5 Questions for Poets: Part 5

Some of America's top poets respond to questions by readers of poetry in this final blog for National Poetry Month 2014.

1. How hard should you work at a poem?

Alfred Corn (author of Unions):
Until the pleasure of working with it comes to a halt. When the poem has revealed all it has to tell you. When you are able to read it aloud and not flinch or stumble.

David Lehman (author of New and Selected Works):
Some poems take years to finish. Sometimes you set aside a poem that is, in a way, "good enough." But you need distance from it, distance in the form of time. Revision as a form of creativity is greatly undervalued.

CAConrad (author of Ecodeviance):
No poems are finished, they are abandoned.

Roger Jones (author of Are We There Yet?):
As hard as is needed to bring the poem to a point where you feel it's ready to present to others. If they don't like it, you can always go back and work on it some more.

2. According to The Atlantic, over 50 percent of people think computers will be able to write great works of literature in 50 years. Do you hold with the majority prognostication?

John Gallaher (author of In a Landscape):
I think they'd only go to the trouble to get a computer to write a poem if there were money in it. Because of this, I think the humans writing poetry are safe.

Alfred Corn:
We already have "found poems," texts not intended to be read as poems yet, when so framed, give us some of the pleasures we expect from poetry. So I'm sure some of the computer-generated poems will be enjoyable, and funny.

John Parm (representing self-published poets, Fade is forthcoming):
Computers will be able to write great poetry when they can commit suicide for being fat, ugly and unpopular.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi
(author of Apocalyptic Swing):
Sure. A student was just talking to me about this idea of singularity and machines being able to move past the point of needing humans. I think like "hard" is a tough word so is "great." I think that computers will be able to generate complicated suites of language that will fascinate and inspire many people. If (and may people are considering this) we can find a way that computers can actually dream then, yes, I think they'll be blooming like the rest of us.

3. What would poets like for undergrads to know about poetry?

Richard Siken (author of War of Foxes, forthcoming in 2015):
Poetry is a method, not just a product. It's a way of making meaning. It problem-solves. It calibrates. It jostles vision and encourages leaps of thought. And it delights. And it will probably save your life.

Cyrus Cassells (author of Cross-Out Swastika):
It's time to move on from "feelings" and "self-expression" to communication, clarity, and grounding the reader.

Nick Courtright (author of Let There Be Light):
That is it not "old," in the sense that it must feature the word "thou," and that it mustn't rhyme. I start with small requests, I know, but we must start somewhere. Poetry is the foundation for so much religion, science, and philosophy, and I want them to know that it remains a living, entertaining, thoughtful, deep, and joyous contemporary art, one that, crazily enough, people like them can have fun with. I want them to know that they shouldn't get wrapped up in things like "iambic pentameter," at least not at first, because such terminology is distancing; I also want them to know that poetry is not "emo," and that the beret is optional, and, honestly, discouraged. Also, if the poem is difficult to understand, there is an excellent chance it is the reader's shortcoming, not the writer's. And that poetry is full of the best kinds of truths, the ambiguous ones, the ones you need to wrestle with all your life. As Moore says, in it we can find "a place for the genuine."

David Lehman:
I cannot speak for all or even some other poets. But as a one-time English major, I recommend that the serious student of literature read Homer and the Greek tragedians, Plato and Aristotle, the Bible, Dante and Chaucer, Rabelais and Montaigne, Swift and Voltaire, Dostoyevski and Tolstoy. Then, too, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan sonneteers, Donne and Ben Jonson, Milton and Marvell, Pope, Gray's elegy and odes, Samuel Johnson's criticism, the great Romantics, Tennyson, Arnold's essays, Yeats, and the American tradition from Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson through Frost, Stevens, Williams, Moore, Eliot and Pound -- to limit myself primarily to poets writing in English born before 1900.

Writers block is a symptom of capitalism. The more efficient we become the more brutal and in that brutality the space for creativity diminishes. We must all remain vigilant to the creative viability in everything around us at all times. As the great American poet Alice Notley says, "Poetry's so common hardly anyone can find it."

4. What interests outside of literature work well with writing poetry?

Robert Pinsky (author of Selected Poems):
All. Poetry is omnivorous. On the other hand, Stevens the insurance lawyer, Moore the librarian and Williams the pediatrician had access to the privileges of leisure and education. It would be nice to think that gave them some advantages over Bishop, Lowell and others who for most of their life did not need to earn a living. Possibly Ginsberg learned something from the work he hated in an advertising agency?

Roger Jones:
Depends on the individual. Derek Walcott is a very good painter. A.R. Ammons painted, also, I think. William Stafford loved photography. All sorts of things could be compatible, given the breadth of human personality.

Adam Fitzgerald (author of The Late Parade):
Film editing, architecture, quantum physics.

Matthea Harvey (author of Modern Life):
We need more poet-detectives.

5. If you were poet during a different era, when/where would you want to exist?

Whenever I meet someone who pines about being in an earlier time they tend to be white straight men with money. I'm happy here, right now where the field is open, open and opening to everyone, finally.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi:
I mean I'd like to see what that computer at the next table forty years from now is writing.

Roger Jones:
Perhaps late-17th century Japan, when Basho was writing and teaching.

Alfred Corn:
Early 19th century, with the English Romantic poets as my friends.

David Lehman:
In King David's court.