Reading Matters

Poets tell how they get their poems written

It’s National Poetry Month, which means that at last I have license to write about those odd pieces of ragged type that appear in the New Yorker and other august publications and that not everybody is nuts about.

Those pieces are called poems. During the Observer’s recent move, I uncovered a trove of interviews I’d done with poets. They’re filled with wonderful musings and bits of advice about poems and how they get written. Today is the perfect day to share them with you.

New York poet Jill Bialosky: “Every serious poet tries to read everything that’s going on, and there are so many different kinds of poems. But you have to know who you are as a poet and what your own strengths are, and what you’re in it for.” (2002)

Purdue University poet Bob Hickok: “Typically, if I can get down three or four lines, I’ll usually finish the poem. By then there’s a rhythm to the poem. I have a sense of the subject, and most importantly, I’m curious and want to see how it comes out. Only rarely do I know what I want to write about, so most of what comes out surprises me.” (2002)

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins: “I think the worst time to write is when you’re all emotional. The writing of poetry doesn’t require emotion, it requires concentration.” (1999).

Pulitzer-winning poet Louise Gluck: “I feel as if all artists must cultivate the stamina to survive those periods of extended silences of more than a year and a half in which nothing is written. I believe that those periods are absolutely necessary. At the end of each, I have emerged changed in ways I think I would not have been otherwise.” (1992).

Former N.C. Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers: “I always go back to that wonderful Robert Frost quote – “A poem should be a momentary stay against confusion.” I read a lot of poems that are in really good journals, and I say, ‘You know what? This is not a momentary stay against confusion.’ ” It’s said that you should give a poem four readings. I’ve got to have a reason to give a poem four readings. If I can’t get through a first reading, I’m going to move on.” (2004).

Davidson poet Alan Michael Parker: “Write everyday and after a period of time make a list of all the things you like to do in your poems, and then don’t do them again. Why? Because art is not complacent.” (2004).