Bob Hicok

Q&A with Bob Hicok

Bob Hicok is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Insomnia Diary (2004) and This Clumsy Living (2007), both from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Other books include Animal Soul (Invisible Cities, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Plus Shipping (BOA, 1998); and The Legend of Light (Wisconsin, 1995), which won the 1995 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. Having owned a successful die design business, he is currently an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. He read in the Smartish Pace reading series on December 12, 2006 at The Walters Art Museum. His poems appear in Smartish Pace, Issues 12 and 15. (2008)


I think poetry would be more prominent if there were a way to attach a commercial to it, but that doesn’t seem possible. Do you think that dooms poetry or saves it?

D.R. — Germany

Mortuary ads seem a natural. Anti-depressants. Saves it, definitely. I’m happy poetry isn’t more prominent. Poets can say what we want because we’re not trying to shill. Without getting into the idea of poet as truth teller, it’s undeniable that poets are less likely to be corrupted, due to our cultural invisibility. If there’s no money, there’s no money in selling out. Whether you like a poet’s work or not, he or she is very likely sincere about what they’re doing. In that sense, poets are true believers.


You use a sort of prose like phrasing in your poems, especially the more narrative pieces. Do you write fiction? Thanks Bob, you’re great!

Rita H. — Hollywood, FL

I’ve started writing short stories. Which I’ve been told sound like poetry. I don’t know where to go.


In an interview you mention that, at some point in your life, novels were your primary reading interest. Do you feel this early reading of novels especially contributed to the arguably tough-minded poetic voice you would develop?

Marshall — Washington, DC

I read novels because I found them more imaginative than poetry. Richer. People like Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo. I like being called tough-minded. It’s the first time I feel I could be a bouncer.


Do you write with a sense of wanting to engage your readers emotionally rather than intellectually, or vice-versa?

John — Cleveland

I’d like both, but I’ve come to believe that it’s more important and interesting to deal with emotion. Feelings are immediate in a way that logic can’t be. I want the act of writing to mimic this: I prefer to feel my way through a poem.


I read somewhere that Yeats “tortured” his prose into poetry. Considering that Yeats wrote formally, i.e, with rhyme and meter, how would you describe your process of writing free-verse poems? Do you free-associate and then formalize the syntax into stanzas? Is there a point in the process where you feel the poem will be more or less as successful as you imagined? Thanks to the good folks at Smartish Pace for another excellent Poets Q & A.

Simon — Antigonish, Nova Scotia

After four or five lines, I can usually tell if I’ll be able to finish a poem. I don’t advance beyond what’s working for me, so I don’t have to go back and reshape large chunks of text into a form or style that only reveals itself late in the poem. For years, I didn’t have much time to write, so I learned to combine editing and composition. Because of this habit, revisions are usually either small or almost a gutting of the poem.


Emily from Boston, MA: In an interview I read, a point was made that you began as a non-academic poet. What do you think distinguishes your poems from those written by academics? Do you think your poems have changed since you started teaching? Tony G. from Hartford, CT: I enjoy your reading your poetry. Have your writing habits changed since you began teaching poetry? Have your ideas and goals for writing poetry changed in any way since you’ve become a “professional poet,” i.e. professor? Thanks.

2 People — different places

I’m not sure where the line between academic and non-academic runs anymore. By and large, the academic sphere still excludes the Slam folks, the Cowboy poets, those writing sonnets in praise of the rose, etc. The divide has more to do with publishing than teaching. If you want to be in the lit reviews, from Conduit to Poetry, you’ll probably be fairly well read, up on the poetic zeitgeist, you’ve probably gone to college, and more and more, probably have an MFA. So a kind of selection is underway, even before looking at those who teach, how their work differs from those who don’t. Open mics probably give the best sense of what non-academic poetry is. It tends to the narrative, is driven more by drama than idea, is often more personal, usually less ambitious in language and structure. “Academic poetry” is still a pejorative, synonym for boring. Yet most poetry that makes it into print is being written, in this country, by people who teach or aspire to.

