From News of the National Humanities Center, Spring 2006

A Year to Write the Poems I Am Not Writing:
Mary Kinzie at the National Humanities Center

Mary Kinzie, National Humanities Center Fellow 2005-2006
Hear Mary Kinzie read and discuss her poems:
· A Soul Cake, read and discussed by Mary Kinzie. MP3 file. A Soul Cake (MP3 file*)
· Early December, read and discussed by Mary Kinzie. MP3 file. Early December (MP3 file)
· Moment Stay, read and discussed by Mary Kinzie. MP 3file. Moment Stay (MP3 file)

Mary Kinzie (William C. and Ida Friday Senior Fellow) is the author of A Poet’s Guide to Poetry and six collections of poetry, including Summers of Vietnam, Autumn Eros, Ghost Ship, and Drift. She teaches in the creative writing program that she founded two decades ago at Northwestern University. During her fellowship at the National Humanities Center she has worked on a series of poems that arose from an exploration of the border between poetry and prose called “The Poems I Am Not Writing,” which appeared in Poetry magazine last year. In a recent interview she described the poems she has and hasn’t been writing, her efforts to break the stranglehold of blank verse, and how, despite taking a year away from her duties at Northwestern, she found herself leading a poetry seminar for a group of very advanced students.

You have described your essay, “The Poems I Am Not Writing,” as a “first attempt to negotiate between not writing and writing” following a period in which you struggled to bring new work to fruition. How are you turning that first attempt into a new collection of poems?

I am attempting to colonize new material for myself, to identify and explore new ways of thinking about my past and about the imagination. It’s also an attempt to appropriate prose for poetry in my own way. Many other writers have tried to do this, but I’ve been trying for some time now to escape the stranglehold of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, which I can do in my sleep. Once there’s too great a facility, there’s the danger that one can be saying something without meaning very much. So I’ve tried all kinds of ruses and tricks to distance myself from blank verse, including experiments with writing in prose first, in perfecting the prose, polishing it, making it as perfect and expressive as it can be within the boundary of acceptable prose—and then seeing what it would take to lift it out of prose into poetry.

Where has that led you?

The lines of these poems emerging from “perfected prose” were very long and that in turn helped me to start writing longer-lined poems. To see how a very long line could sustain itself, because it has to be strong enough for the ideas, feelings, images, and metaphors to seem necessary in that form, rather than simply a cobbling of the National Humanities Center together of things that could be much shorter. There has to be a felt necessity. The meditation called “The Poems I Am Not Writing” is on the face of it a meditation in prose. What I’m trying to do there is see whether I can reach a number of different points at which prose breaks open and becomes poetry. One of the ways it does so is by needing to turn into a short-line poem in the middle of the prose meditation. But another way is by meditating in a highly metaphorical and intensely dramatized way. So there are various kinds of hurdles and releasepoints in that meditation.

At the Center you have been working on a continuation of “The Poems I Am Not Writing” called “Knot and Rubble.” You have also spent time thinking about California and T. S. Eliot’s longtime lover.

I’m fifteen pages into a series of poems that reflect on California. I’ve been thinking about Emily Hale, the love of T. S. Eliot’s life, whom he kept on a string for forty years or more. She was “the lady of silences”; she was “the hyacinth girl”; she turns up in his poetry frequently. In the early nineteen-thirties she was teaching temporarily at Scripps in Claremont, and he came all the way across the country by train to visit her there. I’m thinking about that moment when he might have come forward to propose that he divorce Vivienne, who was insane, and marry her, but he didn’t have the moral stamina to do that. So there’s something very bittersweet about that meeting. It was an interlude out of time. That was the start of my thinking about California. But now I’m working on a part of this poem about pollution in California and how appalling it smells when you get off the plane in the airport nearest where my daughter goes to school. I’ve been reading about the various petrochemical sources of this smell and how they’re building up. I don’t know how much of what I’ve been reading is going to work its way into the eventual poem, but it’s as if I have to walk all the way around it, even down all the side roads that go off in the wrong direction, before I figure out what it is I want to say.

Once you have traveled those side roads, how do you know when you have arrived at a poem?

