Q&A with Maurice Manning
Maurice Manning’s fifth book, The Gone and the Going Away, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His previous book, The Common Man (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), was a 2011 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and his first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (Yale, 2001), was selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Younger Poets award. Manning teaches at Transylvania University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Kentucky. [photo credit: Steve Cody; bio updated 2013]
MAURICE MANNING’S POETS Q&A WAS POSTED ON APRIL 15, 2013
Dear Professor Manning,
I’m quite interested to know how you’d answer these questions: What place does place-poetry have in today’s literary landscape? Or, rephrased: how does a poet successfully capture and render a place such that the truth and integrity are not lost, while still creating a poem that appeals to a larger audience (who presumably isn’t familiar with that place)? Also, how can a poet successfully implement dialect, without crossing into caricature?
Thanks & Best,
J.P. Grasser — Baltimore, MD
These are important questions and probably have many possible answers. I have no idea what place place-poetry has in today’s literary landscape. I suppose it depends on the interests of readers and editors and writers. It’s also likely that some people are suspicious of a term like “place-poetry.” My own interest in “place-poetry” comes from the fact that I live in a place—specifically, our farm. Things happen here! This area of Kentucky has a rich history that I’ve always found interesting, and my family has been part of that history for over 200 years. There is a rich past and an unfolding present. Our peach trees are blooming, I found a dead wren yesterday; last week I was walking in the woods and three woodcocks jumped up—the setting sun had speckled the trees and the speckled birds jumped into that light and flew away. This is what’s going on around here and it always feels like I don’t have to look too far to find something to write about.
There is a perception out there in the literary world that “place-poetry” implicitly refers to a natural place, preferably a place unique for its woods and weather, for a specific geography. But every place is a place. I think it’s more a matter of how the writer responds to the place, if the place is generative to the work the writer is doing. It’s also true that every place begins as a natural place—even a parking lot is built on top of the earth, and above it is the sky; the wind blows across it, the rain comes down on it.
I don’t know about dialect, or how to advise anyone interested in it. I like it, because it feels natural; it’s a language I hear and feel. It has natural rhythm and sound, and most local language is chock-full of metaphor and simile, an organic use of rhetorical figures. I very much feel “dialect” or local language attracts our attention because it is not bland or homogenized. Local language, in my experience, has a literary quality. It comes from our need to tell stories and to make them entertaining and persuasive.
What other fields of study do you find yourself drawn to?
Dawn — Los Angeles, CA
To say that I have “fields of study” seems like a stretch! I read widely and often without any particular focus. Recently I read Joseph Blotner’s biography of Robert Penn Warren. Last year I read the letters and prose of Robert Frost. I read old high school agriculture textbooks, for practical purposes, and to enjoy the historical snapshot they provide. I read various books on bee-keeping, because we have bees and have had the same troubles as other bee-keepers around the country. Not long ago I was reading a history of the Daniel Boone National Forest, written by the U.S. Forest Service in 1970. I like to spend a lot of time outdoors, which feels like a considerable field of study. Last weekend my wife and I took a nice canoe trip on the Kentucky River. We got out several times and scampered up the steep bank to observe the spring wildflowers popping up on the hillsides. We saw some lovely yellow trout lilies, bloodroot, and the foliage of trillium had come up. I thought to myself, the whole hillside is alive, and then I realized, it always is. I also like music, playing guitar and banjo, old country and folk songs that invite harmony.
I may be entering into unknown territory, but outside of your favorite color: here’s what I’m wondering: What literary journal do you wait by your doorstep for, and why? Do you think there is a distinction between the readers and the writers? And if so–what courtesies do we owe each other? Literary journals just seem so damn important in introducing new voices, and developing the older ones, so they need some sustained love in a time where they seem to be dying, especially in print.
