Poetry Performance and Communication: An Interview with Judy KronenfeldRobbi Nester
Clearly some poets are more practiced at reading their work aloud than others, more comfortable with the audience and the process of transforming what can often seem a solitary activity into a mode of connecting with others. This issue of a poet’s connection to the minds of those in the audience came to the fore when I attended two readings by poet Judy Kronenfeld. Kronenfeld is the author of several books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently, Shimmer, released this year by WordTech Editions, and Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths, winner of The Litchfield Review Poetry Book Prize for 2007, re-issued in a second edition by Antrim House this year as well. Kronenfeld, a writer and scholar as well as a poet, is also the author of an historical, linguistic, and critical study: King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance, Duke, 1998. She is Lecturer Emerita in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside, after twenty-five years of teaching there. She has also taught English literature at UCR, UCI and Purdue University, and acts as an Associate Editor of the online journal Poemeleon.
Listening to her read her poems was an intensely emotional, electric experience for me, so I wanted to learn more about this writer. In questions submitted by email over a period of weeks, I have asked her to share her ideas on reading her work aloud and on other topics related to the dissemination and writing of poetry that many poets will find relevant, whether they are novices contemplating their first open mic readings or old pros.
Robbi Nester: I have heard it said and I believe that poetry is best read aloud by the person who wrote it, regardless of her accent or quality of voice. But in your case, performance seems to be an especially important part of the work’s artistry, rather as is true of a piece of music, which exists largely as performance. Indeed, you appear to orchestrate your poems and interpret them in much the same way that a musician does a piece of music. Could you comment on how you approach a reading, what steps you undertake to interpret your poems?
Judy Kronefeld: Thank you for the implicit compliment about musicality. Interestingly, there is also a certain possible negative implication in thinking of poetry as existing “mostly as performance,” at least for some poets and critics of poetry—and even for me! When I was a grad student at Stanford, I learned that Yvor Winters thought poetry should be read in something like a monotone; it was as if tonalities, drama or emotion would falsify the words, and prevent the listener from focusing on their rational content, or even on the way in which emotion was implicit in them. While Winters’ views, in general, are not prominent today, I suspect some contemporary poets and critics are suspicious of highly expressive or, really, over-expressive reading, in the same way that I tend to be. There is a feeling—one I actually share—that a good actor could read the telephone book in a way that is moving. The implication is that poems that don’t work on the page (are banal, or do not exploit the textures, rhythms, sounds and nuances of language or show any knowledge of poetic practice) can be made to have an effect when a talented actor performs them. The actor has at her disposal the body and how it is held, the hands, and of course, the face, as well as the full range of tonalities of the voice, from the most tender whisper, to the most exultant shout. And it is possible for language that is not especially nuanced to be given nuances not intrinsic to it when all of these come into play. (Though I think really flat, or otherwise ineffective language does tend to have a certain hollowness, no matter how it is rendered.) For these reasons, though I am not a Wintersian, I understand suspicions about the potential performance has to elevate mediocre work.
That said, given the prevalence of poetry readings today, and assuming that the poems read do stand up on the page—by whatever criterion or combination of criteria one holds (intellectual complexity, elegant simplicity, emotional effect, etc.) —what does it mean to “read well” and what are the purposes of so doing?
When one reads a poem in a book, silently or out loud, it is possible to linger on words, phrases or allusions that require further contemplation or elucidation, or even to look them up; reading may or may not proceed at a steady pace and of course re-reading is possible or necessary. The poem may have, as William Pitt Root said once, a surface that attracts readers, “while its submarine currents seize, dazzle, baptize, and otherwise astonish their souls before letting them worry back unto the shore, reborn”(Cutbank 22,19). That wonderful description implies, to me, an initial reading followed by a more profound but still dazzling reading, followed by some thinking (worrying), before the full import of the poem gives the reader that new birth. However, when one listens to a poem unfold in time, one word evaporates after the other. Effects that depend on the listener’s memory—of sounds or textures, images, or content—are necessarily more tenuous. It is not possible, when the poem ends, to go back and re-hear the first lines that are crucial to the full understanding of the final lines. Even if the poet reading her own poems conveys the music of its sounds—the phrasing, emphases and nuances that bring the poem alive for some listeners—the poem in time is necessarily a less complete poem than the poem on the page. And it is all too easy for communication not to take place, for poems that are read to simply fly over the heads of the audience because they are not intently focusing or have not learned to listen well—as is the case with many audiences not trained or self-trained to listen, or with any of us when we are distracted by our inner thoughts or indeed some external disturbance. Or, the audience may come away with an impression of the poem—of its texture, for example, that attractive “surface” that William Pitt Root mentions—and little else.
