Imagine a nice, spring day. It’s a coffee shop somewhere in Center City. There’s a garden outside and four local Philadelphia poets come to sit at a table. Five questions are waiting for them on the table. Each poet begins to talk about those questions.
While that didn’t happen, in my mind it did happen just that way. I wanted to have some poets come to the table and ask them all the same questions. I am thrilled I was able to get Ben Heins (Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press -www.vagabondagepress.com), MaryAnn L. Miller (Locus Mentis http://www.amazon.com, http://www.maryannlmiller.com) , Iain Haley Pollack Spit Back a Boy- U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and J.C. Todd(What Space This Body http://windpub.com/books/WhatSpace.htm) to indulge in my coffee shop fantasy and answer my questions. Here is part 1.
Wittle: When I started seriously learning about poetry, a dear friend of mine took me to Borders and placed a dictionary, thesaurus, and a rhyming dictionary in my hand and said, “Now you can start to be a poet.” What books do you think a poet should have within arm’s reach at all times?
Heins: None of those. To find the books a poet will need before writing, the poet must first connect with other poets’ works that he or she admires most. Even if this admired poet isn’t necessarily called a poet by society – such as singer-songwriters – the artist must be influential. The poet should then read and listen to those authors, study them, maybe even steal their rhythms – then, finally, the poet should write. No books. Maybe some music, if it helps. If the poet has focused on the inspiration, the words will likely flow naturally.
Miller: Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry is one book I can’t do without. One look at the table of contents will tell you that much of what you need to know is contained in this little handbook. Also, Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Another is Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction to Anthology goes beyond craft and structure into universal themes and purposes. It is a well and the water all in one.
Other helpful printouts, I found online are a Glossary of Poetic Terms from the Poetry Foundation and a Table of English Tenses from English Grammar Online. It’s so easy to find these resources for handy reference especially for revising.
Pollock: The books you listed are finishing tools in my process. Having at hand anthologies has been much more useful to me when I’m in a generative phase. I keep returning to I Am the Darker Brother, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, and a condensed version of the Norton anthology.
Todd: I began with a few dictionaries, at hand but now also on-line. My preference is at hand, except when I’m traveling; then I’m grateful for on-line apps: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and a second good English-language dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary or two—my two favorites are organized differently from each other: Clement Wood’s The Complete Rhyming Dictionary and Bessie Redfield’s The Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary. A dictionary of synonyms is handy. Later, a luxury was added to my home shelf, one volume at a time: the five volume set of the Dictionary of American Regional English.
In addition to dictionaries, I often reach for an encyclopedia or use encyclopedic internet sites and search engines. In addition to general encyclopedias, I depend on more specialized encyclopedic references, such as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols and Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. I have a few dictionaries of literary biography, one general and one dedicated to women authors. As for general style manuals, I’m stuck on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and a Harcourt Brace grammar book from the 1960s.
Over the years, I’ve added poetry-specific references to that shelf, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook and Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry. Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary also contains a brief but comprehensive handbook. Graywolf Press has initiated a series of essays on style, edited by Charles Baxter. I’m currently reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Syntax, James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, and Donald Revel’s Attention! Casting the reference net wider, for the practicalities and nuances of sound, I like Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and for received form, her Rules of the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. For sonnet form, I’ve downloaded Tony Barnstone’s amazing essay on sonnets published in the on-line journal, The Cortland Review. I’ve used, but don’t (alas) own, Annie Finch’s The Poet’s Craft and The Poet’s Ear.
The most important references, however, are not this array of books and essays but rather poems themselves whose structures I study, deconstructing and reconstructing their sonics, imagery, diction and tone, references to received form, lineation and, and, and. An essential aspect of this study is reading them aloud, although I draw the line at a solo reading of Spencer’s Fairy Queen. Poems and their makers have been my best mentors and guides.
Wittle: What writer do you feel has had the most influence in changing the craft of writing poetry? Why?
