Poetry Today is a series that celebrates poetics and aesthetics—the composition, style and feel of poetry for our time.
“So many people wonder, What’s my higher purpose? Your purpose is to be, and to experience life on this planet in its fullness. And if you choose to do something else, that’s okay. What we’re all actually seeking is the truest expression of ourselves.” -RuPaul, 2018
Kathryn Cowles is the author of Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World (Milkweed 2020) and Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name, winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. Her poems and poem-photographs have been published in the Best American Experimental Writing, Colorado Review, Diagram, Free Verse, Georgia Review, New American Writing, Verse, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-day, and elsewhere. Her poems were awarded the Academy of American Poets Larry Levis Prize, judged by Cole Swensen. She earned her doctorate from the University of Utah and is an associate professor of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she co-edits the poetry and Beyond Category sections of Seneca Review.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Let me begin with an analogy. As a woman guitarist and songwriter, I was for a long time mortified by the idea that people would think I didn’t know how to play guitar correctly. My hands are unusually small, so I’ve had to be creative and to innovate formally and weirdly, and this has had an enormous impact on the way I write and play songs. But the idea of correctness (and my convinced-ness that I didn’t have it) stopped me from doing a lot of things I should have done and was for years a big embarrassment to me until quite suddenly it wasn’t. I think I passed some threshold of mastery finally so that I stopped worrying about doing things the way one is supposed to and started actively trying to do things in a way entirely my own.
The same thing has been true of my poetry writing. For years I had a kind of imposter syndrome, like I’d somehow snuck into the poetry tent and just hadn’t been caught yet. If I published images in my first book alongside the poems, they were other people’s images. I tried to write poems that looked like poems I had read and admired, and that other people read and admired. I tried to say and think the right things about other people’s poems. Then, suddenly I began to trust my own eye and instinct. I began to like how I read and how I think, its difference. Someone somewhere along the way game me permission to do things my own way. Now, I don’t want to be right or correct. I want to be entirely myself.
To a certain extent, the kind of confidence I have built comes from having read a whole lot more than I had read when I started out, naturally. I would tell a younger version of myself, read, read, read. Read for love, first and foremost, but read things you don’t love too. Read for earned confidence. But another thing I would tell myself is that the concept of mastery is problematic. It keeps people from disenfranchised groups from writing and making. I wish I could carve out a piece of not-caring-ness and give it to my younger self (and a ton of other younger poets) so she spent less time worrying and more time trying things out and making things that didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen.
ON DIGITAL STORYTELLING
I think there will always be room for poems that look like “poems” in poetry, and I will always love these poems. I have really really broad tastes. I like so much of poetry, such diverging things. But I also have a real soft spot for poetry that can’t find itself except by shaking formally into something new, something unprecedented. The digital world opens up new ways of telling, but this is not unique to our current technologies. Technological innovations have always affected art. I think of how the typewriter affected poets—how it physicalized their letters on the page (somewhat like how painters started physicalizing the paint on the canvas, making it apparent), how the very loudness of the medium made its way into the sounds of the poems. New technologies offer new possibilities for storytelling, and I think poets should use them, use them, use them if they can say a thing in a way that couldn’t be done elsewise. And other poets should write other kinds of poems. There’s lots of room.
It is so hard for me to name one collection of poems that has been influential and important to me without immediately naming seven more. It is in my nature to list. That said, I have found myself deeply influenced by the work of Audre Lorde over the years, her poems and her essays. I remember reading “Coal” for the first time and understanding finally the irreducibility of metaphor—the way it can’t be boiled down into something simpler if it is to be true. And if there’s one sentence that feels true to me about poetry it is her “Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” So often for me poetry is a kind of stretching to say an unsayable thing. And although it can’t say that thing directly, somehow, somehow, the poem is “shooting amiable love arrows” at the thing (as Lyn Hejinian says), and the attempt makes it thinkable, invokes it. That is extraordinary.
Another writer who remystifies writing for me is H.D. I love every part of her career, every piece of her writing, from her early Imagist poems to her later Trilogy, which is entirely itself and resembles nothing anyone else had ever written. Reading it is like hearing directly from a poet-prophet. Then, here I go, I start thinking of Gertrude Stein, another person so entirely herself who has deeply influenced my own work—how I think about writing and think with writing. She changed my envisionment of what writing can do and can look like. There are so many more, but that’s a start on the associative thinking train.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
This has been a strange time to be a teacher of poetry. After all, poetry is not out there risking and saving lives the way health care workers are right now (and grocery store clerks and postal carriers and the wonderful people handing out free breakfasts and lunches every day at my local Boys and Girls club). Poetry is not on the physical front lines, doing the most important and difficult work anyone could be doing right now.
But there are other things people need saving from. I think of the kind of madness that occasionally sweeps over me as I self-isolate as a person with a tendency toward depression. The mental blow of what we’re in the middle of, the economic blow to people, especially the people who were already disenfranchised to begin with, the most vulnerable, and the human blow as the deaths mount. We will be recovering from this for a very long time. We will never finish recovering from it. And one thing poetry can do, and art more generally, is help people to think through catastrophe, to witness it, to process it, to look it in the eyes. Art helps us to continue to be human in the face of catastrophe.