For these reasons, reading well involves, for me, deliberate attempts to communicate with one’s audience and to facilitate their focus and—up to a point—their comprehension. For me, such communication is the opposite of what transpired at MLA sessions in my past life! The presenter read at breakneck speed, cramming as many pages into fifteen-minutes as possible, as if she were reading for an unseen academic judge—who was toting up points for sheer number of words—rather than for an audience actually interested in the paper’s ideas. I do have a genuine desire that my poems “come across,” are emotionally felt or understood. The writer only gets a few opportunities to communicate to breathing people right in front of her. One can tell, often, from the atmosphere in a room and the looks on people’s faces (when they’re visible), whether some kind of communication is taking place.
RN: I have felt that intimate connection as part of two different audiences of your work. Yet I am a bit surprised that you seem dubious that such a reading can really get across the meaning of the poems in full. Despite your desire to communicate the emotion inherent in the poem, and thus, the greater part of its meaning—since poems are more after all than literal messages or arguments—I sense here a tinge of the idea that music and meaning in a work of literature are in some way opposed for you.
JK: If you mean to say that music and emotion are possibly opposed to literal and rational meaning for me—which you identify as only a part of poetry as indeed you should—I have to say they are not. Music and emotion, in the lyric and frequently narrative poetry I write, are connected to something—a context, an implicit dramatic situation. I do not aim for the pure sound poetry at least theoretically pursued by some of the French symbolists, for example. When we talk about the role of music and emotion in poems, we might need to distinguish between different kinds of poetries and aesthetics. There are some poems whose aural texture—whether heard out loud in a reading, or spoken out loud by a solitary reader in his own room, or mentally pronounced by that same solitary reader—is the salient feature of the poem. Such poems, such soundscapes, have textures or “surfaces” that require articulation; these textures give, by their very nature, more than a mere impression of the poem; they are close to the raison d’être of the poem. A reader listening to a public performance of such a poem is hearing it largely realized, whether or not he fully grasps whatever emotional “meaning” or trajectory, allusions, or semantic content it might have.
My own poetry—like much poetry—involves the yoking of implicit situation, image, allusion, thought, emotion, development (often narrative) and sound. It is because all of these things are involved that missing an image or allusion, for example, in the unfolding of the poem in time, can result in failure to grasp the whole as fully as one might when reading the poem. And it is because all of these things are involved that my reading attempts to help the reader grasp as much as possible. And finally, it is because all of these things are involved, that an impression of the music alone is an incomplete impression.
However, sound is highly important to me as a poet, and it works to convey emotion in ways I feel but cannot necessarily precisely analyze. My free verse, like that of many other free verse poets, is linked up by assonance, consonance and alliteration—in the absence of end rhyme. I find myself often ringing changes on vowels in a line. Kristin Rae Anderson has commented on my use of sound, and on the way sound patterns in my work connect with emotion and meaning, in her review, “Three from California” (Alehouse Review, No. 4, 2010).
Would I express the effect of sounds in these phrases in precisely the way Kristin Anderson did? Not necessarily. But in the process of working on the poem did I feel these sounds as attractive and even emotionally suggestive, as somehow related to the visual image? Yes, even if I might not have been able to articulate how at the time. Such an “emotional music” could be abetted by a tonally sensitive performance. But the perception of music is not necessarily limited to performance; even the silent reader feels the ghost of the articulation of words, the ghost of the movements from place to place in the mouth involved in that articulation. So, even the opposition between hearing the actual sounds of a poem during a reading, and the silent reading of a poem on the page probably needs to be qualified.