I don’t claim that my poems are non-academic. If they differ from others currently publishing, it’s primarily because I learned to write on my own, without using what I’ll call the Model System. Read some Rilke, whomever, try to figure out what he or she is doing, and write your own version of that. Over time, the writer gains more and more independence from their forefathers and mothers. I didn’t do that, I didn’t read much poetry until I’d been writing for quite some time. And that’s the real change teaching has brought about in my writing life: I’m now reading in a way I might have twenty, thirty years ago, though not so much to figure the poems out, but to find poems that will excite students. I don’t ask students to model their work after other poets, but I want them to be fascinated by other minds, how others have worked their way through language.

There’s one other thing I’ll touch on relating to the academic/non-academic divide. Professors exist in a very unique world. Summers off. The security of tenure. I do see a kind of remove in many academics, a distance from people whose economic existence is more tenuous. I have several poems in my last book about people being laid off, and I’ve found that this kind of situation doesn’t resonate with academics, or resonates less. This is very easy to exaggerate. Many professors come from working class backgrounds, and certainly instructors live with the fear of losing their jobs, of not having health insurance, etc. But when the university becomes your horizon, it’s easy to go between there and home and forget that your life is not the same as the majority of people. Every group does this. Stand around with a bunch of die makers, and you’ll realize they think they’re the center of the Earth. When we all know plumbers are. I think academics have to make an effort to stay in touch.

Because I have more time since I teach, I write more. And I’ve thought of myself as a professional poet since my first book, so teaching hasn’t mattered, in that regard. What changed most, when I began to think of this as my work, my public life, is that I wanted to be able to change how I write, to write different poems over time. To get better, to engage what I saw other writers doing.


Do you think writing is fun, or work, or both? I love reading the Poets Q & A, how did you learn about it? Thanks!

Megan — USC

Fun work. I love writing, desk time. But I like to work anyway. The surprise of it is addictive. Never knowing if it will work, and if it does, what will show up. We are most thoroughly addicted by intermittent and unpredictable reward. Gamble enough, and you’ll win some of the time. This convinces you that every next time could always be a win. Writing’s like that.


Mr. Hicok, I notice that you use quite a range of images and metaphors: classical, birds, bodies, food, cars. Can you tell us about your choice of images or how an image suggests itself to you?

Edward Stevens — South Carolina

This will be one of those non-answer answers. I don’t know how things come to mind. I sense that artists have a generative capacity, a natural tendency to produce images, sounds, shapes, without asking their minds to do so. Things arrive. This is why the idea of the Muse is so popular. It puts into a character, into mythology, something which is truly a wisp. Add this ability to the nature column, something you’re born with or not. On the nurture side is how you train yourself to respond to what your mind produces. I tend to write very quickly, by feel far more than logic, so the way I deal with images as they arise has to do with training myself to respond to their emotive fit with what is already on the page. I also think there’s a kind of biofeedback between the image that arrives and how the conscious mind begins to shape and criticize it. When I wrote this morning, I sat for about ten minutes, just letting sentences come and go, putting a few down, deleting them, until I got going on a poem which builds from something I’d heard a man say about Africa. He flew over much of it, walked some of it, and everywhere he looked or went, he saw people or evidence of people. At some point, a line showed up, something about nailing boards between the stars. This made me think of a bearing wall, at which point, I consciously looked for a way to get that into the poem: Ursa Major is a bearing wall. So an unintended image gave way to a more conscious use of language and idea. In writing any poem, I find I swing between muse moments (I really don’t like the term, but it’s economical) and steered moments.


