Interview with Featured Poet
[Town Creek Poetry]: You've mentioned elsewhere that your collection of poetry, This Book Belongs to Eva (Palanquin Press), took ten years to write. To have established a genuinely female narrator must have been quite challenging. Can you comment on the composition of this collection and speak specifically to your development of a female voice?
[Stephen Gardner]: Yeah, when I look backward and see that it took ten years to write fifteen poems, I am surprised by my doggedness. Even so, after all that time, there is one misspelling in there that haunts the hell out of me: I do know how to spell Pontchartrain, dadgummmit!
Anyway—and I’ve told this story many times, many places—the idea for the collection came slowly. I had read a collection of poems by the excellent writer Rosellen Brown, Cora Fry (the original version, not the later, expanded version); and I was quite taken by this exploration via journal of the narrator’s lives (inner and outer). At roughly the same time, I encountered Brian Moore’s delightful novel I Am Mary Dunne. I thought, first, how cheeky of this dude to presume to write a novel from a woman’s point of view. But that cheekiness hung around me and, somehow, collided with Cora. Then I thought, well, why not try some of that, a marriage of these two hoverings. And I tried one, and it seemed OK; then another, and it felt even better.
It so happened that I was teaching a verse composition workshop at this time; and it further so happened that (if memory isn’t failing me—we’re talking decades here) that seven of the eight students were female, only one of whom was a traditional undergraduate; the others were not antiques but were more mature than an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old. (Eva is 41.) So there was my built-in sounding-board. I have made it a practice to inject my work into workshops only very, very rarely; but this was an opportunity that I had to take of advantage of. So I took the poems to those students as the poems evolved; and they gave me amazingly sharp (often harsh—I had had all of these students in earlier workshops; they showed no mercy) and insightful criticism. That was the early process and some of the source.
The title character, Eva (McCann was always in my background mind as her last name), was a composite of several people I knew plus a generous dollop of my imagination and my own experience. All along I felt that this endeavor was a bit audacious, but I was led along by my curiosity. In the end, I’m comfortable that it led me to a good place. Good reviews (like The Georgia Review piece by Andrea Budy) and some warm letters from people like Laurel Speer (who read one of the poems in California Quarterly) and Thomas David Lisk reinforced my comfort with the product.
If I may, I’d also like to make a comment about the structure. The overall collection, obviously, follows this woman as she heads westward to Nogales, then returns to her native Southeast (she’s from Statesville, NC), ending in Atlanta. It’s a sketchy diary, obviously, with her writing about present and past times in selected cities and in selected situations. The poetic line, though, was more problematic. I have always been drawn to iambic pentameter; so I wanted to make this the linear shape, and I wanted the language to sound like someone speaking in her head, as well. So I have blank verse, but with all kinds of other soundings going on. Some intentional, I say with a smile, and some deliciously accidental, I say with a happier smile.
[TCP]: You have taught undergraduate English for 35 years. What knowledge have you gained from your students of poetry? Have you noticed any sort of shift in the mentalities of your students? Can you speak to how students' perceptions of literary arts have changed over the past three decades, if any? If there has been a perceptible shift, what do you attribute it to?
[SG]: During my teaching career, which spans my writing career, I have learned from my students several important lessons (as either teacher or writer):
First, one should always listen to what students have to say. Nuggets fall from the darkest of mother lodes.
Second, one should never assume the level of competence, skill, background, or knowledge of any student or group of students. That is, one should neither underestimate nor overestimate where the students are starting from. Tutelage and apprenticeship demand the mentor’s time, energy, and desire to learn what the other knows; learning (and I mean this to include cross- pollination) begins at just about that point, although maybe a moment or two before).
Third, even the most poorly schooled and weakly prepared student will sooner or later strike a beautiful chord (the blind pig theory); and that chord should be played aloud so that all might see and hear and reply to and say, “Ah.” Everyone’s a winner at that harmonious moment.
Fourth, students frequently come to the art and craft of poetry tabula rasa. Thus, if the person at the head of the table (and I have always tried not to sit there) can light a small flame (pardon the mixed metaphor), then a bonfire might follow. Everyone wins then, too.
And fifth, I’ve noted, and with increasing frequency, that my former students are having much more success in the publishing game than I have had. I can live with that truth without problem. Besides, when I’m retired next year, I’ll catch up. I’m already working on it.
You ask about my students’ perceptions and mentalities and about shifts during my tenure behind the wheel. Well, sure, there must be some, maybe many. The old saw-grousing is that students now don’t read enough, haven’t read enough, are electronically controlled drones, worship the graphic novel, have abandoned sex for iPods (just kidding), want to write creatively without learning to write (and wouldn’t that be creative!) or reading what the competition is about and has been about for 4,000 years in the West alone.
But I don’t see a great paradigm shift here. If it wasn’t electronics a century ago, then what was it? Indoor plumbing? Marconi? And fifty years ago? And so on. Those who want the Grail eventually read about the Grail and then, in earnest, begin the Quest. The greatest problem that I see facing students in 2007 is that literature is never static, that it spreads like pod-people (or iPod people, if that makes you happy), that while students listen to (name your own group du jour), someone really good somewhere has written a poem that demands to be read and assimilated. And students today still haven’t mastered the concepts of that conversation that is civilization that began millennia before they wanted to speak. There is a universe of words here, and it will neither stop nor shrink. Read all that they will, they might come to believe that they are running in place. The challenge for us behind the wheel is to help facilitate their entrance into the conversation, however timidly they might first crack open the door and sidle into the room.