RN: Certainly poetry read and reread, even in solitude, has the potential to unleash a poem’s “emotional music.” But a sensitive rendering by the poet offers access to some readers who might have missed the music on the page. Earlier, you spoke about the hurried delivery of academic papers you experienced at MLA, and I must say I recognized the habit, unfortunately, not only in that context, but also from poetry readings I have attended. Granting for the moment the idea that a reading may communicate mostly the surface level of a poem, is there then any justification for poetry readings as we know them, given by writers who have not approached the act as self-consciously as you have?
JK: Even though very poorly read poetry can be painful to listen to, poets need to learn how to read effectively, and surely that learning may be encouraged by actually reading and by listening to effective (and less effective) readers. Readings may make poets become more self-conscious about how they read. Also, the pleasure of reading out loud and of hearing poetry read out loud—with whatever degree of effectiveness—contributes to bringing poetry into lives. So, I don’t feel that poetry readings, even if imperfect, require justification. Perhaps a few of my ideas will help some poets read more effectively, showcase their work more effectively, perhaps not. I don’t think of these ideas as programmatic, but as a way of revealing how one poet who thinks about performance thinks. I’m sure there’s more than one way to skin this cat.
RN: You distinguish your poems from artifacts aimed mostly at performance. Since plays can be both performances and readable works of art as texts, couldn’t that be the case for performed poetry as well in some cases? Would this be a species of poetry different enough from the norm to require a label other than “poetry”?
JK: I would not want to place my own poetry in a separate category of poetry that can be read on the page, but is only fully realized when it is performed, like a play, although perhaps some slam poetry might fit in this category. I hope my own poetry succeeds on the page and also lends itself to effective performance. However, it is not written for performance.
RN: I know that you have retired from teaching, and also, you said earlier that there is or should be nothing “programmatic” about the method of reading you practice, but in your view, would performance skills be a good thing to teach to poets in academic programs, and if so, how might that be accomplished? Read on the page, sometimes poems might not fully reveal their sonic qualities or where sound intersects with meaning and emotion. As you suggest in your response to the first question, couldn’t self-consciously practicing the act of reading poetry lead to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of poems and poetry?
JK: Yes! First, there’s an immediate practical use of reading aloud. It helps the writer to think about what comes across aurally, which may lead to rethinking her own technique in a particular poem. Actually, I find that giving my poem to someone else to read out loud in my presence helps me to see where my cues are more ambiguous than I like, or where implications aren’t coming across or are inconsistent with my intentions.
More broadly speaking, I think that paying attention to the sonic qualities of one’s own poetry can indeed be part of a poet’s education. Paying attention to these qualities as they interact with rhythm and emotion in poets other than oneself is also important in teaching poetry to poets and non-poets alike. What is learned well enough to be totally internalized, rather than a conscious practice, can affect one’s own practice of poetry in unplanned and good ways. Memorizing one’s own poems, and especially the admired poems of others, and saying them over in one’s mind (so useful in times of stress!) or reciting them encourages such internalization. When a poem is committed to memory, its sound and rhythmic structures tend to stand out more in one’s mind. Sometimes conscious intellectual analysis—of sound and related features—can be the first step in this process of internalization that yields unplanned results in the writing of one’s own poems. I remember being asked, as an undergraduate, back in the days of the New Criticism, to analyze Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “If poisonous minerals, and if that tree” in terms of the phoneme types in its octave and sestet. The poem starts with a preponderance of fricatives and sibilants which are significantly reduced as it proceeds, if I remember correctly—a trajectory very much connected to the argument and emotion. Now, no-one is going to think, Hmmm, I’ll start out with a bunch of fricatives and then, as my poem moves into penitence and pleading from anger, I’ll let them largely drop out. But having deeply felt the structure of this poem’s sounds in relation to its meaning and its emotional trajectory, perhaps I instilled a visceral knowledge in some corner of my poetic mind to be called on, without my conscious awareness, in my later writing. For the poet, as opposed to the scholar or critic, it’s really not quite so much a matter of the importance of the particular analytic conclusion—however interesting—as of the value of living intensely, for a while, with the poem as a sonic and rhythmic entity.
RN: Hearing you speak about this way of analyzing and discussing poetry makes me wonder how much all of us are indebted to that school of criticism for our current habits of interpretation. We tend to think of New Criticism as dead and gone, but it has had an influence on the way we think about poetry and indeed all literature. Could you say more about how New Criticism and Formalism in general helped to shape you as a writer?
