Interview by Ed McManis
Ed: I thought we might start with your highlights as the Poet Laureate of Colorado. (2015-2019) Did you see that coming?
Joe: I didn’t. The way that whole process works, somebody nominates you—you can self- nominate, by the way. It wasn’t on my radar at all. A longtime friend of mine, Anita Jepson Gilbert, who’s deeply involved with an organization called Columbine Poets, sent me an email that said, “I nominated you, you better get busy because they want a lot of stuff.” (Laughs) This was in the Spring of 2014. So I threw my hat in the ring. I was sent a form that asked what I’d do if I got the position.
Ed: What did you tell them?
Joe: I told them my main focus would be to travel around the state and try to raise the visibility of what I would call community poets. So many communities have good poets in their midst, writing and publishing, but the places they’re in don’t know they exist. I also wanted to do what I could to get poems by Colorado authors into the hands of teachers. I thought we could build a website where teachers could find work by Colorado poets and download the poems for free to use in the classroom. As it turned out, a website already existed that I knew nothing about: the Colorado Encyclopedia (coloradoencyclopedia.org). So among the first things I did as laureate was to create a section of Colorado poets for the Encyclopedia. As of now, there are 24 poets with samplings of their poetry there, and I’d like to see that section continue to evolve.
Ed: You’ve gotten ahead of yourself. After you submitted the application?
Joe: Right. Well, if you made the first cut, they contacted you and you had to provide a video reading of a poem or two. That was the second stage.
Ed: Did you read from your book, Marked Men?
Joe: Yeah. I imagine the Colorado content helped.
Ed: How would you describe Marked Men?
Joe: It’s a series of three narrative poems, all dealing with the withering, centuries-long attack on indigenous nations in what Europeans called The New World. The first two form a kind of prologue to the longest poem, which deals with the Sand Creek Massacre.
Ed: Folks know the name Sand Creek, but your poem gives a harrowing recounting.
Joe: At a place about 170 miles southeast of Denver. Bands of Cheyenne and Arapahoe were told they’d be safe if they camped there. There’d been a lot of attacks on settlers, and people in Denver But John Chivington, a hero in the Civil War that was still going on, ordered a regiment of soldiers to attack the camp anyway. Only one soldier, a Captain named Silas Soule, refused the order. He knew the young men of the camp were off hunting, so he defied Chivington. The rest followed orders. When the day was done, they’d killed around 230 children, women, and elderly men. Quite a few were mutilated by the soldiers. Combat trophies.
Ed: Horrific. The poem prompted me to do more research. It seems this poem gives a more detailed full accounting.
Joe: Really it’s about the aftermath. Things got worse between settlers and Indians, and in January of 1865, a wonderfully-named Colonel, Thomas Moonlight, was brought in from Kansas to command the Military District of Colorado. He replaced Chivington and put the district under martial law. Soule became one of the Provost Marshals in Denver. Then he was called to testify before an inquiry conducted by Colonel Moonlight. Soule testified against Chivington—and that, as they say, sealed his fate.
Ed: How so?
Joe: A few days after testifying, Soule was assassinated. That was on April 23, 1865. The assassins were known. They’d both served under Chivington. And they both escaped without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.
Ed: Was Chivington behind it?
Joe: That’s the poem’s stance. But it’s more about the question of heroism in a time of social and political upheaval. The situation in the West was a just one aspect of the larger conflict—the Civil War. Soule was murdered on April 23rd, just eight days after Lincoln’s assassination. So what do heroes look like in times like that? Are they the ones following orders or the ones defying them?
Ed: You must be quite a student of history.
