David St. John has received many prizes for poets, including several fellowships, and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His work has been published in literary magazines such as The New Yorker, the Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and Harper's. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, most recently The Face: A Novella in Verse, and a volume of essays, interviews, and reviews entitled Where the Angels Come Toward Us. St. John is presently completing a volume of poems entitled, The Auroras, and is co-editor of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. He currently teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Superstition Review: In an Interview in the Cortland Review with Charles Harper Webb you said, “All of the things that resist being said in our lives, poetry helps to lure out into language.” Could you elaborate on that?In what way is that true in your own poems?
David St. John: The things that matter most to us we tend to sequester, to keep private and hidden, whether they be past events or our true dreams. Writers have to find ways to bring these elements of who we are, or who we might me, more plainly into the light, that they might complicate the fabric of our work.
SR: What poets influenced you to write? And what are some of your favorite poems? Did these poems and poets help you develop your own style?
DSJ: Well, there were different poets at different times of course, and I certainly hope their poetry influenced and aided me. I've always loved French poets, and Latin American poets, as do most of the poets of my generation. I was lucky enough to meet many of the most distinguished American poets of the generation just before mine by a very young age, due to my undergraduate teacher Philip Levine and his friendships with these poets. This allowed me to recognize that poetry was, in deed, the life I wanted for myself.
SR: You teach poetry and cinema at USC. What is similar about these disciplines? What is dissimilar? Can you trace your interest in cinema to a specific film?
DSJ: Come take my class. Basically, films have the same fluid movement of consciousness; all of poetry is about the movement of consciousness in the world — into memory, and into desire (that is, the future).
SR: You've collaborated with the composer Donald Crockett. Could you discuss that process? How did it influence your view of music composition, and the composition of poetry? When you teach your Writer & Composer courses, what types of projects do you encourage your students to create?
DSJ: Don and I worked on a chamber opera drawn from my last book, The Face. We talked a lot about the dramatic arc of the opera, as the book itself consists of discrete sections that constellate toward an ending. In writing the libretto, I had to construct a dramatic moment of scenes that would work for the viewer. Also, it takes a long time to sing only a few words, so economy is everything in writing a libretto.
In class the poets write three assignments of various length and work in collaboration with the composers to bring them to performance level. We also have a group of singers attached to the class so that we can workshop the pieces.
SR: In the blog “How a Poem Happens” you mention, “I write slowly and poems usually go through about fifty revisions or so.” Could you describe that process a bit more? How do you keep track of so many revisions? What do you add and take away during the process?
DSJ: I obsessively read and reread for the music of the poem and to ensure that it has retained some sense of surprise for me, as well as some element of the pleasure that first brought me to the writing of the poem. I have hard copies of all of the revisions. In the end, I simply go with the version that makes me happiest.
SR: Has technology had an effect on your writing? Do you think that technology interferes with the traditional methods of reading and writing?
DSJ: I write poems in longhand first and then take them to the computer, which allows me to do those revisions far more efficiently than the typewriter could. Technology is a tool, like every other. Sometimes we like trendy tools, sometimes we like sticks and stones. I have a friend who writes and revises exclusively on a manual Hermes Rocket. It's a central aspect of who she is as a poet.
SR: What is your biggest struggle when writing? How do you go about overcoming it?
DSJ: The fact that there is never enough time. I don't overcome it; I live with it.
SR: What advice would you give to young poets about getting their work published?
DSJ: I'd say, as many have said before me, to focus on writing the poems that please you, that slowly emerge to feel increasingly like the poems no one but you could have written, the poems no one but you would have ever imagined writing. Style is everything; subject is ordinary. When you send poems out to magazines, try to keep your sense of humor. Send to those journals whose poems you admire and enjoy reading.
SR: As an editor of anthologies, journals, and prizes, you've had the privilege of reading a lot of poetry over the years—poems that are ultimately published and poems that are not. What type of disparity do you see between work that is ready for publication and work that is not? Do you see a trend of more people trying to publish work before it is ready?
DSJ: No, people have always not only tried to but actually published work before it is ready. But that is my own estimation; clearly, someone thought it was ready. So, my question is always more, What has the poet brought to this experience or meditation that is individually his or her own? That is, I look for poems that reveal the individual intelligences behind them.
SR: How many projects do you usually have going at one time. What are you working on now?
DSJ: I always have lots of things happening. At the moment I'm finishing up a ms. of poems entitled The Auroras. That's my main object of desire at the moment.