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.”

Published by

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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