“Beneath winter’s dark pizzazz and beneath the few starling’s zippered reaction times,
Beneath the dewy light, and despite the beaten, months-old “Merry Christmas” colors,
I stand and manage to hear the New Year’s geese
And notice the twin yellow roses over the fence.”
~from “Embouchure” in The Book of Men and Women
by David Biespiel
Poet, editor, teacher David Biespiel doesn’t lack sources of inspiration. His life keeps him moving from place to place, job to job. I caught up with him between Wake Forest University, where he is fall Poet-in-Residence, and Portland, where he lives and directs the Attic Writers’ Workshop. He is also a contributor to Slate’s Politico Arena during the week. He commutes from city to city, lithely, as if this were a sacred movement of life, and it must be -- his fourth book of poetry The Book of Men and Women is just out, and already he’s at work on his next. He only needs to center himself in the eye of his own universe, and focus on a single point for one moment to find the next subject to turn into art. As editor of one of the most prestigious poetry journals in the country, he has surely been exposed to some of the best poetry being written today, as well as the finest poetry from the past. Below is an interview with him, and he shares his thoughts about poetry, form, the changing of form, and the writing, itself.
Kerri Buckley: You've been Editor of Poetry Northwest since its revival in 2005. I recently heard you say in an interview that, as an editor, you don't really know what you're looking for until you hold it in your hands. I’ve also heard you say "Poetry has been too quiet and whispery." Can you explain this more? Is poetry changing overall, or do you think it's only a certain few editors and poets who feel this way?
David Biespiel: What I was speaking about was the Plain Style that dominated American poetry journals and publications for a generation from the 1970s to the 1990s. The style emphasized plain, spoken, simple speech with a care for the essential elements of existence and experience. That period style came in reaction to the intricate, baroque, umpteenth-ambiguity style that was in vogue for the generation that followed T. S. Eliot—say, from Post War to the 1970s. Widely imitated poets of the Plain Style would include W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell; of the earlier style, sometimes called the Academic Style, early Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath, Richard Eberhart. I’m over generalizing. But the point I was attempting to make was that the Plain Style poets were the poets that my generation was most exposed to and influenced by when we began writing and publishing.
For some of us, that style’s copies—and copies upon copies—became, as you quote in your question, overly whispery. We were no longer even hearing what had long become a stale mode. Speaking for myself, I began to return to other models that I had put aside when I felt my apprenticeship required Plain Style efforts—models like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens. I had loved, I mean loved these poets when I first began to write, but felt they applied too much paint, as it were, to the canvas of their poems—compared to what was common and considered proficient in the late 80s and early 90s. But when I began to work on the poems that became Wild Civility, I went full force into writing with greater
You talk about music in the lines of the poems you're writing these days, and the poems you want to read. Can you give examples of poets to study if one wants to see this kind of music in poetry?
Well, anyone who works often in rhyme and meter would be worth studying, from the contemporary period to antiquity. The list is too seriously long to make here. Hopkins, I’ve already mentioned, is a master of music-making. Endlessly entertaining—and here I would say too that the Plain Style that I reacted against was itself a powerful form of music, one that was simple and clarified as a solo classical guitar. What one might listen for in any form of poetry is the base elements of language: assonance, consonance, anagrammatic echoes, rhyme, beat, rhythm, timbre, tone, voice. That’s where music gets composed.
If an emerging poet asked you for your formula to become a published poet, from study, to being published in journals, to having a book, what would David Biespiel's formula be?
I don’t know that there is a formula. You can develop publishing strategies, I suppose. Prior to that is the writing, naturally. And the formula there doesn’t exist either! I mean, how do you create a formula for organizing your adult life around the writing of poems that would be conducive for every poet? That’s guru business—not my area. But publishing strategies are a simpler thing to make recommendations about. To begin with, I’d suggest several lists to work from—local, regional, and national. Find the magazines you most admire, most want to see your writing appear in, and submit with no expectations to these. Knowing what’s being published in those magazines would certainly help organize your submissions—but I’m terrible at
giving advice about that, same as I was never good at knowing what the teacher was going to ask on the test. In short, write, send out, and keep writing.
What would you say to an emerging poet who has submitted and submitted, and not been published, yet?
Keep at it. And always try to keep in your mind why you write poems in the first place. “Publication--is the Auction / of the Mind of Man,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. She should know. She wrote some 1,700 poems and only published seven in her lifetime. All anonymously.
