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.


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.


Ten Questions on Poetry: Standing Page

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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.

4 thoughts on “Ten Questions: Ron Silliman”

  1. Ron Silliman’s final sentence in response to Question 7
    is quite true. At least I think it is with respect to me.
    “The real problem comes in trying to get people to look at
    and read the work on-line.” I, however, have been reading
    and will continue to read on-line poems, as well as those in books I
    own and in books (especially anthologies) I get from the library.

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