being alphabetical). I remember carrying the magazine around for quite a while, trying to find subtle opportunities to leave it in view of my friends.
2. The vagaries of fame make it inevitable that many fine writers will be overlooked or insufficiently valued. And many other writers will be raised up to positions they don't deserve, and won't keep, since time does tend to sort things out. (It wasn't so long ago, after all, that Carl Sandburg was widely perceived as the equal of Robert Frost.) There are, of course, many reasons why recognition doesn't fall where it should, and for the unrecognized the idea of posterity must be little solace. Fame, of course, is different from recognition, which seems more egalitarian and various, and therefore even more disappointing to have too little of.
I don't want to name names, though if any of us were to cite ourselves as being insufficiently appreciated, that would only seem right and proper—we should believe in ourselves, and few of us are famous, even in the very modest way that poets can be famous. I do think we live in an age—or at least in a long moment—in which the reviewing of poetry is both notably insufficient and clearly marked by mean-spiritedness. Critics like William Logan (and there are many others) seem most interested in locating a poet's weakness, then boring into the work at its most vulnerable point. The aim is less to understand the poet's ambitions or strategies than to make the work look ridiculous. The true subject becomes the critic's own performance—that relentlessly witty and eviscerating style, those gleeful little dances of dismissal.
3. Workshops, as well as writers' conferences and artists' colonies, are always being criticized for producing a kind of generic poem. I've never found that argument particularly persuasive, though there's bound to be some truth to it. But poets—at least most poets—will always have the need to show their work to friends they trust. This need has nothing directly to do with workshops, although workshops (as well as conferences and colonies) are important ways of establishing and extending friendships. I don't think that I personally feel part of a "community of writers," though I wish I did. I do have several close writer/friends—most notably Stephen Dunn and Jonathan Aaron—and one important way for us to generate new work and usefully criticize what we're doing is to try to spend time together at places like Yaddo or MacDowell. A month each summer is what I hope for. It doesn't always happen. But when it does it's a significant and important pleasure, and enormously useful in keeping the poems coming, and keeping alive the desire to write, and the belief—or illusion—that doing so is meaningful.
4. I'm sure my personal relation to the natural world is very different—and probably much less intense and significant—than, say, Gary Snyder's or Mary Oliver's. But when any of us is composing a poem the natural world exists as material. Things change and get moved around because of the necessities of the poem—its voice, its shape, as well, finally, as its subject. I don't think I have anything very interesting to say about my personal relationship to nature, though sometimes I feel very sad that I can't even try to believe in it the way Wordsworth did—its healing powers, its inducement to thought, its permanence. The continuing destruction of our environment—and our general awareness of the terminal possibilities of our world—has removed one of poetry's great subjects: the consideration of permanence, of whatever might last, in this world or any other. What can we trust in now, or hope for? And if God, for many of us, is also out of the picture, we seem to have only ourselves.
Critics can complain that the personal life is a diminished subject—and it may be—but ideally the personal exists in a vibrant tension with the largeness (however mysterious) of what surrounds it. How can we look at a great mountain now and not feel the imminence of loss? How can we think of God and not feel even more alone? Yet we'd be driven to suicide if we envisioned the apocalypse whenever we encountered a tree. So we find the moments that best contain us. I like to walk out into nature, and look around, and come back inside. Sometimes I take a poem to work on when I walk, but I probably wouldn't even be doing that if I didn't have a dog who was eager to go outside. Out there nature is real—beautiful, frightening, and more imperiled than we ever before imagined—but in my poems nature appears as part of a process of invention, however bleak or celebratory the poem at hand finally may be.
Making something up makes me happy, constructing a shape, a small "figure of order and concentration" as Frost has it. The world may not choose to acknowledge what I've done, and I'm keenly aware that what I've done isn't going to help save the world. But it's something—it's a thing, a "little form," Frost says without (I believe) despair, "and to be considered for how much more it is than nothing."
1. One of the figures who most interests me, a folk hero of the good old days of whatever sport you love most, is the scout. The guy who travels around listening to hearsay and rumours and notions, in search, not just of the potential 300 hitter or starting pitcher who might otherwise get missed, but also of the quotidian flesh and sinew of the game, the bullpen stalwarts, the utility guys, the closers, the steady, intelligent catcher who nurses the star pitcher through the hard first inning when the million-dollar arm just isn't doing what it's supposed to do (sorry, my analogies tend to be baseball oriented). I think that's what the little magazines do—they find and nurture the new talent, champion the ignored, provide a sounding board for people with ideas and work that is unacceptable to 'the mainstream.' A thankless task, often enough, but a vital and deeply honourable one. (If you don't like sports, substitute here all the little clubs and music venues that do the same thing in music, usually while just barely breaking even.)