Phillip Regan from Massachusetts: Do you recall which poet first grabbed your attention? Who’s your favorite living poet? Kevin from Dallas: Only after rifling through a book by a poet named Rilke did I find, to my surprise, that the poet was male. The point is that I was occupied by the universal themes of the poems rather than the author’s gender. Would you say that you favored female or male poets as a beginning writer? Can you list a few contemporary writers of both sexes you would recommend for reading? C.C. from Michigan: Who’s your favorite current poet? Which poetry magazines are good? T.B. from Bristol, TN: What poets do you find yourself reading over and over again? Are there any you try to model yourself after?

4 People — various places

The first poet I recall reading was W.C. Williams. Right now, I’m drawn to Hass. I recently realized that he’s great at being fast and slow at the same time. In the midst of meditation, in the act of dwelling, he’ll have these tangential bursts, brief forays into areas related to the poem but not essential to it. I’ve been interested lately in how people rest on a topic or don’t.

I’ve avoided the, who do you read question, because it’s easy to offend people. I’ll just list the names of poets whose books are around my desk or who I’ve read in the past month. Maureen Seaton. Tess Gallagher. Artaud. Bill Knott. Rodney Jones. Frank O’Hara. Ai. Szymborska. Amy Gerstler.

I don’t model myself after poets. I may read some poems by O’Hara, say, and try to be more personal in my work. Another question here is about a poet Gustaf Sobin. Reading him the other morning helped me trust the lyric development of a poem I was working on, more than its logic. Or to see that the lyricism was the logic. Reading others offers these little nudges, reminders, really. Read some C. K. Williams, remember that a longer line can be fun, offers a different stride, leads to a more meditative poem, that it checks my tendency to add images, moments. Read some Neruda, remember it’s necessary to love everything some times, to gush.

There are many good magazines out there, though they differ so much, issue to issue. I’ll skip the big ones and mention Conduit, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse. Smartish Pace sucks.


Occasionally in your poetry you touch on political events. Do these events (ones such as 911) then motivate you to want to write more topical poems? Thanks for answering and thanks to SP for hosting.

Mike Busch — California

Less over time. Topical poetry almost never works. If I write, say, about war, I’m more likely to write something allegorical, something not tied to, I don’t know, Iraq.


Your metaphors are sharp and surprising; are they something you struggle over as you write?

Neal — Eugene, OR

Thanks. Not really. I could add filler here but it would be just that. I should come up with a metaphor for not having to struggle to come up with metaphors. Now I’m stuck. Damn you to hell.


What’s it like being famous? Please tell me a short story of some stranger kissing you in an airport or something like that.

Tina T. — Chicago

Poets aren’t famous. I like the kissing in airports idea. Trains stations too. Bus terminals. Kissing and transportation go together. The strangest moment was being stopped by a cop who knew my poems. No ticket. This was supposed to be a short story. “Bob knew his barely noticeable career would pay off one day, but there’d been so much kissing of late in the airport lounge that it had slipped his mind.”


You refer to painting, whether it be one by a master or a painting conjured by imagination, in your poetry. Though a typical poem of yours can refer to a wide range of topics, do visual arts provide a continual source of importance to your work?

Mary — Boise

Yes. My work is dominated by imagery. I’d like to have been a painter. My father paints. But it’s also habit, one I probably need to step away from for awhile.


Did you ever feel self-conscious about referring to the stuff of pop culture which is so evident in your work?

Phillip — New Mexico

Yes and no. I think it has to be in there if I’m to speak naturally. I live in a very particular world, the world of Crayola crayons and spam and Spam. So to push these objects out is to create a faulty imaginative space. I’d feel more self-conscious trying to decide what has the stamp of eternity, trying to out-guess the future. But the shelf life for some expressions, products, habits�the finger-snap isn’t brief enough. For the most part, I don’t worry about poems having a use-by date. But I have no confidence that what I’ve written will last.


Do you still read at poetry slams? Would any of your newer poems work as performance pieces? I’m wondering if you know of any poets who are successful in both the slam and written poetry arenas?

C.J. — Pine Bluff, Arkansas

No. I was never a big slammer. The one I was involved in, and ran for a few years, was very kind and gave the open mic a central place. I’m not a performer. I’ve not heard of slam poets who’ve broken into print in a big way. I know some have published books, and some with very good presses. But the world I’m in tends to be quite separate from theirs. It’s too bad, really.


