Uppercut Award Runner-Up Ed Harkness on Poetry
with J. Scott Bugher
I have never met a poet who knew they wanted to be a poet prior to writing poetry. How did poetry enter your world? Did you choose it? Did it choose you?
Who did the choosing, me or poetry? I chose poetry, but only because it made itself available to me, beginning, I’m sure, with having been read to from early childhood. My mother bought a set of popular children’s books called Childcraft, and there were several of these pumpkin-colored volumes that had illustrated poems and stories for kids. One of my favorites was “The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee,” by the well-known children’s author, Mildred Pew Meigs. Here’s the first stanza:
Ho, for the Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee!
He was as wicked as wicked could be,
But oh, he was perfectly gorgeous to see!
The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee.
The poem is meant for kids, of course, but it’s also verbally and rhythmically sophisticated, heavy on alliteration and other effects. It’s funny, too, and witty. Hearing this and other poems aloud, then learning to read them on my own surely set me up to fall in love of language and writing, a love affair that would take a deep hold later on, when I was lucky enough to have teachers in high
school and college who also read poems aloud in class, introducing me to Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare and other classic writers, then later, when I was an English major in college, to the Romantics (Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats) and then on to more modern American and British writers, from Whitman onward to Sylvia Plath and contemporary poets like Philip Levine, WS Merwin, Mark Strand (one of my teachers), David Wagoner (another teacher of mine), Sharon Olds—the list goes on and on.
As I recently mentioned in a Split Lip blog entry, the precise moment when I knew I wanted to write poems occurred when I was a student at the University of Washington and heard a reading by Seattle poet Richard Hugo. That was my game-changer. Hugo’s booming delivery of his signature poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” made my neck hairs stand on end. The poem’s last line, “…and her red hair lights the wall,” will echo forever in my head.
The rest is history. I was accepted in the graduate writing program at the University of Montana, where Hugo was head of the MFA program in creative writing, and began to publish my first poems.
One can approach writing poetry in a number of ways. How would you describe your creative process? What triggers your ideas? How do you begin? How do you know the poem is complete? What happens in between?
My process is not unique and has been well-described by others, including the poet Theodore Roethke in the little gem of a documentary about him called In a Dark Time, shot in grainy black-and-white 1962 in Seattle, just two years before his death. In the film, Roethke describes his way of writing as “a process of accretion,” where the poem starts with an image or phrase that lodges in the mind. Once written, that line suggests other lines, other images, and so on. It’s not all that mysterious—unless, like me, you view language itself as mysterious and miraculous. So it may sound pedestrian and unglamorous to describe my way of writing as based on suggestibility, where one word or phrase suggests another, but there it is. I’m a journal doodler. Usually such scribbles will be set off by something I’ve overheard or noticed or suddenly remembered. A good illustration is my poem, “Telescope in the Basement,” whose first line, “It’s packed away with its one good eye,” found its way onto a page in my journal after I’d been making a feeble attempt to clean my basement and discovered a long, dust-glazed wooden box. That led to a poem about star-gazing from the top of a lookout in Montana, near-forgotten friendships, and the mystery of time, space and memory.
How do I know a poem is complete? Usually, it just feels done. My hunch is that writers develop an intuition about endings. It’s a little like finishing a jigsaw puzzle and realizing that you’re holding the last piece, and there’s just one place where it fits.
But I’ve also had the experience of being uncertain about how to end a particular poem, or thinking it’s done and realizing, perhaps a year later, or three years later, that the poem’s ending wasn’t quite there. This happened to me with a poem called “My Father Mows the Lawn.”Only when I looked
again at the draft long after I’d written it did I see more clearly that I had not yet released my grip on what Richard Hugo calls the poem’s “triggering subject”—which in this case was a mental image of my dad pushing an old reel-style mower through our overgrown lawn. All it took was the revision of the last stanza for me to discover the poem’s “true” or “generated” subject (to use Hugo’s lingo). Rather than “explain” my poem and what its real subject is, I invite interested readers to get hold of my forthcoming Split Lip Press chapbook, Ice Children, read “My Father Mows the Lawn” and see for themselves. The real subject reveals itself in the last line.
MFA and PhD programs for creative writing are a delicate subject with many proponents and just as many opponents. Given you've had the experience of studying your craft at a graduate level, how would you defend one's choice to earn an MFA or PhD in poetry or any of the arts for that matter?