Jessica Lynn Dotson — Baltimore, MD
Well, of course, I enjoy Smartish Pace, because it is not affiliated with a university and seems to be a labor of love. I think it’s challenging for establishment journals to do anything but endorse the establishment, which is not necessarily a problem; occasionally they notice a new voice, but it seems rare. I have also lately enjoyed Subtropics, published at the University of Florida. I subscribe to The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. I enjoy the TLS because I can usually discover something new in each issue. The NYRB and The New Yorker I enjoy because the news is more digested and delivered in greater depth. I always appreciate, however, being geographically removed from the big-time writing world, being away from that kind of center. I enjoy the long-distance perspective.
Getting into a debate about publishing and who’s who and that sort of thing has always felt like a trap. I think we all owe each other much courtesy. If we are writers we should be glad to have readers; if we are readers, we should appreciate the writers. We should allow for change and variety, we should welcome something new and the revival of something old. If we believe a vibrant literary culture is important in our society, we should recognize our role in that culture and find the ways we can contribute. There are places in the world where the literary culture is suppressed and censored, controlled by a government. I think we must be careful that we don’t carry out our own versions of suppression and censorship through snobbery and competition, or piety and ego. I encourage my students to be glad for the freedom to read and write and to be humble with their gifts. Those are freedoms I enjoy.
In your poem “The Gone and the Going Away, you speak of a time in your life that is going “farther” away. There must be some reason you used “farther” instead of “further.” what is the reason? Thanks!
Art Jester — Danville, KY
I suspect Strunk and White would object to my use of “farther” in reference to time, since ordinarily “farther” is used to describe physical distance. Time is usually thought of as an abstract entity, but what if we think of it as a distance? I enjoy that possibility. I would also say in this instance I have sacrificed grammatical preference for assonance, to give the line a particular sonic quality.
Do you, in fact, have an unpublished poem titled “Long-Headed Ignoramous” that you wrote at Harlan Camp, NM, circa 1989?
H.V. Pennington 4th — Danville, KY
I believe it would be “Long-Headed Ignoramus.”
We are fortunate in this wobbly country of ours to have the 5th Amendment and various statutes of limitations. It is my privilege as a citizen to enjoy such provisions.
I’m new to your poems, Mr. Manning. But I love how you wring so much meaning out of details that link characters and places. Maybe this is too obvious a question, or one you’ve addressed before, and if so I apologize, but I’d like to hear about any nuts-and-bolts strategies you have about including these kinds of details. Do you keep a running set of notes, or is it more an act of imagination as you’re writing, or a combination of both? Thanks so much to you and to Smartish Pace. I can’t tell you how glad I am to have found out about your work, and to have a chance to ask you a question.
Felipe — Las Cruces, NM
This is a great question and probably the kind of thing I keep at the back of my mind. I enjoy the challenges of a “less-is-more” approach. So often I begin with what seems like a small detail, a minor observation, and try to make it larger. I don’t keep notes on paper; I keep a little thing in my head and let it gestate. Usually a small thing is brought forth by rhythm and the sound of a line. I’ve been working with a 4-beat line for a number of years now. It’s partly a regular rhythm, but I try to keep it loose and flexible. Once a single line is down my task is to follow that rhythm and sound to make the next line and the next. The place is pretty much a constant—the landscape where I live in Kentucky. The details arrive naturally or imaginatively, through fact or fiction. The urge I have for rhythm and sound—for a kind of music, I suppose—is an attempt to fuse everything together, so that fact and fiction, memory and imagination all seem to be the same thing. It’s like dreaming, but being awake to the process.
Your poems do something I think is risky, something I have trouble pulling off: You manage to evoke scenes that are kitschy in other contexts without being kitschy in your poems. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a compliment but I mean it as one. What jumps to mind first is a character, Sylvanius Shade, from your poem No. 9 Wire, a kind of kooky prophet. And in the wrong hands (mine, for example!) a character like that might not resonate because he’s too flat, but you’re able to make him resonate, and I’m not exactly sure how or why. I’m hoping you can say something about your approach to characters in your poems, even if it doesn’t address the rest of my (rambling) comments directly. Thank you!