2. Well, I can't speak for the US but, writing this from the UK, the list is almost endless, when it comes to poetry, at least—and that list is full of American names. Not long ago, to illustrate a point, I made a list of my twelve favorite living poets writing in English (from anywhere in the world). Ten of those poets were from the US, only two of them were published in the UK. Why is that? If we are talking about writers, more generally, then the most obvious and glaring absence from British publishers' lists is Walker Percy. I talk about Percy all the time, here, and hardly anyone knows him (if they do, they've maybe read The Moviegoer and nothing else). Lancelot is available here now, so I put it on my reading lists. A great book, by a great writer. I don't know what his standing is in the US now, but I suspect he's not valued enough, still. Another much undervalued writer is the great Mary Austin. A fine writer, and a great thinker about such ideas as 'regional' writing and, of course, the position of women in the literary culture of her time.
3. I have some long-distance friends—and, in most cases, I mean long-distance—with whom I correspond about poetry, among other things. Sometimes we even meet, but I live in rural Fife, and the friends and colleagues whose work I enjoy and admire most tend not to pass through that often. I have never taken a poem to a workshop—it just doesn't fit with how I work—so I'm not the best person to comment on how useful the poetry workshop is. When I work, I work on my own, usually in the small hours, and as far from other people as I can be (the nearest ones these days, my kids, safely asleep and dreaming in another room—though there are times when that very fact is part of the poem, in odd, subliminal ways). As to community—well, my strongest sense of community is with the dead. That may say more about me than about anything else.
4. Ah, the old nature debate. I remember being stigmatized as a 'nature poet' when I first started publishing (and I do mean stigmatized). It's not such a bad thing now—it never should have been, of course—but there's still a feeling, here certainly, that poetry is, or should be, a sub-discipline of sociology. Or psychology. (Or, if you really want to get ahead, a branch of stand-up.) I teach a course—which I introduced at St. Andrews—called 'Literature and Ecology.' Naturally, poets and other writers who work from nature feature in the reading list, and we tend to discuss 'regional' and 'indigenous' writers more than is usual (mostly to re-examine such terms, and perhaps shed some light on the arrogance of those who sideline such work), but we also talk about war literature, and the nature of city dwelling. The course is built around texts by Emerson, Heidegger, Mary Austin and several 'deep ecology' sources. A soundbite summary of what we are looking at might be 'building, dwelling, thinking' (taken from Heidegger's famous essay). Those three areas have been the central concerns of my own work as a writer for as long as I have been working, whether as a supposed 'nature poet' or as a novelist.
1. I've been writing plays for about ten years now, as well as the occasional short story, some of which I've published in literary journals. Only recently I've begun to publish my poetry; so I'm relatively new to the world of little magazines. But I suspect that the theatre is not so different from this literary marketplace, speaking in terms of the size of one's audience. I suppose that's what you're getting at here: why do we submit to journals, why do we edit and publish journals, when the readership (and remuneration) is so very, very small? Especially when you compare it to the audience of movies, TV, blockbuster novels, internet pornography, etc. A new play that does well at a large regional theater may be seen by several thousand people, sometimes even tens of thousands. But compare that to the number of people who see a studio film on its opening weekend and it's probably like comparing the readership of a little magazine to the new Dan Brown novel.
I suppose that a literary writer, like a playwright, must simply try to come to terms with a small if not miniscule readership. Occasionally, of course, something of real quality catches on with a larger audience, but that's quite rare and shouldn't be hoped for. The work has to be its own reward, and it usually is. At this point in my life it simply comes down to writing what one can write, what one truly wants to write, what is most honestly one's voice and experience of living. And then of course it's worth celebrating if it somehow reaches some likeminded people. If they seem to value what I value then I'm honored to have their attention, and to give my attention to them. I also wonder—if it's true that we're living in an age of shockingly short attention spans—if the poem, with its compressions and acuity, might be enjoying a kind of quiet renaissance.
2. Again I'm going to speak more as a playwright in saying that I wish playwrights in general got more attention in a literary sense. The only plays that get published are plays that have had highly successful runs, overwhelmingly in New York City; and that's for acting editions, plays that must be bought at an acting bookshop or ordered online. A play that can be bought in your local mega-bookstore usually has to win the Pulitzer Prize or Tony Award first. Then of course there are all the absurd pressures on producers of new plays. One might ask why anyone produces a new play at all, considering how much safer it is to simply revive "classics," which is exactly what most theaters do—even theaters that produce contemporary plays often wait to see what's been a success in New York first. So as you can imagine there are lots of plays being written today that are never produced, or when they are produced they're never published. Or when they're published they're never read or produced again.
