John Irwin, who led The Hopkins Review from its rebirth in 2008, will retire from teaching at Johns Hopkins University this spring. David Yezzi took over the reins of the journal in 2015. A well-known poet, actor and editor, Yezzi joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2013. Yezzi joined us to talk about his new position and the special issue devoted to Irwin’s impact on the field.
Category Archives: Poetry
Emily Dickinson Journal publishes its 25th volume in 2016 under the guidance of a new editor. James R. Guthrie, Professor of English Language and Literatures at Wright State University, now helms the journal. He joined us for a Q&A about his new role and the journal’s anniversary.
How did you come to take the editor position at the journal?
I was invited to take the position by Cristanne Miller, the EDJ‘s previous editor.
What is one surprising thing you have found in the transition?
Learning to use ScholarOne. (Ed: An online system for manuscript submission and review) I was quite intimidated by ScolarOne when I took over the editorship. But now, with two issues under my belt, I’m much more comfortable with that program. ScholarOne is still not as user-friendly as I would prefer, but I’ve come to appreciate what it can do for me, as an editor.
Emily Dickinson Journal will publish its 25th volume in 2016. What does that milestone mean for you?
Twenty-five years is indeed a milestone for the EDJ. Personally, those 25 years coincide roughly with my own scholarly interest in Dickinson. It has been a real pleasure to watch Dickinson move from the fringe of recognized American writers to canonical status. My wife jokes now that she can rarely open an issue of the Sunday New York Times or the New Yorker without coming across a reference to Emily Dickinson. She has definitely entered the mainstream of American culture and literary history.
What kind of plans to you have in the short term for the journal?
Now that I’m more comfortable with the position of editor, I look forward to using the EDJ to encourage growth in particular areas of Dickinson scholarship. For example, I’m interested in encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to her poetry. I also like cultural materialist / new historical approaches. Also, there’s a good deal of interest among Dickinson scholars these days in looking more closely at literary kinships between Dickinson and other 19th-century American writers such as Melville and Thoreau. Then too, Dickinson scholarship has become increasingly international in scope. Foreign scholars have much to offer about the reception of Dickinson’s work in their countries, translations of the poems, and similarities between her work and that of local celebrated authors.
What kind of advice would you give to scholars looking to publish in the journal?
I would certainly advise scholars considering submitting work to the EDJ to go ahead and do so — we welcome any sort of scholarship concerning Dickinson. And Dickinson is something of a hot property these days in scholarship and the media — so young scholars may boost their own careers by focusing more intently upon Dickinson’s work. The network of Dickinson scholars is (drawing upon my own experience) welcoming, receptive to new ideas, and friendly. So, take a chance on Dickinson — I think all of us practicing Dickinson scholars are happy that we did.
The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars will host a reading by two long-time friends and JHU Press authors, John Irwin and Wyatt Prunty, on Thursday, February 25, at 6:30 p.m. The reading, reception, and book signing take place in Gilman Hall, Room 50, on JHU’s Homewood campus. The event is free and open to the public; find more information on the Writing Seminars website.
John Irwin has been an extraordinary friend and partner to JHU Press over many decades, publishing six scholarly books with us under his own name; three volumes of poetry under his pen name, John Bricuth; editing some 97 volumes in the distinguished series, Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction, on behalf of the Press and the Writing Seminars; relaunching the literary journal, The Hopkins Review, in 2008; and serving as the intrepid cheer-leader, fundraiser, and inspiration for all these projects. We extend boundless thanks and good wishes to John, who retired last year as Decker Professor of the Humanities at JHU. He will be reading from and signing copies of his (John Bricuth’s) latest volume of poetry, Pure Products of America. Inc.
Wyatt Prunty is a professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South and the founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the author of nine collections of poems (eight published with JHUP), including Unarmed and DANGEROUS and The Lover’s Guide to Trapping. He will be reading from and signing copies his latest collection from JHUP, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise.
This post re-publishes portions of a story by Maureen McGavin that appeared online at the Emory News Center. Read the full story here.
The second volume of a JHUP’s monumental digital work, The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, coedited by Emory University’s Ron Schuchard and involving the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), has won the Modernist Studies Association’s inaugural prize for a distinguished edition.
The prize is awarded to an edition, anthology, or essay collection, published in the previous year, which made the most significant contribution to modernist studies.
“I’m honored to receive and share this prize with my coeditor, professor Anthony Cuda (Emory Ph.D. 2004) at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, the Emory digital team, and the staff members of the Johns Hopkins University Press and Project Muse,” says Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English Emeritus at Emory.
The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot is an eight-volume digital collection of Eliot’s published and unpublished works. The third volume was published in September, with the fourth slated to be released in December.
When complete, the fully searchable, integrative edition will include all of Eliot’s collected essays, reviews, lectures, commentaries, and letters to editors, including more than 700 uncollected and 150 unpublished pieces from 1905 to 1965. The editions are available from JHU Press on Project Muse.
“While the entire edition, projected to eight volumes, constitutes a major achievement and an indispensable archive,” the judges wrote, “Volume II is certain to be the one most used by scholars, most central to ongoing studies and re-evaluations of Eliot and the history of modernist criticism. Clear and easily grasped editorial principles and superb content notes speak to the dedication, diligence, and sound sense of the editorial team.”
Interview by Yasmine Kaminsky
You mentioned in an interview with the Tennessee Literary Project that although your parents raised you in a cultured household, you initially did not believe you would become a writer. How, then, did your path to poetry form?
