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5 Questions for Poets: Part 3

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For the third part in this series, some of America's top poets answer five more questions posed by readers of poetry for National Poetry Month.

1. How many of your poems do you throw away?

Alfred Corn (author of Unions, forthcoming in 2014):
Almost none. I'd rather continue working, revising and recasting until the poem and I get it right; that is, until it seems composed in one breath, with no advance planning. In one instance that took 20 years.

Matthew Zapruder (author of Sun Bear):
I don't usually just throw things away, but I do think of the writing of the poem as a process. Each time I go back to it, I try to cultivate the mindset that a great deal of it might need to be either discarded or rewritten, or saved for some other poem. I'm always looking for what's at the center, the mysterious thing that seems to be reaching toward the unknown. Everything in the poem needs to work towards that, be useful to it. So I keep removing what is extraneous and trying to rebuild the poem again and again until it functions. This can take days or weeks or months or even sometimes years.

Naomi Shihab Nye (author of Tender Spot):
Tons. Reams. Well, no, I don't throw them away, I stuff them into an old locker in a shed in my backyard. It is not a hurt locker; it is a "this is my long life" locker.

Adam Fitzgerald (author of The Late Parade):
None.

TR Hummer (author of Ephemeron and Skandalon):
The advent of the computer has made the wastebasket (which I used to regard as my best friend) more or less obsolete. Now unsuccessful poems tend to sit in files on my desktop, ultimately decaying into other poems, or else just sitting there because I have forgotten about them. Usually if I run across something I began writing and abandoned, I can salvage something from it in a different key.

Henri Cole (author of Touch):
Probably not enough.


Kathleen Peirce
(author of Ardors):
If a poem is finished, I'll save it somewhere, out of gratitude, no matter how much I dislike it. I do throw away all the drafts of my poems, though.

2. Do you still get poems rejected in poetry journals?

Henri Cole:
Very often, and after 30 years, the disappointment is no less painful.

Naomi Shihab Nye:
Of course! Thank goodness!

David Lehman (Series editor for the Best of American Poetry series):
Of course. Everyone does.

3. How many poems do you have memorized?

Adam Fitzgerald:
Not many, just more than I know that I do.

Alfred Corn:
Several dozen, most in English, but a few in other languages. However, you have to revisit them often or the words will erode. I did have Sappho's song to Aphrodite memorized in Greek, but over the years it has slipped away. Hmm. Think I will go now and memorize it again.

Naomi Shihab Nye:
Not enough. This is definitely something to encourage in the young, whose brains are still more flexible and absorbent. All hail the Poetry Out Loud project for encouraging memorization!

David Lehman:
Many. I believe in the value of memorization.

TR Hummer:
Perhaps a dozen.

Kathleen Peirce:
I know a handful (if not a heartful) of poems by heart. Lines surface and go under. They keep me company, whether on the tip of my tongue or in the basement of my unconsciousness.

4. Are creative writing programs good or bad for literature? Why?

Adam Fitzgerald:
Both. Good: Attention. Bad: Wrong type of attention.

Kathleen Peirce:
In my experience, creative writing programs are good for many people. Writing is not dependent on any one thing, or on any one thing for long.

Henri Cole:
Bad, I fear. Through professionalization, conformity and tepidness result, which are death to art.

TR Hummer:
In my experience, a few writers are harmed by writing programs, but that harm arises from issues of temperament, not of the fundamental nature of programs. Furthermore, it does not pay to generalize about this question. Writer A might benefit from being part of Program A, but be damaged by Program Z. Etc. And sometimes the most solitary writers emerge from the cave, associate themselves temporary with a writing program to everyone's benefit (or detriment) and then vanish again. As to literature and universities, I do think English departments are increasingly bad for literature. But that is another question.

Alfred Corn:
Both. The 19th century Italian poet Leopardi once proposed setting up an academy for aspiring poets, saying that this would provide an income for the teacher-poets. Writing programs now do that. But many of the teachers are negligible writers, and the demands made on the good ones sometimes prevent them from getting their writing done. Also, the programs have attracted many aspirants who do not have the requisite talent to succeed. They borrow money to pay tuition, in hopes of a success they will not have. To admit them and keep them for two years strikes me as unethical. A fair percentage have enough middling ability to get themselves into print, but then the scene becomes flooded with writers, in numbers so large that the public doesn't have the time or patience to winnow out the good from the bad.

5. Do you think the Best of American Poetry, or Best Poems of 20__ and the Pushcart annual are useful indices of the best work now being published?

David Lehman:
Every year at least one contributor to that year's Best American Poetry tells us that her or his first exposure to poetry was through a volume in the BAP series.

Matthew Zapruder:
No. But they can be interesting to read.

Alfred Corn:
No, though of course sometimes very good poems do appear in them.

TR Hummer:
Only if taken in conjunction with other indices. With great respect to the publications in question, I see no difference between them (as "indices") and any issue of any literary magazine out there. A publication is an index of the decisions made by its editor or editors. Perhaps the most interesting index going is Poetry Daily. Because it has continued for so long, and covered so much more ground than a "mere" book, Poetry Daily has made itself a fascinating resource. It's my opinion that no anthology of any kind is a complete index of any moment in the production of poetry, and the notion that an anthology can be one is destructive.

Kathleen Peirce:
I find anthologies, like translations, are (rightfully) infused with the minds that make them.