apologies to The Paris Review
Context: Why poetry?
Subtext: (Laughs) What else is there? No, really I don’t know. It is what has come to me. I have tried to write fiction and I don’t seem to have the attention span for a sustained narrative. Not that poetry doesn’t require precise attention, because it does. But it requires a different type of attention: attention to the moment. Fiction requires attention to the end, the resolution. Everything is focused on how the story will end. Poetry’s focus is in the word by word movement; the unfolding of the moment, which is what makes it so hard to read and write well. It requires one to attend to everything, all the possibilities in a very intense focus, knowing all the while that one is missing most of what is happening: kind of like life. That kind of attention is hard to maintain in fiction: maybe a Proust, or Melville, could pull it off. I think one almost has to be ADHD to follow the leaps and psychic shifts when writing poetry. You know: Look! A chicken!
C: But you also write essays.
S: Yes, but essays are as Virginia Wolfe said, “the mind tracking itself.” Much like poetry. I find myself leaping along after my thoughts in both poetry and the essay. Neither, initially requires plotting out what I am going to say. I can rely more on the moment to moment flow of my thinking. In both forms discovering what I have to say as I write and focus on the play of words and ideas is part of what makes writing exciting to me. Not to sound Romantic, but it is as if I am possessed by something greater than me that is leading me toward some revelation. Eratos, I guess.
C: You just said you don’t have to plot out what you are going to say, yet in several of your long series you have fairly complex writing structures. I am thinking here of “My Book of Changes,” “115 Missing Days,” “Primogenitive Folly,” and in your most recent, “Sonnet.”
S: True, but in all of those poems, I used a number system to either create a limitation, either small or large, to help me, or maybe better to say, force me to either write very tightly in the case of “Book of Changes,” and “Sonnet” or to expand on my thinking as in “115 Missing Days.” I did not have a direction, or even some kind of idea in regards to what I was going to say, I simply wrote. Again it is more of a chasing after an idea, or image that is just out of reach constantly. Kind of like Robert Browning’s pursuit of love, in “Life in Love:” where the speaker is always, like a hunter, in pursuit of his love, but never quite capturing his prey. Browning is more interested in the pursuit than the capture, it seems to me, and I see that now as analogous to how I write when I first sit down to write a poem. As I said earlier, I am much more interested in where the poem will take me as I am writing it, rather than having a set idea of what I want to say and then figuring out how to say it.
C: So, if you don’t know what you are going to write about, how do you start?
S: I start with a phrase, a word sometimes, or an image, then go from there. I don’t mean to sound so willy-nilly. I write all the time. Or I, at least, get out my notebook and stare at the page. Sometimes I will re-read snatches of writing which led nowhere at the time they were written and find something there to salvage or something to prod me on in another direction. Somedays, I just write badly, but other days I can re-read the bad writing I abandoned weeks or months before and find something, some fragment of an idea, which leads me into a larger world. Last year I even found several partial poems in notebooks I abandonded at least ten years ago. I have learned over time that anything can start a poem; so I have tried to enable that by making a conscience effort to pay attention to everything: the short arc of a bird from one branch to another, trash caught in a whirl of wind, the beauty in the everyday occurrence. Of course, for the most part that is a failure, but I do try.
C: Do you write everyday? Do you have a routine?
S: I try to write everyday, but I rarely ever do. Even when I was writing “My Book of Changes,” I didn’t write everyday, although that was the intention when I started it, to cast the I Ching then write a six line poem using the hexagram I cast as a palimpsest through which to read my life in that day, and to do that every day for a year. But that fell apart quickly because of work and having three children under the age of 5 in the house. However, it made sense to try to write one everyday but to let chance operate allowing for some days where I just didn’t have time to write. I wound up with 250 poems over the course of the year, and that led to the next series of poems, “115 Missing Days.” But I am not really answering your question, am I? There goes that chicken again; one thought distracts me from my original intention.
No I don’t have a routine. No I don’t write everyday. There, that is the short answer. I used to worry about not writing, the actual putting pen to paper kind of writing, but over time, I guess as I’ve gotten older I don’t worry so much about that anymore. I think that as I go through my day, trying to pay attention to stuff, I am writing. I am filtering out the ephemera, collecting images and thoughts, which I will later use. Not necessarily consciously, but I find when I finally find time to write that often these thoughts and ideas flow back into my thinking sometimes from a few days before, other times from years in the past, in a non-temporal flood of memories.
