Interview with David Baker
David Baker is the author 14 books of poetry and prose including Midwest Eclogue (W W Norton & Co Inc. 2007), Treatise on Touch (Arc Publications, 2007) , and Never-Ending Birds (W. W. Norton, 2009) winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011. His latest work Talk Poetry: Poems and Interviews with Nine American Poets is out from The University of Arkansas Press (2012). He has been awarded fellowships and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Society of America, Ohio Arts Council, Society of Midland Authors, and others. He has a PhD in English from the University of Utah and has taught at Kenyon College, the Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan. He currently holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio. He is the poetry editor of the prestigious Kenyon Review. We were honored to have this interview with Dr. Baker. We corresponded with him by email.
EWR: You published your first chapbook of poetry when you were only 21 years old. What was your first inspiration for writing poetry?
Baker: It’s hard to trace back to the real inspiration for anything, especially something that goes back 35 or 40 years. But to make a stab: I started writing poems in college, with the help of Robert C. Jones at my alma mater, Central Missouri State University. I’d converted from a pre-law major to an English major and loved the density of the poems I was reading—Wordsworth and Pope and Dickinson, I remember especially, Cummings, Merwin, Moore. Bob gave me books and encouragement and looked at my poems, and by his teaching and his guidance he inspired me.
But also I was a musician, a guitar player, who started playing at about age 8. I was performing in my hometown, Jefferson City, Missouri, and around central Missouri, in my early teens and through college. Also in college I realized I didn’t want to do that for a living. When I first started to slow down as a guitar player, I turned to poetry, more or less without hesitation and without much deliberating thought, because of its related musicality. I realize that now. I don’t think I knew it then. But the sounds, the performative aspects, the staffs and bars and lines and blueprints and measures and measurements, the phrasing, the intonation, the math of it all, the language of passion and interiority—all of these things transferred directly from music to poetry, and back. My father was a surveyor and mapmaker, and I think that was part of it, too. But as I said, I was playing jazz and rock-and-roll and country; I was playing solo and in duos and combos and dance bands and big bands. It hardly mattered what kind of music I was playing, and likewise I wrote all kinds of poems. Poe says it’s the musical aspect of poetry that distinguishes it from other forms of language, and he’s right, the focus on musicality, the density and compression, the phrasal effects. The sound of sense.
EWR: You’ve talked about and lectured about connection to place in your poetry, and I’m wondering how you deal with time. You spoke in an interview about loving the old wooden barns of the Mid-West, and how those have inspired you in some cases. How do you deal with the disappearance and changes of the landscape in your poetry? More directly as the landscape and places change do you find that your poetry is changing or is there some holding on to the past through memory and imagination?
Baker: This is a huge question. And a quick answer says, of course, I am heartsick at the horrible decay of the rural land and the small towns and all the ways of life here and there. I shudder at the velocity of disappearances everywhere—habitat and green space, old growth woods and farmlands, watersheds and family businesses. I don’t want to romanticize those things: life is tough on farms and in little villages sometimes, and the people can be as brutal or small-minded in the country as in any massive urban setting. But the connection of people to work and place, to a place that grows in some kind of “natural” way, is so fundamental. And we are watching that vanish or morph into corporate structures, corporate greed.
I have written about small towns for a long time, and rural lives, and the animals and things outside in the Midwest. But recently I have been writing more explicitly, trying to articulate my outrage and sadness and trying to name names. I want to be able to write about a Midwest that has those falling-down barns and deep woods, but also those meth labs and mega-farm labs and franchise monopolies. I have been working on a new poem, a long sequence or a book or something, for many months now. It is “about” all of these things—from the Montano protection act to meth-as-the-new-crop to all kinds of disease and dysfunction. It is also about illness and dying, and part of its impetus is the death of my mother this past May. I think of it as a poetic sequence, but I also think of it—as I listen and revise and imagine it into being—as a kind of contemporary symphony, spare, partial, with different movements and changing voicings. So perhaps the musical and the political and the begrieved are all helping me to shape this one. It’s called “Scavenger Loop,” taking its title from a phenomenon in biology.
