Poet Michael Hettich has provided four fascinating interviews for Hole In The Head Review in 2021. Here they are:
I first became fully acquainted with J.D. Whitney’s poetry about six months ago when a mutual friend, the poet Bob Arnold, introduced us—so to speak--through email. Though I’d been vaguely familiar with his name for at least twenty years, I owned none of his many books and had never spent time with his work. I did know that Bob held J.D. and his writing in the highest esteem and had even published a book of his selected poems, Sweeping the Broom Shorter (2014), through his Longhouse imprint. Since Bob is one of our most perspicacious and astute readers of poetry, and since he and I correspond on an almost-daily basis, I’m surprised now at how long it took me to come to J.D.’s work. After he and I exchanged some of the books we’d written and I got a chance to really read his poems, I was even more deeply surprised, for here was one of the freshest and original voices I’d come across in years, a writer whose poems were interesting, profound, moving, empathetic and downright funny. In short, his work gave me the kind of enjoyment I rarely find in contemporary poetry.
JD Whitney’s poems gleam with revelation; many of them have shivered me like moments of grace. Spare and unadorned, they employ the American language with an exactness and discernment reminiscent of that essential line of American poetry that moves from Crane to Williams, to Levertov and Creeley and the other (so-called) Black Mountain poets. Beyond its sense of line and reliance on the objective eye, though, his work is profoundly unlike anything these master-poets accomplished. Whitney’s work is in fact most distinguished from anyone else’s by what I can only call his humor: a loving embrace of his fellow creatures great and small, in all their warts and warbling, an embrace that, even in its smallest songs, reminds us of the largeness and variety of our world—and reminds us as well that the whole world in all its various parts is alive and singing. While much of his work is indeed funny, its humor is gentle and embracing, deepened by compassion and tenderness. His gaze is outward: gentle, humor-filled, forgiving, empathetic and alert. His best poems cleanse the spirit, awaken the senses, and fill his readers with gratitude.
This interview was conducted by email in December, 2020, between my home in Black Mountain, NC and JD’s home in Norman, OK. The poems gathered at the end of the interview present a sampling of JD Whitney’s poetry, which first started appearing back in 1964.
1. First, to get us started, please talk a bit about your background: Childhood, education, significant experiences. When and how did you come to your engagement with writing and specifically with writing poetry? Was there a particular moment you recall when you felt, this is what I want to do?
I was born and raised in southern California (got to know horned toads and trapdoor spiders as a kid); then moved to Detroit area for my teenage years (played with ham radio, hot rods, motorcycles). I was formally educated at Henry Ford Community College, the University of Michigan—Dearborn (B.A.), and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor (M.A.). While an undergraduate, I met the poems of Stephen Crane and never quite recovered. Though I’ve never taken a creative writing course, I’ve learned by persistent reading and practice.
2. Did you have any particular mentors during your apprenticeship in poetry? How did you find your direction (so to speak)?
At the new and small University of Michigan, Dearborn, I was writing lame limericks in the lunchroom, making me the closest thing to a “student poet” on campus, so it fell to me to hang out with visiting poets between their afternoon talks and evening readings. I had the good fortune to spend that time with Denise Levertov, Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, and Robert Creeley—who made a life of poetry seem real and possible to me for the first time. After trying to be them in my early attempts, I discovered it wasn’t working.
3. When and where did you “come of age” as a poet—at least so far as you understand the term?
I don’t understand that concept as a turning point but rather as an ongoing process. I’m still turning.
4. Can you describe your writing “practice”? Do you write every day? How has your practice of poetry evolved over the years?
I write now and then, on and off, here and there—without any particular schedule, trying always to be attentive and welcoming to poems when they come to visit. I think my poetry has evolved though my practice has not.
5. Your sense of line is beautiful and striking—and far more modulated and nuanced than that of any other living poet I can think of. It is reminiscent of such poets as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov—and even of early Anselm Hollo—but it is clearly your own. Would you please talk a bit about how you understand the line—how you approach it?
I’ve been clearly influenced by the poets you mention, but my approach to lining is not something I consciously think about in any useful sense. I try to HEAR the poems as I write and then try to line them by “scoring” them on the page, as Charles Olson described it in his “Projective Verse” essay and as others have exemplified. The stepped lining allows me to indicate the lengths of silences as the poem moves. I hope to help a reader hear the poems as I do.