Heins: Ooh, excellent question! Highly subjective, I suppose, but since I’m a free verse guy, I would have to say Walt Whitman. He single-handedly did away with the accepted forms of poetry and said, “I’m doing this my way.” In turn, he created these beautiful, flowing, sonic masterpieces that laid the groundwork for people like Allen Ginsberg or the current slam poets to further shake up the accepted poetic traditions.
I’ll read Whitman, even now, and his music echoes in me for days. It’s so inspiring – like a really catchy tune you can’t shake.
Miller: I think poets like Walt Whitman, t.s.eliot and Alan Ginsberg have had a tremendous influence in changing craft, but having just come back from Ireland and listened to Irish writers and poets read their own work, I have to think James Joyce and W.B. Yeats have impacted the syntax and downright beauty of the language. Those Irish really know how to use the words. Each writer/poet in his time has moved poetry along and some have blurred the boundaries between prose and poetry. One of the important questions of today may be: Is this poetry?
Pollock: That’s a difficult question to answer; as I understand it, the craft of poetry has changed gradually. The introduction of free verse, obviously, was a major change that still carries influence today. For my money, as an American poet, Walt Whitman has most influenced the craft of poetry. I appreciate that he wrote the American idiom into poetry. His innovation led to the fecundity of poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, he might not have made this change without the ideas of English Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. When I study the history of poetry, I see how each advance lead to the next.
Todd: “Unless there is/ a new line, there cannot be a new/ mind,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Thus the writer who is most influencing the craft is the unknown poet who at this moment is nudging her language into new territory by grafting onto it bits of syntax, colloquialisms, words from other languages and neologism in order to say what she sees, imagines and thinks. In other words the most influential change-agent is a poet working at the borderlands, at the interstices of languages, cultures and personal vision. “Every force evolves a form,” said Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers. To my mind, that’s how poetry and language evolve.
Wittle: In your own writing, what form of poetry do you find to be the most challenging? How do you overcome the challenge?
Heins: Any poetry writing that involves form is most difficult for me. Anything that dictates a certain cadence or limitation, to me, feels constricting. If I had to pick a specific form in poetry that is most challenging, I would say nothing is as difficult as writing a really good anagram.
I love contemporary free verse. There are rhythms, there elements of form present; but not all the time, and certainly not in an orderly manner. This is where I am most comfortable, and where I find the most room to explore my voice and style.
But, of course, I need to shake it up every now and then. I’ve written a haiku, a Shakespearian sonnet – you name it – and every time I challenge myself with a form, I find the poem comes out either terrible or terrific. If I’m frustrated with the form and the material, the poem will be garbage. If I’m really into the material, the form is an obstacle that I must overcome to convey the message, and the poem takes flight.
So, instead of focusing on forms that often frustrate me, I try other methods of restriction that are more fun. Recently, I did an erasure project with four of my poems and the results were spectacular. I wrote two things in 2011 that I like to call “choose-your-own-adventure-poem” pieces. Essentially, the words in the poem intersected and led the reader on a different reading every time.
Miller: Probably poetry without a narrative, and I’m not sure what to call that. I try not to tell a story EVERY time I write a poem. I try to focus on the content of the theme and let the language reflect that rather than creating a story arc that must come together in the last line.
Pollock: I find free verse most challenging because of its capacious set of possibilities. The danger of free verse is that is becomes prosaic, and I’ve found that the antidote to this is to embrace some lessons from verse, such as the repetition of a villanelle or the volta of a sonnet. I try to meet the challenge of free verse by writing as much of it as possible.
Todd: One way to respond is to say, the poem I’m writing now is the most challenging. But you are asking about form, not the poem itself. Forms with a patterned recurrence of lines are the most challenging for me, specifically the villanelle and pantoum. The challenge is to write a line beautiful and true enough to be repeated and for that repetition to open new resonances of meaning and tone.
For Part 2, tune in tomorrow.
Bios of Poets:
Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (www.vagabondagepress.com), set to be released this spring.
MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.
Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize. Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo. Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.
J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.