from Fugue, Winter-Spring 2008
Born in 1949, Mark Halliday earned his B.A. at Brown University in 1971, an M.A. in creative writing at Brown in 1976, and a Ph.D. in English Literature at Brandeis University in 1983. He has taught English at two high schools and five colleges; since 1996 he has taught at Ohio University in the creative writing program. His books of poetry include: Keep this Forever (just out from Tupelo Press), Little Star (a National Poetry Series selection), Tasker Street (winner of the Juniper Prize), Selfwolf, and Jab. His book on Wallace Stevens, Stevens and the Interpersonal, was published by Princeton University Press in 1991. Also in 1991 Johns Hopkins University Press published The Sighted Singer, a book on poetics co-authored by Allen Grossman and Halliday. Hallliday has published essays on the poetry of Claire Bateman, Anne Carson, Carl Dennis, Kenneth Fearing, Allen Grossman, David Kirby, Kenneth Koch, Larry Levis, and James Tate. In 1998-2000 Hallliday held a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Foundation Writer's Award. In 2001-2002 Halliday lived at the American Academy in Rome as a winner of the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2006 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Laura Powers, poetry editor for Fugue, conducted the following interview with Halliday during the summer of 2007.
Laura Powers: Mark, in an interview with Martin Stannard, you mentioned that when you started writing poetry you were distracted by the "magic" of what other, more established poets (Bly, Strand, and James Wright, to name a few) were writing. You admit to being wrapped up in "half-assed imitations" of writers you admired until you realized that you had something else to do. How does a poet ever recognize such a thing? How then do we give ourselves permission to do that "something else?"
Mark Halliday: I'm slightly embarrassed by how long it took me to get serious as a poet. I reached nearly the end of my twenties without committing myself to writing the best poems I could write, by which I mean poems that tried hard to express my deepest complexes of feeling and perception. Some poets seem to grow up in this way by the age of 25, or even younger. But I spent most of my twenties being very energetic and prolific, but only half-serious.
In the early Seventies (my early twenties), so-called Neo-surrealist, or Deep Image poetry, was very prestigious. In my Providence years I was surrounded by young poets who worshipped the kind of poetry being written by Merwin, Bly, Wright, Strand, and others; it was a huge vogue. The charisma of it all impressed me, but I didn't deeply believe in it, and I tended to write half-baked imitations or semi-parodies of it. Deep down I harbored a suspicion that none of the famous living poets were really all that great. Meanwhile, in a corner of my mind there was a slight awareness of Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch — I'd read O'Hara's Lunch Poems and Koch's "Fresh Air" and found them very attractive, but I assumed they couldn't be taken as serious models. I was adrift. Meanwhile I also wrote a lot of fiction and humorous prose, without ever committing myself wholly to that either.
What I needed was a great mentor, and in 1978 I met Frank Bidart and he became that for me. He demanded a deep truthfulness in poems, and he was intensely impatient with any poetic flourishes that were not working toward a deep truthfulness for a poem as a whole. His sense of what was serious and what wasn't became terrifically convincing to me. I began to write more ambitious poems, poems trying hard to embody the full reality of my relation to an issue or memory or desire, and I began to "hear my voice" — a very conversational, anxiously argumentative voice. Some inspiration for this came from the examples of O'Hara and Koch. Bidart helped me believe that such a style could be poetic in the best sense.
I'd like to be able to claim that I would have grown up in this way without meeting Bidart. After all, the examples of seriousness are out there in Dickinson, Whitman, Hardy, Frost, Yeats, Stevens, Eliot... But before starting doctoral work in 1977, I had only dabbled in these poets. I hadn't begun to ask myself how I might be able to imitate — not just their manners, but their essential ambition.
LP: Your doctoral work was in Literature? Did you, or do you, ever feel like your academic side is at war with your creative side? Does your academic background ever keep you from going as far as you want to into what Robert Wrigley once called "poetry la-la-land?"
MH: My head in 1976, when I finished my M.A. in creative writing, was a very busy jumble of thoughts and opinions. I was at least smart enough to realize how much I needed to read and study. And I had a feeling of the CW world being a chaos composed of countless little alliances... (It's true on a more vast scale today.) So I went to Brandeis for a Ph.D. in Literature, which I finished in 1983. Mostly when I remember those years I remember tremendous stimulation — intellectual, creative — the two concerns constantly interacting. Except in occasional depressed moods, I still feel that my intellectual self and my poet self cohabit and cooperate in a healthy way. Maybe this is easier for me to believe than for some poets, since my poetry tends to have a very overt aspect of argument, explanation, discursiveness (even if this is often self-ironic). I feel strongly that what I do in poetry, what the living poets I most respect do, has a deep kinship with what Frost and Hardy and Keats and Wordsworth and Herbert did. We may be less talented than they were, and we may write in free verse which would not have seemed poetic to them, but still our effort to represent the most important currents of life is an undertaking we share with them. We should want to know a lot about them.
