Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine(2012), and editor of Bunting’s Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting’s poems (2016). He is the translator of Field Guide: Poems by Dario Jaramillo Agudelo (2012), Miguel Hernández (2013), and I Have Lots of Heart: Selected Poems by Miguel Hernández (1998), winner of the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán for Spanish Translation.
Alex Mouw’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Southern Indiana Review, Ruminate, poets.org, and elsewhere, and his scholarship is forthcoming in Christianity and Literature. He is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Hope College.
AM: Let’s talk about your newest collection, Wishbone. This collection is exceptionally diverse in its use of form, allusion, and subject. Yet what seems to make it hang together is a wry, earthy humor married to metaphysical curiosity. As in your earlier book, Squandermania, there’s also a repetition of phrases like “screaming your head off” that hooks disparate poems together. Can you speak to your own vision for the book, what you see it setting out to do as a whole?
DS: I think as some of my students here know, one of the things I believe is that poems don’t exist in a vacuum. They don’t come out of no place, they don’t live on a page, and they don’t exist in any kind of isolation. Quite the contrary: they exist entirely in relation to other things, including other poems. And so I think when you look at a poem or pieces of poems that you’re working on, what you’re trying to do is be attentive to the directions that the language is trying to lead you in, and you have to learn to listen to your own work. I don’t think you can manhandle anything into a good poem. I’ve never actually seen evidence of this working out sufficiently. You can make progress, but that doesn’t mean it’s poetry in any sort of ultimately meaningful form. And so I was just looking at what I was doing at a certain time and trying to be attentive to what was in front of me. When I started working on the book, I had ideas about a certain project. Not a “project book,” but I thought there’s certain things I want this book to look at that I didn’t do in other places.
And then what happened was I became seriously ill and I had to contemplate the idea that I might not live very long, which was news to me. And then all kinds of other stuff started to happen to me. It was like one of those phases of life, and everybody has them sooner or later, and sometimes frequently, where everything just happens all at once. I think we’re in a phase like that nationally, one thing after another, it’s like “what is going on?” And so for me, my health started to fail, my father died, all this stuff was happening, all this stuff I swore I’d never write about. I’d see poems about people’s fathers and say, “I’m not writing about fathers.” People have a baby. I’d say “I’m never writing about a kid.” You make all these vows. And poets make vows to break them because poets have that latitude but also that responsibility to do something other than what you planned on. When Keats says “we resist poems that have designs upon us,” that’s really the job for us. So what I thought I knew about what I was doing turned out to have nothing, there was no possibility of doing the more grandiose gestures that, purely as a writer, I had in mind for a book. I had an idea for a book and I couldn’t do it because I was physically unable to do anything, and I didn’t think I had any time left and I had some things to work with and I thought “well that’s the end.” I didn’t think there would be a book.
So one of the things I realized was that in my first book, when my first book came out, it got written up in nice places. It was something you sort of hope for when you start out as a poet, and it got a review in Publishers Weekly, and what people were saying was that I had good formal skills, which was very depressing to me. I was quite interested in form, obviously, and I was doing formal stuff, but it’s not something I wanted to think about or be known for. I think it was a nice way of saying I was good at something, but I was kind of appalled by it or shocked actually, because I thought if somebody puts that on me I have to live up to it, I have to start writing books and poems that have great formal intricacy and ingeniousness and I certainly had no intention of doing anything like that. So I thought the problem for me, with Wishbone, was I didn’t know if there was going to be much longer to think about aesthetic matters or what you do in a poem, so I realized one thing, and it was a great lesson to learn though, like all lessons you learn the hard way, they are useful and stick with you but really you have no choice.
What I realized was I had to sound like myself. I had been writing poems that were good at sounding like they were poems, and people responded to them and I got praised for it and I think the expectation was that I would grow into that and do more of that, so that if I had more poems about the south and they were intricate and had certain sonic characteristics, and a kind of witty thing happening, that I could make a career out of it. But at the time of Wishbone I thought well I won’t have a career. I won’t have anything. So I thought to hell with that. It was just something that went away. And so I thought the only thing I could possibly do is sound like myself in a poem because I’ll never have that opportunity again and I won’t sound like myself period if I don’t make it. To make a long story short, I didn’t have the luxury of fussing over poems, which was something I took great pride and pleasure in, but I coludn’t do it anymore. It wouldn’t be worth it. So I stopped doing it.
