This is the twenty-fifth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Your comments are welcome. Enjoy!
Interview with Michelle Gillett, Poet
at her home in Stockbridge, MA,
22 July 2010
I. DESCRIBING STYLE
IA: What do you think people 500 years from now will say we were doing? —It works really well if you want to talk about your own work first: writing, teaching, and things that you have observed. You’re a literary agent as well?
MG: I’m not an agent, but Nina, my business partner, is an agent. I’ve worked teaching writing for many years; I’m also a poet; and I write an op-ed column for the newspaper. I was editor of a regional newspaper for a while. I do a lot of the editing and we combine our skills and our knowledge. So we might have a student, or be working with a client, who has a book that we think is publishable, and then I’ll work with them and then Nina will take it the next step. But some of that we do together, too. So I can’t really speak as an agent, but I have become very informed about what an agent does.
IA: What about your own poetry first? You’ve published two books, right?
Her two books are Rock & Spindle, a letter press chapbook (Mad River Press, 1998), and Blinding the Goldfinches, selected by Hayden Carruth as winner of the 2003 Backwaters Poetry Prize and published in 2005.
MG: Yes. I still write, it’s what I do, it’s part of my life; I can’t imagine not writing.
IA: How would you describe your style for people who haven’t read your poetry yet?
MG: I write about personal observations of life. I do write about nature. I’m not writing “language poetry,” even though I love language. I love narrative poetry, but I really like it with a lyric element combined with it. So a lot of contemporary poetry is very narrative, very long lines, much longer. But it doesn’t really tell stories, and a lot of it is abstract in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily cohere. A lot of it is deciding to be very intellectual, but not necessarily with a lyrical, emotional piece—with that heart that grabs you. And I still like that in a poem. Or I like the language to be so interesting that I’m just amazed by it. So I see a lot of changes in contemporary poetry, and I don’t want to keep writing the same poem over and over, so I try to change and experiment. I think we all have a style that defines us. I do try to push myself, though, out of being to condensed and tight. And also I think sometimes I want to be funnier than I am, so I try to experiment with that, with humor. It doesn’t always work!
IA: So you tend to write—although you say you’re trying to break out—but you tend to write shorter, tighter close observations? Even if they have a narrative line, they’re very condensed.
MG: Yes. Yes, more condensed. I don’t experiment to the point where—well, I like poems that are accessible, but not so accessible that they don’t surprise you or make you think, “Oh! Look what this person did!” I think poetry needs an element of surprise in it, both for the reader and for the writer. But I don’t like to be so obscure or dense that you can’t really find a way into it.
IA: So what do you tend to do with Classical or other allusions? Do you keep those out?
MG: No; I like allusions. I don’t want to insult my reader by explaining it away, but I don’t want to use things that are so obscure that no one will ever have heard of them. I’m not opposed to writing about myth or music or something that people might have to look up occasionally.
IA: What drives you metrically? What do you listen for in the rhythms of language?
MG: What do I listen for in the rhythms…? I think I mostly just listen for the music of the line. I think the line is a unit of meaning and part of that meaning is the music so the sound has to be really important. If there are extra words or syllables that throw it off, if there’s internal rhyme I think that’s great. But I do believe in that certain rhythm that makes the poem sing inside of you a little bit. Not to the point where it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but I think rhythm is really crucial to poetry; I think poetry is music, in a way.
IA: Does each poem, then, need to find its own meter, rather than grabbing a traditional one that’s just there?
MG: Well, yes and no. Sometimes if I’m struggling with writing, I’ll write sonnets, just because I know I have that form and the form sometimes will give me information about the subject I’m writing about. Maybe I’ll have a few lines for a poem and don’t know where I’m going with them, so I’ll write a sestina or something like that. So I use form. I’m not opposed to it. I always get feedback from close poetry friends, and if somebody says, “Well, it’s a sonnet, but it would be better if the lines were shorter,” I’m not opposed to doing that.
IA: So you don’t mind taking the form and then skewing it any way that that particular one needs to be.
MG: Some poems do seem to need a particular form. Sometimes that just happens. I just wrote a ghazal—I’m sure I’m not pronouncing that right; you roll it more in the middle! I had a great time. I was assigning it to a class and I thought, I’m going to try this, too. And it was wonderful. But again, there are variations on it. I stuck to the traditional form.
