Easter poem & remembering Paul Stevens

April

I woke from my nap and heard the goldfish
whistling. I got up and pressed my face
to the glass: Goldfish,
I said. Please stop.
It unpuckered its tiny orange lips
but didn’t stop whistling.

I went outside and a warm blanket
of bees fell upon me.
That’s it, I said,
but the thrumming crept
into my ears like dormice
and you threw a bucket of sun
over me and I became so bright
I closed my eyes.

That was my first-ever published poem, accepted in 2006 by Paul Stevens, late editor of the Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea, who died last week. Paul had a wonderful sense of humor (check out this last message!) and was a tremendous force-multiplier in the poetry blogosphere. Read an interview with him from Very Like A Whale’s Ten Questions for Poetry Editors series.

RIP, Paul, and thanks for everything.

revisiting ten questions for poets – on poetry, publication, technology

This series represents a wealth of poetry and po-biz wisdom from a bunch of awesome contemporary poets. I used to have these linked as separate standing pages, but didn’t refresh that format when I changed blog themes recently. Have just added these standing pages back to the left-hand column, and got lost in re-reading while I did so. Thank you once again to the generous poets who participated for doing so! That wonderful group includes Ron Silliman and the late Reginald Shepherd.

TEN QUESTIONS SERIES
- poets on poetry
- poets on publication
- poetry editors on publishing poetry
- poets on technology

cedar of lebanon

Why is this tree on my tree poem list? What am I thinking?

How can one possibly write meaningfully about a symbol so steeped in religio-politico-historical steepedness without getting sucked into that steepedness?

The fact is, I don’t want to put politics in my poetry, I just don’t.

More from others here, from a previous Ten Questions series on the role of the poet.

The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

Very helpful, Psalm 92.

Ten Questions: Ron Silliman

And we have Ron Silliman! Ron looked at both the Ten Questions on Poetry and the Ten Questions on Publication and decided to go for the former in his responses, which most definitely works for us. Warmest thanks to Ron both for his participation in this series and for his generous linking to the responses of several participants in the Ten Questions on Publication series.

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?

Poetry is the only art form that can make use of all the possible dimensions of language and one of its historic functions has been to make us aware of these domains of meaning, especially those that fall outside of the narrow band of denotation. What the potential consequences of this awareness might be are very different according to where one is in the scheme of things. A white male in a failing empire has a very different social role than that of a young woman in Nairobi, but poetry is something both can use to make sense of their lives.

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 never done an on-line workshop so have no grounds for talking about those. I was a student in workshops at San Francisco State in the 1960s – my teachers included Jack Gilbert, George Hitchcock & Wright Morris – and I’ve led some workshops from time to time, at UC San Diego, at Naropa in its summer writing program, and at Brown.

I also ran a writers workshop in the San Francisco Tenderloin from 1978 through ’81. It was open to any neighborhood resident and was certainly the only class I’ve ever been involved with that had a no guns in class rule – that’s one of those rules you institute the instant you need it. “Oh, Bob, we have a no guns in class rule. You’ll have to take that back to your place and then return without it. Thanks. That’s great.” I invoked that there more than once. The funny thing is that of all my various workshop experiences, the most real writers came out of this one – Tom Hibbard, the late Mary Tallmountain. Roberto Harrison participated in the workshop shortly after I turned it over.

The value in workshops is simple. Likeminded people get together to discuss their work. College in particular is a time when young people can get their parents to pay the freight to allow them to focus on something like poetry for a few years. It can get you to New York or San Francisco, which itself can be more valuable than the workshop itself. It ensures you a few regular readers, some of who may become friends.

At San Francisco State, I benefited more from just hanging out with Jack Gilbert, which I did a lot, than from his workshops as such. He lived just down the street from me across from the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. I remember once playing a very intense game of ping pong with him while we were visiting someone on the psych ward at San Francisco General Hospital, back in 1967, the two of us volleying while Jack talked about how poetry functions very much like table tennis. That may have been one of my most useful moments as a student there.

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.”

Donald Hall has a point. When I was starting out as a poet, back in 1965, I sent my work out the instant I thought it was done. 98 percent got rejected, deservedly so. But then Poetry Northwest and The Chicago Review and TriQuarterly and publications like that began to accept things and I ended up spending the next several years making all of my mistakes in public. This is why, I hope, that there will never be a Ron Silliman Complete Works edition. I do plan to go back to the writing before The Age of Huts and pulling together a volume of unrejected works, but they clearly will be a minority of what got written during that first decade.
At this point, nearly four decades later, however, I come pretty close to Hall’s admonition myself. It often takes me years to finish a piece, or I will finish one in the notebook and let it sit for a few years before typing it up. Anything I’ve published that looks like anti-war poetry, for example, is from the first Iraq war under Poppa Bush, not this thrashing about by Baby Bush, either in Afghanistan or Iraq.

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.”

Because poetry is a relatively small community – there are almost certainly as many people who breed dogs for show as there are poets in the US, and the bird watchers would trample us if they wanted to – it’s hard to give out negative comments to a specific book without generating a lot of ad hominen tsouris in return. There are so many good books of poetry, that I see very little need, for example, to focus on the negative on my blog. Why bother?

On the other hand, there is a categorical difference between my discussion of a book by a poet and fulfilling discussion of the “formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters” of poetry. Start there and use names only as reference points and you’ll get a completely different response. I’ve been able to insert several relatively new ideas on my blog – post-avant, school of quietude, new western / Zen cowboy – some of which have taken on a life of their own, but I’ve done it by discussing the idea, not necessarily pinning it on a single book.

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

My blog will receive its 1.6 millionth visit today (May 1). Last Monday, visitors clicked on over 5,000 links on my site. My internet presence is much larger than I ever imagined it would be.

When I got started, back in August 2002, I was looking for a way to get some things off my chest. I was also looking, ideally, for a means that would allow poets to discuss things of interest to them, not unlike what happens at the bar after a reading. There were only two or three other poetry related blogs out there when I started – Laura Willey, Joseph Duemer & maybe Mark Woods. But that was about it.

Today there are thousands of poetry blogs – ranging from the completely serious to the completely not. It provides for a more effective & diverse way for poets to discuss matters of direct interest to one another without going through the funneling influence of an academic review process. In a world in which the MFA mills turn out a couple of thousand new young poets each year & there are less than six dozen available teaching jobs, this is really an absolute necessity.

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

When I was a very young poet, I found myself being drawn toward the kinds of poems I could get into journals. I could write a moderately passable imitation, say, of an Alan Dugan poem and a lot of publications – especially School of Quietude organs like The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest – tended to publish what they already recognized. I had work accepted by Poetry by the time I was 21. What this actually did was to convince me that writing like that was just too easy. It’s really what drove me to explore poetry more deeply, eventually leading me to the work of people like Bob Grenier & Clark Coolidge. My writing improved dramatically in that I was engaging the language on many more levels & yet the journals that had accepted my work earlier suddenly all dropped me like a rock. That was an instructive experience, to say the least. For the next few years, I published only in little magazines relating to the poetics that were just emerging in the early 1970s, such as This and Roof.

But after the appearance of Ketjak in 1978 that changed. Since then, I’ve been able to publish everything I’ve wanted to. When The Alphabet comes out later this year, I will be in a position of having all my mature work as a poet available in book form – The Age of Huts, Tjanting, The Alphabet – roughly 1,500 pages worth. I’m conscious of just how fortunate I am.

