From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out with Wesleyan University Press. Named After Death is the title of her chapbook, forthcoming from Banango Editions. Her poems have appeared, or will soon, in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and many others. She was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship for poetry in 2013. She is Editor at Saturnalia Books and co-founder of Submittrs. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and son.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: I’d like to start with the role of silence in your first collection, Mr. West, a collection that, among other things, addresses and obsesses over the life, public and otherwise, of Kanye West. There are moments in the text—lyrics, song titles, etc.— that have been redacted. I assume that it’s related to copyright issues, but as I got further and further into the book, it made me feel like there was a haunt in the text: silence and, therefore, the ineffable. What’s unknown, what can’t be said. Here’s an example:


How do you read those passages? How have the redactions changed the poems for you?

Sarah Blake: Silence is where poetry lives for me. I read poetry in silence. I write poetry in silence. Still, my first reaction to this question was surprise. When I think of this book, I think of Kanye, and when I think of Kanye, I think of music. So the book is associated with sound—it runs alongside it. Certainly when I first included the lyrics in my poems, when they didn’t need to be redacted, the poems had a different kind of sound. This version of the book, with redactions, still feels new to me. (They are the result of copyright issues.) One of my hopes for the redactions is that it might make readers turn to the songs. That it might give the book two lives: one in the moment of reading, and one in the background of another art. But I definitely see how the book starts in sound, with poems like “Ha Ha Hum” and “Con Moto,” and moves more and more towards silence. Maybe it’s a moment of defeat. The book comes all this way, learns so much about Kanye, has spent years following him and his work, and is still faced with the ineffable, the unknown. The knowing has taught me above all else how the unknown exists. And so silence.

And there is such success in that defeat. My favorite success of the book might be tracing the space between people and embracing it, as the acknowledgment of it might be what truly leads to empathy and compassion.

EP: Interesting that you landed on empathy and compassion there, because I had it in the back of my mind to talk to you about those very things. The reason is, when I first heard about the book’s project, I admittedly had my doubts: would it be shallow, like celeb culture usually is? Would it be egregiously ironic? Would it push me out if I didn’t listen to Kanye? I found that none of these fears were true. Instead, the poems had an intimacy to them. I don’t want to say plainspokenness or earnestness, because both could easily be taken in a derogatory way. Rather, one might call them tender yet steadfast. In that way, they are meditative, and meditative the way the best ekphrastic poetry is: they push beneath the surface of image and root out the human maker, the human subject. So, two questions for you here: 1. Do you see these poems as a kind of ekphrastic project? and 2. Is the drive to empathize with someone who seems (to most of us) almost untouchable the kind of endeavor that is best suited for poetry?

SB: Tender, steadfast, earnest, and plainspoken. I think you can use all of those words! I feel as if there’s a certain style of poetry that’s like magic. You think it’s plainspoken as you read it, but can you imagine anyone actually talking like that? Ha! Maybe it would be pretty great actually to live in a world where more people went around talking a sort of plainspoken lyricism. But I’d miss how we do talk then, wouldn’t I?

But to get to your questions . . .

  1. The poems about songs are certainly ekphrastic. One art reaching out to another. But the poems that are biographical, and so the book on a whole isn’t ekphrastic to me. It might even be dangerous to call it such. Another bit of language that could flatten Kanye West to less than a person, even if it’s to a word we love, like art.
  1. To empathize with another person is perhaps one of the best things anyone could set out to do. Sometimes we don’t need a drive. Sometimes it comes naturally. At those times when we need a drive, because of some difference between us, then it might be all the more crucial. Is it suited for poetry? Yes! Is it best suited for poetry? That’s interesting to think about. I don’t know. I guess it depends on the reader/viewer. For some people a movie might make them feel something stronger than a book might. For some people a book of fiction, for some nonfiction, for some poetry. Maybe it doesn’t help to consider what does it best as long as it’s done over and over and over.

EP: The presentation of the text is often varied. You use italics, quotations, different size text (“Kanye’s Digestive System”), etc. It’s not distracting, but I’m wondering how you negotiated this formatting and its necessity.