Joe: Not really! I started the poem back in 2000, in the wake of Bush v. Gore. I think a lot of Americans felt sour about the machinations that put Bush in office. I sure did. It made me feel like the kind of poems I’d been writing weren’t about things that really mattered. I was feeling at a dead end. I was doing a lot of doom-scrolling, though I don’t know if they called it that at the time, and one day I came across an article online called “Genocide on the Great Plains,” by a writer named James Horsley. It really opened my eyes to what had gone on—what has shaped my home town. Then one night I dreamt that I woke up and sat up in bed, and Chivington was standing at the end of the bed. He was glaring down at me. He didn’t speak, didn’t move, just glared at me. This feeling of dread went through me. The next day I started working on a poem about Chivington, but the more I read the more I realized that Soule was the center. That yes, there was murderous villain, but there was also a hero. A tragic hero because he was murdered, but a man whose values survived. My guess is that the heroic aspect is what appealed to Governor Hickenlooper.
Ed: To bring this full circle … Poet Laureate. What was the job description?
Joe: The job is pretty wide open. That’s why they ask you what you would bring to the position. I knew pretty well what was happening with poetry along the front range. But I didn’t have a good sense of what was going on anywhere else in the state. One of the things I wanted to do was discover and promote poetry at the community level. I wanted to draw attention to and help community poets become more visible. Not that they needed my help, but I wanted to pitch in. I wanted to spotlight that there are so many amazing poets working in relative isolation all around the state. Not that they’re not being published, but they’re not being recognized in the way that they should be.
Ed: Did you feel compelled to define poetry, or focus on a genre or type of school?
Joe: It was more of a discovery thing. I mostly did not focus on colleges. When I was Poet Laureate—2015 to 2019—most colleges in the state had poetry programs. They taught poetry, had poetry readings, some were publishing poetry journals under the auspices of their programs. But I felt a sort of detachment in much of that college-program work. A detachment from the lives that people really live. I don’t want to say that kind of poetry is wrong. All poets write about what they love. What you care about. If what you care about is making some kind of aesthetic statement through your poetry, that’s not a problem. But I think there’s more to poetry than that. I want to make sure that “more” was recognized.
Ed: So you don’t think aesthetic statements are enough?
Joe: Not by themselves. You can exemplify this or that aesthetic, but why? What are you saying? Who is paying attention? If you’re at a university, in a position at a university, your contacts will be at that level. There are shared concerns. But you risk having your concerns becoming abstracted from your local life. This is why I’ve always admired William Carlos Williams—his commitment to finding value in the local. It can be problematic too, of course. Just because something is happening outside your window doesn’t mean it’s worth a poem. The poem has to discover the value or it’s just a snapshot. This is one reason I’ve always admired Ted Kooser, because like Williams he says the local can provide a foundation for value, for emotional and intellectual and spiritual worth.
Ed: I’ve seen Kooser on Facebook. He posts like a poem a day.
Joe: Not exactly every day, but frequently. Here in Colorado we have Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, though, who does post a poem almost every day. It’s amazing to me, not just because of the energy it requires but because she maintains a very high level of quality. Every few years she brings out a book where she distills the best of that practice. She served as the Western Slope Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, and she’s published 13 books so far. All cleaving very much to the local.
Ed: Which touches on another interesting topic. Quality. What’s a “good” poem? What are the standards? Should you have standards? I think of the tools, elements and foundations of writing and poetry. Someone who has studied for years, crafts their poetry. Then all of a sudden someone comes along and puts out “whatever” and finds success, a huge audience. I get stuck on that one. You were talking about…Rupi…
Joe: Rupi Kaur. I think I told you, I had never heard of her. I was in this training seminar on designing online courses, and at lunch this professor came up to me and said she’d heard I’m a poet. As usual, I said, “Some days.” And she said, “Have you read Rupi Kaur? She’s terrific. She’s on Instagram.” I hadn’t heard of her, so that night I fired up my browser and looked her up, and I thought, “Oh boy. Is this really what Ph.D. professor reads?” Now, she was a professor in one of the sciences, biology, I think, but still….
Ed: Well I looked her (Rupi) up, too. And again, I was torn between, “Good for you. You self-published and sold a million copies.” And the trained, beleaguered part of me that had to learn villanelles, sestinas, and synecdoche is saying, “Yikes. How can this be?” since being that critical runs contrary to my nature. But her poems read more like the introductory work I did with junior high and freshmen high school students.