I am dubious about the conservative part of us that tends toward sentimentality or self-pity. Yet I do want to retain some things, too, as you say. It’s important to remember that the business of art, of living our lives, is not the past, it is the present and the future. Poetry can help to shape the present and the future, as it gives voice—I mean, gives words, gives embodiment, that essential sense of presence and presentness—to things and feelings and ideas. Outrage is not a particularly effective intonation, but concentration and commitment can lead to other kinds of intonations like insistence, fearlessness, and sympathy.
EWR: We know that poets like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens created a connection to culture and place in their writing, and that connection helped to shape place, or at least our view of it. Can you talk a little about how your poems capture and even change our perception of the landscape and place?
Baker: Most of the previous response addressed this, I imagine. I don’t know and can’t say how my poems change someone else’s perception. You’d have to ask readers. I guess I can talk about my hopes: I hope my poems please people. I hope that pleasure leads to a depth of awareness—whether that is the awareness of the changes in our natural world or awareness of each other’s presence, each other’s place. One of the deepest achievements of a poem is to create sympathy. I don’t mean pity. I mean connection, adhesion, empathy. I mean the fact and necessity of that splendid paradox: each of us living our individual lives with care so that we may live our collective life with care. Poetry can give us hope, just as it can powerfully indict.
EWR: In your early career you were a high-school English teacher. You went on to get your doctorate, and it seems you have been consistently teaching over the course of your career. You have also been an editor for much of your career. Do you feel sharing your dedication to words is an important part of your passion for writing?
Baker: I feel like a lucky guy most days. I have two or three pursuits to shape my life, and I love doing them all. I was a teacher well before I was a poet. I started teaching the guitar in junior high, and then throughout high school and college. I find teaching an invigorating, hopeful thing to do among people. And I started editing 30 years ago, in grad school, when I worked at Quarterly West at the University of Utah, where I was Poetry Editor and then Editor of that magazine.
I have set of unusual academic degrees for the poetry world these days. I hold a BSE in English, a bachelor of science in education, which includes a public-school teaching certificate. I taught high-school English for two years. I hold an MA, not an MFA. And yes, I have a PhD in English, and this particular degree included both critical and creative components. Much of my scholarly preparation is in American literature—and I mean all the way back to pre-Columbian native American cultures, and those early European exploration narratives, and I have done quite a lot of work in Puritan and Federal American literature, and even more in 19th century American. Right now I’m teaching at Denison an intro course in creative writing and a seminar in Modernist poetry—one writing and one literature class. I really would not be fulfilled doing just one or the other.
So it sounds like a platitude, but editing and writing and teaching all inform each other in my work. They also wildly collide, in that whatever I’m doing—reading Kenyon manuscripts, consulting with a student, revising a poem—I should probably be doing something else. This doesn’t even begin to touch on those “other” aspects of my life. I am a father, a partner (to someone who lives far away, so we have a lot of traveling to do), a neighbor, on and on. Just like everyone else.
I think, in short, though, perhaps because writing poems can be so solitary and solipsistic, I find myself impelled into the more social prospects of the art—that is, teaching, editing. They are parts of my need to be a good citizen in ways that deepen whatever I am able to contribute as a poet.
EWR: Is there any advice about writing that you give to your students that you would like to share with our readers?
Baker: It’s hard to extract advice about class outside of class. Context is everything. But I’ll try. These are simple things and probably sound silly outside of any particular class or workshop. Here are things I emphasize so much that I should have t-shirts made emblazoned with these ideas.
There is no hurry.
Creative Writing should be called Creative Rewriting.
It’s not enough to have one good idea to write a poem. You have to have two. (Or three—.)
There is no crying in poetry.
Don’t be afraid of being clear.
You are not the hero of your poems.
Poetry is not a career. Poetry is not a profession. Poetry is a devotion.