But it's true that one can feel inhibited, as a poet, by the towering greatness of past poets. What you refer to as "poetry la-la-land" is reached partly by an unconscious or half-conscious feeling of "My spirit is amazing! I'm an explorer voyaging into unknown spaces! I'm incredible!" And we do need to have this feeling, or this illusion. Somehow (except when I'm depressed!) I seem to be able to generate, or slip into, that kind of egotistical excited creativity, enough to write poems, and then to pull back (an hour later, a month later, or a year later) from that mood toward coolness and reflectiveness and perspective, enough so that I can revise the poems with an awareness of what The Reader is going to be able to get from them. On a good day, I can draft a poem and write a page or two of critical prose about someone else's work.
There is a kind of wildness and fecundity of metaphor that my poetry mostly doesn't have. I see it as an appealing quality in some other poets. I try to accept the fact that my poetry doesn't offer it. I don't blame my academic training for this. I mean, I'm the guy I am, and without formal academic training I would still have been basically this guy — not Lorca or Rimbaud!
LP: I notice that in both Selfwolf and Jab you're defiant about poetic convention, or perhaps more accurately, workshop convention. We're told by emerging fellow poets that we should never, never-ever, use words like "happy," or "forever" in a poem. And if we ever do dare, those words should never be at the end of a line. Yet we know that great poets do indeed use those words, and when they do, they make those words count. You use "those" words and make them count. Your poem "Olivier Bergmann" speaks directly (or at least, I think it does) to what I'm getting at here: the word "twinkle" is used in this poem in a clever way. Are you being deliberately defiant?
MH: Probably I defy some conventions but abide by more of them — at least from the perspective of a radically disjunctive poet. Certainly I'm someone who rebelled against "high" or "noble" poetic diction, in my formative stage. But that's true of lots of poets in each generation; Ginsberg and O'Hara and Koch in their generation, for instance. Among my near contemporaries it's a long list, including for instance Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, David Rivard, Charles Harper Webb, many others. Each generation has some poets who want to open up more variety of diction in poems, including the diction of ordinary talk. But maybe your question points more toward the presence in many of my poems of direct statements, ideas expressed without metaphor, thoughts presented without (or apparently without) irony. If this is defiance of convention, it's also (as with most bravery?) me doing what feels most like me, like what I can do with energy and self-belief. My mind is not a bountiful garden of metaphors, like, say, the mind of Keats. In the sentence I just wrote, "bountiful garden" is nothing special as metaphor; Keats would have come up with a richer phrase. My mind has a tendency to "cut to the chase," to pursue the idea, the argument — as you would if you were really arguing or passionately discussing something with friends while drinking a second bottle of wine. I tend (or, my speakers tend!) to put a statement out there, then worry — right in front of the reader — about whether the statement is true enough, or the full truth. This feels like my most likely path to a poem that feels authentic.
LP: I want to ask you how you decide to "get into" your poems. How you write yourself into a poem, that is. I realize that observation sounds a bit silly, but you do seem to edge into some of your poems. For example, in "Poetry Failure," you write, "For example, I wrote a poem in 1976 about the Vermont house." The poem then proceeds to express, and express well, your impressions about your mother. The reader has a pretty good sense of who your mother was and, more accurately, who she was not. So, why some of this hemming and hawing to get to what you want to say? That sounds, maybe, more mean than I intend. Still...
MH: My poems have often been described as very self-conscious. This is sometimes given as a reason for disliking them. In most of my poems, the speaker is aware that he's trying to say something on an occasion, under pressure, and that the saying is difficult. In some cases, this self-awareness becomes explicitly the awareness that "I'm trying to write a poem here." Now, this note is struck in countless poems by some poets older than me, of course. It's in Koch and O'Hara; it's in Bidart's great poem "Golden State;" it's in some poems by Robert Pinsky, and Billy Collins, and Albert Goldbarth, and Robert Hass (just to name a few). But I carry it pretty far. Pinsky once advised me not to overdo it with the poems about writing, poems about being a poet. And I try not to allow a given manuscript to be swamped with such poems. I understand that such poems are very off-putting to some readers. However, again, my own path to truth seems often to require this explicit self-consciousness.