I was the son and grandson of professors, so growing up I had plenty of books around and knew how many poets there were in the tradition. Imagining someday being a part of that body struck me as a long shot. I would have said, age 16 to 18 or so, that it was unrealistic from the standpoint of ever making a living let alone making a difference in the lineup of some library’s bookshelves. At the same time I had been making up melodies and songs for years. When I turned twelve I was given a guitar. It wasn’t a very good guitar, but that was all it took for me. This was the 1960s and the coffee house/folk music boom was underway. I sang in a group. The other two members of the group were in college, and they were good. In the summers they had gigs at the Brickskeller and Cellar Door in Washington, and one year they were offered a stint at the Bitter End in NYC, but their parents made them return to the University in Athens, Georgia to finish their degrees. I was still in high school, but we performed some of the songs I wrote. Writing a song and performing it with others was a great way to learn a number of things that were applicable to poems.
I learned that a song can stand on the ground of immediate conviction. When the words and the melody fit really well something beyond one’s individual will takes over. Writing songs is a time-worn path to lyric poetry. Along that way one discovers how deeply a poem can burrow. A song’s music keeps moving so the words must be readily understandable, whereas a poem enjoys more license. When I came to college I brought along a stack of poems and naively walked into the office of the editor of The Sewanee Review. Andrew Lytle read them and gave them to Allen Tate who pronounced a few “publishable.” Then they published one, then some others. There were no superlatives uttered, just something about I could do this if I was willing to work hard enough long enough. With that I was convicted.
In another interview with Chapter 16 a few years ago, you stated your “long-held belief that the first concern for poetry at any time is figurative thought that leads to a dramatic core of meaning.” Could you elaborate on your position and how it relates to your new poetry collection?
I have stated that figurative thought is the “first concern for poetry.” That is because a poem is a mode of thought before it is a form of expression. Poetry uncovers parts of reality we would miss without it. The reason, years ago, I used the term “dramatic core of meaning” had to do with mediating between formalist and free verse arguments. I thought then and still think a poem’s argument and its rhythm are its dominant elements. Listen to a young couple having an intense conversation in an airport, and you will hear argument and the alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables. That experience ought to be enough for anyone to unravel the rest as far as form is concerned. Poetic figure houses a poem’s argument, and the rhythms of the English language reinforce the emotional import of that argument.
I was fortunate to stumble upon a video of your poetry reading last fall at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in which you read some poems from Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise. One aspect of the reading that strikes me is the humor and tragedy apparent in many of your works (e.g., “Bad Dog” and “Another Christmas Tie”). How do you balance these two elements in your writing?
Humor jars expectation and causes rebalancing. It qualifies and redeems. If you damp emotion, as humor can do, a poem’s durability can increase. My purpose with humor is to disarm the reader and to objectify the subject so the poem has a greater half-life. I do not intend something that is just performative; a poem has a kind of ontology to it. It is a consciousness for as long as it lasts. Finding ways to keep such a mind from exhausting itself with its own obsessions is art. It is a way to dwell in a subject. Art is experience without the cost of experience, and it is understanding fused with value. Along with these there is the ideal of seeing something from many sides and judging along multiple lines. Tragedy teaches this. Most lives are lived among tragedies small and frequent. But Shakespeare to Irish wake, there is a place for humor too. We think both ways at once.
Could you explain to us how self-revision as well as peer-review with others (such as your editor John Irwin) have helped shape the collection?
Of your question about self-revision the main thing to say is that I was more conscious of that process when I was younger. At that time I created an ideal audience for myself consisting of poets whose work I admired. I wrote with the hope my poem would be meaningful in the context of such an audience. I tried to test that poem with the perspectives of whatever my current short list of greats happened to be. I judged poems in light of what I imagined the aesthetic thinking of these poets would be if they were living in the present. That ideal audience changed as my interests changed, and I suppose now I have absorbed certain principles to the point that I feel as though I work alone, though no one does entirely.
In the case of “Nod,” the long poem in Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, everything derives from the characters in the poem. Revision occurred within the terms of character. And to return briefly to the subjects of humor and tragedy, it is important to add that the characters in “Nod” are not allegorical; they are represented by the poem as physically present. Their humor and their tragedies are real. Were they not real, some of what they say and do would have a different meaning. Humor is a test for what is real. A recent review of “Nod” found it to be an allegory. However the speaker, the main character who narrates the poem, while never named is in fact a living being. He is not Fulton, as one reader supposed. There is no reality to Fulton other than the name used for expression. Fulton, we are told, is like Jimmy Durante’s Mrs. Calabash, an ideal defined by absence. The date of the poem’s events really is July 3, and the location really is a mall outside Atlanta, Georgia where the summer heat rising from the asphalt is hellish.
Floyd Byrom Thatch is a wounded vanity. He is a Georgia cracker on the order of a poor man’s Mephistopheles. And as someone obsessed with security he also has something of Lord Byron’s self-imposed exile. But Floyd is a real person, as all the others are. In the poem’s first part Floyd says to the speaker, “Who’s to remember . . . Who’s to remember a nickel or a dime / Or ever the time you saw your little dog get hit?” The poem’s narrator asks, “And how you think you know my dog was hit.” Floyd answers, “I’m saying, you were six; the dog was four, / Maybe five. Just saying that, nothing more.” That is, these things really did happen, and Floyd’s suppositions trouble the narrator because he has intuited something painful from the narrator’s past. The evil of Floyd’s wounded pride may be metaphysical (and universal on the order of allegory), but Floyd’s body and his history are matters of this world. The events of his life are no more allegorical than those of other lives that participate in the repeated patterns of our nature. In fact the events described are more disturbing than allegory would be. The narrator is hostile to Floyd’s speculation about the dog’s death because that event was real and the pain felt was real as well.
