(Ed note: Scribner has launched a new on-line magazine and its first issue features a conversation between Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and 2014 Guest Editor Terrance Hayes. Follow this link to read an excerpt. The full interview is reproduced below. Click on the cover image above to purchase The Best American Poetry 2014. -- sdh)
(Image left: John Ashbery & David Lehman (c) Star Black. R: Terrance Hayes)
DL: Terrance, when you look back over the year you surveyed for The Best American Poetry 2014, what surprised you the most?
TH: One of the many surprises was just how many literary journals are out there. It's hard to believe — no, I can't believe poetry isn't thriving when so many editors are dedicating time and energy to so many publications. Here are some of the amazing journals I was unaware of before my editorship: Make Literary Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Spillway, The Normal School, ABZ Poetry Magazine, Willow Springs! One of the vital fringe benefits of The Best American Poetry is discovering these publications. I hope they get a few new subscribers because of it.
DL: I hope so, too. I never tire of saying that lit mag editors are among the unsung heroes of American poetry. You know who I think is an underrated poet? Nabokov. I take it you admire him from your decision to cast your introduction in the form of a fake q-and-a with Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire fame.
TH: Nabokov is an early and enduring guide -- muse, really -- for me as a writer. Lolita was my first love. When I read it for the first time at 20 years old or so, it prompted something I'd never experienced as a reader: something like ecstasy by way of the language and horror by way of the implications. (I feel similarly reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor.) In any event, Pale Fire prompts similar complex feelings because of the ways it combines poetry, fiction and criticism. I love that it implies that "close reading" requires, or maybe prompts, a sort of delusion. Looking at poems, little constructions of suggestion and innuendo, requires, or maybe prompts, a little craziness. Who better than Charles Kinbote, then, to help us into an anthology of contemporary poetry: contemporary songs, illusions, and shadows?
DL: Lover of wordplay that you are, do you think verse forms, traditional or ad hoc, are making a comeback? You and I both do variants of the "golden shovel." Sometimes I suggest that aspiring poets take an Auden sonnet, retain the end words, omit the rest and fill in the blanks.
TH: No, I don't think traditional forms are making a comeback, but that's only because I don't think they've ever really gone away. We all need something to push against or outgrow or reinvent, and I believe all the old fashioned forms are where we start and sometimes return to... I suspect if we look under Gertrude Stein's bed we'll fine a sonnet or two.
DL: My old mentor, Kenneth Koch, has a poem ("Fresh Air") in which a mythic personage called "the Strangler" targets bad poets, such as "the maker of comparisons between football and life." To my knowledge no such strictures exist regarding comparisons between basketball and poetry. So I ask you, the dude who guarded Ray Allen in high school, what is the equivalent of a fast break in a poem?
TH: Oh, that's a great question! My answer is syntax--- the way a sentence adjusts its rhythm and angles as it moves across line breaks is surely akin to the way a body or bodies adjust speed and direction in a fast break... Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Carrion Comfort" comes to mind. Not in its subject necessarily, but in its verbal grace and athletic syntactical contortions.
Maybe there isn’t room for the whole poem, but behold the linguistic equivalent to a Lebron James fast break:
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
DL: That Hopkins sonnet has one of the all-time great last lines. I sometimes write a poem and notice only afterward that it is in 14 lines with a break around the 8th or 9th line. Do you fall back on the sonnet as a kind of default form? Our anthology opens with one -- albeit an unconventional one -- by Sherman Alexie.
TH: There have been sonnets in all of my books. It's the form I return to most often. It's a centuries old box always waiting to be reshaped, adapted, filled with new words. I love to see what new things poets do with the form. Hence my attraction to the very smart Alexie poem. Alexie also has an on-going interest in poetic form, I think. I can recall a short story of his which utilized the sestina form.
DL: Oh, I love the idea of hiding a sestina within a prose paragraph. Edmund White does that in one of his early novels ("Nocturnes for the King of Naples"). With so much to like in modern and contemporary poetry, does it drive you crazy to see reviews that treat the poet as if he or she were a criminal on the dock? I wonder when the snark arrived – the little imp that instructed magazine editors to commission articles on the “most overrated poet” or the like? I'm not asking reviewers to be cheerleaders, but there is something a little cheap, even cynical, in the excessively nasty pieces that turn up regularly in well-funded magazines.
TH: On one hand, I think the constant assessments (and self-assessments) of poetry (or any cultural phenomena) are ages old. Whether the reviews and lists and critiques are good or bad, outrageous, misguided, I see them as an avenue for people with an interest in poetry. I suppose the feeling of despair comes when the writing seems to be more about the reviewer/critic/list-maker than the actual poetry... It reminds me of the feeling I used to get watching the young Geraldo Rivera. It was as if he needed to situate himself at the cinematic center of whatever drama or tragedy he was covering. It seemed being first was more important than being right. A lot of the online articles on poets and poetry often seem driven by the same quality of self-importance. The more “followers” and potential followers, the worse it is. I guess people just want to be “viral.” (How did “viral” become a good word?) I'm glad to read any provocative or new news about poets and poetry, but these days I trust blogs like Structure and Style or your own Best American Poetry blog where the odor of ego is not a distraction.
