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Write the Poems you Need to Read: Q&A with Steph Burt


Hollihock is pleased to introduce our third and final keynote speaker, Steph Burt! Steph is a poet, poetry critic, and professor of English at Harvard University. Her works include three collections of poems, Popular Music (1999), Parallel Play (2006), and Belmont (2013); a number of works of poetry criticism, noteably Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016).


Tell us a little bit about your writing journey. When did you start writing? What were some major steps that brought you to where you are now?

I have been writing down things I imagined since I can’t remember when. In grade school I wanted to be a science fiction writer, although I was sad when I thought that maybe only sad, lonely boys would read my work, because I wanted to be a popular girl. And now I am! Sort of. I started reading W. B. Yeats and Samuel R. Delany when I was 14 and realized that I wanted to read Samuel R. Delany but I wanted to write like Yeats. Maybe I still do.

I had very good teachers in college; I wondered in college and after college whether I ought to be writing, mostly, literary criticism and scholarship, and whether the poetry-writing was a distraction. Maybe it is! I had teachers who kept me focused on the work in front of me, and other teachers who treated being a poet as being a special kind of person, charismatic teachers, deeply intuitive teachers. I needed both kinds but felt much closer to the first kind.

I’ve had support from multiple writing communities in multiple ways; I hope I’ve been able to give some of it back. In particular, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I lived from 2000 to 2007, have certain limits for practicing literary scholars, but they are superb places for youngish poets.

I’ve also had the good fortune of living outside the US, in British and more recently New Zealand writing communities, with different tastes, different authority figures, different senses of what to want from a poem. I am an American writer, like it or not, but I like to find connections between the present-day language and the pre-modern past, between something you might say now and something that Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt or Alexander Pope might put into a poem. In the US, these connections aren’t obvious—you have to make them yourself. In Britain, they are easier to hear.

The idea of poetry can be intimidating to some – reading it, writing it, or both. What’s the best way for writers/readers to get their feet wet?

Read a little work by a lot of poets and don’t worry if you don’t like this or that poem (even if it’s a poem someone else calls terrific). Read widely. Nobody says “I don’t like music” just because they’re not especially into Beethoven’s Ninth or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” or Halsey’s new album: you can like music without liking that music, even though other people do.

And don’t worry about what’s good; think about what speaks to you. My sense is that if you read a lot of poetry and think about it a lot you will probably, eventually, end up actually liking most of what English departments consider good; but you might not, and there’s no reason to think you’d start out there.

Good poets to start reading poetry with, if you haven’t been reading it seriously and you would like to start, include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, D. A. Powell, and Terrance Hayes. All of whom, I’m glad to say, stand up very well also for people who have been reading a lot of poetry for a long time.

From your experience as a critic, are there certain features that make great poems stand out?

Yes, but they’re not the same features for every poem. In the same way, there are features that make great pop songs stand out, if you like pop songs, and great string quartets stand out, if you like string quartets, and great basketball players stand out, if you like basketball (and I like all those things), but they’re not the same features. Keats isn’t O’Hara; Armantrout isn’t Baxter, who isn’t Brooks; Lindsay Whalen isn’t Maya Moore.

I will say that great poems tend to reveal new features, new reasons to like them, new tricks or new insights, when you read them for the 27th time. (What makes you want to read them for the 27th time? the features you found on readings 1 through 26.)

Our theme this year is #WillWriteforChange and we’ve been talking a lot about diversity and intersectionality in literature. What is your assessment of the state of inclusivity in the poetry world?

“Inclusivity” means here at least two things: “how open is the poetry world to people who want to enter it but don’t have expensive educations, elite backgrounds or obvious credentials?” and “how much does the poetry world reflect the demographic diversity of America, or of the world?” These are two different questions: the answers to both questions are “things are improving!” but it’s easier to measure improvement along the second axis than along the first. Also, what is “the poetry world,” and what does being included in it mean? If you have 10,000 views on Button Poetry but you don’t have a book out, is that success? Is that openness? What if you wrote a book and it was published by a reputable press but only 150 people bought it? What if I was one of those 150 people and I think it’s great?

What can poets do to make their own work more inclusive? Is that possible?

If you are a relatively new writer, or trying to take your work seriously in a new way, read widely; read writers with various backgrounds and various demographics, as well as from various time periods and, if you can, in various languages. Then write the poems you want to read. Write the poems you need to read. Write the poems you haven’t seen and want to see. And listen to people you trust, and to their reactions, once those people read them. You don’t have to tackle every subject at once!

But.

If you’re already a prominent or a publicly successful (whatever that means) poet, you probably want to think about whether there are important parts of human life, and parts of our polity, as well as parts of your own emotional life and your own relationship to language, that you’ve left out of your work so far. Can you include them? Can you address them? How? A few years ago I realized that almost all the people in my poems, and most of the works of art in my poems, were white. That’s obviously not ideal. I’ve tried to figure out whether I can fix that, while still writing the poems that I can write. The last two poems in my new book are poems that explicitly (at least, they’re explicit for me) address whiteness and white privilege. I also have a small stack of failed poems about race, and about racially marked subjects; you’re not going to see them unless I can fix them. But I feel like I might be going somewhere.

Hear Steph Burt speak at her keynote presentation, and meet her at the book signing to follow at the Hollihock Writers Conference on Sunday, August 27 at 4:00pm. See the full class schedule here.


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