I’m familiar with the criticisms of university MFA creative writing programs—that they tend to produce sea of poets who write and publish poems sometimes unkindly referred to as “McPoetry,” characterized by—if you believe the critics—a bland sameness and easy cleverness.
It’s an unfair criticism. There’s always been “bad” poetry. You don’t need MFA programs for that. I dare anyone to try to read even one poem from A Heap o’ Livin’, by Edgar A. Guest, a hugely popular poet from the early in the last century, decades before MFA programs came long. If you don’t gag, then you’ve got a titanium-line stomach. Guest makes Rod McKuen look like Yeats.
For me, the best thing about the two years I spent in Missoula at the University of Montana was the opportunity to simply be around other writers and some remarkable teachers, including the poet Madeline DeFrees, from whom I’m sure I learned as much about writing poems as from Hugo. That proximity to other writers, I believe, is justification enough for creative writing programs. It gives young writers a chance to hang with other like-minded souls, to attend readings on campus and off, to come in contact with poets and poems that you’d likely not have encountered otherwise. I wouldn’t trade those two years for the world.
Like playing hand drums or painting abstract art, a lot of people believe they can write poetry without much practice. In your opinion, what qualifies one to be a poet? What do you look for in another's poetry to assess its merit?
Is practice important? Is ice cold? Yes, and yes (the last time I checked).
When I taught poetry workshops, I’d have the class meet the first week in the library by the poetry shelves. I’d pull off books and read poems aloud to them in the aisles, no doubt irritating librarians and students studying for a biology exam or clicking on laptops. The first week assignment was that students had to actually check out one poetry book by a poet whose “voice” spoke to them. Students then had to write a poem in imitation of a particular poem by the poet they’d chosen, either by echoing the form or subject of the poem (giving due credit to
the poem and poet when they submitted their imitations to me). Somewhere along the line I’d tell my story of seeing student painters in the Uffizi Museum in Florence sitting with easel and paints before a classic painting and copying it as exactly as they could. In other words, the art students learned by doing through imitation or copying from the masters, who were now their teachers. Same goes for writing, I’d tell my students. I’d mention Roethke’s essay, “How to Write Like Somebody Else” and chatter more about the importance of using poets you like as mentors and teachers. You’re on a quest to find your literary ancestors, I’d say. Your job as apprentice writers is to read poets old and new. Read poems for pleasure. Also read them to learn what’s been done, what’s possible. There are no other shortcuts to becoming a poet.
But...I’m not being glib or evasive when I say that I really have no idea what the qualifications for being a poet are. Writing a lot of poems? Publishing books? Looking at the world a certain way, then “translating” your responses from the mental realm to the physical by writing them down—to borrow Coleridge’s famous definition of poetry—“using the best words in the best order”? Are those the identifiers of “poet”? Still working on that one.
Everyone—it goes without saying—begins as a novice (reminds me of the old joke: “I started out as a child…”). True of writers, quilters, archers, opera singers and banjo pickers. Play the banjo every day for twenty years and you’ll be pretty good! Not Bela Fleck, perhaps, but your playing will give you and others much pleasure. What’s better than that? In fact, when I think of my own attempts at writing poems, I see myself as the perpetual novice, always in process, always (I hope) learning, always “becoming.”
The excellent question, “What do you look for in another’s poetry to assess its merit?” reminds me of something poet Sharon Olds once said to a small group of young poets: “Watch out for me. I want something from your poems.” That statement is a bit sobering and a reminder that readers do want something from poems, never mind Hugo’s tongue-in-cheek admonition in The Triggering Town that “there is no reader.” There are readers, and we want something from poems.
What I look for in student work is the raw edge of a voice, a striking way in which sentences are assembled or lines arranged or figures of speech conjured.
What I want from a poem I encounter in a book or journal is to be altered, to be swept briefly away by its word music, its verbal play, its artistry, its awareness of itself. I want a poem to pull me into its compact universe, to show me around in the museum of the writer’s heart. I want a short history of joy and suffering within the span of a dozen or twenty lines. I want the poem to move me in some way, tickle or delight or quietly shock me, or lift me to some new understanding life on this odd planet and my own life among others. Tall order, no?
There. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet but raised the bar, or raised the gauntlet and dropped the bar on my big toe.