In revising “Nod” I had to come to terms with the fact that Floyd’s suffering is particular even as his judgment is general. Floyd’s thinking tends to generate the very things about which he is so apprehensive. He believes in negative terms. He is in security as a result of his doubt. And June and the two children are fractional presences due to Floyd’s drawn vision. We get another take on the limits of Floyd’s circular darkness when June starts putting him in his place. There he is comic enough that the humor and the tragedy of the poem constitute two sides of the same object, human finitude. I have gone into all this as it relates to “Nod,” but the humor, tragedy, and revision you ask about in my poetry generally stem from situations that are either overtly dramatic or implicitly so. Short poems assume what longer poems unpack from their dramatic situations, but the basis for each is similar to all others. Character and motive, elaborated or not, are the first governing principles in the poems I write. They determine humor, tragedy, and all manner of revision.
Like book manuscripts, book titles are often subject to change before publication. Was naming Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise easy or difficult? How did the naming come about?
My editor, mostly John Irwin of the Johns Hopkins University Press, has frequently been funny and helpful during the process of choosing the title for a new book. When The Run of the House was in press John kept asking me for different titles. Our son, Ian, was still very small but had a booming voice on the order of John Irving’s Owen Meany. There was this big voice and very little guy who made John Irwin laugh. At one point John asked what I thought Ian would say the title for the book ought to be. I said I don’t know, Ian’s not here to ask. John said, “Well what do you imagine Ian would call the book?” I said, “Run of the House, since that’s what he has.” John said, “I like that.” The next time I called, with another title, John said, “Marketing likes it, too.” The answer to your question is that a title should be both telling and cryptic. By a title the reader is introduced to a bit of a mystery. And that is as it should be since the book lives ultimately in the imagination of the reader. The second part of the answer is that we write for others, so title-to-last-line is considered finally in terms of what will work for the reader. The title is the first step in this.
Wyatt Prunty is a professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South and the founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the author of nine collections of poems, including The Lover’s Guide to Trapping, and two critical works. His latest collection of poems from JHU Press, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, was published in 2015.
Yasmine Kaminsky, a student at Johns Hopkins University, studies English and interns in JHU Press’s marketing department.
Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you order your copy of Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise.
At the 2015 Modern Language Association Convention, the journal SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 won the Voyager Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ). The award recognizes an outstanding journal in any discipline covering the time period between 1500 and 1800.
SEL Editor Logan Browning took some time recently to participate in a Q&A about the award.
JHUP: Congratulations on the Voyager Award. What does it mean for your peers to recognize SEL like this?
Logan Browning: That the award comes from fellow editors of learned journals makes it especially significant. Each judge for the CELJ knows intimately how much work goes into producing a professional, respected scholarly or learned journal year after year: the difficult balancing act necessary between diligently honoring the standards of your predecessors—in our case the founders and developers of the journal here at Rice University—and remaining constantly alert for ways to improve and innovate and avoid stagnation. It’s tough in ways that only fellow editors understand fully.
I’ve always joked with my family and many friends that they shouldn’t worry, that I won’t be sending them gift subscriptions to SEL as birthday or holiday presents because I realize that our audience for each issue is somewhat specialized. But I go on to say that, just as you would want your medical doctors to have read certain journals covering their specialties, we hope that scholars working in the fields we cover consider SEL essential reading. Judging our success in that regard is also something that only peers, those working toward the same goal, can accomplish effectively.
JHUP: With issues covering four distinct time periods, how satisfying is it to win an award covering largely the same time period?
LB: One of the persistent challenges for SEL is maintaining the same degree of excellence in each of our four issues: making sure that one issue doesn’t gather all the attention and respect while another struggles. We want the specialists most focused on each of our issues to accord us the same high level of distinction. I think this award certifies that we’re doing a pretty good job of meeting that challenge.
JHUP: How has the addition of editors for specific time periods helped the journal in recent years?
LB: Adding Joseph Campana as our Editor for 1500-1659 to work on our Winter and Spring issues and Alexander Regier as our Editor for 1660-1900 to work on our Summer and Autumn issues has been wonderfully helpful in a great many ways. They gives us in-house expertise across all four of our issue concentrations, the insight of two highly respected scholars whose visibility in their fields has helped to bring in a large number of new contributors and advisors from all levels of the profession. And each has generated numerous ideas for new exciting projects. Two of those ideas are already bearing fruit: Joe’s idea that more attention should be paid to allegory’s place in early modern drama has led to the publication of a cluster of essays in our Spring 2015 issue under the title “Staging Allegory,” and Alexander’s idea to highlight essays emerging from a year-long seminar at Rice on “Exchanges and Temporalities” is responsible for our decision to publish two special issues, Summer and Autumn 2016, devoted to that topic. We are thinking these special issues will help us learn more about possible ways to recalibrate our standard division of issue focus at SEL, but stay tuned for more on that subject.
