Elizabeth Spires

Q&A with Elizabeth Spires

Elizabeth Spires’ sixth collection of poems, The Wave-Maker, was published by W.W. Norton in July 2008. A review of the book appears in the review section of our website. Her new children’s book, I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings, was published by FSG in 2009. She recently edited Contents of a Minute (Sarabande, 2008), a chapbook by the late poet Josephine Jacobsen. Spires is Professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore. Her poems have appeared in Smartish Pace, Issues 9 & 15. Please visit our media section to hear an interview with Spires & watch a video of her reading. [bio updated 2009]

Thanks for being here & thanks to Smartish Pace for more Poets Q&As—keep-up the valuable work you do here! Ms. Spires: Do you ever encounter serious misreadings of your poetry? Do you ever feel responsible, like you could have written something differently, or is it mostly that the reader should be a better reader?

M.L. — New York, NY

I haven’t encountered that much misreading. Generally speaking, I’m not bothered by someone not liking or not understanding a poem. And yes, sometimes I feel that the poem fell short, that I didn’t quite succeed.

What poem or poems are you most proud of?

Dan — Birmingham, AL

Probably “Sunday Afternoon at Fulham Palace,” “Glass-Bottom Boat,” “Life Everlasting,” “Cemetery Reef,” “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn,” and maybe, considered as a diptych, “Snail” and “Snail Revisited.”

What contemporary poets are you currently reading? It seems like most poets, when asked, don’t like to give a favorite living poet but I’ll ask: which living poet do you most like to read? Do you see any similarities between this poet’s work and your own? Favorite dead poet?

Trent Manner — Anderson, Indiana

I really don’t have ONE favorite poet, living or dead. I’ve learned an enormous amount about writing poetry from so many poets. Some of my models and favorites include George Herbert,
John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Josephine Jacobsen,
A.R. Ammons, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Philip Larkin, Anthony Hecht, May Swenson,
and Donald Justice.

In terms of living poets the list is long. I’d feel uncomfortable mentioning names unless I
mentioned several dozen.

I read somewhere that you said you’d give five years to poetry after graduation and that if you didn’t have a positive response to your work you would stop writing. Is that true? Wouldn’t the process of writing been enough for you to continue or was publishing necessary (or affirmation from others) to continue to be a creative writer? What is the relationship between the creation of the art/poem and the acceptance/ unacceptance by others for you? I mean, of what importance does this still have for you? I enjoy your work and thanks for taking time to answer questions through Smartish Pace.

Sarah N. — Newton, Kansas

The way I was thinking about poetry when I was in my early twenties and the way I think about it
now has changed. I believe one should write poetry out of inner necessity. So it’s possible I would
have kept on writing even if I hadn’t been successful in publishing my work. When I was in my twenties, however,  I felt a need for some sort of outside validation or affirmation (e.g., publication). But two of the poets that I most admire, Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, did not have that kind of validation during their lifetimes. If I try to analyze WHO I write for, I’d say I write primarily for myself. At the same time, I like the idea of the poem going out into the world and finding readers. It’s an “Instance of Communication” (I’m borrowing the phrase from a poem title of Josephine Jacobsen) between the poet and the world. So in that respect, publication probably does matter.

Who were some of the formative poets that you were reading as an adolescent? Do you think their voices still affect your poetic sensibility?

Mark H. — Santa Fe, New Mexico

In college, some of the poets that I was most interested in were Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell,
Anthony Hecht, and Donald Justice. All of their voices influenced my work, and Bishop and Justice
still do to some extent. (Over the years, I became skeptical of the overt, confessional approach that
was popular in the 1970s . . . and still is.)

I just started reading Smartish Pace (and love it) a couple of years ago and think that your poems in Issue 15 are some of the best they’ve published. I hope they publish more of your work. “Zazen” is fantastic. Could you talk a little about the creation of that poem. Where did the images and ideas come from? Did your current reading at the time of the poem influence the spiritual nature of the poem or does that come from somewhere else?

Julie — Santa Barbara, CA

“Zazen,” as you must know, refers to a kind of sitting meditation done by zen practitioners. The past few years I’ve been reading a lot of zen texts. One night I went down into the basement, and the stillness of a cricket sitting on the cement floor inspired the poem. I felt it to be a sentient creature as aware of me as I was of it. And that it was in a much more advanced state of stillness/quietude than I was.

