This post is the tenth in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Amorak Huey and W. Todd Kaneko, authors of Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology.
Amorak Huey is a poet and professor. He is author of three poetry collections: Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015); Seducing the Asparagus Queen (Cloudbank Books, 2018), winner of the Vern Rutsala Poetry Prize; and the forthcoming Boom Box (also from Sundress, due out in early 2019); as well as as two poetry chapbooks: The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014), and A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road (Porkbelly Press, 2016).
W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014). His poems, essays and stories can be seen in Bellingham Review, Los Angeles Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, [PANK], The Normal School, Menacing Hedge, Hobart, Blackbird, The Rumpus, Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century, 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse Magazine and many other journals and anthologies.
Ruth Joffre: Your craft book is part guide and part anthology. It consists of four sections: “An Introduction to Poetry,” “The Elements of Poetry,” “Practicalities,” and “Contemporary Poetic Modes: An Anthology.” Did you know when you started working on Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology what form it would take? How did you decide on the structure and the content?
Todd Kaneko:I think one of the things that helped us determine the structure of the book was how we use textbooks in our classrooms. As a teacher, I tend to use textbooks kind of piecemeal—that is, there aren’t many that I want to use tip-to-tail in a class because those books don’t often present poetry the way I want to teach it. So our goal from the beginning was a modular book, a text that can be used piece by piece according to the needs of an instructor, short bursts that can be useful in a variety of contexts—class discussion, poem commentary, assigned reading, and so forth. And yet, we also wanted the book to be easily used in a more linear fashion with a logical trajectory from beginning to end. Overall, we wrote the book with an eye towards usability. I hope that the book’s structure helps instructors adapt it to their courses and helps readers learn a bit about poetry even if they aren’t enrolled in a class.
And I hope it’s okay to spill these beans because the book is already out in the world: we originally wanted to call the book The Elements of Poetry and science it up with a periodic table and charts and graphs and stuff, but because it’s part of Bloomsbury’s Writers’ Guide and Anthology series, it had to be titled accordingly. So we essentially wrote the book as The Elements of Poetry, centered it on our poetry periodic table, and then went ahead and put Bloomsbury’s title on it.
Amorak Huey: While we’re spilling beans, I can never remember where the apostrophe goes in Writers’ in the title. I have to check the book’s cover every time.
Anyway, as Todd said, usability and flexibility were important to us. We kept coming back to these questions as we shaped the book: Will this make sense to a teacher who is not us? How would someone else use the book? Could this work in someone else’s syllabus? We knew we were basically writing the textbook that wehad always wanted, but we needed to create something that would be useful for others as well. It was a cool writing challenge and a fun project to work on, especially doing so collaboratively.
RJ: In addition to being writers, you both teach creative writing at Grand Valley State University. Your book appears to have both those identities in mind (writer and teacher) and to address the needs of both in different and important ways. As a team, how did you navigate those dualities? Were there differences in your experiences and pedagogical approaches that arose or needed to be addressed in the process of working on this book?
AH: I think our pedagogical approaches are similar. We both have developed as teachers in the GVSU Writing Department, where the curriculum includes academic, creative, and professional writing. We’ve both learned a great deal from our colleagues outside of creative writing: how they approach teaching, what they value in the classroom and in the curriculum, how to think about a poetry or fiction class as part of both a larger curriculum and a student’s larger writing life. It has helped us both stretch ourselves beyond old-school creative writing methodologies, which tend to be modeled after literature classes or the rigid Iowa-style workshop, and to really think about how best to teach writing, to think about writing as a discipline.
Todd and I have observed each other’s teaching, and our offices are right across the hall from each other, so we’ve eavesdropped on plenty of student conferences. We both place a high value on meeting students where they are, on not insisting on our own aesthetic as the one and only approach to poetry that students should emulate, on setting a high bar for what students are capable of, and on listening to them. I think and hope the book embodies this approach to teaching. We were very much on the same page about all this as we created this book. We wanted a text that was accessible and encouraging for students—and at the same time, a book that would push them to experiment and grow, would challenge them to expand their sense of themselves as poets and what their work could become.
