Sunday, July 3, 2011

What It's Like to Be an American Poet

A sustainable Chatham County Farm.  Look Delicious?  It is.


A local poet, Chris Bouton, emailed me some questions she’d found and thought interesting. Thanks, Chris. It gave me a jumping off point for today’s blog.  If you are also a writer, try answering these questions, substituting writer for poet, if need be. 


1) When did you start writing and what motivated you?

I began writing at age 7, when put to bed with rheumatic fever for a year–stories and their illustrations. I had a lot of time on my hands. I began writing poetry at age 13, when my feelings became much stronger and bewildered me. I wrote to understand myself better. I still do.

2) Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the
writers you read now? What’s changed?

I remember, in choosing my own books from the library, age 10 on, that I felt like there was something missing in all the books I read. I decided I’d have to write my own books to put that missing quality into books. What was it? My best guess is that it was my own way of seeing the world. I’ve always been interested in subtle and unusual perceptions about the natural world and human beings.

In childhood I read Louise May Alcott (I identified with Jo in Little Women, Nancy Drew mysteries, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry, Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden). In high school my English teacher, Mrs. Francis Dunham, gave me a long reading list to do and also read everything I wrote and critiqued it. On the list were classics, like Lorna Doone, Jane Austen, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. I also read The Odyssey in a simplified version, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, T.S. Eliot. She made us write short in-class essays every Monday. She suggested I write in blank verse, like Shakespeare, and soon I was doing that easily and without working at it. I also read Thoreau and Emerson under her. I loved Walden. I still do. I try to simplify my life as much as possible. My early poetry was in response to the natural world and to my feelings. It still is.

T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were important for my poetry, as Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust for my prose writing. Curiously, I think Homer was a huge influence–he’s the Western literary beginning for both songs (poetry) and stories (fiction).. He always made me feel like writing, and my present normal narrative poetry writing mode is loosely based on Robert Fitzgerald’s meter in his translation of The Odyssey.

I was able to read Homer in Greek in college, and eventually read all of The Iliad in Greek the year before I began graduate school in Classics at U.C.-Berkeley. Pound’s ABC of Reading gave me a reading list, which I later used to frame the writing courses I taught (Roadmap to Great Literature for New Writers) in the Durham and Burlington public libraries. I still get my students reading classics in writing courses I teach.

I’ve read widely in the classic poetry, early 20th century, and internationally, modern Greek poets, Ancient Chinese, Neruda, Lorca, Russian like Akhmatova, Esenin, Pushkin, and Mandelstam. Mostly now I read poetry in connection with classes I teach. Proust and Woolf have also influenced my poetry, Sappho, Catullus, Chaucer, many more.

Apart from classes, I read mysteries and since 1991 I’ve written them, seven to date. I write a poem normally every Sunday morning, books of 30 poems, each poem having a number. The current book, excerpts being on this blog from time to time, is That Inner Circling Sun. I’ve written probably forty books of poetry now, only five of which are in print. I give poems away at the weekly Pittsboro Farmers’ Market and also email them to friends.

3) How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

Everyday life is very important to my poetry. I have often sat outside, by a creek, river, or sea, to write, and everything going on in my life and mind and the world around me can come into the poems. If there’s a drought, it gets into the poem. If I have a new grandchild, that’s goes into the poem. I quote what people have said to me, positive and negative. In recent years imagery from my farming comes into the poems. I used to write a lot about love. Now I write more about what I think. But years ago Charles Eaton praised my poetry for containing "thought felt things."

4) What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Like Proust, I believe in trusting the deep places, or what he would call subjectivity. I call it the Muse, and trust that the Muse will send up what I need to write about.

5) Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader
cultural or political movements?

I do feel that I’m part of the literary tradition, but I also tune into cultural and political realities. I like what Eliot said about how a fine new writer’s work becomes part of the tradition and subtly rearranges all the other writers in that tradition. I hope my work will do that one day.

6) What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

For American poets, the hardest part, for me, too, is being generally unacknowledged. It’s possible to publish one’s poetry through small presses, but it’s still uphill work, especially if you’re not writing like most people around you are. Americans generally aren’t reading poetry, but I have found that some people read mine who don’t normally read poetry, including farmers and customers at the farmers’ market.

George Seferis, who won the Nobel Prize, said he was content if he had three readers. I have more than that, and I am content, but I would like to get more books in print, and I need to work on that.

7) What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

All reading is important, but maybe especially rereading Proust with a small group of people, as I am in 2010-11, is important now. We finish the whole book by Thanksgiving this year. It reminds me of my vocation as a writer as well as stimulating images and perceptions. There’s nothing like Proust for a serious writer, in my opinion. This is my third time through the whole book, and each time I see new things, learn new things, benefit immensely.

8) What is ‘American poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘American’ poet?

American poetry is what American poets write. I am very much an American poet. I’m not always proud of my country’s behavior to its own citizens or to those in other countries, but in the very best sense of the word, I am American in style, ideas, spirit, commitment to truth and justice, outspokenness, plain speaking, no nonsense, and I have friends in all "classes" in this country, from the rich to the poor, educated to self-educated, and in all the various ethnic groups. I love our diversity.

When abroad, I’m aware that everywhere there are hurtful prejudices based on origins, education, background, language, religion. Here we are in the midst (still) of a great experiment. Can we live together in a peaceful society? Can we all live together on the planet, without destroying it or each other? I hope my writing helps break down stereotypes, emphasizes the love that should tie people together, and brings to light real truths, important truths about human life here and now. That to me is being an American.

9) What is the current state of American poetry, as you see it?

Generally speaking, in Pound’s thoughts, we are in an age where the language of poetry is in good condition, and a lot of people are writing poetry. Perhaps we are entering now the age of poetry he called "watered down." But few now are writing outstanding, memorable poetry that speak to the hearts of everyday experience, to those who don’t write poetry but would like to have fresh insights and understanding for their own lives.

Once someone told me she couldn’t put my book down. That was Light Food. Recently, at the Farmers’ Market, a customer told me his wife cried when he read her my poem. Those are the rewards I’m looking for. I think that’s what poetry is supposed to do: speak to the heart and mind, help us see freshly our own experience.

How do you think American poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Those who are serious about their poetry writing would be advised to read in the classics of all cultures, to travel, to learn about other people’s lives, to realize that the poet, potentially, is at the peak of the arts, since her work involves music, words and meaning, and imagery. And, if she’s wise, she can speak to the minds and hearts of all. I’d love to see American poetry develop in that direction. Some very good poets are writing, but most of those aren’t getting much attention. Maybe gradually they will. I hope so.

10) How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and
culture in the U.S. and/or at an international level?

Poetry, though difficult to translate, can reach across all the barriers people put up to keep others out, because it is essentially about feelings and about what it’s like to live in this world with other people. So of course it’s important to our society and culture, and to cultures and societies everywhere. Poets are sometimes loved and given adulation, sometimes hated and killed, and sometimes ignored. But if they get their words on paper and preserved in books and libraries, maybe it’s not so bad to be ignored in the short run. Better than getting confused by adulation or killed for speaking the truth.

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