real and imagined places
An Interview with don share
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Don Share is the editor of Poetry Magazine and co-host of the magazine's podcast. He was once the Curator of the Poetry Room at Harvard University, where he also taught and served as Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review. He is the author of Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2002). In 2016, his critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems was released by Faber & Faber. His translation work includes Field Guide: Poems by Dario Jaramillo Agudelo (2012), Miguel Hernández (2013), and I Have Lots of Heart: Selected Poems by Miguel Hernández (1998), which won Share the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and Premio Valle Inclán Prize for Translation from the UK Society of Authors. Out this year is Who Reads Poetry, of which Share is an editor. Find him on Twitter at @Don_Share.
TMR: In a recent interview with Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien, she said that poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature, and that prose is, in the context of storytelling history, still new. Why do you think that poetry is an enduring art?
DS: I think it's always reasonable when people imagine that poetry is so old, but I don't know whether it's older than prose, in a certain sense. People must have been sitting around telling each other stories, pretty much the way we encounter them in fiction that is written down. I think a lot of our impulses, whether they are related to poetry, prose, non-fiction, journalism, and so on, must have happened around the same time.
We come into this world not only yearning for rhythms that we find in poetry and music, but even before we're born, the vibrations we're surrounded with, our mother's voice even when we're in the womb and so on—we're pretty much equipped from birth, and quite possibly before birth, to long for rhythmical speech, and music and singing and lullabies. And poems fit in nicely with that. So they go back not only way back in time with us, but for each of us, they go back to our earliest stages of development. I think as people get older they put that behind them, and poets are people who don't.
TMR: That seems to resonate with that Atlantic article you were featured in right after the election, about how poetry is so vital in times of trouble. What has been some poetry that you've experienced lately that's spoken to that sentiment?
There are people who aren't getting what they need from journalism alone, or from social media alone, or from various other sources of information. They find that they need to go beyond the information into something deeper, something that's more illuminating and consoling, and that's where poetry falls right in, just as it always has.
DS: My usual answer is the most honest answer, and that's, quite honestly, what you might find in the last issue or two of Poetry Magazine. Our June issue is devoted to Gwendolyn Brooks, and I find that not only Gwendolyn Brooks still speaks to us, because she is a great poet, but people who are influenced by Brooks speak to us. Some of the poets in this issue, Patricia Smith, Roger Reeves, those are poets who speak to us. I think that most of the poets that you'd find me putting in the pages of Poetry Magazine are the poets who give me something that really resonates with what's happening around us now. Because that is my conception of what poetry can do and does do for us, and always has done for us. It's not just particularly this moment in our political horror news climate; this is what poets have always done. I think we're in a time when people are turning to poets. Poets have always been there, and the poetry's always been there, finding its readers all over, but I think there are more readers out there. There are people who aren't getting what they need from journalism alone, or from social media alone, or from various other sources of information. They find that they need to go beyond the information into something deeper, something that's more illuminating and consoling, and that's where poetry falls right in, just as it always has.
TMR: It's been about five years since Wishbone, which was your latest book of original poetry. How has being editor of Poetry affected your work? Obviously it's helped you become a more analytical writer when you go into creating something, but has it hampered your creative process in any way?
DS: No—I think first of all it slows me down, which is a good thing. In other words, I don't think writing poetry is like, say, running. If you run more and more each day, you probably get to be better at running. You build up something. But I don't think writing more poetry necessarily makes you better at it, and so sometimes I have the idea that people are writing way too much. Some of our greatest poets are people who are very careful about when they commit things to paper. Some people are just prolific, which is amazing. But some people, and I'm one of them, work a lot more slowly. There can be a rush to have a book out, or a rush to be in print, and it's not always good for the writing.
I've always been a slow worker. What I've been doing for the last couple years is working on a collaborative poem with John Kinsella. I don't know what will come of it, if anything. As I take my time with it and think about it, I ask myself: Does the world need another poem? Does the world need this poem that I'm working on? I think there has to be something at stake in a poem. I have to really think about, "What is the purpose of my writing more poems? Why am I doing that?" I'm enjoying that question. I think some people would be quite uncomfortable dealing with that. I don't believe in writer's block. I think if you're not writing, you're living your life, just the same.
I don't feel any more or less a poet when I wake up and I'm not ready to perform as a poet. This is a day of somebody's life. It happens to be my life.
I can't find this quote, but I believe it is from Paul Durcan. I'm sure he said it, and if he didn't maybe I'll take credit for it. But I believe what he said was, "My job as a poet is to be here, which I am." We are all of the things we encounter, the things we do and aspire to, and attempt and even fail at. So for me, I don't feel any more or less a poet when I wake up and I'm not ready to perform as a poet. This is a day of somebody's life. It happens to be my life. That might feed into something that turns into a poem, and if it does then that would be a great way for me to spend my time, but if not, it's alright.