SB: I have to say, I’m very happy I knew nothing about the production of a book when I was writing these poems. All of the quotes, the sizes, the italics, etc. came out in very early drafts of the poems. Even the long lines took on a different life on a smaller page. And the long right justified lines needed a mini-indent on the right that my production editor had never used before. But everyone at Wesleyan and UPNE supported all of the choices the poems had made on the page. I think they did an amazing job translating it to book form, and I’m so grateful for that and for them.

EP: I like this distinction of the text as a manuscript and the text as a book. I suppose it implies that some of us are never really writing a book. We’re writing the manuscript, and it’s the job of the publishers to “write” the book, so to speak. Once the first book came out, did it feel new again? Have there been any surprises in reading your own work as a book? Have any of the poems felt new to you or did they make you feel like “wow, did I write this?” I’m always interested in the ways that we celebrate our own work, and the way that our work has its own life.

SB: Every time I sent the manuscript out, I reread the first ten pages to make sure I still believed in the book. Sometimes I read the whole thing. So I spent a year being almost overly familiar with the poems. After I handed in the final copy to Wesleyan, I knew page proofs would be coming, so I tried not to read any of it. I didn’t know how to rid myself of the closeness to my poems, and I was worried that would make me incapable of proofreading. I think I spent three months completely away from it. When the page proofs came and I saw the poems again, saw them with new fonts on a new page, I pretended it was a new thing. And it felt like one. I convinced myself for a bit. When the book arrived, many months later, I didn’t read it. I looked at all the pieces—the jacket, the spine, the table of contents, the section breaks, the notes, etc. But I didn’t read the poems. It wasn’t until I was planning the first reading that I got back into it. After a few readings and interviews, I feel like I know the book better than I ever have. But I have the “wow, did I write this?” feeling about the whole book all the time just because I’m shocked I wrote a book about Kanye.

EP: Talk to me a little bit about the shock of coming to subject matter. For me, it seems more productive to be surprised by finding out what our obsessions are and how they translate to our poetic material.

SB: It’s funny because I’m never shocked about writing one or two poems about something or in this or that form. Years ago, I had the reputation in workshop of being the poet that’s hardest to pin down because of how different everything was that I brought in. (I can still see that in this book but the overwhelming constancy of the presence of Kanye smoothes it out.) But then I am surprised when a project keeps going, when it reaches book length. And maybe it’s because of my history of experimenting that I find that sustained focus so surprising. Actually, since this book, there’s been a real shift in my writing towards long poems. I think I learned something about myself, my mind, and how I can sustain something quite long when I want to.

But I’ve gotten a little off track here! I am shocked I wrote a whole book about Kanye for a few reasons. I’m surprised I went from liking his music to being a superfan that knows way more about his life and his work than is normal. I’m surprised I’ve positioned myself as an expert of sorts and now in interviews I’m asked not just about my book but for opinions on Kanye. I’m also surprised I’ve positioned myself as a pop culture writer. And really this is just general surprise at the success of the book—I wrote it, I found a press for it, it exists now as an object and also as my first book, my debut, the start of my career, officially, which means it is doing the entirety of the work to define who I am as a writer right now. I’m surprised that the little girl that was near silent in school for a good ten years is now an outspoken pop culture writer. The book is so much about the public vs. the private, but I’m feeling that divide in my life for the first time. My identity as author of Mr. West doesn’t totally align with my identity at home. I think that’s where most of the shock is coming from.

EP: I’m intrigued by your sense of identity as an author vs. identity of the self. Do you feel that in some ways we live double lives: one in the day-to-day, one on the page?

SB: I certainly feel like I’m living a double life. Though that sort of equates them in size. My life on the page feels so much smaller than my life day-to-day. Maybe just in terms of how much time I get to spend on it. Maybe because I feel a little lost as a stay-at-home mom. Though I also love it. Partly because it means I do get to spend a lot of time writing, marketing, and editing—at least compared to any other stage of my life. I spent most of my adult life working, through school and grad school, through temp agencies and adjuncting. I feel strange and wandering and wondering in my life as I’m trying to live it. I don’t even know how to talk about it. I don’t spend any of my day feeling like an author.