Joe: I guess we can be critical without being mean, yes? I think it’s fair to say that there’s a vast difference in quality between Danielle Steele and Toni Morrison, and a similar difference in quality between Rupi Kaur and Louise Glück. But as you point out, her fame is online fame. And if you look at the standards of online, as a rule, it’s lower than what you’d expect in everyday “good” writing.
Ed: It throws me back to high school, and my English teacher, this nun, raving about Rod McKuen. She had his recordings, too. And it was about the opposite of what I was into. I was listening to Dylan, Cream, Hendrix, Jethro Tull by then. I felt like I was missing something she had found.
Joe: Well, you weren’t missing much. I assume McKuen was serious about his work, but he just didn’t have the sensibility to take it very far. Here’s an example—one I’ve used in workshops as an example of the abuse of metaphor. McKuen has this image that goes, “I want to crawl inside your eyes and see myself as you do.” The creepiness of that physicality! And the narcissism.
Here’s another one, not by McKuen but by this other poet, a prizewinning poet who made what I’d say was a misstep, because this isn’t typical. It’s in a poem about his breakup with a girlfriend, and he says, “My dreams collapsed like the Flying Wallendas.” [Laughs] Let’s take the death of a family falling from a highwire and compare them to your little feelings! But again, this was not typical of his work. It was a mark of youth. He was young in the art at the time. I shudder to think about how many times I’ve made similar faux pas!
Ed: That’s a great line, though. I’ll remember that.
Joe: I may have been meant to be funny, but it wasn’t.
Ed: Have you heard of the Wergle Flomp contest? That line would make a good poem for that. It’s a contest for the worst poem. I send one in every year.
Joe: I should do that. I find it quite natural to write badly.
Ed: Well, back to standards. For visual art, if I see a picture and think, “I can do that,” I don’t consider it art as such, in my simplistic way. If I hear a song, and I can play it off the top of my head, I doubt that it’s art. Catchy? Yeah, but not art.
Joe: (Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know about articulating standards.
Ed: But as a university professor, don’t you see that as part of your job?
Joe: Well, it is, I guess. I think my concern is to say standards in the sense of a rule. That’s not what I’m after. You know, if it doesn’t rhyme in a certain way or it doesn’t have this or that—
Ed: Right, right.
Joe: I think anybody who’s ever articulated standards is immediately assaulted by all the examples of excellence to which their standards don’t apply. But I do think that the language has to be tight, has to be…freighted, you know? It has to carry weight.
Ed: Well, there are the essential elements of poetry, the foundations, right?
Joe: I think so too, but I think that part of it is a quality of density. I call it “condensery,” a term I stole from Lorine Niedecker, a wonderful poet. She has a poem called “Poet’s Work,” which goes like this:
Learn a trade
to sit at desk
Ed: Nice! Love the compaction. So today, in your classes when these young people, these youngsters come in—
Joe: Well, I don’t get the youngsters. My classes are graduate level. It’s University College, which is the University of Denver’s adult and continuing education college.
Ed: So they have some background?
Joe: Not necessarily. Our students are often people who didn’t get a degree in English, but they’ve been writing since they were very young. And they’ve usually been voracious readers. But for some reason they decided, when they went to college, that they’d like to have an income after they graduated! So they became accountants, or marketers, or real estate agents. Though all along they kept writing. And at some point they decided that real estate alone might not be good for the soul. So they come to us. We just try to help them get an idea of what the expectations are, what the best books are and who the best writers are in the genre they aim to write in. It’s not that they haven’t read these books and these writers, but they haven’t thought very deeply about the nature of those genres, and what the rules and standards are in each one. I should add that we don’t take a deeply literary approach. We’re guided by the genres. Writing like Faulkner is no good if you’re trying to write a detective novel.
Ed: Do you get to design your curriculum or does the University choose it?
Joe: Oh no, we’re in charge of that. The instructors have a lot of input into what they teach, what the content is. We might have a big fat anthology of something.