Not to compare myself to far greater poets, but you know there’s a thing where Robert Lowell had this curse of being a great formal poet. He couldn’t do anything that didn’t have ingeniousness formally. And he kept yearning to write free verse poems, and he would write to William Carlos Williams like “how do you do it?” He couldn’t do it for anything. He said “I can’t live without my line endings.” And I was kind of like that. I was like “I’m just gonna have to blow this away.” And of course at the end of Lowell’s career he writes these great books like Day By Day, amazing, astounding books. He had to overcome everything he knew about the writing of poetry to do what is arguably his greatest work now that we can look back on it after a long period of time. My teachers, as it turns out, were both students of Lowell, so I inherited a bloodline of this obsession with intricate techniques and stuff, and then suddenly I was at a point where that just all went away and I could never go back. So for me Wishbone turned into something that was just a mess but it was great to learn how to write in the face of a chaos, including the chaos of dispensing with prosody in certain ways.
One thing I realized, too: the book has some very short poems, like a line or two long, and people ask me about this. When you don’t think you have any time left—as a teacher or editor I think this all the time but it was sort of a lesson that came home—a lot of times if you look at a poem, it can be a really bad poem somebody’s put in front of you, just a crappy poem. And what you do is say, “but there’s this good bit here, you know, there’s a good line and a half,” and I thought “well what if I only kept the goods parts?” The short poems were part of longer poems and I thought “I’m never going to redeem these poems into better poems, I don’t have time, so what I’ll do is I’ll just take out the couple of lines that were at the heart of it and just get rid of all the rest of it.” It’s like sink or swim. A line or two. And I thought well, if that’s all I have and that’s all I’m ever going to have, then that will have to suffice. There’s no way to do anything more here. So some of those things were just getting to the point in a more direct way. I had come to understand poetry as being a record of circuitousness, that the way you had to think about poems was involved and involving, and suddenly I couldn’t do that and I had to learn to live without it.
And once I did, it was kind of a great thing to experience a way of writing that was not my own inclination, that was sort of forced on me. And so that book didn’t turn out the way—I had big plans for that book and big ideas—and what I realize now, since I didn’t die then, is if I had done what I set out to do, it would’ve gotten a little more notice and traction than it did, but I like the idea that I didn’t play to that. I learned not to do the things that what people want. As an editor I see this all the time. You see poets with twelve, fifteen books who’ve been around for a long career, and no one’s going to tell them “don’t do that anymore.” Like no one has the nerve to go up to—you know, I’m thinking of certain people I know quite well, certain FSG poets, fill in the blank—and say “when you were a young poet you already wrote about that, you already did that, and now you’re doing it again but not as good. You’re descending into self-parody.” So I thought, “well at least this has saved me from repetitiveness.” But it bothered people because I think most of us have this idea that you become proficient at a certain kind of writing or a project, the thing you do, and you do that and the idea is maybe you get better at it and people pay attention to it and then you’re there, wherever there is. And now I can never do that, so it’s quite a relief. But so the book is a bizarre artifact of things I had no control over. That’s the long answer.
AM: You’ve started to address this talking about those formal constraints and expectations, but like you said, Union was billed as the next phase in southern narrative poetry. Could you talk about the trajectory of what you see as your poetry career? Maybe Squandermania, since that’s a stop we haven’t talked about yet.
DS: Well, the thing about Union, it was nice that a review said that about the next stage of the southern narrative poet. I’m from the south, but I mean, it’s always interesting to see what other people make of what you’re doing. I had no intention of being a narrative poet; that shocked me, and then a southern poet I don’t mind quite as much. The thing was, when I was working on Union it was around the time of September 11, somewhere around there, and what I realized was: our history never goes away. At that time, we were living in a dream world, right, before September 11, 2001. We were sort of getting by, really things were seeming okay. They weren’t okay, but certain people were privileged enough in this world of ours, and in this country, to think things were all right and they’d maybe get better. And they weren’t.