Do you find your time in Ohio influencing your writing? Is there some Ohioness to your poems that others might not recognize? Could you give me an example. In a larger sense, how has geography, whether Ohio or Maryland, influenced you as a poet? Thank you.

Wendy Morris — Columbus, OH

In my twenties, I lived in Ohio for several years (I also grew up in a small town there) and wrote
various poems set in the Midwest that I did not include in my first book Globe. Why? Because I
felt uncomfortable, in retrospect, with the ironic tone and subject of the poems. They felt superficial
and juvenile, written by someone too quick to judge. (These “Ohio” poems were published in
MademoiselleAmerican ReviewCarleton Miscellany, and other places. Many of them express
a disaffection that I no longer feel.)

I think geography affects most poets. Each of us has a landscape, the outer connected to the inner,
that we feel most at home in. I need to be near water, and I like green places that progress cyclically
through four seasons. I also like living on the edge of a continent rather in the middle. I don’t think
I could live in a desert landscape, and I’m not sure I would want to live on top of a mountain.

My professor is always telling us how we should read lots of new poems and that we should subscribe to poetry magazines to stay current, to become better readers and writers since we are writing in the same time/space as the poets being published in magazines like Smartish Pace. What do you think, is it really that important? Is this important to you? To which magazines should I subscribe to get good new poetry?

Alston — Madison, WI

It’s important to read GOOD poetry if you’re serious about writing poetry. By good, I actually
mean the great poems written through the ages, including the great poems being written now. Reading good (e.g., carefully edited) literary magazines can help you discover important
contemporary writers, but no magazine is able to publish that many “immortal” poems. I suggest you go to a good university library that subscribes to many literary magazines, and form your own opinions as to which magazines are publishing the best, most exciting work. (That said, I confess that I really like C. Dale Young’s poetry selections for The New England Review. And Smartish Pace, of course.)

Do you and your husband Madison Smartt Bell talk about the writing process? When you talk about books and writing with him, what is the most popular topic of conversation and how valuable is it living with another writer? What are some of the challenges of living with another writer?

W.Y. — Oshawa, Ontario

My husband and I really don’t talk all that much about our writing process to each other though
we do talk about books that we are reading that we like. We work on our books fairly independently
of each other. When we’re finished with something, we may show it to the other but usually not before it’s nearly complete.

Maybe (for us) the biggest challenge of living with another writer is that we both work at home (but in separate rooms on separate floors). It would be nice to have a studio outside of the house, but I don’t. I fantasize about having a small Japanese house, very, very empty, with no post-it notes of “things to do” to distract me.

I love your work. How did you come to be published by Norton and is there a reason you can discuss as to why you stopped publishing with Penguin?

Yancy T. — New York, NY

My editor at Penguin (for my book Annonciade) moved to Norton and invited me to submit
a book there so I did. Worldling resulted, and then I moved on to another wonderful editor
at Norton who has published Now the Green Blade Rises and The Wave-Maker.

If you hadn’t become a professor and poet, what do you think you would have done? And, if you did the other thing, do you think you’d still read contemporary poetry? Thanks Ms. Spires and thanks Smartish Pace.

O. Williams — Raleigh, NC

In a “second” or “third” life, here are some of the things I would do: become a painter (but I can’t draw); an herbalist midwife; a zen monk in Japan in charge of raking the rock garden.

It seems like religion has always been important to your work but maybe more-so with some of your newer poems. Is this accurate or am I reading something that isn’t there?

G. Bell — Richmond Hill, Georgia

I grew up Catholic, and attended a parochial school for six years (grades one through six). It’s a belief system that strongly affects anyone who has ever been in it. Certain motifs,
images and beliefs are drawn from those early, formative years.

Do you enjoy giving poetry readings and do you think of them as something separate and apart from the poems as they appear on the page? Do you think about reading your poems aloud when you write them? What memories do you have of your first poetry reading?

Lauren — St. Louis, MO

The activity of writing a poem is a very private exploration. Reading a poem in front of an audience is a public performance. They’re distinctly different. Readings are enjoyable when I feel I have connected with the audience. (This can just as easily not happen as happen.) As a reader, I actually prefer to encounter poems for the first time on the page in the quiet of my room rather than by hearing them aloud at a reading.