Do you ever take long breaks between writing poems? Given the number of works I’ve seen of yours in the past few years I’m guessing you couldn’t take too many breaks, but I was wondering about this and, well, here I am asking you. Well, I’m “here” kind of. Thanks for answering my question.

Eileen K. — San Jose

No. I write nearly every day. I’m a rhythm writer. I do best if I’m always at it. I think this works for me because I don’t think about writing once I walk away from my desk. Things pile up through the day that I’ve not considered in terms of poetry, and I can be surprised by them the next time I write. I know others do much better if they don’t write until they can’t help but write. Some kind of charge has to move through them to get them to the desk. A friend speaks of tension building up, a kind of tension that is only released by writing, without which, his writing is flat.


You publish quite extensively. Do you think of yourself as a prolific poet? Does this affect the quality of your poems?

Lou — Iowa City

No, I don’t. I’m not sure why. I know I am. But I almost never think beyond the poem I just wrote or focus on anything but the desire to write the next one. I don’t like my poems for long. That’s just not in the cards for me. Maybe we each have this sense of The Poem we’d like to write, a kind of Platonic ideal we’ll never hit. When I think of my poetry, it’s that unwritten poem which comes to mind. I’ve wondered if my poems would be better if I slowed down. It’s an obvious thing to try. And in some ways I have. But I like to write so much that I can’t keep from doing so. And because of the work I did for years, I learned to complete a poem almost every time I wrote. I only had a couple hours on Saturday or Sunday to write, maybe some time on weeknights. If I didn’t complete a poem, I dragged around this sense of failure until the next time, so I’d go into that session already defeated. I really think these habits come down to personality. Writing frequently suits me, keeps me limber, open. While it may keep me from trying certain things, I think it helps me be spontaneous, to not dwell on whether the direction of a poem is right or wrong. I don’t trust my poems, the objects, but in the act of writing, I trust my feel for what a poem needs. We each need to acquire faith in what we do. I need to feel the extended rhythm, the work rhythm that spans the poems.


D. Anderson from New York: What do you think makes poetry surreal? Would you point to any of your works as being examples of surreal poetry? Or maybe a poet like Tate? Is he a good example of someone who writes surreal poetry? Daniel Bradford from Concord, New Hampshire: A review published on another website referred to you as a “surrealistic” poet. Do you agree? I don’t. I mean, you have fresh entertaining new images that are often strange or seem out of place with what I’m likely to encounter when I leave my apartment and walk down the street later today, but I don’t think your work is surreal. I appreciate you telling me where I’m wrong/right about this as I’m thinking about writing a paper about your poetry. Also, I see you more of an image poet, though I’m not sure I have the space here to explain why. Thanks! B. Rogers from Milwaukee: I like your poems because many of them tell stories. Is that the kind of thing you like to read? Are the narrative elements a conscious choice or a natural tendency? Thanks for your time.

3 Grouped Together —

Surrealism is one of the harder definitions to come up with. I looked at a book of poetic terminology recently. It devotes several pages to explaining surrealism and this line to narrative poetry: a poem that tells a story. I think of it as poetry working toward an almost absolute faith in the imagination. I know surrealists like to think they’re catching the mind at work or unifying the subjective and objective realms or stripping away a socially constructed sense of what art is. Which is all good, but I think artists of many kinds would claim all or parts of that territory, especially the desire to arrive at some purer sense or experience of mind. What attracts me to surrealism, its real contribution, is a deep sense of optimism I feel in the works of Breton or Edson. The mind can and should go anywhere, and surrealists train themselves to open up in a way that narrative poets don’t and lyric poets only begin to. Surrealism can often collapse into nonsense, cuteness. Just like any approach, it has its own formulas, a kind of schtick that tires. But if you think of poetry on a continuum, moving from narrative to lyric to surreal, the privacy of surrealism bookends the public space narrative wants to occupy.

