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Featured Poet #1
November 2005 - V1 I1
I knew I was going to ask
Kenneth Pobo to be featured poet
for The Centrifugal Eye's premier issue not long after we discussed his submission and worked together on some revisions
– Ken was amiable, professional, and willing to discuss ideas in a way that echoed his excitement about writing. He
was not at all put off by any suggestion I made, and proved to be adept at collaboration. Not only that, he sent me earthy,
morning e-letters, sprinkled with the pollen of his summer garden inspirations, signs of abiding interests I shared.
Ken not only spent much
personal time polishing poems for our enjoyment, but also wrote a book review and a personal essay, as well (all of which
you'll be able to read in this issue of The Eye), and even participated in a written interview, which I present
to you below.
|Editor of The Centrifugal Eye,
Eve Anthony Hanninen asks
Poet, Writer, Teacher, Kenneth Pobo:
Ken, when did you first become interested in writing? Was it an outgrowth of your career path, or did the interest develop
KP: I started writing on July 4, 1970, on my family's pingpong table in the basement. I wanted
to write song lyrics – much in the mode of Tommy James and the Shondells – my first lyric was called The Open
Door, which included the immortal line, "C'mon, let's unlock our minds." My first lyrics were optimistic, brotherhood
oriented, a dash of nature thrown in. They rhymed. After a couple of years or so, I got tired of rhyming all the time and
started writing in a more free verse style. I wasn't reading other poets then. Pop stars were my poets, for good or ill
Marc Bolan of T. Rex became important. He sang about cars, planets, and wizards. I started imitating him
(badly). Back in high school, I never saw poetry in terms of my future career. Auden says the only really good reason to
do something is because it's fun. And poetry writing was (and is) fun. I didn't start reading poets until college. I didn't
connect with the poetry I got in high school, mostly because I wasn't receptive to it yet, seeing it mainly as something I
had to take tests on (An irony is that now I'm the guy who gives tests on it!).
What's your writing schedule like during the school year? And what do you do to motivate yourself to keep writing, even when
you're busy grading papers or making lesson plans?
KP: My writing life faces upheaval every September, some years worse than others. I resent
the beginning of school because I get spoiled over the summer, having the opportunity to write most every day. Having "block
time" to write, instead of doing it as I can get to it, is hard to give up. Sometimes when school starts, I have no energy
to generate new work. Fortunately, since I love revision, the beginning of school offers good opportunities to revise my
work, especially work done in the summer. The students and ideas that surface in class can get me started up again to generate
new work. While it's not with the joy of summer, I do write during the semester. It never feels like I've done enough of
the writing I want to do. Grading papers utterly kills any desire to write. Research papers, especially, are arsenic to
a poet. In the heavy grading times, writing does go away. When I get stuck in a non-writing frame of mind for a couple of
weeks— I have some friends who are also writers, and conversing with them about writing and writing issues can get
me back on track. Margaret Robinson is especially helpful. We meet weekly, trade drafts, and stoke our creative fires.
I have moved away from a view of writing (for myself) as a solitary activity. Having other writers to talk with is
pleasurable and helpful. Also, life, itself, eventually will present me with things I want to write about – a flower,
a conversation overheard at the gym, some new dynamic in my relationship with my partner— something always comes along.
Do you have either a favorite or least favorite style or school of poetry?
KP: I don't like the idea of "schools of poetry". I don't quite know what that means. Poems
don't make good students. They're unruly and don't fit into schools too well. Schools are more often about critics who need
to lump certain writers together. I enjoy many styles of writing. I like poems to awaken and alert me to myself and the
world— to open me up. I like when a poem makes me see what I've been missing. Marc Bolan sang in 1972 that "all schools
are strange." I agree. Poetry might be the kid who cuts class and takes a walk. It seems strange his teachers.
Which poets would you say have most influenced your own voice over the years?
KP: The list of influencing poets and writers would be long. In college, discovering D.H.
Lawrence, Eliot, and Plath left a strong impression on me. I still love them. When I started reading Robert Creeley, I wanted
to write his kind of miniatures in the style of his poem The Warning. Since then, I'd have to add Theodore Roethke,
especially his greenhouse poems. Auden. Hopkins. May Swenson. Chinese T'ang Dynasty poets, especially Li Po. Langston
Hughes. The spirit of E.A. Robinson is never far from me. Zbigniew Herbert. Jean Valentine. May Sarton. Jean Follain.