Callie S. — Chicago, IL
I appreciate these observations. I surprise myself sometimes by realizing that as unlikely as a character may be or as outlandish as a dramatic situation may be, I am attempting to be sincere and serious, even if I have fun along the way. At the time of writing a poem I don’t notice kitsch or at least don’t worry about it. I also don’t begin a poem in irony; the poem may discover something ironic in the world, but that is what I call naturally occurring irony and I have not imposed it on the poem. “No 9. Wire” really began from finding a piece of wire in our barn, the gauge of wire that might be used to patch a fence. Our farm was owned years ago by a family whose last name was Key. A more recent family that owned our farm was named Graves. These strike me as wonderfully allegorical names, the kind Dickens would invent—except I didn’t invent them! I thought about the wire I found, it’s possible uses, why someone would have saved it and hung it on a nail in the barn for later use and that it might have been hanging there for 60 years, waiting. Then I wondered about names like Key and Graves. Those actual facts seem to have a natural magic, a naturally literary quality, which gives them—in my mind at least—the kind of resonance you mention. From there I wondered what happened before finding the wire, what set of events and circumstances might have led to the wire being hung over the nail. The rest of the poem comes from imagining a possible past, one that I tried to make just as resonant as the factual past. I expect I’ll keep thinking about this sort of question. Thank you for bringing it up.
Dear Maurice Manning,
I was fascinated by your op-ed piece in the NYT on your experiences as a small farmer. I thought of Wendell Berry. What do you think of his work? Have you written poetry about your farming life? (I come from the Missouri bootheel, by the way, so I’m interested in the topic, and the possibility of reaching people outside the usual poetry communities.)
Hope to meet you someday,
John Shoptaw — Berkeley, CA
Wendell Berry was my professor at the University of Kentucky nearly 25 years ago. He taught a course called Pastoral Poetry, which was a course in closely reading—The Faerie Queen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Hardy, and E.M. Forster. I did not distinguish myself in the course! But I have been amazed and inspired to realize that I am still learning from the experience. I expect I will continue to learn from the focus of the course, from Mr. Berry’s example as a reader and thinker. He would read a passage from “Michael,” for instance, and note that it was an example of good writing. The moral and social features of our readings were implicit; the course was much more focused on observing a well-written sentence. It seems like a simple approach, but it isn’t. It is a way to read and think with deep attention.
Yes, I have written poems about my so-called farming, but our farm is a very basic affair. We have fruit trees, bees, and three big garden areas. We try to raise as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible. I have to take care of the land and try to improve it. I have designed ways to get water to our garden areas, using gravity and such. We have rather rugged land, mostly rolling with a bottom area and a flat area on top of the hill. I’ve learned we have to work with the land on its own terms. Our little patch of land also requires my deep attention.
My gratitude to Wendell Berry is incalculable. He is an example for anyone who writes and thinks, for anyone who has hope, for anyone who enjoys work, for anyone who is amazed by the hills and trees, by the fields and the wind, by wild creatures, by love.
Where do you see the landscape of American poetry heading in the next few years?
Peter — Tallahassee, FL
I have no idea. As with anything, poetry seems to follow fashions and trends. Every now and then something really original comes along. It’s also true, however, that great poetry has to be re-discovered, and we find that a poet who wrote hundreds or thousands of years ago has something to say to us today. It’s easy to believe that by moving forward in time we must be moving forward in other ways, too, that the poetry written today must be “better” than the poetry written in 1913 or 1713. Of course, that is not the case. I like taking the long view on these matters. One trend is quickly replaced by the next one. I would like to see young poets develop a broader historical approach in their reading, so that they appreciate John Skelton (1460-1529) as much as they appreciate the poet appearing on the cover of a contemporary literary journal.
Do you agree with Milosz that poems should be written under unbearable duress in order to be great or worthy, etc.? Are all the 1,000s writing at MFA programs doing so under sufficient duress?