To me it feels often like a necessary honesty to say to the reader, in effect: "Yeah, I'm trying to say it right, but saying it right is tricky. And, I want the thing to be a poem, but not just some routine familiar poem, I'm working here, you know it and I know it." This results in quite a bit of what you call "edging into" the poem, or "hemming and hawing". Some readers want to say, "Clear your damn throat and just present exactly what the poem is in essence, make it clean and sharp and hard like a dark diamond." I'm just not a poet for those readers. Hemming and hawing (not a phrase I love!) suggests a real person with a real throat trying to find words on a real occasion. That's the impression I like to convey in most poems.
Related to this is that I'm often — in at least half of my poems — very aware of the possibility that I'll be reading the poem aloud some day at a reading. It's going to be heard. I think of the audience. I think of how boring, how deadly a lot of poetry readings are. Even if the poet is good, you sit there sometimes not understanding, not knowing what in hell the poem is about, feeling you're missing the metaphors... I don't want to deliver that experience if I can help it. The voice of "Here I am thinking out loud here" is a voice that tends to invite listeners in, to help them ride along. But, I realize I pay a price for this. There are some nice poetic effects I don't attain.
LP: I was pretty sure you wouldn't be crazy about the "hem and haw!" Another example of what I'm getting at here is "Trumpet Player, 1963." Your first lines are "I see this trumpet player (was there even a horn section in that song?/ Say there was)." (The reader then gets a full-fledged image of Jan and Dean's trumpet player blasting his way through "Surf City." All completely imaginary) Jan and Dean didn't have a horn section, possibly ever. You could have nixed that beginning, and the reader would have been left with a decent image of any trumpet player. The way you ease us into the poem, though, keeping those "Jan and Dean" imaginings, the reader is given an entirely different, more intriguing, image of this guy: the one only in your own head.
MH: I had a whole draft of "Trumpet Player" before I realized that in fact there were no horns in "Surf City." As you say, I could have switched to a different song, or a different instrument, to pursue the poem's idea. But I wanted to stick with the vision that got it started. So I decided to be out front about the issue. As you say, this makes very clear to the reader that I'm embarking on a whimsical hypothesis. I think it emphasizes that this whole image of the trumpet player was something I needed, something I was pulled toward, it arose while listening to a song that doesn't even have a trumpet in it.
Some workshop teachers focus on poetic efficiency and shapeliness and a sort of suave grace. Whereas I tend to say to my students, "Tell more, reveal more, say more, give us more of the underlying complication. Let the poem be less pretty and more true." Good poems tend to be born out of some kind of psychological trouble. Let's not allow the poem to airbrush that away.
LP: "Psychological trouble?" What do you mean, more precisely.? Most poets realize pretty early on that writing while depressed or upset is usually a no-go. Do you mean writing out of that "formal feeling comes" kind of place? After great emotion or trouble?
MH: You're right that a person is unlikely to write a good poem in the very moment of extreme distress — fear or rage or grief or despair. Wordsworth must have been thinking of this when he spoke of "emotion recollected in tranquility" — and yet the word "tranquility" has always seemed too placid in that formulation. When I say that good poems tend to be born out of psychological trouble, I mean that the root of the poem is in something the person feels is not okay as it is. Some aspect of life feels incomplete or askew or too opaque or too silent. The writer wants to remedy this.
It's often noted that we tend to resist poems of sheer happiness. "Ah, the joy of living! The songs of the pretty birds, the deliciousness of lobster with lime chutney, the warmth of God's love, the fun of licking my lover's organs..." We usually are repulsed by poems like that, or our feeling is "That's nice for you but we don't need to hear about it." There are exceptions. Kenneth Koch, a star for me, tried many times to express in poems the joy, or rather the excitement, the thrill of being alive. I like some of those poems, and yet the work by Koch I value most is the poetry of anxiety, self-doubt, regret, and bewilderment. Moreover, I would argue that even Koch's poems of exhilaration have an anxiety — sometimes half-admitted — behind them: a feeling of "I'm so happy, I'm so fired up, and yet I sense it won't last, I can't keep it at this peak" — or a feeling of "I was so happy and fired up just an hour ago but now at my typewriter I already feel a bit different."
If you have to write about it, then you must be in some way dissatisfied or not at peace with it. And that's at the core of the true poem you can write. This is why many poems of joy or awe or appreciation of Nature ring false, insofar as they pretend to be entirely inhabiting that nice condition. The truth is that the poet is nervously trying to recapture, or ponder, that condition, or to eulogize it, or to prove to us that he/she really was there.
