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.