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

When you have a minimum of 10,000 publishing poets, a failing world of independent bookstores that are not anxious to take on little magazines, and a new medium that enables e-publications to appear for the fraction of the cost of a print journal, this is just inevitable. The real problem comes in trying to get people to look at and read the work on-line.

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

I think it’s fine. Self-publishing really demands self-discipline on the part of the writer, though. The value of an editor is simply that second set of eyes.

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

The richness of the literary community itself. In the 1950s, in the US, there were only a few hundred poets and you were either part of a group or completely isolated. There were only two cities in the entire country that could sustain a true literary community, San Francisco & New York. Now, you can see vibrant scenes all over the place.

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

Differentiation – how do you stand out from the masses of what’s already being written? It’s probably easier to gain a small, dedicated audience for your work, but I think it’s much much harder to take that next step toward a broader audience, the kind that will ensure that publishers will want to take on your work.

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Ron Silliman has written and edited 30 books to date, most recently participating in the multi-volume collaborative autobiography,The Grand Piano. Between 1979 and 2004, Silliman wrote a single poem, entitled The Alphabet. Volumes published thus far from that project have included ABC, Demo to Ink, Jones, Lit, Manifest, N/O, Paradise, (R), Toner, What and Xing. The University of Alabama Press will publish the entire work as a single volume in 2008. Silliman has now begun writing a new poem entitled Universe.

Silliman was the 2006 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, a 2003 Literary Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons, and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.

Read more about the 30 books Ron Silliman has written or edited here and here, and more about Ron Silliman in this recent interview on Rob Mclennan’s blog. And in case you’ve been living on Jupiter the last few years, Ron blogs at Silliman’s Blog.

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Ten Questions on Poetry: Standing Page

Poems: grape juice or wine?

As many of you know, in addition to what is accumulating here based on the ten questions on publication, I already have huge repositories of wisdom on this blog from heads far wiser than mine on the Ten Questions on Poetry page. Each interview there is a fascinating read of itself, and I have also slowly (yes, slowly) been working on a cross-referenced index (check the left sidebar) with separate standing pages, each holding the collective wisdom of the contributing poets on just one of the original Ten Questions on poetry.

So far we have Online Workshops and the Role of the Poet, (Negative) Critique/Criticism and today I have added a new one: Poems: grape juice or wine?  This was based on No. 3 of the original Ten Questions, which was:

Question 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.”

You’ll see that our respondents are all over the map on this question – some basically agreeing with Hall, some disagreeing, and most doing kinda sorta both.

I’m of more than one mind on this question myself. You definitely can push stuff out too soon — I have a couple of pieces online that I can’t bear to look at because they contain a line or word that I have changed since they were published.

In thinking about this and reading all the responses to Question 3 together, I realize that one dark primal fear I have about “too soon” is that “too soon” is just bad manners. Discourteous to the reader. Akin to putting out stuff with typos and grammatical errors.

Is it, isn’t it?

To come at the question another way, what does keeping a poem “at home” mean? Keeping it to yourself, or not going beyond the workshop? Where are the workshop boundaries? It’s possible to define “workshop” as both what you and your own inner critic do with a piece and what a more formal workshop trial leads you to do with the piece. But does workshopping end there? Obviously not, for those who continue to edit pieces after publication. For those, then, the process of publication becomes a part of workshopping. I must say I kind of like the notion of the world being one’s workshop…

And to finish up with the grape juice/wine metaphor we started out with. How much “lagering” (as Paul Stevens said in his answer to this question) or maturing does a poem need? It occurs to me that at the end of the day, all good poems probably do need a fairly good long steep/simmer/stew/percolation. But perhaps where we go wrong in discussing this question is in assuming that the stewing period only begins after the first draft is written, and continues through the 10th, 50th etc drafts. It may be more accurate to note that the requisite percolation period can begin long long before a single word is ever written. If a poem comes to the page following a long unseen internal stew, it very often dashes itself off and comes out right first time. The ones that get to draft no. 100 probably weren’t simmering around in your subconscious for long enough before you put pen to paper.

Anyhow, go read what they said.

(Negative) Critique/Criticism

As many of you know, I have huge repositories of wisdom on this blog from heads far wiser than mine on the Ten Questions and related pages. Each interview is a fascinating read of itself, but I am also slowly working on a cross-referenced index (in the column to the left) with separate pages, each holding the collective wisdom of the contributing poets on just one of the Ten Questions. So far we have Online Workshops  and the Role of the Poet and today, I’ve added a new one, (Negative) Critique/Criticism. This was based on No. 4 of the Ten Questions, which was:

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.”

Some respondents focused on Prevallet’s remarks concerning the inability of many poets to take criticism and how reviews/criticism are sometimes used to back-stab or back-scratch and advance personal agendas. Rob blames “the poetic ego, which is usually huge.” Scavella talks about the advantages to meaningful critique of anonymity and/or an absence of personal relations between critic and poet. Julie doesn’t see much changing with regard to the general sensitiveness of poets to criticism and Greg seems largely to agree, while Steve says that although poets may be sensitive, it is not always without cause, given the reviews out there that “blur the lines between commenting on the work and make ad hominem attacks”. Tony is my personal hero on this one, go read his response. Howard, Katy and C.E. Chaffin focus mainly on the formal literary criticism end of things and maintain the picture is nothing so dire as Prevallet claims.

I have to say that the referenced article is somewhat all over the place, as more than one of those responding remarked, but it seemed a handy jumping off point for Question No. 4, since it seemed to me to cover pretty much the full range of criticism – from the problematic of venomous and/or simply backscratching individual reviews of a peer’s work, to the big guns of formal literary criticism, which evaluates a body of work in relation to its broader socio-politico-whatevero context.

And the two are surely part of the same continuum and what therefore might be of concern - if I understand Prevallet correctly - is that the flaws and contaminants present (writ small) at the small individual end of things are bound to show up (writ huge) somehow at the larger collective end, to everyone’s detriment.

Do they?

Anyhow, go read the page.

Warmest thanks once again to the contributing poets. Yours is most definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

Ten Questions: The Role of the Poet

The next topic in the Ten Questions subject index (see top of left sidebar). The question referenced

1) Shelley’s 1821 In Defence of Poetry – a mind-twistingly complicated epistle which asserts that poets’ ability to apprehend and represent order makes them “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (and yes, I know that’s a criminally simple summary – go ahead and read the whole thing for yourself, then, or you may prefer this not-any-less-complicated but much much shorter synopsis) – and
2) a 2003 interview with Canadian poet George Bowering, who referenced Shelley’s assertion, but in a context that inferred (to me, anyway) that a poet has a legitimate contemporary mandate to serve as an agent of political change,

then asked if the poets thought The Poet has a role to play in contemporary human affairs.

The ten poets’ responses, excerpted here, ranged across the board, as you will see. Some thought such assertions over-inflated the role of both poets and poetry; others were somewhat more on the fence, thinking things could go either way, depending. Tony and Paul grappled very interestingly with the notion of the poet as political activist (the engaged poet?). I found Tony’s comments to be particularly illuminating. Scavella and Katy seemed to be somewhat in Shelley’s camp (correct me if I’m wrong, guys) — in the sense that they both seem to feel that a high ability to manipulate words and language — to name, to order, to create experience — gives the poet deep and fundamental social/moral authority not possessed in the same degree by others. (Read Scavella’s and Katy’s full responses, both very meaty and thought-provoking, at the side-bar link.)