All of this contributes to the sense of playwriting as a kind of bastard child of the literary and entertainment worlds, not wholly of one world or the other. Playwrights who are not independently wealthy have to work in TV or film, or teach at colleges and universities, and usually a little bit of everything at different points in their careers; and in each of these worlds they're often not perfect fits either, considered too arty for TV or film, not quite "literary" enough for the academy. Of course, it's somewhat understandable why playwriting falls through the cracks: play-making (as opposed to the playwriting) is such a collaborative endeavor, and the audience's perception of "the play" is really a response to a mysterious bundle of writing, directing, acting, casting, design, zeitgeist, headlines, theater seats, the temperature in the theater, the sound of a hard candy wrapper in the hands of a senior citizen beside you, etc. The playwrights whose work I consider quite literary and yet under-recognized are truly legion, but I'm afraid to list them here for fear of praising them with faint damnation. Many theaters in the U.K. and elsewhere publish their plays in the production playbill, so that every theatergoer has a script when they walk in the door. That is wonderful on so many levels. Only a few U.S. theaters have tried this, but for some reason it's never caught on.
3. I find friendships with writers essential. Competition and jealousy will sometimes get in the way of course, but without other writers one has no camaraderie or support or judicious criticism when you need it. That said, sometimes it's helpful to just get away from it all—the world and business of writing—and just write. When I was a young writer in a graduate-level workshop that community taught me a great deal about the life and craft of a writer. And yet once I was free of that immediate and constant comparison, my creativity flowered like never before. So I find it's best to get involved with writers' groups in a formal way when I have a new play that's ready for that sort of attention; and when I'm wanting simply to write I tend to seclude myself somewhat. Teaching writing has brought me perhaps a greater, more rewarding sense of artistic community—to inspire, and be inspired by, the optimism of those with raw talent and ambition.
4. I wouldn't consider myself a "nature writer" in any way. (I enjoy long walks in the woods, for example; I do not enjoy sleeping in said woods.) And yet like many or most writers I often find myself writing explicitly about nature. I suppose we can't really help it; one is always writing about one's world, one's environment, and even when that world is a city it still ought to be called nature. I lived in New York City until recently, and I think I was often writing about nature when I was inspired by the voices and movements and personalities of people in the street. The streets of a city can feel as invigorating and "natural" as any pastoral scene—perhaps more so, in that there's so much more human nature on display.
This can, of course, get tiring. Sometimes it's easier to write about human nature by looking at nature's nature. And maybe that's what's going on in my poetry lately, where more traditional views of nature have been cropping up. I'm somewhat baffled by it. I think I'm writing about thoughts and emotions, about people I've loved or hated; and for some reason it all comes out best in a description of the world I'm looking at, or have looked at, rather than a description of me. (Of course, in writing about nature one has perhaps simply found a more effective way to write about "me.") Perhaps we write about nature because one can only write about oneself so much. Which is why I'm ending this very enjoyable—for me—Q&A right now.
1. I publish randomly and sporadically in journals. I send work out in a very unorganized way, when I am asked to submit or when the mood strikes me. I also write slowly (I often keep poems open and unfinished for years) so I don't have an endless supply of available work. I am always shocked and pleased when poems get taken. But I don't know what good such journals do. To be honest, I have grown pretty skeptical of their proliferation, on the Internet and otherwise. On a glass half full day, I'd say: How great that there is so much interest in and appreciation for poetry in the 21st century. It's natural to replace the old dogs with new blood. But I fear more is afoot than love of poetry. There is a lot of misplaced ambition in the air. The ambition should be to write better and better poems, not, as one graduate school peer put it, to "get famous." I feel like poetry is being used in a way I'm not sure we've seen before. I shrink from it.
2. I return again and again to Emily Dickinson's letter to Higginson: "I smile when you suggest I delay 'to publish,' that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin. If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better." Romantic (or coy) as it may sound, she was concerned with and sustained by the work alone—i.e. she had no other ulterior motives. This is an idea that doesn't have a lot of purchase in a time of poetry professionalism. (Dickinson not needing publication was certainly helped by the fact she was a genius.)
But it's unclear how much it hurt her emotionally not to publish or be recognized; she seemed to have wanted nothing to do with "the world" outside her mind, especially after a certain point. But the fact she sent Higginson poems suggests that she too wanted to be appreciated by at least one other soul. Dickinson never had a book of poems published in her lifetime. And how does that bear on her achievement? Not at all. As the painter Agnes Martin wrote: "The life of an artist is inspired, self-sufficient and independent (unrelated to society)." When I feel frustrated about this subject I sometimes think of the scene in Babette's Feast when Babette's rich and complex history is revealed to her long-time employers. Though the two sisters have known Babette as a lost soul, it comes to light that she had, among other things, been a renowned Chef de Cuisine in Paris before she landed on their bleak Danish isle. With her winnings from a Parisian lottery ticket Babette asks permission to create a magnificent feast. She purchases the finest china, tableware and ingredients. She labors in joy. She makes a magical, life-changing meal for a gaggle of crotchety Danes. When her employers note she has foolishly spent all her winnings and will now be poor forever, she answers: "An artist is never poor."