That said, I’ve been to some very powerful readings in my life (my ‘top three’ would be ones by Seamus Heaney, W.S. Merwin, and Anthony Hecht). I think, but am not sure, that the first public reading that I gave was at the Columbus Museum of Art in the 1970s, before I had ever published a book. I wasn’t scarred or traumatized by the experience; all in all, I have positive memories of it. 

How do you see the Internet impacting poetry or do you think the significant impacts have already been seen?

Ben Phillips — Buffalo, NY

The Internet has already impacted poetry and will continue to do so more and more because the electronic age is chipping away at our sense of personal/interior space and our privacy. It’s probably affecting our imaginative life as well though this is hard to prove or document. Because of the ubiquity of cell phones, computers, e-mail, etc., we (well, most of us) are never out of touch with the world ‘out there.’ At the same time, people are losing touch with nature as they spend more and more hours every day staring at computer screens. In ways that we can barely understand or imagine, we are slowly being changed. I’m distressed by it all, but haven’t quite figured out (yet) how to
adequately defend myself against it.

Are there any subjects on which you’d like to write but for some reason are unable to do so? If so, what are the reasons?

T. Holden — Scottsdale, AZ

I would like to be able to write more about the texture of daily life (not the actual events), to figure out a way to write about large swaths of everyday experience without it seeming mundane or banal. I think A.R. Ammons was able to do this brilliantly in some of his book-length poems such as TAPE FOR THE TURN OF THE YEAR and GARBAGE. What I’m trying to describe here, I think, is a poetry that examines how consciousness processes all the information thrown at us, the streaming demands and challenges of daily life (everything from commuting, to the internet, to climate change, to cell phones, to the diminishment of nature–things are different now than they were even twenty or thirty years ago). I haven’t been able to do what I’m describing except (to a minor extent) in a few poems.

How does teaching at a small college like Goucher inspire your writing? How does it inspire the way you teach poetry?

R. Patrick — Nashville, TN

I would basically teach the same way, using the same approach, whether I was at a small college or in a larger university setting. When I teach poetry workshops, I always give the students model poems (by established poets) that connect to whatever poetry-writing assignment I am giving. Teaching has forced me to be a very careful, methodical reader–I take poems apart before I teach them–so in that sense I guess it has fed into my own writing. When I understand how other poets have constructed their poems, it sometimes gives me ideas that I can use in my own writing.

Given the current excitement surrounding the American presidency, do you have an inclination to write any political poems?

W. Wade — Westminster, CO

I would like to write a few (one or two) political poems, but I haven’t. Writing a good political poem is a real challenge! (I’ve been thinking that everyone should try writing a poem titled “Inaugural,” a public poem set on the occasion of the president’s inauguration, just to see if they could do it.)

Do you consider poems on the internet as being “published?” Does your book publisher?

Mary — Baltimore, MD

I prefer poems that are published on paper because I like the physicality of magazines
and books, the tactile sensation of holding the sheet in my hands. It’s possible, however that poets that publish in the internet have more readers. (I’m just speculating.) I think, but am not sure, that most publishers would consider a poem appearing on the internet to be ‘published.’

Is writing ever a collaborative effort for you? Or, how do you feel about the community of poets in Baltimore?

T.C. — Cleveland, OH

Writing, for me, is a solitary activity. I don’t think it’s necessary for poets to form themselves into a group unless they want to. But I do know a lot of poets in Baltimore and like them and their work.

Your poetry seems to have philosophical underpinnings. Have you studied philosophy, do you read it still? Or maybe I’m mistaking religion in your poems for philosophy? Thanks for taking my question.

B.K. — Arcadia, CA

I’ve never read all that much philosophy. I’m interested in everything from Christianity to Zen, and in the idea that the spiritual search can take many different paths and locate itself in many different belief systems.

Hello, My name is Lily. Iam 16 years old. I have been writing poetry for most of my life. One of my main goals is to have some of my poetry published. I have a ton of poems I have personally written, but for starters I only want 25-50 poems published. I have a title and I am working on a cover. I basicaly have it all set up. But I don’t know where I can go to make a book or have it published. I was wondering if you can help me. Thank-you. From, Lily

Lily — Willimantic, CT

It’s normal and natural to want to publish your poetry, but you should know that most serious poets don’t usually publish a book until they are well into their thirties. (A few are lucky and publish a bit earlier than that.)  There’s usually a kind of ‘apprentice period’ that happens in your twenties where you learn more and more about the craft of poetry, and where your poetry begins to change rapidly and deepen. However, if you want to see your poetry between the covers of a book now, you can self-publish it or contact what is called a “vanity press” and pay them to publish your book.  (The reference book WRITERS’ MARKET might help you to find such a press.)