Lucille Clifton. And of course Walt Whitman is a continuing influence. I got to teach a course a year and a half ago called
Whitman And His Descendents. Though I was the teacher, I was really the learner.
The writing of my friends, Margaret Robinson, Nuala Archer, and Debra Kay Vest, for examples, also influences me. They help
make me want to write and try new things, to stretch.
Frank O'Hara. Emily Dickinson is a favorite poet but I'm not sure she's an influence— in style, anyway, but
almost certainly in spirit. I suppose my favorite poet over the past twenty years has been Sweden's Tomas Transtromer.
Once I discovered his poem Schubertiana, I was hooked for life.
You use a relaxed, conversational style and a good deal of wit in many of your poems. Have you always applied this technique,
or is this reflective of the recent popular movement towards "plain speaking"?
KP: Because my first attempts at poetry were as pop songs, perhaps I embraced "plain speaking"
from the get-go. I have written some "beat poems", as well as sonnets and villanelles. My form poems, I don't think, escape
from common language any more than my free verse poems. A poem is a conversation between a writer and a reader, and I like
a conversational style to help us meet. When I employ wit, I wonder if it's an outgrowth of my personality, in the sense
that I'm often ironic. I'm a kidder. Wit is not easy to do well. One always risks sounding like a smarty-pants or cleverer-than-thou.
To do it well, requires much attention to tone. Some drafts of poems that I thought were very witty when I wrote them ended
up killed, because they were more about me trying to be funny or clever than about the poem – the poem couldn't emerge
from under my own personality. Still, I love wit, love its embrace of incongruity.
What are you reading right now, and how might it influence your future work?
KP: Right now I'm reading Stanley Kunitz. The man is 100 years old and still publishing and,
I believe, gardening. Way to go, Stanley! I read some books on Tudor England over the summer (devoured is a better word).
That part of British history fascinates me. Allison Weir writes history in such a way that I feel I'm reading one helluva
novel. Now that school has started, much of my reading life will be for my classes. This can be frustrating, as I'd like
to be reading more books by Weir and immersing myself in any number of gardening books, but I have to keep on top of what
I assign. This isn't bad, since I have wonderful books in each of my classes. I'm rereading Barbara Pym's Excellent Women
right now for my Humor Writing class, and to return to Pym is to return to joy. Now there's a woman who can be truly
witty, who has a deft touch with tone. Last summer I read all of Margaret Laurence's novels. It was like I was in a desert
and each of her novels was a cup of cold water.
As for how these will influence my future work, there is no way to tell. I have written a poem about Henry VIII and Anne
Boleyn, so the Tudor reading is working inside me. Kunitz combines a love of gardening with a love of language, and that
always helps me. Like him, I go to the garden for so many pleasures and discoveries . . . even though I'm afraid of bees.
You've done stints as a poetry editor – how did these opportunities come about? What were the most rewarding parts
of editing and what were the least? Did editing other people's writing teach you anything about your craft? If so, what?
KP: I've been a poetry editor twice, both on magazines published at schools I've been part
of— as a grad. student, I had a two-year stint as poetry editor of Cream City Review in Milwaukee. In the late
eighties and early nineties, I was poetry editor of Widener Review, the literary magazine my school, Widener University,
had at that time. It's defunct now. Both times there were openings for the poetry editorship; I accepted gladly, despite
the work it created.
I enjoyed some parts of being a poetry editor. I got to read poems from a wide variety of writers on a wide variety of subjects.
Some poems almost leapt out of my hand they were so pleasing. Others were sincerely written, but not very inventive. Accepting
work was fun. It's great to send out good news. Less good is rejection, which is far more often. We had form letters for
rejections. As a writer myself, I know how impersonal they feel, but who has time to write to so many people? I made a strong
effort to get work back to writers quickly. As a writer, I hate the enormously long waits one sometimes faces. I didn't
want to do that to another writer. If I were poetry editor of a magazine which gets twenty or more manuscripts a day, I don't
think I could handle it. I'd feel like Lucy and Ethel in the I Love Lucy episode where they get jobs at the chocolate
candy factory – the candies come out way faster than they can wrap them.