JK: I found New Criticism, which was the basic approach to literature when I was an undergraduate, a good preparation for a poet, whatever its real limits. Although some of New Criticism’s tenets—for example, its tendency to imply the creation of poetic “artifacts” was somehow disinterested—made the idea of writing poetry less imaginable, New Criticism’s intense scrutiny of poems—their emotional trajectories, their changing tones, their intellectual arguments and the role of their imagery in argument and emotion, their speakers and dramatic situations—all of this was wonderful training for a poet. It is true, however, that for the scholar or thinker in me who likes to think about literature and society, literature and history, the New Criticism was limited in practice. I objected to that limitation as an undergraduate, and in fact wrote an honors thesis on Gerard Manly Hopkins which attempted to redress the balance, as I understood it then. The balance was evened out in graduate school, where the approach was almost completely historicist. But there, I missed some of the intense scrutiny of poetic texts, and some of the pleasure to be gained from that scrutiny, which I had experienced in college. I was grateful, too, for my habits of close reading, because they allowed me to think about historical contexts and backgrounds in a more nuanced way. I hope that we have not gotten significantly away from close reading, at least as the underpinning of other approaches. My own experience with students—both English and Creative Writing majors, and the more occasional English grad student—is that they need more, not less of it, especially if they are going to wax theoretical.
RN: Though I am no New Critic either, I personally am a close reader when I write about and teach texts. I have other methods in my arsenal, but that is the one that is closest to my heart because it encourages readers to think of poems and other literary texts as having a rich, an almost infinite depth one is obliged to delve into to understand them. And then there was the professionalism the New Criticism offered to scholars and students of literature. From my admittedly limited perspective, before this movement, English as an academic discipline really had no backbone, no raison d’etre. This mode of reading gave the polish of a science to what had been only impressionistic, and close reading was the microscope, the “scientific method” scholars used to explore their subject. Perhaps that is ironic, given the New Critics’ desire to refute the positivism of science at that time.
JK: Yes—even if the irony and paradox New Criticism privileged, for example, were not equally prominent in all texts, one was still looking really closely at texts in search of irony and paradox, and perhaps drawing one’s own conclusions about the reasons for their smaller role in the poets less favored with New Critical attention. The limits of any one approach lead one to the next, which also has limits, or to an attempt at synthesis.
RN: Let me return to something you said earlier about writers and readers of poetry learning to listen and read in a conscious, communicative way. Since I do not believe this will automatically happen on its own, what advice would you give to poets planning to present their work at readings?
JK: Sometimes, taking the goal of communication seriously means doing whatever is needed to get the attention of the audience, which in turn may mean sussing out one’s audience or being mentally prepared for a particular type of audience—high school students in an English class, for example, as opposed to MFA students. Getting the audience’s attention may involve such things as looking directly at them at times, vs. being completely lost in one’s book. If the situation is informal, it may mean asking them a question or two about their experiences as readers or writers. It may mean finding ways to pause just enough between poems to relax the audience and let them revive their listening energies. Jokes and anecdotes, even anecdotes about writing conundrums or craft that encourage reasons for the audience to actually listen to the next poem (without your explaining it)—for example, suggesting that there will be a solution to a particular writer’s conundrum you experienced in the process of the poem in the last stanza, or that the last stanza will reveal the thing the narrator foolishly did or didn’t do in a tight situation—as many poet readers know, are often good ways to give the audience a break so they are in a position to concentrate again, to become mentally re-engaged. Some poets I know suggest props! Some poets stare seductively at the audience before they begin to read. Do anything that works to imply: we are going to communicate with one another, now!, or “I am really interested in getting across to you!,” and that does not feel too hokey or fake to you, the reader—because if it’s not part of who you are, it’s going to be a distraction.