So, growing up in the south what I could see was that racial divisiveness wasn’t an artifact of history and it wasn’t just something you read about in a history book. Where you felt it was in individual families. That racial hatred and bigotry, and a lot of the stuff sadly we’re seeing right now, where it does its work is on the level of the individual person in a certain domestic life. It puts pressures on families where people are trying to get by, it puts pressures on children, it puts pressures on people who just got married, it puts pressures on people how are having a baby or somebody whose pregnant and thinking about what kind of world they’re going to be born into. It puts pressure on everybody, and where the damage is done is not political damage, it’s in real lives it takes its toll. It is lethal, it is destructive, it causes disintegration, house by house, block by block, community by community.
And so, I was trying to realize that the history of a place like Memphis Tennessee, with all of its divisions, had resonance that was never going to go away. That we didn’t learn anything from history. The civil war isn’t over now, as we sit here. It’s not over. There is this idea that somebody won the civil war. Nobody won anything; everybody lost something. We lost a kind of union. We lost togetherness. I mean, the title refers to the fact that we call this a union or a United States: there’s no unity here. None. You know that. In the city itself this big road, Union Ave, cuts the city in half, goes down to the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River cuts this continent right in half. So many things are cutting us up, you know. The flag itself has bars. There’s divisiveness. And so I was just trying to connect the dots.
Where I grew up, you would see monuments to our history about which people knew nothing. In the center of Memphis to this day there’s an equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a general on the confederate side in the civil war, and he created a kind of tactics of terrorism which he used effectively. He was sort of a racial terrorist by his own admission and one of the first grand figures in the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. So there’s an equestrian statue of the guy in Memphis, and he and his wife are buried under it. But Memphis consists mostly of people of color, and very few people knew the history of this object. They just walked around it. It was normal. It was part of the landscape.
It’s irritating people now. Now people are learning history because you kind of have to, to cope with the past and cope with the present and get somewhere else. But when I was growing up in Memphis we had Confederate Park, we had all these landmarks, like you do all over the south, in fact like you do here in Indiana, of things that people actually don’t want to remember. They’re monuments to things people don’t want to remember; they’re tributes to things people would rather forget and act like they never happened. And that’s why we keep having to pay the price and learn history over and over again. So for Union the southern part was right: there’s no good way to narrate the day to day disintegration we experience because of the forces of hate and bigotry that are at work all the time.
And so for Squandermania by then what we had on our hands in this country was a system of wars that were built up to do something about 9/11 which as we know now, didn’t succeed at all. Quite the opposite. But what we were seeing then was that the rhetoric, the language we used was being used against us to justify all kinds of things that were terrible. So I have poems in there where I simply took things that people were saying, and to me they were just evidence of how bad things were going to get because you couldn’t believe them. I mean at that time the government was saying “we fight the terrorists abroad so we don’t have to fight them at home,” and everybody thought “that makes perfect sense, we’ll be safe.” It wasn’t true. So the poets lost control of the language. It was given over to people in the government. And I have nothing against a government. The government makes it possible for us to live and prosper when it’s working, even sometimes when it isn’t.
But when you listen to what people are saying, but like if you listen like people do know, we have Twitter and social media and stuff. And we can hear it. If somebody in a position of power says something, within minutes everybody knows what’s being said, but it wasn’t always like that. People had to think about it. So poets weren’t the masters of the language. People in advertising and politics were. And what I was noticing was it was because people weren’t listening. As people we weren’t listening to what was being said in our name, we weren’t listening to what we were saying, we weren’t saying anything meaningful. And poets were just going on and on, blathering away. I mean you see this even know, where poets are just jabbering. And so I was trying to find out like “where do we go back to a place where a description of something has resonance and leaves something behind?” Because what I was aware of, and am aware of now, is someday people are gonna look back on us right now, sitting in this room, and they’re going to have history books that won’t answer too many questions. They’re going to have images and videos and journalism and all kinds of stuff. But they’re going to look at the poets and say “well what were these people doing when all that was going on? What were they writing about? Trees? Shadows? The falling of light out the window? What were they doing when all these things were happening? What did they have to say? What did they leave behind? What did they contribute to literature that’s going to be memorable so we know what it was like to walk around here when all these things were happening?” You get the idea.