I do carry a notebook with me at all times. I have done that for more than twenty years. I like unlined sketchbooks. I write in the book whenever I can catch a few minutes, or if I have an idea all of a sudden. Once on the way home from dropping my oldest off at college, I wrote an entire sonnet as I made the eight hour drive. I stopped finally at a truck stop and wrote it down. So I guess my routine is to write whenever I can, but not on a schedule. Does that still qualify as a routine, if it is not in a routine manner?
C: Yes, I think that would qualify. Let’s talk about your “training,” as it were, how important do you think poetry classes are, or MFA programs?
S: I don’t really have anything to say about MFA programs, since I have not been in one. The two people I know who went through a MFA program, one at Iowa and the other at the New School in New York, seemed to get a lot out of the programs. How much they learned to write in the programs, I am unsure. At least one of them was a fine writer before he went through his MFA program. I think like any school, a person gets as much as she puts into the program. I found the poetry workshops I took as an undergraduate and in graduate school allowed me a unique environment to write and talk about poetry with a very diverse group of people with different aesthetic visions. It is rare, at least for me, to have that kind of environment after school. I have written and thought about poetry on my own since I finished at Bread Loaf almost twenty years ago. I was lucky from the very beginning to have several people who took the time to read and talk about my work with a kind attentive eye. It helped me learn to write on my own.
C: Talk about these people.
S: Well, in high school when I first started thinking of myself as a poet, I had the good fortune to come into contact with two teachers, one a writer, the other a visual artist, Cliff Berkman and Ann Lockstedt, who took my poems seriously, or at least pretended to well enough to make me believe they took me seriously. Berkman gave me books of poetry to read, probably the best thing any young poet can do; read voraciously, as Dylan Thomas said, “until my eyes fell out.” Lockstedt introduced me to Art with a big A. Something that was out of the realm of the milieu of small town south Texas, she took a bus load of kids to see the Cezanne exhibit in Houston, as well as several buses to Dallas and Ft. Worth to see the Kimball and several other art museums. That kind of trip with today’s lack of funding for the arts in the public school system would be unheard of now.
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I was lucky to be in several workshops run by Albert Goldbarth. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, he taught there before moving to Kansas. Again he talked to us as if we were poets, not as dumb-ass students, which we were. He was sarcastic and cutting, but he also found something good to say about everybody’s poems. What Katherine Bomer calls the hidden gems in students writing. It takes a very patient mind to do this well, and Goldbarth made us want to write better, or at least made me want to write better.
As a graduate student in English literature at the Bread Loaf School of English, I had one poetry workshop with Carol Oles, but just being at Bread Loaf was a writing workshop. The conversations about literature and writing with the professors and students that I had over the course of the four summers I was in Vermont were life altering, as far as my thinking about poetry was concerned. Lunch conversations with David Huddle, Robert Pack, Ken Macrorie and others over everything from the weather to literature, to politics is indescribable in its influence on my literary life.
C: What about your own teaching, how does that affect your poetry?
S: I would say in an indirect manner. When talking to my students about the “great” works of English literature I have come to see it in deeper more meaningful ways, not just because I have to explain the poem in ways the students can understand, but also because of the ways of knowing a poem the students bring to the work. Also as I try to teach my students how to write, I garner insights into my own writing processes. Teaching has deepened the initial training I had through the university, and taken my understanding of poetry further, I believe, than if I had gone off to sell insurance. But that is because I am able to think about poetry on an ongoing basis, and have discussions with fellow teachers about writing and poetry.
C: How important is having a community of writers?
S: Very important. Writing is such a solitary activity. So much of the time is spent in your own head, wrestling with your own demons, caught up in self-evisceration that just being able to talk to others who have some common understanding of what it means to write becomes a balm to the doubt and insecurity that comes with being a writer. Even if all you talk about most of the is how the local sports team is doing, or how crappy your job is. You also have the love of words and writing, which brought you together in the first place.
C: Do you think about your readers when you write?
S: Yes, in the very real sense that I am one of my readers. That makes me think of a line from Tom Raworth when he said he started to write because he liked reading what wrote. But as for making it easy for my readers, not really. I write what I write. I like it when someone says they have read and liked what I wrote. I often wish they would be more specific about what they liked, but any kind of positive response is welcome. I think any writer who tells you she doesn’t care what people think of her writing is lying to you. As human beings we all want to belong, and writer’s want people to read what they write. I think that is why so many writers seek out workshops, so they can have someone read their work. The danger becomes that you change your vision to better conform to others’ view of the world. That is also the horror of writing that no one can see the way you do, and you wind up screaming into the wind. I haven’t sent out anything for more than 20 years, but I post on my blog in hopes that someone will read my poems, and maybe even respond.