EP: Are you working on a second book? If so, tell me a little bit about it. I know that some feel like their second books have to do something different than their first. Others see the second book as a natural extension of their first book’s concerns. Do you feel like poets live book to book?

SB: After I finalized a draft of Mr. West and started sending it out, I started to write a long narrative poem, In a Wood, with Clearings, it’s Spring. It’s in second person so there’s no gender and no race to the speaker. The person is lost in the woods so there’s no internet or music or media. It’s the anti-Mr. West. I think it will be my second book, but I’m not sure. Which is all to say, I wasn’t thinking about what my second book needed to do. And I’m not sure what I think second books should do. I know I love falling hard for a poet’s work and reading all of their books in a row and watching how their work and their fascinations grew and changed. I know I have no choice but to do something different with my second book because I can’t write about Kanye West forever. It took quite some time to untangle how, when I thought about Kanye, I thought about poems, and, when I thought about poems, I thought about Kanye. The birth of my son could be called the great untangler, and I was grateful to have the huge external source of my son pushing me along in rediscovering myself as a centering, driving force in my poems.

With regard to whether poets live book-to-book, I only know that I don’t. I’ve started at least five very different projects in the last few years. I don’t know which project will race to the front in terms of some chronological order. I’m happy to wait and see what happens.

EP: Is there a poet whose arc across books you particularly admire? Why?

SB: Marie Howe’s books come to mind. All of her books are wonderful, and then the arc of the books captures her career and life as a poet in an amazing way. The Good Thief shows her becoming a poet, the lightning strike poems, compiled and arranged. What the Living Do is the book she had to write because of the death of her brother. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time is the book she wanted to write. There’s an ease in that book that I love. I’m sure I’m making assumptions and reading into things, but we’re allowed to do that as readers, right? It, no doubt, has helped me look at her books this way because then they mimic, on a larger, grander scale, my trip through writing. The poems came as they came through my time as a student until my grandfather died, and then I was pulled under by that and the poems came out from underneath it until it lifted, or until the poems lifted it, and then I wrote Mr. West in a state of relief and the book benefited from the whole journey that led there.

EP: Talk to me about your use of sections in a single poem, as in “I Want a House To Raise My Son In.” If you had to write a mini craft lecture on the function of sections, what would you say? What are the responsibilities of a sectioned poem vs. a sequence/series of poems?

SB: Oh my goodness, I was just thinking about this yesterday! I love thinking about the responsibilities of forms (and of poems). But I was specifically thinking about the responsibilities of the sectioned poem yesterday. Ok, if I were trying to be brief, I would say…

  1. A poet has to test each individual section for two things—make sure it’s not actually a poem on its own disguising itself as a section, and make sure it’s got enough going on, enough meat on the bone.
  2. A poet should test the order of the sections. Even if it will just be changed back, reorder it, listen to it. If a change doesn’t stick, it can still reveal a missing piece.
  3. The most important thing about the order is how the poem addresses its stakes. An unsectioned, short poem has a lot more freedom with the stakes. They can reveal themselves at the beginning, middle, or end. But in a sectioned poem, especially a long one, the stakes need to be engaged early. In the middle, they don’t need to be heightened, but they can’t be forgotten. At the end, they need to be both resolved and, either, heightened or deepened, a pivot is maybe the best way to describe it. (In first drafts, we often write to discover the stakes, leaving them towards the end of a poem, which is why it’s especially important to test out the order of a long, sectioned poem, to see if it can gain great energy in moving them back to the front and find great strength in making sure they’re addressed.)
  4. And maybe the most important thing overall is that the form is the right form for the poem. That the sections serve the content best. When I think of what sections offer, I think of multiple threads, disjointedness, space. I’m all for those things going in an unsectioned poem too. But I’m not sure how I feel about a sectioned poem that isn’t making full use of what sections can encompass and how they can move.

And a last note on the functions of a sectioned poem. I find I often use them to move through a story, a large or long story, that I want my freedom to move within and through.

Well, that wasn’t very brief at all.

EP: Is there something you’ve recently seen in contemporary poems—or writing in general—that really gets on your nerves? Any trends or ticks that stand out to you in a bad way?