Though over-acting is a defect, acting appropriately is, well, appropriate. That a poetry performance involves acting means a number of things. For one, as in good teaching, or good stage acting, you are engaged with your material. You have found material among your own works that you are emotionally and/or intellectually connected to right now at this moment in your life and comfortable reading on this particular occasion. Or, you have found a new emotional and/or intellectual connection, have found out something new about your work, that makes you interested in it right now! For me, and I don’t know if this happens to other poet-readers, this can mean that when I re-skim the poems I’ve planned to read shortly before a reading, I often decide I have to change some of my selection. I just can’t get away with skipping this step. It’s as if my very choosing wrongly at first is part of the necessary process. When I have done this, it becomes possible for me to be inside these poems when I read them, to fully inhabit them. That means my body language, my facial expression, the tonalities of my voice are all virtually making love to the poem! Ah, that sounds more extreme than I am, and much more “over-expressive”! But I am not just reading the poem; I am in some way expressing what that poem means to me right now. This process can be a lot more subliminal or intuitive than conscious and deliberate; I imagine it is something like what happens to the concert pianist who knows a piece so well—every turn, every shading, every potentiality—that she is freed during the playing of it to be fully expressive.
RN: How much does your desire to communicate through reading your work out loud have to do with your academic teaching and training? It seems to me, from what you say about the link between good teaching and good poetry performance methods, that something of the way you approach doing a reading arises out of your extensive academic background, as well as your teaching experience and long practice in writing. You come out of a PhD program in English rather than an MFA or creative PhD program. Has this formal academic orientation contributed to your writing and view of poetry or detracted from it?
JK: Ah, this is truly a huge question for me. My PhD work at Stanford was largely historicist in orientation, as I’ve said, but followed on an undergraduate education involving an intense study of poetry from the formal and indeed “New Critical” point of view. I would say that my intense scrutiny of poetry (and other literature) as an undergraduate (I was particularly enamored of Shakespeare, the 17th century Metaphysicals and Hopkins) contributed to some internalized awareness of structure, shape, development, sound and imagery that in turn influenced my own writing—in non-deliberate ways—when I went back to serious poetry writing about a decade after I got my PhD. And maybe my sense of just how much is going on in a poem has contributed to my concern with reading to communicate as much about my poems as I can. However, I did have to modernize some of my “internalized understandings” of such matters as structure, imagery or even sound—which had been deposited in my mind as a result of analysis—by significant reading in poetry of the second half of the twentieth century! As for my own critical work, as a graduate student, and later as the author of various articles on 17th century poetry and other subjects, and of King Lear and the Naked Truth, I think that I never lost sight of the fact that poetry involves emotional effect and beauty—even when I was interpreting aspects of Lear in its historical and linguistic context for my book, for example—but the driving motivation for that critical work was much more intellectual. I was writing poetry in the years that I wrote the book, but that writing largely existed in a divided and distinguished world from my criticism—especially given the historicist nature of that criticism. In general, thinking about poetry intellectually is different from trying to create poetry. However, intellectual understandings of the elements of poetry—turns, metaphor, tonal change, etc.—can be helpful in deliberate revision and, as I’ve already suggested, can emerge in unplanned, surprising ways in the process of writing. In some respects I am very glad that I did the PhD in English rather than an MFA or creative PhD, for the same kind of reason that writers are encouraged to do something unrelated to writing for a living—if that makes any sense at all.
RN: It has never been easy to earn a living as a writer, never mind a poet! And making one’s way by doing something unconnected to the business of poetry can bring fresh subject matter and modes of perception to the poems, as we have seen in the work of well-known poets who are also doctors, scientists, business people, and so on.
JK: These days it isn’t that much easier to obtain and keep an academic job! But I’m mostly thinking of the benefit of occupying one’s brain with something other than aesthetic effort, something that can interact with one’s poetic mind and spark it on occasion. The scholarly and historical study of literature, of course, is a lot more closely related to writing poetry than, say, plumbing, but there’s still a difference in the kind of thinking and feeling involved. And that difference is, to my mind, a good thing.
Writing poetry, when I went back to it, was a part of my life not related to school at first, and then I taught myself a great deal more about it through teaching, when I became part of a Creative Writing department as a Lecturer; there I also had the benefit of responses—from other poets—that weren’t part of the process of getting a degree. Thus, my development was fairly independent, and, for good or ill, neither hindered nor helped by the kind of competition and the degree of feedback from peers and judgment by superiors that I would have had in an MFA or creative PhD program. I have the benefits (and perhaps the liabilities) of being largely self-taught.