Mary Kinzie, National Humanities Center Fellow 2005-2006

Well, there are two answers to that question. One is the answer that I give as an artist, which is, I just know. The second is the answer that I would give in a seminar, which would try to get people thinking about the difference between something that moves forward and something that moves in a circular or elliptical fashion. Because prose comes from “prorsus,” which means “forward”— forward narration, forward movement. Poetry, however much it might rely on logic, on narration, on things that move from the present to the future, from point A to point B, still differs from prose in having a retrograde orbit. The reason it’s hard to identify it as different or to become conscious of it as different is that poetry shares its language with prose. It uses the same language that prose does, but it doesn’t use it the same way or with the same objective. It’s not that prose is less metaphorical than poetry, because some prose is chock-full, or that metaphors in prose are always illustrative and in poetry they’re always dramatic. You can’t make generalizations like that. But language reflects on itself to create its own center in poetry. I would define poetry as the art of resemblance, controlled in time. Controlling it in time and controlling the reader’s consciousness of living in time according to different schedules is very important. Every period of poetic artistry presents some features that stand in the way or trip you or are extraneous. It’s almost essential that the poet have something to struggle against. Unless you have something that resists you, you don’t have anything to leap over.

When did you start writing poetry?

When I began teaching. The only way I was able to understand the couplet or terza rima was by writing in those forms. And the only way to move inside the forms was, for me at least, to imitate others who wrote in them. To imitate Byron’s stanzas or Wyatt’s, so that I would get a sense of what any one form was capable of doing in the past and what it might be used for in the present. Part of what makes a past a tradition is the thematic use of poetic form. Take the case of the sonnet, which begins as a reflection of a spiritual experience, but in secular terms. That’s what was taken over by Spenser into English. Then the secular part of it begins to dominate and that’s what you have in Shakespeare. But another twist occurs with John Donne, who used the sonnet almost exclusively to reflect the experience of religious despair. And then there are other major changes, such as, for example, the huge alteration by the Romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth, when the sonnet became the medium of looking at the landscape, and seeing the numinous life force in the natural world. The last crucial change in the sonnet, a huge change, was effected by W. H. Auden, who used sonnets and sonnet cycles to argue about politics, culture, and history. For each of those changes, the sonnet had to change, as it were, its “language,” even though it still is the only form in English that is freestanding in so few lines, and which has its own built-in shape of argument.

We have talked a lot about form, but what about emotion?

There is no way to pay homage to the past, to reflect upon your learning, in a poem that’s worth anything, if it doesn’t have an emotional center. I don’t think poetry has to be gut-wrenching to be good. But I certainly know a lot of poetry that is gut-wrenching that I admire and a lot of poetry that’s gut-wrenching and god-awful. Emotion is not necessary for every good poem, but I find that the poetry I care most about has a strong element of that investment. I think Wallace Stevens has it, but he’s not everybody’s idea of an emotional poet; he’s certainly not confessional. I also think that different poets at different stages pick up different models. The people I’m reading now and feel most spurred by are not the people I was reading five years ago or ten years ago. It’s important to move on, and also to return to the people who were important to you in the past, when you can see them in a new light, and when they speak differently to you, or when you see their verbs and not their nouns. At the Center you have had a year off from running Northwestern’s writing program, and yet when the fellows approached you about leading a seminar, you went back to work. One or two of the fellows were saying that they really enjoyed thinking about how to write like that, whatever the “that” was, and asked me how I did it. I said, well, there’s no one way to do it. What’s important is that you know enough about the background of verse to know what any example of it is attempting to do. So that’s how it came about. I would say that I’ve never taught a group which had so deep and wide a variety of grounding in all kinds of cultural disciplines. I’ve never taught such intelligent people! But at the same time, not very many of them have had experience with, or have come to terms with, what it means to write poetry. It gives me a lot of pleasure to help people to understand things that they can take off and use, not so much to write as to read. I’m much more interested in training readers than I am in training writers. A lot of people freeze when they see verse. I think by taking it a little bit slow, and breaking it down—learning what lines do to you as a reader—it’s possible to smooth the way into the reading experience.

Hear Mary Kinzie read and discuss her poems:



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From News of the National Humanities Center, Spring 2006
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