I have repeatedly heard you mention Emily Dickinson. Why is this? What do you like most about her poetry?
I'll just say this: Along with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson is one of the twin sources and resources of American poetry. No one sounds like her, and if you tried to imitate her, you’d fail horribly. So she’s unique, a fearless poet. I love that about her. What Dickinson represents for me is the fusion of desire and skepticism. I don’t say faith. I say desire. She’s a sexier poet than people give her credit. Death is not her subject. Despair is. And despair has facets of Eros.
Which poets are you reading these days and why?
I’m re-reading Czeslaw Milosz. Why? I love his poems. They combine the private and intimate with history and faith in a way that illuminates all three.
Are there things that you do which influence your poetry, in addition to reading (or writing) poetry?
I don’t have a sense of how it’ll work, but my political writing I think has the potential to lead my poems to a larger lyric space, one, that is, for me, that represents an idealized sort of poetry. But we’ll see. Staring out the window works for me too!
This cliffside is true and ruthless and dependable --
What all the pundits say is right: you can dabble
With love, you can plead, but the bitter, etc., isn’t lucrative.
The bitter, etc., is borrowed, marriageable. And the waves
Don’t sound any more mournful than a woman --
Besides all the perfumed armies are so grumpy and wan
And blotton you’d think they couldn’t keep up with their Sophocles
Even at a snail’s pace -- such dense, ancient sadness.
Yes, faith must be called to, fat with spray and misery,
Though nothing there is crumbling. Sure, I can channel the calm sea
So that the moon is my darling, my orbit, my omphalos --
And yet it’s nothing to get rattled by. Try humming at a window.
Such is this children’s game, such is this mother’s tongue.
Who says my girdle’s too tight? My heart is flung.
~ “Dover Butch” from The Book of Men and Women
by David Biespiel
Talk about your new book The Book of Men and Women. How much did your style change in this book compared to your last?
It doesn’t seem to me that my style changed between Wild Civility and The Book of Men and Women. Both use highly energetic and muscular language. Formally, Wild Civility was composed in poems of 9-lines each, what I called American sonnets. There might be one of these in The Book of Men and Women. Both books, for the most part, are composed in a more expressionistic rather than representational style. Both books utilize the dramatic monologue a great deal. One thing, however, in The Book of Men and Women is that the expressionistic, in some fashion, gives way about two-thirds into the book to the representational. This shift corresponds to a shift in the book’s subject matter—from poems that highlight the masks of existence that we all wear to poems that begin to unveil those masks.
In Wild Civility you created a new form of American sonnet. How difficult was that to do? Was that more an evolution of form for you, or something that just came easily at once?
The poems in that book represent two years of writing almost exclusively in a single form. The form is my own variation of the sonnet, a nine-line sonnet, what I’ve come to call an “American sonnet.”
The prototypical line for these nine-liners is decametric (though as free verse variations the lines vary, some more and others less than ten metrical feet). These sonnets are shorter than their English counterpart by lineation, nine lines versus fourteen lines, but longer by sound. One hundred and eighty syllables, versus one hundred and forty syllables.
Regarding the speakers of the poems: Imagine a Coke bottle, shattered and whole. If the whole bottle represents a single, unified voice (my voice, say, my core lyric voice), then the shards of glass are fractions of that single voice. In this sense the speaker’s dramatic voice in each poem represents a fragment of my voice -- a lyric fragment, that is, that gets just nine lines to speak.
To my surprise, the result has been a kind of explosion of language. I’ve drawn from the vocabularies of
history, science, art, sport, philosophy, religion, literature, government, domestic life, etc. -- often within the same poem and in varying registers of language.
I’ve come to imagine the American sonnet to be like one of those classic Thunderbirds: something very American -- wide, roomy, and with a robust engine.
David Biespiel was born in 1964 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in Texas. His previous collections of poetry include Wild Civility and Shattering Air. He has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, and a Lannan Fellowship, and he received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for editing the anthology Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets. He has taught at many colleges and universities, including Stanford University and the University of Maryland, and currently divides his teaching among Oregon State University, Wake Forest University, and the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. He is a daily commentator on Politico, Editor of Poetry Northwest and poetry columnist for the books section at The Oregonian. He is the founding director of the Attic
Writers’ Workshop in Portland, Oregon. His latest book is The Book of Men and Women.
Interview by Kerri Buckley.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.