The Bookshelf: Christian McEwen on Interviewing Poets

Oct 2, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Christian McEwen. In her new book, Sparks from the Anvil, Christian McEwen offers sixteen interviews with notable poets who are masters or rising stars in the craft, including New Hampshire's own Maxine Kumin. Take a listen to McEwen's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below her book picks.

Christian's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.    Americanah: A Novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “A Terrific novel of contemporary life, built around a tender and convincing romance. Especially smart about life in the USA as a NAB (Non-American Black), but the insights are far more widely applicable.”

2.    Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard. “Ricard is the Dalai Lama’s French translator. This is a deeply intelligent, deeply spiritual book, passionate and profound.

3.    Ounce, Dice, Trice by Alastair Reid. “A delicious collection of words and names, playful, inventive and a joy to read aloud. In terms of collective nouns, how about “A blunder of boys,” “A giggle of girls” or “A grumbling of buses”?

4.    The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider. “A lovely piece of historical research, interweaving excerpts from Greider’s own life with the tale of a particular house on East Seventh Street. Hard-won insights and information, beautifully composed.”

5.    One Art: Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters, edited by Robert Giroux. “Elizabeth Bishop had a great many friends, and luckily for us, she spent much of her life in Brazil, and wrote to them as often as she could. This book is a whopper (639 pages) but it’s excellent company, and will see you though the coming winter and on into spring.”

Let’s start with the interview you conducted with Maxine Kumin, the former New Hampshire Poet Laureate. In all these interviews, you dug into their lives to try to find out what brought them to poetry. What did you find out about Maxine Kumin?

She wrote her first poem at the age of eight. And she was a child who was a bookworm, who read deeply, who wrote privately. And then she went to college and her tutor was Wallace Stegner, and he told her she couldn’t write poems.

Wallace Stegner, the novelist.

The novelist. And she ceased to write poems for seven years. And then as people know she went to Boston University and became friends with Anne Sexton and they became tremendous support to each other.

Especially since they were both women in a field dominated by men at the time.

Yeah. Married with young children, they had a dedicated telephone line. They would pick up the phone and talk to each other at any time of day or night. “Listen, I’ve just finished a poem.” And they would speak.

And that was effective for them?

That was very effective for them. I mean, she mourned Sexton, I think, all her life. She wrote some marvelous elegies after she died, after she committed suicide, Sexton.

You interviewed a lot of different poets for this book. There’s Yusef Komunyakaa, there’s the young Dickman brothers, there’s the Chase Twichell, many others. Did they all seem to have something in common?

There were various threads that appeared over time. Most of them were bookish children. Most of them were solitaries. They had parents or grandparents or teachers who read to them, so they found books fairly early. Quite a number of them turned out to be walkers. They liked to take time to go out into nature and to walk. And an unusual proportion were Buddhists, at least of those I spoke with. But in the end each person finds his or her own path with poetry.

That Buddhist part is interesting. Was that just a coincidence, or--?

Well I myself am a practicing Buddhist so I had an ear alert to that, but there’s also a quality of attention that Buddhist meditation asks of you that is very easily transferable to the active attention that goes into making a poem.

And that brings up an issue I struggle with as an interviewer. You mentioned you hear the Buddhism because you practice it. So to what extent do you monitor how much of yourself you’re bringing to the interview, and is there an effort on your part to sort of keep yourself out and keep in mind whoever may be listening to the interview in question?

I guess I start out by intending to be neutral, and let the person flourish, in a sense, against the blank wall of my attention. But inevitably, where there are places of overlap, when we have friends in common, passions for particular poets in common, themes that recur in my life and in the poet’s life, sometimes mentioning that—not enormously, but just a touch—creates a bridge that makes for more interesting interview.

You often ask these poets what advice they would give to aspiring poets.

The reason I ask that question is because I was conducting the interviews at Smith and the subtitle of the book is, “The Smith College Poetry Interviews.” So I was aware that the first listeners and readers of the interviews would be college students and young poets in training.

I wanted them to be encouraged by whatever it was that the poet had to say, so again and again the poets would say some version of, "Don’t be afraid, allow yourself to be influenced, allow yourself to write badly, allow yourself to follow your passion." In some ways, allow yourself to make a mess, so that you can have enough from which to make order.

And perhaps don’t listen to your professors who say, “Don’t write poetry.”

Exactly. Yeah, the Wallace Stegners. I love Wallace Stegner’s work, but I hate to think of the influence he had on Maxine Kumin all those years ago.

The book is called Sparks from the Anvil—those “sparks” being the little bits of wisdom that are the by-product of a poet’s hammering out of a poem. Do you have a favorite spark?

I want to read a passage, more than a spark. This is a whole flaming log from W.S. Merwin.

“When students ask, ‘What should I be guided by in reading?” I say, well, pleasure in the first place. You have to like it. Read the things you like. And then listen to them, and go on listening, listening to language, listening to poems. The only way you’re ever going to get close to poems is by listening, not by getting very clever and reading a lot of criticism. That won’t get you anywhere at all. It makes you sound very clever, and it maybe gets you good marks. But it’s not getting close to poetry, it’s not what it is about. I think that listening is where it all begins, where it all comes from. The origin of language and the origin of poetry comes from hearing something, not from understanding something.”

Why did that one speak to you?

I think that people listen less well nowadays because of all the little gizmos that are so attractive to us. The little earbuds, the little cell phones, the little this, expensive piece of plastic. And in order to write a poem, you need to listen inside, inward, and listen outward. You need to listen to the sounds of the world, the sounds of the voices, of the people who matter to you. But most, you need just to be open and I think for me listening is a synonym for attention, for receptivity.