David Baker was born in 1954 in Maine and grew up in Missouri. He received degrees from Central Missouri State University and University of Utah and has taught at Kenyon College, Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan. Currently he holds the Thomas Fordham Chair of Poetry at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, and serves as Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review. He teaches also in Warren Wilson's MFA program. Baker's twelve books include Never-Ending Birds, (poems, Norton, 2009), Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2007, Graywolf), and Midwest Eclogue (poems, 2005, Norton). Baker has received honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Society of America, Society of Midland Authors, and others.
Haley Larson, Poetry Editor, provides a thoughtful interview with poet David Baker. She writes, “I was thrilled at the idea of getting to know David Baker's work and processes a little more intimately, having been introduced to his poems and essay on craft in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes by Ryan Van Cleave. I scoured Mr. Baker's impressive publishing history, from his first book Laws of the Land to his more recent work, including a poem that shares the title of his forthcoming book, Never-Ending Birds. His work has an air of gentility and yet intensity, a mesmerizing balance. Balance lives throughout his work, in syntactical complexities and lyrical ease. These qualities coalesce to create enveloping experiences for his readers. I become lost in Mr. Baker's poems, in a manner having nothing to do with geography. Mr. Baker was gracious enough to answer my many questions as well as share his poems with us. This opportunity has been a highlight of my internship, and I thank David Baker for his time.”
Superstition Review: The characters of your poems—speakers and subjects—often include people from your life, even family. Discuss any struggles you face in writing characters that are close to you. What sort of freedom or constraint does the inability to directly identify with the speaker create?
David Baker: Haley, first of all, thanks so much for taking your time to ask these thoughtful questions. I appreciate your kindness.
And yes, sometimes the characters in my poems are taken from people in my life; sometimes I use real names, sometimes I write about people from long ago, sometimes I invent. Mostly, of course, characters in my poems are composites—pieces of this person or that person, mixed with any fictive element the poem might need. Well, not any element. I try to retain some kind of balanced sense of what is autobiographical and what is fictive. I cannot write about my daughter and call her Katie and endow that character with features my “real” daughter doesn't have; that might seem, at least in our little local environment, invasive. On the other hand, I do feel at liberty to invent in my poems, to invent people or events or circumstances. It's about being true to the poem, to the experience within the poem, more than being factual about one's own life. I want my readers to read a poem and say, well, that seems deeply true to what I know of the world and human behavior. The truth is in the realization of a poem's narrative and style and world-of-its-own.
SR: Neighbors and townspeople dot many of your poems from The Truth about Small Towns. What entices your writing to these sometimes eccentric characters? Do you find that smaller towns are more defined by their residents than are cities?
DB: I don't think of the characters in my poems as especially eccentric. They are characters in a poem, and they behave as predictably and erratically as people in my neighborhood, I think. I guess people are eccentric, period. I am drawn to landscapes and portraits when I go to art galleries, as I am drawn to village portraiture in my poems. I can't write about crowds; I don't like the blurry necessity of rendering big groups of people—you know, the generic throng. I prefer paying attention to one person at a time, or a couple, or a small group—a family, a few neighbors.
The neighborhood is a fascinating social group to me. We live side by side with people for years who are not our family but who, sometimes, become close to us and important to our lives and wellbeing. Neighborhoods are features of little villages, like the village where I live (Granville, Ohio, population about 3,000), but also of the biggest of urban centers. When I visit New York City, for instance, I have a familiar neighborhood orbit of about 10 blocks in the east village. That's where my girlfriend Page lives, right across the street from the Strand bookstore, and where I know many of the shopkeepers and shops, residents and yahoos and plant life, the whole clattery environment.
I don't know enough about big cities, though, to say if small towns are more defined by their residents than big cities. I do think neighborhoods are defined by their residents.
SR: You often write about America, particularly the Midwest. How does identity factor into your work? Explain the challenges of including political themes. As a well-known writer, what sort of pressure do you feel to be politically vocal or politically neutral?
DB: I have lived in the Midwest for most of my life. Exceptions: I was born in Maine and lived there for a year, and I went to graduate school out West for four years. Otherwise, Missouri and Ohio have been my homes. I do pay attention to where I live. I try to attend to the landscape as well as to the people, to the animals as well as the weather and economy. The Midwest has not been well rendered in much poetry; people tend to sentimentalize the Midwest (you know, the quaint and down-home and the salt-of-the-earth) or to make it a large blurred generic nonentity. Both versions are hugely wrong.
