Q&A with Michael Collier
Michael Collier’s sixth collection, An Individual History, will be published by W.W. Norton in 2012. He has received Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Poet Laureate of Maryland from 2001–2004, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland and is the director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. [bio updated 2012]
Do you ever feel surprised by a poem or a line that you’ve written? When things are going well for me I feel as if the poem was written half by me and half by my history of reading, and I guess, writing. That’s the surprise I’m talking about.
Diane Leonard — Belleville, MO
When I was writing the poems that eventually comprised The Ledge, I found that what I had learned about Greek mythology, mainly by way of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which I was required to read in high school, keep providing me with ways of developing, expanding and/or ending poems. One poem in particular, “Pay-Per-View” turned in a very strange way once Pandora arrived, and arriving is what it actually felt like, to show me what the poem was really about.
I like your phrase, “the history of my reading,” because I feel as well that at any time a fragment of an image or a phrase or even a single word from something I read a long time ago can float into a line and when that happens, especially if the poem has gone sluggish or is in a full stall, it can be like pouring gas directly into a carburetor. The poem roars, rpms surge, and then you just try to hold on and ride it as far as it will go.
Are there political currents running through your most recent book, Dark Wild Realm, or am I misreading?
D. Frederick — Maine
John Freeman, in a very generous review of Dark Wild Realm, spoke about the book as a kind of allegory, although I don’t think that was his exact word, or as a response to the post 9/11 wars and the misguided American interventions. I welcome that reading, although I did not in anyway conceive of the book in that way. Nevertheless, I find that when I write I’m always keenly aware of the current state of the world and what’s happening in the realm of politics, which I mean in the broadest sense, absolutely has a way of magnetizing and aligning my poems. As a result, the new poems I’ve been working on seem to take up “political currents” more directly than I ever have. I’ve had the chance to travel to Syria and Lebanon in the past few years and will be making another trip to the Middle East in the spring. You’d have to have the sensitivity of a brick not be influenced by what you see when you go to country’s like Syria and Lebanon. Of course, for me, politics are embodied in individuals and place, so I end up writing about the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen.
I’d be interested to know if there’s anything specific you see in Dark Wild Realm that passes for “political currents”? Sometimes the poet is the last to know.
What are your thoughts on disclosure? If we take a photograph of a friend, etiquette dictates that we check with them first before posting it on the internet. Do you feel this applies in any way to writing? If we write a piece that contains intimate details of another person’s life, to what extent (if any) do we have an obligation to share it with that person?
L.N. — Colorado
I once had a friend who wrote a story that used a number of very intimate details about me and my adolescence. The story was published and anthologized in an annual anthology and then appeared in a book. I discovered the story on my own and I remember feeling betrayed and exposed and, of course, angry. No one in the world, except the author and me, would have known the source of the details or that the antagonist in the story was based on me. Nevertheless, I was indignant about not having been forewarned. I felt it would have been a courtesy on the author’s part to let me know and I also felt that it was a violation of our friendship, which, in fact, was a rather complicated one. I met with my friend to talk about it and was surprised by how embarrassed she was for not having told me. Surprised because in my anger I figured she had deliberately contrived not to tell me when, in fact, she had been so conflicted about what to do, it paralyzed her. What’s the point of this story? Well, maybe it’s to say that it’s probably a good idea to let someone see a story or poem if you know that they will definitely recognize herself or himself in it, but it’s not to gain their permission to use the details. On the other hand, I know a poet recently who showed a poem to a friend because it commented on an aspect of that person’s domestic life and it caused a deep rift to develop in their friendship. Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to make sure you’ve transformed the details in such a way that the other person would have a hard time connecting to their own life, i.e., the names have been changed to protect the innocent and thin skinned.
What kinds of projects did you work-on when you were Poet Laureate of Maryland? I’m curious because it’s hard to find out exactly what folks do in these positions, though I’m sure lots of great work is being done, it’s just not widely reported.
Mandy T. — Reston, MD
I visited many county libraries, public schools, assisted living communities, and even a couple of Kiwanis breakfasts. I also wrote a monthly column about poetry in the Baltimore Sun and occasionally was called in to judge a local literary contest. All of it was interesting, especially the chance to travel to all parts of the state of Maryland.