DL: Thanks for the plug. I hope you will agree to be a guest blogger on the BAP blog. It is a pity that ego should get in the way of poetry, which seems to require egolessness (also known as "negative capability"). But if most critics are failed poets, that's also true for most poets, alas. As a teacher, do you have a shit list of instantly poetical words you hate to see students use in a poem? Like "cicadas," or like "cupped" as a verb? And a second question: do you think a proliferation of bad poems, stimulated by contests or creative writing classes or whatever, is bad for the art (inasmuch as it lowers the cultural denominator) or good (inasmuch as it is a sign of vitality)? Please answer either -- or both.
TH: Years ago Michael Harper told me "nice," "cute," and "amazing" are three words that never belong in poems. I've been trying to work them into a poem ever since. No luck yet, but I haven't given up. My attitude-- that what's bad might be made good--maybe shows in my response to your second question...
I think the challenges of what makes a poem good or bad have always been with us. Maybe the scale is more evident, more prolific because there are more publication venues these days. It makes the hunt for what anyone considers good or bad more intense, but not impossible.
DL: Every year when The Best American Poetry is published, I ask my students to write two poems, “one that is better than the best poem in the book and one that is worse than the worst poem.” It’s liberating for them to know they’re entitled to dislike one of the “best” poems. But the real surprise is that in writing a deliberately bad poem, they may happen onto something pretty good.
To pursue the basketball analogy a little further: which poet from the previous generation would you single out as the most difficult to guard?
TH: That's a very tricky question. "Guard" implies a poet to be stopped or maybe overthrown... Uhhh, I don't even think I can say who's the Poet-Jordan of the 90s or the Magic-poet of Magic's era... Certain poets who maybe are not "franchise poets" like Ashbery are still distinct for an inimitable style of play: Allen Grossman, Harryette Mullen, Rae Armantrout, Ed Robeson-- I'm thinking of poets hovering in the avant garde domain, I guess. Poets who write the sort of poems that prompt mutual pleasure and mystery... You can't guard what you can't touch!
DL: I sometimes think of the prose poem as the equivalent in poetry of the free throw in basketball. Something that should go in, if you’re a professional, and yet Shaq missed a lot of them. Any comment?
TH: I hadn't thought of it before, but yes, maybe the prose poem is akin to the free throw in that both appear very easy--free of line breaks "should" mean easier, but, no sir. These days I love to go to the gym and do little more than shoot free throws for a few hours. It becomes a meditative act. So I'd probably have associated it with something more formal, something less surreal than the prose poem. But forget that: the prose poem is a smarter parallel.
DL: In your introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, you say that the 1990 volume, edited by Jorie Graham, was the first book of poems you ever purchased – and that you own all the books in the series. Which are your favorites?
TH: Well, I've taught Rita Dove's 2000 edition more than any other-- partly because it was published around the time I began teaching poetry, partly because it covers such a wide array of styles. And I know, just about by heart, every poem in Graham's edition. Philip Levine's poem "Scouting" and Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It" are still among my very favorite poems. In fact, it's easier to recall favorite poems than favorite books and poets. Allen Grossman's "The Piano Player Plays Himself" from Ashbery's edition-- one of my very favorite poems in the world; Thom Gunn's "The Butcher's Son" from Louise Guck's 93 edition; Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poem, "Scouting the Famous Figures of the Grotto of Improbable Thought," from Ammon's 94 edition; Larry Levis' "Anastastia and Sandman" from Tate's 97 edition. My two favorite poems by Charles Bukowski appear in the series, I discovered the awesome prose poems of Phyllis Koestenbaum (whatever happened to her?) in this series. I first encountered Dean Young in the series-- he's regularly amazing. If I were to make a list of my top twenty contemporary poems, maybe 60-70 percent would come from the BAP series. I have lots of favorite poems from the last ten years as well, but it'll be another decade before I can say which poems stay with me.
DL: Great answer. Do you have a question for me?
TH: I've long wondered what an edition solely in your hands would look like. I doubt any of the past, present or future editors could do a better job than you alone. What sorts of qualities would you look for in your dream BAP anthology?
DL: I’m grateful for the compliment, but I’d have trepidations about taking on the task. If I did it, I think maybe I would get obsessive, try to read everything, and do little else, though that does not seem like a practical solution. I would hope to find someone like David Lehman to send me packets of poems at regular intervals, nudge and cajole me, and make sure I hadn’t overlooked something vital.
During your year reading for The Best American Poetry 2014, did you write much poetry of your own? If yes, is it because reading poems, especially good ones, acts as a spur?
TH: Yes, I wrote while I was hunting poems. Whenever and whatever I'm reading I often approach as a miner (looking for creative influences/resources), teacher (a teachable poem isn't the same as a poem that opens the roof) and fan (looking to have the roof torn off). I found lots of roof rippers and even poems that were both teachable and awe-inspiring, but I can't recall any one poem directly impacting a poem I wrote in the last year or so. Eventually, I'd love to try what Sherman Alexie does with the sonnet form and what Rosemary Griggs does with the "Script Poem." Subversions and appropriations of form are always of interest to me.