SB: Ha! Everything. Nothing. I’m not sure it helps anything for me to publicly denounce the trends that bother me.

EP: Do you ever have to check yourself and say, “Oh, I think I’m doing that trendy thing in my poem.” I know I do.

SB: Yes! Almost a year ago I wrote a few poems that were all functioning in a similar way. I recognized features of poems I’d been reading. And I admired those poets and their writing but something felt off. Then I read Jenny Browne’s “The People Who Feel No Pain,” and it hit me so hard—the movement that I love and crave and want for my own work, and which I had somewhat forgotten in the reading list I’d become accidentally immersed in for a few months. It was so strange. And it’s probably happened so many times, times I haven’t noticed. It’s making me more mindful of my reading list. When I’m reading a new batch of authors, I make sure I’m also rereading an old favorite so that I remember where I situate myself.

Ryan Teitman*: Is there a contemporary poet out there who you wish was more widely known?

SB: Going through the process of selling a book, and finding out about marketing and sales figures, and learning more about how these things differ for different presses, and seeing how this same process is going for my fiction writer friends and nonfiction writer friends, and understanding the money and time and press involved—I want every contemporary poet more widely known. Honestly.

EP: Now, Sarah, provide us with a question to ask the next interviewee.

SB: How do you see humor functioning in your poems or poems in general? What’s the most interesting or crucial thing about humor in poetry for you?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:

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Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: In a statement accompanying your poem “Another Country” on the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day for January 9, 2014, you say that you often return to the work of Larry Levis when you need inspiration and that this poem arrived after reading his poem “The Map” from his second collection, The Afterlife. Talk to me a little bit about how reading others’ poems returns you to yours. Are you ever afraid that your subsequent poems will sound like someone else’s? Could you call these poems “imitations?”

Ryan Teitman: Strangely, I think the opposite has happened—the more I’ve imitated others, the more my own voice has asserted itself. In graduate school, I read a lot of different poets and wrote a lot of imitations. But the more I imitated others formally, the more I began to sound like myself. In writing an imitation, the most interesting moments come from the parts of yourself that you can’t cover up—the parts that break through the constraints you’ve put up in order to sound like someone else.

And, to complicate matters more, I think the question of poems “sounding like someone else’s” is an interesting—and slippery—one. If you look at W.S. Merwin’s poems now and his poems from The Moving Target, don’t they look like they were written by different people? They were, in a way. The Merwin of 50 years ago is not the same person as Merwin now. And as for me, the poems I’m writing now tend to be different from the ones in my first book. I’m happy about that. I think I’m more afraid of imitating myself than sounding like someone else.

EP: I know you’ve been working on your second book manuscript, The Dream Protects the Dreamer. Would you mind telling us how you’ve avoided imitating yourself from the first book, Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012). What new things are you finding in your work?

RT: In my first book, I think I was interested in the spectacle of a poem; now I seem more interested in the gestures a poem can make. My new poems are more stripped down and controlled, and I think that’s a good thing. The poems in Litany were also heavily laden with the language and cadences of Catholicism; the new poems—not so much. That impulse will always be there (and I’ve had to work to check it) but now I think it’s much more in the background.

My formal choices have been the most interesting to me. I’ve always written a lot of prose poems (and there are a fair amount of them in the new manuscript), but my interest in prose poetry has led me to writing a lot of sonnets. I feel like the sonnet and the prose poem are cousins: They both depend on the turn. A sonnet without a turn is just a configuration of rhyme and meter and a prose poem without some sort of turn in it is just a block of prose. I’m sure there’s a smarter poet than me out there who could more intelligently articulate the connection.

EP: I’d never thought about prose poems and sonnets in that way, and now I can see the link. Do you think the prose poem and the sonnets should be standard issue for the poet’s toolbox? Why or why not?

RT: I do, but in a qualified way. The sonnet is probably the most enduring received form in the English language, and some of the most interesting recent poetry is prose poetry. So I think every poet should be able to understand the nuances of those forms.