6. A few well-known quotes: “No ideas but in the thing itself,” (WCW); “Form is never more than the extension of content” (Creeley/Olson). Explicate, from your personal perspective. And as a follow-up: How would you define “organic form.”
WCW’s “the thing itself” has been an important lesson to me: that paying close attention to the objects and phenomena of being alive is more rooted and fruitful than interpretation, generalization, abstraction. But all these mental processes, important as they are in some contexts, are brain-directed, often leaving the body as a bored bystander. As for “organic form,” I hear that as acknowledging the need for the writer to stay out of the poem’s way. It knows where it’s going.
7. One of the most wonderful qualities in your work is the humor expressed there, gentle and joyous and what I want to call spiritually playful. It is also the kind of humor—the rarest kind, to my mind—that opens up the world, as it opens our eyes and hearts to the vivid particularities of all beings. Although this life-affirming humor is evident in all your work, it is perhaps best seen in your Sd, and in the two wonderful All My Relations collections. I’m curious about how you came to this embracing humor, so different from the disjunct irony so much in fashion now.
Again, it’s not so much a matter of conscious choice as it is a function of how I seem to understand the world and my place in it. I love the playful/mischievous energy of young creatures, the life-joy, the Coyote spirit all around us. Darkness, too; we can all laugh even when the lights are out, sometimes.
8. When Louise Gluck won the Nobel Prize in literature, you remarked (to me) that though she was certainly deserving of the award, you thought Gary Snyder should have won. I tend to agree, for my own reasons. What are yours?
Her work is wonderful, fully deserving of such reward. Snyder, though, ought to be a worldwide hero for all of the environmental perceptions and teachings offered, in his big-hearted way, long before most of us Euro-Americans came to such awareness. But his value goes well beyond the merely topical because of his writing skill; his energy, economy, and specificity are examples I’ve long loved and learned from.
9. For the most part you eschew “confessional” poetry, and I don’t find many examples of the explicitly autobiographical in your work. Your “I” is most often an “eye” rather than a psychology. Is this a conscious decision on your part, or does it just show where your interests lie?
It shows where my “interests lie.” I most like poems that present a definite OUTward focus. There are so many things more interesting in the world than the self.
10. I find many other animals –animals other than human—in your work. These animals always come across as “themselves” rather than as projections of your own human psyche. You obviously watch things very carefully, and you open your heart to the beingness of the non-human. Can you discuss this way of living in poetry?
I’ve been deeply affected, “transformed,” even, by the perception of many Native people(s) and tribal cultures, often represented by the Lakota saying “Mitakuye Oyasin.” A rough English approximation is “we are all related,” suggesting that all creatures and so-called “natural phenomena” are sentient, alive, and deserving to have their personhood recognized. I think the distinction between us humans and “lower forms of life” is a self-serving delusion. So I just spend a lot of time with my neighbors, trying to listen and learn.
11. I know your wife is a Robert Frost scholar. Has Frost had any influence on your work, as far as you can tell? And to take the question a bit further and in a different direction, to what extent (if at all) do you think you’ve been influenced by metrical poetry?
I’m aware of no direct influence—except insofar as both have helped me learn the rhythms & cadences of the language.
12. I sense in your work a great spiritual affinity for Native American cultures, traditions and world views. Have any particular Native American cultural traditions, attitudes, or poetries been particularly influential? Any books?
Years ago, I came to feel that my own Euro-American cultural background did not give me good advice about how to be a responsible citizen among other creatures and peoples. At about the same time I encountered books of “Native American myths and legends,” more properly termed “story systems,” and I immediately felt a resonance. From there, I devoured all such books I could find. That led me to Native communities and people and ultimately to friendships with Native writers and their work (Mark Turcotte, Denise Sweet, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Peter Blue Cloud, and others).
13. In commenting on your work, Charles Olson, praising it, said, “He is himself.” That sounds wonderful—but what does it mean? What does it mean, to you?
I want it to mean that he thought I’d come into my own voice despite obvious influences. But maybe it was just a noncommittal, inoffensive line to dismiss the young me, gently.