I am immensely proud of having had the idea of adding two in-house editors, especially as it has thus far worked out so well for the journal to have Joe and Alexander on board. But I do have to acknowledge that I first thought of the possibility when I was reading correspondence in the SEL archives to write a short history of SEL for our 50th anniversary celebrations in 2010 and 2011. I discovered then that Carroll Camden, the founding editor of SEL, had originally hoped to have an editor in place for each issue, but the idea never quite panned out. But it showed me, that in this and so many other ways, his first outlines for the journal in the late 1950s were inspired. So much of what we do today at SEL has been in place from the very beginning.
JHUP: This is the second CELJ honor in recent years with Bob Patten winning the Distinguished Editor honor in 2013. How gratifying is it to receive these kinds of recognition?
LB: Both have been gratifying to receive, but in different ways. Bob’s award acknowledged, among other achievements, the fact that no one has had more influence on the continued success of SEL and its comparative security in the very insecure world of scholarly publishing than he. Despite the respect I have for Carroll Camden as founder, as well as for others such as Ed Doughtie, also journal editor at a key time, I would argue without any doubt that Bob’s work with SEL for more than thirty of his forty years at Rice makes him the most significant figure in our history. Almost every day, I think of some way that Bob’s prescience and persistence make my working life easier. Without him, SEL almost certainly wouldn’t exist today. He found fiscal support in unlikely places, organized our wonderful Diana Hobby Fellows editorial program for Rice graduate students in English, set up arrangements with Johns Hopkins University Press and Project MUSE that continue to pay off for us today, secured the digital archiving of our issues from the first volume on with JSTOR, and maintained an absolutely stellar editorial board of advisors from around the English-speaking world. He also left a superb example of selfless scholarship and professionalism.
JHUP: What kind of effect do awards have on the people who put in the extra time required to put out an outstanding journal?
LB: Immeasurable. And I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here. I think virtually everyone who works in scholarly publishing knows that you aren’t going to become a celebrity in this world. Even of those who may publish a blockbuster book, or lead discussions on highly topical issues, only a very small number will ever be “trending” or merit attention outside a small coterie of professionals with similar interests. So when a journal like ours receives some recognition, e.g., wins a Voyager award, it feels and, I think, is immensely significant. Consequently, it’s extremely important to point out that such a rare honor truly is a collaborative effort; that lots of dedicated persons have contributed to the qualities that earned the award. It’s not just the publishers and executive editors, the editors, and the editorial board, but (to give only a partial list) the associate editors and business managers of the last twenty-five years such as Becky Byron (currently), Kay McStay, K Krueger McDonald, and Sally Hubbard; the Hobby Editorial Fellows; the scholarly essay contributors; our omnibus review authors; the specialist manuscript evaluators; our readers, especially those who remain loyal subscribers; the superb staff members at JHUP; and of course our benefactors, particularly the Hobby Family Foundation and the School of Humanities at Rice. It’s been a great honor to accept the Voyager Award on behalf of everyone who has helped to make SEL the distinguished journal that it is.
We’re excited about the books we’ll be publishing this fall—and pleased to share this series of “Fall Books Preview” blog posts! Be sure to check out the online edition of JHUP’s entire Fall 2015 catalog, and remember that promo code “HDPD” gets you a 30% discount on pre-pub orders. Here are some of our forthcoming books in literature and classics:
Pure Products of America, Inc.
A Narrative Poem
This propulsive narrative poem tells the extended story of the popular born-again televangelist Ray Bob Elray—better known to all his fans as Big Bubba—his twin sons, Nick and Jesse, and his niece and adopted daughter, Donna.
“The outrageous John Bricuth has surpassed himself in this sublimely mad narrative poem about our ongoing America. There is no one quite like Bricuth. He tries to play all the notes at once and frequently succeeds. Wickedness, supernal wit, eloquence always just off the beat, and a fierce verve animate this unsettling leap into our deepening abyss. To read this poem is to imbibe a tonic for these darkening times.”—Harold Bloom
“In his hugely enjoyable new verse novel, John Bricuth recounts the rise and fall of Big Bubba, preacher, faith healer, and entrepreneur, ‘the Donald Trump of holy rollers,’ whose long-kept secret has torn his family apart. It’s a captivating story, a real page-turner, poignant yet often hilarious, told in high-energy language by a master poet.”—X. J. Kennedy
Available in November
Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language
Mark L. Louden
In this probing study, Mark L. Louden, himself a fluent speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch, provides readers with a close look at the place of the language in the life and culture of two major subgroups of speakers: the “Fancy Dutch,” whose ancestors were affiliated mainly with Lutheran and German Reformed churches, and conservative Anabaptist sectarians known as the “Plain people”—the Old Order Amish and Mennonites.
“Mark L. Louden is the foremost scholar of Pennsylvania Dutch. A significant contribution to linguistic, sociolinguistic, historical, and anthropological scholarship, his book is extensively researched, accessible, and filled with a wealth of language examples that will appeal to a wide audience.”—Karen Johnson-Weiner, SUNY Potsdam, coauthor of The Amish
Available in January 2106
Narrating 9/11: Fantasies of State, Security, and Terrorism
edited by John N. Duvall and Robert P. Marzec
Narrating 9/11 challenges the notion that Americans have overcome the national trauma of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The volume responds to issues of war, surveillance, and the expanding security state, including the Bush Administration’s policies on preemptive war, extraordinary rendition, torture abroad, and the suspension of privacy rights and civil liberties at home.
