Ten Questions

For Scavella. A fearsomely cool internet presence, what more can I say.  Someone thoroughly steeped in both poetry and prose writing craft and writing thought and with plenty of pertinent wisdom to share. Many thanks for being Part 2 of this ongoing series (questions, past and upcoming contributors here), and for the new insights across the board, Scavella. 

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 believe that writers in general, and poets in particular, have roles to play in human affairs, in whatever century they find themselves. Writing is the one art that marries thought directly with craft. The other arts tap more directly into the subconscious (if that exists) or, better, the unarticulated, while writers have the challenge (often missed by this generation of keyboard-typists) of translating impulse, emotion, the ineffable, into consciousness. The process of naming is a process of making conscious the meaning of something. Words name, and writers manipulate words (or are manipulators of them). Poets do the most manipulating, because poetry is the most compressed, the densest of all writing. So the role of poets is the most dense, the most intense, of all writers. And because writing is where thought meets impulse, where the unconscious is translated into consciousness, poets have a role to play.

That role, though, is likely to change from person to person and from society to society, depending on context and the need for that translation; so my answer to your specific question would be “No”. Paradoxically, that is.

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 do differentiate between in-person and online poetry workshops. I don’t do in-person ones any more, and the ones I have participated in were far less helpful to my development as a poet (with one exception) than the online ones I’ve committed my writing to — PFFA in particular, but also The Gazebo and Eratosphere. The reason, I believe, particularly with poetry, is that face-to-face workshops get too tangled up in personalities — the personality of the leader, the personalities of the writers — and the work becomes secondary. People tend to worry too much about being kind to the face and miss the hard work that it takes to be critical of the words. In workshops such as PFFA and the others, the words are really all we have; and so I find them far more useful. There are limitations, of course, especially in my case, where my background and context have given me a completely different point of attack for poetry and writing — how many people in the USA and Europe still have the sense of creating a national literature, or the need to do so, with the weight of Shakespeare, Whitman and Frost on their shoulders? Limitations, and differences in focus and purpose. But that doesn’t entirely matter when one is discussing craft.

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 agree with him. Indeed, I tend to side with Pope; five years would be better. Poems are like plants; if they’re published too soon, they’re too young and green. They should be buried and watered for long enough for them to mature.

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 think I commented on that above, when I talked about face-to-face and online workshops. I think, too, that Prevallet’s earlier observation — that “criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique” — is important. It’s one reason why I keep my personal identity masked on the web: I treasure the lack of the personal that that engenders. But I think that we must fight to advance the formal and the intellectual and the contextual anyway. The personal will take care of 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?

I do, but it’s limited, partly because of what I said above about publication. I like the internet for the development of process. The great thing about the immediate response-time of the internet, which isn’t as immediate (as anyone who has taught can tell you) as that of a class, which often tries to compress too much thought into too short a time (what is the good of a fourteen-week semester anyway? What can one truly master in that time? Learn, yes, but mastery?), is that it provides an ideal place for learning about poetry, if people are willing to engage. Rob Mackenzie, among others, has done some interesting things on his poetry blog, looking at the process of writing specific poems. Some time ago he provided us with a glimpse into the process of developing a particular poem. I tried to copy him, but I work too slowly and revise so often that it became a tedious and unfinished process. But that isn’t to say that it isn’t valuable.

The state of the poetry blogsphere? No clue. I’m a dilettante when it comes to that — and rather incestuous. I tend to read the blogs of poets whose work I know and/or admire, or those who are members of the poetry forums I favour. There’s a whole lot of crap out there, and I like to avoid that when I can.

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

Dear lord, how do I answer that? I’ve had poems and other things published for almost thirty years, mainly in academic journals, though in the past five years I’ve broken into national and regional ones as well. I tend to favour print journals, though I like it when they’re available on the web as well. I have no idea how that has helped or hindered any development of mine. In the beginning, it was validation. Now I’m not so sure; publishing is as much about power and control as many other things in this world, and while it can mark a level of quality or finishedness, it doesn’t mean as much as one might think.

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

I’d rather not. I agree with Hall when he writes “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems”. Unfortunately, I suspect that often creating poetry publications is more about making a name for the publishers than about seeking greatness. So I’d rather keep my comments to myself — especially as I’m involved in the process of creating an online publication as we speak.

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

Not many. While I recognize the politics inherent in mainstream publishing, self-publishing is far too easy to mean much, I’m afraid. It’s a good way of disseminating one’s material, and doing so in a far more attractive form than when it was being done by Gesstetner and Xerox.

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

The internet, and global communication. It excites me to know that a blog can be read by people all over the world, practically in real time. There’s a power in that.

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

The internet, and global communication. The instantaneous means of communication means that a whole lot of dreck gets floated. The challenge is no longer solely up to the writer to jump through the right hoops and impress the right people to get read. Anybody can “publish”, and so now the reader has to master pretty rigourous critical tools so as to benefit from what’s good out there, and separate that from the (literal) crap that exists.


Scavella is the pen name for somebody who writes poetry, drama and prose, not necessarily in that order. Her web presence is made up primarily of poetry (which she posts mostly as Scavella) and prose nonfiction (which she posts mostly under her own name), and a little bit of fiction thrown in during November, when she lets loose and joins the madness of NaNoWriMo. Her poetry has been helped tremendously by online workshops like the Poetry-Free-for-All, where she’s been a moderator since 2001. Her writing blog is here.

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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