I was reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s new short story collection Verge with my intro creative writing students the day before our whole campus shut down, the day I urged them all to be brave and good and full of love, the day I said I’m sorry this is happening to you, to everyone, the day I let them say what they were feeling, what they were afraid of, what they were going to miss. It was one of the best class sessions of my life. No one had any walls left. The time for walls had ended. The first story of Lidia’s book, which is basically a poem and which everyone should go read if they can, is completely magical in that a human being acts like a human being times ten in the face of impending doom. That story buoyed us. It helped us to imagine a different possibility for how to act in the midst of catastrophe. That is what poetry can do, what art can do. Sometimes it does this in big ways and sometimes in little ways. But always my favorite poems are about what it means to be human, which is a different kind of rescue we’ll need once the first wave of rescue is finally finished with.
I think my book started out as an earnest attempt to figure out how to get the stuff of the world, the parts of it that are dearest to me, to stick to my page. I wanted to hold tight to these places and things and people I love, to translate them into language, into a completely different kind of form than their actual form. But that turned out to be impossible without a reductiveness that could have slipped easily into a kind of violence. A dear friend, the poet David Weiss, recently said the book was in the elegiac form, and as soon as he said it, I knew it was true and couldn’t think of it any other way. Maybe what it is an elegy for is my own sense of mastery over the world or my own feeling of ownership over anything I look at. And so it turns out to be kind of appropriate for our current time, when a lot of the things anyone thought were ours as humans have been proven not to be, proven heartbreakingly not ours.
As a record of the world, or a genie bottle to catch it in, the book fails. But it does something else, I think. It discovers that the world doesn’t need me to record it. That there’s something about the sitting and looking that is deeply human and humane, that I want to do myself, and to help my reader to.
An older version of Maps and Transcripts was much longer, and the poems were ordered chronologically and according to place. I kept sending it out, and it would be a finalist for a prize but would never win. Then I sent it to a contest being judged by Louise Glück. She again named it as a finalist, but she sent me a letter of support and then, to my very great astonishment, offered to help me edit the book. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift. So I drove out to her home in Cambridge, MA, over and over, to sift and resift through it. She’s an absolute editorial genius and has forever changed how I will approach book ordering.
One of the first things she suggested was a grand reorder, grouping conceptual pieces that were exploring one way of recording the world (putting map poems together, for instance, or field guide/guidebook poems together). So the chronological order, while staying somewhat present, became secondary to tracking the book’s thinking, its trajectory. We shaped the book around its thinking, which made so much more sense. It helped that Louise didn’t know me at all and so felt no need to maintain some kind of biographical accuracy that was actually just default, not chosen with intentionality, and not important to the overall truth of the book.
Another one of the first things we did was cut about a third of the poems clean out, something I found so exciting and clearly right that first day we worked together that I was almost dizzy with happiness when I left our first session. Louise said the poems we cut were all fine. There were just too many of them, and so I should be absolutely ruthless in only keeping the very very best ones. This is advice I will always follow from now on. Be generous while writing the poems and ruthless and thick-skinned while editing them. I think I also learned in the process to trust a book’s thinking and to put that at its beating heart.
Chad Bennett’s poetry has appeared in journals including Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Gulf Coast, jubilat, The Offing, and The Volta, and has been reprinted by Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. His first book of poems, Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era (Sarabande Books, 2020), was chosen by Ocean Vuong for the 2018 Kathryn A. Morton Prize. He is also the author of Word of Mouth: Gossip and American Poetry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), a study of twentieth century poetry and the queer art of gossip. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Near the end of each season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ru holds up childhood photographs of each of the remaining queens and asks them what they would say to their younger selves. These episodes, teetering between high camp and pure schmaltz, always both move me and make me cringe, in the same way that something like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet does. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick gets at this shame-charged dynamic of the relation to a younger version of oneself when she discusses Henry James looking back at his earlier writing in order to compose prefaces for the New York edition of his work. Anytime someone looks back at their younger self, there’s the potential to feel, from the privileged vantage of the present, ashamed of them and all they don’t yet know, or, alternately, to feel shamed by some notion of that younger self’s uncorrupted promise. When I think about what I know now about being a poet that I might have wanted to know earlier, mostly I find myself flush with shame: either how could I not have known that? or if only I still knew now everything that I knew then! There’s an intimacy in that self-relation, one that’s weirdly forged through mutual commitment to, and mutual shame about, poetry as a way of life. I think if there’s anything worth communicating about my own experience of being a poet, it has something to do with inhabiting, even cultivating, that galvanizing sense of shame.