Similarly, wisdom poems are often — not always — off-putting or depressing. I mean poems that seem to say "Here's something I have all figured out, and I give it to you with a pretty ribbon around it." If a poem comes at us this way, it damn well better have interesting fresh wisdom to offer. And, I would argue that the best poems of this kind — Shakespeare's sonnet "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame" would be a drastic example — do convey to us that distress preceded the wise declaration.
If just living — playing sports, drinking, eating, dancing, having sex, petting your dog, diving into a pool, and stargazing — were totally fine and enough, then I don't think we would have good rock and roll songs, let alone poems.
LP: Of course we suffer cheer far better in songs than we do in poetry. Mark, would you discuss your poem "Against Realism" in context of your last answer? That poem appears to condemn the prosaic realities of everyday struggle and maybe "psychological trouble."
MH: "Against Realism" is an example of a strategy I've tried at least a dozen times: there is some attitude or opinion or view that troubles me, either because I find it deeply threatening or disturbing, or because I find it in myself and it embarrasses me. So then I give the voice of a poem to this attitude — but with some element of exaggeration, distortion, caricature, in order to indicate that I don't entirely endorse the attitude, or even in some cases to expose the silliness or sickness of the attitude. I remember in high school being very impressed with Auden's "To the Unknown Citizen," maybe that was the first time I saw the strategy in a poem. Other examples in my work are "Vegetable Wisdom," "Population," "Horrible," "Nights at Ruby's".
To me this strategy feels very cathartic, ultimately healthy, though it makes me write things that could seem offensive and vile to a moralistic reader who doesn't get what's happening. In "Against Realism" I was trying to face my own stubborn, un-killable romanticism, which embraces the myth that my most murky and most egocentric feelings are special and marvelous. This myth at some level fuels every poet, I believe. We tend to let it excuse us from some portion of the responsibilities and hassles in the life of a thoroughly generous, compassionate, morally thoughtful friend/spouse/relative/citizen. Moreover, I often sense there's a gender aspect in it; though I know there are some flamingly egocentric, self-mythologizing female arttists, still it seems to me that boys are more apt to internalize deeply the idea that we don't have to be responsible all day every day in boring ways so long as we are bold-brash-funny-daring-cool. We can be Errol Flynn. But at some point, an intelligent person realizes that to be a swashbuckling star causes lots of pain and unhappiness for others. "Against Realism" represents my adolescent brain trying to resist that realization. Meanwhile, though, I'm not exactly repudiating the poem's attitude! Realistic practicality does strike me as grotesquely tedious, too often.
LP: Then "Against Realism" is taking risks mostly with tone. Another of your poems, "Seven Baskets," does this to an even greater extent. A superficial reading of that poem might leave the reader wondering about the speaker's apparently extreme bravado. Really, though, it's very tongue-in-cheek. How does a poet take such risks with tone?
MH: How to take risks with tone — well, it always involves trusting the reader, which depends on having somehow set up a relationship with the reader. At a poetry reading, of course, this can be done in many ways with facial expressions, gestures, actual tones of voice, all the signals we give people to help them interpret us. In social situations we're often extremely sophisticated in conveying shades of irony. On paper, our resources are much more limited, but we can try to give signals that to some extent evoke or imitate those real-life social signals. "Seven Baskets" starts off "And then I sprang from the silver taxi" — already suspiciously silly, I hope, with the too-peppy verb "sprang" and the way "And then" suggests that we're stepping into an ongoing stream of egocentric narration. It can't take an intelligent reader long to realize that "Seven Baskets" is sheer male fantasy, I think.
In a book of poems, the poet can sort of gradually show the reader a range of likely tones and ironies, so the reader learns to make a good guess at what the tone of a given poem is. "Seven Baskets" wouldn't work well as the first poem in Jab, probably, because its over-the-top ego-absurdity might be too jarring. But, I like to imagine a reader who has to adjust her or his interpretation as a poem develops; that experience of "catching on" can be exciting and fun. It's like the first time you carefully read Browning's "My Last Duchess" and the understanding creeps over you: what the duke has done and why. It's satisfying to feel how Browning trusted us to catch on.
LP: You say that in a book of poems the poet can show the reader a range of tones. The way a book is set up, though, can lead to some misinterpretaations of tone. I made that mistake myself. "Seven Baskets" comes after a few poems that deal with divorce, "Heavy Trash" and "Divorced Fathers and Pizza Crusts," of course. I read "Seven Baskets" as a poem that conveys the way a divorced, perhaps vulnerable, man reestablishes his ego.