To attend to people's lives and work, their families and jobs, is a political theme, yes? To try to trace to decay of wild space and green space and wilderness is a political theme. To be faithful and accurate to these things is political. I don't want my poems to try to change votes, though; I'm not that kind of political writer. I want my poems to try to change minds or at least to help minds—mine included!—to grow. I'm that kind.
SR: In a review of After the Reunion, Ben Downing touted you as an "unabashedly earnest poet." From where does this earnestness stem? How difficult is it to pay homage to both the truth of your poems and the poetic elements?
DB: Ben Downing meant that as an insult. I won't talk here about Ben Downing's own preference—though, I wonder, if one is not earnest, does that mean one is then disingenuous or silly or frivolous? I don't think of my tone as earnest as much as I do authentic. At least that's my aspiration, to a kind of authenticity and accuracy—both of rendering a thing and of creating a thing. I am sick to death of poets these days for whom tone is a sandbox, a litter box, a Face Book blurb, and those for whom the poem is a device by which to fool, or show off, or display one's great sarcasm and mere wit or profound learning, or exercise one's snide meanness.
It is tremendously difficult to pay homage to truth and poetic style. But then, it is tremendously difficult to write a good poem. A poem, at least to me, is a made thing composed of our sense of truth and accuracy as well as our capability to invent and discovery. I keep hearing these tired dichotomies: either a poem reveals a thing or invents a thing; either a poem illuminates or transforms the world. I understand those differences, but I reject the either/or paradigm. A poem, or poetry, had better have the capacities for all of these manners of rendering.
SR: As a fellow Midwesterner, I enjoy the sincerity of your representations of this region. What about this region impacts your work and keeps it focused here? How do you think your own work or ideas about poetry would have developed differently had you grown up in another part of the United States?
DB: I don't know any other way. I grew up in the Midwest, and live here now, and my language and my sense of weather and landscape and vocation all derive from here. I just have no idea how it would be otherwise, nor how I would be if I had grown up elsewhere. One's family, one's sense of belonging or not belonging, one's friends, all the things that go into a life, of course, make that life. I don't know if my representations are sincere—sincerity is a feature of tone, right?—but I do hope they are accurate and complex.
I am influenced by dialect, language, the idiom of people in a certain situation. I am also influenced by landscape—the way a willow grows down beside shallow water, like a sycamore, or the way morels come up under the same wild crabapple every spring, or the way a kingfisher will seem to fall from a limb before sweeping back up into the air. I try to pay attention.
SR: I was introduced to your work in an anthology for my advanced creative writing course,Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. The poems you selected for this book all involve a concept of "double-exposure" or layering within the poem. When you begin a poem, how realized are the connecting layers, if at all? Discuss a time when you were surprised by the associations that evolved from your writing.
DB: I really like that anthology in part because the editor (Ryan Van Cleave) invited us to select our own poems and in part because of the essays we were asked to write to accompany the poems and address our decisions for picking them.
I do think the tactic of double- or multiple-exposure is a fruitful one, at least for me. It's a way of building into a poem a manner of complexity as well as a sense of history, of both difference and connection. I am drawn to poems where I feel contention and tension rather than purity or serenity. Even serene is more powerfully felt, I think, when it's measured by the anxious.
When I write a poem, I try to wait a while before I start typing. By wait, I mean days, weeks, months. I take notes. I gather phrases and images and narratives, and I do not hesitation to blend or mix the notes for one poem with another. Sometimes the layers are fairly fully connected as I start writing; that is, I see some of the ways I want them to overlap. And sometimes, more often, I find those connections as I write, stumble on them, invent them. I want a poem to cross itself, back and again. I am always surprised by associations in a poem. Always. Who said that? "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." That was Frost, I think.
SR: In the same book, you dub Walt Whitman as your "hero." Describe your introduction to Whitman's work. Who else has influenced your work? How so?
DB: I don't think I read much Whitman in high school. Well, I didn't read much poetry in high school. But in college I took a course called “Whitman and Dickinson.” It was a graduate course but I finagled my way into it when I was a junior. I fell in love with them both. They appear so utterly different, and yet I found and I continue to find so many points of kinship and compatibility between Whitman and Dickinson. Of course Whitman never read Dickinson, and Dickinson once remarked to her pen pal Higginson that “I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful—.”