As I informed you at length in this post, the part that interests me in all this is contemporary “engaged” poetry, and what exactly that means. Some cross between the Tony/Paul take and the Scavella/Katy take, methinks.  With a dash of Existentialism-speak, maybe.  Still very much muddling through that question.

In that vein, here’s a comment to that same post I wrote in reply to a comment from Rob:

Absolutely, people should write what they want to write. What’s interesting, though, are the prevailing conditions that somehow dictate that in general what people overwhelmingly want to write about is, as you say, “minor epiphanies from domestic settings.” It seems that the same conditions also dictate that in general we are fated to automatically interpret everything (poetic) we read through the same minor “domestic” optic – ie seeing only narrow “domesticity” where much larger contexts are in fact in play.

I think the US-UK poetry blogosphere has its own closed dynamic in this regard (and this may be a good or bad thing for poetry, I don’t know which). Elsewhere in the world, it seems to me that a failure to engage with the supra-domestic (in both writing and reading) is prima facie evidence of failure as a poet and as a reader.

Which is not to say that any point on this scale is right or wrong — we are all much more a product of the civilizational forces in play around us than we are definers of them, and it would be silly to expect any sort of majority to swim upstream against those forces regularly, in any consistent mainstream way.

Still a lot of thinking to be done on this one.

Ten Questions: Online Workshops

Julie’s meditations on online workshops remind me I have huge repositories of wisdom from ten poets (including Julie herself) on this blog, which require thought and sifting through. For ease of cross-referencing, I’m going to start a subject index to the Wisdom of the Ten Poets (see top of left side-bar). The first is Ten Poets on Online Workshops, a page on which I’ve excerpted what the ten poets said on that topic.

A hundred answers to Ten Questions – thanks!

Warmest, most heartfelt thanks to the ten generous poets (their names with links to their answers appear in the sidebar to the left) who have made this series into a true intellectual odyssey for me, and I hope for others. I feel I’m in a completely new place with regard to each of the ten questions, thanks to the one hundred thoughtful and meaty answers you have shared. I’m digesting all your wisdom slowly and will be posting some of my own humble thoughts on each of the questions over the coming weeks. If anyone else would like to have a go at the ten questions on their own blog, please do so and send me a link! The ten questions are here.

Ten Questions

For Katy Evans-Bush. Katy was born in New York City and has lived in London since the age of 19. Her poetry and reviews have been published both online and in paper magazines and anthologies in the UK, Europe and the US. She is one of six poets featured in the anthology The Like Of It  (Baring and Rogerson, 2005), is a regular contributor to the Contemporary Poetry Review, writes a blog called Baroque in Hackney, and is available for readings.  A gazillion thanks to Katy for being Poet No. 10 in this series, and for ending it with such a bang. Katy has a review on Joseph Brodsky out you should really read because it fits so beautifully with her answer to question 1 below (and it’s also really good!).

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?

I think you can demonstrate that the poet has always played a part in human affairs, and I don’t see why this century should be any different from all the others. But the part played by poetry isn’t centre-stage, front-page stuff. And I think the phrase “unacknowledged legislator” is more interesting than it looks at first glance: legislators are, etymologically, ‘proposers of law’, and I can barely think of a civilisation which has not become civilised precisely through its systems of ordering language. Oral histories laid the basis for codes of behaviour long before they were ‘codified’ into books. It’s certainly possible to be a proposer of laws without being acknowledged; and even if a certain version of events, or a certain moral truth (let’s say) is absorbed into the main stream (think of Shakespeare), it doesn’t mean people acknowledge its source.

Poetry acts not directly on the world, but on the senses, to produce experience which is extra-sensory, and which influences the person who experiences it in whatever way. This can mean perceiving something in a new way, or simply – to begin with – feeling a given emotion. Poetry, which can be defined as patterned language (the debate around language which is not patterned in any way has yet to be closed!), operates on the senses (and thus on the body) similarly to music, with the addition of verbal meaning.

This element of meaning is critical: poetry is a way of weaving together disparate or even discordant elements into a whole. This is the thing that makes it poetry, that makes it a high achievement of the human mind. It’s our ability to create and perceive order, to reconcile dissonances, which gives us the potential for poetry.

We need to be alert to meaning. Joseph Brodsky said somewhere that a society where people don’t read poetry, where people are only exposed to the kinds of crude usage found in political propaganda will become increasingly vulnerable to cant, because they’ll have forgotten how to discern subtext. (I’ve looked for this quote but can’t find it; this is my own paraphrase of how I understand Brodsky’s remark.) I think all you have to do is look around you to see how this very syndrome is affecting us, as a society, now. You could apply the theory to marketing and advertising propaganda – where we all think we are so savvy these days, but don’t realise we’re buying in to the whole “high concept” concept at the expense of “deep concept.”

So let’s think about poetry acting as a moral barometer, a litmus test of meaning, in civilised life. If poetry “makes nothing happen”, as Auden famously said in his elegy for Yeats, it is no less important for that: we only need to drop a stone into a pond and watch the ripples spread outwards. Poetry is not about trying to make things happen. It’s about ways of experiencing, ways of navigating experience. We might look to Socrates, who told us that “the unexamined life is not worth living” – poetry helps to create the tools for self-examination. Socrates also said: “Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

And anyway, we, sitting at the beginning of an already-beleaguered century, are no fit judges of the importance of poetry in the century to come. I hope this century does produce significant poetry. It looks set to need it. Earlier in the essay from which you take your question, A Defence of Poetry, Shelley wrote:

In the infancy of the world, neither poets themselves nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellence of poetry: for it acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness; and it is reserved for future generations to contemplate and measure the mighty cause and effect in all the strength and splendour of their union. Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.

And it also annoys me when people take half of Auden’s meaning. The stanza where he says poetry makes nothing happen finishes: It survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.

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?

Yes, I do; I’m not sure why. I think with online workshops anyone can join in, and you don’t know anything about them, so it’s much harder to gauge the value of responses.

I’ve been in several “real-life” workshops and they have had varying value. At their best they give you a peer group, really solid feedback, and a challenge to raise your game. But you do have to gauge advice and feedback really carefully, because someone might simply not get what you’re doing. There’s a fine line between the poem not working and the reader not working. Workshops do, of course, give you a chance to explore that boundary!

The online workshops I’m familiar with – and I’m a moderator at one – tend to lean much more towards a common consensus when critiquing a work. It’s seen as a fault if the participants don’t understand something in a given poem – there is a tendency, I think, to favour a particular kind of poem, and there can be a push to the middle ground, I think. And you get these endless debates about whether a particular rhyme stands up to American, Australian, English readers. That seems daft! It’s like Harry Potter being edited in the US editions because they thought American kids couldn’t handle English words for things.

I’m afraid I disagree with some of these standards, even though I’m on the inside. I believe that if one person in twenty, say, gets your allusion, you should leave it. Imagine if Henry James had played to the gallery! (I know: Shakespeare did. But the gallery didn’t necessarily get all his allusions.)

The best criticism I’ve had online – and in “real life” – has been from people who can engage with a poem on its own terms, rather than trying to mould it into their vision of a poem, and from those who understand the power of simple description. A description of how someone sees your poem working is often the most useful criticism you can receive.

I think skill and knowledge are vastly underrated. My heart sinks when I hear a person who writes poetry saying they don’t know prosody, or haven’t read much pre-20th-century poetry. It’s like knowing how to hammer nails in and calling yourself a carpenter. You’d never fool a real carpenter.