So, Squandermania. I wouldn’t ever make up a word. I don’t like poets to make up words. You’re free to do it, but I think there’s something wrong with people doing it. So squandermania is a word I got from The Economist magazine. They were talking about like economic forces that motivate things like consumer behavior that lead up to big political and large currents in the world that end up controlling everything about how we live our lives. Like having iPhones. It’s cool. What happens with people is when you give people something, their temptation is to squander it. And that’s what we do with the language. We were given this language that we inherited with tributaries from many cultures and traditions in America, in our version of English, and what do people do with it? They piss it away. They squander it. They make it worthless. They don’t do anything with it but make life worse for other people, that’s the worst case scenario.
So the job of the poets is to see what can stem the tide of this mania. I mean we can’t do it; it’s arrogant to think that we can. But so squandermania is actually a specific term in economics that I was sort of hijacking to make a point about that. Other writers, not just poets, have a better handle on this sort of thing. For instance, novelists and fiction writers are often very acute with this stuff. And at the time I was putting this book together I had just stumbled upon the Library of America’s I.B. Singer, who’s one of the great American writers of any kind. If I could teach, I’d teacher Singer. Sadly, most people know Singer for the story that turned into the movie with Barbara Streisand about Yentl, it’s sort of an awful thing. He’s really one of the best writers of any time. He has this story called The Last Demon. And in The Last Demon what happens is the devil comes to earth to see what kind of trouble he can cause and he looks around and the deal is he’s the last devil; if he doesn’t cause sufficient trouble there won’t be anymore. We’re at the end of the line. No more demons are gonna come here. So this guy has a big job on his hands. He has to be the last devil. And he comes down here and the first thing he sees—I’m summarizing here—what he sees is that people are already doing such a good job at being demons that he doesn’t really have all that much to do. So the devil, the last devil, he’s thinking “what can I do that humans aren’t already doing better than I can do?” And he’s thinking and looking around and listening. And then what he realizes is, he says the last demon says this: “the alphabet they could not squander.” That’s an acute observation. We can squander language, but the letters, you can’t spend them down. So he sees through to the baseline of what, in the end, could be our salvation or our damnation but it’s on the level of letters and the alphabet.
And so another thing that sort of goes along with that from Singer, and it is in the story “Yentl, the Yeshiva boy,” which is not a sentimental tale. In there Singer says: “once you say a, you must say b.” So this connectedness on the level of the letters is something that Singer as a prose writer is very attentive to. And then one last thing, it’s an epigraph in the book too, from his three tales, Singer says this: “Every soul descends to earth to correct some error. It’s the same with souls as with manuscripts; there may be few or many errors. Everything that’s wrong on this earth has to be corrected. The world of evil is the world of correction. This is the answer to all questions.”
So this is sort of an editorial judgment on our behavior, on our language, on what writers are doing, so Squandermania to me was this sort of project to take the language of anger in our times and torque it so it’s about what, household by household, people are suffering from. They’re suffering from that thing where you’re all sitting around and you don’t have anything to say or you say a lot of crap and nothing changes it just keeps going. I mean, no matter what happens the freeways will be here and the malls and people will just talk on Twitter and Facebook and we put our pictures on Instagram. This is squandering what we have. I don’t see why writers shouldn’t make moral judgments on these things because we’re in a position to. I mean we run no risk of anybody listening to us so I feel like we should at least moralize when we can. But that’s sort of how I got from one book to the next.
AM: Since you’ve started talking about popular media, I’d like to talk about the public presence of poetry a little bit. After the presidential election, The Atlantic posted an interview with you about the necessity and growing popularity of poetry in this political climate. Alongside that, Poetry recently shifted to a weekly podcast rather than a monthly podcast. How do you gauge the public life of American poetry at this moment, and what do you think Poetry magazine’s contributing?
DS: Well, editors are wrong about most things, and poets are usually wrong too. Especially when it comes to things like politics, we’ve been notoriously awful. So in a way I think we won’t know the real answers to that until sometime in the future when I won’t be accountable for them. But that said, I do have a very real sense of—some of you know because I’ve said this to you, but I have the idea that I read more poems than anybody in the English speaking world. I don’t know what they do, it could be that there are people in Russia or China or countries in the middle east like Pakistan—I mean most of the traffic relating to poetry on the internet comes from Pakistan and that part of the world, not here. Here it’s tiny and insignificant as a measure of our cultural investment in poetry. It’s quite tiny here. So, I think that in a way, the atmosphere that we’re in is a lot larger than we can ever possibly understand, and the fallout will take a long time to understand. But I read a lot of poems, fifteen thousand individual submitted poems a year for Poetry, because I read with my colleague Christina Pugh everything that comes in. Everything. I also obviously read other magazines and books. I get all the books I possibly could wish for and I read them. I’m just always reading poems. And so over time you see where things go and how they’re going and it’s sort of a way to gauge what the health of poetry is, in a way.