I think when I was very young, when I was in college or high school, so many people I knew grew up knowing that they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, and things like that. I didn't have that feeling. My father, he was critical of me in a certain fatherly way, and he said, "I suppose you'd just like to sit around all day and read poems," and I thought, "Yes I would, actually." I didn't realize you could do that. That actually is what I do a lot of the time. For me, a big part of my life is reading, and sometimes writing poems, and other people have such utterly different lives that this would never happen to them. I'm just glad that it happens to me, and that it happens to so many people that I've met through this work. I'm always running into people who want to say something about poetry, because it's not something like sports and movies and eating out, that people talk about all the time.
TMR: What was your introduction to poetry?
DS: Well, in school—I grew up in Tennessee—we were taught the old 19th century anthology pieces, Wordsworth and Longfellow and stuff like that, and I didn't like the poems that had lines like, "This is the forest primeval." Like, what? What are you talking about? It just didn't make sense to me, and I got this, like so many people do even now, very false sense of what poetry can be. I quite like Longfellow now, and Wordsworth too. But as a kid, if they had taught me Allen Ginsberg or Frank O'Hara or Gwendolyn Brooks, it would have been a whole different story. But that's not what happened.
By accident, I encountered a couple of interesting things. One was "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Robert W. Service, the author, was involved in the gold rush, so this poem is about a guy who's in the Yukon mining for gold, but he's from Tennessee and he's so cold that he dies. And they cremate him, and they put him in the fire and he sits up because now he's happy—it's hot again. It's hilarious. It's a gruesome, hilarious poem. As a kid in Tennessee, I really related to it. "The Cremation of Sam McGee" is written in ballad form, so I started writing really bad ballads myself. And once I started writing, I had something to imitate and aspire to, then poetry started to make sense to me. I could see what people were doing with rhyme and meter, and I could see how hard it was to sustain interest stanza after stanza.
Then, I discovered Archy and Mehitabel, which is the work of the American humorist Don Marquis. Archy is a cockroach, and he's a cockroach because he was a bad free verse poet in a previous life. And this cockroach continued to write poems by jumping up and down on typewriter keys. I just got the biggest kick out of Archy and Mehitabel—still in print, after going on almost 100 years. Mehitabel is an alley cat, and they become friends. They avoid being eaten or stomped on or wiped out, and they have friends who are mice. Don Marquis was a newspaper columnist, and what he says is, he would come into work and there would be a poem typed out on the typewriter that Archy the cockroach had laboriously typed by jumping on key after key after key. He couldn't do capital letters because he couldn't hold the shift key down. So that is why, even as a cockroach, he continued to write. It looks like e.e. Cummings, with the letters. It's really hilarious. So as a kid I found that, and again I started to find things I really liked.
When I grew up, I thought poets were all dead people with long white beards. And when I was sixteen, Allen Ginsberg came to my town. Ginsberg started by chanting. He would do this meditation thing, where he would go "Ohm" and he would do it for twenty minutes. Then he played Blake poems on the harmonium and sang them, and then he read "Howl." After that, I started buying those little City Lights books, like Howl, and then I bought Kaddish and I bought Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems, and I started buying poetry books. Then I discovered another benefit, which is that I'd go to school with my poetry books sort of ostentatiously displayed, and people thought I was a real bohemian, a real outcast, and that was fun. People would say, "Oh God, there's that guy with his poetry book," so I would just buy more books to carry around and be a showoff about it. But it started to make sense to me. You know, in school, there are certain things they have to teach you. I wasn't ready for that at that time, but at the same time I was finding, perfectly easily in the libraries and the used bookstores, poetry that really did work for me. From that age onward, it's just been continual, that I find poetry and it speaks to me in marvelous ways that I couldn't have guessed.
TMR: Is there one book of poems from your childhood that you would say defined your childhood for you, that when you think back, you think of that specific book?
DS: Not exactly, because what I wanted to do was escape my childhood. I wanted to grow up and I wanted to leave the place I grew up in. I wanted to go to a big city, because I didn't grow up in one. Strangely enough, I wanted to go to New York, which I did when I was seventeen. I just ran off to New York, but actually I wanted to live in Chicago and I had no idea why. I had a poster of the Marina Towers on my bedroom wall, and here I am now, living in Chicago.
