Prose Feature: “No End To What Can Be Imagined: An Interview with Don Share” by Emilia Phillips

October 3, 2014

Don Share

Don Share is Editor of Poetry magazine. His most recent books are Wishbone (Black Sparrow), Union (Eyewear), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions); he has also edited a critical edition of Bunting’s poems for Faber and Faber. His translations of Miguel Hernández were awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and Premio Valle Inclán, and were recently republished in a revised and expanded edition by New York Review Books. His other books include Seneca in English (Penguin Classics), and The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of POETRY Magazine (University of Chicago Press), edited with Christian Wiman.

Emilia Phillips: At last year’s Sewanee Writers’ Conference, you told me a wonderful anecdote about how one could often tell where an old letterpress book fell in a print run based on the appearance of an “e” key, the letter used most frequently and therefore the one that wears down the quickest. In grad school, a prof once told me that we use a different part of our brain when we type on a computer than when we write by hand. Recently I had a conversation with another poet about whether or not the word processor has made poets more or less aware of the tangibility of text.

The argument for more…
One is more aware of the space of the page because of how easily we can move across it.

The argument for less…
We read and write a great deal of poetry that we never hold in our hands.

Here, I can’t help but think of Ellen Lupton describing text as “solid or liquid, body or blood.” As a poet and editor, how often are you thinking of poetic text as a tangible object? Do you think that writing has changed because many of us see more text on the computer screen than we do in letter type? If so, how do you see poetry continuing to evolve with technology? Does the medium inform the subject matter? For instance, if poets understand text as an intangible object, do the poems tend to engage more abstractions?

Don Share: There’s no question, in my mind at least, that Lupton’s description (and it’s important to call it that, and not a scientific definition) pertains both to texts and to bodies: I’m not much of a theorist, but as a working myth or proposition, I suppose I’d like to think that texts are epiphenomena of our bodily existence. How can it be otherwise? Our minds, senses, and limbs conspire to orchestrate things that turn into poems, and as poets we use whatever technology there is at hand (literally!) to record our work: stylus and papyrus or baked tablets of mud; quill, pencil and pen; type in cases; typewriters; word processors (remember those?); computers. The history of poetry tells us over and over again about those who, either by tradition or because of their material and political situations, have no other instrument but memory (theirs and others’) to transmit their work to others. So though I don’t doubt that in some ways poetry evolves with technology, this seems natural enough and unsurprising. I try very hard not to meditate much on this, because for me, anyway, it’d be putting the cart before the poetry horse.

That said, most of my life is devoted these days to editing and producing a poetry magazine, and that’s very hands on: my small staff and I are makers, and the result is a physical object: a codex which includes carefully curated visual artwork, whose cover stock and interior paper and ink have a characteristic and arguably delicious aroma, a font and style hierarchy designed to embody the poems and prose we publish, and so on. In addition, we have a digital edition of the magazine for phones and tablets, and it is largely hand coded, tweaked meticulously by hand and eye. There’s also a Braille edition, which you read with your fingertips. So we’re up to our eyeballs in materiality, you could say, at Poetry magazine. And that Poetry exists in mind-to-hand-to-eye-and-ear formats (I’m now including our podcasts, in which you can hear poets’ voices) is not simply an artifact of the history of technology; these embodiments exist and persist for proven reasons, mainly that people take pleasure in poetry itself and also, inexorably, in the magazine as an object. As for what parts of the brain we use, and so on, and the effects of technology, etc., I doubt that there’s any simple explanation, and if there were I’d try to be free of it, myself.

All that said, I spent a lot of time working on a doctoral dissertation in the good old “history of the book” field, and studied print technology and how it affects the transmission of poetry, so I remain extremely interested in how poems come to us. People forget that revision, thought to be a craft issue today, is largely made feasible by kinds of technology that allow poets to see their work in the process of its being printed, something that didn’t exist a couple of centuries ago; or that poets as near to us in time as John Clare and Keats relied on compositors and editors to punctuate their poems. And before that, there were seldom fixed texts of poems, given their transmission and permutation through dissemination in manuscript. Poems are more than disembodied abstract entities hovering in and before the mind like ghosts; they have printing and publication histories that can’t be ignored, that take us down to, yes, the level of the letter on a page. Ushashi Dasgupta, writing about work by James A. Secord on books and readers in the Victorian age, recently summarized the benefits of locating books and magazines in context: “cost, sales, quality of type and paper, page layout, binding, editions and revisions” determine “audience, reception and impact.” It’s not metaphysics. Poems are made, not born.