How did you get to do Poets Q & A? I’m not of the stature of the poets featured in the series but one day hope to be and wonder who I should talk to about this. It’s an impressive endeavor and rare that a poetry project is reported on by our print newspapers, which is how I first heard of this Smartish Pace Poets Q & A.
Franz — New York, NY
The editors of Smartish Pace were kind enough to invite me. Why did they invite me? They heard me read at a literary festival in Baltimore last summer and shortly afterwards an invitation to participate in the Q & A showed up in my email.
What book of poetry have you most recently read? Should I read it?
Jendaya Riggs — Charlotte, North Carolina
James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy, University of Arkansas Press. This is an amazing and moving collection—funny and heartbreaking. One of the many remarkable poems in the book “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas” is just stunning.
Do you have poems in Smartish Pace? I didn’t see any yet. I hope you read at their party reading music mess thing next year. I’d buy you a beer at the party if it wasn’t free.
C. Davis — Baltimore, MD
I have a poem coming out in a future issue of Smartish Pace and if I get invited to read at their “music mess thing next year,” you can pretend to buy me a free beer.
I have several related questions: How important are titles to you? Do you strain over them? Are they first or last for you? And finally, what job do you think titles have/do?
Jason B. — Center Point, Iowa
Titles play a number of different functions. Sometimes they are descriptive, such as John Berryman’s poem “Winter Landscape,” which refers to Brueghel’s painting, “Hunters in the Snow,” or they can be thematic, such as Hart Crane’s “Eternity,” or create an ironic contrast such as W. H. Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts.” Regardless, a title creates anticipation of several different kinds because it’s the first thing a reader encounters before crossing the space between it and the beginning of the poem and in this way it plays an incredibly important function in preparing the reader for what lies ahead.
I don’t “strain” over titles as much as I strain over the rest of the poem but I do need to feel confident in the appropriateness of a title fairly early on in the writing process, otherwise I’m a bit adrift, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change a title at any point, even after I’ve put what seem to be the final touches on the piece.
1) Do you feel anyone without a Masters in English or Creative Writing even has half a chance to become a recognized poet?
2) Do you feel it is more important to have a consistent voice or style, or to show versatility and range of subject and treatment? Specifically, I like to express each subject in a unique, subject-appropriate style. I am isolated with no one to ask, so I REALLY appreciate this great opportunity for dialogue!
Ruth Hill — Canada
It’s a pleasure to be able to have this brief dialog with you. Perhaps you can find a Smartish Pace reader to share your own work with and start a literary friendship through email?
You’ve said elsewhere that in translating Medea, you were forced to deal with Euripides’ lack of figurative language and his rhetorical intensity. The text as it was, in other words. Did the discipline this required end up affecting your own writing in any way? Or, to what extent has or does the act of translation affect your own writing? And if it has an affect, how is it different from, say, the act of careful reading?
Sam — Columbus, Ohio
This summer I was translating a couple of Old English metrical charms and the pleasure of that work was the pleasure of working on a puzzle of some kind, not a crossword puzzle or riddle exactly, but close. What’s interesting about this kind of translating is that you don’t have to furnish much emotional information, for lack of a better phrase, and so you concentrate completely on the artifact. This was true, now that I think of it, of Medea, but it was such a long and involved and consuming project that I had a tremendous amount of my own emotional energy involved in it and I was always doubting whether or not I could pull off the whole the play. I could get parts of the play to work, such as the Messenger’s speech describing the death of Creon and his daughter, but the entirety of it was troublesome, anxiety producing. I don’t feel this anxiety when I’m translating single poems, however. Translating takes the same kind of patience it takes to write one of your own poems in that you are always looking for the right word. You’re also trying to develop a controlling or defining and consistent idiom that will carry the voice of the poem.
Is there any poem that you’ve always wanted to write but haven’t yet?
Gary — Charlottesville, Virginia
I’ve got folders full of poems I’ve started but haven’t been able to finish for whatever reason and so these are the poems I’ve always wanted to write but haven’t. In other words, I don’t have a poem that exists in my imagination purely but I have plenty of partially imagined poems because they have been partially written, including two fairly long poems or, I should say, they would be long if I could finish them.
Do you have a “triggering town”, as Richard Hugo put it? What is it that you find most ignites you, or prompts you to write.
