Interview with Featured Poet
[Town Creek Poetry]: You received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1995, then earned an M.F.A. from UNC-Greensboro in 2002. Can you share with us why you decided to pursue the writing of poetry after taking a purely academic degree? More generally, what made you decide to write poetry?
[Dan Albergotti]: Well, I had been writing poems since I was in junior high school—all through high school, college, and grad school. But it wasn’t until I was nearing the end of my coursework for the Ph.D. in 1994 that I took my first creative writing course, a poetry workshop taught by James Dickey. Up to that point, I had only the vaguest idea that graduate programs in creative writing even existed. I had been studying literature out of a pure love for it—even after I should have realized that a pure love for it is often a serious handicap in today’s world of literary studies. I’d never entertained the idea of a degree in creative writing.
After finishing the Ph.D., I got a non-tenure-line instructorship at the University of Alabama, and in my two years in Tuscaloosa I became more and more fascinated by that school’s vibrant MFA program, and more and more annoyed by the chore of literary scholarship. So instead of putting in the time and work necessary to turn my dissertation’s chapters into publishable articles, I found myself attending readings by poets like Yusef Komunyakaa and Brigit Pegeen Kelly, working harder on my own poems, and finding encouragement and friendship among the students and faculty in the UA program. (Mentioning this here, knowing I have a public forum, I feel a particular desire to offer thanks to Melanie Carter, Maurice Manning, Tim Early, and Thomas Rabbitt for their friendship and their example during those years.)
At the end of two years in Tuscaloosa, I was again scrambling to get full-time employment, my academic CV looking dustier and less competitive than ever for a tenure-track job in literature. I was fortunate enough to land another instructorship at, of all places, Auburn University. (I’m great at going from one school to its arch-rival: I did my BA and MA in English at Clemson before pursuing the Ph.D. at South Carolina!) Along with my group of fellow instructors, Auburn’s English Department had also just hired a new assistant professor in poetry writing, Natasha Trethewey. Natasha and I quickly struck up conversation about poetry, and she has been a dear friend and supporter of my work ever since. After about a year of sharing poems with her, I shyly told Natasha one day that I’d secretly been indulging what seemed like a ridiculous idea: going back to grad school five years after the Ph.D. to pursue an MFA in poetry writing. She instantly gave my daydream her full endorsement, and that was all I needed to move ahead.
I applied to several schools the following year and ultimately chose UNC-Greensboro, a decision I have never since regretted for a microsecond. When I was sending out those applications, making a fairly radical change in my career, I was 35 years old, “midway through life’s journey” according to Dante. I thought I was doing something crazy and desperate at the time, but it was the smartest decision I’ve ever made. I can’t overstate how much those two years in Greensboro meant to me.
[TCP]: Keeping with this theme, can you elaborate on how you see the academy in terms of poetry writing? Does teaching interfere with or help facilitate your work? Given that you teach at a university, like many poets, when do you write? How have you disciplined yourself?
[DA]: Like everything, it’s complicated. The actual interaction with the students in workshop is always helpful to my own writing. Whenever you’re engaged in serious discussion of literary writing, you’re in the process of growing as a writer—you just can’t help it. But at the same time, I am coordinating some pretty heavy growth of creative writing at Coastal Carolina University, and that takes a lot of hours and energy. I direct a visiting writers program, I am editing a new online journal called Waccamaw, I run a student broadside contest, I have developed new courses and mapped out new programs, and I have participated in the hiring process for new colleagues in creative writing—all in the last three years. It’s very exciting, and I feel like the luckiest person on the planet to have these opportunities, but of course I’d be lying if I said all that hasn’t impinged upon my writing time. I carve out an hour or two where I can, but I’m looking forward to having the infrastructure of these new programs in place so that I can keep a more regular date with the muse.
In response to the broader sense of your question, I feel enormously fortunate to have stumbled my way through a very helpful formula: study literature deeply for about a decade, then start paying primary attention to your own writing. When I was in the Clemson MA program in the mid-80s, the reading list for the oral exams was seven single-spaced pages. One title after the other, and lines like this:
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Seven pages! And you couldn’t specialize. Every student stood the oral exam based on this reading list which consisted of eight sections: five periods of English lit (Beowulf to Larkin), two periods of American (pre- and post-Civil War), and one selection of world lit in translation (from The Iliad to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). This was for an MA; I was still several years from the Ph.D. So I had no choice but to be pretty well-read. And that breadth of reading has really influenced my own writing, though hopefully not in a pedantic way. I do use a lot of allusion in my work, but in such a way that the poem (this is the hope, anyway) can be understood and appreciated by someone who misses the allusion, but can also resonate in a different way with the reader who recognizes it. I feel like I’m part of a centuries-long conversation, and I don’t know if I’d have that feeling if I hadn’t read so deeply during those grad school days in literature.
[TCP]: You’ve achieved some amazing things for an “emerging poet”—namely, being included in the Pushcart Prize anthology, having your first book published by BOA Editions (selected by Edward Hirsch), and publishing in major literary journals like Southern Review and Virginia Quarterly Review. Can you speak about your writing habits and idiosyncrasies? How often do you submit to journals, and do you have any advice for those who hope to achieve similar goals?
[DA]: I’ve been very fortunate in the last few years, but there were plenty of lean years before. Everything you mention in your question has happened in the last three years, and I’ve been writing poetry pretty seriously for about twenty. I turned 44 this year, so while I may be “emerging,” I’m no spring chicken.