EP: The very day you answered the previous question, a conference student said to me that the word “write” feels one-dimensional and inaccurate when it comes to poetry; rather, he said, “made” was the more appropriate answer. This put me in mind of something I heard in grad school, that the process of making anything—supper, a cabinet, a painting—has its analogies to making a poem. That’s why I can’t help but read any poem about making as a kind of ars poetica, and I feel like there are a lot of poems these days about making. A surgeon reorganizing veins, wood being carved for a canoe, etcetera. Does an ars poetica have to be intentional? Or do you feel that, as listeners, we can’t help but parable-ize these process narratives and extrapolate them to our own art?

DS: Your student is onto something, and I suppose we could invoke here the Scottish term, makar – “someone skilled in the crafting or making of controlled, formal poetry with intricate or involved diction and effects,” as Wikipedia so credulously puts it… and you can follow the link there to the UNESCO City of Literature website which has a list of the stones of Makar’s Court to make the point, pardon the pun, more concrete. Yet I hesitate when American poets mistake their work for “made” things: usually, more craftwork goes into the object embodying the poem (a book, a broadside, a stone) than into the text itself. Our culture values spontaneity and immediacy, to which making is antithetical. I direct dubious readers to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s letters in the recent collection of them, Midway (edited by Stephen Bann) should they like to get an accurate sense of the expense of agony, waste, and time that goes into making an object. So analogies, great, but let’s not flatter ourselves.

Let me here quote Basil Bunting’s famous “take a chisel to write,” from Brigflatts, for an incisive formulation of what I mean. I think, too, of Matthew Nienow’s poems—a writer who really does make things, and writes about that so beautifully:

Ode to the Gain

gain—a bevel cut into plank ends in traditional lapstrake boat construction that allows otherwise lapped planks to lay flush at stem and transom.

There’s the paring chisel’s purpose
in the steamed cedar strake, its long warp

laid strong against the bench,
whose pocked surface is the book

of what has already been made,
or marred in learning’s wake—& clamped

now in the jaws one is
waiting for its match, for the chisel to elaborate

the pencil’s scribed hypothesis, under which
lies another path, & through a tilting eye

the curving bevel’s made, the chisel rolling
back tight scrolls of thinnest grain & what bright

sleeves begin to fleece the floor; there is a lack
given to the wood, some short song cut loose

from the lignin’s name, that a longer &
more buoyant melody be made.

As for the ars poetica, O! that’s a vast subject. I’ll be brief. Most of what poets proclaim about their work or poetics is belied fascinatingly by what they actually do. For me (and I’m a collector of manifestos!), the ars p. in English ran out of luck after Ben Jonson’s blank verse version of the Horace, viz Archibald Macleish’s and even Czesław Miłosz’s poems of that title. As Dorothea Lasky’s update has it: “I am no good / Goodness is not the point anymore.”

Except for fallibility (which is universal) there’s a big difference, and thank goodness this is so, between a surgeon and a poet. There may be arses poetica and parables and other forms of Parnassian guff underwriting what we think we’re doing as poets, but pretty as these are, they’re inadequate when it comes to what goes on in the world.

EP: As a collector of manifestos, you’re likely aware of the Manifesto Project being edited by Rebecca Hazelton and Alan Michael Parker. I wrote something and submitted it, but I have to admit, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I often find it easier to hone in on what other poets are doing rather than identify what I’m doing. As a poet and the editor of Poetry, do you feel the same way? Is it easier for you to talk about what a poet’s doing in a submission than in your own work?

DS: I can understand the difficulty! I collect manifestos (have a huge file of them, alongside Mary Ann Caws’ great anthology, among others), and again: I find them fascinating because they have almost no relation to writing that actually gets done. The chasm between one’s principles (or more accurately, one’s avowed, expressed principles) and the work itself is a fascinating space. I suppose you could say that I have an anthropological interest in the behavior of poets, including their making of pronouncements and throwing down of rhetorical and other gauntlets. But I’m glad nobody’s ever asked me for a manifesto. What is it that these documents make manifest? I’m happier thinking of them being issued by a head of state, or a government, or a political party or candidate, than by a poet. And I almost had the idea that the Hate Socialist Collective (aka Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr)’s “Leave the Manifesto Alone: A Manifesto” would be the last word on the subject; but what was I thinking? Anyway, as far as my own talking about what I do in my own work: that’s easy, and I’d never issue principles based on something so limited as what I myself do”—but that’s not a subject of interest to very many people, whereas what I do as the editor of Poetry is. So the latter wins by default. As a practical matter, I only ever talk about what a poet’s doing in her or his work on our podcast, and I don’t have to articulate anything about that till they turn on the microphone!

