Interviews

The Toronto Quarterly

In this interview I describe my initiation into poetry, compare the poetry scene in Canada and the U.S., and much more.

Open Book Ontario

In this interview I name the desire behind You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada, and discuss the relationship between poetry and criticism for the poet-critic, among other things.

CBC

In this interview, I take questions from a whole firing squad of Canadian writers on such topics as the ethical value of poetry, poets who should be more widely read, and the best writing advice I've ever received.

The National Post

In this interview I recommend a book to young writers, name the worst trend in modern poetry, and more.

First Book Interview

In this interview, part of a series of interviews with new poets, I describe Sailing to Babylon's journey to publication, and what came after.

Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics

In this interview, I discuss the goals of the critic, honesty in criticism, what today's critics are missing, and other critical topics. In this issue of Evening Will Come, the editor asks the same questions of twenty-two poetry critics with widely varying approaches and values, from Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff to yours truly.

 
English Newsletter

The following interview originally appeared in the 2013 edition of the English Newsletter, published by the English and Creative Writing Programs at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa. The interviewer was Teresa Gwardys, who at the time was an English major at Loras.

TG: How long did it take you to write your book of poetry [Sailing to Babylon]?

POLLOCK: About fifteen years, although a lot of it was written more recently. The longest poem, “Quarry Park,” I wrote during my sabbatical in 2009-2010, and that alone was twenty-two pages, nearly half the book.

TG: Where did your inspiration come from?

POLLOCK: From two kinds of sources: literary sources—my poems nearly always come out of other poems—and the world, whether history, or nature, or my life. How this works is different for each poem. For example, the first poem in the book, “Northwest Passage,” is about the Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Archipelago in northern Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. That’s the worldly source. But the literary source is a poem called “Ithaca” by the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. His poem, which is about the return of Odysseus to his home island of Ithaca after the Trojan War, is addressed to “you” as though the reader were a kind of Odysseus. So the idea for my poem was to use imagery from the Franklin expedition and the rhetorical frame of Cavafy’s poem, addressing the reader as if he or she were a kind of Franklin; though I should add that, whereas the story of Odysseus is a comedy in the sense that it has a happy ending, the Franklin expedition ended terribly, with everyone dead, so I’m also changing the shape of the story. To take another example: the worldly source for “Quarry Park” was a walk in the woods with my young son on my fortieth birthday. (Quarry Park is a wooded mountain-biking park a couple of blocks from my home in Madison, Wisconsin.) In the poem I’m thinking about the prehistory, history and natural history of the place—of things like the rocks and trees and flowers and insects, and the archaeology of the effigy mounds. But the poem is also a “greater Romantic lyric” in the tradition of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and various related poems by Wordsworth, Yeats and Frost, and it’s full of echoes of and allusions to those poems.

TG: How did you research “Quarry Park” and manage to weave historical information into poetic form?

POLLOCK: The poem is essentially the story of a walk in the woods, but every so often it interrupts the narrative with an aside that engages with history, geology, zoology, botany, and folklore. The internet is amazing for a poet; it gives you nearly instant access to vast knowledge. For instance, there is a cardinal in the poem that plays an important role, so I had to learn a lot of things about the natural history of cardinals. I had to figure out how they sound, what they look like, the way they fly, make nests, and so forth. Did you know the cardinal is one of the few bird species that have to learn their song from their parents? They have to be taught how to sing, and so there are variations in their song from bird to bird and region to region. That sort of thing can be gold to a poet. Now, as for how I weaved this kind of information into the poem, well, it can’t look like research. It all has to feel perfectly natural, as though it’s all just occurring to the speaker of the poem in the course of making his observations and thinking his thoughts. I was delighted when a reviewer wrote about that poem that it “meditates on aspects of flora, fauna, and landscape formation with a level of detail and engagement with both the scientific and folkloric aspects of natural history that can only be attained through years of intimate observation.” I took it as a high compliment, not to my knowledge of nature, which is in fact limited, but to my art as a poet. This reviewer is moving to Wisconsin this summer, and I invited him to visit me and go for a walk in Quarry Park with me, and he was delighted at the prospect of being guided by a learned naturalist like me, so I had to break it to him that it’s all an illusion. In fact, on one level the poem is a kind of apology to my father, who was a forester and a biology teacher, for not listening to his impromptu botany lessons when I was a child. You see, I was more interested in books.