[TCP]: You noted that your collection of poetry has been praised for its musicality in The Georgia Review. In your perception, has musicality been "demoted" to a subordinate position in much of contemporary poetry?
[SG]: Honestly, I think that in “modern” poetry musicality hit its peak and stride with Wallace Stevens. Roethke understood and took communion publicly: “Brother, he’s our father.” Of course, he’s not the only communicant. But I do believe that the assumption of your question is accurate. Sure, we all have heard that poets write in lines; that is the theory that was hammered into my head; that’s what I still teach. But no one ever talked with me about musicality, ever said that great poems need grand, albeit subtle, musical undercurrent. I don’t fault anyone for that. And students, as they have come to me, don’t readily connect “music” with “poetry,” unless they’re trying to convince me to let them write a paper on Jim Morrison or Tupac. (And I typically say OK, in case you are wondering.)
If your question presupposes that much of contemporary poetry is “good” and “serious” and “endearing” poetry, then I have no choice but to agree that musicality has, indeed, been “demoted,” “subordinated.” So what’s on top? What time of day is it? Image? Deep image? Symbol? The thing in its moment? In itself? The single sentence in the American grain? I don’t know how else to reply. I could ramble. But here’s a short part of my credo: It is language that we have in our tool box, nestled in there beside sound. Poetry (OK, exceptions duly recognized) is, by tradition, oral/aural. Sounds have meaning, as surely as does language. How can they be separated? Here’s directly to the chase: Like it or love it, how can one heed the fullness of Eliot’s Four Quartets without being able to hear those notes in the background? How can someone read Whitman without hearing the many (literal) songs that make up his “Song”?
Here’s a final question to answer your question: When was the last time that you ran into Oscar Wilde or Ernest Dowson, on the street, in a bar, in a bookstall, in a gaol?
[TCP]: You're well-known as a great teacher, and you've inspired several students to seek out the literary life. Can you comment a bit on the mentors who inspired you to do the same thing?
[SG]: All that I’ll say is that I’ve tried to be true to the real work, over all. If I’ve damned anyone to poverty and obscurity, then I apologize. Is there a circle in hell for that awaiting me?
I was blessed, much by happenstance and serendipity, to have a number of first-rate teachers and mentors throughout my life. I had some whom I believed to be world-class (think mostly high school) who turned out not to have been so; but I overcame that and took the best that they had to offer, as it turned out.
But in university, I lucked into classrooms (and hallways, and other venues) with a rare handful of individuals who pointed me in a right direction and who gave me blind, dumb courage. I had friends, too, who reinforced this dumb-and-blindness. I thank them all.
I probably shouldn’t get into the deep water here, trying to name all names. But I won’t avoid the greats by trying not to offend the other highly-goods. At South Carolina, I had the honor of taking courses with a man who is arguably one of the finest academic professors on the planet, Don Greiner. He taught me that I didn’t know much, but he made me feel good when he let me know the truth. He also taught me to read better and to think. And he was one of the few who told me that I wasn’t such a hot-shot when it came to writing analytical literary papers. I mean that to be complimentary. I also, again, in the academic world, was tutored by Jack Ashley, a man for whom literature and music were food and wine. He showed me that even Milton can sing, and sing well he does. He also was a pretty darned good contract bridge player. Again on the academic side, at Oklahoma State University, I had the exquisite pleasure of being in some classes of Jack Milstead, as grand a renaissance intellectual, gentleman, and scholar who ever graced the planet. All three of these men led me, somewhat belligerent in my smug sense of knowledge, toward a method of reading and understanding.
Of the writers to whom I owe debt:
Ennis Rees (USC), who pointed “out there” and said, without saying, “See, all this stuff is connected.” So simple, so difficult.
Gordon Weaver (OSU), who beat my head pulpy until I finally got the obvious: the narrator’s the thing, dang it. Pay attention to who’s telling your story and make that voice consistent, because the narrator’s very often the main character.
George Garrett (USC and beyond), the grand man of letters, who showed me that there are always pearls among swine, albeit not always truffles; who made me see that serious can be funny; and who (at long last) got me to say, with him, “Don’t worry about it.”
Also, from Weaver and Garrett, in the workshop context, I learned to be guiding without the withering tongue, the caustic word. I learned to find the one fine kernel, if that’s all there was in the basket, and share it with the group. I’ll never forget the priest’s Easter sermon, turned in for a fiction workshop’s consideration. We other students were speechless and aghast. George expounded extemporaneously for forty-five minutes, finding more gold there than in the Klondike.
When I grow up, I want to be like them. Still.
[TCP]: In the same vein, can you comment on the poets who have influenced your work?
[SG]: How about a briefer answer here? I’ve got over four decades of reading under my hat. Most of the writers (not just poets) whom I’ve approached seriously and with curiosity have been an influence. I read them, they enter, they hang around, sometimes dominating, they depart in “lacy jags” but leave footprints behind, they mingle with the other detritus, and they wait for the next intruder. It’s a process that, I suppose, won’t end until I do.
So here’s a short list, in no particular order except as they pop off of my fingertips: T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, George Garrett, Theodore Roethke (in caps and bold), James Wright, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gordon Weaver, Jim Peterson, Charles Simic, Karl Shapiro, Amy Clampitt, James Tate, James Seay, Roberts Frost and Browning, Kim Addonizio, John Crowe Ransom . . . and the list goes on and on and on (I hear Sonny and Cher now) and on (dum-dum-dum—dum, dum-dum-da-dum). Do Rolling Stones and Beatles and Tchaikovski et al count here?
I guess we/I gotta face it: I’m a child not just of my heritage, but also of my generation. Every sentence evokes a song title. See answer to question number 3.
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