EP: Your anthropological interest in poets is fascinating because I think many poets would have an anthropological, or rather psychological, interest in the editor of Poetry. How does he think? is really What’s he going to think when he reads my work? and therefore becomes How can I work that to my advantage? Have any stories you’d be willing to tell about any anonymous poets who have tried to work you into publishing them? Is it evidence of any kind of community-enforced behavior? Is it a good or bad thing for poetry?

DS: I feel as if there’s a poet-editor confidentiality privilege, so it wouldn’t be right to tell tales! Maybe over a drink at AWP? About the most I can say is that often when I see a nasty blog post or Facebook comment about the magazine, I know, though its other readers wouldn’t, that the person who wrote it was the recipient of a rejection from Poetry. That response comes with the territory, I suppose. So does the occasional really rude email message. I send out work and get rejections, too, so I understand the disappointment and bitterness of getting work back. But the main thing is this: I always presume that people send their work in good faith, and I read work in turn in good faith. People who believe otherwise or perhaps just spoiling for a fight, and I emphasize the word spoiling there. A blunt answer is that I think like a human being; so when you submit work, please realize that there’s an actual person on the other end of the transaction. Editors are not bitbuckets, machines, unfeeling heels, or evil masterminds.

I can’t say I’ve detected the slightest evidence of community-enforced behavior, no—probably because there isn’t really a community of poets. That said, I couldn’t begin to tell you what’s good or bad for poetry. All I think when I read a poem is, “I wonder what it’ll be like to read this poem!” And if you ask me what kind of poem I’m looking for, the answer is: the kind of poem I didn’t know I was looking for. I keep an open mind as I read submissions because the opening of minds is one of the highest values poetry can affirm. But there’s nothing mysterious about it: I read submissions as, well, as reader of poems.

EP: When did you start reading poetry? Start sending out work?

DS: I’ve been reading poetry since I can remember. The first poems really I knew about were school things like Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” which we were unpleasantly forced to memorize, and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Being from Tennessee, I quite liked the Robert Service poem and imitated it, churning out awful ballads by the bushelful about my life in junior high school. I had the idea that poets were dead white guys with long beards, though, and didn’t know much about living poets till Allen Ginsberg came to Memphis, and seeing him read and meeting him changed my life. I wasn’t an English major in college, and didn’t take any English courses, but I took up Pound, Eliot, Olson, Williams, Marianne Moore, H.D., and other modernists thanks to a comp lit professor who made a big impression on me. But really, I got into poetry thanks to undergraduate courses I took with Elaine Pagels (whom I had a crush on) that examined Biblical texts in the context of the Ancient Near East: you have to think about those texts, it turns out, in ways similar to the way one thinks about poems. I was a musician, having taught myself to play guitar and piano, and wrote song lyrics from childhood on. But I started writing poetry very, very hesitantly. A guy I showed my first poems to ridiculed them – he’d had student work in some anthology, and was therefore quite the expert, so I just became determined to write them, anyway. Never looked back. I first sent poems out to all kinds of very small magazines, and had some luck getting into them; they’re all extinct now – a coincidence, I hope. Eventually, I sent poems to Poetry when John Frederick Nims was editor, which tells you how long I’ve been around. But I didn’t get anything published in the magazine till Joseph Parisi’s time. Being in Poetry was one of the best things ever! But it only happened once.

EP: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about your job?

DS: Not just my job, let’s say, but that of anyone who does poetry editing, right? Let’s see. That nobody really reads their poems. That it’s all about who you know. (I mean “whom you know.”) That a nice note isn’t sincere. That our existence proves there’s a mainstream and an avant-garde and gatekeepers. That we have black helicopters.

EP: Do you see the editors of Poetry as a kind of lineage? Or do you see each editorship as a distinct incarnation of the magazine? What about the magazine’s history do you want to preserve? What do you want to shake up?