Ty Bennett — Baltimore, MD
My triggers are various: birds, landscape, nature, the emptiness of the desert, other poems. But perhaps the best trigger is the atmosphere of 5 a.m. solitude and quiet. The trigger, if that’s what you can call it, of the empty head.
Do you ever grow tired of poetry and think: is this really the best that can be done, the best that can be written? I’m a dedicated reader of poetry, have loved poetry for most of my life, but some days this thought enters my mind.
Carrie — Washington, DC
This question made me think pretty quickly of Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”:
Peoples bore me
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
And Philip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits”:
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The here arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
And yes, of course, often I look at a poem(s) I’ve written and think how utterly inadequate it is not only to what I had hoped it would become but also to the amount of time I put into working on it.
Do you think you would be a different poet if you did not teach poetry writing? Do you learn from your students?
Paul Mann — Oklahoma
Yes, of course, I’d be a much different poet if I hadn’t had the privilege of teaching poetry and poetry writing. What the difference would be is hard to say. It’s as hard as wondering what would I be like if I hadn’t been born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona; if my father hadn’t been a traveling salesman; if . . .
I learn many things from students but perhaps one of the things I learn most consistently is how powerful the need is for people to dwell in the mystery and beauty that art affords. It’s good not to lose sight of this for too long, otherwise—“Life, friends is boring.”
As a teacher, how do you feel about the upcoming generations of poets? Thanks for taking questions and thanks to the cool kids at Smartish Pace for continuing to forge ahead!
Josiah — Huntsville Alabama
The new generation of American poets is represented by work that is so various and pluralistic it’s hard not to be encouraged by the state of the art and its future, and I think it’s also a generation that is less concerned, perhaps the way my generation was, with schools and factions. The real worry I have is for the general health of literary culture and the way it’s disseminated. Literature is simply not profitable in the way that bottom-line Capitalism demands it to be. It’s a perfectly respectable industry if you don’t expect more than 4-5% profit from it, but that’s not how businesses are run any longer. There’s no doubt that good literary writing will always be produced, but it will be increasingly less visible to the culture at large. Eventually, more presses like Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Coffee House, Sarabande, BOA, Four Way will be created to take up the slack and, of course, more and more books will be available through print on demand or will be completely virtual. I have some acquaintances who are exhilarated by the possibilities that new technologies offer for the publication and dissemination of literature and sometimes I almost find myself agreeing with them, but I need to have something between covers in my hand when I read.
I’ve recently gone through a really long string of rejection letters from journals to which I’ve submitted my writing. Any advice about how to keep my chin up? I’ve gotten some nice personal rejection letters from Smartish Pace and hope to get published by them someday.
Wayne — Caldwell, Idaho
Do you know W.S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman”? I recite these lines to myself frequently:
As for publishing he advised me
To paper my walls with rejection slips
His lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
With the vehemence of his view about poetry
He said the great presence
That permitted everything and transmuted it
In poetry was passion
Passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
That what you write is really
Any good at all and he said you can’t
You can’t you can never be sure
You die without knowing
Whether anything you wrote was any good
If you have to be sure don’t write.
Is formalism dead, or just dying?
Patrick Martin — LaFayette Indiana
If by formalism you mean poems employing conventional forms as well as regular meter and rhyme, no, it’s not dead. Those poems represent only one kind of form that contemporary poets employ. But you’re correct in thinking that it’s no longer as prevalent as it was fifty years ago.
What’s the poetry trend in Baltimore these days? Or, maybe you’re more in tune with DC, how about DC? Seems like there’s a bit of a buzz about the Baltimore music scene and wondered if there was any spillover to the poetry side of things. I’ve been hearing good things about both and see Smartish Pace has been doing lots of poetry stuff.
W. Oldham — New York
I wish I could bring you up to date about the scene in Baltimore or DC, but I can’t. Smartish Pace has its finger on one of the pulses beating in Baltimore, yes, but there are others such as the Creative Alliance programs near Patterson Park and Minás Gallery which started in Fells Point but is now in Hampden. I have a friend who is into the Baltimore Noise Music scene, which seems really interesting and lively, but I’m not sure if there is a relationship between it and the various poetry scenes in the area.
What are your thoughts on the reading and criticism of contemporary poetry? It seems to me that most reviews and criticism come with an agenda that makes it difficult to trust and respect. Not all, but most.