IA: I find that a hard form.
MG: It is a hard form, but it was fun to do. I like to experiment that way, like taking the form and saying, How will this work for what I want to say?
II. CONTEMPORARY POETS
IA: You started out by describing your poetry and describing some of the features of contemporary poetry you have observed. Do you want to make any more of those observations? Any other contemporary trends that you have seen? Found poetry… What have you seen in contemporary verse?
MG: I tend to read people that speak to me, so if it’s poetry that really difficult… but I’m open to poetry that is experimental as long as it’s—I have to experience some kind of connection. Poetry is like a bridge. The poet is on one side and the reader’s on the other side of the bridge. As a reader, I want to be able to cross that bridge. I can take my time, but I want to be able to get across. I use that metaphor when people say, Oh, how can you write about personal things? But you create a distance. And you’re not always telling the truth; people always assume that all poetry is always autobiographical, and you’re always writing about yourself. And of course there is that element, but not always.
IA: We can take as many personas in a poem as if we were writing a novel with many characters.
MG: Exactly. For some reason with poetry, people think it’s particularly true. I do think—I already said this, but I’m repeating it—that there is a trend for it to be more intellectual: more head than heart, in contemporary poetry. I like poetry that’s really a combination. When I read it, I like to learn new things, but I also like to experience some emotional connection with the poem.
IA: So it’s trying to be learned, it’s trying to be heady, it’s trying to show off its knowledge?
MG: Yes: knowledge, and worldliness, sometimes. Do you read a lot of contemporary poets?
IA: I haven’t, until I started this project. That was one of the reasons: I want to read more people who are still alive. All my favorite poets are long gone!
MG: Who are your favorite contemporary poets?
IA: Well, I do like Billy Collins, on the one hand.
MG: Oh, and I do love him; he’s just a good example of someone who’s made money! He’s a wonderful poet. But you know a Billy Collins poem: he makes people laugh, and it’s so fluid, how he can move. But I’d rather read a Billy Collins poem than some poets who just kind of push me away. I think with their sequences, with their leaps, and I just can’t get a handle on it.
IA: I love Seamus Heaney’s work.
MG: Yeah, I love Seamus Heaney.
IA: And he can do both. He can be absolutely immediate, and he can do the layers.
MG: And they layers are important. I like there to be subtexts and things to really look for. I love reading a poem over and over again.
IA: Jack Gilbert is another one I’ve appreciated.
MG: I love Jack Gilbert.
IA: I just met a local poet in Pennsylvania and I’ve been really enjoying her work: Heather Thomas.
MG: So, your poetry: Do you tend to write more lyric poetry?
IA: I—yes. I tend to write a lot of forms. I’m very formal. So even when I’m writing free verse or in an invented meter, it’s very formally conscious.
MG: Well, what I find about formal poetry is that it really helps me to stay in the music. Even if I go back and move the form out of the poem, the music is still there. I just heard a poet read. Her name is Sara London; she teaches at Smith. I’ve known her from the Provincetown Fine Arts Center. This is her first book of poetry and they’re wonderful. They’re long, and really short lines. And there’s something about the way they move and the energy of that line. So I thought, I’m going to try that. Just three words per line. You have to find the right subject for the poem. A lot of times I’ll read a poem or discover a poet, and I’ll say, That’s interesting; I like what this person is trying.
IA: Who else are some of your favorites?
MG: I studied with Louise Glück, and I love her poetry. She changes all the time, which I admire. She’s constantly changing her work. I love Elizabeth Bishop. I think I would take her to my desert island. I love Stanley Kunitz. Who else have I been reading later? I like Marie Howe a lot. I don’t know if you’ve read her poetry?
MG: I took a workshop with her that was one of the best workshops I’ve ever taken. You know, a few years ago I got to interview Richard Wilbur, and he’s amazing. He’s 90 now, he’s just remarkable. He’s a formalist, but he still writes poetry that in some ways is very modern, too. So I’m speaking of poets that are modern, not the old days. I love Wallace Stevens. Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass. I like Robert Hass very much. Merwin, I’ve been reading a lot of Merwin. It’s fun to teach a workshop on him since he’s now our poet laureate. I can read him over and over and over again.
III. CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOPS
MG: I teach private workshops. I teach one that’s based on, it’s called, well it’s a model: Amherst Artists and Writers. Pat Schneider started this, and really it’s a template. I use it loosely. People come into the workshop and they write. I usually do some kind of, not a lecture per se, but present something about craft or what they’re working on, whether it’s dialogue or character or whatever their needs are. People love different genres. I give them prompts. They go and write for an hour and then we convene. Nothing’s mandatory; they can keep writing, they can come back and read what they’re writing. Sometimes we comment. We don’t give critiquing at that point, because they’ve just written it, but we do give feedback. If people want critiquing, they bring in the work the week before so we have time to read it. It’s really a generative workshop. So I have that one, and then I teach a poetry workshop privately. Those are ones I give the forms to a lot, actually, to keep them on their toes.
IA: Have you had people from the workshops that then you’ve taken their work further with them and you’ve worked into full manuscripts, and seen some of them through publication?
MG: Yes, yes. I had a woman who had never written before and came—I started these workshops about eight years ago—she’d never written; she was a psychiatrist; she did her internship in a pediatric oncology ward. I would give a prompt, and she would end up writing about her experiences. Finally she had enough of these. She would apologize for not doing the prompt, and I would say, “It’s OK, keep writing what you’re writing!” She really had enough for a book. She put it together, we worked on organizing it, and then I connected her with Nina who was her agent, and the book was published. This woman is a wonderful storyteller, too, and it’s been quite successful.
And I have a couple people who self-publish books, and that’s been great. Several people are presently working on manuscripts. Nina and I have taught workshops together for people who have books in process. We have one woman now who’s worked hard on a wonderful mystery and Nina’s sending it around. We don’t know what will happen, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
So, yes. People are pretty serious. I mean, people write for different reasons. Some people have never written before. Some people just want to write. Some people really have a product that they want to finish.
IA: Have you seen any common threads in the people you’ve worked with? Or maybe even just narrowing it down to poetry: have you seen any certain trends in what they want to write about or the techniques that seem to be working for them?
MG: No, I’ve really seen a variety. I do get a lot of people who do have a background in poetry, but who need more; need more information about, oh, like we were talking about line and music and forms. So we do a lot of that. Some people are quite experienced. Some people have left my group and gone on for MFAs, and those are the ones who really want to take it the next step in terms of their learning about craft in wiring. Which is great; I’m always excited when people go on to do that.
IV. TEACHING CHALLENGES
IA: So you teach private workshops, you’ve taught in high school, you’ve taught on the college level: Do you see particular teaching challenges recently that are surprising you?
MG: I think it’s harder to teach. With the internet, I think kids are reading differently. I think they’re writing differently. I think their attention spans are different. One of my best friends and colleagues: we co-taught together for a while, team-taught, and she said it’s just really hard. For kids who are not AP-Honors kids, she said it’s really hard for them to sustain attention for books like The Scarlet Letter, which, you know, you can’t imagine not teaching. So she has to find new ways to get the material across to them.
IA: Is she trying ways of using technology that they’re familiar with?
MG: Yes, yes, that’s part of it. I always found it hard to teach with technology. When I taught writing all the kids had computers and there are so many distractions on the computers. There’s no way a teacher can look over everybody’s shoulder and see if they’re on the joke page or emailing their friends. I mean, it’s just really changing, I think. Well, you’ve probably found that, too, as a teacher.
IA: Yes. Oh, absolutely. There is technology now that the teacher’s computer can be “spying” on all the students’ computers.
MG: I was reading about a program to check if people are plagiarizing. The whole concept—we used to give out a sheet about plagiarizing. I think young people don’t even know that they are plagiarizing.
IA: Right. The whole concept of how to assimilate and utilize information is extremely different.
MG: They don’t realize that it’s not their idea. And maybe that’s how we’ll all change. There’s poetry that’s written that way.
IA: “Found” poetry?
MG: Found poetry or “flarf” or whatever it’s called.
IA: Oh, I don’t know that.
MG: It’s taking like, different pieces—you can google it! Because I might not get it right. Names of all different things and putting them in a poem, or text messages and putting them all together in a poem: incorporating things: technology, from the world, from advertising, from the media. So it’s original in some ways but it’s also I think—I don’t know how it will affect people’s imaginations.
