— a poetry interview series by Christine Klocek-Lim
1. What is your favorite poem that you’ve written? Read?
Of my own work, my current favorite is a poem called “Crone.” It’s not necessarily my best, technically speaking, but it represents a rich time of life, and I go back to it when I find myself worried about growing older. It’s musical, and it also uses nature imagery to good effect. I like that in a poem. As for poems I’ve read, asking me to name a favorite is like asking me who’s my favorite friend; I love them all for different reasons. When I want a good sensual, optimistic wallow, I go back to my old friend Walt Whitman and “Song of Myself.” There’s an expansive glee in it that I still find irresistible, even after many years. In a more contemporary or contemplative mood, Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fish Houses.” I love the perfect balance between solemnity and humor, the beautiful sonics, and especially the Baptist seal—“like me, a believer in total immersion.”
2. Do you think there is a disconnect between academic poets/poetry and online poets/poetry?
Not so much between academic and online as between academic and popular poetry. The common wisdom is that there’s no audience for poetry any more, except other poets, but in fact there’s a huge audience for hip-hop/rap/spoken word poetry. Academics may look down their noses at the form, but I find a great deal of energy and freshness in it. Of course, there’s mediocrity in every genre, not to mention downright junk. But informality and accessibility are not necessarily bad things in art. And a good beat doesn’t hurt.
3. Has the rise of the poetry MFA been positive or detrimental to the art?
I think the MFA has raised the bar in terms of craftsmanship. There’s more technical sophistication out there, and more well-trained, competent, nice young poets are producing nice, competent, well-trained verse. The challenge remains what it always was—finding something significant, or at least useful, to say.
4. Do you write for yourself or for an audience/reader?
Yes. For as long as I can remember, which is quite a long time, I’ve written with an imaginary editor looking over my shoulder. I’m constantly aware of how a reader might react to my writing. On the other hand, I’m my own toughest critic. If I’m willing to turn my writing loose in public, it will probably find an appreciative audience.
5. How much of what you write is inspiration vs. perspiration?
If “how much” is a quantitative question, I have no idea. If it’s a matter of motivation, well. . . . I do wish I could be more disciplined and craftsmanlike about my writing—dedicated daily writing time, that sort of thing. But the truth is, I can go weeks, months, even years without writing anything, and then suddenly a poem will attack me and I can’t rest until I’ve wrestled it to the ground and got it on paper. Once I have that core idea, I can spend more weeks, months and even years whittling, polishing and refining the thing till it’s a shadow of its former self. It’s a very inefficient process, and probably explains why I haven’t yet produced so much as a chapbook.
6. Why do you read or write poetry?
I don’t remember a time in my life without poetry. My mother loved poetry and used to read it to me at bedtime; I was hearing “The Highwayman” when other kids were hearing “Good Night, Moon.” So I had rhyme and rhythm in my head almost as soon as I could talk. I knew my mother loved poetry, so I would make up little jingles and recite them to her—verses only a mother could love—and she would write them down. I was given collections of poems for birthdays and Christmas—good stuff, too: Dickinson and Whitman and Sandburg and Frost. In such company, how could one not write poems? I progressed from little jingles through the usual teen angst; then, in my twenties, I read that only poets read poetry, and I decided I would be that audience who read but didn’t write. It was such a relief. But poems kept ambushing me from behind the shrubbery and other dark places, and eventually I gave in and started to write again. But as I was saying before autobiography intervened, I write poetry because my mother loved poetry. She might be responsible for a certain streak of old-fashioned sentimentality in my verse, but what can I say? She gave me the gift, and I try to return it.
Catherine Rogers holds degrees in English from Middlebury College and The University of Georgia, and a Master of Divinity degree from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her poems have appeared in Kalliope: A Journal of Women’s Literature and Art and in Touch: The Journal of Healing, and online in Autumn Sky Poetry. In 2010, her poem “Dirt” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an Associate Professor of English at Savannah State University, the oldest historically Black university in Georgia.