Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Interview with Keith Badowski on Writing Poetry

Recently I’ve been serving as mentor to a high school student, Maria, who is working on a senior project in poetry. For one portion of her project, Maria was required to interview her “poetry mentor.” The following four questions were posed to me. The answers, reproduced here, are what I wrote for her, plus some other expanded thoughts that have occurred to me since I emailed her my reply.

1) How has writing poetry affected your life?

I’m sure that being a poet has enhanced my attentiveness to words and my awareness of how people use language. For instance, I recognize in half a heart beat when someone is trying to sell me something or convince me of their point of view. My interest in words and sentences has also made it second nature for me to read between the sentences, to intuit what people are in fact not saying, but actually really mean. Definitely I am not superhuman in these talents and by no means perfect in my accuracy. (Ask my wife!) Yet attentiveness to language usage has had its advantages in a variety of circumstances. I suspect many writers, whether they write poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, are better attuned what people are saying and what they really mean.

Being a writer, when you are truly devoted to the craft of conveying experience or observation, forces you to notice more about the world around you. I find that I’m a people watcher, noting gestures, interactions, and habits. My tendency is also to wonder about the things I see: How did that house get in such shabby shape? What led to that trailer being set on fire? How did that rusted out car get turned upside down? Admittedly, there is the chance that my personality naturally leaned that way, and that is why I also leaned toward doing writing. However, I have no doubt that a commitment to writing requires a commitment to noticing things, so the natural tendency toward such would necessarily be enhanced.

All that said, I’m just as guilty as the next guy to having my blinders up in my own household. Countless times, I’ve left my socks on the floor of the bedroom and they have become invisible for literally weeks! So it’s really only in environs other than the familiar that my interest in observing is at its best.

The most obvious way writing poetry has affected the course of my life is that I’ve fostered many friendships and associations with other poets and poetry lovers. Poetic types tend to be drawn to each other for a variety of reasons. One of the main ones is that poets like to get feedback on their poems, so they get together for poetry readings and workshops.

I started attending poetry readings back in the 1980s, and two decades later (and after the turning of a new century), I’m still attending them. Back in the late 80s, the readings were on my college campus at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz in New York. Those college readings featured dramatic antics, music, and experimental approaches to literature. One guy did something where he smeared ice-cream on a guitar! (Don’t ask.) Most of my close friends at the time would attend with me. Afterward we would discuss what we had heard. We would recruit poets from those readings to participate in our college literary magazine, The Accordion Flyer. Even though I’ve moved from New York to the South, I’m still in touch with many of those people and consider them friends.

As time went on, I attended more and more literary readings, featuring published poets and writers. Often I came away from those readings feeling inspired to write more and to write more ambitiously, employing the style or technique of those writers I’d heard. I also started to amass a huge collection of poetry books that are autographed to me by the poets. Those events make up some of my fondest memories.

In more recent years, I’ve had the delightful privilege of being part of the GA Poetry Society and a member of the local poetry group here in Columbus called the Brick Road Poets. Among these poets are some of my most valued friends—people with whom I’ve broken bread, taken road trips, and planned events. Participating in all these poetry-related activities tends to create bonds and connections that are important in life. Poets also tend to be smart and sensitive, so those are good folks to have in your corner.

2) What types of problems do you encounter with writing poetry?

The biggest problem I encounter with writing poetry is myself. Although I keep up appearances, and my friends might tell you otherwise, I’m not as disciplined as I would like to be when it comes to writing. I will go long periods of time without writing anything (sometimes as long as 5 or 6 months). I easily fill my time with much less meaningful activities, such as watching television or surfing the internet. What I really ought to be doing is writing every day, or at least on regularly weekly pattern. I find that when I am writing regularly I generate material that might not be “finished” but at least provides an excellent starting point for revision. It is only through the revision process that “complete” poems start to form. Sure, every once in a great while, I do get a complete poem almost all at once. However, the majority of my finished poems have been through numerous revisions. So all those times when I allow myself to waste time instead of writing, I could have been revising something and thus finding a poem.

On a related note, I don’t send out my poems to publishers as often as I should. I’ll send out two or three packets of submission each year, and spend the rest of the year waiting for them to come back. If I were more disciplined, I’d keep all my poems in the mail at all times. That way I’d have more of a chance of getting some of them published. I’ve been told that the average number of submissions a poem must go through before acceptance is usually about 10. That’s just a guideline, not a hard rule. You might get lucky and find that editor who “gets” your poem in the first try. The point is you have to circulate your poems far and wide until you find that editor or editors who like what you’re doing. That takes dedication and effort—something I’ve been missing.

3) What are some misconceptions that people have about either poetry or poets?

I’ve noticed that some people think poems should be treated like puzzles or riddles that need to be solved. I think this idea comes from teachers who ask their students to interpret the poem. Students are given the assignment to put the poem into their own words and explain what the poem means. I realize the teacher is trying to develop reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, however, it gives the students the wrong impression. Poems are not made out of ideas; poems are made of words. Often poets use specific words that can not be substituted by the student’s own words. The poem is a unique creation that can’t be summarized or dissected. In a way, you kill the poem when you try to explain it. Also people get a bad taste about poetry when they think you only read it to figure it out.

Ideally, poetry readers should enjoy the words and phrases for themselves. Sure, you need to be attentive to the text to get a sense of what effect the poem is striving for. But you shouldn’t feel as though you have to study the poem for hours to “get it”.

Another misconception people might have is that there is a universal quality scale that can be used to judge the merits of poetry. While there are great guidelines out there for what constitutes good craft in literary poetry, there is no such universal scale for judging whether a poem is good. Sure, the poem might be characterized by originality, brevity, metric grace, and pleasing word choice, yet still not be universally praised as “great.”

The reality is that the judging of quality in poetry, just like the visual arts and music, is largely subjective. Almost always it comes down to the personal preference of the critic or reader. What means the world to one person can mean nothing to another. Because there is no “absolute” in judging poetry, it is very important that poets and poetry readers identify for themselves what they like and why. Only once you understand and know your preferences can you judge for yourself the merits of what you have written or what you are reading. The reign of subjectivity and diversity is no excuse for “anything goes.” Instead you must choose where to plant your stakes and then diligently tend to your tent poles.

Perhaps you will find a few like minded folks who share some of your preferences, and if you are lucky, maybe they will offer you useful and constructive feedback on your work. At the very least, it is up to you to construct in your imagination that ideal reader for your poems. Accept that very few may ever salute what you do, but that’s also true for everyone else. I’ve also realized that trying to please all the possible critics is impossible, trying to go that way leads to insanity

4) What tips do you have for intermediate level poets, such as myself, for improving on writing skills?

Three things: read, Read, and READ! In order to improve in any style of writing, you need to read lots of that genre. In the case of poetry, you ought to read the classics, such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, and others. You also need to read the contemporary poets! I tend to buy Best American Poetry each year and read through the anthology to discover new voices that interest me. Some of my favorite poets writing now include: Ken Babstock, Seamus Heaney, Mark Strand, Billy Collins, Frank Bidart, and Natasha Trethewey. You will never know what is truly possible in poetry until you expose yourself to those who have come before. As you find poetry you enjoy, imitate it. Write poems that sound like those poems. In that way you will learn techniques. Eventually you find your own voice by toying with the voices of others.

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