But on the other hand, I don’t think any poet should be writing a sonnet just because they think they need to write sonnets to be a poet. (The same goes for prose poems.) I’m a strong believer that the poem-in-progress has a form it wants the poet to discover, and if that form doesn’t every happen to be a sonnet (or prose poem, or sestina), then so be it. So I don’t believe that poets need to write in certain “poetic” forms, but I also think it’s crucial to have the knowledge to be open to whatever form a poem wants to take.

(I make my students write sonnets, sestinas, and prose poems in my classes, but beginning poets should be trying out everything. I wrote many bad sestinas as an undergrad.)

EP: Speaking of form, I see a lot of poets making the rules for some of their own forms, particularly when it comes to repetition of a phrase or recurrence of an image. Do you make up your own forms or rules to play by? If so, do you find that you work your way out of the form? Does it hem you in?

RT: I don’t often start a poem thinking about form. I almost always begin with an image or bit of language that’s interesting to me. I also have a tendency to start with a title first and work from there, but that often has limited success. An evocative title without something to back it up is usually a losing proposition.

EP: The title of your first collection is Litany for the City, and inside we find a number of poems that engage Philadelphia, your home town. I’ve been doing a lot of reading of literature about cities in preparation for a literature course I’m teaching next semester. I’m planning on including an excerpt of the poems in your book in our course packet. At any point in the writing process, did you see yourself as trying to reconstruct the city through poems? Are poems particularly suited to represent a place or recreate an experience of that place?

RT: At the time I was writing Litany for the City, I was living in Bloomington, and I’m pretty sure those poems were a way for me to rebuild my own little version of Philadelphia in south central Indiana. But what was most interesting was that my reconstruction wouldn’t just let itself be a reconstruction—it started pushing on those boundaries. The first half of the book is about Philadelphia, but the second half starts to become about cities in general, and what makes a city a city.

One of my favorite poems is Adam Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov.” But as great as the detail and language are in that poem, I don’t feel like it really gives me a sense of what Lvov was like. Certainly not in the same way that, say, Joseph Mitchell’s essays on New York City give you such a vivid feeling of life in the city. But that’s not really the point of Zagajewski’s poem.

“To Go to Lvov” is such a perfect evocation of how it feels to lose a place that it breaks my heart every time I read it. I don’t know that poems are necessarily the best way of representing a place, but they’re amazing vehicles for recreating the experience of a place.

Consider Bashō’s oft-quoted haiku (translated by the wonderful Jane Hirshfield):

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Such a complex feeling in so few words! And I know that feeling very well.

Though I must admit I feel slightly differently about Bashō’s poem when I’m walking in my neighborhood in Philadelphia and a piece of garbage blows into my face.

EP: Bear with me for a minute while I wander down the path toward Metaphor. . . .

Sometimes when I think about how a poem works I picture them as gyroscope. Now, I’m no expert, so I take from this what you will, but I see poems affecting the movement of gimbals turning in different directions inside a frame. You could say one is for sound, another details, and the frame is the form and the rotor is the emotional or circumstantial motivation for writing. A gyroscope measures orientation, especially in the rotation of the earth.

Do poems help you orient yourself in the world? In your life?

RT: I like your metaphor, especially if you’re considering William Carlos Williams idea that a poem is a “machine made of words.” But if you’ll allow me, I’m going to turn it completely co-opt it.

From a craft aspect, I see the poem as gyroscope, with all of its elements keeping the whole in balance. But when thinking about your question—how poems help me orient myself in the world—it’s hard for me to think of the poem as this perfectly stable thing (even with the furious racing going on inside it).

If anything, my life is the gyroscope—trying desperately to stay in balance. So every morning I sit down and read Poetry Daily, first thing. To read and appreciate the poem, I have to really focus on it and still the other concerns (my job, the bills, the weird noise my car is making) that are spinning around in my head.

Poetry helps me still the world. Everything else slows down, and for the length of the poem, I get to have an experience with language as art.

EP: I hope it’s okay to ask about your work, because I’m always interested in the balance you speak about when poets leave academia. Would you mind talking a little bit about your job and how you balance life, a living, and poetry?