My advice to those who wish to achieve external recognition is this: Don’t let yourself become obsessed with external recognition. The only way you can really get better is to forget about the world of the “Po-Biz” and focus only on the work itself. Alan Shapiro has a wonderful perspective on this. In his essay “Why Write?” (published in the spring 2005 issue of The Cincinnati Review), he says that external recognition or reward is “like cotton candy: It looks ample enough until you put it in your mouth, then it evaporates. All taste and no nourishment.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled and honored by the Pushcart, the BOA prize, and the publication in the larger journals. But those things don’t sustain me as a writer. Only writing does that.
As far as idiosyncratic habits go, I don’t know that there are any, other than perhaps the fact that I’m not very good at putting in regular hours. For me, lines and ideas for poems are always floating just under my consciousness, and I find myself muttering them under my breath on a long walk or jotting them down in my notebook at two in the morning. Then every three months or so, those lines and ideas will reach a kind of critical mass, and I’ll write the drafts of 6-8 new poems in the period of a few days. I’ve likened it to “making soup.” My mind’s set to simmer as I turn ideas and lines over and over obsessively, and then one day . . . it’s soup! But after those six to eight servings are ladled out, I’m scraping the bottom of the pot, and it’s back to cutting vegetables.
It’s not an ideal metaphor, and it’s an even worse methodology (students, do as I say, not as I do!), but it’s how it happens for me.
[TCP]: Turning to your work itself, your poem “Revision” lyrically explores the possibility that John Keats’s failed romance with Fanny Brawne could have succeeded, while also suggesting that the impossibility of Keats’s ideal love was a requisite for his desire to write poetry. What do you see as the relationship between personal dissatisfaction and the urge to write poems?
[DA]: I think that if you’re not dissatisfied with the world as it is, you’re not paying attention. Nearly half the people on this planet live on less than two dollars a day while we bloated Americans grumble about paying another dollar for a gallon of gasoline. While we wait in line for a double mocha iced latte, somewhere a child is being raped or a man is having a limb hacked off by someone from a rival tribe.
William Blake said that the voice of righteous indignation is “the voice of God.” Dissatisfaction with reality drives us to make art, to create other worlds. A good poem or a good film always does that—it makes another world. I guess you could call “Revision” a kind of ars poetica for me. Keats had, as I call it in the poem, a “miraculous heart,” one of the most empathetic souls in the history of poetry. He didn’t deserve to suffer through a miserably drawn-out death from tuberculosis before he reached his 26th birthday. He didn’t deserve to spend his last months in a self-described “posthumous existence” in Italy, unable to bring himself even to write a letter to the woman he desperately loved back home. Dick Cheney deserves that lot, not John Keats. But the world gives us what it does. Art can give us something better.
[TCP]: Some have noted the presence of Christian themes in your first book (The Boatloads, BOA Editions). One raised in the Christian tradition certainly wouldn't call your poems proselytic, yet the Christian mythos seems to weigh on your work. To what degree do the motifs and traditional images of Christianity form part of your poetic background?
[DA]: My book could certainly be described as “God-haunted,” and its organization does deliberately (if somewhat obliquely) reflect the Methodist liturgy, but I’m always surprised to hear people speak of “Christian themes” in the work because at the end of the day I’m an utter skeptic. I see Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin as my poetic forebears. But I was raised in a conservative, church-going family, and my intellectual rebellion against that upbringing was very important in my maturation as an adult, so that probably explains the biblical allusions and the presence of God hovering over nearly every poem. It can come off as obsessive, I guess. In fact, I initially came up with the title “Notes for a Poem in which God Does Not Appear” as a bit of self-mockery. I could imagine a reader thinking, “Well, it’s about time!”
It’s not that I don’t find the idea of the spiritual—the idea that we can be more than the sum of our parts—compelling. I just find that most of the religion in the world has very little to do with spirituality. And all too much of it works against the human heart, encouraging self-righteousness and feeding intellectual cowardice. Jesus of Nazareth was one of the greatest moral teachers the world has ever seen, but the religion that has risen up around him seems to dishonor his teachings an overwhelming majority of the time. A good poem will do more to expand your capacity for empathy and goodness than most church services will. But now I’m ranting—forgive me. Bottom line: Please don’t call me a religious poet, because I ain’t one.
[TCP]: Stasis, ennui, and the endurance of time thematically underscore much of your work, two immediate examples being “The Chiming of the Hour” and “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale.” Can you speak to these themes and why they’re so prominent in the work?
[DA]: There’s something really moving about the idea of a life lived in, as Thoreau called it, “quiet desperation.” Something horrifying, but also deeply emotional. I think it’s a good thing to illustrate such desperation, that waste, if only as a negative example. I’ve met people who, I’m convinced, have lived five or more decades without working up the courage to ask that first real question of the world or to indulge one original thought. They seem like utterly tragic figures to me, but they’re all so anonymous. Regret and desperation are more poetic emotions than you might imagine.
[TCP]: What are you working on now?
[DA]: I’ve been writing a lot in form recently, both received form (like villanelles and ghazals) and some forms of my own design. I’d certainly not call myself a “formalist”—I have no aesthetic axe to grind, and I still write primarily in free verse. I just find myself drawn to experimentation in more formal structures right now.
I can see a second full-length collection shaping up, but it’s still at least a year from completion. I imagine that it might be an uncommon mix of formal and free verse poems shouldered up to one another. I’ve also got a couple of chapbook-length series that I’m working on. One of them is called
Fin, and each poem in it begins with an epigraph that is the final line from a play, film, or album. The other is a series in which each poem shares a title with a song from Joy Division’s two albums,
Unknown Pleasures and Closer. I don’t know when either project will be completed, but I find that it really energizes me when I have different worlds to inhabit at once, rather than trying to work toward only one goal. Maybe I get bored too easily.
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