Tate’s a very good example of a surreal poet.

I write poems I consider surreal, but I’m not a surreal poet. I agree with you, Daniel. More likely for me are bits of surrealism, moments of, in poems which are more narrative or lyric in nature. I’ll go from imagining Carl Jung’s head being walked on a leash to wondering if my mother thinks more about death as she falls asleep since she started having heart trouble. Most everyone has this kind of mix and I’d like my work to reflect that variability, for it to find and fail to find a whole among the parts.

Narrative came naturally to me. I began writing persona poems. When I got tired of trying to wear other people’s lives so completely, I turned to narrative. I think any kind of writing, at some point, can induce a kind of fatigue, a sense of, oh boy, this again. Writing one kind of poem leads me to want to write another kind.

What’s interesting about this kind of movement is how it can make you better at the kind of writing you’re moving away from. I doubt I’ll ever stop writing narrative poems. I don’t do so that often these days, but when I do, I feel more fluid because I’ve ventured more into the lyric and surreal. I’ve enjoyed discovering how much of a lie the lyric is on one level, while on another, it serves a different kind of truth. What we say of the stars is nothing the stars would say of themselves, we lie by our praise, our emotions, and yet that’s what humans have to offer.

I don’t read much narrative poetry these days. Short stories have filled that space. For now. I’m sure I’ll be back. Certainly as a writer, whatever change I can accomplish, I don’t want to be in the nature of an erasure. If I can grow beyond where I began, I want to carry that first kind of poem forward, to see it evolve. Really, I’d like to be able to write whatever kind of poem begins to come out of my fingers after I’ve turned the computer on and had some coffee. Each kind of poetry is limited. Looking at narrative: yes, things happen, and they move us, and we learn from them or don’t, but much of it’s dull. I can say similar things about the average lyric poem – sure, the words are pretty, but poetry is a child of music, if I want pretty sounds, I’ll head there – and many surreal poems are linguistic equivalents of one of those sacks we reached into as children at school and tried to figure out what we were touching. Together, though, they approach the breadth of our experience. All the kinds of poems need to with each other.


Do you think you will see the day when you can earn a living selling your books or is making a living selling books of poetry simply not possible?

Susan — Lafayette, Louisiana

Now and then, a poet can do this. Billy Collins comes to mind, he’s likely the one who could buy his kibble and Chardonnay on royalties. Then there are those poets who could dine out on their royalties and what they make from readings. Not a big group of folks, but they exist. I don’t know what will happen for me. Odds are — for any of us — that we’re talking pizza money at best.


Does humor find its way into your poems or do you start with a premise that is based on humor? From having read your poems, I’m guessing the former but would really appreciate your comments.

P.W. — Emerson College

I know some think of me as a humorous poet, but I don’t intend that. I can’t separate what’s serious from what’s funny. We’re here to die, to cease being here? Poem after poem about dealing with that, and there should be, and will be more. But it’s also a hoot, sad and simultaneously a hoot, and also interesting in a kind of cold, intellectual way. And dull, when you dwell on it, when you consider how many of every kind of species will be born and die. Again, I’d like the mix in my poems to reflect the range of emotions and ideas that situations bring up. I don’t set out to write funny poems or passages or lines. And I’m afraid that if I come to be thought of as a ha-ha poet, I won’t be taken seriously.


What do you do in Virginia-give me something exciting-nothing please about reading, writing or teaching. Thanks, from a big fan of your work.

Gail — Wisconsin

Exciting? You got the wrong guy. I look at hummingbirds and deer and listen to coyotes. I look at mountains and sometimes walk up mountains and drive around mountains and think about mountains going up and down like very slow elevators. I watch tennis and play tennis but not on a mountain. I dream of the root beer floats of Ocracoke, North Carolina. But don’t we all?