RT: It’s difficult sometimes. One of the great advantages of academia is that you (for the most part) get to set your own schedule. So I was very used to making a schedule that allowed me time to write.

It’s different now. I have an office, and—between nine and five—I have to be there. So I find other times for poetry: in the mornings on weekends, on the train ride to work. I’ve been trying to go to some of the poetry readings in Philadelphia.

Honestly, I haven’t written many poems in the last few months, but I don’t think that has anything to do with my job. I finished my second book of poems, and I’ve been sending it out to publishers. I really don’t know what to write next.

That caused me a lot of anxiety for a while. I felt like I needed a new “project.” When I mentioned that to a friend (a poet who’s much smarter than I am), he said: “Let yourself be lost.” I’ve been trying to listen to that.

EP: I suppose there’s that push-and-pull between I have time to write and I can write poetry because I have money and I’m not worrying about paying rent or buying food. Of course, these are questions all artists have, I suppose!

I was recently at a book signing event, and I found myself wedged between a popular historical nonfiction author and a novelist. Because I was in a corner, their lines blocked out anyone who was trying to have my book signed. With lower readership, poets have unique concerns when it comes to what means success for their books. What’s your idea of poetry success?

RT: It’s hard enough to get people interested in poetry without obstacles in the way! I feel like every writer I’ve talked to (not just poets) has a bunch of those stories. Doing a reading to an audience of two people. Flying to a reading with 20 copies of your book, only to fly home with those same 20 copies weighing down your suitcase. Having an elderly person tell you after a reading: “I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

But I think poetry success comes from finding real joy in the writing of the poems. That’s the key. And, every once in a while, someone will tell you that your poems meant something to them, or that they just enjoy your work, and that will mean everything. You’ll hold on to that.

Especially later when you get a “poison sandwich” rejection letter.

EP: After following your link to Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts’s article on the art of rejection, I’m thinking now of how writers, healthy writers that is, might reframe rejection as an essential element to craft, the drafting process. Do you see value to rejection? (It’s okay if you say “no!”) Perhaps I’ll tell you my thoughts after you share with us yours.

RT: No, I don’t see much value to rejection as an element of craft. I’ll explain.

Most of the time, the rejections we get don’t have any actual content to them. They’re form, or perhaps “form plus”—those rejections where an editor added a nice half sentence saying they enjoyed reading your work. (If I remember right from my editing days, that’s called “Rejection #2” in the submission manager.)

But I don’t begrudge magazines and presses for this; they’re deluged with submissions. They can’t send feedback, or else they’d never have time to actually publish anything.

I honestly think that looking at a rejection as a part of the revision process can be a little dangerous. A poem can be perfect and get rejected many times. And a poem can be awful and get published somewhere. So you just have to trust yourself, get feedback from people whose opinions your trust, and develop a critical eye for your own work.

I try to use common sense. If my manuscript gets rejected five times, that doesn’t mean it needs to be revised. But if my manuscript gets rejected 25 times, I should probably take a more critical look at it.

What do you think?

EP: I think that rejection reminds us to be humble and to not expect any success. Every time I get rejected, I return to my work with the notion that I’m going to writer an even better poem, regardless of whether or not that rejected poem is ultimately a good poem or not. I worry when writers get too comfortable in their own “voices,” whatever that means, and with their status. I often find these writers wind up being boring on the page.

But perhaps your answer has an element of self-care in it. We should have faith in our own work, and we shore ourselves up against criticism by becoming good editors for our own work.

The business of writing and the act of writing shouldn’t, I think, be intertwined. Do you feel like there’s a tendency within the community to value the business of writing more than the act of writing? Why or why not?

RT: I agree with you that the business of writing and the act of writing shouldn’t be intertwined. But your second question—about whether the business of writing is valued more than the act of writing—makes me think about every movie about writers I’ve ever seen.

Most of the time there’s a montage of someone pounding furiously at a keyboard (or typewriter, depending on the era), usually after some real life event has provoked an epiphany about the work. It makes me laugh every time. I’ve never had any epiphanies that drive me to sit down and write an entire book. I have, however, had epiphanies about whether or not I really want to use a semicolon in a particular line.