TG: Could you speak on your choice to use terza rima in “Quarry Park”?

POLLOCK: I had been teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy in a class, and that poem is in terza rima—in fact, Dante invented the form for that poem—so when I got the idea for this poem, Dante came to mind. As you may know, the Inferno begins with Dante, “midway on our life’s journey,” lost in a dark wood, and he is met by the spirit of the poet Virgil who proceeds to guide him through Hell and Purgatory. So terza rima was a natural choice. But I also just wanted to try something very difficult, to give myself a big challenge. There are fewer rhymes in English than Italian, so terza rima is more difficult in English. But I find that if I’m writing in a form that’s difficult, it may take a long time to get it right, but the benefit is that you have to constantly find new ways to say something. It lets you surprise yourself, because the ordinary way of saying something doesn’t work. The form makes you find a better way to say it. As T.S. Eliot said, using a difficult form is like when a burglar throws a piece of meat to a guard dog; it gives your intellect something to chew on, to distract it, so your unconscious can surprise you.

TG: Did you encounter writer’s block? When? How did you work through that?

POLLOCK: I wouldn’t say writer’s block in the sense of staring at a blank page, unable to write anything. The problem I was having early on, in graduate school, was developing my skill so that what I was writing was good enough. I could write things, but I knew they weren’t at the level I wanted them to be. I wrote the poem “Northwest Passage” in the 1990s, and it was published in The Paris Review, and that was a big breakthrough for me. But I had a hard time writing something that good for a very long time afterwards, which was frustrating, maddening. How did I get out of that? Well, one thing that helped me was writing reviews of other poets. To do that, you have to think hard about other poets’ techniques. You figure out what works and what doesn’t work. And before that, reading a lot of poetry and scholarly books about technique also helped. They’re the sort of book that, unless you’re a poet, you would never pick up because they’re fairly dry and arcane technical discussions. But if you’re a poet, they’re gold. They’re like magic books.

T.G.: How did you rework poems that had been previously published as you brought them into the book?

POLLOCK: I had a lot of readers who, at various stages and places, read my poems and made suggestions--professors in graduate school, poets at a number of writing conferences. And my wife has a Ph.D. in creative writing—in fact, she’s a creative writing professor—and she’s a terrific writer herself, and we’re one another’s in-house editors. We’re honest about each other’s writing, so we can always trust we’re getting the truth. And after the book was accepted for publication, I had a couple of editors make some valuable suggestions. Then half a dozen proofreaders went over it with a fine-toothed comb. And of course, I was constantly revising it myself, too. All told, it’s staggering the amount of revision that went into it. Robert Frost said about himself that he was an OK poet but an excellent reviser. That’s a great thing about writing: you don’t have to get it perfect the first time.

T. G.: How did you decide which poems to include and which to omit?

POLLOCK: I looked at the poems I had with a cold eye to see which ones were truly good. A book of poems should include only strong poems, so you have to be ruthless; if it’s not good enough, it has to go. I also had several tough readers read the manuscript and say of certain poems “this is pretty good, but I think it should go because it’s not as good as the rest of the manuscript.” But I also wanted the book to be unified, to feel like everything belongs together with everything else, and in just that order. Frost said, “If a book has twenty-nine poems then the book itself is the thirtieth poem.” The book itself should have that same kind of coherence, development, and movement.

T. G.: The publishing process can seem daunting to new writers. What advice do you give for the preparation of a manuscript before sending it out to publishers? Also, what made you choose to send it out to this publisher and how many places did you submit this manuscript to?