RN: So perhaps that explains why you recommend that poets teach themselves to read their own work effectively?
JK: I think I am raising to consciousness some things that a number of poets do, perhaps less self-consciously than I, perhaps not! I do think simply practicing reading to known audiences (e.g. one’s MFA program peers) is learning by doing the thing itself. There’s no reason why MFA programs should not encourage such experiences. The best way to learn to read well is to listen to poets reading, whether through live readings or recorded readings. And to practice. Aspiring poets should certainly get many opportunities to read their own work to audiences as part of their MFA or creative PhD experience. I know such opportunities are provided in some programs. Such practice can be accompanied by constructive responses on the part of peers, mentors, and friends. Reading well may require overcoming nervousness, although nervousness is also part of the energy that can lead to reading well. But the more one does it, the easier it gets. Even then, some will read better than others, as is surely the case with canonic poets. (I would suggest one small specific! The habit of a rising intonation at the end of each line—is this a relic from Beat recitation?—is today an affectation that distracts.) Overall, I think poets should spend more time writing and reading other poets and the literature or nonfiction that engages them.
RN: As someone with the full array of degrees—an MA in English/Writing from Hollins University, as well as an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) and a PhD in Comparative Literature from U.C. Irvine—I can say that creative writing programs (and academic degree programs as well, I might add) tend to lack any hint of the pragmatic. I am not a careerist, who sees higher education purely as the means to an economic end. However, given the state of the economy these days, programs and individuals alike can no longer afford to ignore the prospect of applying their educations to some way of making a living. Though I was given a modicum of pedagogical training and the opportunity to teach and I am grateful for that opportunity, not every writer will become a professor. There are simply not enough positions to go around. So I think that writing programs should make a special effort to develop curricula designed to help poets become more conscious communicators, among other practical skills.
No one avenue (publishing, learning to promote one’s work, familiarizing oneself with other opportunities for writing and editing online) will be a sure way of making a living, but becoming aware of a few of these cannot hurt. Given that the scope and reach of poetry has changed in the current world, so that academia is not the only or the main venue for its dissemination anymore, now that poetry slams and competitions, open mics, and internet forums have grown and proliferated, do you think that this is the time to develop a curriculum that will offer poets a variety of ways to reach out to a different and larger audience and take advantage of these opportunities to connect with the greater variety of potential readers?
JK: If we are talking about “communication” in the oral delivery of poetry—well, as I’ve indicated, it seems entirely reasonable for programs to offer the opportunity for aspiring poets to get practice in becoming effective readers, not necessarily—though it could be—in special courses. Nevertheless, learning to read well aloud, however useful, whether to increase one’s affective understanding of poems, or for pleasure, or for reaching a “larger” audience—including the audience of audio and video on the web—is going to be a small part of one’s MFA or creative PhD work. If we talk about “conscious communication” more generally—well, my experience of living and teaching has taught me that communication is generally more difficult than not. Learning to be a more conscious communicator, whether one is a teacher, or a student studying expository writing or literary analysis, or an aspiring poet in an MFA program writing a review of an admired book of poems for an online magazine, or practicing the oral delivery of her own poems means having a sense of how communication can fail, and seems a very important goal of any education. I would think good MFA programs or creative PhD programs would inevitably result in the honing of one’s understanding of and control over communication—with the caveat, of course, that “communication” in art may be quite a different matter from communication in criticism or composition teaching. But I sense you have more in mind than even this.
RN: More specifically, I guess, I am asking whether you think MFA and other creative academic programs should rethink their approach toward preparing writers, given the market or lack of one for teaching, offering every kind of assistance to the people who attend the programs, not only teaching (and many programs do not offer even that experience to their students) and opportunities to read their own work among their peers, but also other writing- and publishing-related experience. Perhaps internships in business writing, technical writing, grant writing, and publishing, among other possibilities, should be part of such programs, as well as classes taken jointly with the marketing or business program on campus about marketing one’s work? In contrast to writers, visual artists tend to be much more versatile, in my experience. The visual artists I am acquainted with have been well able to support themselves outside of their art since making their art has frequently required them to develop skills in carpentry, masonry, computer graphics, and the like. At least MFA and creative PhD programs could encourage writers to think about what awaits them after school is finished.