Carrie Homes — Washington, DC
It’s easy to be skeptical of the sprawl of MFA programs. We are not as skeptical of the rise in nursing programs, however, or the expansion of little league sports programs. Given the thousands of people who graduate from nursing programs every year, how many of them will be great nurses upon graduation? How many of them will still be nurses in 10 years?
While I understand the Milosz comment, I think it applies to a particular kind of poetry, and hopefully we can agree that there are many kinds of poems. Can’t poems be written in a moment of sudden delight? Can’t poems be a response to intense beauty and joy? Can’t poems be plain and subtle? Perhaps by learning how to write poems from delight and joy, from learning how to write a plain and subtle poem, the poet will be ready when the time comes to write under unbearable duress. I often liken this concern to jazz. A young person learning the piano probably does not start out playing Thelonius Monk; she probably begins with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Most of your work seems to be rooted in the American South. Do you think your poems will always be in dialogue with your home state of Kentucky?
B. Weber — Knoxville, TN
Yes. Kentucky is my starting point, my genetic code.
Along with other writers from Kentucky such as Bobbie Ann Mason, you’ve spoken out against mountain top removal mining. Could you talk about this some more and what role (if at all) this sort of activism plays in your writing?
Maxwell Roberts — Augusta, GA
Mountaintop removal of coal is an indefensible practice. It values the land for one reason alone—the coal in the ground—and it destroys all of the other reasons to value the land in the process. It is like burning down your house so the roof won’t leak. Learning about mountaintop removal in Kentucky and southern Appalachia one realizes the collusion between the coal industry and local and state politicians. The local people—both miners and people who live in the neighborhood of mountaintop removal sites—are being exploited and victimized. But the greatest victim is the land itself. However, the coal industry is just one example of how powerful industries are systematically destroying rural America. Think of the hydraulic fracking going on all over the country, the practices of agribusinesses like Monsanto and Archers Daniels Midland. These industries are most often controlled by wealthy investors with Wall Street offices; they hire-out the dirty work. The people who stand to make huge profits from the Keystone Pipeline, for instance, have probably never stood on the ground where the pipeline is proposed to be laid. The lobbyists who lean on the politicians in Washington have probably never stood on the ground in Nebraska where the pipeline would run, even though they claim to know what would be good for that land. We have powerful people making decisions about the land who have no contact with the land; that makes it easy for them to destroy the land, and to dismantle the communities and local cultures associated with rural land.
My response to mountaintop removal, to the destruction of rural land, rural communities, and rural culture is implicit in my writing, at least in my poetry. In my view, writing a poem about a tree or silence is a kind of activism.
Before the last election, you wrote a great NYT op-ed about conservatism. As a poet of place and tradition (and with a keen eye on intellectually breaking from these concepts), what do you see as poetry’s role as it overtly intersects with contemporary politics?
Joan Marshall — Towson, MD
There was a time when poetry was an effective and welcomed critique of policies and practices, an important voice in reform. That seems to be lacking today. I’d be glad if another Jonathan Swift came along. This is rather a confounding issue. I don’t expect many politicians are reading contemporary poetry. I wish I could offer a more encouraging response. It is certainly my hope that poetry could have a greater role in helping to correct our political situation. We have a depressing state of affairs; the wrong people have too much power and influence. There is work to do, for sure.
Do you have a favorite poem that you’ve written? Do you think about reading your poems out loud while you’re writing them—or when revising?– or do you first think of them as words on the page? And/or how do those two different ways of thinking about poetry enter into your thought process?
BR — Baltimore, MD
I don’t think I have a favorite poem. There are some I like better than others, of course. In the new book there’s a short poem called “The Man Who Ate the Collard Greens.” I like that one because it’s funny and mildly irreverent in various ways, and to most people it probably doesn’t seem like a poem. It was fun to write it, though, and I was chuckling to myself as the words were coming onto the page.