Whitman stays with me, and guides me, and shapes me. His inclusiveness, his sense of expanse and curiosity, his sense of acceptance and receptivity—I know of no other poet in our language who has been as sympathetic and soulful as Walt Whitman, and precious few who have been able to expand our notion of what a poem is as Walt Whitman. He's a great instance of something I said earlier; here is a poet for whom creation and transcription are equally profound; illumination and transformation; journalistic accuracy and sheer magic. I turn to Whitman's work when I need solace and when I wish for adventure, a kind of courage. I rarely read the biographies of my favorite poets. But I have read dozens about Whitman, for some reason. Maybe it's connected to that line of his: “who touches this [book] touches a man.” The life and the art are so inseparable.
SR: In your poem "Never-Ending Birds," the ten-syllable lines and inventive syntax create such control over the pace of the poem and even single lines. This is well illustrated in the final line: "Dear girl. They will not-it's we who do-end." Where does this poem fit on a timeline of completion with "Benton 's Clouds" and "Forced Bloom," which also follow ten-syllable lines? What sorts of revision challenges lie in writing with syllabic constraints? Regarding this type of poem, discuss the difficulties that lie in revising lines (or discarding some) that work syllabically but don't live up to your hopes for the poem.
DB: That's a great question. “Never-Ending Birds” is a new poem, and it serves now as the title poem of my new book to be published in October 2009. I wrote “ Benton 's Clouds” in 1997 and “Forced Bloom” in about 2000.
I love the rigor of the syllabic line and poem. It is a form of discipline and measurement, but it does not compel a certain rhythm. I love that contradiction and juxtaposition. Typically in English when we measure a line, we end up with a pretty predictable rhythm or meter. But I like to double-cross that expectation—to measure the syllables but to baffle the regularity of the rhythm. It's another way of creating, inside a poem, the poem's own argument with its procedures. Its useful anxiety. That is to say, in writing a poem in ten-syllable lines, I might try to construct one line with three heavy accents followed by a line with, say, six.
And you're right, too: all of this should operate in some integrated way with the poem's syntax and tone and narrative and musicality.
As far as revising. Well, of course, if I snip away some syllables I need to replace them. But I have learned this about revising: it is often more productive to look widely as you revise. That is, when I cut out four syllables, I don't necessarily try to replace them in the precise place where I cut them out, but rather I'll look more widely in the sentence and the lines to give myself room to let it grow back well. And sometimes, of course, I have revised a syllabic poem right out of its syllabic form! Oh well.
SR: I am intrigued by the parallels between "Separation" and "Patriotism." Both poems revolve around groups of people observing fire or fireworks with a twisted sort of infatuation. In "Patriotism," fireworks are equated to war and destruction, and in "Separation," the fire is equated to tragedy—an interesting commentary on our flawed humanity and obsession with tragedy. Discuss the risk of overgeneralization when speaking about groups versus a singular subject. What is important to keep in mind when aiming to create poems that speak to a wide audience? How has being a writer influenced your inclination to observe, even in ordinary situations?
DB: I'm not sure how fully connected these two poems are, beyond the trope of fire and of witness. “Patriotism” intends to be a fairly overt political poem; I find the 4th of July to be our most revolting holiday, a national celebration of military might and warfare. I'm sorry. I feel grateful for my liberties and the sacrifices of others, but I am horrified by war and our country's own peculiar zeal for domination.
I wanted to ground that very large impulse in a tiny narrative. In this poem, the little tragedy of the father who killed his daughter provides a counterpoint to the enthusiasm and display and patriotic zest of the festival. Our big ambitions keep being undercut by our many, many little tragedies. That's one way, perhaps, I tried to mitigate the risk of overgeneralization, as you wisely suggested.
In “Separation,” the narrative is fairly different. A speaker's on the move, not static; and the spectacle is of destruction, not ostensible celebration. The farmhouse or barn has burned in the night, and the speaker speeds by, on his way away from his lover or his ex-lover. I guess both poems are about decay and disappointment. I will leave that to others to think about more clearly.
SR: A number of your poems include images of stars, clouds, or storms as well as numerous mentions of birds. What does the Midwestern sky represent for you? What traits have such an open space contributed to your work?