Where we might differ is our approach to our own writing. I tend to be more of a dabbler, while Todd often talks about following one’s obsessions. You can definitely see this, for example, in each of our first collections. My Ha Ha Ha Thump is for sure more all over the place and less focused than Todd’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies. I think this contrast in styles was helpful when it came to writing the textbook: we each were able to bring our own processes to various parts of the book, and so hopefully the book can work for either kind of writer. There is no one way to be a writer, no one process that works the same for every poet all the time, and acknowledging our own differences reminded us to write the textbook in a way that could be useful for a young writer who is not simply a younger version of ourselves.
TK: I’m a teacher because I’m a writer—that is, when I am teaching poetry, I’m teaching it the way I understand it to work and exist in the world. I use my practice as the foundation of what we do in class. In this sense, I don’t think I can ever fully separate my teaching from my writing, and I don’t think I want to. I’m not saying that I want my students to write poems like I do, nor that I want to limit them to my way of thinking about poems. But my understanding of metaphor, for example, is based on my experiences with it, and if I can get them to understand my relationship with metaphor, I hope to be able to encourage them to figure out how to claim the element for themselves.
Like Amorak, I don’t aim to teach my aesthetic in a class either, but I take this poetry stuff seriously, you know? We both do, sometimes in very different ways. I think that if I can show students what it means to me to be serious about poems and how learning to write poems is more than just reading some words about how line breaks work, then they have a chance to discover their own relationships with poetry. Ditto that for them learning from Amorak’s outlook on poetry. And the modular format we’ve used in the book allowed us to include our individual outlooks and approaches in a way that they appear not as incongruities about the subject, but as a meaningful and varied whole. I think the book is better for it.
AH: As much as I believe in not insisting on my own aesthetic in the classroom, I also think it’s important not to hide it from my students. It’s important to be myself in the classroom, or at least the best version of myself I can manage. As Todd said, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about poems and reading poems and writing poems and grappling with poetics. It’s disingenuous to pretend that we as teachers don’t have experiences worth sharing or ideas that can help our students. I’m not saying I’m better or smarter than my students, far from it, or that our voice should outweigh theirs, but that it’s okay to offer up ourselves as models—so long as we are clear that we are just one model, not the only one; that we represent a possibility, not a prescription, and that our students’ journey to and through poetry will not, should not, may not mirror our own.
RJ: Historically, craft books have centered white male voices, and the work anthologized and analyzed therein has been reflective of that. Your craft book is one of the few that appears to actively decenter the white male voice with a list of anthologized works whose authors are roughly 50% POC and roughly 50% female. Was this intentional on your part? Do you think it is important for craft books in particular and craft in general to work toward equal or greater rates of inclusivity and, if so, why?
TK: I think of our approach as less actively decentering the white male voice and more working for inclusivity and a diversity of voices, and yes, it was intentional. Representation is important and we wanted readers to be able to see poetry as a chorus of different voices all working in harmony and dissonance to create this genre in which there is plenty of room for writers of a variety of backgrounds and identities. When students see themselves represented in the textbooks they are assigned, we give them the opportunity to realize that writing poetry—or participating in any subject for that matter—is a real possibility for them. In this sense, I would love to see craft books and poetry instruction work toward greater rates of inclusivity for the sake of the students in the seats.
Sure, this has the effect of decentering the white male voice, but I don’t think that making room for a greater variety of voices has to necessarily displace anyone—I know that this wasn’t your point, but I think it’s where the conversation about decentering often leads. Honestly, I think it’s also important that white male writers see themselves represented in contemporary poetry too (because what modern 18-year-old really identifies with Blake or Whitman or Frost?)—many of them might not have seen themselves writing poetry before entering a creative writing class. I get the vibe from so many of my male students that they aren’t interested in poetry because it’s about divulging feelings or saying flowery things—stuff they might not perceive as being something men are allowed to do regardless of their background. Getting students to understand contemporary poetry can be a way of exposing them—poets or not—to a wider range of empathy, and if they need to enter the field through a white male poet to disrupt their perceptions of poetry and discover the beauty of a diverse world, then I think that’s fine—we can meet them where they are in order to help them discover more directions in which to grow. An inclusive anthology can bridge representation and empathy. I hope that through our selections, students of all kinds get to see the ways in which their voices and experiences might resonate in concert with those voices of writers who might not share their backgrounds.
