by Elizabeth Kerr
Kerr: How long have you been writing poetry?
Pollock: I’ve been writing in earnest for 7 or 8 years, but had some fits & starts of poetry as a boy & in college.
Kerr: What drew you to poetry, as opposed to other forms of creative writing? Or, in other words, what makes poetry so special?
Pollock: I couldn’t have properly articulated either of these when I was first drawn to poetry, but I think I was sucked in by sonic intensity of poetry & the possibilities of the “Romantic I.”
The line on poetry is that it’s the most elevated form of language, language at its most pure & refined, but I don’t think elevation creates the intense sound that attracted me to poetry. Instead, poetic language, for all its meters, rhythms & repetitions, has the ability to blend together, or at least hold together, types of language that otherwise seem in competition: high diction & vernacular, the Latinate & the Germanic, the orders of masters & the plaints of slaves. This creates a sound that can seem elevated at times but, to me, is essentially born from human experience right here in the muck & mire.
As for the first person voice, at the risk of seeming solipsistic, I think that I have difficulty getting out of my own head, creating characters — speakers in the case of poetry — who are not based on some aspect of my own personality. And so, I’m fascinated with the ability of a single, seemingly monolithic voice, to contain — over the course of a collection — the multitudes of a poet’s psyche & experience.
Kerr: Some writers need a very controlled environment for writing, some use the same notebook or the same pen, while others can write anywhere with anything. Where do you do most of your creative writing? Is there anything you simply can’t do without when you sit down to write?
Pollock: I write in the basement study, which my wife has dubbed the Poetry Cave. I like to think of it as something akin to the Bat Cave, but I think she’s riffing off the “Man Cave” idea and finds it funny that where many men have flat-screen TVs in their basements, I have an overabundance of poetry collections.
Kerr: You will be part of the Voices in Contemporary Poetry poetry reading at Swarthmore Library on April 28th. How important is it for a person to experience a poem spoken aloud? What is the experience like, to read your own poetry aloud to others?
Pollock: Poems, of course, developed from songs, & hearing a poem aloud remains vital to understanding & writing poetry. I don’t think I really “got” a poem like Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” until I heard a recording of Ms. Brooks reading it. Then I understood the rhythmic intensity of the poem & the suddenness of the ending, which mimics the death at the end of the poem – “We / Die soon.” And when I revise poems, I read them aloud & take note when a certain combination of words ties my tongue, or I’ve included an unintentional rhyme, or I have more beats than a line can bear, or I hear dissonance when I did not mean to be dissonant. That said, I don’t think that a poem is solely a unit of sound; dramatic development & tension, texture & detail, emotional turns & surprises – the sense of a poem – are of equal measure.
I enjoy reading my poems but try to be respectful of my audience. I try to read the poems that make the most interesting sounds, & I try to avoid using poetry as a torture device –try to keep my readings short.
Kerr: What is one of your favorite places or events in Philadelphia to go for a poetry reading or to collaborate with other writers?
Pollock: Larry Robin’s Moonstone Arts Center at 13th & Sansom is the spot. This year, I also dug the Monday Poets Series that Amy Thatcher curates over at the main branch of the Free Library. And I think Lillian Dunn & Tamara Oakman have done wonders in making the Philly poetry community more inclusive – they run a reading series called Light & Honey & the newish literary magazine Apiary.
Kerr: Who is your favorite poet & why?
Pollock: Robert Hayden is my favorite poet, & I’m sad & disturbed that he’s not better known. I think his command of poetic craft was masterful, as seen in the range of poetic styles he used, ranging from formal verse to collage to Blues elegies. Each time I sit down to write, I aspire to the clarity of expression & emotion Hayden achieved in is writing. His Collected Poems isn’t thick, but few of the poems therein miss the target.
Kerr: If you could ask that person one question or for one piece of advice, what would it be?
Pollock: Where’d you get your glasses? Check ‘em out: http://www.afropoets.net/roberthayden.html.
Seriously, I admire Hayden’s poems about historical figures — Frederick Douglass, Bessie Smith, Malcolm X, etc. I’d have liked to hear what he had to say about making history poetic, about pushing past the facts in a biography to the resonant emotional truth of the subject’s experience.
Kerr: What is one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring poet?
Pollock: Don’t take advice from poets. But if you’re foolhardy enough to do so: spend much more time living, reading, listening, watching, witnessing, observing than writing. Write everyday if you can, but don’t overdo it. I had a time when I was spending too much time at the keyboard in the Poetry Cave, & my poetry suffered. I got out into my neighborhood, into the city, started taking stock of the world, & the work started to heal itself almost immediately.
I’d like to thank Iain Pollock for taking the time to be interviewed.