DB: I don't know if I think of the sky as the Midwestern sky. But it is, I guess, the part of the sky I see from my spot in the Midwest. I love the night, I love the stars, the way the sky pulls me out and out, as I imagine all that mass and matter flying farther apart, and as I imagine all that much greater emptiness into which it flies. I said before, I like weather, I like watching and feeling the changes of wind and rain and cold. I guess I have retained some of the farmer-genes of my older family, those folks for whom the weather was life and death, food and hunger, as well as balm and comfort. These things are all part of the bigger single environment where I—where each of us—live. I try to pay attention to the new leaves and the old bones, to the way the wind ruffles through a big tree, the way a sparrow in a pool of water shakes its head first, its tail last, and puffs up its chest-feathers to let them dry for a few seconds in the sun.
SR: In your poem "Mushrooms," I was held at the lines, "...we are another way / the earth remembers itself." So much of your work reveres the natural world, often contrasted by how we perceive it, disrupt it, or become it. How does this beautiful idea from your poem relate to your perception of nature?
DB: Now that's an old poem, from my first book! So we are talking 1980 or so. I like those lines, too, or what they represent. I remember reading Robert Penn Warren at the time I was writing this poem and being captivated by his sense of history-personal, cultural, and natural. For Warren history is embedded in part in the memory of the natural world. The natural world is a form of memory.
It is hard for me to think of myself outside the natural world. Until three or four years ago I lived and worked on ten acres outside Granville, Ohio. My ex-wife still lives there, and I go back often—every couple of weeks—to work in the woods. I carved paths out of bramble and vine and gnarly Osage orange, and made two fording places for the creek, and we planted lots of trees and replanted dozens, hundreds, of wildflowers and rare plants. On two sides of the property, the hundreds-acre farms were being sold, divided into plots, and “developed” into a kind of rural suburb. Animal habitats and the native homes for all kinds of plants just got wiped out, flattened. Waterways were destroyed. So we saved what we could and transplanted. I work there still. I know many of the stones, all of the trees, I know when something moves or is born, I know where the deer go to die. I remember these things. And I think they remember me.
SR: There is a peacefulness to your work, a somber sincerity often brilliantly reflected in the natural beauty of the Midwest. Describe how two different yet recurring themes in your work—loss and love—relate to this tranquility.
DB: Loss and love are, I am afraid, not different. They are so overlapping it's hard to think of them as separate at all. What we love, we will lose. Period, fact, truth. And those things that we lose, the ones important to us, we continue to love even as we remember and grieve. I find an endless austere intelligence—bodily intelligence, sensual and unforgiving—in the ever-bound relationship of loving and losing. It is also the secret grief and joy of writing. We write what we lose. And as we write, we replace a thing for the words for that thing. In essence we are erasing the physical presence of that thing by our symbolic representations of it. To write a thing, we must relinquish our hold on that thing. Even as we cling, we let go. As we write, we erase, even ourselves.
SR: You currently chair and teach in the Creative Writing program at Denison University and have held other teaching positions simultaneously. How difficult is it to divide your teaching between multiple programs? How are your teaching methods similar or different between programs? Do you see a different creative energy among students in various programs?
DB: My quiet life is sort of nutty. I have taught at a number of places though my permanent job is at Denison, where I teach undergraduate writing and literature courses. I have loved my time and students at Denison. And I have been grateful to teach good graduate students here and there, and grateful to continue to teach on occasion in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson. I can't do all those at once. Add to this, I am Poetry Editor of a literary journal, and a father (my daughter's 17), and a friend, and a homemaker. Whatever I am doing, I feel guilty for the six thousand other things I am not doing. In this, I am like everyone else.
I don't much think about the differences of my methodology among the programs, but rather the different kinds of learning that first-year undergraduates prosper with compared to those of advanced graduate students. The best thing about undergraduates is that they can actually be taught. Graduate students often have too firm a sense of possession of their capabilities, though of course the best of them are phenomenal, grownup, and feel more like colleagues than students.
I don't like to compare beyond that. I try to pay attention to each class, not each program; and to each student, not each age-level.
SR: You mention in another interview that you began writing in college. What led you to pursue your chosen degree and a career in poetry? Can you describe a particular assignment that got you "hooked" on writing? What other paths of study or professions did you consider?
