Poet David Baker on His Craft and Process

Earlier this month, poet and contributing editor to Fogged Clarity Daniel DeVaughn interviewed the distinguished poet (and poetry editor of The Kenyon Review) David Baker about Robert Frost, contemporary poetic trends, and his forthcoming collection, Scavenger Loop. Below are a few choice questions from their discussion, the entirety of which can be read on Fogged Clarity.


Daniel DeVaughn: A lot of poets nowadays, young poets especially, seem to be relying more and more on evocative and sometimes even sensationalized content over the more traditional approach, from the standpoint of both form and craft. As an editor, have you noticed a similar trend, and if not, what sorts of trends do you see in the new poetry that you've been getting in the mail and reading? What sort of poem are you looking for as the editor of The Kenyon Review?

David Baker: Well, there's a big difference between evocation and sensationalism, isn't there? I do not know a time when poets did not employ evocation, did not want to be evocative. Do you? Poetry's ability to evoke is one of its beautiful imperatives. We try to evoke rather than explain, try to be dramatic and lyrical rather than expository, right? But yes, I do read a great deal of poetry just now that seems as sensational, and as comically pathetic, as The National Enquirer or Fox News or whatever.

Nor do I think evocation and traditional form are opposites. In fact, traditional form can evoke the most remarkable things in the hands of a superb poet. All poems--as I have written and argued often--are formal constructions. But you're right, there is so much sloppy, hasty, arrogant, mere-workshop-ready poetry out there just now. And I am not identifying a particular formal style in that statement: There are awful formal poems and free-verse poems and whatever kind of poems. It is not enough to dash off a poem about the latest headline, fashion show, tweet, or workshop prompt, and think that is sufficient to be a poem. Dear god, there are poets who try to write a poem a day and find that to be validating.

What have I been getting in the mail at Kenyon Review? Well, in the last four-month reading period, we received something like 10,000 submissions, 10,000 batches of things. So we have been getting everything in the mail. So much, now, that it's hard to summarize. I do see that people write too quickly--no, I mean, they submit too quickly and too randomly, and do not live with their poems and let the poems mature. What is the hurry? Job-security, validation, panic, desperation? I see people treating their own poems like diaries and news-feeds and psychotherapy sessions. Poetry is not therapy. It is not medicine. It is not a newspaper or sermon or tract--though of course poems make use of all of these rhetorical methods and affiliations.

I am as likely to accept an experimental poem as a traditional one; a long one or a short one. I can say I am looking hard at poems for their treatment of nature, in whatever definitions that word "nature" may orbit. I am particularly excited about a special feature coming in our May/June 2015 issue called "Nature's Nature." For two years I have been quietly gathering poems for this feature, which will showcase work from twenty-one poets and will look at many of the different things a poet means, or suggests, or points to, when she or he treats nature in a poem. I think we are going to make this a regular feature in KR.

But to answer your question more fully and accurately:
What I look for is to be surprised.
What I look for is the poem I did not know I was looking for.
What I look for is authenticity. Engagement. Lyrical profundity. Strangeness. An occasion to discover "the other." An occasion to recover "the self."
What I look for is one poem at a time.

Daniel DeVaughn: Oftentimes, I feel as if you, the speaker, whatever you want to call it, is intentionally evading the reader, usually via manipulations of (i.e. difficult) syntax, a lack of punctuation as guideposts of sense, or strange/odd lineation, as if you mean for them to get lost in their search for meaning, only to be found again, or led, by the speaker toward sense. Could you comment on that occlusion or evasion? Is it the poet's job, as Frost believed, to trick or confuse, and if so, what's the point, what's the end-game?

David Baker: I usually distrust poems that evade. I absolutely have no intention to be evasive. That is coy or confused or silly. I do not mean for anyone to get lost or to stay lost. Evasion is a sophomoric tactic. Poems want to be clear. So let me be clear about this! Sometimes a poem is hoping to be clear about an unclear thing.

In my little universe, bad poets are those who write unclearly about clear things. Good poets are those who write clearly about unclear things.

If my poems are sometimes difficult or opaque or possessed of multiple possibilities, I hope they are this way in order to create a valid, authentic expression of the difficulty, opacity, or ambiguity of every single moment of every single life. If they reach clarity, I hope they reach clarity out of those moments of difficulty, too. I do not want my poems to evade, but often I do want my poems to suspend our need for certainty or stability.

Where did Frost say the poet's job is to trick and confuse? That seems unlike him, don't you think? He did say that anyone who isn't confused isn't well informed. But he also said, famously, that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion. He also said he likes to fool sometimes, likes to be a trickster. He can be a good example of a poet whose most powerful work is both clarifying and endlessly untranslatable.

I am in my own recent work trying to write clearly about unclear things. And sometimes I hope to express that in narrative terms, and sometimes in formal or tactical terms, or I guess in whatever means the poem gives me. I do not, though, want to evade. I want to create a space or aura or atmosphere of complexity, beauty, and rigor--a space not where we'll find the answer, particularly, but where we'll be able to frame the question, or maybe better, where answers are irrelevant and awareness or acknowledgment is more the desired condition.

Daniel DeVaughn: This is certainly a generalization, but there seem to be two competing modes of poetry nowadays, one which is narrative, traditional, and its own justification, that is to say self-evident to the reader, and another which is scientific and exploratory, a matter of discovery, accrual, and faithfulness to the "real world."

David Baker: It has never been otherwise. Sometimes poetry discovers what is there. Sometimes poetry invents what can be there. Sometimes we report and sometimes we amend. Sometimes we narrate and sometimes we sing.

No, I take that last sentence back. In a good poem, we always narrate and we always sing. That's because I think language, every basic grammatical structure, is narrative. The very relation of subject to predicate is a narrative relationship. And a poem wants to make that narrative construction sing.

Therefore, I do not hold that there's a polar dichotomy between the lyric poem and the narrative poem. All poems live (and fluctuate) on the continuum described by those modes. All good poems are both narrative and lyric. It's the particular nature of that narrative, and the particular means of those lyric aspects, that make any one poem rich and distinct.

Daniel DeVaughn: Many well-known poets have passed in the last year or two years, and I have begun to think that a certain "changing of the guard" is taking place in the world of poetry, or has been for some time now, but then, does the guard ever change in poetry? Is it possible in a world of creative-poetic singularities for a prevailing guard, garde, or order, to actually exist or is that simply an illusion of perspective?

David Baker: I like your term singularities, Daniel. It has never been otherwise. Poetry is one at a time. Constancy is a fiction. Poetry teaches us--and sings to us this song--that the fluidity of things is their natural form.