What was it that made you first turn to poetry as an art form early on?
Being a frustrated rapper. [Laughter.] That’s probably one thing. And literacy was hugely important in my family. I grew up in North Philadelphia, in Germantown, and art was important. I had an aunt who was a security guard at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and when you’re seven or eight years old and you’re running around and you’ve made the Philadelphia Museum of Art your playground and you have no other choice but to develop this way of perceiving the world through that particular lens—it was my church.
And my grandparents had a library. It wasn’t a formal library, it was books on the second floor of their three-floor tenement, in the hallway. They were stacked and they were stacked pretty high, so if you ran by them too fast, they fell on you. They didn’t tell us, “You must read.” Just by the mere presence of those books they were asserting the importance of them. There were two books of poetry: Frost, paperback edition, edited by Louis Untermeyer, with this great etching of Frost on the cover, and a hardback edition of Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems.
I also had in my community people who loved to debate, loved to argue about politics. These folks said learning was important, literacy was important. On my block the older people gave me quarters—fifty cents for every A you got on your report card.
As an editor at Harvard Review, what do you see going on in contemporary poetry?
It all just strikes me as utterly and overly familiar—the mom poem, the father poem, poems about family that seem overly wrought. The poems that I’m attracted to, at least as an editor, are those that make me swallow my cynicism, that make me go, “Here is a mother poem, but it’s doing something else either with the language or the form that allows me another doorway into that topic.” I can bring it to my chief editor, Christina Thompson, and say, “Okay, this person is alive.” [Laughter.] The language isn’t dead. The perspective, the point of view is unique.
Other kinds of things I see—overexperimentation. What I call overly inventive poems that are not making a reach toward the human; they are so much more about pastiche. And we’ve had now since modernism almost a hundred years of experimentation in poetry. I’m not sure we can do much more than what we’ve already done. So people are passing it off as inventive and experimental, and it really isn’t. But mainly, it’s the middle-of-the-road poem.
The workshop poem?
I’m reluctant to call it the workshop poem. It’s just the middle-of-America poem, that’s what I’ll call it. It’s, like, right down the middle. It doesn’t challenge you. If anything, it kind of reifies a particular kind of thinking about culture, about art, about society. These poems don’t challenge us; they don’t push us toward a fuller portrait of ourselves. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “The Mother,” and now we have an abortion poem. There are poems that come along to approach that topic, but she wrote it back in the 1940s and that was really radical at the time. Robert Lowell—at the height of his manic-depressive fifties—uttering, in his poem “Skunk Hour,” “my mind’s not right.” That totally sums up existential angst and the allure of that moment. That was pretty radical. I’m looking for those particular moments, and it really does take a vision for the art and a vision for the human. When those two things come together, it speaks to me as an editor.
With the rise of the MFA, do you think the MFA program as an apprenticeship is a good thing?
I think it’s excellent.
To take two years out of your life to leisurely learn the art…and we have a number of low-residency programs. I teach in one, the Bennington Writing Seminars. So you take twenty days out of the year to surround yourself with other writers and you’re in one-to-one correspondence. If I could do it over again, I’d do a low-res program, because I could make money as an accountant. [Laughter.] Let’s see, I had three poems discussed in a traditional MFA program per semester so that was six a year, so that would have been twelve poems that got discussed around the table. My students send me five poems a month over five months, so twenty-five a term—that’s a hundred poems on which they got direct feedback.
I will defend the MFA on the grounds that it is as legitimate as law school or as someone’s taking two years out of his life to become a physical therapist.
I want to go back to one thing you said about Cave Canem—your experience there and how emotional it was. I’ve heard that so frequently from poets I’ve known who’ve gone to the retreat. Can you tell me why?
I think anyone who practices an art, whether they are a saxophonist or a watercolorist or a poet, when you are writing or creating art, you are exercising a very innate freedom. You are your most free when you create. Particularly, when you’re not beholden to a particular idea or notion of how a poem should operate.
So here you have this group of African American poets who have a very unique relationship to the art of poetry and have been in a long conversation because of the tradition of African American arts, African American politics, have been thinking so often about freedom. We are the metaphor for freedom in this country, if you think about it. So to get together and to realize there are no encumbrances. You don’t have to worry about what the teacher down at the other end of the table is going to think. You don’t have to worry about your nonblack peers, whether or not they get an allusion or they get a cultural reference. You can just get down to the business of the form and the art and whether or not it’s working.
The first level of freedom is the moment of creation; the second level of freedom is that moment of sharing. It was emotional because we had never experienced that kind of freedom before. We are post–civil rights. We’re starting to get there, to really value what it means to be a country that is made up of all these individuals from different parts of the world, and I believe African American poets and writers have been pushing and making central that conversation all along, even still today. I think the fact that we have in this country writing today Yusef Komunyakaa, Adam Zagajewski, Tina Chang, Marilyn Chin, John Murillo, Martín Espada, Gerald Stern—the richness of American poetry is unlike any other country’s. It’s phenomenal. We haven’t yet as readers come to value that. There’s no reason why John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie isn’t selling as well as Mary Oliver or Billy Collins.
So anyway, Cave Canem—where those conversations are happening at that level but also at the level of art, that kind of range of conversation about what the role of poetry is in American society, what the role of the black poet is, should we even call ourselves black poets, all those conversations from that level to the level of metaphor and rhythm and meter—it’s a really amazing, impactful experience.
And that kind of conversation doesn’t typically happen in a traditional workshop setting?
Noooo, not even in the low-res or places where I visit. To have conversations about the political or social dimensions of poetry is taboo. And the fact that we have Muriel Rukeyser or Adrienne Rich or Amiri Baraka or Martín Espada or Karl Shapiro—we have a long tradition of political poetry in this country, and yet we still are hesitant. For me, the first order of business for a poem is its aesthetic dimension and then it starts moving out in waves, and it’s that resonating out to the other areas that’s wonderfully profound. We’re cheating ourselves as readers when we don’t value all the dimensions a poem has to offer.
Mary Gannon is the editorial director of Poets & Writers Magazine.