DB: I was the first in our family to go to college. My dad didn't graduate from high school—he lied about his age to sign up with the Merchant Marines, in 1944, at seventeen—or at least, he didn't graduate until much later when he took the GED; I remember when he passed his test. So, knowing nothing, I figured that I should major in pre-law. That lasted about two weeks. And the guy across the hall from me kept bringing home all these great books, and getting credit for reading and writing about them; and so the idea of an English major was born in my mind. I took one lit class, then another, and then declared a double major in English and education, and graduated in three years with my high-school teaching certificate.
I had one writing teacher as an undergrad, Bob Jones, at Central Missouri State University. He gave no assignments. He let us write. He sat in his office all day and I dropped by constantly with a new poem. He read them and gave me books to read. I read the books and wrote more. That was it.
I wanted to teach. In fact, I started teaching when I was about 12 years old—teaching guitar. I did consider playing guitar professionally. But I played so much as a teenager and college student that, really, the idea of doing that forever seemed too tiring, too many endless nights and roaring ears and too much smoke.
I did not consider poetry a profession. Still don't. I am awfully lucky to have two vocations that I love, and one pays the bills and one lets me sing.
SR: As a high school English instructor, how difficult was it to get students interested in poetry? How did you divide your teaching between contemporary and classic poetry?
DB: I had no more trouble teaching poetry than I did teaching anything else. High school students don't like poetry because it is not taught well to them. I had more trouble teaching grammar, to be honest, until I really bore down and learned all about linguistics and the history of the language. I can still parse and diagram with the best of them.
I found that high school students could more quickly learn to love poetry if they were exposed to new poetry, not just old poetry, and if they felt that poetry was still vital and alive and in the world. So I typed out and made tons of those blue ditto-master copies, and then tons of Xeroxes, bringing in poems from my books of contemporary poets. And of course, if I believed poetry to be lovely and powerful, they could too. If I did not—if any teacher does not—then that shows instantly. Teachers who teach their students merely to seek out the theme do a disservice. Teachers who teach students to find “the deep hidden meaning” do a disservice. Teachers who are tentative about their own sense of poetry; teachers who are intimidated; teachers who do not read poetry in their own personal lives—these are the ones who can do a real disservice to the art. It is not different at the college level, is it? Of course no one kills poetry and the arts these days, at the college level, more than the theorist.
SR: I think it is safe to assume a writer develops his or her craft through undergraduate and graduate programs. However, as a teacher of various ages and writing levels, are there any positive attributes that fade through formal instruction? Basically, is there a quality to high school age writing that is lost as we develop?
DB: Yes, I think one of the best contributions of college and graduate-school education for a poet is learning more about craft, as well as working in the presence and company—at least for a while—of like-driven souls. But a poet should retain a sense of wonder, newness, invention, play, error, misbehavior, eruption, no matter how old that poet is, no matter how much school and “discipline.” These are some of the features that can make a young person's poetry so vibrant, even if messy. Sometimes I think that lyric poetry is an adolescent's art. Or better, an adult who retains a sense of the child. I do not think, however, that there are positive attributes that fade through formal training, as you put it. On the contrary, form and history are freeing. Formal training can be, it is, the avenue to surprise, liberation, and invention. You don't really know the dimensions and possibilities of a free-verse line until you know the flexibility and demands of accentual-syllabics; nor do you have the fullest sense of musicality inside a line until you understand end-rhyme. Learning does not make us lesser, though academia can.
SR: Discuss a rewarding moment of your teaching career. Discuss the difficulties of teaching a creative discipline.
DB: No single moment stands out. I love each day of teaching. Okay, I love most days. Teaching a creative discipline is not difficult. For me, I should think that teaching an uncreative discipline is impossible.
SR: You have a new book coming out later this year. Does your forthcoming book have a theme? How did you approach this book differently from your most recent book, Midwest Eclogue? At this point in your career, is the sense of accomplishment or satisfaction at completing a book still as thrilling as it was after completing your first book?
DB: I am downright amazed that people read my poems. I am so happy that people want to print them in magazines and gather them into books. For these things I continue to be grateful and inspired.
My forthcoming book probably does have a theme. That's all I'll say about that. Again, such things are for others to claim. I don't think about theme. Theme is a tyrant; it is a bully invented by bureaucrats and clerks. I think about story, and song, and action, and event, and phrase, and sound, and movement, and syntax, and passion, and drama.
SR: Discuss the first poem you wrote. How old were you? Whom did you show it to? When you finish a poem now, who is granted its first read?
