Ten Questions

For Sarah Sloat. Sarah works for a news agency in Germany, where she lives with her husband, daughter and son. Her poems have appeared in Rhino, Third Coast, Stirring  and Worm, among others. Her favorite poets include Norman Dubie, Garcia Lorca and Tomaz Salamun. A gazillion thanks to Sarah – whose lovely poems I find both addictive and inspiring — for agreeing to be Part 4 of this continuing series, and for the range of new insights given by her answers. (The ten questions, with past and upcoming contributors, are here.)

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?

The poet is surely the legislator of the poem, but I don’t think he has some large-scale role to play in human affairs. The poet, or rather the poem, plays an important role for readers, who go to poetry for the same reasons they always did, alone and as individuals. But most poets don’t set out to guide or instruct anyone. Mostly they’re talking to themselves. And the audience, which is limited, isn’t made up activists and aid workers. Only a small part reads to reflect on culture, the state of the world, the local police, etc. Many readers are looking for poems about flowers and anthropomorphosized animals. Not that there’s anything wrong with flowers. They can do us a lot of good. In winter, I am particularly fond of the amaryllis.

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?

Since I live in a non-English speaking country, I’ve had no opportunity to participate in upclose workshops.I like to think I’m still early in my development, but I’ll say that in my absolute beginner days, the workshop (online) was crucial to me. I still enjoy participating, but with time you learn to trust yourself.

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.”

It’s my guess Horace waited 10 years to get his poems published, that Pope waited five years, and that Mr. Hall waits at least 18 months. In general, it is good to give the poem time. But it’s up to the poet and the poem. I’m sure everyone has written a poem they felt was “right” right away, and that everyone has over-revised a poem to the point of death. I have once or twice hoped a poem would be rejected because in the meantime I had a better idea for it, so there’s a lesson in that.

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.”

Well, as long as our language is degenerating let’s admit that some critics are assholes. And some poets can’t take criticism, however constructive or kindly put. It bothers me to think criticism serves no purpose but to insult, and surely it’s not true. But I have lost my arms and legs in some deliberately maiming feedback sessions and temporarily lack the means to comment further.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere.

I participate occasionally in two online workshops. Mostly because I just enjoy writing, I also keep a blog. Personally I like the blogosphere. I like reading other poets’ reading recommendations and opinions, getting word of publications, etc. There’s a lot of schlock, too, but no one will make you click on it.

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

This is a weird question, so let me go off on a tangent that considering it leads me to. It bothers me when I hear a poet say he has to get some more poems out so he can finish his book: “I have to get a collection together,” or “I need about 10 more poems for my book.” Do poets really go forth writing poems with the purpose filling a book? Maybe it’s a slip of the lip when poets put it that way, but I dislike the idea of forcing yourself for the bulk of it. Who wants to be known as a quantity poet?

As to the question, I have published poems online and in print. In terms of helping or hindering, I can only say on occasion an editor has invited me to submit because he has seen something I wrote elsewhere, so it can “help” to get a good poem out. On the other hand, I’m sure publishing an unripe poem at a bad-taste journal would be a nasty thing. I do like to think, though, that even in such a case editors judge the poem at hand and not the poet. This is totally naïve, I know, having read a number of crap poems by name poets at name journals.

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

It’s a bewilderness. You need a research assistant. Many publications aren’t worth the time of day, not only because the poetry is poor, but because some are fly-by-nights. Two issues, and the editors figure they’d rather not continue. But there are many terrific and exciting online publications. I think of Pedestal, Gumball, Caffeine Destiny, and many others that I’m sure are going to give me something I like every issue, like Stirring and Shampoo.

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

I have nothing against it. A lot of good poetry in print is the result of the poet’s own bootstrap initiative. Not that folks wouldn’t prefer having a publisher banging at the door. You want to give your friends a chapbook of your poems? Go ahead. In the spirit of Christmas, it’s better than spending money on meaningless crap.

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

The internet is really an enormous opportunity because of the exposure it offers both poets and readers. There was nothing comparable 50 years ago. About fifty years ago, the biggest opportunity was probably psychedelic drugs.

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

It hasn’t changed. As always, the poem.

4 thoughts on “Ten Questions

  1. Julie Carter says:

    Oh, Sarah cuts right to the answer with 10.

    I love this series.

  2. [...] Here, over at Very Like a Whale. [...]

  3. This evening I decided to read the responses of other poets to your
    questions. I wasn’t planning to comment, but Sarah’s answer–I
    agree with Julie and Scavella. Sarah gets a 10 for her answer to
    question 10.

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