Has anyone ever been upset that you referred to him or her in one of your poems? Does your publisher ask that you remove names or would they allow you to include them even if the person mentioned hasn’t given you their blessing?

C. Burns — Baltimore

No. I think I understand the concern. Poets, writers in general, worry about stealing lives. We are succubi, incubi, in some ways. I’ve kept a few poems to myself, not wanting to betray someone. And no publisher has asked me to remove names. Colors, sometimes, especially puce, no one likes puce.


When writing poems I find it difficult to ignore the images of my youth. When you’re writing about the land or a place, do you feel like a Midwesterner? When writing about a backyard, a lake, some trees�do you picture Michigan first?

W. Miller — South Dakota

I tend to feel like I belong in a place after a few weeks. The other places don’t go away, but the geography of my works since moving to Virginia is predominately Virginian.


Do you sense a trend developing with the young poets? For example: less formal, more narrative, more confessional, less lyrical, etc. If so, what is influencing this trend?

Alexander Morris — Rockford, Illinois

Any group you can think of will show quite a range in approach. And young means different things to different people. I’m still referred to as young by some, mid-career by others, a snappy dresser by all. It’s the spats. My sense is that an interest in indeterminacy – three in- words in a row – is something many young poets share. What language can’t say, our inability to put into words our actual thoughts and experiences. This is a carry over from Ashbery and Graham, others. Narrative is probably the least popular. The more visible poets are almost all thought of as writers of “difficult” poetry. The subject matter isn’t difficult as much as the language, the sound and syntax. Subject matter matters less than style. Style can be puzzled over in a way subject matter can’t. Academia probably drives much of this. Because so many of the readers of poetry are poets, and because a good number of us want jobs in academia, we focus on the work of academics. Poetry doesn’t get very far in academia if it doesn’t invite interpretation and study. There’s little to examine in a work considered transparent. Another major strain pushes against these tendencies, the work tends to be looser, more speech-like in syntax, goofier in imagery and action. Predominately surreal, in the tradition of Tate and Simic. Less firmly rooted in academia, though finding more acceptance there. These are just a few impressions.


Are you aware of the influence you have on other poets? In an interview Kelli Russell Agodon (who I must admit I’ve read very little of) lists Li-Young Lee, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Naomi Shihab Nye, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Martha Silano, Susan Rich and Bob Hicok as her influences. She appreciates your ability to “go from image to image and somehow make it all work out.” Do you see this as your strength? Who influenced your writing style, your ability to move from image to image? Maybe you don’t want to say, as then Ms. Agodon will start referencing your influence! I like reading your books. Thanks for taking questions in Poets Q & A.

Lee — Greenburg, Pennsylvania

I don’t see that I’ve influenced anyone. I’m not in touch with too many poets, so I’m not sure I would know. The movement between images is something I’ve always done. In many respects, it’s more interesting right now not to do that, to slow down a poem or thin it out. Glad you like my books. They’re good for keeping doors open in the summer.


Thank you for writing the poem “Alzheimer’s.” I assisted in caring for my grandmother while she fought her battle with Alzheimer’s. You captured the effects of Alzheimer’s on both the sufferer and the caregiver. At the time I read this poem I didn’t know many of your poems but I do now. Thanks.

Tracie — Quebec

Thank you.


Do you read Internet blogs regarding poetry? I’ve seen a number of literary type blogs run by people I’ve never heard-of saying things with the confidence of someone who must know something, but if I read for too long I come to understand that the writer can’t be taken seriously. Fact checking these things is difficult and they often spread misinformation regarding poets and magazines. So, I’m wondering if you know of any good literary blogs or if blogs are just little Internet trashcans? Thanks to Smartish Pace for being one of the good poetry resources on the Internet and thanks for reading my question.

R.H. — N.Y.

I don’t read them. I’ve looked at a few, but they seem to be more about display than conversation or dialogue. Let’s you and I agree to call them bogs. People get sucked in and never come out. Save yourself. But those involved seem to love them.