DB: I wrote a few poems when I was a kid. I read James Whitcomb Riley and wrote some wretched verse. In 11 th grade, on assignment during poetry week, I wrote this poem, called “Truth” and quoted in entirety: “Life is like a trombone. / It has its ins and outs.” I kid you not. That was it. I wasn't interested in poetry. I was interested in the guitar. I showed that poem to Miss Erna Raithel, my teacher, who later became my boss when I returned to my high school to teach for two years. She never did like me.
I show my poems to a few friends. The list changes. Lately I have shown nearly-finished poems to Linda Gregerson, Stan Plumly, Meghan O'Rourke, Page Starzinger, Rosanna Warren. Sometimes I show students. I don't act hurriedly about letting a poem out into the air. I write and write, and sit on poems, and show them when I am done—which is to say, when I don't know what else to do or when I have exhausted myself. Each of these readers provides something different from the others. At other times other dear friends, and strangers, have helped me very much. I used to show everything to Terry Hummer. For several years I showed everything to Marilyn Hacker. Ann Townsend. Rod Santos . Miller Williams. And I look at lots of people's poems to give them my reactions as they work toward finishing their own poems. Our very isolated work needs a crew of helpers sometimes.
SR: I read that you are a musician. Are you still the jazz guitarist of the Rick Brunetto Band? How does music influence your work? Do you play any other instruments or venture into any other artistic realms?
DB: I started playing the guitar when I was eight. Eventually I took up Dixieland banjo, bass guitar, a touch of mandolin, baritone horn, valve trombone. But guitar is my instrument. I played with Rick's band for about a year when I had a year-long sabbatical. I played with lots of bands when I was young. I played solo guitar in Italian restaurants, I played with guitar duos in hotel lounges, I played for Eagle's clubs and college formals and VFWs and bar mitvahs and weddings and every other kind of social gathering.
I suspect that music is the biggest influence on my poems. When I stopped playing guitar every day, and for money, I think I just laid down one instrument and picked up another—the pen. I think about rhythm and sound and phrasing and pace and intonation and all those musical elements all the time in poems. But of course, it is not news to say that poetry is the most musical of the written forms, is it? Poe said that as well as any critic ever has.
Sometimes I think that I see poetry in two fairly different fields. I see poetry and poets who are most influenced by music, and poetry and poets who are most influenced by painting. These are radically different art forms, and perhaps that might help us see the great difference, for instance, between Frost and Cummings. Or Merwin and Ashbery.
SR: As an author or editor of three books of criticism in the poetry field, how does this "critic" relate to and/or differ from the one that revises your own work?
DB: I am a critic when I write about other people's work. I am a grouch when I revise my own.
SR: You serve as the Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review. What led you to this role? What do you look for when selecting work for publication?
DB: The poetry editorship of The Kenyon Review is a great honor. It's a magazine with a long history (founded in 1939 by John Crowe Ransom) and a very exciting present. Editing is, in itself, an honorable act, in my sense of things. It provides me a way to be a citizen in the alternate world of literature—to give something to others, to provide a shape and forum for the work of many other emerging and established writers. I feel lucky for the opportunity that people provide for me to engage with their work, and I feel lucky for the chance to select and shape and publish that work to a relatively wide audience of The Kenyon Review.
In graduate school at the University of Utah, I worked as Poetry Editor and then Editor of Quarterly West, and I have worked as a reader or consultant for several other magazines. One of the things that brought me here to Ohio was The Kenyon Review; in 1983 I accepted a teaching position at Kenyon College, in Gambier, and began working as a fiction reader for the magazine. And since then, through editorial changes, I have stayed as a staff member and, now, as Poetry Editor.
Writing poems is solitary and self-reflecting. Editing gives me a sense of the public, a wider and louder sense of social belonging and vocation. I see so many people's newest and most exciting work—and I see the successes and failures of that work.
I look for brilliance, surprise, drama, passion, and some kind of clarity—whether clarity of feeling, or narrative, or occasion, or the clarity of a complex, perhaps uncertain engagement with the world or a little piece of the world. I want a poem to show me what I didn't know till now. My students tend to appreciate poems, as they say, that they can relate to. I tend these days to look for poems that I can't relate to, at first, a poem that comes toward me as I come toward it.
Editing poetry for The Kenyon Review is one way I feel connected to a wide world of imagination and creativity even here, in my little village, in Ohio.