JK: This issue makes me think of the rather small efforts made by literature PhD programs in these decades of a buyer’s market, to try to take into account those who might enter the business world, or the publishing world with their PhDs, rather than go into college teaching. I think the overall stance of literature PhD programs, however, has long been that you are going to be trained as rigorously as possible—and you have chosen to do this—for the role of scholar-teacher, and “we are not necessarily doing the math.” I have wished PhD programs would level with their entering students (or even with their applicants), giving the stats about how many of their graduates actually obtain tenure-track jobs, other full-time jobs, permanent or temporary, or part-time jobs, or, indeed, that they would radically reduce the number of students they accept. I certainly think MFA programs, many of whose graduates do not ultimately have careers in writing or teaching of any kind, should make very clear to students (who often don’t know this) that the MFA is not really a terminal degree. Those with MFA degrees who get full-time, tenure-track jobs in writing programs at four-year colleges get those jobs because they have books. And of course, in this market, even the PhD, creative or not, may not guarantee such a job.
RN: Yes, the atmosphere is at times so rarified in these programs, it is as though it is assumed that these poets will never have to worry about getting a job of any kind. In truth though, as you say, everyone knows (except the students) that it is very hard to publish one’s books of poems and to get academic positions in writing programs or anything remotely related to them. Wouldn’t there be an even greater draw for such programs if they dropped that pretense and took up the banner of pragmatic writing instruction—such as public relations or business writing instruction—in addition to aesthetic mentorship? I know there are “Professional Writing” degrees for those who want these things, but should all programs take on an aspect of professional writing degrees, out of necessity, to help these students cope with the hard economic realities of being a poet in the U.S.? They could even make it a voluntary track, perhaps in a third year of the program.
JK: Not having experienced an MFA or creative PhD program, I may not be the best person to ask about this. I do think the Professional Writing programs (but these are relatively few, right?) help put their graduates in a position to pursue writing-related jobs that do not involve being a poet or fiction writer. I don’t see why, however, an MFA program should not offer formal or informal, credit or non-credit courses, or at least, lectures, about putting together a book of poems, for example, preparing a manuscript for submission, and maybe, creating a blog or a website, and about using the web in other ways to make the public aware of one’s work or books. And I would expect that some programs do these things. However, I think it’s fair to say that most writers I know have used the many sources available that help in these areas, and have learned something about them through their own efforts. I guess I do think that the most important thing to do in the relatively brief two or three years of an MFA program is to get the maximum benefit from working with mentors, so that one has, or is close to having a wonderful book of poems or book of stories or novel when one gets one’s degree.
RN: We began this discussion with the topic of communication via reading of your work in public. It seems to me, though, that your concern with communication extends beyond the strictly aesthetic to the social and political. In the first section of your book, Shimmer, you give a graphic demonstration that “the personal is the political.” Could taking one’s poetic show on the road be a way to bring poetry more fully into the marketplace of social and political ideas, as it has been in some other countries, such as Russia? If we are to escape from the position of near-irrelevancy poetry holds in the cultural and publishing scene of the U.S., don’t we have to find a way to convince readers that poetry is an integral part of the life of the nation at large?
JK: I have to ‘fess up. While I am enormously grateful for the opportunities I have had to read my work in public, and hope to have more opportunities, and while I care enormously about reading in as meaningful a way as I can when I give a reading, after a season of quite a number of them, the desire to go back to concentrating on writing alone, at least for a time, is extremely strong. My energies, at this point in my life, are limited, and preparing for readings can deplete them pretty rapidly.
As far as the role of poetry in the U.S. goes, there is a thriving poetry subculture of little magazines, poetry readings, poetry slams, but it is a subculture. Or a sub-subculture. And it is left-leaning or more. The poets who reach the largest audience whether through print or performance—one thinks of Billy Collins, for example—are not particularly political. It’s been a long time since Whitman, or even Frost; poetry now does not seem sufficiently mainstream for a poet to be the voice or conscience of the nation as a whole, or heaven knows, to shape national ideology. But there are extraordinary poets out there, such as C. K. Williams, who writes the poetry of conscience, whose poetry is aesthetic and political at the same time, whose vision is profoundly, thoughtfully personal and political (and I would say more consistently than mine). Williams was recently honored by Tikkun for just that. Two of my political/personal poems from the first section of Shimmer have recently appeared in BEFORE THERE IS NOWHERE TO STAND Palestine/Israel: Poets Respond to the Struggle (Sandpoint, Idaho: Lost Horse Press, 2012). I am glad to participate in the humanizing of the “other”–something I think poetry so often accomplishes, and the poetry of someone like Williams, superbly so.