AH: What Todd said, exactly. Our aim was never to displace or to minimize, but to be sure that our anthology was diverse, robust, and illustrative of what’s possible in contemporary American poetry. There’s no way to do that without including lots of different kinds of poems, lots of kinds of poets, lots of voices.
Just the other day, I heard a very famous and successful poet call contemporary poetry “dull,” and not to sound like a cheerleader, but holy cats, do I disagree. Of course, not every single poem I read excites me, but there are so many brilliant poets writing amazing, intelligent, unusual, vibrant poems right now. It’s a fantastic time to be a poetry reader. We wanted the anthology to reflect that.
TK: Yeah—what a fantastic time to be a poetry reader because of the many different voices in poetry today. If contemporary poetry is dull, it’s dull like a brand new razor blade. The anthology is strong, I think, because of the variety. Truthfully, I wish we had room for more voices because I feel like we only scratched the surface of what is going on poetry right now. An even greater variety provides students with greater possibilities for their own poems and would even better showcase the beauty and range of poetry today. I am sure that most teachers will supplement with readings of their own and I hope they bring in poets who work from an even greater range of perspectives. We only had so much room for the anthology section in this particular book. We did what we could with what we had, though, and I hope our readers are happy with the result.
RJ: In the chapter “What Is Meaning?” you write, “You might not always be certain exactly what the poet means, but you will be rarely be mystified over what a poem is about.” This reminded me of my last workshop in graduate school, where the instructor asked us to always begin with the question: “What is this story about?” Sometimes, the answer was harder than it probably should have been, and this indicated that there was clarifying work that needed to be done. Would you recommend that writers ask this same question of their own work and, if so, at what stage(s)?
AH: I want to say yes, that writers should usually ask this question of their own work, that it is important for poets to have a sense of what they’re after, what their central questions in a particular piece might be. But I want to be clear that asking this question does not mean that the answer always has to be clear or obvious or explicit within the text. You have to allow for wonder, for uncertainty, for that moment in the text that is just as surprising for the poet as for the reader, to paraphrase Robert Frost. What a joy, right, to think one is writing about something only to realize later that it was about something else entirely.
So ask the question, yes, but not as a way to limit the poem or narrow its scope or reduce its mystery, but as one way of understanding it. As a reminder to yourself that part of what you’re doing when you write a poem and hand it to someone else to read is communicating with that reader. Asking yourself what you’re communicating is a perfectly reasonable and often useful question. It definitely doesn’t have to be the first question, and it might not be the most important; if you find that asking what a poem is about is hurting the poem, set it aside in favor of playfulness and exploration.
TK: I think one of the scariest things to do is to walk into a poem (or any piece of writing) with no idea where you are going or what you are doing. Like, you walk into the great unknown with nothing but this idea that you can write a sentence and then another sentence will follow and then at some point, you have a piece of writing that makes sense to a reader. Sure, it’s a joy to discover a poem you wrote means something you hadn’t intended, or even to start with nothing and watch meaning invent itself and develop on the page line by line, but man—what a harrowing process it can be to get to that point!
Thing is that there are plenty of poems that I struggle to say definitively what it is that they are about, not necessarily because they are vague or unclear, but because they are operating on a different kind of meaning than we are used to—a linguistic or emotional or temporal meaning, for example—or sometimes the poem is deliberately obscuring meaning. So, perhaps the young writer does need an answer to the meaning question at the start and then work towards being able to cast off that answer as the poem takes shape. Or perhaps, another question might be, “what kind of meaning is the poem working toward?” Or maybe we have to accept that sometimes writing is clarifying work when it comes to poetry and that you might have to wait six months or a year until you grow into being able to see the answer to any kind of question about meaning.