14. Many of your books feel like one long poem made up of many parts. Can you please describe your process of putting a book together? Do you simply gather the poems you like most from a period of time, or do you have a guiding principle, a goal or kind of architecture guiding your writing from the outset?
No principle, really, but it works out as you describe: most of my books have been sequences of related poems: Tracks, Sd, Grandmother Says, All My Relations (books 1 and 2). I think I’m pretty much a one-track-mind kind of guy. These sequences continue until I feel done with them or they with me; then, if there are enough pieces that work together, the gathering can become a book.
15. I know you taught at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County and College of Menominee Nation for many years. What did you teach? And how did your teaching affect your writing (as far as you can tell)? As a corollary, I know you moved to Oklahoma a number of years ago. What drew you there?
After some high-school teaching outside of Detroit, I taught Head-Start (summers) and university classes in Wisconsin: the usual composition plus some creative writing and occasional classes in environmental literature and Native American “myth and legend.” All my teaching engaged me with language, literature, and (of course) students and their bright energies. Teaching at College of Menominee Nation, part-time for about eight years, gave me a realer-world understanding of reservation life, along with the problems Native peoples face and the tremendous strengths they possess toward what Gerald Vizenor has called “survivance.” And those classes convinced me, further, that serious learning and playfulness can walk together.
After many years in Wausau and Madison, Wisconsin, my wife and I decided we’d move to a place with gentler winters; we’d visited Norman, Oklahoma, frequently to be with family, so it was an easy choice as well as being closer to my grown children in Colorado and their families. I’d loved the richness and variety of Native cultures and peoples in Wisconsin, and Oklahoma was a natural next home.
16. Do you see any current trends or developments in American poetry that look promising to you? Any particular living poets you’ve been reading with interest?
I read less contemporary poetry than I used to. Lately, I’ve been following the work of Bob Arnold, Malcolm Ritchie, Ronald Baatz, and Michael Hettich, with delight. Also, Linda Hogan and Gary Snyder stay with me. And I still find plenty of life in non-living poets I continue to read: Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Lew Welch, Jim Harrison, Carroll Arnett, Ed Dorn, and a wide range of traditional haiku (especially Issa).
17. What are you working on right now, in poetry or otherwise?
I have a little book, titled Ago, of unconnected (!), mostly shorter poems, coming from the Turkey Buzzard Press in early 2021. Otherwise, I’m living my lucky life with my wife Lisa, playing with our two dogs, bicycling, and playing with motorcycles.
· HELLO. Detroit: Artists’ Workshop Press, 1965, 20 p.
· HELLO (2nd ed.). Detroit: Artists’ Workshop Press, 1967, 25 p.
· “wu-shih,” Platteville WI, It Press, 1967, 8 p.
· TRACKS, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1969, 38 p.
· THE NABISCO WAREHOUSE, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1971, 60 p.
· SD, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1973, 20 p.
· SOME, Madison WI: The Never Dismount Press, 1975, 32 p.
· TONGUES. New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1976, 16 p.
· MOTHER, Eau Claire WI: Red Weather Press, 1981 12 p.
· WORD OF MOUTH, La Crosse WI: Juniper Press, 1986, 64 p.
· 6 POEMS, Mt. Horeb WI: The Perishable Press, 1987, folded broadside.
· SD, Peoria IL: Spoon River Poetry Press, 1988, 66 p.
· & SD, Madison WI: The Clearing Press, 1990, 24 p.
· WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 1994, 23 p.
· SD & DONE, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 1995, 40 p.
· WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Madison, WI: Parallel Press, 2000, 24 p.
· WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 2001, 71 p.
· GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Sausalito CA: Arctos Press, 2005, 83 p.
· COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2007, folded chaplet, 12 poems.
· ALL MY RELATIONS, Kalispell MT: Many Voices Press, 2010 106 p.
· MORE COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2011, folded chaplet, 15 poems.
· SO MANY COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: 2013, folded chaplet, 14 poems.
· COUSINS EVERYWHERE! and STRING TOO SHORT TO BE STRING, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2014, folded chaplet, 26 poems.
· SWEEPING THE BROOM SHORTER: SELECTED POEMS 1964-2014, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2015, 173 p.
· & COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2017, folded chaplet, 13 poems.
· ALL MY RELATIONS (book 2), Kalispell MT: Many Voices Press, 2018, 86 p.