But I understand that this is how movies have to be made. They’re movies—they can’t show the writer staring for hours in silence at the screen. Or agonizingly deleting a day’s worth (or week’s worth or month’s worth) of writing. Or spending an entire afternoon trying to figure out the syntax of a single sentence.

Only with my closest friends, with whom I exchange drafts of poems, do I get a sense of their process. But with the rest of my friends, and with acquaintances in the writing community, I only see the end result—the book picked up by a press, or the poem picked up by a journal. I don’t see the quotidian victories in which they figure out just where the line break truly goes.

But is the real question you’re asking about Facebook?

EP: From a journal’s point of view, we of course use Facebook as a tool to promote the authors we feature. We want their work, their voices to have as much of an audience as possible. I’ve heard some complain about individuals using Facebook for self promotion. My thought is, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing—spending as much time as I can with poetry, as much as my brain can handle—that Facebook has become a way for me, as both a writer and an editor, to gather as much as I can about poetry and my other obsessions. I feel like a bird gathering debris for a nest or a packrat taking back shiny things to my hole.

But what are your thoughts on Facebook and writing?

RT: I can understand your viewpoint, and I have some similar feelings. I love encountering poems that my friends have shared online. Often that’s one of the few ways I have a shared experience with poets on any given day—most of the time I’m at my day job, doing day-job things with people who aren’t necessarily writers (but who do have other secret talents like musical theater and stand-up comedy).

Yet there’s a degree of candor that’s implied, but doesn’t quite exist on Facebook. It’s public (or semi-public) so people modulate themselves in different ways—and sometimes not that well—as Rebecca Makkai notes in her very astute piece. I’ve even noticed that unspoken genre conventions are starting to crop up for how you announce something good that’s happened for you, like a publication or a new job.

But I don’t begrudge people promoting their work or themselves, especially poets. Getting a book published is hard enough, let alone getting people to actually buy it and read it.

I’m terrible at Facebook. I’m a naturally timid person, and online I feel like a politician trying not to offend anyone, no matter how mundane my comments. I over-analyze; I second guess. As a poet, I need a dark corner to be weird in, and that’s what I love about poetry. I get to be playful and odd and explore language in strange ways. Social media doesn’t give me that.

Though with that in mind, I recently joined Twitter, in an effort to diversify my portfolio of social media platforms I’m bad at.

EP: Changing gears a little bit, I wonder if you’ve ever thought about poems as a kind of second brain for their writers. It might give us the opportunity to explore ideas that we might not necessarily—or, at the very least, formally—explore otherwise. Has the act of writing a poem become a part of your process of understanding and even reckoning with your own life?

RT: I love your idea of poems being a kind of second brain because, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my poems are usually much smarter than I am. When I keep my focus on simply writing the best poem that I can, and am attentive to where it wants to go, I find that the poem often makes the connections that I wouldn’t have been able to make on my own.

And that does help me reckon with my own life. By writing poems, I’ve thought in new, more productive ways about my family, about the nature of place, and about how I view the world. I’m grateful to have another way of thinking.

Brittany Cavallaro*: What is your most recent obsession? Has it found its way into your work?

RT: My current obsession is a podcast called the Slate Culture Gabfest. I listen to it religiously every Wednesday morning. The hosts are smart and funny, and their discussions are completely absorbing. I love the range—they’ll go from talking about Taylor Swift to the New York Review of Books. I’m a sucker for people who can have wide-reaching conversations about arts and culture. Since I write book reviews, I’m always trying to figure out how to be sharper and smarter with my own criticism.

EP: Now, Ryan, please provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

RT: Is there a contemporary poet out there who you wish was more widely known?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:

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Brittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, Girl-King, was the Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Gettysburg Review, and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. The recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the […]

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Corey Van Landingham is a Wallace C. Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, and the author of Antidote (Ohio State University Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Best American Poetry 2014, Best New Poets 2012, Kenyon Review, Narrative, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. In Fall 2015, she will join Gettysburg […]


Chloe Honum was born in Santa Monica, California, and was raised in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of The Tulip-Flame, selected by Tracy K. Smith as winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Her honors include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, as well residency fellowships […]

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