I talk out my poems or say them out loud before I write them down. Or I say the line out loud as it is forming; my hand sort of records my voice, if that makes sense. This process has to do with my interest in the music of writing, that I want it to have sound and rhythm. I also walk around saying a line, moving my body according to the line. I generally follow this approach in revision, too. For me the best test of a poem is to hear it.
In each of your collections, there’s a strong concept that binds each book (e.g., religious intercessions in Bucolics, portraits of peripheral Americana and Americans in The Common Man). Other poets have less tightly coordinated themes that appear throughout their collections. What do you find to be valuable in structuring your collections and what do you admire in the overall structure of collections you admire?
Troy James — Pittsburgh, PA
Having a series of organizing structures throughout an entire book is simply the way my brain works. I like thinking of the larger whole, that one poem is part of something larger. When I’m beginning a new batch of work I don’t have any sense of the larger whole, but after I have 15 or 20 poems I can usually see the bigger picture. I liken it to designing and assembling a jigsaw puzzle at the same time. The difference is there isn’t a box-top to show the completed scene. So each poem is a piece of the puzzle, but I don’t know what the solved puzzle will be. Once I have a number of pieces, though, I can see parts of the solved puzzle emerging. The puzzle-making analogy is a good one, I think. At some level it requires a non-linear process, which I find satisfying.
This is just my particular process of making a book. Other poets follow their own process and their books have other kinds of structure. David Ferry’s recent book, Bewilderment, for instance, has a whole-book effect for me: my reading experience is not that of reading one poem after another; I feel as if I am in the entire room of the book and each poem is like a window in that room. I have a similar experience reading Michael McFee’s recent book, This Was Oasis, and Sidney Wade’s Straits & Narrows.
As a fellow native of Kentucky, I wonder how Kentucky has influenced your work. Specifically, as an active participant in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, have these causes appeared in your work? How have you integrated your passions through poetry?
In addition to teaching at Transylvania University, what else has brought you back to Kentucky? How do you plan to continue your poetic career in Lexington?
LM — Bowling Green
I hope my responses to previous questions help to provide answers to yours.
I have never left Kentucky. For several years I taught at Indiana University, but I always owned my farm in Kentucky and came home many weekends over the semester and during the summers. For a while it felt as if I worked in Indiana, but lived in Kentucky. Now I work where I live and am very happy for it.
Do you find your writing–which deals often with rural spaces in our otherwise urbanized world–draws in any way on the pastoral or Romantic traditions in writing? For example, Wordsworth wrote eloquently (and elegiacally) about the English countryside in the face of the Industrial Revolution.
D. Worth — Madison, WI
Yes, absolutely. I would say I am a Romantic poet. Wordsworth and Coleridge are my heroes. I read them all the time, over and over and over.
How do you, as a poet of a specific region, approach writing about regional idiosyncrasies in such a way as to render them authentically but to avoid readers from outside the region viewing them as archetypes, or worse, stereotypes?
Nance Willingham — Beaverton, OR
Well, I don’t know if I have much say in the matter. I think I depend very much on the generosity and curiosity of readers. There are many folks, I’m sure, who loathe my work. Ideally, though, I hope that my approach to “regional” characters and quirks has a democratic effect. There are regional characters and quirkiness everywhere—which I’ve always found is a wonderfully rich and diverse feature of our country. I’m very fond of the quirky and independent.
Many contemporary poets seem to stick closely to one style of writing, as though they were attempting to perfect a unique “voice.” Your collections seem to me to break this mold in an exciting way. To me, for example, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions hardly seems to have been written by the same author as Bucolics (two collections that I like very much), though both collections seem stylistically consistent throughout. Do you feel you have a different relationship to style than many other poets? Can you describe how you arrive at a particular style — say, the style of Bucolics? Is it a conscious choice or does it just come about? Do these questions even make sense to ask? Also, what’s next?