J.D. Whitney lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with his wife Lisa Seale and their two dogs. He taught writing and literature for many years at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County (Wausau) and College of Menominee Nation (Keshena). He has published more than 20 books/chapbooks since the mid 1960s, and his poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Origin, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Orion. He is grateful to have learned that stories choose to inhabit us, or not, and that the language we’re alive in is alive.
I met Mildred Barya a little more than two years ago, when we read together at Asheville Wordfest. I was moved deeply by her reading, by the gentle clarity of her responses to audience questions, and by her forthright commitment to environmental and social justice. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to one of her classes and of presenting my work for the reading series she curates. But I knew little about her background as a person and her practice as a writer, among other things. I proposed the following interview for precisely those reasons.
This interview was conducted by email during the months of March & April, 2021, while Mildred was busy with her teaching duties at the University of North Carolina/Asheville.
You’ve told me that your earliest serious mentor in creative writing was Ayi Kwei Armah. Can you describe how you met him and give us some sense of the experience of working with him? What kind of mentor was he?
I first "met" Armah on the pages of his books. His first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, had a profound impact on me and is still regarded by many as one of the finest books to tackle the predicament and complexity of the post-independence era in Ghana and Africa at large. In person, we met in early 2005 at a Kwani writers’ conference organized by the late Binyavanga Wainaina in Nairobi, Kenya. I was enthralled to see him, couldn’t believe how lucky I really was that I got to be in his presence and hear him address us calmly and eloquently. During coffee break, I could not contain the wellness of joy babbling all over my body, so I approached him, and the curious journalist in me started asking questions. He told me that he was in the process of establishing an African writers’ residency in Popenguine, Senegal, where he lives, and he would mentor young writers in the art of novel writing. At the time, I was writing a novel and imagined what a great opportunity it would be if I was a successful applicant for his mentoring program.
We kept in touch after I returned to Uganda. In early 2006, I saw the call for applications—seeking aspiring writers from across Africa. Only four people would be selected. What chance did I have? Still, I applied. I was working with Ernst & Young as the Human Resources Advisor then, after completing a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology at Makerere University. I got immersed in work and eventually stopped thinking about the writers’ residency. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later I received news of acceptance along with three other fellows from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. I left EY, a lucrative job, to pursue the unknown. For nine months we wrote and workshopped our novels with Armah. He read everything and advised us accordingly—we were all apprenticed to him—and that was my first long and immersive engagement with craft. The environment was warm, inspiring and very professional. After nine months in Popenguine, I had a good draft of 603-page novel.
You earned your M.F.A. at Syracuse—and I assume it was in poetry. Can you describe the program as it was when you were there? How difficult was the transition from your work with Ayi Kwei Armah in Popenguine, Senegal to cold and gray Syracuse? I wonder about the cultural disruptions and transitions of that period for you. Did you find any particular mentors there?
My MFA was actually in Fiction, although I took workshop courses in all genres. The program was open in the sense that you had to take more workshop classes in your admitted genre, but in no way were we limited to take courses in other genres. Again, I had incredible mentors—Arthur Flowers—a griot from Memphis reminded me of the griot performances I had watched in Dakar, where I moved after. my nine-months writing residency in Popenguine ended. It was while I was in Dakar that I began to think about attending the MFA program in the US. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Less Taken explains my circumstances best in this one line: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way”.
At Syracuse I had George Saunders as my advisor and worked closely with him on a collection of short stories for my thesis project. Mary Karr’s memoir class was also eye-opening, and I took several poetry courses with Michael Burkard, Chris Kennedy, and Bruce Smith. My transition to Syracuse was made smooth by these compassionate and wonderful writers. I’ve maintained close communication with most of them and once in a while we meet in person. Arthur Flowers, for instance, was one of our MLK Guest speakers at UNCA in February 2020. Bruce visited my high school in Birmingham, Alabama where I taught for a year in 2013. It turned out that he knew two folks—one of the instructors in creative writing, and also the chair of the Creative Writing Department who hired me. Bruce had previously taught them in the MFA program at the University of Alabama before he moved to Syracuse in 2002. That’s how broad and small my writing world has been. Other than the harsh weather, the program at Syracuse was right for me.