POLLOCK: The first thing is, before you put together the manuscript, to get the poems published in journals. No publisher will look at the manuscript of a first book of poems unless most or nearly all of them have already pleased some editor enough to warrant publication. And the more prestigious the journals, the better. I can’t stress that last point enough. Publishing in journals is a long process, and it takes research. It’s important to read, and read about, lots of literary journals, in part to learn who publishes what, so you know who would be most likely to take an interest in the kind of thing you write, whether that has to do with subject-matter or form, your ethnicity, sexuality, gender or region, or where you fall on the mainstream-to-avant-garde continuum. Study the acknowledgements page of every book of poems you read by poets you particularly admire—these important pages have lists of the journals in which the poems originally appeared—and try to get your own work published in those journals. I strongly recommend simultaneous submissions—as long as you’re careful only to send your work to journals that accept simultaneous submissions. For most journals, the policy is that as long as you notify them right away when a poem is accepted elsewhere, it’s fine. Send a packet of five poems to, say, forty carefully-chosen journals at once. You’ll get a lot of rejection letters that way, and it may take many tries, and many new packets of poems, but eventually you’ll start getting letters that say “We like these poems. Unfortunately they’re not a good fit for our next issue, but please send more.” That’s encouraging; it means you’re getting better, writing poems editors like. Then one fine day an editor will accept a poem of yours. That’s a big day in the life of a poet. It may take a while to publish the next one. But eventually, perhaps years later, you’ll start getting to the point where a journal will take four out of five, and that’s when you start getting into book-making territory. Instead of publishing one poem a year, you start publishing seven or eight, and you see a book starting to take shape. Keep meticulous records so you don’t accidentally resend something, and always notify everyone you’ve sent a poem to as soon as it gets accepted somewhere. If you don’t, you’ll burn your bridges with editors very quickly. I spent many years writing and publishing poems in this way, and patiently gathering the ones I thought were good enough for a book. When I finally had a manuscript, I did a lot of research to find out which publishers would accept unsolicited manuscripts for a first book of poems, and what their submission guidelines were, including deadlines, and came up with a list of a hundred publishers and first-book manuscript prizes. (I did the research over several months by consulting the publisher lists at newpages.com and the Poets & Writers website, and clicking on every link in the list; in this way, I visited the website of just about every English-language press in North America that publishes poetry; and I took brief but careful notes.) Then I started sending the manuscript out a few copies at a time, following the rolling deadlines of the publishers, submitting some online and some through the mail. My plan was to send it out to all one hundred presses on my list over the course of a year, and I expected the whole process, including waiting to hear back from them all, to take about two years. But I was fortunate. I sent it to eighteen presses, but it was accepted after just three months. It was a little bewildering because one of the places I submitted it to, Able Muse Press in California, had indicated in its submission guidelines to expect a six-month wait for a response, but in fact they accepted it just twelve days after I sent it to them. It was thrilling, of course, but this was essentially a new press (they’d only published three or four books at the time), and I wondered if I ought to wait to hear from some more established presses first. But I asked around and got some advice and ultimately I gladly accepted the offer. Some other presses expressed interest or praised the manuscript, but no one else gave me an outright offer. And in the end I’m very happy the book was published by Able Muse, for a variety of reasons. For example, it’s in my contract that, as long as the press stays in business, the book will never go out of print. And the book looks fantastic. The design and production are just wonderful.

T.G.: The writing process – for you, are there specific circumstances that are more conducive to writing? How did you discover this state? Does it change for each poem?

POLLOCK: I like a cup of tea, and some extended amount of time and quiet, if possible. It also helps to read a lot. If I’m not feeling up to writing, I know I need to just read something extremely good. There’s an enormous difference in the brain depending on what kind of reading you’re doing. If you’re reading the news or something dry and abstract, it’s only the intellectual or information-processing centers of your brain that light up. But if you’re reading imaginative literature, you’re entire brain is active in the way it is when you’re outside taking a walk. Reading something that closely, that intensely, gets your brain into an imaginative mindset so that you are capable of writing something that does that for a reader. That’s why reading really works for writers. For me, it causes a physical sensation of pleasure in my head; if I’m reading something very good, I’m totally immersed in it, intellectually, imaginatively, emotionally, even physically. That often produces insights, and a sense that I’ve got hold of something that I can imagine writing.

T.G.: How do you feel about being nominated for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry, and for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize?

POLLOCK: I’m thrilled, because the book will get a much wider readership than it would have otherwise. So many books are published every year, and only a few get noticed at all, so I’m extremely fortunate. But to be honest, I’m ambivalent about it, too, because, as a critic, I consciously ignore prizes. I try to look at the book in front of me on its own merits. And the danger for a poet who receives a great deal of acclaim early on is that she will start repeating herself. That’s deadly to a poet’s development. It’s a danger for the inner poet, if you will, unless you’re prepared for it. If I were twenty-two and this happened, I would be in much greater danger, but I’m experienced enough now that it’s not going to overwhelm me. I have other kinds of poems I know I can make, and I have a plan for what I want to write. So the main feelings I have are tremendous gratitude and a powerful sense of confidence.

© 2012 James Pollock