— a poetry interview series by Christine Klocek-Lim
(editor of Rattle)
1. What is your favorite poem that you’ve written? Read?
Hmm…my favorite poem that I’ve ever written is probably “The Body,” which is the first poem in my book. Writing it was one of those great experiences — and the primary excitement about writing in general for me — where a boatload of meaning blossomed spontaneously out of what at first was just babble. That’s the case for all the the poems I’ve ever written that I actually like, but “The Body” is the starkest example. And then playing with the text lead to the development of its form, which is something I’ve used in many other poems since, as a way to get the unrelenting rhythm of that voice onto the page.
My favorite poem that I’ve read is an entirely different story, and I have no idea how to go about choosing just one. I love Ginsberg’s “Howl” for similar reasons that I like my own “The Body,” though of course his poem is infinitely superior — the epiphanic spontaneity, the energy of the voice. In “Prufrock” Eliot manages those elements under so much more control, so in addition to being emotionally and intellectually powerful, it’s also mechanically gorgeous. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” makes me cry every time. Kim Addonizio’s “The Sound” is the poem I always aspire to write. Or Jorie Graham’s “From the New World.” Or Montale’s “Freeing a Dove.” If I had a poem tattoo it would be E.E. Cummings “Into the Strenuous Briefness.” Some of the poems we’ve published in Rattle are up there, too — Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings” and Sophia Rivkin’s “Conspiracy” to name a couple. I don’t know how anyone could pick just one.
2. Do you think there is a disconnect between academic poets/poetry and online poets/poetry?
There’s definitely a disconnect somewhere, but I remain thoroughly confused about what’s disconnected from what. Despite publishing Colin Ward’s essay last spring, I’m still unsure as to what exactly constitutes an “online” poet — there have always been underground or non-academic poets, face to face workshops, friends who trade poems and are very serious about it. What’s so different about the internet? That it’s searchable and more fixed in time? I don’t really understand that. And there’s always so much overlap. What do you call Wendy Videlock? I love her work; her book was just published by Able Muse Press, which is probably as online as it gets — and yet the poems from the book appeared “most regularly and most notably” in Poetry, which is probably as institutionalized as it gets. Even if you break it more simply into academic poets vs. non-academic poets, what do you do with someone like Patricia Smith, rising up through slam and now teaching at Cave Canem and an MFA? Poetry is poetry; it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or how it came to be. And it can come from anywhere.
That said, I pick up a copy of Poetry magazine or the Kenyan Review, and most of what’s there would go straight into my rejection bin. And I know for a fact that the editors are good people, who work hard, and are genuinely passionate about what they’re holding up. But to me it’s esoteric minutia at its best and intellectual fraudulence at its worst. Even editing a populist magazine, I see it every day in submissions from professors with CVs a mile long — and all I can think is, “Who would want to read this stuff?” Well…other professors would! There’s a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading for scholarship. When I read something — when most people read something — all we have to do is react. We love it or we hate it or it blows the tops of our heads off — and then it’s done. If we want to experience it again, we read it again. Maybe it haunts us, maybe it transforms us — we don’t have to do anything; it does all the work. But an academic isn’t free to just react — they have to respond. They have to write criticism, give lectures, speak at symposiums, propose panels at the AWP. So I think they naturally gravitate toward the kind of writing that lends itself to that. And the forest of what poetry is really for is lost to the nuances of the trees. That’s to say, the reaction is what matters, not the analysis. And I think academics tend to lose sight of that.
So that’s the disconnect. But you have to paint with a pretty broad brush to get there, and I don’t know that academic vs. online poets is really the dichotomy. If there even is a dichotomy at all. Most of my favorite contemporary poets are college professors now, even if they didn’t start out that way — because why not, it’s a good gig. . .
3. Has the rise of the poetry MFA been positive or detrimental to the art?
I think an MFA is a waste of money and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to pursue one unless they have a free ride or are independently wealthy. There’s nothing, in my experience, that you can learn there that you can’t learn workshopping your poems online and reading prolifically. Some people say they need deadlines or time set aside just to write, but if that’s the case you have to wonder why you’re bothering to write in the first place. Maybe you want to teach at the college level, and it can be an important step in that process, but one that has nothing to do with art.