EWR: You are the editor of The Kenyon Review, one of the best literary magazines in the United States. I’m wondering how the poet and editor in you work together when assembling an issue of the journal.
Baker: I am very pleased you like the magazine. It is an honor that constantly surprises me to be part of this magazine. But let’s clarify. I am not the Editor of The Kenyon Review. The Editor is David Lynn, my old friend and colleague for many years. I am the Poetry Editor. In our case that means I do not handle finances, business, production, the Board of Trustees (who are wonderful), or any of the day-to-day practical matters of running a literary magazine. I read the poetry, at least some of it (there’s too much for one person to read these days, way too much) and I have the privilege of picking the poetry we publish, and conferring with David about the criticism and reviews relating to poetry. In fact, I do everything in consultation with David. We have become a really good team, I think, and close friends to boot.
I also don’t have much to do with putting together any particular issue. Sometimes a new issue shows up at home and I’m surprised by what’s in it. I don’t work at Kenyon College or live in Gambier, Ohio, though I did, for a year, nearly 30 years ago. I live half an hour away in Granville, where I teach at Denison University. I do know that David and our production folks think hard about each particular number of the magazine—sometimes issues are more or less miscellanies, and on occasion they are thematic, and sometimes, within a particular issue, there will be groupings of things that speak to each other with some direct association.
As Poetry Editor, I do pay attention to the poet in me but also to the critic and reader. I think—I know—I am more diverse in my preferences as an editor than as a writer. As a poet I have very specific things I want to do, and hear, and create, and learn. As an editor I want to be surprised in a different kind of way, and I want to represent a wide aesthetic and cultural world. I mean by this I want to find and publish the very best of an art that is itself expansive, inclusive, plural, and spreading exponentially. This is an exciting and challenging time for poetry. That leads me to your next question.
EWR: Can you talk a little about the state of American poetry today? In what way do you see voices and visions changing?
Baker: It is a rich, wild time for poetry. It’s hard to separate the evolutions of poetry from the larger and smaller evolutions of the cultural and political world. There are significant challenges in poetry now. I won’t say anything about the electronic media just now, since you ask about that shortly.
But related to the electronic media is the traditional book, and we know that books—editing, publishing, distributing, marketing, the future thereof—are in a state of crisis. That crisis may result in fabulous things, or it may not. There are only a couple of trade presses now with vital poetry series, though the independent and university presses have picked up lots of the slack. There is a strange kind of patronage system in book publishing, too, which we are calling contests. There are all kinds of schemes and plans and formulas for publishing books. The real pinch is, of course, the corporate bottom line. Poetry does not pay, or hardly. So it is an endangered thing among bookmakers and publishers and their boards of trustees, whose degrees are MBAs instead of MFAs.
But publishing means to make public, and poetry is finding a powerful system of publication in the form currently of public readings, slams, and workshops, as well as the online media forms of distribution. I love the local and occasional identity of poetry—its being-in-the-world as a performed thing. That’s the old musician in me, who loves records but also loves shows and performances and concerts. Schools have reading series, libraries and arts councils and workshops and care-centers have poetry series. I am cheered by the variety of audiences and uses for poetry and by the subsequent varieties of poems themselves that are evolving to suit those audiences and venues.
Poetry has found a home in academia, too. I can’t say this is a good thing or a bad one; it is more complex than that. Writing workshops became cash cows for academic boards of trustees, one of the few “growth industries” in the humanities in the 70s and 80s especially. The result is a glut of MFA programs, and the hundreds upon hundreds of annual graduates of those programs. Many of those graduates in turn go right back into the system to teach. That’s the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the results are scary. Academic poets have also very quickly adopted the other English Department “growth industry”—that is, critical theory. There are so many poets whose work sounds like Crit-Lit 101 arranged in lines. All of this will shake out in the wash, I know, in time, but the current effect is tedious. Of course the upside is that so many more students are able to take workshops, and to learn how a literary work is made, learn it from the inside, and perhaps that knowledge will provide them with a deeper appreciation and hunger for the art itself. Workshops make readers in a more important way than workshops make writers.