DS: Lineage, well sure. It is, you could say, like a family tree: there are some undeniable resemblances and keen differences. But the simile is somewhat misleading. You couldn’t imagine any folks more unrelated, in the end, than, say, me and Harriet, or me and Christian Wiman. We’d be awkward at a party together. That’s, in fact, as it should be. We’re not here to perpetuate a sameness. The resemblances consist instead of things like, oh, our each being people from nowhere; people who are characters, oddballs, stubborn; people with an overwhelming sense of the big picture and the telling details, and so on. Each editorship is certainly a distinct incarnation of Harriet’s founding and enduring vision of The Open Door, the only metaphor that ultimately links us. Anyway, I don’t think about preserving history; our history is preserved elsewhere, and I’m obliged to be forward-looking. I think of our history as something to be lived up to, not something to be relived. And I’m not exactly here to shake anybody up, though poetry at its best will do that.

EP: What was the last poem that really shook you up? Mind taking us into it?

DS: The last poem that really shook me up was “Vernacular Owl” by Thomas Sayers Ellis, which appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry. I had a kind of Prufrock moment when I first saw it. I accepted it within minutes of receiving the submission, something that hardly ever happens. It’s a poem for Amiri Baraka, but more than mere homage, it’s a howl, a shout and shout-out and shoot out, a tour de force: a poem of our precise and perilous moment, which makes it a rarity. It’s great on the page, and pretty unexcerptable; folks should really hear the audio of it on our podcast, in which Thomas reads the poem accompanied by James Brandon Lewis on sax. Nothing I say can do it justice, and the poem doesn’t need me. I try to talk about it on the podcast, but I scarcely knew where to begin… Anyway: that poem shook me up and I’m still shaking.

EP: Wow! What an incredible poem; its breadth is astounding as well as the way it uses all connotations of each word at once.

I wonder too if you’ve ever finished writing one of your own poems and had the same sort of reaction, like it came from somewhere else. Tell me about it.

DS: If my poems came from somewhere else I could feel less responsible for them, I guess, but no: for better or worse they’re mine. I love it that Jack Spicer said that the poet is like a radio receiving transmissions from a Martian source: that a poet is invaded by the parasite of a poem’s source, and so on; but he was more talented than I am. For me, it’s like tickling yourself: I can’t thrill myself with my own work. Geoffrey Hill has expressed contempt for the idea of poems as “selfies,” and I’m with him; so I never feel impressed by my own work. The whole point is for somebody else to care in the end.

EP: Have you ever had to convince a contributor of the merits of their work?

DS: Hm, interesting, and good, question! Yes, I have. It’s very striking to me that in submissions to the magazine and in things like Lilly/Rosenberg Fellowship applications that very talented people aren’t always the best judges of their own work. I know it will sound like I say that with some presumption, but I’m convinced of it. Writers don’t always put their best feet forward. So I do feel that it’s important and necessary for me to encourage poets at a point in their work where they’re doing something courageous, but they feel vulnerable. I’m just now going back and forth with a very young poet about a poem that I think was revised away from its originating glory. “You don’t have to do any more! Your work here is done!” Of course, ultimately I have to convince readers of the merits of the poets’ work, but that’s another story.

EP: With so many canonical poems having first appeared in Poetry, how do you think the work being produced and then published in Poetry today will stand up to the next hundred plus years?

DS: It’s a relief to say that there’s no way for me to know. I just hope that like my predecessors, I leave behind a decent track regard. But I don’t regard the ultimate goal of my work to be canon-formation. That is something incidental, and it happens after the fact. My job is to make the best poetry magazine I can, which means putting poems and poets out there for readers; and in a larger sense, to reflect what’s really going on in poetry and in the world around us. That’s what forms the basis of any judgment to come.

EP: How do you go about creating an issue? With your issues, it seems like there’s a greater intentionality in creating a unified experience between poems, like an album, rather than a sort of “greatest hits” from the submission pile?

DS: As you can imagine, I read submissions during a great many of my waking hours. So I accumulate poems and prose pieces that rest in great sheaves and drifts on my desk. We work on about four issues at a time, being a monthly magazine. I start, as poets themselves do, with blank pages that ask to be filled. All that work I’ve read and thought about has gotten itself lodged in my mind (I even dream about submissions), so there’s a kind of meditative preparation that’s been going on prior to the time when I pluck poems and essays from the stacks on my desk. I juxtapose things. It’s intuitive. And somehow each comes together on time – with enormous help from my ingenious and talented colleagues. The print magazine, being a codex, is book like. So the goal is to create a sequence of works that are somehow in dialogue with each other It’s like a big dinner table conversation in which every voice gets to be heard. Sometimes, we have to move things around to fit in with the paper signatures, and the result is even more surprising and interesting to me… and, I hope in the end, to our readers.