MH: I don't really see much connection between "Seven Baskets" and the divorce poems, because, I think many happily married men still have the kind of fantasy life (about glory, freedom, athletic prowess, sexual adventure) the poem displays. I wrote "Seven Baskets" as a happily married man. My wife just rolls her eyes, makes a sarcastic remark, and figures I have to write what I have to write. She is the wife in my poem "The Beloved."
I think when I was unhappy in my first marriage, I was less able to write humorously about sexual desire. Though the theme of being a guy who in some ways needed to grow up more was certainly central in Tasker Street.
LP: When I think of "divorce poems" I immediately think of Sexton, Plath — Confessional, and female. Your divorce poems never reveal too much (as Bishop accused Confessional poets of doing), and are male. Where do your "divorce poems" fit in?
MH: Is it true that poems about divorce are mostly by women? Actually I doubt it. I suspect there are a lot of poems by men who want somehow to "explain" or get perspective on their willingness to end a marriage. "Heavy Trash" and "Divorced Fathers and Pizza Crusts" and "Divorce Dream" and "Separated Father" and "The Fedge" are all poems in which I'm trying to give shape to feelings from the end of my first marriage. Alan Shapiro and Michael Collier have both written powerful, painful poems about divorce, from a man's point of view. Jack Myers has also. Not to mention Robert Lowell! Meanwhile, Cynthia Huntington in her book The Radiant has some terrific poems about it from the wife's perspective.
It's strange to imagine Elizabeth Bishop reading "Seven Baskets." I think she would have hated it. She would have found most of my work too talky and in-your-face, I'm afraid. There is a deep streak of caution in Bishop. She wants to reveal her heart but she wants to do it safely, with some control, not desperately, not too vulnerably; thus when she does show her vulnerability (like in "Insomnia" and "One Art") it's very striking, even alarming. I admire and respect Bishop a lot. But I have a feeling of there being huge areas of experience she doesn't deal with. And I feel I would never be able to imitate her style. However, in one way I think I share in an attitude of hers: she wants to write some autobiographical poems, certainly, but she doesn't want the reader to simply assume that all her poems are full of reliable autobiographical details; she needs more freedom than that.
LP: Yes, "Seven Baskets" probably Bishop would hate. I mean, though, the way you write about your feelings that doesn't feel like purging.
MH: "Going overboard" can mean some different things. Probably the main thing it would mean would be sentimentality. That's a hard thing to define but it's a concept I find very frequently necessary in trying to say how some poems go wrong. Sentimentality always involves a simplification of life. The sentimental poem tries to sell the reader (and maybe the poet also) a version of life that is streamlined, smoothed out in some way. This simplifying can go in the direction of the saccharine, the nicey-nicey, but it can also go in other directions such as the pseudo-tough, pseudo-stoical; also, the moralistic, the self-vauntingly noble. The simplifying often involves exaggeration of one element in the mix of motives, feelings, perceptions, and the downplaying or concealing of other elements. As I said in earlier answers, I'm in favor of poems that try to unearth and show forth the entangledness of feelings and ideas.
"Going overboard" can also mean, of course, harping on something, pursuing something in a boring way. Readers who dislike my work would be apt to say that many of my poems, especially any that run longer than a page, become too obvious, nursing or indulging an attitude or idea far past the point where the reader understood it. To such readers I say, "Go to hell." No, I say "Please imagine the poem as a speech, or flow of thought, coming from the mind of a protagonist. The poem is meant to be a drama of that speaker searching for a completion of the statement." At the same time, though, I know a poem should not assume (the way a tediously garrulous person assumes) that the speaker's whole life story is big news. The reader is someone whose mother has died, or will die. A poem about the death of the poet's mother needs to know this. The poem always needs some strangeness or surprise in a particular angle or focus.
As I mentioned earlier, I tend not to offer elaborate metaphor, or when I do it's with a winking consciousness of its artificiality. However, I can love elaborate metaphor when it serves a search for truth. We see this in Hopkins, for instance, and in Herbert and Donne. I see it in Claire Bateman, and Alan Shapiro, and William Olsen, for instance; elaborate metaphor in their good work is not just professional showmanship, it's a way of thinking.
