Advice to Writers


What advice would you give to a poet just starting out?


1 think first of all, if you are a young poet, you should read a lot—see how masters did it and learn. Writing goes together with reading. Don’t hurry to workshops, but find a poetry friend whom you trust, someone who sees what you can become, not just what you are now Remember that it is a long way with lots of tests, but I believe that if you are a real poet your destiny will lead you.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on ways to get started?


Everybody’s curious about something. I think that curiosity is the number one necessary characteristic—to walk around looking for interesting things. Writing is a way of sustaining curiosity and thought and pulling it out. Often we’re satisfied with “hmm” and we go along with our lives. And we probably have to do that most of the time because we’re busy with important things, but in the essay you take those “hmm”s and you convert them into something big. You start to investigate experiences and how they connect to that idea, look for quotes and for what others have said in the past, and find those connections. I’d say that half my time writing is spent reading.


Could you impart any words of wisdom to aspiring writers?


If you want to be a writer, then write. If you have no confidence, take writing classes and see where you come out. Are you as good or better than others in the class? Most writers have to spend time learning their craft. Don’t get so caught up with writers’ conferences and networking that you end up knowing everything there is to know about writing, but you still don’t write. You have to sit on your behind and write. There is no magic. There is no other way. Then you have to find someone who will publish what you write, but there’s no point thinking about it if you haven’t written anything to sell.

Poets on Poetry


What do you think is wrong with contemporary poetry?


Well, most of it is bad just because 1 think very few good poems get written in any period of time. That is to say, what’s wrong with contemporary poetry is probably not specific to this period. It may be that we have the illusion that other periods are better precisely because the winnowing process isn’t complete and so what’s presented to us in the pages of books and anthologies is often the best of what was written in a particular time, and what besets us on bookshelves now is simply an unedited flood. I’m skeptical about the emergence of really good poems. 1 think they’re rare for any individual person or for any period in history.

I do get the sense that with contemporary poetry a couple of things have gone wrong. One of those things is that technical accomplishment has gone out the window, and as a result a great deal of musicality has gone out of verse. I think one of the pleasures of poetry is that it moves you into the realm of sort of musicality, but a lot of verse that 1 read just strikes me as very prosey and doesn’t have strong rhythmic basis. The lines seem arbitrary to me. Whereas someone who couldn’t play a chord would not deign to go out and presume to entertain us, people who can’t do the poetic equivalent of those things do presume to write books.

If I were to say what else strikes me as wrong about poetry these days, it’s that there’s a sense that absolutely anything goes—absolute complete diversity.

The third thing is a collective amnesia that everybody seems to be undergoing where we forget about the past. Literature, perhaps poetry in particular, ministers to our need for continuity and continuance of long memories. Much of the poetry written today doesn’t seem to go back much farther than 1974. It doesn’t seem to be connected to or participating in a tradition. Or it seems to have the notion that to be participating in tradition is to be dogmatic and limited, whereas it is just the opposite.


You’re a person who’s devoted a good deal to the writing, studying, and teaching of poetry. What value does poetry have for you? What is the value of poetry?


Poetry for me is intricately tied to religion. So for me, writing is a type of prayer. It’s a big part of my life, as far as that goes, a huge spiritual part.

The value of poetry in general? I think that it puts us in touch with our humanity and provides a means by which we can confirm our humanity in a time period that is marked by chaos and uncertainty and a real dehumanization.


The Creative Process


Could you walk us through your writing process and tell us what it’s like when you’re sitting down to write a poem?


When poems come to me, usually a line will just happen to come into my head. Then I probably have no idea what it means. And so I’ll write that down, and then—it varies. I try to work every day, but that often isn’t productive. A poem will take me anywhere from an hour to twelve years to do. For example, there’s a poem in my book six lines long that took twelve years to write, while the long poem in my book took only 45 minutes, which is amazing.

1 used to write for six hours a day, every day. I’d get up at about five in the morning and 1 would go from six until noon. Then I would read poetry from noon until six at night, and 1 would read it all out loud so that I could feel the rhythms. I wanted to be able to feel [Wallace] Stevens—which is probably why there’s so much of Stevens in my work, because 1 read so much of him in grad school. Then once a poem begins to take shape, 1 send it to Kim Johnson. She can be really harsh, which is cool, that’s good because 1 wouldn’t want to publish a bad poem. I’ve published bad poems; they don’t go away.


I’m really curious about your creative process from the inception of the poem to the end.


It used to be that I’d have a special time early in the morning, like six to seven-thirty or eight, but I got tired of that routine. About six or seven years ago, 1 shifted it so that now 1 set off chunks of time: I’m a teacher, so 1 get summer vacation and winter vacation.

1 go to cafés and write. And that’s so much more interesting than you sitting in your living room all by yourself. 1 will sit down in the morning with a cup of tea and 1 look out the window and 1 think, What did I see in the last few days that sort of provoked my cynics, my interest, that kind of stuck in my mind? Oh yeah, yesterday, when I bought a newspaper at the drug store, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and there was a dead bird. What do I make of that? What’s a dead bird doing there? And what a poignant sight—this fragile little thing with all these people rushing back and .forth parking and baying stuff, there’s the little dead bird.

