Last week, some of America's top poets answered five questions from a pool of questions offered by readers of poetry for National Poetry Month. In this second part of the series, our poets tackle five more of their questions.
1. What qualities or subject matter do you feel is missing in contemporary poetry?
Alfred Corn (author of Unions, forthcoming in 2014):
We've got energy and colloquial ease, we've got emotion and aggression, we've got dreaminess and jokes, but we don't have much thinking. Paul Valéry said a poem should be a "banquet for the intellect." That's hard to find in contemporary poetry. I'm far from the first to note that our culture mistrusts thinking and favors sheer raw energy and emotion, the latter often sentimental.
Richard Siken (author of War of the Foxes, forthcoming in 2015):
Great question. And its opposite: What does it mean when a topic or an angle of approach is being refused by so many at the same time? I'm always ready to be overwhelmed or undone, but if there's an absence, there's a reason. At best, what's missing doesn't resonate with the moment. At worst, we have a generation self-censoring huge swaths of the possible.
Adam Fitzgerald (author of The Late Parade):
Nick Courtright (author of Let There Be Light):
I don't feel necessarily that anything's "missing" -- poetry today remains large, and contains multitudes -- but I do wish for my own sake that I could find more poetry overtly in the "wisdom" tradition. Psalms, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching are all poetry, so where are those being written today? It takes a certain brazenness to aim for ULTIMATE TRUTHS in your poetry, but I like that sort of confidence, even when it is wayward and/or insane.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi (author of Apocalyptic Swing):
I'd like a few more ghosts. In terms of quality, may I switch the conversation to texture or scale and say I would like a vaster page, the quality of a building sized book so I could really see poems just open and open and risk getting lost and finding themselves in a new space. Really, I'd like that.
2. What is your writing and editing process like? How long does it generally take you to finish a poem?
Heather McHugh (founder and director of Caregifted.org):
It's "like" a collaboration with a diabolically OCD sensibility who whispers to you day and night, telling you that ambien means WALK AROUND, rather than I AM GOOD.
Writing is the triumph of insight in retrospect, vision in revision.
The entire, protracted artistic process is one in which I attempt to be decreasingly dissatisfied.
Well, it begins on a walk or in a daydream usually. I see the movie of it and then I start to try and get it down. I tend to think it's gone great in the first draft and then I wake up sweating and realize it's not gone well at all. And then I sit down with the poem and we really get to work together.
I write very quickly (minutes). I edit very slowly (months). Finish? Sometimes a year.
Naomi Shihab Nye (author of Tender Spot):
Write and edit every day. It's the best way, kids! Sometimes you work for years and don't finish a poem. Sometimes you finish one in five minutos.
Matthew Zapruder (author of Sun Bear):
I generate poems in all kinds of ways. Sometimes through writing exercises that I have devised or gotten from other writers, sometimes by just scribbling in a notebook, trying to find an interesting phrase or word. In order to really write a poem (or anything else) I need to shut everything off -- phone, Internet, etc. -- and get into a space of concentration. I just start moving things around and trying to find the true poem buried in the language.
3. What Poets Do You Read?
Henri Cole (author of Touch):
John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Lucie Brock-Broido, Anne Carson, Marilyn Chin, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, John Koethe, Carl Phillips, D. A. Powell, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Spencer Reece, Charles Simic, Wislawa Szymborska, Natasha Trethewey, Tomas Transtromer, Rosanna Warren, Derek Walcott, Charles Wright, Franz Wright, Adam Zagajewski.
Naomi Shihab Nye:
William Stafford, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Walt Whitman, Toi Derricotte, Paulette Jiles, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Rumi, Darwish, Jane Hirshfield, Edward Hirsch, Ron Padgett, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Rolf Jacobsen, Robin Robertson, Tomas Transtromer...
Kevin Young, Lynn Xu, Rebecca Solnit (yes), Allen Ginsberg, Joshua Edwards, Matthea Harvey, Elizabeth Bishop, Jennifer Chang, Jamaal May, Matthew Olzmann, Aase Berg, Vievee Francis, Ronald Johnson, Alan Shapiro, Spencer Reece, The Heart Sutra, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, James Merrill, Matthew Zapruder, Genine Lentine.
Bishop, Baudelaire, Darwish, Rilke, Celan, Schuyler, Tu Fu, Plath, Berryman, Sappho, Williams, Spicer, Wieners, Guest, Brenda Hillman, Victoria Chang, Dana Ward, Alice Notley, and W.S. Merwin.
Robert Pinsky (author of Selected Poems):
The alphabetical index to Singing School begins with: Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Louise Bogan, Sterling Brown, Thomas Campion, Lewis Carroll, Gregory Corso, William Cowper, Jorge de Lima, Emily Dickinson, Alan Dugan... It ends with: Wallace Stevens, May Swenson, Jonathan Swift, Edward Thomas, Chidiock Tichborne, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, John Wilmot and William Butler Yeats.
Let's limit this to poets whose excellent books are largely not found in Barnes and Noble: Trey Moody, Kyle McCord, Hannah Stephenson, Joshua Edwards, Nick Twemlow, Karyna McGlynn, Michael Earl Craig, Mary Biddinger, Joshua Young, Peter Davis, Megan Kaminski, Dorothea Lasky, Nick Lantz, Allison Benis White, Steven Schroeder, Becky Hazelton, Adam Clay, Noah Falck, Roger Reeves, Lesley Jenike, Emily Kendal Frey, Matt Hart, Kristina Marie Darling, Noah Eli Gordon, Kathleen Rooney.
4. What is an up-and-coming poet?
John Ashbery's newest poems.
Cyrus Cassells (author of Crossed-Out Swastika):
Traci Brimhall. Our Lady of the Ruins is ambitious and visionary.
Matthea Harvey (author of Modern Life):
Jynne Martin -- her book, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, is coming out next year with Carnegie Mellon.
Paul Legault (author of the Emily Dickinson Reader):
CAConrad's poetic practice infiltrates his entire being -- with this Whitmanian-Ginsbergian anarchist-American-ness. Conrad has a contagious creativity, embodied by his "(Soma)tic exercises," which are like recipes for how to write a poem. You're invited to participate -- by burning sage to honor a dead writer, by listening to Elvis in a closet, by eating that piece of storm-soaked bread you held out in the rain -- and then write. You are the up and coming poet!
5. Who is the best living poet?
In English, Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott. I mean the writing.
Naomi Shihab Nye:
W.S. Merwin, without a doubt.
Laura Kasischke (author of Space in Chains):
A poet whose every poem gives me a chill, and whose poems sustain for me multitudinous readings/chills, is Laura Jensen. "They are bad boats, and they hate their anchors." I get a lump in my throat every time I try to say that last line of the poem "Bad Boats" out loud.
I feel like CA Conrad lives a life I love to see and hear about. It has a resonance and depth and just richness to it that feels like the best version of being oneself as a means of inspiring and aiding others (people, animals, planets, plants and stars).