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.”

Oh, it depends on the poem. And so much has been written about this, we all know how hard it is to get anything published nowadays: poets are keeping poems for years anyway by default. It’s true you should not rush into print. We’ve all done it – it’s a head rush and it gives you a hangover.

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.”

Oh, I don’t know. I read this article. It seems confused to me. She’s talking about a conference that had people like Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler at it, and also about workshops, and the internet. The part that did make sense was where she discusses the difference between reviews – which are where the backbiting happens – and true criticism, which assesses a work of art in relation to its context – cultural, social, political, contemporaneous.

Most criticism being written probably does suck: most of everything else does; whatever we do, we do it in the hope of producing one thing in 100,000, as with poetry, which might transcend the mass. This is as true of chairs or sweaters as it is of poems or critical articles. I love reading criticism, I always have. It’s a vehicle for the clarification of thought. It’s a vehicle for making connections and pulling significance out of confusion. I love it. I even read Helen Vendler; though she is rather limited and, as a friend of mine says, “has a tin ear.” And Marjorie Perloff was marvellously fisked a few years back, on a blog called Cuttlefish, for being unable to tell iambic pentameter from dactylic tetrameter.

I’m not an academic, and I guess I have little or no patience with the academicising of criticism, as with that of poetry. Or with the Poetry Wars. So-called “po-mo”, the problem is they’re po-faced. And of course a lot of poetry criticism being written probably does do the thing Kristin Prevallet says, but it seems a bit silly to say it all does.

Anyway I thought the article was sort of confusing, and its terms weren’t really laid out straight; but I think she’s asking for a more sincere and rounded dialogue in our critical thinking. I can certainly agree with that: even most poets are unable to place poetry in the wider context. I’ll counter your question with this one, from her piece:

We know all about the poetry wars, and we are suspicious of them. We’re hip to the Oedipus game and we’re steering clear of manifestos that attempt to set us apart from our “elders.” However, critical banter, whether or not it leads to intellectual wars, serves a scientific function. Schaefer and Stefans arguing back and forth is no different than physicists X and Y arguing over formulas of cosmic strings – a dialogue extremely important to the scientific community and interested stellar gazers wanting to listen in, but ultimately not relevant, nor trying to be relevant, to the general culture. Poetry moves forward in little spurts and starts, and certainly this kind of inbred dialogue has a very specific place in the loosely defined, but vibrantly confrontational, EP scene.

These conversations shouldn’t be swept under the already dusty poetry carpet. They should be enlarged and expanded to actually offer insightful commentary on the state of poetry, and to critique or articulate the larger forces that contribute to its production.

So the question for me is how can poets who think critically about each other’s work write criticism that makes culturally relevant those inherently specialized definitions of poetry?

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 do – I write criticism for the Contemporary Poetry Review, I’m a moderator on the online workshop Eratosphere (though that happened almost by accident and certainly wasn’t intended to give me a “presence”!), and I write a blog called Baroque in Hackney. I also, when I can, write reviews for paper magazines and send my work to paper magazines. Some, though not much, of my poetry is online – and much of that was sent off too early and I now have a hangover from!
My feeling is that the internet as a whole is still running in parallel to the “real” world of print, and that it would be healthier if there were more overlap. I mean poetry here.

I emphatically do not see myself as an “internet poet.” I know people do describe themselves that way, and lots of poets seem to be active only on the internet. I see that as a slipstream; I think it’s fantastically important to engage as robustly as possible with the mainstream debate, such as it is. And I don’t mean ‘mainstream’ as Don Paterson defined it; I mean in person and in print, as well as on the internet.

I think the sheer abundance of poetry on the internet is testament to the need most people feel for some kind of poetry, and the importance it has. It puzzles me why, if this is so, more people don’t read serious contemporary work – though I think the truth is that most people prefer easy sentimentality. It’s pop.

I read a lot of blogs. I don’t think blogs are as new as we think they are. The internet is new, but for blog form we can look back to the great essayists, many of whom – like my hero Charles Lamb – wrote amusingly on very trivial quotidian subjects. Also the political pamphleteers of the 17th century.

There are many blogs I like a lot, but I think the form has not yet reached its pinnacle. I’m still searching for the perfect poetry blog, one that combines newsiness and hard fact, insight and gossip, humour and gravitas, poetry and all the rest of the stuff that informs it. Well – I’m trying to write it. But I’m still a long way off.

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

Well, I think it’s hard to develop as an artist if no one wants to engage with your art. I’ve been published but not enough! Of course, remaining unpublished gives your poems a chance to do the aging that Horace recommended.

I know lots of people who are obsessed with who gets published & where, what the pecking order is, who won the latest award (Heaney, as we speak), who’s reading and been reviewed by whom. I see a lot of uninspiring poetry getting published. I just work on my own stuff, in between complaining and tearing my hair out.

The difficulty of getting my poetry accepted by magazines has forced me – helped along by some cataclysmic life events which ironically made it possible – to branch out into little side gullies of criticism, and even into writing my blog, and that has been a tremendously good thing. I do read, when asked, & I love reading: it’s a chance to really engage thoroughly with your work, and with an audience at the same time, & you invariably learn a lot.

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

Oh, I can’t, really. The whole point about the web is that anyone can publish anything they want on it. There are uncountable poetry zines and probably 99% of them are complete rubbish. Then again, the web has some excellent, highly-regarded publications on it. And there are several small, interesting, lively things that people produce for the love (or fun) of it. I just think it’s the same as in print, the difference being that if someone makes a two-bit little paper magazine in, say, Tucson, I’ll never see it or worry about it; but if they do it on the web, anyone can find it. This is both wonderful and often boring.

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

Lots of people use self-published chapbooks as catalysts & they are a great idea. But in terms of publishing a proper collection I think it would be seen as vanity publishing. You’d have no support in selling it, distributing it, promoting it. Unless you knew absolutely everybody, had a reputation, and could therefore establish your profile – that is, get readers – at the level you wanted, it wouldn’t really do you much good, would it? If you just want to sell it at readings and give it to friends, fine.

I think I’m also suspicious of any process that doesn’t involve an editor. The risks of self-indulgence are high and I think the presence of an editor gives a project more credibility.

Blogging is a different matter – clearly, I have a blog! – but I see it as very different from poetry in what I’m trying to achieve with it. (And I do go back and edit, edit, edit, which goes completely against what blogs are supposed to be, I know.)

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

Oh, I just don’t see any opportunity that didn’t exist 50 years ago! (Then again, what do I know – I wasn’t alive then.) It’s still hard for women (though I know plenty of, usually male, poets who say it isn’t). I think it’s harder to get published in the mainstream now, because publishing has gone totally over to the moneymen. I worked at the Penguin Bookshop in the late eighties and I left just as the big mergers were picking up speed. It’s unrecognisable now, and we thought it was bad then!

Having said that, England is having a renaissance of small presses, similar to what I think there used to be. This, after a decade of the doomsayers predicting the end of print publishing as we knew it. Salt, in particular, is using the web in energetic and ingenious ways to enhance its print outfit.

The internet is definitely an opportunity of course, but it’s also a minefield – or simply a mine, one could get lost in it like a bottomless pit & never get your work seen. See above.

(Clearly, blogging is an opportunity. I’m using it to the hilt. But that’s a different thing.)