And finally, at least as far as your education goes, I wonder the same things about your time in Denver. I know we’ve shared the fact that I got my MA at Denver University, studying under Burton Raffel and John Williams. Did you find any particular influences in the Ph.D. program? Was Bin Ramke there when you were?
Funny you should mention Bin; he was my primary dissertation advisor, so he got to read a lot of my poetry. My dissertation was in poetry framed within a long critical introduction on the poetics of home and the diaspora. Unlike Syracuse, where I had gone not knowing what to expect, Denver was remotely familiar from the country songs of John Denver that my father and I loved listening to when I was growing up. Secretly, I nursed a desire to see the Rockies for myself. I loved hiking in the mountains and camping in summer. The blue skies were also a relief. No matter how cold it got, we always had blue skies. Nowadays I choose my locations based on how blue the skies are.
What I appreciated most about the Ph.D. program has to do with how experimental and innovative it was—that spoke to me because I do not know how to exist in one genre, and traditional forms, however exciting they may be, don’t hold my fascination for long. I always like to mix things up a bit, so at DU I could invent and do whatever I wanted. I feel like hybrid genres can absorb all that life contains, while still highlighting the poetic, narrative, anti-narrative, and/or dramatic experiences typical of life. The opening or openness to form is what I particularly found liberating.
Now, to shift a little to your life and work today. What’s your current practice in poetry? Do you write every day? How do you keep the spirit of poetry alive within you?
Poetry is how I pay myself first. One of David Bach’s books on creating financial freedom mentions paying yourself first by putting 10% of your monthly earnings in a retirement fund. (Since we all know what a booming business poetry is!) I dedicate the first hour of my morning to the practice of poetry, either by reading, writing, or meditating upon it. In this regard, I think that poetry and prayer have a lot in common. Whenever I skip a day without paying myself first with a poem, I end up in a less joyful state. I’ve always felt that writing in general is a sacred art form because we use words and sound—the origin of all creation. Nowadays I’ve taken that belief a notch higher, and overall I am definitely good company after a dose of writing/creating. My partner says that I am a danger to myself and others around me whenever I step out of writing communion for long. I think that says a lot, because it speaks to the possibility of existing in a state of writing, whether one is actually writing or not. The closest analogy that comes to mind is the idea of abundance—what it’s like to be in a state of abundance versus manifestation of abundance in what we call “reality.” I know some people that would be categorized as poor, yet they exude a sense or perpetual state of abundance. I also know people who from a material perspective are financially blessed but give off too much poverty vibe.
What poets have most influenced you? What poets mean the most to you now, both as a practicing poet and as a human being? Do you think any particular “schools” of poetry have been more amenable to you than others?
The Ugandan poets, Susan Kiguli and the late Okot p’Bitek were foundational to my becoming a poet. When I was an undergrad student, Susan Kiguli introduced me to the poetry of Jack Mapanje (Malawian) and it sparked a fire in me, then the visionary Blake, Coleridge, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Dennis Brutus, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Claude McKay, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, T. S Eliot, and Maya Angelou. Each week we’d read tons of poems from writers across the world. When I look back, I realize what a great and rich education my undergraduate experience was at Makerere University. I was shocked when I came to the United States and discovered that some of my peers didn’t know any poets outside White American literature. This still jolts me when I realize the narrow scope of literature studies that students in our institutions have been exposed to. Milan Kundera has an essay on this—World Literature—how small nations tend to study all there is about large nations and themselves, while citizens of large nations tend to not go beyond their noses. According to Kundera, “The large nations resist the Goethean idea of world literature because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere.” Kundera quotes what Kazimierz Brandys says in his Paris Notebooks: 1985–87, “that the French student has greater gaps in his knowledge of world culture than the Polish student, but he can get away with it, for his own culture contains more or less all the aspects, all the possibilities and phases, of the world’s evolution.” I think this is similar to what I’ve encountered here.
Nowadays, the poets that mean the most to me are those in touch with the numinous or mystical experiences like Rainer Maria Rilke. I’m also fond of animal poems—I have a whole unpublished collection featuring the animals around me—the basis of which is my reverence for all forms of life. Your poems too, Michael, acknowledge the importance of kinship with our animals and planet, so I have you next to Mary Oliver. Other poets I’m rereading include Gabeba Baderoon, Ai Ogawa, Ross Gay, and Tyehimba Jess.