Setting that aside, I think the only rational conclusion is that MFAs have been a wonderful boon to the art of poetry. There are more poets writing amazing poems today than at any time in history. More books being published, more access to poetry, more ways to publish your own poetry — look at all the “markets” at Duotrope.com or Newpages.com. A lot of that is the result of technology, but part of it is that the MFA allows thousands of people to make a living within the art. MFAs are the primary subsidizers of poetry in this system — there are negative consequences, as I mentioned above, but the sheer volume of poets who are free to fully dive in to the art is a real gift.
4. Do you write for yourself or for an audience/reader?
I can only really write for myself, and that’s actually been the source of some difficulty for me lately. My first book, American Fractal, was written entirely for myself, with no aspirations or grand ideas about having an audience or making it a book. It was just something I enjoyed doing, so I did it. There’s the meditative experience of being inside the poem, and then there’s the feeling of accomplishment when it’s finished. That’s what I always wrote for. When I did start publishing, and eventually published a book, it started to become about more than that — I started to wonder, as I was writing, if anyone would care to read this, if anyone would want to publish this, if I could stand to read it out loud into a microphone or be proud to sign my name for someone on the title page. . . Lately I’ve been trying to set that aside and stay focused on all of the reasons I started writing in the first place, but it’s always a pink elephant in the room. I’ve toyed with not showing anyone what I write, or just publishing everything myself on my blog and forgetting about it — but books and readings and things like that are fun. The struggle is to divorce the one from the other.
5. How much of what you write is inspiration vs. perspiration?
I could probably say that for me it’s all one or all the other. . . which is to say that in fact it’s neither. I think that creativity is something that needs to be allowed to happen. It’s not about finding inspiration or wrestling with a text — it’s about turning those impulses off, so that the primal hindbrain is free to play with all the toys of the cerebral cortex. I’m talking about literal neuroscience here — it’s been demonstrated over and over again that we are many minds, but in our regular lives only our conscious mind has the ability to use language and communicate with the external world. I think that all art, whatever the medium, is really a shout out of the void by the deeper and more mysterious layers of self. And because those archaic regions of the mind are responsible for impulse and instinct and emotion, we share more in common there than in our individual consciousnesses, so that any message that does make its way out is able to resonate more broadly. Those are the things we find to be moving or transformative. It’s only rarely that the reptiles and anthropods lurking beneath the surfaces of our selves get to speak to each other. They swim so deep; it’s not easy bringing them up. I think the varying processes that artists have are all individualized ways to expose some of what’s down there. Whether it’s a formal poet juggling meter and rhyme as a distraction, or a free-verser navigating the maze of possibilities, or Ginsberg high on peyote.
And then there’s the precarious balance between releasing the beast and harnessing it.
But back to the point, writing isn’t about inspiration or perspiration so much as it’s about finding a way not to get too much in your own way. For myself, I like to write late at night, when I’m feeling just the right amount of tired and loopy, and then I listen for the music in a line and hope it takes me somewhere.
6. Bonus question! Answer any one of the following:
I’ll make it a lightning round and answer all of them.
a. Do you ever include the works of others in your readings? If not, why not? If so, who and why?
I do sometimes; I think it makes a nice tradition, to pay some homage to all of the people who influenced your work, and also help other readers of poetry find other poets.
b. If you were a Celtic bard, carrying poems from place to place as if they were the last flame, which ones would you sing?
All of the ones I mentioned in answering question 1. Or I could just take the Canterbury Tales and be satisfied.
c. Why do you read or write poetry?
It’s my Zen.
d. How has the way you write changed (or not changed) over time?
I used to spend more time writing than I probably should have; now I spend far less.
e. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Coffee. I stay up late, eat dinner late, and don’t really get hungry until noon.
American Fractal is Timothy Green’s first book-length collection of poetry. His poems and short stories have appeared in dozens of publications, online and in print, including The Connecticut Review, Florida Review, Fugue, Gargoyle, Los Angeles Review, Mid-American Review, Nimrod International Journal, Paterson Literary Review, and Runes. Green has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. An earlier version of American Fractal was a finalist for the New Issues Poetry Prize, and won the Phi Kappa Phi Student Recognition Award from the University of Southern California, from which he graduated with a Masters in Professional Writing in 2009. Timothy Green is editor of Rattle and his website is www.timothy-green.org.
Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour – click for a list of participating blogs and daily entries
Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour for April, to help promote poetry and poets for National Poetry Month. Check back here for updates throughout the month of April (we’ll also post updates to our blog, and so will many of the participating poets).