Wild River Review, a progressive e-zine of literature and politics, has an interview in their new issue with award-winning poet and fiction writer Renee Ashley, whose collection Salt won the 1991 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. The excerpts below particularly resonated with my own experience of the writing process, as well as my preferences as a poetry contest judge:
WRR: Do all of your poems surprise you?
RA: If they don’t, they get thrown away. The idea for me is to never settle for what I meant to say. And I seldom start out meaning to say anything. I wrote one poem trying to do something specific-from an idea. I wanted to recreate the rhythms of the gospel church I grew up in. Ma used to drive me there, drop me off, and I’d walk home. But that poem was a booger. The poem is fine. I stand by the poem. But the process was hell. I hope I never have another idea. Shoot me if I have an idea.
I like it much better when I find out what the poem’s trying to say and then start aligning the images within those terms. If I have a premise, it’s time for me to write an essay. And I do love to write essays. But in a poem? I think surprise is essential. Otherwise you’re just taking notes or you’re just talking. Too many poems are just talking. If I want talking, I can call my mother.
WRR: Tell me three cardinal rules you have for yourself. What makes a good poem?
RA: You mean in process or after the fact?
WRR: Well, okay, both…
RA: In process, I would say that there must be an engine driving the poem that is not the writer. A rhythm, an image, an impulse, but not merely the writer’s will.
I would also say the poem is not done until it says more than you meant to say.
And everything has to be set up so that it rolls down the page seamlessly.
RA: …I definitely don’t like things that reek of competence. That’s a problem. If competence is so evident that you realize it’s competent before you realize what it’s about or what you might experience, that seems problematic to me. Problematic, anal-retentive, and boring. Of course there are exceptions to everything. But I do hate boring. Anal is easier to live with.
WRR: Like an over polished stone…
RA: Yeah, I mean let’s just polish it down to dust, or kill it and pin it to a board! Beat it to death with decorum! Even if the meter is perfect and it makes perfect sense. Or when it’s infused with prose logic as opposed to a poetic logic, which relies on very different things. It’s easy to tell way too much in a poem.
I think people very often mistake their impulses. In the abstract, romantic notion, they want to be a poet, so they think their impulse to write is a poetic impulse. Very often they’re wrong. If being a poet is the issue, a writer’s in trouble. If making poems is the issue, you’ve got a better chance at doing something of interest.
I think a lot of the pseudo-autobiographical poems are prose impulses because the poem never gets bigger than the poet. It has to… by my definition… get bigger than the poet… to be a poem. Otherwise it’s prose. And prose broken into lines is… a kind of sad happening.
WRR: Although maybe some prose writers feel that the writing has to be bigger than the author as well?
RA: And I think they do and I think it does. But, they’ve got a lot more room to play. I mean, we’re [poets] really working in a bell jar…
For instance, we’re working on some exercises in our MFA’s forthcoming residency on the issue of backstory. And I think that in a lot of poems there’s too much backstory. They’ve had something they wanted to tell. And the problem is if the thing that they wanted to tell is about themselves and they stand in front of the writing, I’m already bored. The poet stands behind the poem. The poem is the center of attention. I just want the poems to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, or at least show me a familiar place in a new light.
WRR: I’m going to switch gears a little. Emerson wrote that poetry is a confession of faith. Do you agree or disagree and why?
RA: Well, those are two great big abstractions, confession and faith. I guess it is a confession. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a public confession. I could get off on a real toot about this, but I think too often confession is equated with art. Art is not confession for me. Was it Ad Reinhardt that said, “Art is art. Everything else is everything else?” I think so. I guess my point is that we’re not as interesting as we think we are. Confession is confession. Art is art.
I do have faith, though, that the act of writing will help me articulate what I don’t already know about myself. I think a lot of people misconstrue the meaning of risk in poetry. Risk isn’t telling your story. Risk is finding something new out that happened to you because of the story.
WRR: Can writing good poetry be taught?
RA: Talent can’t be taught, but craft can and should be taught. Because the talent can and usually does let you down sooner or later. And when you run into that pothole in your poem where something sucks or is loose or just plain wrong, you’ve got to know how to locate it, identify it, and fix it and that’s where craft comes in. Like a tool box. Quite handy.
Read the whole interview here. Read a review of her first novel, Someplace Like This, here.