Because I wanted to get away, I tended to read poems and poets who were from completely far away places. That's why Frank O'Hara, that Lunch Poems, I just loved it. I carried it around for 25 or 30 years, everywhere I went. And the other book that I carried around was Auden's Selected Poems, because, again as a little kid growing up in the south, I just tried to imagine England. I wanted to go there real bad, and so Auden just struck me—even though he came over here to spend most of his life, and lived all over the world, there's something really English about Auden. And I loved Irish poetry, too, Patrick Kavanagh. I had this fantasy in my head about Ireland that came out of poetry. It's funny because when I went to Ireland, it was just like I imagined it. When I came to Chicago, it was like paradise in a way because it was just what I imagined. So books of poems, even now, are not just poems on a page. I think of where a poet is from, and that springs to life new work for me. It's a way to go someplace, even when you can't go anywhere. I carried books around that gave me guideposts to where I might live one day, or visit, even if only in my mind.
There was some part of the imagination that, for me, was really energized by reading poetry. It's like when you go see Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, it's just what you'd expect. It's like that for me. Even with poets who don't write about a real place, like Wallace Stevens, there's a place in the imagination that is invented only in poetry. I mean, is there a jar in Tennessee? I was in Tennessee, but I did not see that jar. It must have been there. So poets were taking me to real and imagined places at the same time, and it really is magic.
TMR: In reading interviews with you, you've often discussed Basil Bunting. It's evident that he's influenced and affected you. What about him draws you?
Because I wanted to get away, I tended to read poems and poets who were from completely far away places.
DS: Among the heroes I was lucky enough to meet, two of them were the poets Geoffrey Hill and then the other was the great literary critic Christopher Ricks. Geoffrey Hill and Christopher Ricks were people I was very lucky to get to know, and they were people who meant a lot to me, and I learned a lot of things from them. At one point they created a Ph.D. program at Boston University, and they got in touch with me and wanted to know if I would be their first doctoral student, and at the time I thought, "I lived my whole life without a Ph.D., I don't really need this." And they said I would get a scholarship, so I thought, "I get to work with two of my heroes," and then there were other people involved too, all of these brilliant people, and they were basically saying I can get this pretty much free Ph.D. and study with my heroes for a few years, so I changed my mind. So then of course the question was what I was going to work on.
I had to meet with people to discuss this, and my ideas were rejected. One of them was a collected works of Lester Bangs, who was a rock critic in the sixties and seventies. But of course that wasn't taken very seriously, though I do think it could be done. There were other ideas, too, and I was discussing this with Christopher Ricks, who was my advisor then, and he was very agitated with me because we weren't getting anywhere. In total exasperation, he just said, "Well, who are you reading right now?" And I was reading Basil Bunting. He said, "That's what you're gonna do," and I thought, "You must be crazy," because Bunting is a poet very much of the north of England, and things like dialect are very particular to that part of England, which I didn't really know much about. And at that time, Bunting was out of print. And I thought, "Oh, I'm really in trouble now," because it was something that I had to learn a lot about and it's a poet who was going out of print. But as it happens, it was a great idea. I did this enormous critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems; it took years, and it was a great experience.
It was neat to find a poet that hadn't been paid as much attention as his work merited. I had that belief, as Ricks did, that Bunting deserved to be brought back into print and put in front of a larger audience. I really am grateful almost every single day that I had that strange conversation, because I couldn't, I wouldn't have walked into a Ph.D. program saying, "I just wanna work on Basil Bunting for years on end," but that's what I did, and it was great.
Bunting influences me a lot because, as time goes by, I see how right he was about so many things. It's easy to think of poets who are wrong about things, as they often are, because they're not perfect, they're not even always very smart sometimes. But Bunting was right about a lot of things. He was a very stubborn person, he was against any kind of careerist aspect of poetry. He believed in regions of language and culture, not in borders and nations of them. He believed in Persian poetry and its importance to the world. He believed in a lot of unfashionable things that turned out to be what many people now believe. The best poets are proleptic. They foresee ahead of their time what turns out to be accepted as truth. To say that it's visionary is too dreamy; it's very earthy, what I'm talking about. They perceive things acutely in their bodily systems. The pressure and tension in the world around them causes them to think through things in the way that many people catch up to many years later. This is the story of Prufrock, again. At the time, people said it wasn't even a poem. They couldn't understand it. Now everybody understands it. You can almost feel Eliot suffering and gritting his teeth and struggling with the world. Now we all do that, so he gave us a language for our struggle, in that particular case. The best poets often do that. And Bunting was one of them. The more I read Bunting, the more I understand things about the world that no other poet could talk to me about.
TMR: What are your thoughts on the so-called "Death of the Author," that debated separation of art and artist? For example, Ezra Pound is such an important poet, but he had a lot of problems, too. He embraced fascism and antisemitic sentiments, but his work often didn't. And in a world where, thanks to the internet and the speed at which information spreads, more and more people are hopefully being held accountable for their harmful behaviors, where do you find that art stands, in comparison with potentially problematic creators?