There’s much more to say. I shudder at the team-spiritedness of poetry currently. If you are in one group, you support your teammates by getting them readings, reviewing them, touting them, reading them, and thus closing off yourself from the others. And finally I shudder at the hyper-professionalism of it all. There are people who teach workshops in how to give a good public reading, in how to find an agent, in how to “be” a “professional” poet. Poetry is not a profession, though teaching is and editing is and publishing is. I aspire myself to be an amateur, a devoted, astute, curious amateur.
EWR: The Kenyon Review is offering an ipad version of the journal, and I’m wondering how you feel about bringing poetry to electronic devices. I know this might seem like a silly question, but with the ever- growing influence of technology on writing, does it translate well or is something lost?
Baker: In fact we are now essentially two magazines. We publish the print journal The Kenyon Review, and we publish the online journal Kenyon Review Online or KRO. They have separate content. At first I resisted David’s enthusiasm about the online forum, but now I’m a convert. We have readers who read only one or the other of our journals, and we have readers (very many) who follow us in both places. In fact, our website is the home of KRO but also of a very active blog, events page, news page, and more. We do lots of linking, pointing from the magazine to KRO or vice versa. Maybe poems in the print KR are coupled with an interview in KRO. Maybe an essay in one speaks to a story in the other. Sometimes we make those connections explicit in the form of a note; sometimes not.
There’s much more to say, but we, all of us, are panting just to keep up with the changes in format and delivery of literary journals. I admit I still have trouble reading poetry online, on a small screen; I still print out many things to have hard copy. I love the feel and texture of a “real book” in my hands (and nose and eyes). I worry about the velocity of reading online, the instantaneous appearance—and the potentially very quick disappearance and erasure—of a poem in an electronic format. But the democracy of the online forum is fabulous, the ease of sharing work and ideas, the global potential.
Of course there are things lost in the transfer to electronic devices like an Ipad. With poetry, at risk is form itself. But with a new forum also comes the prospect of new forms, right? We have Twitter poems, we have a speed-of-light potentiality. Poetry evolves. It is sung, it is read, it is IM’ed and Tweeted and emailed and published, and in all of these methods, it evolves and prospers.
EWR: What do you hope your readers will find in your work? Is there a particular part of your poetry that you hope will influence them?
Baker: I never know what someone may think or take away. Hope? I don’t want to influence them as much as please and challenge them. I want to speak to someone in a complex, demanding way, and not pander and not talk down and not coerce that person. I would like to think the poems I write and the poems I read will elevate or intensify our conversations. I don’t want language to be a potato chip or a data-machine, at least not only. I want it also to be music and beauty (though beauty isn’t necessarily pretty) and rigor. There’s no hurry—that was one of the t-shirts, right?
As to what part may do that, may influence someone . . . it beats me. Maybe the story, maybe a phrase, maybe the shape of a line. I hope a reader will find an authentic and artful expression of our shared humanness.
EWR: Lastly, what is next in your writing? What can we look forward to reading from you?
Baker: Just this week I am proofing a new book of essays, Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems. This is part of the Poets on Poetry series at the University of Michigan Press, due for release in February 2014. I’m excited about the book, with essays that range from autobiography to theory and that address poetry by looking, at times, at the genre itself, at the lifework of a poet, a book, or a single poem.
My other big task right now is putting together a new book of poems, poems I’ve been writing and rewriting for the past several years. Well, the oldest of the poems dates back—in an earlier very different draft—more than fifteen years, though most of these have come along since Never-Ending Birds in 2009. So I’m in the complicated place, writing and revising individual poems, shuffling and reshuffling the parts and sections and poems of a new book.
And I have plans, too, for more poems, for a prose book about teaching poetry, for another prose book about individual lyric poets. I look forward to the work. One line at a time. There’s no hurry.
EWR: Thank you so much for doing this interview.