I'm not sure that being a poetry editor taught me about craft, except in that I would sometimes come across a lovely poem
and reading it closely would help me to see some of what the writer was doing that created the beauty. Right now, I'm not
anxious to be a poetry editor, again. It's time-consuming, and I want to spend my time in other ways.
Speaking from the Point-of-View of an editor, what one piece of advice would you give the new or up-and-coming poet?
KP: My advice is: read more poetry, from more than one's own culture or background. Find
poets whose words you fall in love with. Ask yourself if you really love words, love making something out of words. I would
add that it's good to get to know other poets. Share work.
Same question, from the Point-of-View of a poet?
KP: The same advice applies from a poet's viewpoint. I might add, that it's good to try different
forms of poetry. Try writing in different voices. And embrace revision. Revision is another word for discovery. Revision
allows for growth and surprise. Yes, one can over-revise a poem, revise the spark out of it, but I have always found revision
fun and useful – even when the poem gets cranky.
This is the "Write Your Own Question" moment – What question would you most like to be asked about your poetry? And
then how would you answer it?
KP: My question to me would be about sexuality and writing. How does one's sexuality influence
one's writing? In The Wild Braid, Kunitz celebrates the erotic impulse behind much poetry. In my case, being gay,
I grew up in a time where I was told to shut up and not write about who I was as a gay person. Someone would always judge
me— God, my town, my employers. In grad school, in the creative writing program, one teacher told me that if I wrote
about being gay, I wouldn't be writing "universal poems". "Universal poems" were heterosexual poems, I guess. I had to unpeel
all those lies and distortions – and continue to have to do so everyday, since our culture remains so gay-hostile, and
our leaders, if you can call them that, are at the forefront of anti-gay bigotry. I want my work to challenge gay hating
(actually all forms of hating).
That said, I find erotica in everything . . . music, the garden, the wind, jogging. Desire appears in every moonflower.
It spills from every hibiscus. Writers cannot, and should not, avoid it or muzzle it. I'm very happy to be a gay person
who is also a writer. I feel quite lucky.
What's your favorite hobby, interest or activity outside of writing? How often does it show up in your writing in any form?
KP: I have two major interests and they both go way back into my childhood: music and gardening.
I assume that if, like Kunitz, I would live to be 100 and still be sentient, I would be singing along (badly) to my favorite
songs and gardening. I don't putter in the garden. The garden is part of who I am. I wish I were better at it.
I can't resist a gorgeous flower, so the garden has lots of specimen plants all over. I love the garden in any season, though
my heart does yearn for spring in the furies of winter. But even then, the indoor plants jig up some great blossom dances.
And in February there's the yellow of winter jasmine. In March the budding hellebores. The garden is always close to my
poetry. One of my books, Ordering: A Season in my Garden, grew out of my gardening life.
As for music, I'm like a message in a bottle written in 1967. The music I loved growing up is the music I crave now. Many
drafts will begin with a line from a song or a reference to a song (usually to a bubblegum record, not the "respected rock"
of Rolling Stone critics).
The references often fade in future drafts, but they get me going. In my book Introductions, I have tribute poems
to Mama Cass, Tommy James, Jackie De Shannon, and Johnny Rivers. Not many could say they have a complete collection of Tommy
James's work from his first 45, Long Poni Tail, through to his new CD 45, Isn't That The Guy, but I can
say this. It's obsessive, I suppose, but it feeds me.
So give us your "Favorites List", say, oh, 6 to 12 things. That's a good wind-up.
KP:   My 12 Favorites—
Favorite Poem: Binsey Poplars by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Visual Artist: Edvard Munch
Topic To Write About: The garden
Poet: Tomas Transtromer
Movie: Bergman (director), The Wizard of Oz (film)
Band/Group/Singer: Tommy James
Quote: On being natural: "It's such a difficult pose to keep up" (Oscar Wilde)
Actor: Liv Ullman (living), Bette Davis (deceased)
Restaurant: Blink Bonnie's in St. Germain, Wisconsin
Novel: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
Location: St. Germain, Wisconsin
Ideal Job: Poet (unpaid), Teacher (paying job)
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