But enough with generalities about what I look for in poems. I could mention hundreds of titles that fill that tall order, but here are ten, chosen at random, that take me to a new place:
Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
Dickinson’s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”
Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane”
Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”
James Wright’s “Elegy for the Poet Morgan Blum”
Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”
Philip Levine’s “Belle Isle,”
Adrienne Rich’s “School Among the Ruins”
Sharon Old’s “I Go Back to May 1937”
C.K. Williams’ “Dirt”
In a recent interview with Philip Levine, now in his 80s, he was asked what he thought to be the greatest lesson he had learned through the course of his career. His answer was along the lines of "I learned how to say no to a poem and move on to another." As an experienced poet, what has been the greatest lesson you've learned so far?
Wise words from Levine, one of our great voices. Of my top 100 poems, maybe ten are by Levine, including “You Can Have It,” “Belle Isle,” “How Much Can It Hurt?”
Greatest lesson? Okay, here goes: I’ve learned to hang in there. I’ve never been prolific, and I’m not particularly proud of my writing habits, which are spotty. It’s even hard for me to admit my main shortcoming, one I fully recognize: lack of discipline. I do not write every day and rather write in streaks, like the baseball hitter with an average average but who will have a hot spell followed by a long cool spell.
So the lesson is…what. Maybe this: learn to be content with your choices. Poetry is (at least for me) not a source of revenue, despite the thousands of hours I’ve devoted to it and hundreds of poems that have resulted from my on-off obsession. Money? Fame? LOL!
I’m content with my choices, to have written several books, to have given readings and taught my passion. Poetry is a fairly small part of my life—a rather large part of my mental life—but hardly the central facet overall. But when I sit down with my journal or in front of my keyboard and the words start to come, and I follow these quirky tugs wherever they might lead, and when I surprise myself by a word play or construction that I’d not otherwise have created, and then later when I chisel and chip away, or daub back on a bit more clay here and there, and then read aloud what I’ve written and rather like it, well, that’s the Life of Reilly, figuratively speaking. To badly paraphrase something Bob Wrigley said in an interview published here in Split Lip Magazine, when you write poems, you live more than one life, a kind of bonus life, every bit as rich as the other one you have, the one visible to the world. Writing poems, then, is to enter an invisible realm where time takes on a different dimension, fluid and elastic like Dali’s clocks. Sometimes, it’s hard to return to real time. Sometimes it’s a relief.
And to wrap up, how about I ask the quintessential question when interviewing an artist. What kind of advice would you give a new poet looking to make his or her way into the literary scene?
I indirectly addressed this question in one of my earlier answers above. I have several recommendations for young writers.
First, read your head off. The importance of reading poems old and new, in English and in translation, can’t be underestimated. And of course read from current literary magazines to get a feel for what others are doing, what editors look for. Browse your library or bookstore. Do the unthinkable: buy a poetry book. Obviously not just any book, but one you like after browsing, reading, hearing what others have said about a particular poet. Seek those poets and poems that sing to you, but of course keep an open mind and remember that your tastes will change as you become more familiar with more kinds of poets and poetry. Poets I adored when young are not nearly as important to me now, but they were essential to my early growth.
Second, go to a poetry reading if you’ve never been—or even if you have. Find ways to hear poetry, either live or on YouTube videos. The internet offers a wealth of online poetry journals, ezines, poetry blogs, sites dedicated to publishing contemporary poetry (see Verse Daily and Poetry Daily) and homepages created by individual poets. These sites will often include audio recordings of poets reading. Google the names of poets you like. Even take advantage of social network sites such as Facebook, where you might be able to “friend” other writers and keep tabs with the online literary community. You’ll then be apprised of readings, book releases and the deadlines for various lit mags.
Third, write your head off. Keep a journal and keep those rendezvous with your muse. Don’t be a no-show. Meet regularly. (Caveat: these are words from one who doesn’t always practice what he preaches. Being honest, folks.)
Once you’ve got work you’ve revised and fine-tuned and shown to other writers for feedback, then you might be ready to submit to those journals you’ve become acquainted with regarding their editorial and stylistic preferences.
Finally, be of good cheer. Know that being a writer means dealing with rejection. Grieve and then move on. If you’re at the stage where you’re beginning to submit work, always have a set of poems ready to go when a rejection slip or email comes. Understand too that while it’s exciting when, after the string of rejections, editors begin to pay attention to your work and accept them for publication, there’s just nothing that beats the pleasure of writing, of being in that zone where the words won’t stop and you later realize you’ve made something you like, something the world has never seen. And it’s yours. It’s you.
Ed on the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster
Ed's forthcoming Splti Lip Press Release due out November 21st
Visit Ed online by clicking the image above.