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

Slogging through the mire. Keeping your head above the water level of politics and backbiting. Getting your work seen at all.

Really, though – every challenge is also an opportunity, famously, and the main opportunity for us now is that we are alive! Poetry needs a kiss of life; our contemporary writing feels a bit moribund to me. The Poetry Wars may be one of the biggest challenges we face, to rise above all the squabbling and produce some work that isn’t reactionary. It’s a new century and this is our window – you and I can’t have an opportunity 50 years ago because we weren’t alive. We must simply look, and read, and hear, and feel, and write, and write as true as we can, like a straight shot. Make something new.

Ten Questions

For Paul Stevens. Paul was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, but has lived most of his life in Australia. In previous incarnations he has been a brickies’ labourer,fettler and sandal-maker. He studied Archaeology and Early English Language and Literature at the University of Sydney. Now he teaches Literature, Ancient History and Historiography, and has published on the Julio-Claudians, as well as poetry and literary criticism. Much gratitude to Paul for being Poet #9 of this ten-poet series and for his thoughtful responses below. Past and upcoming contributors listed 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? If so, what is it?

The poet’s specific role is to tell the truth, or to uncover the truth, as he or she sees it, using memorable and precise language. This happens in a number of ways. Poets may tell the truth in openly political poetry, as Tom Paulin has done. But when poets make poems, truth-tellings, then that has political implications no matter what the apparent subject of the poem. Politics is based on twist-speak, on the perversion of language to purposes other than truth. If poetic enactment is proper use of language, it must also be a political act – a legislation, a coding of the law, and a liberation from untruth – even in the twenty-first century.

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?

Workshops mean craft to me. I belonged to a leather-working co-operative in the 60s where, to eke out a precarious living, we made sandals, belts and bags. We improved our standards by competing and collaborating with each other to make creative, useful artefacts of a high standard. Any opinions or advice offered from worker to worker was instantly recognisable as being real and useful or not. The result was very good sandals. That’s the kind of workshop I like. Since I first started writing poems (at the age of 14) it has only ever been the opinions of a few close friends that have mattered to me. By “friends” I mean people of a similar set of characteristics and experiences to my own – educational (formal and informal), spiritual, cultural, emotional, and so on. At first those friends were just in my immediate circle. Now I find some of these close friends in on-line workshops as well, where any opinions or advice are instantly recognisable as real and useful or not. The process is the same, though, whether online or not. But ultimately I write for myself, as a way of solving some problem or other that is irritating me. The poem is a kind of orderly setting-out of a solution.

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.”

A common pattern seems to be to write the poem, then after a few drafts to offer it for the criticism and suggestion of friends, to rewrite it in the light of those suggestions, then to put it away for a while before you do anything else with it. The length of time the poem should be lagered varies, but when it’s possible to look at it from beyond the state of mind and feeling that produced it, you can start to judge whether it has legs or not. Then you decide what you’re going to do with it. But I never regard a poem as finished, and still tinker with ones I wrote years ago. Sometimes I’ll take a poem through 30 or more drafts, then put it in my reject box.

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 take the first sentence to mean that when people analyse and critique your poem, you might feel they’re dissecting a part of your life. To me criticism is just another kind of reading. If part of your intention in writing the poem was to have it read then it seems inconsistent to worry too much about how people critique it. After all, it’s only the opinions and reactions of those you respect that matter anyway. But I disagree with the general statement “poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry.” Good criticism helps make good poetry. Everyone can see who is making an honest attempt to advance poetry by giving fair, informed, constructive criticism. Sometimes you come across troll-critics who are gratuitously rude and unhelpful. These people are driven by feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. They too are easily spotted.

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

I have a personal blog, the Domus Carataci, where I rant on about anything that interests me – mostly history,  historiography, poetry, recipes and general doolally. As a kind of joke against those who take publication too seriously, I started up a corrupt, nepotistic and tacky ezine called The Shit Creek Review which publishes poetry, reviews, and art, depending on the size of the bribe offered. It’s proved very popular with authors and artists of a very high standard. Unfortunately none of them has paid up the requisite bribes and favours. The Shit Creek Quality Assurance Team is investigating ways to improve the flow of bribes.

Attached to The Shit Creek Review is The Shit Creek Review Blog which I plan to develop as a more general expression of the Review’s interests and values. So clearly I’m in favour of blogs. They give people a chance to have a voice who might never otherwise have had that opportunity. Unfortunately that chance depends on access to computers, so most of the world’s population still does not have a say. But it’s a beginning. For one who loves poetry, the poetry blogsphere is very interesting, and opens the door for me to many poets I would never otherwise have known about.

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

In my late teens and early twenties I was published in a few university magazines, but drifted away from writing poetry for a few years, even though I taught literature, especially poetry (as well as historiography), for a living. I started writing again in the nineties and was published in a couple of magazines and newspapers (and once was paid for it, too!). I’ve been published a few times online. I’ve not tried to have much published – I’ve made no more than 20 submissions anywhere since my nineties recommencement of poetics. I am a very lazy person.

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

Ah! Yonder all before me lie
Vast fields of seething Botany!
Then let ten thousand flowers contend,
Let poet-blossoms thrust and fend
In fields of myriad floral hues:
The wide, wild meadows of the Muse!

- The Contention of the Flowers, Paul Stevens (1753-1789)

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

I think self-publishing is great. Poets should publish any way they want. Or not. People don’t have to read your blog, or buy your chapbook. But they can if they wish. No matter what the mode or volume of publishing, the amount of real poetry will remain the same. Readers can choose for themselves.

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

My short answer is: the same as it’s ever been – to tell the truth as you see it. My slightly longer answer is: compared to fifty years ago, we have the internet. It is a vehicle for poetic transports of delight, so use it. Perhaps the internet may help revive the great days of poetry-reading practised by intellectual elites until the Victorian era.

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

My short answer is: the same as it’s ever been – to tell the truth as you see it. My slightly longer answer is: to resist the massive pressure for conformity of thought to which we are now being subjected. Poets and historians face the same problem here: politicians and the media are trying to control ever more rigidly what we may say, think, and perceive. You can get put in gaol for asking certain questions, or expressing certain beliefs. For example, in the UK and Australia, to say that the invasion of Iraq is one reason that motivates suicide bombers is, as I understand the “terrorist” legislation, an offence – “justifying terrorism”. Critiquing the evidence for some historical events can also land you in gaol. If poets or historians try to tell the truth as they individually see it, they can possibly be detained, or worse. I suppose that’s a bit of a challenge.

Ten Questions

For Howard Miller. Howard retired after 36 years of college teaching a couple of years ago. He’s been participating in Internet poetry workshops since 1999 and has been a moderator at PFFA since 2001. He’s had poems published in the e-zines 3rd Muse, Prairie Poetry, Writer’s Hood, Laughter Loaf, and The Adroitly Placed Word and accepted for The Creative Science Quarterly; he’s also had two essays published in Avatar Review. His parrot daily takes him down to the local Riverwalk just to get him out of the house. A gazillion thanks to Howard for bringing his experience to the Ten Questions table. He is the eighth of ten poets to answer the questions — the ten poets list 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? If so, what is it?

First of all, I don’t share Shelley’s ultraromantic notion of the poet as a special, privileged individual who is somehow set apart from (and above) the rest of the human race by powers far beyond those of mortal men. That, in fact, is a very damaging and misleading view (although one that appeals to some people, obviously) because it falsely asserts the poet is different from the rest of us when in fact whatever value is to be found in a poet’s work comes from her identity as one of us, a fumbling participant like the rest of us in the complex, confusing, at times incomprehensible maze of this life.

