I’m having such a hard time with this question. I’m tempted to ignore it but that’s cowardly. I feel as if I should say I hate art as contest. Art is life! Breath! We are all winners in the extravagant Art pageant! But really, I think competition is healthy. Striving together—isn’t that what competition means? And is “art” so different from sports? Don’t athletes strive to break records? But I suppose this comparison isn’t apt because, after all, there is only one way to run better, right, to be faster? But there’s always the imperfection, the “wrongness” that can be so crucial to art. I would like to think that maybe the poems of mine that were “loser” poems had to be written to get to the “better” poems.
But people go crazy for winners, don’t they? I mean, the status awards gain for us is funny. And for myself, I’m pleased as hell (secretly) to have won awards although, at the same time, I don’t think they mean much. In the po-biz world they do, but in the long long long run? They don’t mean that much, and don’t we exist in that world when we are writing?
And about contests, are there too many contests now? Maybe so. I’d feel like a jerk saying that, since I certainly benefited from winning a first book award. But do you feel like a sense of value gets lost? I was chastised the other day by someone who said I believed in meritocracy. How do you feel about meritocracy?
Alex: Who chastised you? Was it me?
Is art competitive? It is. Should it be? No.
Larry Levis, for example, won some prizes, some pretty prestigious prizes. But never the Pulitzer or National Book Award. He was honest, and maybe pissed off some of the people who influence such meritorious ceremonies and résumé builders. I read some of those who have won these awards and, at best, yawn. Which goes to show one thing: I don’t know.
Your question was about meritocracy. Meritocracy seems to me so much bull shit. In some respects, for me to respond to it honestly asks me to pretend I’m God, or at least some kind of god.
So, I’ll do it: what I feel about meritocracy is guilt. I’m Catholic, as well as American. Who am I to brand what’s worthy? Well, I am me. I’m a loser, and I rejoice in my defeats. In this way, I have much to celebrate. Anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding him or herself.
Neruda? Loser. Milosz? Loser. Yeats? Loser. Toni Morrison? Loser. I’m speaking historically, politically, ancestrally…in all the ways that matter beyond my privileged existence. The Holocaust? Slavery? Political exile? First book prizes? Come on.
Berryman nailed it in his Dream Song for Hemingway, #34: “he didn’t feel the best, Sister,—felt less/ and more about less than us…?”
It’s that question mark that kills me.
Part of trying to understand, and accept, meritocracy is allowing myself to be opened by what is presented.
To be completely open. I’m a little voice in a cavernous hall full of giants (some of them can actually write a poem).
My experience with that kind of openness has been scary, and more than rewarding…as long as I get over myself.
For example, I can’t rhyme, I can’t write in regular meters. I mean can do it to a degree, as exercises, I can teach
that kind of poem, but as poems, my poems…awful, just awful. Even I know that. But, in some circles,
because I can’t do that kind prosody, I simply don’t exist. I’m not meritorious. I’m a hack, a novice, a phony.
I’ve been told these things, right to my face. That’s fine. In time, those kind folks will be proven right.
Still, I strive to improve upon my weaknesses. But do my weaknesses preclude me from being absolutely blown away by,
for example, Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle? Do my weaknesses have me scratching my head in disappointment
over James Wright’s first two books, a poet I deeply love and am deeply indebted to? More importantly, I have no
idea what it must be like to be Amiri Baraka, or T. S. Eliot, or Basho, or Adrienne Rich, or Yehuda Amichai, or Bei
Dao, or Agha Shahid Ali, or Paul Celan, or Cesar Vallejo, or Jacques Roubaud, or…. Does that mean I love their
work less? Hate it less?
Who’s the best? Who wins? I’ll leave that riddle for Harold Bloom’s disciples to squabble
over during a committee meeting.
I’ve got poems to write, and students to meet with. I love them both. That’s my meritocracy. I’ll win nothing,
and like it.
Kate: But who aren’t you to say what’s worthy? Don’t we all have to learn how to evaluate? I struggle with this over and over - especially in class. I haven’t been able to reach a decision. Last semester, I was in a meeting during which a colleague said it didn’t matter what poems he taught, only that students were reading (his way, that is). How do I feel about this? Should I teach whatever I want, willy-nilly? No, of course not. What’s my responsibility as someone who cares about students, someone who is paid to profess. Professing is mighty unpopular now, isn’t it? Does it matter if in poetry workshop I teach Dickinson or Ai? I find Dickinson’s the better poet. I am not saying Ai’s poems have no merit but I do think Dickenson’s merit more consideration?
I remember my first one-on-one conference with a poet. I was 22 and I had been writing poems along in Prague, writing without any guidance or keen eye. Anyway, I sat with Donald Justice and when he asked me if I had any questions, I asked if he thought any of the poems were successful. Straight on, he said “No.” Shook his head. And as if there might be some ambiguity there, added “No. Not one of them.” He asked who I was reading. The last book I had read was Marge Piercy’s The Moon Is Always Female. So, naively, I told him the truth and he made this awful face (or as awful a face as someone like Justice would ever consider making). Thinking to explain myself (naively), I said I admired Piercy’s concern over political matters. To which he said “yes, one can write about politics but one had better do it better than that.” I have always felt grateful for straight up talk like that. Certainly everyone has license to write but certainly it’s no help to students to be too “Free to be You and Me” about the whole thing? Isn’t there a balance between dictating right and wrong and hold-your hand-ness?
