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.

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.

One thought on “Ten Questions”

  1. Many splendid thoughts.
    Here are two that
    stood out:
    1. “Poetry is . . . about ways of experiencing,
    ways of navigating experience.”
    2. the “engage with a poem on its own terms” idea

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