Have you ever written a manifesto?
Yes. My Manifesto is:All pronouncements
Including that one?
Can you explain, please?
Once in the Bahamas, local fishing guys took me to swim in the channel between two islands when the tide changed: we were swept along with every kind of fish, barracuda and shark, parrot fish and angel, all subject to the same tides, narrowed in that cut to a high speed sluice. Regular pronouncements about the moribund state of poetry consider mostly the big fish who swim in popular grounds, while the depths are teeming with undiscovered creatures. We are all swept along together, on regularly reversing tides, which none of us can escape, but merely look curiously at our near neighbors as we pass.
What do you think about MFAs?
Oddly, I teach in an MFA program (brand new, at the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, NY), but do not have one myself. However, I am missing only one letter, since my MA from City College, CUNY, was in writing. CCNY now has an MFA program, but twenty years ago there were far fewer, so many writers have MAs that are the equivalent of MFAs, though not credited as such by many institutions, including my own.
Do you ever regret not having an MFA yourself?
No, but I do sometimes wish I had gone directly into a writing program, when I dropped out of graduate school in literature to become a writer: it would have saved time and effort. Like many young writers, I was arrogant: I wanted to be Doestoevsky, and Dostoevsky didn’t need no stinkin’ MFA. So it took me ten years of writing, working, and traveling around the world to realize that I was not Dostoevsky, nor was meant to be, before I returned to graduate school—this time, the aforementioned beloved writing program. In retrospect, I had not lived enough yet to have much to write about; I could have used my twenties to learn technique, while making all the usual mistakes.
So, your ego got in the way?
Yes. Ego has no business in writing, except in the process of sending out for publication (and there, too, it can get in the way). First, there is the fallacy of first intentions: student writers are often reluctant to let go of early drafts because of the mistaken notion that they are being faithful to the experience or their original emotion; it can take a long time to learn to let go of the triggering experience (to borrow from Richard Hugo’s sexist but still terrific The Triggering Town) and do whatever it takes to make the best poem possible. Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” describes the transmutation of the initial impulse to poetry, as in art—you follow the “golden thread” of your process wherever it leads, as Stafford puts it.
Similarly, in the beginning, criticism it is hard to take, because of ego; you think you are being criticized, rather than your work. I cried for days after Fred Tuten cut my short story in half in my first MA workshop. (He was right, of course.) The longer you write, the more ruthless you become with your own work, and with that of others: the more you welcome good criticism, let down your defenses, and do whatever you can to make your writing its best. Ego drops away.
Finally, in poetry, there are almost no egotistical rewards. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Poetry, I presume, is its own reward: don’t cost but a nickel to send it out and get it back.” Or, as Joel Oppenheimer said, “You’re a poet when you’re twenty because you’re twenty; you’re a poet when you’re forty because you’re a poet.” Many give up, the external rewards are so few. Only if the process of writing poetry itself is your reward do you continue: “It was like being alive twice,” as Li Bai wrote to Tu Fu, and Linda Gregg to Jack Gilbert.
Did you receive any good advice from teachers?
Yes. Bill Matthews gave me two pieces of advice that I ignored. The first was to let go of my MA thesis and simply start another manuscript. But it was a finalist at Anhinga, which got my hopes up, so I continued to tweak it: adding new, stronger poems, deleting weaker ones. By the time my first book (Thrift) got published, perhaps one or two poems from the original manuscript remained. I should have listened and started a new manuscript.
The other piece of Matthews’s advice I do not regret having ignored: he told me NOT to get a PhD if I wanted to write. I continued at CUNY, and got a PhD in English literature at the Graduate Center, which was a complete delight. I studied poetry with Angus Fletcher, whose erudition and love of poetry was amazing. We sat on the 40th floor of the Grace Building (on 42nd Street, where the Grad. Center was then located) looking out floor-to-ceiling windows at spectacular views of Manhattan, listening to him read aloud and discourse on poets from Donne and Kit Smart to Whitman and Poe; I wanted to curl up behind his ear and listen to him forever. I was extremely lucky to land a full-time, tenured position, in which I get to teach both creative writing and literature, which is ideal to me; I had yet to publish even a chapbook. I could never have done that with an MFA, let alone an MA.
What else did you learn from Matthews, and/or from other teachers?
I learned how to edit my own work, and how to teach writing. Matthews was an impressive model of wit, erudition, and patience, giving equal attention to all workshop participants. He writes somewhere of his own gift for defusing tension with gentle humor, and this made his classes a pleasure. I learned to take an easy hand, and let the workshop flow, but nip trouble in the bud, preferably with humor. He said once that you never know who in a class will write a great poem, and his teaching bore this out: he showed no favoritism, but gave each person equal time and care, always pitching his remarks to the level that particular student could take in. I try to emulate this in my own teaching.