3. I was lucky enough to study with two excellent poets during the two years of my MFA at Iowa: Jorie Graham and Jim Galvin. They were great opposites, her Whitman to his Dickinson. One was riveted, effusive, and spoke in meta-poetics; the other was Zen-like, terse, and remote in his contemplation of the students' work. The first generously (more generously than we or the poems deserved) read our work as, say, artifacts of the journey of The Hero. Or she'd compare one's description of a bird to Giotto's birds in the Arena Chapel frescos. The other would pass out pieces of handmade paper and dare us to write on them. Or he'd write a Lakota death song on the blackboard, a song that ensured the warrior/writer passage to the afterlife. Two people knew the song, the warrior and his best friend. If the warrior fell, his friend would have to sing it for him. Galvin said: "Make sure your poems are as important to you as an Indian death song." This push-pull—being encouraged to reach for sublime, Olympian heights on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to be reminded of one's paltry place in the pantheon—was good for me. Cosmic praise tempered by indifference.
Some students rolled their eyes at Galvin's seemingly sentimental insistence on work bearing such moral and mortal pressure. I don't know what would have happened if I had gone to another program with poets of lesser intensity, intelligence and commitment. Beyond studying with excellent mentors if you can find them, the second best thing about an MFA is that it will be the first time you are truly surrounded by people who do this unusual thing you do and take it just as seriously. You recognize each other. I am still bonded with many of my Iowa friends. But I am not in business with them. I don't think of myself as being in a community of writers, though certainly my best friends are writers and many of them I met in graduate school.
4. My mother read poems to me at an early age, mostly by Bishop, Lowell, and Roethke. Roethke was a favorite, probably because he sometimes wrote from the perspective of a child, especially in the greenhouse poems. Compounding my interest was the fact that our house had a stone cellar with a dirt floor so I recognized Roethke's striving vegetation—things weirdly living on in dank places, things bursting from dried husks to life. I turned images from poems like "Root Cellar" and "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" over and over in my mind.
The first poem I wrote as a child described the contents of a window gutter—dead leaves, long-dead moths, spider webs with bundled flies, and a dead-spider "balled up like short black thread." As an adult, trees, oceans, gardens, horses, and birds, especially birds, populate the poems. I have had a fascination with bird life and bird movement for a while now. I took birds as my personal Objective Correlative while in Iowa City, and they have stuck around. Birds did things in the Mid-West I had never seen them do on the East Coast, like when literally hundreds would settle into a single tree at the same moment. They were scary; they were bigger than I was in all ways. They stood for Nature in my mind. Looking at the birds began with an effort to remove my "will" from the poem, to simply watch the natural world long enough that it might reveal something to me.
The problem of nature—death—moves me more consistently than other things like politics or other traditional poetic themes. Sometimes I wish I could write good political poetry like Yeats or be moved by what moves my peers, like theory or pop culture. But I know my instrument pretty well. Someone recently referred to my writings as "weird nature poems" that exhibit a "skeptical awe." I love that description and took it as a compliment.
John Burnside is the author of twelve collections of poetry, most recently The Hunt in the Forest (Jonathan Cape, 2009) and Gift Songs (Jonathan Cape, 2007). His poetry has been awarded the Whitbread Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and has been shortlisted twice for both the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He is also the author of numerous novels, the most recent of which is Glister (Jonathan Cape, 2008).
Regan Good is a graduate of Barnard College and the Iowa Writer's Workshop where she was a Maytag Fellow. Her poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Antioch Review, New Letters, and other journals. She has published two chapbooks, The Imperfect (Westown Press, 2005) and The Book of Nature (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009).
Dan O'Brien's poems have appeared recently in Crab Orchard Review, Greensboro Review, and Iodine. He has served as a Hodder Fellow in playwriting at Princeton University, a Tennessee Williams Fellow at Sewanee, and the Djerassi Fellow in playwriting at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His most recent play production is The Cherry Sisters Revisited at Actors' Theatre of Louisville's 2009 Humana Festival.
Lawrence Raab is the author of seven collections of poems, including What We Don't Know About Each Other (Penguin, 1993), winner of the National Poetry Series, and a Finalist for the National Book Award, The Probable World (Penguin, 2000), and Visible Signs: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2003). His latest collection is The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009). He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
Editor: Nathaniel Perry
Managing Editor: G. Clay Whittaker
Associate Editor: Evan Weinzierl