And then in addition to that, when we had our centennial—at Poetry, we turned 100 years old in 2012—and Christian Wiman and I read every issue of the magazine. 100 years’ worth of Poetry Magazine. Every poem that was ever published in the magazine. I mean it came out every month for 100 years and never missed an issue, right, so we read all those things and it was ghastly, it was awful, it was just the worst thing in the world. I mean you would see these long stretches where even good poets were writing horrible poems, terrible, boring, stupid, worthless poems by any standard. You can look at them and you say “these poems are dead and they will never come back.” Sometimes poems or poets can sink away and then they mysteriously resurface and are revitalized. Because in a way, a good poet’s work will find an audience. Like in Emily Dickinson’s time, nobody thought of her as a poet really because nobody knew. Whitman was seen to be a nut, if that. In the nineteenth century, if you said “who are the great American poets?” nobody would have said Dickinson or Whitman.
Now that’s the only two names we know. When Poetry Magazine started in 1912 all the people that we think of as modernists like Ezra pound or T.S. Eliot—they were 19th century people, they weren’t 20th century people. Harriet Monroe started Poetry in 1912—she was in her 50s, a 19th century woman. They didn’t know anything about the 20th century; it had just started, but they thought outside the box. And one thing that you can look at now is on the first issue of Poetry, on the front cover, there are some names. Arthur Davison Ficke is on there, and he was a very famous poet. They were lucky to have him for their first issue, right? And they had some other folks like that that only PhD researchers would know now. I assume none of you are Arthur Davison Ficke fans. Nothing wrong with Arthur Davison Ficke. But the other name on the cover was Ezra Pound, and Ezra Pound was nobody. He was a nobody. Nobody cared who Ezra Pound was but he was on the cover. Now, if you look at that issue, you say “that’s pretty good they were finding these poems by guys like Ezra Pound you know? Who knew.” When Prufrock appeared in Poetry Magazine in 1915 he was like 23 years old. He hadn’t published anything except in school magazines. Nobody knew Eliot was going to be famous. Nobody knew that the other poems in that issue that Prufrock was in were not going be read and Prufrock would still be read. I mean how would you know that?
So when I look at all this stuff one thing I can notice for sure is that around the world poetry has always been very important in every culture, and people die for it or have to die for it. We don’t do that here, which isn’t a bad thing, but it means a lot less here, as I’m sure all of you can imagine. It just means a lot less. But that’s starting to change. Poetry is resonating with people in a way it just didn’t do before. I mean, we have a poem from the magazine on the website by say Danez Smith or Ocean Vuong or somebody who’s really acutely tuned in to what’s going on now, that poem will get 8-12 thousand readers a day. When Prufrock appeared in Poetry, in 1915, it couldn’t have had more than a couple hundred readers period. Because that’s all the number of people who bothered to pay to get copies of Poetry Magazine, and now its millions, right?
So what I see now is that poetry is resonating with people it didn’t resonate with before, that it’s being written in a different way so that whether this work holds up or not, I won’t know, but you can see that it’s doing something, that poets are changing each other, that they’re changing other people who are not poets. They have a general readership. Ocean’s book sold 15,000 copies in the first 2 months of its existence. It’s going to take well off that now, being published in the UK. So poetry is having, as they say, a moment, which is a great thing. It’s an opportunity for poets, but it’s a challenge too. Now that people are looking to see what poets are doing, we better have something good or it’ll go back to the way it was in, say the 80s, when poetry was a very dull, monolithic scene. On Twitter a couple weeks ago, somebody tweeted the cover of a book, it was called Six Major Poets and it had all these white male poets, Mark Strand, blah blah blah. I mean they were good poets but the conception of what poetry was just 10, 20 30 years ago—I mean I’ve been around long enough to see that this is just a different world for poetry. All these things are different now, which is just great.