Is beginning the act of writing poetry a matter of inspiration or will power? When’s your next book? I look forward to reading your poems in Smartish Pace.

Bob — Gary, Indiana

Both or either. I usually don’t know what I want to write. I treat it as a job, job in the best sense, vocation, beloved, I put myself at the desk and let things start. So in that way, it’s will power. Tired or not, happy or sad, I write. What arises at the start owes more to inspiration, in that a line or image usually arrives. I spoke about this elsewhere in this interview, about the mix between driving a poem and being driven by it. I just started a poem with the line: “The bird that sounds like a typewriter is turning out pages.” It doesn’t sound like a typewriter, not exactly, but listening to the percussive song of this bird (my ornithological knowledge consists of, there’s a birdy), typing came to mind. The not-exactness of the simile is overcome by its approximation of truth and how it creates a mood I find appealing. I’m happy with the poem, but when I wrote it, I didn’t want to be at my desk, and yet the poem that came about would have happened at no other moment.

My next book will be published in the spring of 2007.


In “Insomnia Diary,” you have quite a few poems that deal with “America,” both as metaphor and as object. I wonder then, what do you see as being the responsibility of the contemporary poet to sociopolitical/topical events? Or, do you believe that a poet has that responsibility at all? Thanks for the time.

Pat Whitfill — Lubbock, TX

Responsibility sounds too much like eating your vegetables. The self seems to be the poetic ground for most of us. People have to write about what they’re genuinely interested in. And I don’t find Americans that interested in the lives of others. I read something recently by a Slovene poet, he was describing his early days in New York and his surprise that people could so easily walk over someone sleeping in the street. It mystified him, though he said that he was soon doing so himself. The responsibility I feel to write, to try to write, beyond myself, is a very personal one. I’ve just always had that interest. It’s another kind of movement, just like moving between sense and nonsense, narrative and lyric, that makes it more enjoyable for me to write. I’d like as big a pallet as I can get. And I often find other people more interesting, more surprising.


At AWP in Vancouver, I saw you in the lobby, and, seized by an irresistible urge, patted your shoulder and proclaimed you “the man.” Do you have any emotional reaction to that experience, looking back? Also, do you have any general advice about revision, specifically in keeping the transcendental, playful spirit you bring to poems through successive drafts?

Chad Parmenter — Carbondale, IL

I felt like a golfer. And was grateful you didn’t yell, “In the hole,” as some golf fans are compelled to do when golfers tee off. I assumed you were psychotic and had run out of meds. Tell me I’m wrong.

Is your e-mail a combination of smell and Elvis?

During major revisions, when tangents pile up or I feel I’ve gone down a dead end, I try to pull the thing – the image or idea, the feeling – that got me going in the first place, back in front of me. I’ve found there’s a fairly specific ideational or emotional imprint from when a poem hits critical mass, from the moment I know this is a poem I’ll carry through and not just a false start. Learning to identify that point has helped me through revisions, through every kind of draft. Possibility is so compelling, all the directions we can go, that a reminder of intent, of limit — the moment’s intent, the moment’s limit — can be very liberating. I think of poems as records of moments. If I can identify what’s most particular about a moment, I’ll likely complete the poem.

“You the biped” would have been nice. “You the emotional black hole.” That one won’t catch on, will it?


I am wondering if you have read any of William Bronk or Gustaf Sobin’s poems? If so, what do you think of their art? Thank you for thoughts.

Charles — St. Paul, MN

Bronk, yes, though it’s been awhile. I forgot him. I forget poets and then someone mentions them or I come across a book. It’s like a rebirth. So I just took two Bronks out of the library. And I just picked up a selected of Sobin’s, have found some of it very compelling. The poem “Madrigal” comes to mind. He’s so focused on capturing essence. It feels like he saw everything as alive and fawn-like. The extreme enjambments can be a bumpy road, but he seems good at managing the rhythm of very short lines. That’s one of the harder things to do.

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