AH: Like anything, it’s a balancing act. I don’t want people to read these answers and think we’re valuing clarity and straightforwardness over mystery and ambiguity, or positioning poetry writing as first and foremost an act of plainspoken communication. Poetry can be all of these things. And of course, a poet has to be able to explore and play and meander as they work, often writing without a particular message or endpoint in mind. But thinking about it as a reader, my favorite poems are those where it seems clear to me that the poet has something important to say, has a vision of the world to express or a question to consider, a problem to take on—so there’s play, yes, but it’s not merely play; the poem is not simply an exercise or a compilation of craft.
RJ: In the chapter “What Does Talent Have to Do with Anything?” you redefine “talent” in various ways: as the capability for hard work and the ability to muster courage, among other things. You do this in direct response to the tendency within the literary community (and society at large) to label writers as “talented” or “untalented” when they are still young and learning about craft. Are there other tendencies or habits related to teaching and evaluating writing that you find counterproductive and would like to see recast or disposed of altogether?
TK: An artist friend of mine on Facebook recently posted, “You know why I work so hard? It’s because I suck.” This brought on a chorus of encouragement from his friends thinking he was having a bad day, but really, I think this is the mindset of a lot of the most talented artists and writers I know—keep your head down and work hard and stop worrying about talent, so why not recast it? Seems obvious to me—we can’t do away with the word completely because it’s already part of our lexicon for talking about artists and art, and it’s always exclusionary and dismissive of those who aren’t labeled as such. So why not recast it into a more useful term in talking about what it means to be a writer.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine doing away with the workshop, but I think there is room for the traditional silent workshop to be recast, and I think the book touches on this. So often, workshop seems predicated on the idea that there is an ideal form for a piece of writing and the goal of the workshop is solely to help the writer diagnose what is wrong with a piece and figure out how to fix it. Like, the workshop focuses on the text because that’s all that matters, which is problematic because the background and intentions of the author do matter, as might the desired audience for the piece. People who identify as belonging to marginalized communities have been saying this for years, that the workshop is not a homogenous space and not a place for one-size-fits-all or solely-opinion-based kinds of discussions. So maybe we as educators and workshop leaders should listen to what our students are saying about how destructive workshop can be?
I think that often in workshop we are examining the reality created by the piece and what it makes of that reality on the page; if the workshop takes a moment to acknowledge the reality from which the piece has sprung, and how that reality intersects or doesn’t intersect with the knowledge base of the room, we can do better service to everyone involved, writer and conversationalists included. I do think there is great value in allowing the writer to just listen to the different conversations about their work, but that requires trust in the workshop, and frankly, the workshop just isn’t necessarily a trustworthy model for every writer. With a bit more thought about how “it’s all about the writing” necessarily includes the writer, the workshop can do more work for everyone involved.
AH: One of the worst things a teacher of writing can do is to see themselves as a gatekeeper, as somehow responsible for identifying the talented and deciding who’s worthy of “making it” as a writer. It drives me up a wall when I hear stories of teachers who’ve decided it’s their job to anoint future great writers and to be the bearers of harsh bad news to anyone they deem unfit for the task, to be some kind of ruthless truth-teller weeding out the unready. It’s arrogant and destructive and has nothing to do with teaching.
I’m with Todd on everything he says about the workshop and how the traditional model has too often been about centering some kind of allegedly objective look at the text, where objective has been code for straight, white, male. Troubling that tradition is essential; fortunately, I do think it’s happening more and more in creative writing classes across the county, although we obviously have a long way to go. Part of it, from the point of view of the teacher, is recognizing that the actual piece of writing being discussed, the single poem or story in front of the class, is not all that important in the long run. In the scheme of an entire writing life, who cares about one poem you wrote for one undergraduate or MFA workshop? What matters is helping students learn to read and think about and talk poems with a thoughtfulness, empathy, intelligence. What matters is helping them figure out what they want to say and how to say it to an audience. What matters is helping them find connections between what they read and what they write, between their craft choices and the important questions they’re asking and issues they’re exploring. These are the things that students should take away from workshops, not a handful of poems that have been “fixed” by their classmates.