About your not existing in one arena because you can’t master prosody in your poems….well, again, the question of balance. A balance between the poet/critic/teacher who believes there is One Way, The Way of Rhyme & Meter and the Anything Goes Lack of Way?
Alex: You’re right. I’m letting myself off too easily, trying to get myself off the hook. I, too, struggle with “grading,” not only in the classroom, but also as a reader of poems when no one else is in the room. “Do I like this? No, I really don’t think so. But it’s Poet X, I mean, Jesus…. What’s wrong with me?”
Was there a definitive point during your writing process when you sat back, looked at the last line of the last poem—for example—, and knew the manuscript was complete? Or was your process more fluid, topsy-turvy?
Every young poet needs that kind of advice that Justice gave you. Brutal, absolutely brutal. And generous. And honest.
Balance is the key word. You’re right.
Kate: Wow. I love that idea of looking at the last line of the last poem and thinking “there, I’ve done it!” The image has a movie feel to it. Don’t we see writer movies in which the author sets the pen down, closes the notebook and looks out the dreamy window? So no, I never felt that way, but I wouldn’t mind trying it out.
I don’t think I ever felt the book was complete. There’s always something missing. But in organizing both books I had, in reading the poems over and over, a sense of wonderful surprise. To be honest, I heard a kind of ringing, a sounding. That “yes, there’s a book here, a shape, an arc.” I trusted the feeling because both times it surprised me. “There’s a phrase “a yes man”—right? I think I always play the no man to my poems and my manuscripts. I felt the sense of this ringing over-powering the constant “no.” And since I fear I always sound sulky about writing, I will say that these moments were pure—quick—moments of pleasure, happiness and excitement.
Alex: Yeah, I’ve seen those movies, too. I have, in turns, given up on and completely surrendered to that romantic notion.
If you had to guess, how many different "versions" of your manuscript did you submit?
I’m never done. If and when I am, I may be lucky enough to shake the hand of God, or at least feel Her heartbeat as something other than my own.
Alex: 25, 30.
How vital, crucial, helpful, etc. were outside readers, both practically and intangibly? That is, advice that spans everything from specific editorial choices to moral support....
Kate: Very, very helpful—and this as someone who distrusts, until late stages in composition, others’ advice. I don’t think hearing someone’s take on a single poem, especially an unfinished poem, is nearly so helpful—to me—as comments on a book. I was so grateful to have good close readers for my first book. Maggie Anderson was just wonderful. She edited the book closely and made good suggestions. So in the final stages, in considering the collection as a whole, I revised certain poems—poems which improved long after I thought they were finished. And with the second book, I’ve had a few readers. I’m grateful for that. For their suggestions and for the support. But support has to be honest of course. Or perhaps honest criticism is the best support.
Alex: I can’t agree more. You put it perfectly. I’m very cynical. I’m very vulnerable. I’m very stubborn. I’ll flip-flop at the drop of a hat. “Yes, you’re right.” “I love you, you moron, but sweet Jesus, you have no clue. No, wait…you’re right…I’m the moron….”
Let's be brutally honest: how did you really feel when you learned your first book was taken? Let the narcissism roll, or not. (I, for example, was more relieved than happy, a bit more frightened than I thought I'd be, and significantly more guilty than I thought I would be..."I'm not worthy", whereas all those years I was submitting, I was cursing and stamping my feet, whining, "but I am worthy, damnit!")
Whenever I respond to my generous readers—my dearest friends I never seem to see enough, but always seem to talk with, even if they’re not there—I look in the mirror before I send off my comments. I’m serious.
I mean, I’m talking to myself. All the “thank yous” and “fuck yous” and “I love yous….” (I don’t suggest this as a way to keep friends in any normal sense of the word.)
I mean, I’m talking to myself through my friends, those who are patient enough to be my friends: You, Chris Buckley especially, Fleda Brown, Beth Bachmann, Becky Cooper, Scott Bade….
Kate: Like you, I felt a mixture of relief and fear. With a little bit of, honestly, sadness thrown in. When Maggie called to tell me I had won the award, I badly wanted to feel happy, if not for me, then at least for her. It is good and surprising news and who wants to hear silence at the end of the line? I’m sure I managed to sound happy. At least, I hope I did. But yes, I felt relief. Isn’t that kind of smarmy? If we’re being brutally honest, I thought “whew, tenure.” Of course, I didn’t write the poems for tenure (again, that other world, the long long long run)—but I was relieved they cinched it for me. Also, I felt sadness because that book had taken shape for so long, since graduate school. It felt like the end of a phase of my life. A milestone. I guess milestones always make me a bit blue.
Alex: Smarmy? I don’t think so. Can honesty ever be smarmy?
Click here to read the first half of the interview.
Brutally honest? Here’s some smarm: I thought, finally, Jesus H. Christ! Then, I thought,
hmmm…maybe I’ll actually l get a job. Then, I thought, oh, crap…my family’s going to read this stuff….
Some days, I still feel as though I’ve been called on my bluff: a pair of two of clubs, eight-high.
I’m always revising milestones. Not always by choice, which is good. If I were the only one presenting challenges to myself, I’d be a much lesser poet—and teacher for that matter—than I am now.