Dispatches | November 16, 2012
Talking to Poets
*today’s guest blog comes to us via Cary Stough*
In a recent interview at P&W, the poet Mary Jo Bang discusses the diverse roles of poets, among other things. I have never spoken to Mary Jo Bang. And I have never been interviewed by anyone concerning my opinions on the poetic craft.
That said, I will begin with a story:
My sophomore year of high school I had the opportunity to hear Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate, give a reading at Missouri State University, a school in my hometown. After the reading, I stood in line amidst a crowd of other admirers, wondering—contorting—over what I would say to the poet when I got to the front of the line. I didn’t have a book to sign—nor had I read as much of his work as most of the people there—and neither did I have the intellectual authority to say anything compelling. Without a single notion of what to do or how to react to whatever happened, I shook his hand. It was cold and wrinkled, the skin was soft; it was a pretty basic handshake. No words were spoken, and yet I felt so much conveyed in this. The very familiarity of the action, just like the images in Kooser’s own poetry, left open a wide range of possible interpretations. He smiled, I blinked, we unfolded our hands and I stepped out of line. To this day that moment stays with me, that silence between artists. I remember thinking: “This must be how poetry works.”
Throughout my studies, “what poetry means to me,” and how I perceive it “working” has transformed countless times. Reading this, I hope you already know, to some extent what it is like to be around poets. If you have never met one, you will eventually realize that talking to poets has more to do with “not talking to poets” than anything else. If the anecdote confused you, you probably are not a poet. And if you think you are a poet and you are still confused—if that confusion sends you into metaphysical turmoil—I may be able to help. There is alternative to the life most people live, people which are referred to as “People Who Do Not Understand Poets.” Talking to poets can, in fact, be done. I will do my best and most honest effort to present both the different poets you may encounter and various ways to communicate with them. From a poet’s own perspective, I can say that, even with a plan of attack, communicating with poets does not always materialize; so my first step for planning to talk to poets is a simple one:
STEP 1: Forego All Planning
You cannot plan. You cannot expect when or where you will find a poet or what kind of poet you may encounter. Leave all planning to fate and the gods of rhetoric. Poets are seemingly able to be more than one place at one time, much like their domestic counterpart, the housecat.
Anyway, once you have successfully cleared your mind of planning, I can begin to discuss the various poets you will encounter.
THE STUDENT POET: On college campuses, this is the most general and frequently encountered poet. You may find them in crowds, speaking in fragmented sentences, smoking, or drinking coffee. (SIDE POINT: All poets drink coffee) Student Poets rarely know what they are talking about. They range from 17 to 25 years of age. Sometimes student poets can carry on a fairly even-kealed conversation. Try to avoid talking to Student Poets, though.
THE GRADUATE POET: These poets are older than student poets, but they are almost just as difficult. Things to discuss with Graduate poets are: 1) Where they went to college for their Undergraduate degree. 2) Where they ate lunch (SIDE POINT: Because of their age and elevated social status, Graduate poets generally have more money, and dine at a host of locations en vogue). 3) Whether or not they are married. 4) Their writing style. 5) Their unique, poetic writing voice.
Conversely, do not ask Graduate poets to describe for you what it is like to live in a different state or list which literary magazines have published their work, because they will most definitely tell you.
THE POET WHO WANTS A Ph.D AND THE ONE THAT HAS A Ph.D: I combine these poets because they are basically the same when it comes to talking, though there is, undoubtedly, room for variation. These poets are the most “alive” of all poets—because most of them have published books or are very close to publishing books—and so their eyes are on fire. By that, I mean, when you speak to them, do not look them in the eye because you are not worthy. Even if you are a poet in this category, your worth to the American-Poetic Cannon will never reach the level of theirs, and nor will theirs reach yours. Talk to these poets about their lives, the different countries to which they have traveled, and the Established Poets they have met. Do not, under any circumstances, talk to these poets about death—that should go without saying. These poets are considerably the friendliest poets.
THE ESTABLISHED POETS: Established Poets are the highest level of poet.Your chance of meeting a poet of this sort is slim. If you work at a hyphenated place of business (ie. “coffee-shop”; “post-office”), you have as good as chance as anyone of an encounter, because such are places where all poets frequent. Established Poets are rather difficult to talk to, namely because there is much debate on whether such poets actually exist. The only known Established Poets are dead.
Whether you are a poet or a regular human being, my hope is that you use this outline to your advantage. It is true, though, that I, myself, am not sure how I learned any of this knowledge. I am sure, though, T.S. Eliot was never gifted with such a guide as this, so be grateful. From here, move on to the second and final strategy:
STEP #2: Remember, poets are difficult hold down, and if you get the chance to speak with one, keep calm, keep collected, and maybe throw in a quote from “Leaves of Grass.” It is not a fact that all poets like Walt Whitman. It is a fact that all poets love shaking hands.
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