EP: Do you see yourself as an educator in addition to an editor? How so?

DS: I never was able to get any kind of academic teaching job, so maybe there is indeed a teacher or pedant inside me somewhere. At worst, I guess I can be like what Gertrude Stein said of Pound: a village explainer, which is fine if you’re a village. (Are we a village?) But there’s no syllabus or curriculum: I don’t have a plan or program I’m advocating. I’m happy to hear, as I sometimes do, that the magazine, our podcasts, the website, can be a means to learn about poetry and (as I say above) the world. Yet I would never use the magazine as a podium. That’s not for me to do. The poems, the prose in the back of the book, may serve as sources of illumination: they do the educating. So month to month, I just go on my nerve; I don’t have palpable designs on anyone… to wrench a few things away from O’Hara and Keats.

EP: Does poetry lend itself to new media and innovative textuality more than other genres? If so, how?

DS: I don’t know about more, but poetry certainly can do that. We’ve got apps and a website and podcasts and digital publishing projects at the magazine and at the Poetry Foundation, so every day I see ways in which poetry and new media connect with each other. If you want to know why poetry isn’t dead, part of the reason is that it keeps happening. And so does the development of technology. They go hand in hand. Or maybe digit in digit! But there’s also a way in which poetry is rather conservative – in both the bad and good senses of the world. However it comes to you, a poem is a poem.

EP: On the rare occasion that there’s poetry in the news, is Poetry and the Poetry Foundation contacted as a part of the research and discussion? Has the media recently influenced Americans’ perception of poetry?

DS: Well, the question is really about the media’s perception of poetry, which is not the same thing exactly as America’s perception of it. Or so I hope. Typical stories resurrect either pieties or beaten horses; there’s often a tone of derision or cynicism. It’s a running gag among poets on Twitter and Facebook: it’s a new work, here’s the latest “Is Poetry Dead?” / “Is Poetry Relevant” story. Folks might recall the story in a major newspaper about Donald Hall’s beard, for example. Then, of course, poets take the bait and respond in ways that probably don’t filter through to the media’s general audience. Robert Polito addressed all this succinctly in an interview I just read today: “Sometimes poetry, and often the arts generally, are presented—defended, even—in surprisingly sentimental terms.” And he suggests that the real work we can do, in the magazine and the Poetry Foundation, is to change the conversation. I can sign on to that! In fact, I have…

EP: What’s the biggest innovation you’ve seen in poetry in the last five years? Does it transcend trend-status?

DS: I never worry about trends or the Zeitgeist. That gets taken care of all by itself. But every time a poem connects with someone there’s transcendence, there’s innovation. There’s no end to what can be imagined.

 

EP: Why do you think that the great Zeitgeist record is stuck on the question “Is poetry dead?” It seems like it’s not often poets who are asking this question. How do we move on from this discussion, which seems to actually do more damage than the issues it broaches?

DS: The thing is that poetry really does seem dead to lots of people. Look, most everybody knows how to “read,” as Robert puts it, a movie, a World Cup game, all kinds of things. People like to feel that they’re pretty expert when it comes to films or TV shows they watch, or their favorite sports teams. Or the weather. There’s no reason they couldn’t do the same thing with poetry, but where’s the incentive? We move on not by convincing people (including ourselves), but showing people that, to take something from Robert again, “The skills that you learn reading poetry are great preparation for life circumstances across a diversity of worlds.” If someone asks whether poetry is dead, what it means is that they’re dead to poetry. So let’s bring it to life.

Chad Davidson*: How do you establish your list of poems for a public reading?

DS: I try to figure out what the folks I’m in a given room with can reasonably be expected to endure.

EP: Now, Don, please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

DS: Where will your poems be in ten years?

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and prose editor of 32 Poems. For more information, visit her website: http://www.emiliaphillips.com

The 32 Poems Prose Feature presents essays, reviews, and interviews about poetry. If you have questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia Phillips at emiliaphillips(at)32poems(dot)com

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