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The Poetry Kit Interviews Barry Spacks

Barry SpacksWhere were you born and raised?
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I stayed straight ahead, visiting family by streetcar from my dorm at the local U., the University of Pennsylvania
Was your family literary?
Classic situation -- no books to speak of in the house. Magazines came, THE LADIES HOME JOURNAL, which had a kid's page with a little story I raced to each month. Our culture was the newspaper (THE PHILADELPHIA BULLETIN), the movies, the radio (JACK BENNY...FIBBER MCGEE AND MOLLY).
When did you start writing poetry?
Breaking up with my high school sweetheart, filled with intense emotion, age seventeen, out of regret and tenderness there flowed what surely must have been record-breakingly godawful verses. I failed to keep copies, that at least is a break. The originals went to incredible Anita and I surely hope she's burned and/or buried them by now!
Not an uncommon starting point. But what turned that impulse into a desire to become a writer, particularly a poet?
The crystallization of emotion in words. And the sheer amazement of something coming through, invention, an angle of vantage on feelings that allowed them to shimmer, deepen. The wonder of the way the words lilted and took unexpected turns. The pleasure of total *focus* during the making.
What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?
Among books, MOBY DICK has a special place, due partly to my luck in talking the librarian at the Wyoming Avenue Branch of the Philadelphia Public Library into letting me borrow it -- I just wanted to show off by bringing home a Big One -- even though, at age eleven, I had no right to be wandering along the adult shelves.
But Melville meant no more than hundreds of others from those early years, BOY'S LIFE magazine and SUPERMAN comics, pocket sized collections of Browning (actually brown) or of Emerson's Essays (blue) that I carried with me on bus and streetcar; the discovery of Yeats and Eliot, a long fascination with Hemingway, university courses that introduced me to Fielding and Genet, Jane Austen and Mann and Woolfe and Whitman, on and on.
When I'm asked this sort of question at a poetry reading, I often choose to reply honestly with "everybody," though back to the wall I guess I could cut down to a few hundred writers or so. As for events, the early death of my father, intense friendships in youth, and mostly what led to this endless habit of messing about with words, schooling, of course: Mr. Pennypacker, dour and shy, high school instructor, actually climbing up on his desk to read the "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth" soliloquy from JULIUS CAESAR; or the sheer excitement of getting to go to university -- first in my family even to finish high school -- and to start up a literary magazine there. I should also mention involvement with theatre and singing, and my tendency to fall in love without ceasing with the transcendent beauty of girls and women. And then there's the effort in maturity to become, finally, educated so that I'd have something to offer as a teacher and not make a fool of myself in the classroom even if I insisted on doing so everywhere else.
What earlier poets most attracted you?
Eliot, to be sure. An instructor at the university read Prufrock to us one day when he was vamping without a lesson-plan, and I was so struck by the music of the thing, and by my lack of understanding of a word of it, that I went out with my meager scholarship funds and bought a SELECTED in its yellow wrapper and read and read until J. Alfred came clear and he's stayed with me inadvertently memorized ever since.
Yeats took me over in a similar way. And other giants, many in translation like Cavafy,and the Polish Herbert, and especially the Duino Elegies of Rilke. Among more recent workers, Auden, Roethke, Ahkmatova, Wilbur, E. Bishop, Berryman, James Wright, right down to my current passion for Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky.
You don't mention Robert Lowell, who tends to be thought of in Britain as the great modern American poet. Or William Carlos Williams, another big influence over here.
Lowell once kindly came to a class of mine at M.I.T. on contemporary literature, and was very forthcoming to the students, who later commented on his intense sadness (which was their read on L's "saintliness" that Mailer mentions in THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT). The book we were on, LIFE STUDIES, I found vastly encouraging; that the craft-mastery of the earlier Lowell could be put to the uses of more available emotion and thought. Especially "Skunk Hour" knocked me out. I didn't mention Lowell not because I sensed no affinity to his practice, only in that he hadn't loomed as large as others for me as a fellow-worker. I wonder how many poets honestly feel as I do, that there are literally hundreds (thousands?) of significant artists and thinkers nudging them along one way or another.
As to WCW, no question he's the chief conduit to experiment for my generation, and he's always been important to me, certainly as much as Stevens, Bishop, and Eliot.
You mentioned pop culture such as Boy's Life and Superman as early influences, so I'm a little surprised not to see The Beats in your list, especially Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.
I had some amusing times with Ginsberg, one lousy phone call with Ferlinghetti. Of the whole crowd I most admire Whalen's poetry. But you know, there was an arrogance there in that movement, an exclusiveness that turned me off. Wilbur would be more my kinda guy, or Hollander teasing Corso regarding "Fried shoes." I'd have to write a thesis to get across something like my full range of feelings about the Beats. I hated the "you're either with us or against us" feeling of their self-righteousness, and that extended right into the "counter-culture" to follow where I was indeed part of the anti-establishment surge. Exclusiveness has always been my great enemy, fundamentalism to the left or right or center. I'm an omnivore.
What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?
I believe I've always written only one sort of poem, a report out of immediate experience, out of something said in my presence, or words I'd said, out of something read or seen or dreamed. To capture whatever seemed special day to day.
Reading your poems, that's clearly so. But they seem to have something beyond straight realism. And in the recent poems on your web site there's a definite 'zen' element - am I right about that? Where does it come from?