Ed: I guess I’m just sensitive now to what’s happened in Florida. Where DeSantis can wipe out a course on African-American Studies.
Joe: Luckily we’re in Colorado! And in any case we’re a private institution. We have more control over the content of our courses than a public institution might.
Ed: What would be a typical class list for your course?
Joe: It depends. It’s been a struggle for me, I have to say. When I first came in, I realized that because our students don’t necessarily have degrees in English, there are certain understandings they might not fully grasp. How you read for structure, how to interpret at a deep level, what the inner relationships are among the layers of language and all that.
In each of our genre concentrations, we have what we call a Masterworks course. Masterworks: Fiction. Masterworks: Creative Nonfiction. Masterworks: Drama. That’s all useful and teachable. But Masterworks: Poetry? Gad! Poetry is ancient, right? So what do you do? I started out using a big fat anthology and fished around in it and looked for different types of poems—romantic, satirical, persona poems, invective … and I never liked it. At some point, I realized that for a working poet, what matters is not different types of poems on the one hand, and mastering the whole Norton Anthology on the other. What matters is what I call “poetic lineage.” It’s a way of understanding that poems don’t appear by magic out of nowhere. They’re an expression of our own reading experience—what speaks to us and what doesn’t. You prefer John Berryman to William Carlos Williams? Who’s to tell you you’re wrong! “Gad, are you out of step!” No. Poetry is a passion project. But you can’t do your best work as a poet without developing a broad and deep poetic lineage. This also helps students read poetry. Instead of random poetic experiences, you read with attention to what lineage a particular poet is working in. And this in turn gives you a way of thinking about your own writing. I never met a poet who didn’t begin by imitating other poets. How else would you even conceive of writing a poem? The same is true for any genre, of course, but it’s absolutely crucial for poetry. Did Rod McKuen have a sense of his poetic lineage? Does Rupi Kaur have a sense of hers? My bet is that neither of them had a lineage that reached back more the fifty years, a hundred tops. And this is true, I think, even of poets in MFA programs. A friend of mine, an excellent poet, was giving a reading back East, and after the reading this young fellow came up to him to say how much he enjoyed the reading. He was a recent graduate of the MFA program there, and he mentioned there was a line in one of my friend’s poems that he especially liked. “Actually,” my friend said, “that’s a quote. From T. S. Eliot.” The kid looked puzzled. “Have you read Eliot?” my friend asked. And the kid said, “I don’t think so. But I remember hearing the name.” That young poet really has to begin to develop his poetic lineage!
Bottom line, I don’t think you get very far as a writer, certainly as a poet, without knowing what your lineage is. And when you read as a poet, you have to explore the book slowly and try to get a sense of the lineage at work in it. Then, when you sit down to write your own poem, and you get that first draft out, you have to ask who’s back there influencing you. The lineage is basically the world that poets need to swim in if they’re doing to develop and have a shot at writing anything worthwhile.
Ed: When I was coming up in the 70s in Doyle’s classes we had those anthologies. I think one was Naked Poetry, then The New Naked Poetry. I had little background and thought they were great.
Joe: Oh yeah. There were some great poems there.
Ed: They gave me a foundation. But I’m curious about what the foundations, anthologies are today. I suspect what I read back then would be classified as the “traditional” canon, which I interpret today as a code word for “old dead white guys.” It seems it would be obsolete. What’s the foundation for writers moving forward? Who are the voices for people of color, LGBTQ, any other disenfranchised group?