TK: I mean, as much as the poem might not matter to a whole writing life, the poem is incredibly important to the writer in the moment, right? It has to be or why even bring it to the workshop? So it’s a balancing act for the workshop—the poem is not important and at the same time it’s the most important thing on Earth for those twenty or so minutes the class is conversing. Sure, ten years from now, the student might blush at having turned in that awful poem about pro wrestling for their first workshop, but on that day, in that moment with that teacher and the whole class, that poem is everything. Teachers have to remember this and navigate it.
AH: Yes. What Todd said. This is what collaboration means to me: following Todd around and saying, “What he said,” after all the smart stuff he says about teaching and writing.
RJ: In the chapter “Rhetorical Construction,” you write, “Readers are used to looking for facts and logic to drive a text, but poems often create their own logic, which may be counter to what readers have learned to expect from prose.” What strikes me most about this sentence are the phrases “may be” and “learned to expect.” Both point to the vastness of poetry and prose. Poems can employ the logic of prose. Prose can defy expectations by, for example, employing poetic devices. Where do the lines between poetry and other genres blur? Please provide examples.
AH: Genre lines blur as soon as you try to pin them down. It’s like one of those 3D images from the 1990s, all squiggly shapes and lines and colors and if you can let your eyes go unfocused just right, you see a submarine—but, as soon as you try to look directly at the submarine, you lose it. There are two examples in the textbook that come to mind right away for me: “Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood and “38” by Layli Long Soldier. By many measures, these are written in prose. Each appears on the page as a series of sentences, not broken into lines, but separated by extra white space between the sentences. And yet. They were published as poems when they first appeared online; they were later collected in books of poems. They are poems. They employ poetic devices, they display a poet’s concern with language, they trouble linearity and narrative. At the same time, if they’d first been published under the header of essays or even short fiction, it would be hard to argue against that label as well.
From a writing process standpoint, I know many writers don’t think genre matters. Just write. Play with language, play with narrative, play with logic. Experimentation and making something from words—that’s what matters. And, yeah, I agree with that, mostly—but for myself, I tend to include genre very early on in the writing process. I know pretty much from the start of a piece whether I’m writing a poem or an essay or a piece of fiction; it helps me conceive of the work’s final shape, helps me know what I’m working toward. As a writer, I tend to think of genre as part of how a reader establishes expectations. You expect something different from a short story than from an essay than from a poem. Now, of course, a writer can and should confound those expectations from time to time, and super interesting work exists at the boundaries and edges of genre. Hybridity is exciting territory for a writer and a reader.
TK: Yeah, I am one of those who will tell people that genre doesn’t matter to me, but that’s kind of a bald-faced lie—I don’t know why I say that. I think genre is this thing we use to figure out how to approach something, how to make sense of it. Like, if you told me a story is nonfiction, I’m going to approach it differently than if you told me it was a fiction.
I remember when I was an undergrad, I read Cane by Jean Toomer. And the cover says it is a novel. A novel! And it has poems in it and stories and some pieces that are neither and/or both poem/story! Don’t get me started on the play at the end. I remember how terrifying and freeing it felt to read a book that said to me, “This is what I am. Don’t worry about what you think I am.” Because calling the book a novel assigns to it the tradition of what we expect from the novel. I learned what a novel was from reading The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath and The Hobbit. Then boom: Cane—mind blown. As a reader, I became hungry for texts that pushed against genre boundaries. And as a writer, I started to question my own relationship to genre, and to the world, really.
To this day, there are people who insist that prose poems and free verse poems are not really poetry because without a specific kind of flowery language or rhyme scheme or form it’s just a mish mash of words—something that might be artful but not poetry. On the other side of that, there are people who think that all there is to a Haiku is seventeen syllables in three lines. And for some of these people, this is because they learned how to make sense of poetry by some specific genre markers, without which poetry makes absolutely no sense. But maybe a poem can be written in a circle, in a paragraph, using photographs, or whatever. I hope that our book gives the student a variety of elements with which to approach a poem so that they can start to appreciate not just the genre, but all the ways in which a poem can push against the expectations of genre in ways that illuminate the subject and bring the world into a sharper, weirder focus. A text can be quietly subversive this way.