Touching on some of the mainstays of 9/11 fiction, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and John Updike’s Terrorist, the book expands this particular canon by considering the work of such writers as Jess Walter, William Gibson, Lauren Groff, Ken Kalfus, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, John le Carré, Laila Halaby, Michael Chabon, and Jarett Kobek. Narrating 9/11 pushes beyond a critical focus on domestic realism, offering chapters that examine speculative and genre fiction, postmodernism, climate change, and the evolving security state, as well as the television series Lost and the film Paradise Now.
Available in September
Women and War in Antiquity
edited by Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith
The martial virtues—courage, loyalty, cunning, and strength—were central to male identity in the ancient world, and antique literature is replete with depictions of men cultivating and exercising these virtues on the battlefield. In Women and War in Antiquity, sixteen scholars reexamine classical sources to uncover the complex but hitherto unexplored relationship between women and war in ancient Greece and Rome. They reveal that women played a much more active role in battle than previously assumed, embodying martial virtues in both real and mythological combat.
“A fascinating, intellectually stimulating, and useful volume, Women and War in Antiquity sheds important new light on a complex issue while offering penetrating interpretations at the intersection of history and literature. This excellent book should interest scholars far beyond those specializing in Greco-Roman culture.”—Kurt Raaflaub, Brown University, coeditor of Raymond Westbrook’s Ex Oriente Lex: Near Eastern Influences on Ancient Greek and Roman Law
Available in November
British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason
What role should reason play in the creation of a free and just society? Can we claim to know anything in a field as complex as politics? And how can the cause of political rationalism be advanced when it is seen as having blood on its hands? These are the questions that occupied a group of British poets, philosophers, and polemicists in the years following the French Revolution. Timothy Michael argues that much literature of the period is a trial, or a critique, of reason in its political capacities and a test of the kinds of knowledge available to it. This book bridges for the first time two traditional pillars of Romantic studies: the period’s politics and its theories of the mind and knowledge. Combining literary and intellectual history, it provides an account of British Romanticism in which high rhetoric, political prose, poetry, and poetics converge in a discourse of enlightenment and emancipation.
“Ambitious, well executed, and timely, this book provides valuable insight into some of the most abiding questions of Romantic studies.”—Charles W. Mahoney, University of Connecticut, editor of A Companion to Romantic Poetry
Available in December
By Hilary S. Jacqmin, JHUP Staff
How did you become a writer? What drew you to poetry specifically? What were your early poems like?
It’s hard to imagine that my early poems weren’t a lot like those of many others. Long on adolescent angst and abstraction. A little lonely and sad with a healthy twist of alienation and a garden variety of anxieties associated with growing up. All those things probably got me into writing in the first place—at sixteen or seventeen. If those first poems I wrote are embarrassing, I can’t very well disown the person who composed them. I mean, I’m still trying to figure that kid out all these years later. As for what drew me to poetry specifically, I’d probably say it was my early belief, as a “sensitive” boy, that poetry (as opposed to prose) was the appropriate venue for my griefs and my grievances and hurt.
When I went through the Writing Seminars it was a one-year program. This was in the late 80s. It all passed by so quickly, to be honest. I couldn’t get past the feeling that everyone I was at Hopkins with (poets and prose writers alike) was smarter and better educated than I was. I still think that’s true. In the end, though, they made me scrutinize who I was and what I wanted to do as a writer and a teacher. It wasn’t that they were back-biting or competitive at all. In fact, quite the opposite. They were generous critics and friends. We took ourselves quite seriously. But we also managed to laugh a lot, too. It was a very happy, if dizzyingly brief, time.
How has your writing changed over the years? And what are you doing differently in The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel? It seems to me, for example, that your lines—while iambic—have gotten shorter and more flexible since your first book of poetry, January Rain, came out.
I suspect that the technical answers to that question—about line length and measure—wouldn’t be that interesting to many people. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve learned to listen over the years. The big difference or progression, I think, is that the older you get, the more you actually have to write about. At least that’s what I believe. When I was in my twenties, starting out, I had to pretend to know more than I did, that I was wiser than I was, or that I’d experienced more than I had. I suppose if you stay at it long enough, for better or worse, life gives you plenty to work with. Looking at the difference between my three books, I’d say my subjects are more my own. My ideas are more my own, too.
I’m probably drawn to rhyme and meter because the poets I love and study and teach use rhyme and meter in their work—or, at the very least, they explored the possibilities of those elements in their poetry. Even someone like Whitman, right? It also seems to me, because I have a challenged and atrocious memory myself, that rhyme and meter increase the odds (however overwhelming and futile and depressing those odds actually are!) that someone just might remember something I have written. Not that I expect this to happen, mind you, but isn’t that what all writers want or should want? To compose something memorable?
The New Formalist wrangling of the 90s—by which I mean the battle (however academic) fought both for and against New Formalist poetry—has ebbed, but many poets writing now seem perhaps better versed in formal techniques than they were a few decades ago. What do you make of the presence of form in contemporary poetry? Who is currently shaping the field, and to what end?
I studied with and alongside of people who were associated with the New Formalist conversation, but I wasn’t too involved. Or let’s put it this way, the opposing dogmas were pretty uninteresting for me and remain so today. Those debates often turn out to be more about the people arguing than the matter at hand. I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would suggest that rhyme and meter and received formal structures in poetry are something oppressive or obsolete. Similarly, I’m equally ambivalent people clubbing readers over the head with their sonnet sequences and sestinas and villanelles.