Joe: Well, this is a big question. Part of the issue has to do with the purpose of the anthology. You have some that try to represent an aesthetic. Naked Poetry wanted to present “Recent American Poetry in Open Forms,” and using that approach the editors chose just two women: Denise Levertov and Sylvia Plath. That was in 1969. There was some fine poetry in it, but the range was pretty skimpy. Two women, and no Black writers of any gender. Just under a decade earlier Donald M. Allen produced a more wide-ranging anthology, a landmark really, called The New American Poetry. It was full of “open form” poetry, too, but it embraced different flavors of a counter-culture, non-academic aesthetic under the presiding spirit of Charles Olson. There were Corso, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti. Ashbery and O’Hara. Duncan, Creeley, Dorn, and Snyder. Just four few women: Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, Barbara Guest, and Denise Levertov. And one Black poet: LeRoi Jones, later to be known as Amiri Baraka. No Gwendolyn Brooks? No Robert Hayden? (Both perhaps outsiders to Donald Allen’s aesthetic.) But where was Bob Kaufman? Where was Dudley Randall? Audre Lorde? Lucille Clifton? What I’m getting at is that the Post-WWII period was fragmented, and we’ve never really recovered from that fragmentation. Of course, the very idea of “recovery” is backward looking, invoking a time when “old white guys” (not yet dead) set the rules of play and everybody else was pushed off the court. That era’s gone, or is mostly gone. I don’t think it’s possible for one notion of excellence to dominate now—and that’s a good thing. We got a glimpse of that possibility in what is my favorite anthology of the period we’re talking about, Hayden Carruth’s The Voice that Is Great Within Us, a 700-plus page book published in 1970. A hundred-and-thirty some poets, about a fifth of them women. Only five Black poets, and no Hispanic-Americans or Asian-Americans. But it’s still the best of that eara. It starts with Frost and ends with Joel Sloman, who had by that time published only one book, in 1966. The fact that Carruth included him on the strength of one book is, for me, the highest of recommendations, because Carruth was an excellent poet, and a subtle critic, and an adventurous spirit. He engaged with every poet on the basis of that poet’s aims, not some received standard of poetic correctness. I admire that. And his anthology still holds up!
Ed: Which invites the question. Where do we stand today?
Joe: If you go on Amazon and look at poetry anthologies, you’ll find they come in three types. One focuses on aesthetics. Postmodern poetry, poetry in different forms (sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, haiku, limericks), narrative poems, Concrete poetry, etc. We might include “best poetry” anthologies in that camp, because “best” is an aesthetic judgement.
Then there are anthologies based essentially on accidental and arbitrary qualities. Poems about particular wars, poems written in particular time periods, poems representing countries (Modern French Poetry) or regions (Poetry of Latin America), or poems about cars, or birds, or movies, or food, or works of art.
The biggest anthology category now, a growth industry in itself, is what I think of as identity poetry. Identity poetry has a lot of branches based on the notion that poets are speaking for certain communities, which can be based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, politics, regional heritage. This is poetry written against the old ideal of the “melting pot.” It’s an approach that expands the poetic universe in interesting ways. Anthologies like African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song; Looking Out, Looking In: Anthology of Latino Poetry; When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women; 100 Queer Poems; The Poetry of Capital: Voices from Twenty-First-Century; and New Poets of the American West.
To circle back to our original question about “old dead white guys,” you’ll notice that there are no anthologies of White poetry. They’re unnecessary because whiteness has been the baseline for inclusion in anthologies until fairly recently. I don’t think you can deny the greatness of a great poem because the author is a straight white male. But it’s an identity that has no special cachet now.
When you and I were at UNC [University Northern Colorado, the other UNC—ed.]—I may have told you this story already—they brought in N. Scott Momaday, who had recently won the Pulitzer for his great first novel, House Made of Dawn. I went to hear him speak and read from the book, and I think there were maybe twenty people there in a building that no longer exists. He was the first Native American novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize, and unless I’m mistaken, the only one aside from Louise Erdrich. The audience, I have to say, was a bit flummoxed. He waited patiently for questions that weren’t forthcoming.
Ed: How long ago?
Joe: This was in 1969, I believe. He was so imposing, but he might have been speaking ancient Greek.
Ed: A lot of changes since then.
Joe: Not enough, to be honest.
Ed: Back to the aesthetic. Does a poet who’s serious about the word need to read Emily Dickinson today? Eliot? Pound?
