Monday, May 05, 2014

CC: Robbi Nester asks--

Lummox Press, 2014
What follows is a copy of an interview conducted by Robbi Nester, posted last Saturday on a facebook page for The Liberal Media Made me Do It, a brand new anthology from Lummox Press, edited by Robbi. Although the interview has been re-posted here and there on facebook, I'm adding a copy for people who don't venture that way online.

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For our second interview with a contributor from the book, I've chosen Marly Youmans, a poet, novelist, and commentator on the arts (and other things as well).

Robbi: Do you often listen to/write about public media?

Marly: I often listen to NPR, but television is not part of my day--I don't really have time for it, though I did watch PBS when I was much younger. I once had an idea for a novel while listening to a folk music show on WAMC (Albany.) A folk singer on Wanda Fish's The Hudson River Sampler told an anecdote about her grandmother wandering off the edge of her farm in Vermont and becoming lost, traveling on foot in Canada for months without meeting a soul. That little seed of an idea eventually became Catherwood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. It's out of print now but will be back in print within a year.)

UK: Stanza Press, 2012
Now in second printing!
RN: What else are you doing in your work right now?

MY: I'm writing poems and tiny stories because I have little time at the moment. I have several poetry and fiction manuscripts to polish, and I have an idea for a novel that I want to work on when time appears! I'm not in a hurry to bring out another poetry book because the last three came in such close succession (The Throne of Psyche, The Foliate Head and Thaliad.) I'll be on tour again later in the year, and I'll be teaching at Antioch in the summer.

RN: National Poetry Month just ended; what poetry-related activities do you recommend to our readers or potential readers?

MY: Oh, I don't know--these days, when poetry has such a dwindled audience, recommendations seem almost out of place. Go to a good university library and enjoy the lost art of browsing? Read a Shakespeare play aloud with friends? (Pick one with some marvelous blank verse, couplets, or songs.) Or study a pronunciation guide and then read some Chaucer with friends, taking turns? (Enjoy it--laugh a lot!) Memorize a poem? Go to a well-stocked bookstore and buy a new poetry book by a living writer? Pick out a press to support and follow--buy books directly from their site? Choose a writer to support, so you see how his or her work changes over time? Try translating or writing a particular form in order to understand it better? Read translated poetry?

Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012
This is a beautiful and powerful book--
worth owning, worth reading and
rereading. --Rachel Barenblat
RN: Though I see your reason for saying poetry's audience has dwindled, all the same, the number of MFA programs (online particularly), spoken word events, self-publishing outlets, and such has grown exponentially. What do you think this disparity means? Does it herald big changes in the art, or only the effort to turn the impulse of poetry, which will always be with us, into a commodity?

MY: My opinion on these subjects is a tangle of contradictions. For example, I don't think an over-the-top proliferation of MFA programs (it is, yes, a commodity and cash cow for universities) is a good tendency, given the state of the economy and the level of student debt incurred by many. On the other hand, a free ride with years to write must be very sweet! And I know people who have gone for the MFA because they need more credentialing for teaching, even though they've published quite a few books. That's useful, though here I point out that we've gone credentialing-mad in the last fifty years. If an English department wants a writer, they should go for a writer of good books and have no concern for the diploma. But the university administration has a concern with ticking off boxes and improving its rankings. But what's the use of a credential to poems and stories? None. It's like giving a tiara and matching earrings to a terrier. But we are a nation obsessed with credentials from the ivory tower. Signs of change are appearing on that front, though, and perhaps we will become more sensible.

Mercer University Press, 2012
The Ferrol Sams Award
Silver Award, ForeWord BOTYA
I expect that creative writing (like a lot of people, I'm not fond of that label) was more vibrant when it meant bold first ventures at places like The University of Iowa and UNC-Greensboro and Hollins--when it had the life and energy of something new and daring. Lately the programs have been attacked as places where writers teach, anoint, and credential other writers who will go on to teach, anoint, credential--an art for the free market economy. A program today is going to have to struggle against that image. So far, though, they seem to be surviving and multiplying.

You ask about self-publishing. Self-publishing is one of those curious things that is just exactly as good as the work of the person making use of it. Self-publishing has an old, venerable past. It also has an old, cheesy past. The dilemma is once again the excessive nature of current usage, this time with the added difficulty for the reader of finding needles in a gargantuan haystack.

I'm not in the least opposed to self-publishing, particularly for mid-list writers. The major New York publishers put enormous amounts of money and time behind the lead books they decide to sell, but the rest of the list must share small money and small marketing time. (It's hard. The gobbling-up of large New York houses has meant pressure from conglomerates to fatten profits in a traditionally low-but-steady-profit industry.) A first-rate writer without lead book status becomes a design in the classy wallpaper on which the lead books are hung.

Mercer University Press, 2011
"a writer of rare ability whose works
will one day be studied by serious
students of poetry."Baton Rouge Advocate
But here's an issue for poets: poetry is never lead book material. Oh, you may find some push for a Billy Collins or a Mary Oliver or a Sharon Olds. You may find a push behind a celebrity who decides to publish a book of poems. Is it a problem? Not really. A poet needs to see the situation and get on with navigating rocks and shoals; if that means self-publishing allures, fine.

Currently I'm thinking about self-publishing the reprint of a novel, even though I have offers from a number of publishers. I'd like to give it a try once, if only out of curiosity. Whitman, Woolf, and plenty of other writers have relied on self-publishing.

Since I've been living in a rural village for the past 15 years, I don't have a sense of the range of poetry events available in a city. My experience with tour readings at bookstores and other venues is that they are still attended by many different sorts of people, not just writers, and that's good. I'd be curious to know how many people attend, say, "spoken word events," and how often they draw a crowd including more than the organizers and the poets who appear regularly. Perhaps that's irrelevant and wrong-headed--perhaps the fundamental purpose of such events is to create a sort of sub-world where poetry retains meaning and purpose for every inhabitant. Sometimes I have the feeling that poets are a sort of lacemakers' guild, quietly going on with the work in stray corners. If that's so, fine. I'll make lace.


  1. Replies
    1. Glad to help--hope the anthology does wonderfully well for you.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.