Thursday, October 7, 2010

Do Unto Other Poets

In the March/April issue of The Writer's Chronicle, Chapman Hood Frazier has an excellent interview with Gregory Orr. There's something in the interview that keeps circling around in my head. Frazier asks Orr how the poets he had as teachers influenced him as a poet, specifically, "how did their work itself influence you and your writing?" He wants to know not just what poet-teachers such as Stanley Kunitz and Mark Strand taught Orr about the craft but also what influence their poetry had on his poetry.

Interesting question, but what interested me most was this part of Orr's response: "Reading their (Kunitz's and Strand's) poems was also a way for them to teach me indirectly through their writing. And it's very important to know your teacher's work. I sometimes have students working with me, and they've studied with me two or three years, and I realize they've never read anything I've written. That seems crazy, because why would you listen to somebody's opinion of your work if you don't know what they've written?"

It's that last part that has stayed with me. I keep thinking of a college student who came to a reading I gave several years ago. After the reading she came up to me and offered some lovely compliments. She moved closer to me and indicated that she wanted to touch me for "inspiration." She seemed to think that she could magically acquire what I knew by literally rubbing shoulders with me. I suggested that the best poetry teacher and the best source of inspiration is a poetry book. But she went home empty-handed. Now I understand that college kids often don't have the money for poetry books, but I sure hope they don't really believe that proximity to a poet is how one learns how to write poetry.

I've also been asked several times by other poets to write a review of their latest book. I write several reviews each year—it's kind of a mission of mine, a way of supporting poets, and it allows me to hope for the same kind of support—but these requests sometimes come from poets who I'm sure haven't bought or read any of my books. They might, at best, have read a few of my poems in journals. I'm not inclined to say Yes to the request.

Likewise with blurbs. I generally feel honored to be asked to write a blurb for a forthcoming book—but only when it comes from someone who I know has supported my work. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. I've been asked to write blurbs for people who clearly have virtually no knowledge of my work beyond having read a poem or two online. And I have to wonder, as Orr wondered, why they'd want words of praise from someone whose work they don't know very well? And why they would expect my support when they haven't given me theirs?

One more thing that puzzles me: Why do poets with forthcoming books or chapbooks ask me to pre-order and pay for their collections when they've never bought one of my books already in print? I receive these requests fairly often as there are several presses which require their poets to solicit advance sales. The number of advance sales then determines the print run. Although I do not like this business model at all, if the request comes from a poet who I know has supported my work, then I pre-order. But sometimes the request comes from a poet who I'm quite sure has not availed himself of my work. I'm not sure why some people would ask or expect me to pay for the publication cost of their work when they haven't offered me their support.

Most poets I know are generous, and I hope that I am too, but, at the risk of sounding cranky, I want to suggest that people asking for services or favors or time need to remember to be generous too. They need to remember The Golden Rule of Poetry.

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  1. That kind of behavior irritates me at readings, too. I'm always surprised at how many poets want desperately to be heard, but have no interest in listening.

  2. Yes, oh, dear, you have hit it exactly! Sigh... Thank you for bringing this up.

  3. Just last night, a young man rushed over from the restaurant next door b/c he'd heard there was a poetry event going on -- it was our first CPS reading of the fall. But when he learned OTHER poets were going to read, that it's not an open mic, he, well, he left.

    You're one of the most generous poets around -- thanks for that, and this, Diane!

  4. Read, listen ... Yes!

    Great points from a very generous poet!

  5. Dear Diane,

    I know this Orr interview! I normally toss out my Writer's Chronicles after I read them, but not this issue--it left a mark on me. The summer before I entered began my MFA at UW, I read all of Heather McHugh's books, along with most of David Wagoner's poetry books, and a good deal of what Richard Kenney and Linda Beirds had produced. I bought most of these books used (I was a poor student, after all), but I sometimes ponied up full price to know what my teachers were up to. Because you're right, Diane: why would I listen to them, want to learn from them, if I didn't know what their poems were like? It's baffling to me, that girl who thought by touching you she could ascend to your calibre. It's maddening, in fact. Poetic prowess is not gained through divining, through a laying on of hands, for goodness sake. It takes years of reading poetry, and writing lots of mediocre poems. Loved this post, Diane. Thanks for spreading the good word about the Golden Rule!


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