I also took Frank Bidart’s Master Class at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore for half a dozen years. His devotion to poetry is astonishing: he can listen unflaggingly to poetry for more hours than anyone else I’ve ever met, and is an editing genius. He edited Robert Lowell’s poetry both early and late, and knew Elizabeth Bishop, so I felt honored to be in the same room with him, let alone have him doctor my poems. He taught me that you can often learn more when another poet’s work is under the knife than your own (again, let go of ego) and continually raised my critical standards.
From all I learned the importance of the workshop; though I no longer attend one formally, I participated in several peer groups for many years, and now regularly show my work to two or three other poets whose work and opinions I esteem. It saves time and energy; it is always easier to edit the work of another.
One more MFA question: what do you think about low-residency versus residential programs?
Well, having attended a residential writing program, and teaching in one now, I am of course a bit prejudiced in that direction. So I’ll start with the counter argument: friends who teach in and/or run low-residency programs attest to their success; they say that in terms of actual hours with the teacher, both types of program are equal, given the intensity of the bi-yearly meetings of low-residency programs, plus the added benefit of having individual attention from your mentor(s) in writing. So I think it is up to the individual to decide which sort of program works best for them, given all the other considerations of life, such as work, family, location, time, and money.
For me, there is great value in physical proximity to the teacher, and the other workshop members. As in the yogic tradition, there is a kind of shakti that gets passed on from teacher to student; one reason, for example, it is so thrilling to study with Bidart is that you feel only one link removed from Elizabeth Bishop, and through her to Marianne Moore. There is a body of wisdom each poet has collected (like burrs, as Frost says) over the course of a lifetime, which get passed on (again, like burrs) in bon mots and witty asides as much as in critiques of one’s own and other students’ work. I often find myself repeating them when I teach, as I do here.
Does teaching help or hinder your writing?
Well, there are always the twin problems of time and money. I have flexible hours, several months off a year, and sabbaticals, which, short of being an heiress, is the best possible schedule for a writer. Then teaching keeps me in touch with young people and contemporary writers, as well as classics. The title of my new manuscript, Reading Rumi to Dolphins, was inspired by teaching Early World Literature for twenty-some years. This summer I’m inventing a seminar called “Satan in Literature,” for which I get to reread Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Genesis and Job, along with Dante, Milton and Blake; would I otherwise be reading Milton this summer? Doubtful.
What do you think of obscurity in poetry?
It bores me. I think it largely responsible for the lack of interest the general public has in poetry. I hope to write good poems that cats and dogs can understand. I consider it a great compliment to be told, “I don’t like poetry, but I like your work.”
No, you misunderstand me; I meant the obscurity of your own work—as in receiving little to no attention.
For most poets, the return in terms of external response is miniscule. At first, I tried to write fiction because I wanted my family and friends to read my work, but eventually reverted to what comes most naturally, which is poetry.
What do you think of poetry contests?
Hate ’em, but they’re just about the only game in town. All my book publications have resulted from them, directly or indirectly. Both chapbooks and my first book were published as runners up or finalists for contests; the second alone won a prize, and the third a juried competition. So few people buy poetry books that we who write them must support one another; I think of contests (and reading fees for open reading periods) like old-fashioned subscriptions, which keep poetry presses afloat, and I am happy to contribute.
You are working on your fifth book, while seeking a publisher for your fourth: how has the process evolved? Does the angst change? Does your ambition?
During the fifteen years I worked to get my first book published, during which I was a finalist at least three dozen times, I had to struggle against the despair that I would never succeed, and wanted only to get a book published. That fifteen-year wait has happened to several friends on their second book, even after winning major prizes, such as the National Poetry Series, so you learn that publication and prize-winning in no way guarantee future publication. However, having published three books, I have less fear and more confidence that eventually the fourth will get published, too, and the fifth.
I also, alas, have less sheer delight in publication; the first time is the best. Later, it becomes work: the bringing of the book to light physically, with all its attendant problems; everything that can go wrong has, at one time or another—from paper to cover to font to gutters to proofreading—the physical artifact rarely if ever resembles the ideal book you imagined. Then, you have to try to sell it: few poets are born salespeople. I do love to give readings, but often you sell few copies. Bill Matthews compares the glamour of the poet’s life to that of a traveling feed salesman. It takes a lot of schlepping to sell a few books. As Ferlinghetti said, “If every A-hole who writes poems would buy books of poetry, poets could make a living.” So if you want to publish your own work, please, don’t only read but BUY the work of others.
Barbara Louise Ungar is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Thrift; Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life; and The Origin of the Milky Way, which won the Gival Press Poetry Award, an Independent Publisher’s Award, the Adirondack Center for Writing Poetry Award, and an Eric Hoffer Award. She is also the author of Haiku in English and several chapbooks. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, Salmagundi, Talking River, The Minnesota Review, Cream City Review, Literary Review, Global City Review, Dominion Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. An essay is forthcoming in Rattle’s tribute to single-parent poets issue this fall. She has performed widely, including at the Dodge Poetry Festival, the Poetry Society of America, Poets’ House, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Nuyorican Poets’ Café, Center for Book Arts, and Cornelia St. Café. A professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, she teaches in its new MFA program.