RJ: In the chapter “Proceed with Caution,” you list categories of poems that should be avoided. Some are easy to avoid (“the poem with centered lines or the seventeen fonts”), while some speak to deeply rooted issues within society and the literary community (“the poem that is unaware of its gaze”) that make them harder and more worthwhile to avoid. Are there other deeply rooted issues on which you would advise young writers to “proceed with caution” not because they should be avoided in practice but because they should be approached with care and sensitivity?
TK: What a difficult question—it’s hard for me to think of something that shouldn’t be approached with care and sensitivity when writing poems! I think something that I often see when working with young writers is how they use persona. On the one hand, it seems to me that persona is a good way of getting away from the self and considering the lives and experiences of others, a gateway to empathy of sorts. It’s fun and liberating and can be the path to discovering something about the self and/or the world.
On the other hand, as the writer steps away from the self and into the persona, it’s so easy to lose track of the self or the writer’s imagined world, and the poem risks becoming more a puppet show than a poem in which the poet grapples with anything real. Or worse, the persona’s imagined experience is so far outside of the writer’s capability to understand, that the poem ends up mischaracterizing or stereotyping the persona, the opposite of empathy, really. In her Poetry Foundation article about teaching students to write persona poems, Rebecca Hazelton says, “Having spent time in the lives of others, your students will better see the interesting contours of their own,” and this is something I hold on to when I’m teaching persona—writing a persona poem is sometimes a constant navigation between the mask and the self, the imaginary garden and the real toad. Generally, the persona is the tool and not the end goal of a poem, and it’s too easy to get so caught up in making up a persona that the rest of the poem suffers.
There are so many excellent writers whose poems use persona so effectively in a variety of ways—I’m thinking of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon,” Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead,” Adrian Matejka’s poems in The Big Smoke, and the poems of Ai, just to name a few, and what these poems have in common is that they use persona to interrogate and explore with heightened attention to both creating the persona and creating understanding for the reader. .
AH: We say this in the textbook, but I think it bears repeating: young writers shouldn’t begin by worrying too much about what not to do. I think the “Proceed with Caution” chapter has pedagogical value, and I think students should be warned about common pitfalls, and, as a teacher, I don’t have much interest in reading the poem with seventeen fonts from the point of view of a serial killer. However, I also think young writers should write that exact poem if they want to. Write the cheesy, gooey love poem that compares someone you call “thee” to a pink, pink tulip. Write the messy stuff, the cliche stuff, the familiar stuff. See how it feels. But my hope is that you eventually move past it. That you begin to find your own voice in there somewhere, that you find new models among the poems you read in our textbook or some literary journal or a collection your teacher assigned. That you begin trying new things, discovering new ways to use language.
Like Todd said, any subject in a poem should be approached with care and empathy and intelligence. But I’m not sure you can do that if you’re worried too much about doing it wrong, if you’re convinced that there are poetic rules you have to follow and you’ll discover you’ve broken them only after you’ve written the poem. So part of our job as teachers, then, is to help our students nurture their own fearlessness, to help them write with abandon. And then the next part is to help them see the difference between a poem that helped them learn something and a poem that is ready to show the world. Writing a poem with a problematic gaze might be an important step in a young poet’s development; that doesn’t mean they should publish it in the campus literary journal or an online magazine.
One of the things I’ve started talking with my students about more explicitly is how the rush to publish—which I totally get, which most of us feel as writers—can lead to putting poems in the world that aren’t ready to be out there. I’ve talked about this especially with regards to imitation poems, or “after” poems. I think imitating another poet is a great way to learn something important about your own voice. Maybe even necessary; think about how many painters begin by imitating other paintings. But, as has been discussed plenty in the literary world, a poem that merely plays mad libs with another poet’s work probably wasn’t one to publish. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to help students negotiate this potentially tricky territory.