DS: I know from my own work as an editor that the reality is I'm not just publishing poems, I'm publishing people. And in the introduction to this Gwendolyn Brooks issue, I talk about how there is that question of: How does a life connect to the work? In a certain sense it's totally obvious that you can't have any work without the life. On the other hand, there is a sense in which a poet's work, or any artist, it escapes them. It goes out into the world where they don't go, and even after they're not around anymore. The poems survive the poets, if they're good poems and the poets are good.
As a person who is curious, if I like a poet, I want to know more about that poet. I read biographies; biographies can't answer all the questions and mysteries, but they're fun. I think it's just curiosity. The lived life that underwrites a work, whether it's a poem or a whole poet's career, is a very important and valuable thing to consider. What's so compelling about Pound is the tragedy of his awful beliefs, which even he apparently recanted towards the end of his life. It's a terrible thing, that he devoted his life to poetry, and left behind terrific poetry, but it was also in some sense contaminated by beliefs he had that were racist. But he was a human being, and obviously, poets are not more perfect than other people. So to me, that human drama is compelling, and I think if one believes, as I do, that the purpose of imaginative literature is to connect us with people who have different values than we do, then we can bridge the gaps. We have to understand why people are the way they are. To me, there's only a "Death of the Author" in a chronological sense—that they are mortal, and they die. But if they're worth anything, their work doesn't die. And if their work doesn't die, there's some aspect of that lived life that does survive.
it's just a part of our humanity to be generous towards people, including poets, so that, if they are bad people, we have to make our peace with them somehow, even as we criticize them and stand by our criticisms.
You have to figure out how you want to read poetry. For a lot of people, they'll read an anthology or a Selected Poems, and then you get the best of a poet's work. Presumably. If I like a poet at all, I want to read everything they ever wrote, including horrible stuff they wrote when they were kids, and things that they didn't want to have republished, because I think that informs our sense of the humanity that underwrites a poem in the first place. We have to value each other in this world, and we see what happens when that doesn't work. It's terrible and disruptive. For me, it's just a part of our humanity to be generous towards people, including poets, so that, if they are bad people, we have to make our peace with them somehow, even as we criticize them and stand by our criticisms. In other words, I wouldn't have wanted to be married to Ted Hughes. But I can't bring myself to throw all his work away. I think the terrible personal relationships that we know about in his life, there's no getting around them. They were terrible and awful and inexcusable and unforgivable. And yet I can't dispense with a person. Ted Hughes wrote poems and there's a part of me that says we have to learn how to confront what is difficult and what is terrible, and poetry does that. That is an argument I would make towards being generous with people we have to form judgements about, because we do have to form judgements. They're important. So I'm not saying that we have to approve of everybody and think they're okay, because you can't do that, but at the same time we can learn from things, even when they are terrifying or terrible.
TMR: Is this similar to the notion of literature helping readers to become more empathetic?
DS: Well, I wonder about that. A lot of people say that lately, but I haven't noticed that poets are more empathetic than other people. Some poets are actually, as I've mentioned, quite awful. But on the other hand, if what we can learn from poetry and art, is how to understand things better, then that's a valuable pursuit. If it makes you a better person yourself or not, I don't know. It could well be that poetry does make some people better, but I also think you have to make yourself better without regard to poetry. You have a responsibility as a decent person that supersedes other things, including poetry, but it could be that poetry teaches people things that make them better. But I don't know that poetry makes anybody better. I don't know that anything makes anybody better. It's hard to explain why some people do wonderful selfless inspiring things, and other people do terrible destructive things without stopping. That is among the many mysteries that poetry exists to explore, but it can't resolve them.
I think one thing you can learn from poetry is that, a lot of times, poets like to quote that thing about how a poem is never finished, it's abandoned—that's true of life. We're not finished. So we're always having to redraft ourselves, and so I think poetry can give you insights into ways to go about that. Because our lives, and poetry in particular, involve imagination. We have to imagine the kind of world we want, and work towards it, which is what you do when you write a poem. I think writing a poem is somewhat easier than imagining a world that has justice and fairness and peace and so on, but the people who make that more possible than others are people who imagine it.
I definitely have a sense that one of the impulses behind many poems is that question: why isn't the world better than it is? I think at the heart of a lot of poetry is that yearning for things to be different. We walk around and we see things as they are, which is very difficult and important, and we wonder, why can't they be some other way? It is a continual exercise of the imagination, and it does have an ethical and even moral aspect to it, but on the other hand, everybody comes through it differently.
We can never quite manage to say what we want to say, or what needs to be said. There's no perfection in that, and so we keep trying, and poetry is a part of that effort. You just wake up and you have to do it again. It's the same as anything that's important in life. It's that way in life itself: you wake up, and you must keep going, somehow, if you can. And it's good to be able to help other people along the way if you can.