Ten Questions

for Rob Mackenzie. Rob (who among other things is the current featured poet in Umbrella and one of PFFA‘s fearsome God Moderators) is Part 1 of what I hope will be a continuing series in which I fearlessly exploit the poetry-related experience of others more steeped than I in such experience. The ten questions are ones I have been cudgeling my brain over or otherwise worrying at over the past few months. Many thanks to Rob for agreeing to be my first victim, particularly in light of the new insights his responses have given me.  (The rest of you: get ready to be pestered to be among the next victims.)

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

No, I don’t think poets have a specific role to play. I think that poets write poems, the poems they want to write, and that’s about it. Of course, poems have their effect on the world, some more than others, but that’s a different question.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

I’ve only attended an in-person workshop once, so I can’t comment. The first online workshop I found was PFFA in 2001, when I lived in Italy. I had already published a few poems by that time, but the other posters at PFFA helped me to think deeper about poetry and to develop my technique. The requirement to critique also made me more aware of poetry-as-craft.

The danger is that an exquisitely crafted poem may draw plaudits in a workshop and fall cold outside. Equally a flawed poem might get destroyed in a workshop, but make a real emotional and intellectual impact on readers outside. Craft of course, plays its part in creating that impact, but most readers won’t generally be as interested in the craft as workshop participants will. It’s something to bear in mind, I think.

Also, poems outside the workshop environment break the ‘workshop rules’ with great frequency. It’s important to keep a broad perspective by reading widely, and realise that rules-of-thumb useful for beginners have no general application. For example, the ‘rule’ that forbids sentence fragments may be useful for those learning to express themselves in clear sentences, but fragments are an important tool in poetry.

Eratosphere is a good workshop for formal poetry, but it can be a bit rigid in applying metrical rules, and I don’t share the distrust of modernism that many of the New Formalists there seem to have. But you can certainly learn much of value about metre and form.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. [.] By this time, I would be grateful-and published poetry would be better-if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

He’s got a point. Not in all cases. Some poems emerge more or less complete. But yes, poems I work on over a period of time usually become better as a result. I was reading earlier today on Ros Barber’s Shallowlands blog that she’s just put a poem through its 93rd draft and, I must admit, when I read her finished poems, I can tell how much thought has been put into them.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

I’ve read some terrific criticism that does advance these parameters – for instance, Robert Hass’s book, Twentieth Century Pleasures, although that book is full of criticism of poets he loves, so there’s not a lot of maiming going on.

But yes, there seems to be a lot of back-scratching and back-stabbing going on when poets review each other. The problem is the poetic ego, which is usually huge.

Newspapers these days usually have little space for reviewing poetry books and I can’t say the criticism often enthuses me. But it’s not easy to write reviews. I’ve done it several times for Sphinx magazine, and have felt the fear of tearing books (and, by extension, their authors) to pieces and, at the same time, not wanting to over-praise books that just happen to conform to personal taste. There has to be a balance struck between rigorous honesty and fairness, and a good critic should provide justification for criticisms. I think strong and imaginative literary criticism that isn’t afraid to say exactly what it means is vital for poetry as a progressive art form.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

Yes, I have a blog. I prattle on about poetry and related matters, with occasional forays into music, football, film, and anything else I’m interested in.

I read certain blogs fairly regularly, but outside those, I find the poetry blogosphere boring for the most part – a lot of strong opinions, but few bloggers have much of interest to say to anyone but themselves and their small coterie.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

I’ve been published in quite a number of UK publications and on a few webzines. This certainly helped when I sent a manuscript to Helena Nelson at HappenStance press, who published my chapbook. All good publishers want to see a track record – some evidence of promotional work on the poet’s part, and some evidence of validation by others. If I hadn’t been published in good little magazines, it’s unlikely that HappenStance would have been interested.

The chapbook publication also helped a lot, as did a commendation in the UK National Poetry Competition. These didn’t make any difference to my acceptance/rejection ratio from magazines, nor to my bank balance, but I feel they must have been at least partly responsible for invitations to read at the March 2007 StAnza Poetry Festival, and at the Edinburgh Shore Poets in May 2007 – one of the organisers there said openly when I made an enquiry, “If Helena Nelson thinks you are worth publishing, that’s a big plus as far as I’m concerned.”

Seeking publication in magazines is hard work and sometimes hardly seems worth it. Sometimes I am astonished by what editors reject, and sometimes by what they accept. I don’t blame people for giving up on what can seem like a clubby little scene where people publish their friends and other people who have published them. Not all magazines are like that of course.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

Most of them are complete rubbish. Also, they often start off OK, publish poems, and then disappear without warning – so the poems have been published, and can’t be published ever again in a magazine (most magazines will take only previously unpublished poems), but there’s no public evidence that they’ve ever existed. I’m very wary about submitting to e-zines.

However, there are some outstanding e-zines e.g. nthposition, Stride, Box Car Review, Jacket, Umbrella, and Avatar Review. There are real possibilities for presenting poetry online, using the written word, audio, animation, and video, and I’m sure these will be exploited more as Internet connections continue to grow faster.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

It means that people can get their work out who otherwise might struggle to do so. I’m not just talking about hopeless poets either. Most publishing houses take on very few poets each year. Many chapbook presses publish either only poets they already know, or poets who win their competitions, which often entail a hefty entry fee.

So self-publishing is a useful option for poets to get their work read and seen, although – it has to be said – selling poetry chapbooks is a hard task for anyone. Self-publishing also gives you complete control over the end product.

The disadvantage of self-publishing is also that you’ve done it all yourself. There’s no sense that someone else has valued your work enough to take the risk of publishing it, and you also don’t have the benefit of a shrewd editor and designer (I know from personal experience how useful that advice can be in shaping a collection and on individual poems).

These factors might adversely affect the way the work is viewed by others. This is all wrong, of course. I’ve read several self-published chapbooks that have been far superior to certain full collections from major publishing houses. I’d consider the option of self-publishing in the future.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The Internet. Can poets make that count in their favour, or will they just get swallowed up in the mass of information? Certainly, I think the Net gives poets a chance to connect with people who otherwise wouldn’t think of picking up a poetry book.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The biggest challenge is to gain a readership of people who don’t write poetry, and so enthuse those people to go on and read more. How that can be done is another matter. I don’t believe poets should ‘dumb down’ (I don’t believe poets should do anything unless they want to), but often needless obscurity is only a cover for poets who have little to say and have difficulty saying it. One challenge is to write engagingly about complex matters. A lot of poems sound complicated and are hard to read, but are ultimately superficial and say little of interest. That’s not the case with the best ‘difficult’ poets of course – Lee Harwood, Geoffrey Hill, John Ashbery etc.

It’s surprising how poetry comes to mean something to non-poetry-readers when they hear it at, say, weddings or funerals. I’m sure there are other events (musical festivals, cabaret, jazz, bookshop readings etc) where poetry can make a similar impact.

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Rob A. Mackenzie was born in Glasgow in 1964. He has published poems in many UK literary magazines. His poetry chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005. His blog is Surroundings.

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7 thoughts on “Ten Questions

  1. Nic, these are great questions, especially the lit crit issue. I have a love/hate with it myself. Anyway, just wanted to drop by and say thanks for reading Poet With a Day Job!

  2. Pingback: Very Like A Whale’s Ten Questions « Scavella’s Blogsphere

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