I take a lot of pleasure asking students to consider the basic formal (and musical) elements in poetry. Most of the students I’m around get teased out of their complacency by rhyme and meter. It can be fun to watch—when they write a line that really works. It’s important for anyone who wants to be a poet to understand just how difficult it is to write a formal line that sounds like natural speech, or one that sounds like someone thinking beautifully and intelligently out loud about the world. Plenty of people can do a forced march through the form—and I think this was the case with a lot of the New Formalists—but that’s not the same thing as writing a poem necessarily. But then again, neither is talking your way down a page, snapping your sentences off here and there in the name of line breaks, and addressing an unnamed intimate second person who you and—thanks to the obscurity of the poem—only you have feelings about.
I really wouldn’t be able to say who is shaping the field. In part because I think in this age there are many fields or schools or cartels that yell at and over and around one another all in the name of poetry. The only thing that seems to unite poets is when someone criticizes Poetry at large, about how irrelevant it often seems or out-of-touch or impenetrable or self-absorbed or small-minded. When that happens, look out! Everyone becomes indignant. They organize rallies. They write angry letters about whoever said such a thing. They start long-winded threads in the public forums and on Facebook. It’s hard not to be somewhat overwhelmed and discouraged by the bickering. Who learns what from it? I’m never sure.
The poems that appear in The Night Guard are wonderfully image-heavy and meditative. They are engaged with rich detail, light and color, the contrast between society’s rules and nature, nostalgia, householding, food, love, regret, death. Are there any particular themes or subjects that you are interested in writing about at the moment, or any incidents from your life that demand to be written about, but that you feel you haven’t been able to adequately address thus far? And I was hoping as well that you could tell us a bit about your childhood and growing up, as well as your family, which comes into play in poems like “Insomnia at Forty-Six” (“My mother, who was never very young / or happy or at ease”).
I’m working on a nonfiction prose project right now about a childhood friend who committed suicide. Some of the essays I’ve been writing have started cross-pollinating with the poems. In fact, one from The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, “Someone is Burning Leaves,” percolated out of the prose endeavor. A couple more poems seem to be itching to come out, too. But that’s just a small handful. I have poems in the queue I want to write or think I want to write. But you never know how your childhood or family experiences will sneak up on you when you’re writing a poem.
As for my upbringing, it was fairly unremarkable. I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. I was the last of five children and, technically, just squeaked in under the wire to be a “Baby Boomer,” in December 1964. My parents were older than the parents of nearly all my peers, and that was always something I was aware of and somewhat self-conscious over. It certainly wasn’t their fault. But that’s where the observation in “Insomnia at Forty-Six” originates. My parents also divorced when I was seven. I seemed to have grown up in the uncomfortable gap between the generation that was born around the Great Depression and fought in WWII, and the generation that was sent off to fight in Vietnam. I’d say those two conflicts are something I still think about today, and how they shaped my perspective. Throw in Watergate, then Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was a bit of a rollercoaster looking back on it, though at the time (as a kid) I had no idea what was going on. Zero.
In a way, these poems, even though they speak so much of nostalgia, seem out of time, perhaps because they allow the reader to linger in a concentrated moment. The primary exception to this timelessness would perhaps be “Provinces,” which conjures up a scene straight out of today’s Middle East, most likely Iraq, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, although the poem is never actually placed specifically: “It is a chiseled, godforsaken place. / Unmapped. Ambiguous. Potato-beige . . . / But lately, on the hamlet’s Western edge, / there have been strange movements— / convoys of trucks arriving after dark. The construction of a generator shed. / An ever-slight increase / in local population.” The poem’s introspective attitude is characteristic of your usual voice, and its uncertainty about the possibility of terrorism—and how to thwart it—is moving, as is the way you contrast this scene with the supposed innocence of a typical middle American summer. Why did you take on what some might think of as a politicized subject?
It’s interesting that you would make the observation that “Provinces” has a politicized subject. I’ve always thought I did a fairly decent job keeping it apolitical. In much the same way WWII and Vietnam shaped my psyche growing up, September 11th certainly shaped my perspective as an adult (as it did for many people as well as our government). I have strong opinions about what we did after 9/11, opinions that are clearly political and unapologetically partisan toward the people who led us into Iraq, for instance. The same people who began that destabilization now insist on blaming the current holder of the presidency for not being able to foster order and tranquility and, above all else, fear and respect for the United States. And frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered which party held the Presidency in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The irreversible spiral had begun. You can’t have it both ways—you can’t make the mess then blame others for not being able to make it better. See, now that’s what I would call political.
In “Provinces,” I never intended to blame anyone for the persistent and sometimes exhausting anxiety that came in the wake of 9/11. I certainly don’t hold any one political party responsible for that change in our lives. I guess I always saw the writing of that poem as an exercise in expressing a dark and rather guilty gratitude for the peace we do enjoy here. At least the peace I myself am fortunate to enjoy.
I was hoping that you could speak more about “Four Voices for the Afterlife,” a sort of multi-part eulogy for an anonymous figure (M.M.). Why four parts? And how did you compose this poem?
“Four Voices” is a kind of elegy in-the-round, though the poem is a fiction. I wanted to play with different voices that meditated on a particular common grief—the suicide of a woman named Martha McEnroe. I had a lot of models in my head when I was writing it. William Faulkner and William Blake for starters. But also Emily Dickinson and I would also say Anthony Hecht, too. But you almost always have someone’s voice going off in your brain when you’re writing a poem. I believe that.
How do you think about organizing a collection of poetry? What goes where, and why?