For years I served my time as a sort of pre-Buddhist, and then my wife got me involved with a great Tibetan teacher, H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. We spent about six years living in close touch with him up in Trinity County, California, helping to edit his books, working in the kitchen at the Gonpa (meditation center) there. I've also spent some time among the "Zens," but Nyingma Buddhism is my brand and surely the work of the past eight years has shown much influence from that style of thought and action. I think the new stuff now reflects the function of Buddhism in everyday life, seeing the small things in a large light.
And technique?
As to technique, my poems find their forms by trial and error and through much re-writing. Each one has a definite personality that I'm looking to confirm. Does this poem want to rhyme, be epigramatic, sprawl? Does it want to play toward a late revelation, a lush moment at closure, be exclamatory or quiet, go along teasingly as to emotional intent or come right out with it? To quote Roethke, "I learn by going where I have to go."
Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?
Always for a new run of material that might develop into a poem I wait for the gates to open, for that inward pressure to urge me to follow-up on a turn of phrase or a striking recognition. But I work all the time at revision. There are poems it's taken me twenty years and more to get as right as they'll ever be. If they come back from submission to magazines I often seem to see them for the first time. I'd thought they were ready for print, of course, or I wouldn't have offered them up, but here comes one limping abject back holding his reject slip, and either I immediately realize that I wouldn't change a comma or I'll register how much work is still needed to give the poor fellow a fighting chance.
One advantage of posting poems on the internet is that it doesn't send rejection slips. Is that really a good thing?
As I said, I've always gotten a valuable effect from receiving poems back from a submission in the mail. Each time it's as if you see the poem for what it really is. You wouldn't have sent it out if you didn't believe it was ready, but there it is in your hand, unquestionably demanding more work. Or else it's revealed as truly okay, maybe turned down by a magazine for god knows what reason, the bad taste of the first reader, most likely, or because of a backlog, nothing to do with its quality. You *see* the poem as it comes out of the envelope with the reject-slip. This doesn't happen when poems are turned down by e-zines of course -- you may get a rejection, it may even contain your original post with the poem there to re-read, but the effect is not the same. And just posting a poem to a list? Mainly the reaction will be some sort of a pat on the back, now and then a useful workshop-word. But it's fun to be able to pop something out there from one second to the next. And I have had searching criticism from small workshop groups among friends on the Net.
How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?
I've been in various workshops over the years, including those on the Net. Sometimes I'll take a workshop suggestion whole. Mainly I'll let the talk about a poem sink in over a period of forgetting, to be influenced more indirectly. It's all soul-making, isn't it? Could be the effort to remain sharp-minded and diplomatic in making comments on the work of others is more important to overall development of the artistic self than hearing words about your own material.
Which of contemporary poets do you most admire?
I mentioned Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky before. I'd add Galway Kinnell and Adrienne Rich, Stephen Dunn -- ah, really, so many.
Can you say more about what you find interesting in the work of these particular poets?
Ah, hard. Collins for his deep comedy, Pinsky for his dazzling inclusiveness, Kinnell for his intensity, his passion, Rich for her revolutionary strength, Dunn for his ever-various strategies. But you know, those are a few names practically picked at random, I could throw an equal score or so out in their place just as easily.
How do you see the contemporary poetry scene in the United States? I've seen it described as a 'poetry boom', but I've also seen National Poetry Month described as 'the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine'. Is this just snobbery, or is there a real danger of poetry becoming too 'commercial' - like the advertising jingle, much in the way that classical music is used to sell baked beans.
Seems to be going in two directions at once. Fewer kids I meet are able to read even the most mildly demanding work, so I feel poetry is in crisis and that's why we get all this yeast intending to leaven the soggy loaf, the national poetry month, the labors of the office of the Laureate and so on. There's a yearning to keep in contact with poetry, an offshoot of a more general spiritual yearning, but many write and few partake. The danger isn't in poetry's commercialization or co-option, more in a slide in the powers of literacy.
I read a lot about 'poetry slams' and slam competitions. They sound pretty violent! What do you think of that movement?
It's a fun-offshoot, not to be taken too seriously. Another effort to tart up the Muse and make her seem less demanding. Better this than silence and turning-away.
How do you make a living? How does this influence your writing?
I've been teaching at universities -- mainly American and English literature, with occasional courses in poetry-writing -- for forty-and -more years now. And surely this has had an enormous influence on me. Pound said somewhere that a professor is a man "who has to talk for an hour." I've talked and read significant writers for so long that I have a full jury available to me at all times regarding my own word-work. I think my teaching has kept me open-minded, passionate about great art and thought, awake, ambitious. And with the sort of generosity as to the uses of mind and heart that comes with the territory, the "giving" attitude a teacher can't help developing if he takes the job seriously at all.
Many young poets would envy you. But isn't there a danger in becoming too absorbed in the process - too 'academic'?
Any job that takes away your chance to follow risks with a backpack on is dangerous. Sure, having a job can be a killer to the poetry you want to serve, but at least the teaching thing keeps you involved with great and significant writing and the struggle to "get it across" to the young. Among the steady-pay-check arrangements it may have the greatest number of positive side-effects.
What do you have planned for the immediate future?
Thinking about drafting a screenplay on an idea that may or may not catch fire once teaching's over for a bit. And, as always, hoping to be ready for new poems.
Thanks Barry. And good luck.
© Barry Spacks, Ted Slade 1998