On the other hand, I think poetry (as opposed to “the poet”) has something important to offer to those who take the time and make the effort to receive it. As I used to tell my students, all good poetry (and fiction and drama) has only one real subject: human nature. In poetry we see and can learn a great deal about ourselves and other people, both those like ourselves and those very different from ourselves. That is a fundamental element of poetry and gives it a profound value for those who chose to spend time with poetry.

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

I participated in a number of in-person workshops back in the late 60′s when I was a student; I found them quite helpful. Since coming to the Internet in 1999, I’ve participated in a number of online workshops and have likewise found them quite valuable. Obviously, the quality of critiques varies from workshop to workshop and individual to individual, but I owe a great deal for whatever development I’ve experienced to the knowledgeable advice and suggestions of workshop participants.

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.”

Generally, my pieces undergo very lengthy gestational periods, frequently months, sometimes years. I had one piece published in 2003 that was originally written in 1969 and which I had tinkered with a number of times during the intervening years. So keeping pieces for several years is perfectly normal for me. To be completely honest, however, I have had a couple of pieces published only a few weeks after they were written; I suspect they would have been better had I kept them a while longer and fiddled with them more than I did.

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.”

Having read Prevallet’s article and seen that she’s talking about formal literary criticism — neither book reviews nor workshop critiques of an individual’s work — I have to admit I’m not sure what she’s so upset about. In fact, there’s a great deal of very fine poetry criticism available by a number of poets and critics; I believe Rob MacKenzie mentioned Robert Hass’s book; I’d add a number of others, including Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (Second Edition) by Stephen Dobyns, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo, and Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft by Tony Hoagland. Yes, occasionally, individual poets’ work is singled out as deficient in some way, but that’s hardly something that vitiates astute critical observation (except perhaps for the poet so singled out). I think Prevallet’s reaction is out of proportion to the actual situation.

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

I maintain two blogs, both poetry-related. The Jackdaw’s Nest presents the work of other poets; the idea is to introduce work and poets who might be unfamiliar to others. The Compost Heap began as a place to store my own NaPoWriMo work; it’s expanded somewhat to include other kinds of poetry-related entries, such as mini book reviews (of which I hope to do more shortly).

I’m not really sure how to assess the blogsphere in general in relation to poetry; there are many, many blogs by poets, some of which are fascinating both for the poetry which appears there and the observations on poetry and the work of others, and others which are self-absorbed egofests to be avoided at all costs. I find the former to be of great interest and value, while the latter fortunately are easily recognizable and avoidable. As in all things, it is discrimination which matters most.

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

My writing career/career falls into two sections. The first was 1966 – 1971 when I was in college and graduate school and actively working hard at writing and seeking publication. I had a handful of pieces published during that period in a variety of small poetry journals, none of which exist any longer, I believe. I largely stopped writing very much and seeking publication at all when I began full-time college teaching in 1971. It was only when I discovered the Internet and Internet poetry forums in 1999 that I began to work seriously at poetry-writing again; this time, I’ve been less interested in publication as an end in itself. Between 2002 and the present I’ve submitted around 25 or 26 pieces to various e-zines (none at all to strictly print publications as I’m just too lazy) and had 12 pieces accepted for publication. I do want to make more of an effort in the near future to have work published, largely because that encourages me to invest more effort in revision.

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

The explosive growth in the number of poetry e-zines is hardly an unmixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s made it possible for the work of many good poets to get into print and reach a wide audience. On the other hand, it’s likewise made it possible for vast quantities of poor work to reach a wide audience. The problem is that the quality of e-zines varies enormously, much more than the quality of most print journals, largely because producing an e-journal is so much cheaper and easier than producing a print journal. The result is that there are many very poor-quality e-zines. The earliest recognized law of modern economics was Gresham’s Law: “Bad money drives out good.” There is some danger of the same thing happening with poetry: the sheer volume of poor work could (theoretically, at least) swamp and bury the good.

One thing that’s particularly bothered me was the extension of the Pushcart Prizes from small print journals to include e-zines 3 or 4 years ago. Since each participating journal can nominate 6 contenders for a Pushcart, the number of “Pushcart nominees” has multiplied almost exponentially overnight. There was a time when the phrase “Pushcart nominee” carried a great deal of prestige with it; today, in the wake of the huge number of such nominees (and the poor quality of much of the e-zine work so nominated), that phrase is at best debased currency. The one good thing about the situation is that the standards for actually awarding the Pushcarts don’t appear to have been watered down; the result is that those who win the Pushcart awards do actually seem to deserve them. It’s just too bad that the category of those nominated has been so devalued.

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

In regards to self-publication, I think Gresham’s Law Emended for Poetry is fully operative here, too: “Bad poetry drives out good.” The large number and poor quality of self-published books on Amazon.com and elsewhere on the Internet are appalling. Whole forests have perished for nought except the perpetuation of drivel. And, concomitantly, frequently the authors of such volumes believe that getting into print any way possible is meaningful and boast exorbitantly about their achievement when in fact anyone with an internet connection and a bit of disposable income can attain such publication.

Frankly, for me personally, the only publication that matters is that which follows as the consequence of selection through an objective editorial review process: That someone else thinks my work worth publishing is rewarding. To publish my work myself wouldn’t be.

That said, there can be occasionally an advantage to self-publication: It is a way of getting one’s work out before one’s peers, gaining some recognition in the established poetry-publishing community and perhaps leading one’s work be given consideration by legitimate publishing sources in the future. Of course, it also takes a good deal of work on the part of those who choose to follow this route. I know of several individuals who have used self-publication as a steppingstone to acceptance and publication in serious periodicals and by important poetry presses. (Poets such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams began with self-published works, for instance.)

So it’s not entirely negative; but honestly at the present time the bad horribly outnumbers the good when it comes to self-publications.

Will I ever choose to self-publish? To be honest, I will likely succumb to the lure of vanity publishing eventually. *sigh*

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

There’s no question but that it’s the Internet; the vast array of resources, contacts, and opportunities available today far surpasses anything available to aspiring poets 50 years ago, or at any other previous time in the past.

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

There’s no better answer than Sarah Sloat’s: “the poem.”

Ten Questions

For Steven D. Schroeder. Steve edits The Eleventh Muse literary journal for Poetry West and works as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer. His poetry and reviews are recently available or forthcoming from Verse, The National Poetry Review (where he won the Laureate Prize), The Laurel Review, CutBank, and Verse Daily. Steve is the seventh of ten poets to answer this series of questions (past and upcoming contributors here) – warm thanks to him for doing so, and for the interesting texture added by his answers below to the overall picture.

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 can’t say that the poet has a specific role to play–more like a multitude of possible roles. The relative obscurity of poetry makes the legislator role increasingly unlikely, though there’s clearly still room for exceptions from Dana Gioia (though he’s well acknowledged) to Poets Against the War.

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?

Workshops were important in my poetic development after I obtained my undergraduate degree in creative writing. As someone who didn’t write much poetry for several years and didn’t know about the local poetry community in Colorado Springs when I started again, I found online workshops like Eratosphere and Poetry Free-for-All crucial in taking the first steps of learning about my own writing and the writing of others. They became less important when I reached a stage where the shallower readings typical of workshops were no longer necessary to pick up glitches, but most poets I know still have quasi-workshops of other poets close to them, and I still participate in a private online workshop and a local one.