Have you ever translated poetry? If so, please discuss the process and tell us how you think the discipline of translating has affected your own original work.
I have translated trickster tales from my mother tongue, Runyankole Rukiga into English, but not poetry. However, whenever I’m writing and want to use fresh images in my poems, I switch to thinking in Rukiga because it’s the best way for me to tap into the rich vocabulary and idioms of my culture. When incorporated into English, they come across as original and organic. Besides, they force me to think of their equivalent in English, so I think it’s safe for me to say that my writing is a form of translation. Assuming that I didn’t have knowledge of other languages, it would still seem to me that the act of writing involves translating thoughts to make sure they make sense on the page.
Translating is the closest thing to creative writing. It is in fact creative writing. There are several schools of translation theory but they all meet at a creative point that allows the translator to improvise by thinking mostly about the culture in which the translated text will emerge rather than the one from which the text originates. Diction, for instance, distinguishes a good translation from a bad one. It’s also a major characteristic of good writing. What I take away from translation theory is that the work or text should be intelligible and meaningful. The intelligible follows logic and the meaningful creativity.
Please describe the process of revision as you typically experience—or engage—it.
George Saunders says revision is love in progress, and I agree. I write freely without stopping to think too much, but after I have the first draft, that’s when I read it with revision in mind, sentence by sentence or line by line to make sure the sequence is right, then diction and tone. I like to put the work aside and give it time to grow in the dark, then return to it after a week or month, and that’s when I work on the musicality and fall in love all over again. At some point I read it out loud—ears are good editors—they’ll detect what the eyes may not see. After the second or third round, I eat the work to feel how it tastes—how it settles in my body. If it gives me indigestion or some other discomfort, I know it’s not ready. If it leaves me feeling fresh as if I’ve just peeled and eaten a sweet orange, or it fills me up like steak and potatoes, I know I’m getting somewhere.
How do you typically organize a manuscript of your poetry? What I mean here is, how do you make something that has the coherence of a book, rather than just a group of poems with a title. How do you create something larger than the sum of its parts, something with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end?
After I’ve written over 60 pages, I write a brief synopsis or blurb to inform me of the manuscript’s essence, which then gives me a sense of what the majority of my poems are really about in terms of themes or subject matter. From there, I categorize the poems from first to last, following the arc, but also determining how to balance the prose poems with verse, that sort of thing. The last organization involves flow. I need to feel the manuscript’s fluidity as the running thread—ease and grace.
You currently live in Asheville, which is right down the road from Black Mountain, home of the renowned Black Mountain College and the Black Mountain School of Poetry, comprising such figures as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and Edward Dorn. These poets are famous in part for having extended William Carlos Williams’s call for a poetry written in the “American” language. As someone coming from a tradition outside the “American” tradition, what influence, if any, have these aesthetic ideas had on your practice. What does “American” poetry mean to you?
These poets are heavy on image and improvisation, which I favor myself because that approach is experimental; it’s not about getting it right all the time or insisting on a particular form, but rather staying open to the creative process itself. The art of craft, which we favor in creative writing to shape content, throws borders like “American poetry” out of the window. The cultural content may be American, if we figure out what that means, but the way craft is executed in the work may not be different from the way a Jamaican writer demonstrates craft. I’m teaching a course in World Literature at the moment focusing on African Poetry. After analyzing three full poetry collections and an anthology of about 400 pages, I set a trap question to my students and they cleverly avoided it: “What makes African Poetry different from other kinds of regional poets you’re familiar with?” It forced them to respond from a comparative perspective, pitting craft elements against craft elements, and thematic issues dealing with the continent versus the diaspora. Although some things were distinct, like a community or outward focus v. individualized self/thinking, a lot crisscrossed, which is on point to what you’re raising here. It used to be that Ethnic literature wasn’t talked about in terms of merit or craft, but I think that is changing, especially with the likes of us in the classroom. Also, American poetry is diverse if one is looking beyond the canon or what’s commonly taught in the classroom. Sharp differences only emerge when white male poetry of a particular period is emphasized over and over as if it’s the only American poetry that counts.
As a corollary to the previous question, shouldn’t we best think of American poetry as embracing as wide a range of voices