Joe: Absolutely. I think any serious poet needs to read widely just to understand what the art is. I had a student complain to me once. “It seems like you’re asking me to read the Norton Anthology of Poetry.” And I said, “It’s a start!” Why the hell not? How ignorant do you think you can be and still pass off your work as serious poetry?
Ed: Sure. But I know students now that would turn their nose up at it. An anthology, especially Norton, is anathema.
Joe: It’s sort of seen as the iron fist of the tradition. The Canon. Everybody is criticizing the Canon, exemplified by the Norton and promoted by authority figures like Harold Bloom. Some attack the idea that you should even have a Canon. There is some wisdom to that, to have the Canon challenged. But it ought to be on some basis, not just because it happens to be in the Norton anthology.
This, to me, is the danger of our devotion to identity, which often comes with a bit of moral arrogance. So, okay—Wallace Stevens was a racist. Pound and Eliot were antisemitic. I have a very good friend, a poet and fiction writer, and she said, about Eliot, that she could never read him because he was such an antisemite. Yes. Eliot was an antisemite. Absolutely. But you’re missing out on a lot that you could learn about the highest level of writing by skipping Eliot. That doesn’t mean you have to like him. You can hate Eliot, but look at what he does because that’s what you’re trying to learn. You’re not trying to learn his antisemitism.
Ed: And that brings up another big paradox. Can you separate the artist from the art?
Joe: I think you can. François Villon was a thief and a murderer. He murdered a priest! So, do we not read Villon? I could stamp my feet and say, “I don’t like thieves. I hate murderers. I won’t read The Testament!“ It’s one thing to invoke morality and condemn the person, the poet, and another to condemn the poet’s work because he was immoral. If you have someone praising Hitler in a poem, that’s different, if the poet’s a Nazi himself. I struggle with this myself. But moralism can be self-serving. I’ve tried reading Heidegger, his big book—Being and Time—which has nothing to do with his being a Nazi, but I never get far with it, mostly because it’s conceptually a slog. But I keep thinking, “Why go on? The guy was a Nazi! How much can I learn from a Nazi?” It undermines my effort to grasp his ideas, which could help me understand the world a little better. My moralism is what finally defeats me. And yet, many years ago I read some essays of his on poetry and was bowled over by his insights. That was before I knew he’d been a Nazi. I was open. We need to be open to the work regardless of the writer’s flaws. It’s when the flaws taint the work, as antisemitism taints Pound’s and Eliot’s work—well, cut it out! Focus on the larger task, which is to learn how poetry works. We need to free ourselves from biography! It seems to me we’re lucky not to know anything about Homer. His biography doesn’t stand in the way of the work.
Ed: It seems today it’s become so much more complicated. For example, you have “sensitivity” readers now who’ll edit what does and doesn’t get in print.
Joe: You’re basically turning over the imagination to the lawyers.
Ed: I think we’ve always had banned books, but it seems worse, more today. And I see it leak over into, let’s say, movies. I just read about a movie about Fidel Castro, and a known actor balked at the lead because he said you can’t play Fidel Castro unless you’re Cuban. And I think, “maybe, maybe not.” If everything stays in its lane, then there won’t be any cross-pollination.
Joe: Yeah, it’s like…I can’t remember which of the Coen brothers did Macbeth. [It was Joel Coen.—Ed.] He has Denzel Washington as Macbeth. It is magnificent. One of the most challenging movies I’ve seen in recent years. So, what are you going to say? “Wait a minute—this is a Scottish guy, and Scots aren’t Black! He can’t play Macbeth.” It’s that identity moralism again. But I have to admit that white actors in black-face playing Othello kind of makes me cringe. But if we want to be historically accurate, that’s how it was played I Shakespeare’s time. There were no Black actors in the Globe theater.
But today, all of our nerves are right on the surface about all these things. It’s what happens, broadly speaking, when a culture loses touch with its fundamentals.