How important do you think it is for a poet to stay connected to the academic world, if that poet wants to have a literary career?

Daisy Gribben — Cincinnatti, OH

I suppose the academic world is of some help in having a literary “career” (e.g., a visible public presence). I don’t see an immersion in academia (as opposed to holding some other type of job) as being of any particular help in actually writing poetry, however.

What do want your poetic legacy to be?

Sam B. — Sarasota, FL

I’m just taking it one poem at a time. I’m really not thinking in those terms.

Living on the West coast, the geography and environment is something I frequently have to (or have the pleasure to) take into consideration. How important is location to you? Do you see a change in your students’ and younger poets’ attitudes toward location?

Isaac B. — Portland, OR

I answered a similar question elsewhere in this interview. As to your second question, I find that my students are often drawn to write about their place of origin, the landscape where they grew up. Oftentimes, these poems of place are very powerful and resonant. I sense that the place where they spent their childhood is, for better or worse, a permanent meaningful part of their inner landscape.

Your poetry works primarily in a lyric mode. Inevitably, even the most lyric of lyric poems contains information of some kind that the poet wants to present to the reader. There is some argument or idea the writer is trying to get across. Can you speak to the approaches you take in order to include ideas or information in your poems? Also, can you talk about how one can include narrative trajectories in lyric poems.

Charlie — Washington, DC

I can only try to answer your very interesting question in a general sort of way. I’ve always liked the Metaphysical poets, because I like the idea of a poem being powered by intellect and emotion, not just one or the other. Many of George Herbert’s and John Donne’s poems work as passionate arguments, a marriage of feeling and thinking. I’m very drawn to that combination and to the whole idea of using a metaphor that extends through the poem.

I’m also a believer in poems having some sort of clear story line or “dramatic occasion” (I’m borrowing that last phrase from W.D. Snodgrass who was a strong advocate of locating a poem dramatically). For me, the distinction between a lyric poem and a narrative poem is rather blurry. For example, Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” is a lyric poem and yet it also tells a story.

All of these concerns factor into my poems directly or tangentially (and in different proportions) as I’m writing. I think the best thing to do is to study a poet like Frost and see how he includes “narrative trajectories” in his lyric poems. To put it in the simplest terms, if you set up a dramatic situation and develop it, while at the same time paying close attention to the sound and rhythm of the words, what is probably going to result is a poem that is both lyric and narrative.

Thank you for taking my question. In your view, how will the internet impact the progress of poetry in the 21st century, in terms of how poets interact (and argue) with one another, and how they share ideas? How will the internet affect the way people read poems? And how technology and the internet will impact the actual writing of poems? How do you see people approaching the internet as a subject, or how it will present itself in the margins of poems?

Elbert — Chicago, IL

You’re asking very big questions! I don’t think I can answer them all. The internet is useful in terms of how it’s now possible to find and print out various poems by well-known and lesser-known poets.   It makes communicating easier, in a sense, but the communication is usually briefer and more superficial and much less literate than the old-fashioned letters that most writers have (sadly) stopped writing to each other. That’s a huge loss. I think the internet is a subject for poetry. I wrote one poem, “Sims: The Game” populated by internet characters. It fascinates and horrifies me how people use the internet to escape their lives and enter alternate realities such as “Second Life.” In the years ahead, there’s going to be a lot more said about the internet universe in poetry.

What are one or two poems that you find yourself going back to over the years, and what is it in these poems that you continue to find so engaging?

Penelope — Sandusky, OH

“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Among Schoolchildren” by Yeats and “Love (III)”
by George Herbert. I’m not sure I ‘agree’ with Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium”–there’s a lot to argue with in the poem–but in both Yeats poems he is considering some of the biggest questions:  our movement through time, how the body changes, what we are being transformed into. I keep being drawn back to “Love (III)” by Herbert, because it considers the soul’s relationship to its Creator, another big subject.

I have two questions, really. 1: What are your thoughts on ekphrasis? What makes poems about other objects of art necessary? 2: What are your feelings about poetry as memoir? From Lowell (or Wordsworth (or Augustine)) the impulse has been there to talk about the self, and to divulge private information and describe the inner/personal life. It seems that, on some level, inherent in that is an interest in providing more lurid details. Is there an ethical boundary there that a writer must be aware of? Is this a matter of personal discretion? Given the way the prose memoir market has exploded in the last 15-20 years, is there a reason a poet should feel it is necessary to refrain from writing poetry that “justifies” itself or survives on details of personal narrative? Or should personal details always serve some larger idea in a poem? And if you believe the poem should come first, why is that?