Delante — Washington, DC
The issue of voice is one I always find complicated. What constitutes voice even seems difficult to articulate. I think voice has something to do with the line, because a poem is composed by lines and a poem is experienced by readers one line at a time. Robert Frost says somewhere that style demonstrates a mind at work, they way a mind moves toward its discovery. In subtle ways I think each of my books is a movement toward a slightly different discovery, which means they ought to be different in style. I agree that one task a writer faces is the desire to “perfect a unique ‘voice’.” Perhaps I’m trying to do that, too, and the books are just evidence of that process. But I am also inspired by the desire to try to do something different, to make each book its own creation. These questions absolutely make sense! The poems I’m working on now are an attempt to be plain and direct—at least that’s how I think about the process at the moment. On the other side of it I might have a very different thought. I enjoy letting the work be what it will be, to trust something in the process that I don’t have conscious control of.
Are there really enough good writers to fill-up all the MFA programs? Seems like MFA programs could be cut by 90% and we’d still have more poets than readers. Do we have too many “writers” given the limited audience? I could be wrong…so I ask. Thanks! Love your work, too.
Beth Page — Boston, MA
My response to this is similar to my thoughts on an earlier question. Are there enough good lawyers to fill up all of the law schools? Probably not, but we don’t discourage someone from going to law school. I often say to my students that someone who completes law school and passes the bar exam will probably not be arguing a case before the Supreme Court a week later. Only a fraction of lawyers ever present a case before the Supreme Court. In other words, I don’t think an MFA is an end-point; rather, it is more a beginning. After the MFA it is up to the (usually) young writer to develop the discipline and maturity to write and to have something worth saying. My own MFA experience at the University of Alabama was a similar case of uncertainty. I entered the program when I was 30. By that point I’d been reading and writing in considerable isolation for years. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I wanted the opportunity to immerse myself in serious study of poetry for three years. It would be something to regret the rest of my life if I did not. I had no idea what it would lead to and certainly did not expect to be teaching or have any sort of so-called career. I was prepared to complete my degree and come back to Kentucky. If the writing didn’t lead to anything but my own satisfaction then I had planned to apprentice myself to a carpenter. I like making things with my hands. Writing poems feels like a craft, a kind of skilled labor. Somewhere at this moment an old man is building a bluebird house at the workbench in the back of his garage. That’s how I view my own work—you take some material and make it into pieces and you fit the pieces together and one day you hope a bluebird perches on it singing.
What motivated you to write about Daniel Boone in the collection A Companion for Owls? You must have carried out much research before writing. Can you describe your research process? Did you ever feel encumbered by historical fact, if that makes any sense?
Kris — Fort Worth, TX
I loved working on A Companion for Owls. Yes, I did a lot of research and enjoyed every minute of it. The work that book required was more intense and consuming than anything I’ve done. I walked all over Kentucky, putting myself where Boone actually had been. I had to learn the historical and political atmosphere of the 18th century and pretend I was living in that time. I had to imagine Kentucky when it was a complete wilderness, and I had to imagine the decisions made to “tame” it and the sometimes innocent, but more often sinister, motives behind those decisions. I began by reading various biographies of Boone and that led to reading about Franklin and Jefferson, the philosophy of William Godwin, books about how land was surveyed at the time, on and on. I could have spent many more years working on the book.
My interest in Boone is natural. Growing up I read tales of the frontier, biographies of the mountain men and fur-trappers. I also had the good fortune of being able to wander for hours and hours in the woods, often alone. Boone helped establish the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap. My ancestors came into Kentucky along that route. The road at the bottom of the hill where I grew up is called Wilderness Road and it is the end of the road Boone helped to build. That portion of the road was my newspaper route when I was a youngster. It’s kind of a magical connection. My wife has made arrangements for us to visit a cave where Boone lived one winter. This is on private land so it’s something of a coup that we’re getting to do this. Boone is still very much with me!
How important is the idea of “place” in your poems? Do you ever try to strip your poems of place in order to make them more universal? Thanks Smartish Pace for another Poets Q&A, keep it up.
Garcia M. — Poway, CA
The idea of place has become increasingly important, largely because I see my particular place is in grave danger of absolute destruction.