So this is what I see: it’s not so much that poetry is going to do something in American public life, but poetry is, again, a way where people get to say things that are counterpointing the stuff we see said by, say, the president. Or counterpointing things that are spun for some reason. Or counterpointing promoted, sponsored messages of some kind. I mean this isn’t a political comment. I don’t have a political viewpoint that I’m outlining. I think this is just neutrally true that this is what’s happening. So I think there is an immediacy about poetry and if you’re good at something, it’ll not only be immediate but something that will hold up over time. Because a lot of times the immediate effect of a poem mitigates against its lasting a long while.
There were times when, say 1950, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s book of poetry was on the New York Times bestseller list and most people don’t read all those poems now; they’re never going to read all those poems. So it’s not so much that the current situation of poetry has any long-term significance, but with luck the best poets of our time will. And now I see that there’s opportunities for people to exert their talents on more than trivial subjects. People can up the ante for what a poem can be here for. So the world isn’t in a great place, maybe the country isn’t either, but for poets it’s pretty good right now because your work is cut out for you. Prior to that it was kind of like positioning for something, or looking to see if somebody did something a certain way. I would apprentice myself to that poet and try to be good in my own way at what that person was doing. That’s all out the window now, which I think is very healthy for poetry, and healthy for people.
AM: To follow up a little bit on your statement “poets have a notoriously awful history with politics”: You have spoken a lot about poetry and activism, and we have a lot of young writers in the room, some of whom are interested in activism. Do you have advice about the way to navigate the difference between poetry and pure political rhetoric?
DS: Yeah, I mean I think there’s little I can say that you wouldn’t already know yourself, but I think we have to remind ourselves of this: you know, making a pronouncement on social media is not activism. You know, when people repeat something or express outrage, it’s not activism. Activism is putting your body somewhere. It’s easy for poets who are good at saying stuff to express outrage in a Facebook post and get a lot of likes or say something that goes viral on Twitter. We can all do that if we want to, and maybe there’s something good about that. I don’t have any particular thoughts about that. It isn’t poetry and it isn’t activism. What activism is—Chicago turns out to be a great place for this and I’m lucky to live there. The younger poets that I know and connect with in Chicago didn’t ask to be activists. They didn’t ask for unarmed people from their neighborhood to be shot by police or any of this. Nobody asks for things like that. They don’t look at it as their subject matter. They hate it when Chicago is characterized by the things you hear in the news. It isn’t right to do that, it’s abusive to do that and it’s inaccurate to do that, but there are problems.
And the poets I know, without being asked to or made to, they don’t just write poems and send them out. They don’t just want a book. The poets I know go where they came from and just as they were able to come from their place and own it, they want other people to do it. They don’t even call themselves activists. They might all themselves educators. They’re teaching people who don’t have access to good schools. They’re teaching poetry. They’re showing people not only how to write and get up in front of a crowd and recite poems. They’re showing people how to make books, how to make chapbooks, how to publish their own work if no one else does, how to get an audience, how to keep an audience, how to say something that people remember and can memorize and take somewhere else with them so when they leave and go from Chicago to someplace else they can meet up with other people.
And what you notice in the movements of our time now is you see people putting their bodies somewhere and it makes a difference. You get 10,000 people standing peacefully in downtown Chicago, that makes something happen. We had the women’s march. Whatever your political feelings are, I’m not expressing a political opinion, but the fact is all the tens of thousands of people involved in the women’s marches recently without a single, apparently, a single arrest. People put their bodies out there. Nobody knew what was going to happen. It might have been very unsafe for people. Nobody knew but they showed up. I mean Paul Durcan, who’s a wonderful Irish poet, he says “my job as a poet is to be here, which I am, not to lay some kind of curate’s egg.” Like all the stuff that you think of that you’re supposed to do as a poet is out the window now. It was never good anyway for anything, for most of us, worthless. It’s just poorly executed ambition.