Hal I. — Boston, MA

Obviously many poems–by me and everyone else–are based on memories, on personal experience. How could it be otherwise? For poems to matter, the inner life must be addressed in some form or fashion (Czeslaw Milosz describes poetry as “the story of a soul”). It’s the revelation of lurid, sensational details of the outer life that are the problem. I do think certain poets cross the line in terms of their willingness to put anything into a poem, no matter how shocking or hurtful it might be (shocking and hurtful both to themselves and to others). Elizabeth Bishop found Robert Lowell’s book-length sequence The Dolphin, about the break-up of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, very painful and disturbing to read. She wrote him that ‘art just isn’t worth that much.’ I tend to agree. (Randall Jarrell has a lot to say about this subject, too.)

A poem that I love, one that is very revealing of the inner life but NOT confessional, is “First Woman” by Josephine Jacobsen. I believe there are various ways to write meaningfully about the psyche without it sounding like tabloid reporting.

Who were some of the formative poets that you were reading as an adolescent? Do you think their voices still affect your poetic sensibility?

Mark H. — Santa Fe, New Mexico

In college, some of the poets that I was most interested in were Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell,
Anthony Hecht, and Donald Justice. All of their voices influenced my work, and Bishop and Justice
still do to some extent. (Over the years, I became skeptical of the overt, confessional approach that
was popular in the 1970s . . . and still is.)

Does Baltimore inspire you and your writing in any way? If so, how?

Amy Kim — Baltimore, MD

Living in Baltimore has led to many poems over the years.  I’ve written three or four poems
set in the Ladew topiary gardens in Monkton, Maryland (a few miles north of Baltimore), and
poems about art in the Baltimore Museum sculpture garden and the Walters Art Museum.  
Other poems have been inspired by what I see in my own  backyard, by landscape (the Eastern
shore), and by the photography of the Maryland photographer A. Aubrey Bodine.

What has been your main inspiration in your writing? Have any of your students ever read any of your works and discussed them with you? Do you students provide any inspiration to you in their writing or comments?

Christine Hiemstra — Baltimore, MD

I don’t have a “main inspiration.” Many things inspire me — small moments in daily life,
family members, time passing, art, literature, photography, and places both local and remote.  

I don’t bring my own poems into the poetry workshops that I teach, because I think that would
place an unfair burden on my students to respond in some way. (Some of my students, on their own,
have read my poems.) And yes, some of my students have written poems that I really admire though I’m not sure that any of their poems have inspired my own.

Hello, it is very nice to meet you through this website! I am taking a course named “Introduction to Fiction and Poetry” in Johns Hopkins University. I had never written a poem before I took this course. For me, it was first very hard to start a poem, and I realized that something needs to inspire me in order to write a poem. What inspired you to write your collection of poems?

Oh Young Kim — Baltimore, Maryland

My most recent book, The Wave-Maker, was inspired by many things: zen (as noted elsewhere in this PQA) and spiritual practice, poets as diverse as Rumi and Josephine Jacobsen, experiences with family members and friends, travel, art, close observation of nature and animals, and even (alas) the internet.

Since when did you know that you were going to be poet? How did you make your decision, and how did those around you impact your choice? How did you deal with trying to get published, of supporting yourself? What is your answer to the familiar question, is it more important to do something you love or to do something that’ll support yourself and those important to you?

Sharon Sun — Baltimore, MD USA

I decided to be a writer after reading Flannery O’Connor at the age of 12. When I was in college I changed course slightly and decided to write poetry rather than fiction. I’m not sure why.

Poetry is never going to be an activity or profession that generates all that much income for the poet
so poets have to figure out other ways to support themselves. Teaching is what a lot of poets choose, but other professions might be just as good, if not better. (For example, night watchman or lighthouse keeper.) I don’t see it as an “either/or” proposition in terms of  choosing to do something you love or doing something that will support you. I see it as a complicated, challenging balancing act.

Does Baltimore inspire you?

Pat W. — Tortola, British Virgin Islands

Baltimore is where I feel most at home so, yes, it inspires me.

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