Do your poems start with you moving words around the page until something takes hold or do you start with a specific inspiration? Or both or neither? I enjoyed discovering you in Smartish Pace some years ago and happy to see more recently.
Alan Wade — New York, NY
Usually I start with a “specific inspiration”—a phrase I appreciate. In preparing one of our garden areas the other day I found a crank, of the kind that might have been used to start a motor years ago. A crank with nothing on the other end! I expect that will show up in a poem. For the moment I’m enjoying thinking about it, a vestige of an earlier era, something that had a practical application once, but now has a symbolic application. Perhaps! We shall see.
I’m a young maybe-poet but is it true that making a living at poetry is like putting chains on a butterfly wings or whatever the hell Ammons said? In other words, talk me into or out of this in 100 words or less.
Thank you Maurice!
Christopher — Columbus, OH
If you like reading and writing poems do it. Obviously you already have a relationship to poetry. The more you give to that relationship the more it will give back to you. It probably won’t give back money, but you didn’t get started with it for money anyway. The value of your passions is intrinsic. Good luck.
What are your earliest memories of your childhood? Do these memories make it into your poems?
Claire E. — Columbia, MD
A very early memory is standing in the yard looking up into the branches of a tree. I was younger than 4. I remember being still—being made still and quiet from looking up into the tree. I think I was recognizing a pattern, a design. There was a great comfort in that recognition. Such early memories do wind up in poems, sometimes overtly and sometimes in less obvious ways.
Do you ever feel like writing poetry is a way to avoid living life? I feel that way, so I ask. Do you have new poems coming out in the next Smartish Pace, Issue 20? I like your work and the magazine.
Laura Barnes — Philadelphia, PA
I feel quite the contrary. Writing poems for me is a way to go deeply into life, to experience life in actual and metaphysical terms at once. When I finish a draft of a poem it feels as if I have gone on a journey and come home. It feels as if I encountered something important while I was gone.
I’m not asking for favorite books because nobody seems to want to give them, but lets say: please give me a handful of good poetry books you’ve read that may have flown under the reading radar.
Ryan Atwater — Boston, MA
Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge (1798), the Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (though the Arthurian stuff is not my cup of tea), the poetry of Robert Frost, the poetry of George Crabbe and John Clare, the poetry of Robert Hayden, Keats, Shakespeare, Milton’s Lycidas, Robert Penn Warren, Dickinson, Whitman, Hopkins. I also enjoy poets I don’t quite understand or know fully how to appreciate, like Marianne Moore, Stevens, and Williams. This is a short list and not contemporary. When I began reading poetry I didn’t know poetry was still written. In school we read only dead poets, even in college. It was a revelation to know there were living creatures called poets!
More overrated: sports or movies?
Reggie — New York, NY
Good question. I am under-exposed to both!
Is there a teacher that had a bigger impact on your life than others? Who first introduced you to poetry and how old where you when you started liking poetry? Do you remember the first poem or book you enjoyed? Do you have a copy of the first poem you ever wrote? Care to share it here?! Thanks Maurice & Smartish Pace.
Mary Fallon — St. Louis, MO
I enjoyed poetry from an early age. My mother used to read to me from Robert Louis Stevenson, his book called A Child’s Garden of Verse (I think). It had a green cover. She rocked me and read, so I always associated poetry with movement and rhythm, and perhaps a kind of back-and-forth. I had a sixth grade teacher who encouraged at least one poem about Thanksgiving. He sent it to our local newspaper and they published it, along side a notice about a man injured in an incident at the stockyards. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that poem available, but I reference it in “Slow Class, Sixth Grade.” I had a high school teacher who allowed me to make creative responses to some of the regular assignments. These are really important questions for anyone to consider. We think we might not have learned much in 6th grade, but then years later, we recall something we did learn and realize how important it has been and continues to be.
I’m very grateful for all of these questions and appreciate the readers who sent them. It has been a pleasure to think about these matters.