And so, I just start playing around with these ideas. I have an artist’s sketch pad. lt’s this big thing, unlined, and it’s the perfect thing to work on because you’ll think, this is the line 1 think 1 want, but this alternative occurs to me and I can put it over there—maybe I’ll go back and use that. Then you go through the whole thing and sketch it out, and you’ve got the main poem there on the right and some ideas that you didn’t want to throw out here on the left. it might have taken an hour to do it and then I’m through with it. 1 will not go back to it until the weekend when l’ll type it up on the computer and start fooling around with revision and so forth.


When you sit down to write, how do you tap into your personal voice each time?


I think that an individual voice or style takes a long time to achieve and is not totally a matter of will. 1 think it takes years of experience as well as talent. An awful lot of poetry doesn’t have very much of an individual voice. But when I’m sitting down to write, 1 don’t let myself be bothered by, “Does this sound like me? Is it my voice?” 1 just try to get something down on paper. And often it looks like a total mess; it’s illegible. Flannery O’Conner, the wonderful novelist, said, “My first drafts look like a chicken wrote them.” Well, so do mine.

So where does my voice come in? Part of the answer is in the process of revision. I’ve gotten much better at revising as I’ve gotten older. And the other thing is, maybe my voice was there all along in those illegible linessomething in my own vocabulary or syntax—and 1 just didn’t worry about it at the time. 1 think poetry is often a process of revising, but when we are talking to each other, we don’t worry about the words, they just come out—it would take too long if we shaped every sentence to be perfect. 


What are your inspirations? is there a particular time and place that you write?


I’ll start backwards. I get inspiration everywhere, I guess. Or I look for it everywhere. A lot of times I go to readings by other writers and catch inspiration there. Last Friday I went to a reading by Katie Coles. She talked about astronomers in all their hurry to get information and detail everything. She said something like, “I hope they remember just to gaze,” and I’ve been dealing with some astronomers lately and so I thought that was a good idea. “The everdivisible photon” works into an essay I’m already writing, which is about divisibility and approximation. But basically when 1 want to write an essay it’s something that I’m interested in learning more about. Perhaps a bit confused by, and hopefully something I want to connect to other things. All the essays I’ve written lately are about connections through ideas or words.


When do you know a poem is a poem? Or, when do you know a poem is going to be a good poem?


Generally, you just have to work on them. Sometimes you can get a poem right in the first sequence of writing; sometimes you have to come back to it after several months or even a year. You might think it’s done, then look at it after a long time and realize the ending is wrong or something.

l’ve found that an event or experience that seizes my imagination and that I think about over and over and over has the best chance of becoming a poem—if the idea’s in my head and 1 think about it for a week, two weeks, a month, before 1 start writing.

Before an actual writing session I like to read because it moves me over into the creative realm, especially if 1 read good poems because they challenge me to write up to their level. To start a new poem 1 take scratch paper and I just write down language—all the language that suggests itself to me as necessary to discuss the subject, to embody the subject in a poem. Not even sentences, just phrases or single words that evoke various concerns the issue raises. I don’t write the words in a linear fashion but all over the page. Then I spread all that language out in front of me and try to construct the poem.

After I get that first draft, I put it away and come back to it at a later session, look at it, and see what needs to be different. Once I’ve taken the poem as far as I can, I give it to my writing group for their critique. They make suggestions, and I continue to revise from there. Sometimes after the writing group I think ouch!—this poem is too broken to fix, but about half the time can keep working and know what to do.


In your stories you incorporate humor, and incorporate it well. How do you write “funny”? is it an innate sense, or is it something that can be learned, or both?


I’ve often found that the harder I try to make something funny, the greater chance I run of failing in my goal—that is, my goal of creating a sophisticated work of fiction.

See, many people can write a story that is laugh-out-loud, ha-ha, knee-slapping funny. Think of a silly character, think of a contrived plot, think of a zany host of supporting characters, and voila! You’ve got a story that can get some chuckles—but not much else. Stephen Tuttle, a friend of mine, often uses 

Adopted or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tears

Scene 1: Take 1
It was September and it was hot. The sun melted the sky
into waxy rounds. He looked up and thought he could
peel it back to reveal black space freckled with Formica stars.
instead, he let his limbs hang in the viscous water. She paddled
around him; he watched droplets flick from her pointed toes,
perfect, even with the web that fanned between her left foot’s
hallux and second toe. He was happy treading water near her
untamable limbs, watching her tongue (that spoke less than
no English) push salt water away from her throat. Her smile
carried him softly.
She had a Korean name that he couldn’t quite pronounce.
When she said it, the vowels and consonants reflected
her coffee-bright eyes, her swishing black hair, her strong
white teeth. He wanted to taste her name so he licked her
lips—”Hah-Null-kuh-yawn”—and she fed her name back
to him—”Ha-nyuhl-Kwayn”—forgiving his butchered
intonation because he was a smiling, blonde, nineteen-year-
old soldier abroad for the first time. The waves ran into the
shore with a startled hiss and ran back to meet them like
hundreds of feet hopping across hot coals. They batted the
mist away, laughing.