V. MFA--A USELESS DEGREE??
MG: There are many more MFA programs, as you probably know, and many—so a lot of people graduating who are very knowledgeable, very skilled. Stanley Kunitz, one of my heroes, he has this wonderful line: “Mediocrity always begets mediocrity, but you never can tell what the gifted will do; so many of them go straight to hell.” I’m not saying MFA programs are producing all mediocre poets, but it will be interesting to see who rides this to the top of this pile of poets.
IA: Yes. I’ve heard that one concern with MFA programs and even with some intensive workshops where the students go back over and over their work, that the people come out of certain workshops or programs all sounding the same.
MG: Right. The so-called “workshop poem.”
IA: There’s an in-group and you have the same jokes, and you all end up having the same voice.
MG: Yes, I think that’s true.
IA: How do you think poets can avoid that? If they’re going into these programs and they need the degree because they want to teach or whatever—
MG: You can’t teach with that degree any more. Anybody who goes to get an MFA thinking they’ll teach is just dreaming. Just because it’s hard to get teaching jobs especially at the college level, even with an MFA. For me, it was just about the learning; I just wanted to learn as much about poetry as I could. But I think it’s inevitable: I think people influence each other and poetry is such a small world. Like anything else, there’s the politics of it, there’s the who-you-know part of it. I got my MFA quite a while ago, which I’m almost glad about, when there weren’t as many programs. But I entered a contest recently, and there were over a thousand submissions! There are more blogs, more magazines, more opportunities. It’s hard to be a good judge sometimes. “Oh, did you see that poem in The New Yorker”--yeah, it was terrible. A lot of people I think don’t read poetry; they write it but don’t read it. So MFA programs, if nothing else—no, they do other things—but if they do get people reading poetry, that’s great, because I’m not sure who else is reading poetry.
IA: Or who is buying poetry or who is publishing poetry outside of contests.
MG: Yes, contests have become really the main source for that. That makes it hard. But like any of the arts (you’ve probably done a lot of these interviews now) and the people that do it, however many of us do it, we do it because we can’t imagine not doing it.
VI. THE WORLD OF PUBLISHING IS CHANGING
IA: Absolutely essential. And all the arts are wrestling with how to change with technology and then how to combat the fact that they way is used to be done, that audience is aging, and that model is not bringing in a new audience, so: What do we change? Not purely for financial reasons, but also so that the arts keep adapting and changing as culture does.
MG: Right, right. And keep the people that will still pick up that poem that makes the top of their head come off, or changes their life just for a moment. I’m sort of an idealist. I think there will always be those great poets of every generation. Hopefully people will continue to read them. I worry that—but I do think that the poets who really, truly are wonderful, the poets that we teach, will continue to be the ones that people read at home. I mean, I really hope. I think there’s room for really good poetry. Unfortunately there’s a lot of room for really bad poetry these days, too! I mean, way too much room! But again, that’s one of the—with technology, anybody can publish a poem. And sometimes I think: I don’t want to enter a contest with a thousand other poems. It’s not a lot of fun. It’s not fun to enter a contest with five hundred people! But that is part of that world. But luckily I started writing poetry not being conscious of the whole competition situation. And was fortunate that I won some and got some recognition. But it’s hard. I don’t want to discourage people. The publishing world is a whole separate entity, a whole different side of it.
IA: So what are publishers looking for? They’re publishing less and less poetry. Are they looking for poets who are already recognized? That’s the impression I get.
IA: So what are they looking for, then?
MG: Publishers? Well, I don’t think they’re looking for poetry ever. Unless it’s a Billy Collins. I think as the world of publishing changes, and it’s really changing, they’re not going to be pushing poetry books a lot. I think for poets who already have a publisher, hopefully they’ll be able to sustain that, especially for people who have published a lot, like Louise Glück or C.K. Williams. There are a lot of poets who will continue to publish. But I think for poets, just like mid-level novelists, you really have to do the contests. And those, it’s all personal aesthetic, I think. There are so many literary journals and online journals that you have to spend hours checking them out, seeing who they publish, seeing what kind of work they publish, seeing if it’s right. And then there’s still that element of the unknown. There’s still quite a few who publish their students or publish who they know. I know from my graduate program there are a couple of really fine publishers, small-press publishers, who will always give a first look to people who graduated from the program. And I think that’s OK now, given the lay of the land. I mean, they publish good people, and they do publish other people, but it does open a door.