Ed: Yes, the fundamentals. So when I think of good literature, I think of the morality, the humanity. Take Huck Finn. If you take out all of the “n-words,” like some would—
Joe: As they did, in fact. There was an edition of Huck Finn that stripped out the “n-word” and some others, like “injun.”
Ed: So, now what have you got? Not what Twain intended, for sure.
Joe: Yes. You have to put the book in its time. Otherwise it’s a falsified reading experience and a falsified historical experience. It’s like talking about Thomas Jefferson without talking about Sally Hemings. Suppressing this stuff flattens it, makes it all two-dimensional. America has never been good about its own history. It’s what DeSantis and those folks want to crush anyway, and make it all flat and deny that slavery oppressed the enslaved. It allows them to claim that slavery was simply a form of job training.
Ed: If you don’t know the story, how can you move forward? Especially the ugly stories. Understand the power of stories.
Joe: I think you’re right. I’m not in favor of restrictions, but valuation is another question. Amanda Gorman…is she as good a poet as W.S. Merwin? If not, why not? Is Merwin as good as Dickinson? Is Dickinson as good as Blake? These are all good questions to ask because they get you involved with the language, the truth and power of it, and because they’re unanswerable. You should know that before you begin to ask them! The virtue of such questions is that you have to detach the poems from their makers’ lives and personalities so you can look at the poem on the page and ask, “How does this work?”
Ed: And the answer for me is “No, Gorman’s not as good as Merwin, but she’s a great performer of poetry. Let me see anyone else get up there and deliver that poem in front of all those people.”
Joe: The guts and chutzpah it took for her to do that. And the smoothness, the energy … it was amazing.
Ed: And now, I just heard, in a Florida school they’re banning this poem?
Joe: And not only that, they’re banning a history book I think at the high school level that talks about Rosa Parks and why she did what she did. They’re aiming to teach kids that slavery was a really cool job skills program! It can’t be about the fact that there was racism in America, because that suggest that racism still exists, and that makes white people feel bad.
I wanted to mention something, which is why I brought this. [Checks iPad] And I’ve only read this guy in anthologies. W.S. Graham. He was a Scottish poet, and what I’ve read just knocked my socks off. His collected poems is on the way to my wee mailbox as we speak. Anyway, one reason I invested in Graham’s Collected is because of the collection’s editor, Matthew Francis, who wrote the introduction, which I stumbled on while wandering the Web. Francis made this wonderful comment about how, at the time that Graham was writing, which was the ’40s into the ’80s, Graham was a divisive figure. I don’t know much about him. But this editor has this wonderful characterization: “opposers of his work and its principles have simply found them harder to understand than they actually are in the context of poetry less inventive in diction, less challenging in subject matter, more given to a clearer narrative, and infatuated with ordinary existence.” [Laughs] Wow! That’s great. It really defines what Graham was doing by contrasting it with what was not being done by others. And you can see why people accustomed to poets like Larkin would struggle with Graham. There’s Larkin, writing about talking in bed and other occasions of “ordinary existence,” and there’s Graham, writing these rhythms straight out “The Seafarer,” those hard-bitten Anglo-Saxon words and thorny rhythms. Not at all what readers wanted!
Now, I love Larkin and much of Larkin’s work. He writes in that middle range of diction. Very seldom does he use a word that you have to look up. But the way he constructs the poems, he gets the deeper stuff in there. I admire that too. But one of the things I look for in poetry is inventive diction, interesting words, challenging subject matter. A legacy of my early love of Hopkins, probably. On the other hand, I love the work of poets like Ted Kooser and William Carlos Williams. The subject matter is challenging for the opposite reason, not because it’s verbally fraught but because it has a richness delivered in language we all recognize. The surprise comes not in acrobatic phrases but in the subtlety and suggestiveness of the imaginal elements. I think it’s important to be open to the great variety of poetries alive in the world around us. You certainly don’t reject a poet who isn’t writing in an approved way—approved by the academy or the barroom or the street corner. We should be able to have both Petrarch and Villon, E. E. Cummings and Robert Hayden, Ange Mlinko and Sharon Olds. We should be guided by pleasure, not by Theory.