MH: The easy answer, of course, is to leave it to readers to decide where I stand, or any poet stands, in "the scene of poetry" today. But the truth is that each poet keeps imagining and re-imagining his or her place in it. In terms of currents or camps, I'm clearly (as we've discussed) swimming along in currents that favor discursiveness, and humor, as valuable possibilities. Saying this, 1 hasten to note that a discursive voice (arguing, lecturing, explaining, discussing) really characterizes only about half my poems; and that most of the poems in my books (as distinguished from all the ones I get into journals) are not particularly humorous. Nevertheless, discursiveness and humor are noticeable features in my work. Hence, if someone is grouping contemporaries, I'd be sorted with people like David Kirby, Tony Hoagland, Charles Harper Webb, Denise Duhamel, Albert Goldbarth, Barbara Hamby...
Actually, though, such sorting is depressing, because it immediately feels like a trap. And in my case, it doesn't explain why two of my favorite poets now are Claire Bateman (whimsical visionary) and Alan Shapiro (bleak, and quasi-formal). A common denominator is that the poets I admire make some kind of sense! It seems crazy that I have to even say this, but in our era (and in the long shadow of messed-up pretentiousness in Pound and Olson and Duncan, and the other hokeyness of neo-surreal collective-unconsciousness flowing from Latin American influences and Merwin) it is necessary.
I want to feel that the poet is looking you in the eye and really trying to get something across to you, really caring if you get it. At the same time, what is being said needs to be interesting, fresh, intelligent, revelatory: not routine or canned.
Oh god, the scheme of things ... There are so many poets publishing, ever since the Seventies, that it's not even possible to take most of them into account in any thoughtful overview on a given day. So, naturally most such overviews or lists of big hitters seem skewed, tendentious, parochial. Indeed, I think each of us needs to forget dozens, or hundreds, of poets, in order to function at all!
We need posterity! Will posterity be there for us? Poets have believed in it ever since the Elizabethans — since the Romans indeed. But do we believe in it? I have a notion that deep down, many of us are starting to disbelieve in it. Global warming; pollution; nuclear weapons; grotesque misuse of the planet; the poor nations inevitably fighting to get more of our pie (which they now see so vividly and constantly via electronic media) — these factors churn in our subconscious minds and tend to suggest that fifty years from now, or a century from now, there won't be a society (not a huge liberal democratic society anyway) in which people have the security and leisure to be posterity for us. Terrifying thought. Degrading, damaging thought: it pushes poets toward writing stuff that will make a splash today, cheaply, because we can't count on the far-off tomorrow that Keats (when not depressed) counted on. We need the belief that posterity will sort us out seriously — and keep what matters. (My poem "Loaded Inflections" is about this.)
LP: Finally, Mark, I want to know what question is it that you wish someone would have the insight to ask you? Tell me something about your poetry, or about you as poet, that everyone somehow misses, or just overlooks.
MH: We live in an age of quick-shopping. Proceed directly to checkout. It's a cliche to say we all feel overwhelmed with information; there's truth in the cliche. We all devise strategies for extremely rapid response, extremely rapid selection of stimuli. I imagine that a reader of poetry in 1959, the year of Life Studies — or in 1968, when I first bought some books of poems — could be calmer, more open-minded, less quick to categorize and dismiss. Is this a myth? Not entirely! Anyway, the readers I want — before my death, if possible — are people who somehow manage not to instantly assume they know what I'm doing from fast glances at my poems, or from (for instance) a satirical poem I publish in a journal. They take the time to read, to reflect — and they realize that I dig deeper into truth than lots of other poets who might superficially seem similar.
We all tend to offer judgments on a given poet's work when what we're really reacting to, what we really recall, is only a few poems. I try to be a good reader of individual poems. It's true that a poet can be interesting even with a lot of botched poems, when there is a serious search or struggle animating them. But when I hear a summary judgment of a book — or when I dish one out! — then I think, "Wait a minute — how does that apply to this poem or that poem?" It's hard to stay committed to the idea of the success or failure of individual poems. When I read someone's book, typically I find three poems I really like; or maybe five poems; if I really like more than that, I'm surprised and delighted. So then I try to be true to my perception. One result is, when I'm asked to write a blurb, I often try to get out of it, because my true blurb would say "This poem is good, and this other one is good" — rather than, you know, "a luminous and magical poet of adjective adjective intensity and adjective adjective grace and adjective power." Meanwhile, nevertheless, for my own work I'm naturally hoping for readers who discover that all the poems are awesome.Fugue
University of Idaho
Editors: Michael Lewis, Kendall Sand
Prose Editors: Andrew Millar, Jeff Lepper
Poetry Editor: Laura Powers