There’s obviously more traffic in an Internet workshop than for a local one, and maybe a little more tendency for flamboyantly negative critiquing because of the relative anonymity and distance. Still, I think at their hearts they’re similar animals–equal portions of quid pro quo back-scratching, nasty backbiting, and genuine attempts to help with poetry. To me, the most critical task in looking for a workshop is to find one where the responders take the time to read the poem multiple times and give a true deep reading rather than “Nice images” or “I don’t understand this line.”

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.”

I recall that passage. The general idea of letting your poems sit for a while and coming back to them, even if you think you have a final draft, is a good one. I do think, though, that unless you’re a big name or a self-publisher, anything you write will have such a long shelf life between when you “finish” it and when it appears in a book that you don’t have to specifically worry about holding them back–it’ll happen naturally. That belief, of course, may be based on the fact that I’m an inveterate tinkerer. Of the previously published poems in my current manuscript, I’m sure at least 50% have been noticeably modified since they were published in journals.

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 skimmed that whole article, and it seemed too generalized to me, though I sympathize with the sentiments. In context, I think that statement is putting more of the blame on the poets taking things personally than on the criticism itself failing, and that seems at least somewhat reasonable to me. Poets are sensitive, perhaps oversensitive sometimes, and the po-biz world is small. I do see quite a few reviews, however, that blur the lines between commenting on the work and making ad hominem attacks, so it’s not a one-way street.

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

I have a poetry website, including a blog which has been up for 2 years now. The poetry blogosphere is a pretty good microcosm of both the general blogosphere and the general poetry world. Much banality (some of it still very engaging), much weirdness (some of it entirely inspired), discussion of theory (dry and otherwise), and too many outsiders dismissive of it because it’s new, without really having any idea what it’s about.

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 few excellent print and online journals, though the upper tier of 20 or so print journals has eluded me so far, and I don’t yet have a full-length book out. If anything, publication has been a mild help to my development because it gives me incentive and helps me measure myself against publications of other poets I greatly admire while driving me to improve and try new things. Publication probably hurts the growth of poets who are too easily satisfied, but then numerous things would do that for them.

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

Seems pretty similar to the huge number of small, low-production-value paper zines that used to be around (and still are to some extent). Some of them are good, some are terrible. The online versions theoretically have a greater reach, but I bet many of them end up having the same loyal audience of 30-40, plus the authors in any given issue. Many of the best online journals, like DIAGRAM, MiPOesias, Octopus, three candles, and No Tell Motel, do things in ways that print journals can’t while publishing eclectic and edgy poetry, and I think they do reach a sizeable audience.

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

If you have the quality of work to pull it off, more power to you. The thing is, there are enough small/DIY sorts of presses around that if you have that quality of work, I bet you can find someone else to publish you and avoid the ingrained (and too-often justified) bias against self publishing. If I started a tiny press (or a journal), my emphasis would be much more on getting other people’s voices out there.

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

The Internet, surely. I haven’t read everyone else’s responses yet, but the ones I saw said the same thing, and I can’t imagine any of them saying something else, unless they consciously avoid the answer to suggest another.

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

Depends on the poet’s goals, I suppose, and I also must acknowledge I’m ignorant of exactly how the poetry world was 50 years ago, but I think the biggest issue, to paraphrase blogger Charles Jensen, is that there are more poets than ever at the table, and the poetry pie is smaller.

Ten Questions

For Greg Perry. Greg is a recovering poet who dreams his blog grapez is publication now enough for all the googolplex of elementary particles within the well-known universe. He is also the sixth poet out of the ten who will answer the questions in this series (the questions with past and upcoming contributors here). Many thanks to Greg for agreeing to participate and for the new perspectives his answers provide.

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?

It’s my opinion that the poet has a role only if he/she can break through the restrictions of most contemporary poetry and its limiting world of publication, academics, and false postures of gentility or linguistic revolution. God knows what that role may be. I’ve only begun to figure out what it isn’t. It isn’t an insular world where only poets read other poets. It isn’t a political world where it’s who you know or where you teach or when you read or what you publish or why… Well, actually, that’s all that really matters: why you write it. After all is said and done, no one reads poetry any more. And even most other poets only read it so they in turn will be read. So why write it? If poets would follow that question to the ends of the world, then maybe they’d have a role to play while still in it.

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?

Right now, I’ve pulled away from all workshops. I think there comes a time when you need to explore individuality without compromise. But workshops in my past have been a godsend as far as craft goes. I mostly write in meter now, and that’s something I learned while attending workshops with the Powow River Poets,  a group of incredibly talented formalists, in particular Rhina Espaillat. Later, I workshopped online at Eratosphere , and benefited from my confrontations with the editor from hell there, Alan Sullivan. Both in-person and online workshops can be invaluable. One thing about online though, you’d better bring your toughest skin because the criticism can be brutal. I’d recommend in-person for any beginner. In person, people usually have more of a heart in them.

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.”

I like Donald Hall, but this is pure posturing. Write your poem the best you can, revise it as long as you need, but don’t work the life out of it, and move on. Life, and possibly the world as we know it, is too short. That poem you kept home could have done some good work.

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.”

Ain’t that the truth. Who knows why? I have a theory or two. Maybe some align themselves with factions looking to charge the next hill of publication. And any flak is considered enemy fire. You’re either with us or against us. Or maybe we’re just the sensitive type.

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

I’ve been blogging for the past almost 3 years and have enjoyed the experience immensely. I’ve been exposed to poetry and poets new to me. I’ve confronted what poetry means to me. In fact, I’m still confronting that.

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 several print journals. I think I gave such publication too much credence in the past. Having reviewed daily online poems last year for a few months, I’m more than aware of the disconnect between publication and quality.

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

It’s encouraging. It’s democratic. It’s the future.

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

Same as above.

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

The internet and self-publishing. Talk about your subliminal questioning.

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

Overcoming the insular, elitist, and too political world of poets and the business of its poetry, while using the craft and magic of its poetics within a revolutionary world of immediate and democratic media, giving voice to the spirit of life in a world too bent on material things and hell-bent on its own destruction, by using the truest form of pure creation, in praise and explication of all creation, and by doing so, accepting the humble role of the wicked (good) messenger.

Ten Questions

For Tony Williams. Tony lives and works in Sheffield, UK. He is researching contemporary poetic practice at Sheffield Hallam University and has published poems in the Times Literary Supplement, Anon, Matter, The Printer’s Devil and elsewhere. Many thanks to Tony for the interesting insights and perspective he offers below and for being Part 5 of this ongoing series.  (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? If so, what is it?

This is difficult territory to traverse because there are two activities going on, the theoretical/political/social and the technical, what you think and how you write. The irrelevant poet is someone who is only interested in poetry and not in the relations that poetry might have to the world. The earnest boring poet is someone who is primarily driven by the theoretical/political side. But it isn’t a question simply of avoiding those extremes. The relation of craft and content, or of practice and theory or however you want to phrase it, is delicate and inscrutable.

It seems to me that the poet needs to be basically in thrall to technique, interested in how to write and in what makes good writing, but part of what makes a good writer is bringing one’s intelligence and writing skill to bear on the world outside poetry. The best poets re-imagine the world, or imaginatively reconfigure the world, and it seems to me that neither the poets who bang on about their own feelings and personal relationships nor the ones who seek to make political points or exemplify political systems are doing that to any appreciable degree.