TK: In that poem with the seventeen fonts, does each font represent a different victim of the serial killer? Because I don’t want to read that poem either, but I want to write that poem to learn what I can about persona, about multiple POV, about effective typography, about breadth and depth, and about what the moral obligation of that poem might be, if there is one at all. I think the important word in “Proceed with Caution” is “proceed.” Sometimes you have to try on an ugly shirt to discover that it’s unattractive and is scratchy in the collar. You don’t have to go outside wearing it, but at least you know what what a terrible shirt feels like.
RJ: At the end of your craft book Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology, you include an appendix of additional reading that includes some foundational texts in the study of poetics and poetic craft. Are there any other craft books not on this list that have been formative for you as writers? Additionally, are there specific poetry collections that were formative for you as writers and taught you some important aspect of craft?
AH: Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction, Rust Hills’ Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, and Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing, though obviously not poetry-specific, are books that have very much influenced me as a teacher and a writer. The Stern book in particular was a text we had in mind when we began to write our own textbook. I just finished Jane Alison’s new book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, which challenged me to think about narrative in some really interesting ways beyond the familiar inverted check mark (which I still think has value as a way of describing how stories work).
As for specific poetry collections, books that I discovered at important moments in my development as a writer include Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, Adrienne Rich’s collected poems, Jorie Graham’s The Dream of the Unified Field, and Rita Dove’s Grace Notes. All of these books expanded my notion of what is possible on the page, partly in terms of content and very much in terms of how to use language in surprising ways. Lately, when I’m stuck, I return to Traci Brimhall’s Rookery, Tiana Clark’s chapbook Equilibrium, Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow, and Catie Rosemurgy’s The Stranger Manual. They open the world for me.
TK: My formal training has all been in prose, for the most part—so I’m a yes to Making Shapely Fiction by Stern, and I would add The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa, and Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter. Most of my learning to write poetry has happened on my own—that is, it’s been me and some books that I like and some poet friends who were kind enough to talk me through the things I was writing. Some of those books were What Is This Thing Called Love by Kim Addonizio, Lie Awake Lake by Beckian Fritz Goldberg, and Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye. And I continue to spend lots of time with The City In Which I Love You and Book of My Nights by Li-Young Lee. I’ve come to think of these books as my teachers, or sorts, and I return to them often, as they are continually showing me new things that poetry can do.
As cliché as it might sound, one of the most important craft books for me as a writer was discovering Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town. Just that first chapter alone illuminated so much of what I was doing wrong and helped me figure out not just how to avoid writing a one-note poem, but how poems work, overall. At this point, I’ve read so many craft books, but Triggering Town helped me figure out what I think is valuable in a craft book as well as helped me figure out how to write poems.
AH: Yes, Triggering Town! Can’t believe I forgot to mention it. It changed my writing life. Hugo persuaded me that my first obligation is to the poem, not to my preconceptions about the poem.
TK: I know, right? I think good craft essays help me clarify for myself how an element of writing works. And yet, the very best craft essays help me clarify something about my relationship to the words on the page, which is what Triggering Town did for me. It’s one thing to discover how to modulate tone in a poem, but another entirely to discover how to be in conversation with the poem to discover tone. I love reading this kind of thing.
RJ: Finally, what are you working on now?
TK: Currently the two of us are working collaboratively on a chapbook of poems about Axl and Slash from Guns N’ Roses. Through the process of writing and rewriting poems with Amorak, I’ve learned a ton about the importance of letting go of ownership of a poem in the interest of helping the poem find its own way rather than the way I had planned for it. I think I am a better reviser of poems for having collaborated with Amorak this way.
Outside of that, I am finalizing the manuscript of This Is How the Bone Sings, my second book of poems forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press about my family’s incarceration at Minidoka, a concentration camp for Japanese Americans in Idaho during World War II. I am also trying to write a series of lyric essays about professional wrestling while trying to make a third book of poems from the many drafts I have on my hard drive. And I am trying to be a good father to my son, which is where the real hard work lies.
AH: Besides the collaborative Slash project with Todd, I am revising and submitting a manuscript of poems titled Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy. Also, I’m writing a novel, dragging myself through the second draft of a historical fiction story set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during a couple of turbulent periods in the 20th century. And yeah, like Todd said: being a soccer/softball/bassoon/choir dad to a couple of busy teenagers.