But now, you put yourself somewhere and it’s human. And when you put yourself somewhere, there’s other people. You might have something that you can help them with. It might be that people didn’t know that they could articulate things about their experience in a poem. They might have been led to believe no one was listening or wanted to hear from people, or that poetry belonged to canonical people, or people in certain communities who had benefits and privileges that they didn’t, so that’s all gone. You show up now and you show people with your body “I’m here for you.” I mean I do that in my work, I just don’t sit behind a thing reading all day. I go places. I go where there are people. And we go, and we’re out there and we do stuff and then people go in turn and the next thing you know you have communities supporting each other not just as poets but as people with problems and needs. And somebody over here’s good at something, somebody over here’s good at something else, we build things.
I mean I had a teenager on a field trip from a high school come in, and he didn’t really wanna write poetry, but the school made him come over to the Poetry Foundation building. We had a bunch of kids there and they were very uncomfortable. But when you go in there you see poetry books; that’s all I got is just books! And the kid came up to me and he said “can I make one of these?” and I said “of course. You can make anything you can put your mind to.” But imagine having to ask that. I said “Yeah. we’ll show you how to make a book if you want to.” We’ve all— most of us as poets sooner or later we make a chapbook or we publish. I said “we’ll show you how to do that.” But then I said “what are you going to put in it?” He saw the object and it grabbed him, but I said “now you’ve got to put something in it. Because I’m just going to show you blank pages but you have to put something on those blank pages. What will it be?” He said “hmmm. I don’t know.” And I said “well what are images that come to your mind? I don’t know anything about you. Where are you from? What’s it like?” And he said, and I don’t know why he said this to me but it was really marvelous, but this guy said: “where I come from,” in the city of Chicago, he said “where I come from there’s an overpass, and on my block we don’t go to the other side of the overpass. We stay over here, and then sometimes when people are in the middle bad things happen.” And I thought “that’s an image. I mean it’s real. This is a reality.” I said “you’ve got an image and you’ve got a reality. Now you write that.” Because you just told that to me and I didn’t know. Like I’ve seen these overpasses and things, but I didn’t know that it meant anything to anybody. If I wanna look around and write a poem I write about this and that but I’m in the city almost every day of my life and I didn’t know that. And I said “now you have to be a poet. You’ve got blank pages, you’ve got an image, you’ve got a tense dramatic situation on your hands that you just told me about. I didn’t ask you to tell me that story, but you told me and you know about it and I don’t, so now you’re going to have to fill up a couple of books here. And you’re going to have to tell me about that.” And it’s clear when somebody is able to emerge from someplace where poetry isn’t valued and other things are, and they’re able to say “I’m showing you this,” something is different in that community.
Now you have a community that produced a poet. And then maybe they’ll produce some more poets. Now if we have communities that produce poets as well as produce other kinds of people you read about in the news, we’ve got something going. So I see this everywhere now. I mean we see this at AWP, that everybody’s doing stuff, they’re putting their bodies out there, it’s not just a poem on a page. I’m a person. Behind the poem is a person, and that’s sort of the way that’ll work.
AM: You have also produced award-winning translations of Miguel Hernadez’s poetry, you’ve edited scholarly editions of Basil Bunting’s poems and did some scholarly work on him. Could you talk about how your various interests overlap, feed into each other, maybe what you’re working on now?
DS: Sure, well I mean, to me its very important—I’m not lucky enough to be able to teach very frequently, I’m lucky to be here and I really appreciate it—what I really want to tell people, apart from looking at individual poems, is look. We’re not, as individual people, interesting to anybody, probably not even to ourselves, really. We’re all pretty bored at the end of the day with ourselves. And like what are you going to do with your life? I was lucky. I had very strong mentors. I was not an English major. I had to teach myself poetry, but I did come by mentors who were poets and they were able to say to me “look, that’s not a life’s work. What you did is okay, but it’s not a life’s work.” I was very lucky to hear that when I was a young person. What I know about poetry is it comes form everywhere. I doesn’t just come from where I sit, and I’m scribbling, and it doesn’t just come from this gathering of people here.