RN: It seems to me that even though only a few poems in Shimmer are overtly political, there is something inherently “political” in your ideas about communication and poetry. And by “political” I do not mean literally or crassly ideological, but related to encouraging civility and engagement by emphasizing our human commonalities over our ideological differences. This seems to me the major message of those political poems in your book.
JK: Well, “political” poetry, in my case, may be simply about the value of human life and the way in which power can ignore or distort that, or about how constrained the majority of human lives are, or about not accepting—because of that value and those constraints—flawed political or governmental stances or policies others might consider unavoidable. I think it’s perfectly possible for a political poem to be good as a poem, with all the qualities we value in poems, but it often does run the risk of being time-specific. Perhaps such poems require good notes identifying allusions so that their implicit analyses, their anger and sorrow, can endure.
RN: Most of us probably have to overcome the idea we were schooled on, that political poetry is somehow taboo, that it inevitably will be dogmatic and will alienate others. We can’t afford that anymore. There is such a contentious atmosphere in American society and even in the world of poetry that I sometimes feel I have to step lightly so that I will not offend others with a different perspective or aesthetic. But where has that gotten us? Let’s take the issue of race as an example, though this is not, strictly speaking, your topic. By refusing to talk about it, have we indeed improved the situation here in the United States, or, as recent cases like those of Trayvon Martin and others suggest, has our willful blindness and muteness allowed a pernicious situation to worsen? Like it or not, I think, we have to be forthright and brave, to take the chance of speaking out and engaging with others, dialoguing with them, even if they and even we dread this and are reluctant to do so. In a real sense, we have to communicate with the “other,” whether that means the Israelis and Palestinians, whites and people of color, or political progressives and conservatives.
JK: It’s a wonderful ideal, but such communication requires some sort of common ground, and that is sometimes really difficult or impossible to find. It’s a real challenge for our political leaders to find or forge such common ground and speak to us from it in today’s political climate, a challenge many of us hoped Obama would rise to more often, as I personally think he did when he took charge of the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy and spoke to the nation as a whole in nuanced and persuasive ways about race. Those in powerful positions have an opportunity, if they rise to it.
But poetry being pretty much the province of liberals in American society, and a small group of them at that, doesn’t it now “preach to the converted” (even if its method isn’t exactly preaching)? It is one thing to stand together as liberals, or for a particular liberal to become more convinced of his views or more committed to acting on them when he hears C.K.Williams read a poem at the Tikkun celebration at which he was honored. It is another thing for a conservative to change a liberal’s views even a little, or vice versa, although it can happen—in spite of the fact that people in such conversations may not say what they fully believe, feel, or act on in their actual lives. When difficult issues involve competing narratives, there has to be a way of saying how both narratives are right and wrong. I suppose, in a way, one of my personal and political poems in Shimmer suggests how narratives on opposite political sides are both wrong, but it is one thing to say this in a poem emerging from abhorrence of death and destruction in a perhaps unnecessary war, and another thing to discuss it at the negotiating table. Even if poetry can approach the complex truth involving that double right and wrong, will it be heard? Even were it to be heard and by more than the “converted,” will it do the work of changing hearts that results in changed policies and actions, or can it lead to the changed policies—like desegregation laws—that eventually change hearts? Perhaps there should be a dialogue in poetry between those who can each speak to the conflicting “right and wrong” in these competing narratives. It’s hard to think of poets today as Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but I would like to think poetry can make “something happen” (to reverse Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen”) via its commitment to emotional complexity and truth, even though I’m not sure it is the place where such difficult dialogue as we’ve been discussing can be politically developed.
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An Interview with David Wojahn
An Interview with Roger Reeves
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An Interview with Augusten Burroughs
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