It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters. The poems I write with too fresh an impression of an extra-poetic idea in my mind tend to be uniformly dreadful. I am increasingly impressed by Louis MacNeice’s prescription, ‘I would have a poet able-bodied [able-minded]…a reader of newspapers…informed in economics…actively interested in politics’. That is, you have to be interested in the world as well as in poetry, and somehow and somewhen the poems will come.

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?

My experience of both suggests that the value of workshopping depends almost entirely on the quality of the participants. An ill-informed critique is useless, except in the trivial sense of warning you how some readers will misread your work. (Of course a good reader might also misread a poem, in which case you know that it needs work.) So first of all you need good poets and critics taking part. Second, workshops get better over time because you get to know each other’s work and get better at reading writers’ intentions and at recognising writers’ and readers’ idiosyncrasies. I met a friend for an informal workshop regularly for a couple of years, and we developed quite good understandings of what we were each trying to do, meaning that you don’t have to start each discussion from ground level. Changing circumstances mean we don’t meet so often now and I do miss that regular contact, not least for the sense of a continuing conversation about poetry that it provided. On the other hand, that side of it, the sense of a shared interest and conversations and support, valuable as it is, can, especially in a face-to-face workshop, encroach on the workshopping. One useful way of minimising that encroachment is to do the crits ‘blind’, so that you’re talking to poems and not to people.

I do think workshops can be important to a poet’s development. For me, especially in the early years, they have provided some structure to my writing life, as well as contact with other writers.

My experience of online workshops is limited to PFFA, which I find an excellent resource for general poetry things and for that sense of a writerly community. My attitude to the workshops there varies – since you don’t get to choose who comments on your work, the value of the critiques varies enormously. Because the membership of online workshops is so varied in terms of ability, experience, background, tradition, geography, even critiques by experienced participants can be hard to convert into technical changes to a draft. It’s especially difficult when you’re trying to do something out of the ordinary – how far is the reader’s bafflement a problem with the text and how far is it just a fact of life? I do think that workshops can have a homogenising effect, promoting the ‘workshop poem’ which satisfies the usual rules of thumb but not the basic requirement of interest and originality.

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.”

There’s a lot of truth in it. Over the last four years I’ve periodically had my poetry manuscript of the time looked at by publishers, and though it’s frustrating to have it refused, I’ve found fairly consistently that a year or so down the line I am almost glad not to have had it taken on, because distance from the work allows me to judge it more critically. Of course I’m very keen to be published, and I imagine that however good you get, you always prefer your recent work and squirm slightly at the older stuff. But I try not to feel too urgent about things, knowing that a couple of years’ distance is likely to reduce my frustration enormously. Ars longa, vita brevis, and all that. Ambition and frustration and vanity are all part of the vita, and may not necessarily serve the ars (heh).

A poet who was helping me put together a manuscript said to me, ‘Don’t put in anything that would make you blush if you were putting together your collected poems in thirty-five years time’. I do know that most of the work in my first pamphlet now embarrasses me.

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 don’t agree. If you’re publishing your work you’re inviting criticism. If you care about your feelings more than about poetry, then write it as a hobby and keep it to yourself and your friends. If you publish it – especially in book form – you’re asking strangers to read it and even pay for it, and you’re putting it up for comparison with everything else. It is not the job of the critic to spare the poet’s feelings. Ars versus vita again.

Of course there are critics who have their own despicable agenda or who write merely personal reviews. That’s just bad criticism. But a critic, particularly in the contemporary field, is allowed to discuss matters which may seem personal because they are evaluating the poetry, and hence the world-view, of the poet. If they don’t, then they can only write in a descriptive way: ‘Poet X writes in such-and-such a style about this and that topics.’ Some critics do proceed that way, and sometimes that’s quite enough, and it advances the parameters of poetry, inasmuch as such things exist, by helping the reader to understand how a poet participates in genre, for example, or how word order contributes to a certain effect. But sometimes that sort of criticism can seem a bit limited, because the other job of the critic is to judge – to evaluate a poem or the values it expresses. And that, in the end, is personal. But I don’t know in what other way a critic is supposed to proceed, or indeed what else could be meant by ‘advanc[ing] the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry’, which sounds good but is surely the job of poetry itself.

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

In certain quarters of the internet I go by the name of Ed Parsons. I have a relatively new blog called, imaginatively, Tony Williams’s Poetry Blog. It’s subtitled ‘self-promotion and poetry chatter’, which just about says it all. The poetry blogsphere is of interest to me, mainly as a means of keeping in touch with people who are interested in poetry and of enlarging my poetic horizons. I’m conscious of being ignorant of almost everything. Browsing blogsville I am sometimes visited by an alarming notion that it might be better to turn off the computer and read an actual book. You have to look at it for what it is – journalism. Even when people post poems they’ve written, I think it’s more like journalism than anything else (Horace’s ten years might be reduced to ten minutes), and hence basically ephemeral.

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

I had a pamphlet published in 2000, too early, and gained confidence just at the point when I should have been taking my poetic technique completely to pieces and starting again. But it just delayed that process by a matter of months, and it’s all experience to learn from. It got me a few readings, at which I performed miserably; but that got the miserable readings out of the way. Etc.

I’ve had a number of poems published in print magazines over the years, and more recently online. It’s always a fillip, and it’s good to get your name around. I had a poem in the TLS a couple of years ago, and that was real encouragement at a time I really needed it. They’ve not taken anything since, mind.

In 2005 I was represented in an anthology of poets associated with Sheffield Hallam. It got a few reviews, mainly positive. Again, useful in getting your name in print and in front of people’s eyes. You can buy it here, if anyone’s interested. It also contains poems by Tim Turnbull, James Sheard and Frances Leviston, among others.

I’m still working on getting a full-length collection published. I’ve been in contact with a number of publishers over the years, some of whom have made encouraging noises, without actually taking it on.

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

Yes, there are a lot, but I don’t feel like the fabric of my world is threatened. For a long time I was a submissions snob and only used to submit my work to magazines that had very good reputations (and were mainly in print, not online). You don’t want to ‘waste’ your little darlings on a little magazine when Poetry (Chicago) might take it. But really, life’s too short, and who’s to say if I’m good enough to get published in the big boys anyway, or if this little web-zine will turn out to be the Poetry (Cyberspace) of the future? So now I submit far and wide, and when an editor accepts a poem, it’s another publishing credit for my poetic CV. I write quite a lot, so I’m not likely to run short of unpublished material – and if I do, that’ll be a whole other problem.

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

I do see the attraction of self-publishing, particularly in the light of the stress and frustration involved in seeking publication from publishers who are not oneself. At its most austere level ambition ought to be satisfied with Roy Fisher’s suggestion to ‘go get working with the mimeo machine and give them away, and then do another and give that away’ (in his absurdly stimulating Interviews Through Time). In this era of desk-top publishing you can get a fairly sophisticated equivalent to a mimeo for your money, which is not to say that it will look or read any better.

But I think that the lack of any real editorial process is fatal to self-publishing. I’d feel much better about sending out a crappy photocopied pamphlet via a small press than a perfect-bound book on my own account. It might be the best work in the world, but the point of having an editor is crucial because a) s/he can help you get the manuscript as good as it can be; and b) s/he is telling others that this work is worth reading. Both of these functions is undermined if the poet is also the publisher.

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

More words?

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

The big challenge is to write a poem that lives.