And to me there’s absolutely no distinction between poets I’m interested in who relate to my day to day stuff and a poet from the other side of the planet who lived a hundred years ago, or more, or two, or three. For Hernández, the Spanish language works differently than English does, so it will connect back. For us to look back at Chaucer it can be tricky or even Shakespeare. We have to get a little help. What do the words mean, why do they sound like that? Words come to mean their opposite, and so on. But in Spanish, Miguel Hernández is a self-taught shepherd boy who couldn’t go to school really, he had to learn poetry from reading the poets. It’s a natural thing to do. So he could go back in time and read the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, and they spoke to him very directly, so he could learn that language. There was no time lapse between them. He could carry that tradition forward. I read widely because what I’m looking for is literature or poetry and other art from others kinds of cultures and places and times because they help fill in the deficiencies of our own situation. American poetry is only going to do so much and it’s not enough. We will never be able to do all the things we can do. We need help, we need nourishment, and we need help from other cultures. It’s just like what we talk about when we talk about immigration in this culture. Everybody got here from someplace. We need it, it strengthens us, this is what brings the resources, it brings food, it brings everything, atmosphere, cultures, all the art forms, also true in poetry.
So for me there’s no distinction between my taking a deep scholarly interest in a poet from the north of England who did not speak standard English or write in it, and to think about what I was just talking about. Basil Bunting from the north of England pointed out that Keats did not speak English; he spoke cockney. He didn’t speak standard, educated British English. He didn’t know of such a thing. He spoke working class English. He was made fun of for it. Wordsworth did not speak standard English; he rhymed words like “line” and “join.” Those don’t rhyme if you’re listening to the BBC, though they have more regionalisms now. Our conceptions even about what our own language is can only be enriched by understanding what other people’s work in them consists of.
So for me our regionalisms—and this goes back to Union—for me it’s always a concern. People don’t talk where I come from like they do in Chicago or New York. I mean where I grew up you go to the grocery store and you don’t get a bag. I never heard of a bag in a grocery store. We had sacks. You put your food in a sack. I was telling my students our street names are named after trees. When I moved to New England as a young person I was astounded: there were all these streets named after presidents. I thought “well this is weird.” And all these historical landowners, rich, wealthy landowners. So all of this attentiveness to the specific regions and places and times and cultures and languages is something we all need, and nobody teaches us that. I wasn’t an English major but if I were I would’ve taken survey courses in English literature and American literature and most of the poetry ever written in the universe I wouldn’t have known a single thing about.
So I do translation because I want to read poetry that’s not in this language of ours. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of this English language. American English is not doing it for us. I need to know what’s going on. The poet and critic William Empson really says that’s the purpose for us of having any interest in imaginative literature or creative literature. He says it’s to put us in touch with people whose values are different from our own, not the same. So for me this just seems like healthy—I mean I just do it naturally because I don’t have a profession or a career. I’ve just kicked around, you know. I had the idea that if I had been an English major, or if I’d gotten a steady job somewhere, I wouldn’t ever have realized what the world is like for poetry, let alone anything else. The one time I had a teaching gig in Boston, just temporary like the one I have here now, I had this little office and there’s a wonderful Fulke Greville poem, it’s one of my favorite poems and I was trying to communicate enthusiasm about this poem to a student, and sharing the office with me was a PhD English student from this big university. When my student left, the PhD guy said to me “well you know Fulke Greville was a minor poet, don’t you?” I was like “no, I had no idea. All I knew was this was a wonderful poem.” I didn’t realize you were supposed to have a little pecking order going about who was a great poet. I got crummy jobs in libraries to learn poetry, because when you go to the library all the poetry books are still on the shelf because nobody checks them out.
So I had to read from Auden to Zukofsky, and I didn’t know—there were people in there, Winfield Townley Scott was a poet I loved; I didn’t know he wasn’t a big deal. I read Auden; I didn’t know Auden was a big deal. I didn’t who was important, supposedly, and who wasn’t. I had to figure it out. it was great. When you do translation it’s like that. You work on somebody else’s poetry, or you do scholarly editions, and you have to find out something you didn’t know. And then you find that the poetry teaches you. That’s the best way for it to happen. I mean the poets will come to us if we look for them, but so often people have their heads down. You know, they’re writing for other poets, they’re reading their contemporaries. Such a tiny little world to be in. I don’t think of the world that way. I don’t really believe most of us do, but you’ve got to think outside what’s put in front of you. Like always, vigilantly. And I think if you look at any poet you admire, they’ve done that in their own way.
AM: Thank you so much for coming out to talk with us.
DS: Thanks for having me.