The Hound caught up with Don Share via email this fall to discuss Poetry Magazine and the perception that there is only one kind of poetry, or, one kind of poetry that matters.
LH: Don, it seems to me that your arrival at Poetry coincided with a massive campaign to broaden the scope of the magazine. Am I reading that right? Are those two events directly related?
DS: There wasn’t any kind of campaign, no. That you’ve noticed a broadening of the magazine’s scope is certainly a tribute to Chris Wiman, who is an incredible editor. I hope that I’ve brought something or other new or to the mix, but there’s nothing programmatic beyond the vision and tradition we’ve inherited from our predecessors and try to live up to.
LH: We have discussed my impression of the magazine as being resistant to poems that break visually with formal conventions, and as you suggested I did go through and scan the issues over about a twelve-year period. This confirmed both of us as being right to some extent–yes there were poems that broke that visual restriction, but also not that many.
DS: Most of the poems people send adhere to conventions, as you would expect, so if there’s any resistance to breaking convention it’s not ours, it’s the poets’. As Pound put it, “all arts tend to decline into the stereotype; and at all times the mediocre tend or try, semi-consciously or unconsciously, to obscure the fact that the day’s fashion is not the immutable.” That said, we go to great lengths to accommodate poems that present challenges; some examples are the visual poetry portfolio, the fold-out pages we designed for Jorie Graham’s work, the space we came up with for Gary Sullivan’s poetry comics and the flarf and conceptual writing which appeared in the July/August 2009 issue… I’m not sure why one kind of poem should be better than another by virtue of what it looks like on a page, though. Some conventional-looking poems are deeply, wonderfully subversive, while some ostensibly experimental work is actually thoroughly conventional. In any case, Chris and I work poem-by-poem, and neither of us has any particular preference when it comes to the appearance of a poem on the page. What we look for is a poem – however it’s done – that works as well as possible on its own terms, and that we get something out of it that we hadn’t expected. I’m pretty sure that’s what our readers would like to see, as well.
LH: Still, I get the impression that flarf or conceptual, or avant garde poetry appears as a folio, set off from the more traditional verse, not as part of it. I also get the sense that diverse voices are found as bloggers, but not necessarily as contributors of poetry and essays etc. Is that a function of conversation? Are those topics simply not coming up?
DS: No, that feature was set off because it was guest-curated (by Kenny Goldsmith), which made it self-contained. And it was everyone’s hope to introduce these two kinds of poems to readers who may not have known about them before. Since then, in any case, we’ve published, in the “regular” section of poems, work by Jordan Davis, who was in the feature – and the door is (as it always has been) open to the others, if they want to be in the magazine again. So there was no programmatic setting off. We really don’t conceive of the poems we have in our pages as being either traditional or non-traditional. Other people may find that kind of taxonomy to be useful, but it wouldn’t be much help to us as editors.
LH: On one of your earlier Poetry podcasts you included a conversation with a woman, in a nursing home I believe. Her reading group wrote the magazine to complain about some of the poems included that they didn’t understand. I love that you and Christian Wiman called the woman directly and conversed about the poem. Do you see the magazine as having a political, social and perhaps even pedagogical element to it? Are you working to broaden poetry’s readership?
DS: We certainly want to be – and increasingly are – in dialogue with readers (through the podcasts, letters to the editors – a section Chris Wiman brought to the magazine, breaking with tradition to do so – the Harriet blog, and so on). But no, I don’t see anything pedagogical about it – that would assume there’s some curriculum we aim to be teaching people, and that’s not what we do. I think the readership for poetry actually is broad, and is underestimated all the time. As for political and social elements… everything you can think of has those. But there are no particular political or social positions we want to impose on readers. If anything, it’s our readers, and the poets who send in work, who are teaching us things every day.
LH: We’ve discussed the relative difficulties of comments streams and blog posts before, and I know that Harriet has made various attempts to reign in some of the more verbose streams…do you believe discussions that arise from those streams are valuable? Productive?
DS: The magazine folks don’t run the blog, though Fred and I post there from time to time, and I comment on guest bloggers’ posts when I have something to say. I hope that discussions on Harriet are valuable; but we’ve learned that blogs comment boxes don’t always bring out the best in people.
LH: You have an incredibly generous approach to poetry. I see that not only on your work in Harriet, but on your own blog, where you are constantly pulling textual material from the past, and from a range of contemporary sources, to broaden the discussion of poetry. Where do you find models for your particular approach, not only to poetry, but to community?
DS: I really appreciate your saying this! But you know, my model is not to have any models! If you put a poem or a book in front of me, I want to read it and think about it: I want to see what happens. If we all feel this way, then despite our differences, we’re a community.
LH: We sometimes forget that those who write about and edit poetry are also poets—do you have any advice for the poet editor?
DS: I wish I had some advice, but as Allan Sherman put it, good advice is just the same as bad advice! I suppose the only thing I can say is don’t do in your own work what you object to when you see it in others’. Fortunately, editing isn’t about me, or my own work; my own poems have to fare as best they can…
LH: Can we end with a poem from you?
DS: It’s kind of you to ask! Here goes…
Greetings to the red-eyed clouds
from this, the house that sits
on the mound and faces the corner
that marriage built, where wine
was drunk and semen flooded
the egg which lodged in the uterus
that built the daughter who greeted
the man and the woman here
in the mound at the corner in the house
that education built, and you
know from home-schooling
that the woman can be the teacher
and the man can be the tender child
and ditto the actual infant, depending
on her sex, dependent on love and
income; oh our dear dependent
is ruining the new chair in the house
that nested ambition built, along
with naked sense, and the beak
of god, the job of love, the hurt
of older homes, the hang
of it generally, the hands of pain,
the haze of Zoloft and the pudge
of Prozac, the twins of failed
marriages that manage to live on
in the ardor of our redone arbor
here in the house that books built,
that Yiddish and the Book of Common
Prayer built, that Presbyterian pride
built, that pogroms built, that blue
and white collars built, that Bildungs-
romans built, that the Biltmores built,
that mad dogs bayed at, that the baby
was born in that the cat bit and mouse
whispered within, over which, mortgaged,
the thunder caught its tongue and brought
great downpours upon while the coffee boiled,
while the paper, delivered late again, said:
We fight the terrorists abroad
so we don’t have to fight them at home.
DON SHARE is Senior Editor of Poetry. His books include Squandermania; Union; Seneca in English; translations of Miguel Hernández, I Have Lots of Heart; and the forthcoming critical edition, The Poems of Basil Bunting. Previously he was Curator of the Poetry Room at Harvard University and Poetry Editor of Harvard Review. He keeps a blog and he has a great sense of humour.