Ed: And that again begs the question about poetry? What style? What subjects? What happens when a poet keeps getting rejected for the wrong reasons?
Joe: I tell students, by way of preparation, that when they start to submit of course they will get rejected. Rejection can be a healthy experience if you use it to reconsider what you’ve submitted. But it your work continues to speak to you, keep sending it out. I remember an interview with William Stafford where the interviewer says, “You write a lot. You send out poems all the time. Do you ever get rejected?” And Stafford says, Oh yeah. What happens is, I send out a batch of poems, and if they come back rejected, I say to myself, ‘The editor must have been drunk,’ and I toss the rejection slip in the trash. Then I look the poems over, I think about them, and if they still feel right I send them somewhere else. Now that magazine might accept them. In which case I note the publication on the carbon copy of the poem and file it away. And I say to myself, ‘The editor must have been drunk.’” [Laughs] Pure writerly wisdom!
Ed: I know there’s so much to cover, but maybe let’s wrap this session up. Who are you reading now, and what would you recommend?
Joe: Oh, I have a list. Of course, these things change a lot. I encounter so many people. Let’s see. There’s Adam Zagajewski’s wonderful last collection, last sadly because posthumous, called True Life. There’s Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, or A Way to Lose More Slowly, a book length narrative poem in the tradition of noir novels. I just finished Late Summer Ode, by Olena Kalytiak Davis, who I continue to read with a mixture of amazement, fascination, and occasional exasperation. Tim Z. Hernandez’s new and selected, Some of the Light, is astonishing. There’s Ange Mlinko, whose high-culture vibe is a real challenge to my blue-collar background. Kevin Young, who must write in his sleep to publish so many books! Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Naïr have a terrific conversation through poems written during the pandemic, called A Different Distance: A Renga. A renga is a Japanese form of collaborative poem, written by multiple poets, usually at a party involving libations. But here were Hacker and Naïr, sequestered in Paris under Covid lockdown, writing poems back and forth while trying to maintain their connections outside Paris as well. It’s an inspiring book. Let’s see. So many! There are two Colorado poets who are witty in the most significant ways possible, Pattiann Rogers, whose new book is Flickering, and Wendy Videlock, whose Wise to the West is both illuminating and fun. I rrecently ead two of the very best translated books I’ve ever read, Self-Portrait in the Zone of Silence, by the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, and A Broken Man in Flower, by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, who damn well ought to have won the Nobel Prize but was denied because of his politics. I do have some other more recent favorites, who I’ll forgive for winning prizes I will never win: Diane Suess, Ada Limón, Tracy K. Smith—
Ed: Didn’t she write the one about the celestial objects, planets and such—
Joe: Oh yeah. Life on Mars. She’s very good. And then there’s this one—I brought this book along. It’s so hard to find humor in poetry these days. I thought you might get a kick out of it.
Ed: There is a dearth of laughs right now. It seems so somber out there.
Joe: Yes, unfortunately. Too much poetry these days feels like a trauma contest. Anyway, this guy is Eugene Ostashevsky. And he’s a Russian American. A mathematician evidently. Three books I think, and I brought along The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi. [Laughs] He also has The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza, which is indescribable, and The Feeling Sonnets, which are actual sonnets but twisted and played with in every imaginable way. Anyway, you’d love The Pirate. Funny and smart.
Ed: Thanks for your time. I’ll add these to my list. More in the next interview.
Joe: Thank you! If you have a laughing fit, don’t hurt yourself.
About the interviewer: Ed McManis is a writer, editor, & erstwhile Head of School. His work has appeared in more than 60 publications, including The Blue Road Reader, California Quarterly, Cathexis, Narrative, Lascaux Review, etc. He, along with his wife, Linda, have published esteemed author Joanne Greenberg’s (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) latest novel, Jubilee Year. He has known Joe for 40+ years. Little known trivia fact: he holds the outdoor free-throw record at Camp Santa Maria: 67 in a row.