ON DIGITAL STORYTELLING
I love writing poems in a time of smartphones. So many digital technologies shaping our everyday lives right now aim, however successfully, to make persons virtually present to each other, and in that sense they’re a lot like poems, the original technology for doing so. I bristle whenever I hear folks complain about the obsolescence of poetry in a digital world—poetry and theories of poetry have so much to tell us about that world’s workings and effects!
That said, I’m also invested in the perceived obsolescence of poetry, and the way that new forms can make poetry seem, to many, outmoded. To imagine poetry as obsolete is not to mark its disappearance. What’s obsolete doesn’t disappear, it stubbornly endures, sticking around past its commercial use, and accounts of obsolescence have focused on this conjunction of persistence and supersession to show how insofar as the obsolete is no longer useful in certain ways it can become useful in others. Poetry is like that: somebody somewhere has been saying it’s dead for at least a few hundred years, but it just keeps hanging around, outside the normal economies of value, free to become—at its best—an object of strange, non-instrumental attachments and a locus for all kinds of queer relations.
I’m writing this on day 22 of sheltering in place and every time I look out a window I wish I had the acuity of James Schuyler, the twentieth century’s great poet of looking out of windows. Luckily, I have Schuyler’s poems to see for me, and I wish everyone the long, ongoing pleasures of seeing the world through the window of his work, especially his book The Morning of the Poem. I am constantly humbled by the quality and candor of Schuyler’s attention, but even more by his refusal to present that attention as somehow ennobling. Unlike in the confessional or post-confessional work of his (and our) era, Schuyler never makes himself the hero of his poetry, even as his poems present his life in disarmingly intimate detail. In “December 28, 1974,” he writes of his desire “merely to say, to see and say, things / as they are.” There’s a life’s work in that perhaps impossible desire, one at once inescapably based in and yet larger than the self, and Schuyler’s poems are one astonishing model of how to pursue it.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
Poetry can have and has had lots of social functions. Langston Hughes understood his poetry as performing, in part, a longstanding archival function: “Traditionally,” he wrote, “poets are lyric historians,” and “the songs of the poets have been not only songs, but often records of the most moving events, the deepest thoughts and most profound emotional currents of their times.” I’m drawn to this idea of poems as archives of emotion—it resonates, for me, with Allen Ginsberg’s hailing of Frank O’Hara, in his elegy for him, as a “curator of funny emotions.” Of the many, many things a poem can do, I like to think of its being called to do the counterarchival work of recording the affective histories, or funny emotions, omitted from, obscured within, or effaced by official archives and archival practices.
I wrote the poems in Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era over many years and with no real assumption that I would want to publish them as part of a book, let alone that anyone else would. So it’s strange to imagine having readers, however few: the idea that someone can walk into a bookstore or library in another city and pick up my book, or that with a few clicks it might arrive at their front door, feels endlessly amazing to me. Just the thought of someone giving themselves over to my poems for any scrap of time seems like a gift!
For me, the book presents one account of the endless effort to become a queer person, and if I want readers to come away from the collection with anything I suppose it’s with the sense that it provides a livable space for that effort (I’d hazard that many queer folks were first queer readers). Really, though, whatever ideas or feelings or designs I had in mind, it’s much more exciting for me to hope that readers will make their own desire lines as they move through the space of the book, cutting certain corners, wearing new paths, finding things in the poems I couldn’t have anticipated.
ON BUILDING A COLLECTION
I sort of miss the days when it was more the norm for poets to pause whenever they’d amassed a sizable batch of poems and call it a book, which inevitably would more or less cohere because each poem loosely shared the same author in the same throes, however momentary, of the same set of formal and thematic preoccupations. There’s more pressure, it seems to me now, to have a “project,” and to be writing towards filling out some pre-imagined structure. I love those kinds of project-based books, but every time I’ve tried to work in that way I get bored, or the project gets bored by me, and I jump ship.
For a long time, then, I was just writing poems for myself and not thinking about a book or any larger structure: the organization of Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era took place almost entirely after the fact of writing enough poems that a few generous friends started to suggest I might have a book, and I started to hope so, too. When I thought about what that book might look like, I knew I wanted “Silver Springs,” the long poem that makes up the central section of the collection, to be right there in the center, and I worked outwards from that, creating a chiasmic or mirroring structure: an introductory poem, a section of 18 poems, a section containing only “Silver Springs,” another section of 18 poems, and an envoi poem: 1 / 18 / 1 / 18 / 1. I tried to imagine each of the poems on either side of “Silver Springs” as having a counterpart, and all of the nuances of those pairings played into my ordering decisions a little, too. Hardly any of this, I know, will be evident or significant for readers, but I like feeling that that deeper structure is there.
Thinking about organization makes me remember—I hope accurately!—being at a Q&A where John Ashbery was asked how he went about ordering a book, and he drolly stressed putting the good poems up front (since most readers don’t make it very far), and then following those poems with some others, and those with some others, until you ran out of poems. Despite the pretensions of what just I’ve said, I can’t shake the feeling that, in practice, my own process of putting the collection together might have been just as close to this more modest and fundamentally sound advice.