I’ve got it all wrong. It couldn’t have been that easy,
their first rendezvous. I’m forgetting Cold War politics and
North Korea/South Korea angst. Remember? It would have
been late 1983, right in the middle of the “traumatic chain
of crises,” as scholar Chae-Jin Lee writes, that led up to the
National Assembly elections. Remember.

Scene 1: Take 2
October 1 in Seoul, a month after Korean Air Lines
Flight 007 tumbled, burning, out of the sky. October 1, a
month after 268 passengers and crew plus U.S. Congressman
Lawrence McDonald departed from Kennedy Airport. After
their plane cut too far across the Kamchatka Peninsula,
violated too much Soviet airspace, and forced Soviet jet
interceptors to shoot the plane down. No one survived.
October 1, eight days before a bomb exploded in
Rangoon. Twenty-one people were killed including Korean
foreign minister Lee Bum Suk, deputy prime minister Suh
Suk Joo, and minister of commerce and industry Kim
Dong Whie. President Chun Doo Whan, the bomb’s target,
survived because his car got caught in traffic. His survival
meant avoiding Korean War 11.
What does this mean for my closed-adoption (thus
unknown) biological parents? A million scenes that vary
from overblown romance to sad, scary, and sadder. When
1 lie awake at night thinking cliched existential thoughts, I
laugh. To do otherwise is not an option. To do otherwise is to
entertain masochistic thoughts like: “She needed the money,”
and “She didn’t know any better,” or, “He was young, scared, and
drunk,” and “He didn’t mean to do it.” Or, “He meant to do it,”
and “She couldn’t stop him.”
Frankly, with all the ethnic incongruities of my face, I
don’t even know if she was Korean or if he was. It doesn’t
really matter. In my most optimistic moments, I think that
both of them were. 1 think, “They were young college
students; they loved each other, got pregnant, and had to
make a decision . .” She told her grandmother—her mother
would have freaked out—who told her to think. She thought.
She decided not to abort, which meant nine months and
birthing a child into a schizophrenic Cold War. 1 was born.
Her grandmother bundled me up and together they walked
me to the local orphanage.

Scene 1: Take 3

Some thousands of miles away in Dayton, Ohio, after
three years of trying for a third child, Larry and Ann Scott
hear the phone ring. They pick up: good news.
Three months later I arrive at LAX where Ann’s mother
holds me in her arms for the first time and cries. “1 am so happy
to see you,” she says, rocking me back and forth. “So happy.”
We get onto another plane and fly into Cincinnati Airport
where my grandmother passes me to her daughter’s arms and
1 look up for the first time into my mother’s face.
I wave my arms—of course-1 start crying.

Textbooks and Breakfast

Lisa Fraser


Apartheid is the vague sting of salivary activation
when I am told “they suffered.”


A great river. All sad black faces watch it heave slowly by.


Blue music rose out of some field and landed, electrified,
in the round brass beak
of a pressure valve,


In chapter seven
a woman stares
at me in a sepia from a photo laid flat.
(A father’s blond hand pressed into
a mother’s dark, racing heart
mixed a fine sepia for printing.)
She, with the word “slave” punched beneath her on a slick
remains brown
above black and white.


Margin not to pale children bent on fame:
steam and bloody cotton
are all it takes to get a great river
into your instrument.


I find that my morning grapefruit, too,
elicits a salivary ache not so different from the ache
one would get in one’s calves
during a midnight
river crossing.


Hound sounds
mean the paper boy is here.

Football Poem

Henry Pye

A wave of arms sloshes inside the stadium
as the home team scores another touchdown
and the cheerleaders’ legs rise like flags, shine
like rotisserie chicken in the stadium lights.
T.S. Eliot sits to my left, gnawing peanuts with
his yellow front teeth, booing at the ref intermittently.
“He’s blinder than :Milton!” and, “Hallmark
writes better poetry than that ref makes calls!” ln
the bleachers vendors come and go, selling over-
priced nachos. l turn to steal a peanut from the
crinkled, oily sack Tom clutches in his crinkled,
oily hand. Below us, a waste land of peanut shells
and debris. Above, the October evening spreads
itself across the sky, an enormous beached whale.

We should do this more often, l think to myself,
then turn to say so, but T.S. Eliot has risen to his feet,
his eyes lit up like Christmas trees as he waves a giant
foam finger in the air, his grin wide as Rhode lsland.
Every fifteen minutes he staggers off to use the restroom,
trousers rolled, his bladder a small macadamia as
he waves his bony behind in other spectators’ faces
and makes his way towards the exit, soon to reappear
and ask me, “Did 1 miss anything?” I give him the plav
by play. “This beats writing poetry any day,” he shouts,
his voice muffled by cheers and vendors’ loud cries,
the entire stadium echoing in perfect unison:
We are the hollow men!
We are the hollow men!
We are the hollow men!