M.S. — Maryland
Well, I think one of the things we have to do as readers of anything is figure out what the agenda or so-called critical perspective is of a review or essay. Is a reviewer ever objective? The best we can hope for from critics is that by way of their criticism we discover what they believe poetry should be, and that kind of agenda I always find interesting because I can learn something from it. I think the best poetry critic right now is James Longenbach (He’s also a marvelous poet.) because he’s not interested in cutting up other poets but rather in describing how good poems work and how they enlarge the constantly evolving tradition(s) we work in.
Perhaps like me, you’re impatient with the kind of glib, ironic, smart-ass reviewing that began to appear regularly several years ago, which seems to be more about the reviewer’s ability to fashion snarky barbs than about a sharp critical intelligence—and I’m not talking about William Logan—or about laying out aesthetic principles. This kind of reviewing, which is always present, is in vogue now, but it will pass.
I want to start reading your poetry. Which of your books should I read first, and why?
Reggie Wilkins — Chicago, IL
This is one of those questions that is probably better answered by anyone but me. Start with Dark Wild Realm. Why? It’s my most recent book and as such it feels closer to what I’ve been working toward.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I’m a young and serious writer who is open to criticism, should I be thinking about attending? In what ways will this conference be helpful? Thanks for answering my question and thanks to Smartish Pace for another Poets Q & A!
Susan — Santa Rose, CA
Bread Loaf will help you to gauge where you are as a writer and what you need to do to get to the next place in your work. Bread Loaf takes serious writers very seriously and challenges them to do their best. If you’d like to be in touch with some recent writers who have attended, let me know and I’d be happy to do that.
Can you tell us a little about the process you use when you are translating? Do you work mainly from the primary source, or from other translations? What’s the most difficult part? How do you reach the right balance between sound or meaning?
Gene Tyler — Tucson, AZ
When I’m translating from Spanish, I use the primary source, but I also show drafts to native speakers in order to get their advice. When I translated Euripides’s Medea, I had the great fortune of working with a marvelous classicist, and she kept my feet to the fire of the original, so to speak. Medea required that I use a number of previous translations, but the most helpful one was David Kovacs’s Loeb edition, which was an up-to-date literal rendering. Generally, I try to stay as close to the original as possible. Nevertheless, I would never sacrifice euphony to sense.
Can you talk about the effect of using the first person? Is there something more urgent or visceral about the “I”?
Claire Mathews — Madison, WI
The first person is just a pronoun. Nevertheless, one of the things it does is to create an immediacy and intimacy between the speaker of the poem and the reader. The first person has been given a bad name recently because there’s a sense that it has been over used? But it’s just a part of speech and is harmless.
Do you think that poets have to have experienced some level of suffering to write good poems? Does great art necessitate dynamic experience?
Robin — NY, NY
To paraphrase Robert Frost, everyone has troubles. We all suffer the fact of our mortality, the imperfection of our relationships with our family and lovers, and the terror of our existence, and we all seek consolation by approaching the mystery of these things through song and prayer. Poets are not extraordinary in their suffering. They might be extraordinary in their powers of empathy, but even of this I’m not sure.
What books do you read over and over again? Do you read contemporary poetry magazines? Which do you recommend and which should we avoid?
Glenn T. — Syracuse, New York
I read Gerard Manley Hopkins and visit Shakespeare and Milton regularly. W.B. Yeats, W.C. Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost with some frequency as well and too many contemporaries and poets in translation to name. What I really find is that I read in phases, right now I’m re-reading Pavese and Hopkins. I was thinking this morning, actually, that it was time to read Dante’s Inferno again.
I don’t believe you should avoid any magazine. Read as many as you can and soon enough you’ll find the ones you like. I regularly read Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Agni Review, Threepenny Review, American Poetry Review, Smartish Pace, Poetry Northwest, New England Review, Kenyon Review, to name a few.
You’re a professor. What is the most important thing you hope your students will learn in your workshops? Thanks for taking my question.
J.M. — Chapel Hill, NC
There are several things I hope my students learn but the most important, I suppose, is that a poem is a made thing that comes alive not from any inherent quality it possesses but because of the ability of a reader to bring it to life when he or she reads or speaks the poem. As long as a language is understood or known this process can be repeated, if you make a good enough poem, and that to me seems like a miracle.