That’s a hard question. Much of it is intuitive. I usually lay all the poems that are going into to the book on a table and start grouping them, putting them next to one another, stacking them, rearranging them, etc. It can be a little unnerving, though, because you start seeing patterns and all your tricks and gimmicks—or things that can start to bother you as your own personal tricks and gimmicks—neatly lined up in front of you. At a certain point, you just have to give it up to the higher powers and hope that no one sees the faults you recognize in your own work. I suppose it’s a lot like looking at your reflection. I’m reminded of the line from Auden’s poem about The Tempest, “The Sea and the Mirror”: “All we are not stares back at what we are.”
I was hoping that you could tell me a bit about your writing and revision process. What do you do when a poem is giving you trouble?
I usually write quite slowly and revise as I go along. I get a few lines down then give myself permission to proceed. I don’t write whole drafts and go back and re-write. And when a poem gives you trouble, you learn that there are plenty of others that are waiting for your attention. It took a long time for me to figure that out, but now I’m relatively quick to let a poem sit in a quiet space on its own until I come back to it. Makes for much healthier and happier relationships with the work, I find. That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated because I do. I’m just less obsessive than I used to be about insisting a poem into the world.
Which poets are you reading now? Whose work is inspiring yours?
I’m mostly reading nonfiction. I just finished a biography on Norman Rockwell and am starting one about Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m teaching a craft seminar at the University of Oregon next year on Shakespeare, whom I never tire of reading. So I’ll be going back to those plays over the summer, which I’m looking forward to. As far as poetry goes, I find myself often returning to three poets in particular—Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin. They’re the ones who always seem to be hanging around in my brain most of the time. They make good company.
And finally, you’ve spent a long time as a teacher at several very distinguished universities. What advice would you give to young poets?
I am so unbelievable lucky to have the job I do. I taught prep school for eight years before I was fortunate enough to get a visiting position at the college level. There was a lot of uncertainty along the way, and there were times when it looked like I would have to give up teaching altogether because the market was so brutal. It’s still brutal, and I worry for all of the fine writers who are also excellent and deeply committed teachers who will be driven out of the field because there are infinitely more candidates than there are jobs. I don’t think setting your sites on teaching at the university level is a viable career plan, that’s for sure. I know that’s not advice, exactly. (Again, I feel unbelievably lucky to be where I am in this age.) If I have any advice at all, it’s to pay attention to the work—your own work—rather than all the noise and chest-thumping and quasi-author photos your friends and contemporaries and even nemeses are posting on social media. I think about the things I scold myself over on a daily basis—not that anyone should use me as a model—and much of it just has to do with getting to the quiet place for clean, uninterrupted blocks of time, where there aren’t any bright colors on a screen blinking at me or ringtones or text-tones jarring me out of my thoughts. Where there are a couple poems and notebooks on a desk or in a stack near that desk. Or where, next to a comfortable reading chair, there are a couple of books. Someplace where people aren’t yelling at each other on the TV about a presidential race that’s a year and a half away, either. I guess I’m saying this more to myself than offering advice.
This First Hot Saturday in May
by Daniel Anderson
The plump, governing bees
discover our tomato blooms,
our squash and watermelon blooms.
They tickle, kiss, and plumb
the open, velvet flower heads
of iris and hibiscus blooms.
They levitate and drift
among the purple hanging clouds
of blossoming wisteria.
This first hot Saturday of May,
the doused and dripping garden smells of green.
The catbird and electric finch,
the feisty jay and oriole
nip thistle, millet, milo seed, and corn
from feeders I have filled.
The world has come alive
with energy and appetite
and all the grand astonishments of sex.
It used to be the only thing
I ever thought about.
Cleavage. Athletic legs.
Tan lines, tight jeans, and lacy bras.
Now it’s the nest egg and the ass at work,
a water heater that’s about to blow,
election politics, and how
it feels the globe is going all to hell.
This would have seemed miraculous if not
entirely impossible to me
a quarter century ago.
What do the young expect?
I guarantee it isn’t this:
a mortgage and a morning picking weeds,
the pleasurable shade
and savory tobacco scent of mulch.
Our fig tree and our lemon tree
survived an April frost.
Now they relax in clear, gold light,
and this, I confess, this brings me joy,
but more than joy it brings
a thankfulness that I’m no longer young,
uncertain, and obsessed.
Besides, it isn’t youth I want.
Who needs the grudges and the big ideas?
The idiot decisions and the hurt?
It isn’t youth I want,
only the high, luxuriating sense,
beneath these excellent and clean
procrastinations of the sun,
that certain days—this one—
may never end.
Daniel Anderson teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon and is a winner of the Pushcart Prize. He is the author of January Rain, Drunk in Sunlight, and The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel and the editor of The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov.
Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams
As I write, the temperatures in the lower midwest that I call home are below Antarctica’s. This is Lincoln country, where he lived and worked until leaving for Washington. And here he returned in death. Much has been written about the assassination, from maudlin verses to conspiracy theories. But just one piece, by Walt Whitman, truly sustains. It is not “O Captain! My Captain!” with its predictable allusion to Moses dying in sight of the promised land. No, it is “When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d,” still engaging because it reflects the uncertainty of expectation, asking if good can come from John Wilkes Booth’s act or the greater butchery of war.
The poet wishes rebirth to spring from patriots’ deaths, a nation reborn, just as the lilac will return after the dead of winter: “a varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light.” But “the black murk” of Lincoln’s death returns, dark and light vying in the poet’s mind. So today, in the cold, I yearn for the lilac’s return and an end to partisan divides, but winter and political bickering will continue perennial.
The concept of shedding blood to earn redemption, as in Lincoln’s death, underlies Christianity. The idea of God sacrificing his son to save humanity hypnotized Victorians. Bloodshed seemed the antidote to greed and avarice generated by capitalism’s unprecedented wealth. In England, Alfred Lord Tennyson saw the Crimean War (1853–1856) as cleansing corruption: in “Maud” (1854) he cheered fighting ending “a peace that was full of wrongs and shames.” That same year, he celebrated as a supreme act of self-sacrifice a blunder destroying the Light Cavalry Brigade. The soldiers’ courage had a sublimity not found in the bleak counting houses of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, also published in 1854.
In America, Whitman sought rejuvenation through civil war. He heard drums and bugles sounding through houses across the land, calling all to arms. Alas, when war entered America’s homes, it did so devastatingly. By 1864, Whitman’s America was a vast hospital, and by 1865 an enormous graveyard. The war proved too awful, vicious, confused, to be America’s epic. In Lilacs, Whitman could not forget “battle corpses, myriads of them,” nor “the living that remain’d and suffered.” The nature of Lincoln’s death also defied transcendent symbolism: shot in the back of the head by an assassin, a cruel and degrading execution technique used by policemen in authoritarian regimes.
Whitman’s hope for rejuvenation waned further in the rapacious, vulgar Gilded Age. In Democratic Vistas, he denounced increasing materialism, writing that “society in these States is canker’d, crude,” and charging that “the depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed but infinitely greater.” Inevitably, when in 1876 George Armstrong Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry died unexpectedly on the Little Bighorn, Whitman and other pundits welcomed a new sacrificial atonement. The New York Herald embraced the soldiers’ “duty and valor,” predicting Custer “will be remembered as long as the charge of the Light Brigade. . . .”
Artists scrambled to create heroic battle art. John Mulvany cast Custer in knightly pose, with flowing hair and unsheathed sword (factually, hair was cropped for campaigning and sabers were shelved), surrounded by stern troopers dying hard. Actually, we don’t know the point at which Custer died, and huddled clustering betrays panic, not stern heroism—disastrous bunching as terrified men fled collapsing skirmish lines. Yet the picture captivated Whitman, inspiring him to sing of epic renewed. Custer, “with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a bright sword in thy hand,” makes the ultimate blood sacrifice—“Thou yieldest up thyself.”
A scant decade after Whitman found the Civil War too bloody, cruel, and sordid to be the material of transcendence, he used a needless slaughter precipitated by a reckless field commander to grasp at a questionable saga of sacrifice. This deep ran the conviction that blood spilled in war atones for sin.
Michael C. C. Adams is Regents Professor of History Emeritus, Northern Kentucky University. Adams discusses Whitman fully in Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War and explores Tennyson in The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I. Adams is also the author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II, reissued this spring by Johns Hopkins.
We’re celebrating Poetry Month on the Blog in April with selections from recent books in the Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction series. First up, three poems by Wyatt Prunty from his new volume, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise. Robert Hass calls Prunty “a classic poet in the tradition of Frost, Wilbur, Merrill, and Justice,” and finds in this latest collection work that “involves a wry sanity toward the world and an impeccable ear for both prosody and the rhythms of American speech.”
He was a bad dog, and he did not care.
When nature called he stood and lifted there.
He chewed socks, rugs, and shoes, the rungs of chairs.
Put on a leash, he locked his legs. He would not budge.
Asleep, he barked and chased what was not there.
Awake, he barked and chased what was not there.
When danger knocked he shrugged.
I see him still that way, facing the door,
Floppy and kind, wet nose against the glass
Or scratching over ears where going bald,
Then sniffing round to find just where he lifted earlier;
The which he did just once more when at last
Nature called and he followed.
The Gladiator of Misgivings
The small boy with the booming voice,
Whose father seemed forever on a trip,
Knew what to do. We pushed the crates
Together, tumbled the cat-ruined carpet
Down the attic steps to the garage,
Then strung the Christmas lights and lettered signs
That shorted Shakespeare of his final e.
After that, Lionel Higgenbotham took the stage,
Telling us he was Prince Hall and we,
We were those soldiers of the great events.
Our audience was H’s mother
Who would sometimes read from Tennyson,
Having us repeat each line; repeat again.
And there was also H’s ancient aunt
Who smiled and nodded yes to everything.
But once, out on the vasty fields of France,
Even the aunt had darkened thoughtfully
As looking back Hall said, “All right you Bustards, Charge.”
And with our brooms and garbage lids, we did.
Personalize it, if you must. Somewhere
Love’s gone off for a weekend in the mountains
Or to the beach; love’s driving somewhere other
Than your little life, watchful and welcoming fan
Of yourself, to what was always coming anyway—
Something like expensive fixtures hanging from
High ceilings with a light so generalized
You are your old self even as you’re not,
Reiterative to the end, not scared exactly,
Just slowing as you feel someone familiar
Taking your side in things, cooling you down
On things, and by that making you
Think of tomorrow more fondly than before.
Wyatt Prunty is the Ogden D. Carlton III Distinguished Professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, where he teaches poetry. The founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Series, and the Tennessee Williams Fellowship program, he is the author of nine books of poetry and one critical work, as well as the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. He also serves as the chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He is the author of Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, the most recent of eight books of poetry included in JHUP’s Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction series, published in partnership with JHU’s Writing Seminars and edited by John T. Irwin.