Q & A with William B. Patrick

Many poets, as well as other artists, discuss the issue of what can be “taught.” What are your thoughts about this? What must we be “born with,” and what can we learn?”

Funny this should be the first question. Recently I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s new book on writing, The Sense of Style, and he opens his first chapter with a quote from Oscar Wilde, who apparently said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

In a practical sense, much of what I have done as a writer has been to try to teach writers in colleges, graduate schools, library workshops, and prisons, among other places, so I don’t want to feel like I’ve been a mercenary all this time, or a fake. I do believe that there is an awful lot about writing, thinking, and reading that can be passed along to a receptive learner, and many of the strategies and work methods you share can save those students some considerable dead ends.

On the nebulous side, I have to admit that I didn’t learn terribly well from many of my teachers, and I’ve studied with some good ones—Philip Roth, Daniel G. Hoffman, Philip Booth, W.D. Snodgrass, George P. Elliott, William Wasserstrom, Robert Lucid, Gerald Weales—most  of them now elsewhere in the universe, unfortunately. It wasn’t that I performed poorly in their classes. I read all the assigned books and I wrote all the academic papers and I learned some useful things, eventually. But most of what they tried to impart in those hallowed settings didn’t sink in for me. To be honest, it was my fault. It took me a long time to understand and accept my autodidactic nature. I’m grateful in some ways that I went to Penn and Syracuse and listened to the appointed masters and earned those advanced degrees, but my real education as a writer began later when I only had to answer to myself.

So any discussion about teaching has to include the idea of learning as well. If we’re truly interested in becoming better writers, we have to figure out what works best for us as learners, and being committed readers is the first step. We have to know what other writers have done in every genre we attempt. And if we’re going to be effective teachers, I believe we have to support that reading process in our students and guide them to books and plays and movies and plastic arts and music that will establish a foundation of practical working knowledge and, at the same time, feed their spirits.

How do we become “better poets?” Are there a few strategies we can use to grow?

Let’s see how much of my answer to this one contradicts what I’ve said about the first question. The obvious answer is practice, by reading and writing as many poems as you can. But here’s my caution, using a dated term an old friend of mine uttered constantly—GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t develop a poet’s ear for sound and rhythm, and if you can’t cultivate a talent for compression, and if you don’t have anything original and startling to reveal about what it is to be alive on the planet, you’ll likely just keep churning out garbage in the guise of poems. Of course, one person’s garbage is another person’s gold, so you always have to consider the source.

So first things first: read a number of good books about writing poetry. Learn the ins and outs of the craft, not only historically, but in the myriad permutations of the art since Whitman, so that when you want to break the rules, at least you’ll know which rules you’re breaking. But if you want to be a better poet, you have to understand how poetry has worked for millennia, and then you have to offer us something new that you’ve dreamed up.

Whatever you do, though, try to acquire good taste. Don’t settle for fads or self-indulgent navel-gazing, or inaccessible, academic pretension masquerading as fashionable poetry because some well-known critics have concocted a pantheon based on theoretical gobbledygook. There is a lot of great poetry out there, but you have to listen to your heart and your head simultaneously, have the good sense to read until you can discern art from artisanry, and dig until you discover the important poems that capture something significant and continue to resonate for you each time you return to them.

Some people are unimpressed by poetry because they see it as inaccessible and obtuse. Does this kind of esoteric art have something to offer, or is it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Why does the academic community seem to support esoteric poetry over more accessible poetry? Who are some poets today who have depth but are more accessible?

I’ve taught at seven or eight colleges and universities, and except for one early, two-year stint teaching writing at a community college before I dropped out to be a woodworker and cabinetmaker, I’ve been more in than out of academia since 1989. Most of the writers I know and read have taught or still teach in higher education, and it’s been an economic mainstay for the vast majority of poets in this country since the late 60s—many of whom are excellent critics as well as poets. I’m thinking of Edward Hirsch and Andrew Hudgins and Tess Gallagher and Robert Pinsky and Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall and De Snodgrass and Dorianne Laux and Stephen Dobyns and Larry Levis and Ann Sexton and C. K. Williams and many other poet/critics. (The Poets on Poetry series from the University of Michigan Press provides an invaluable resource and a good starting point for this specialized brand of literary criticism).

So my point here is that we can’t hold up academia as an unsupportive monolith that only sponsors inaccessible, esoteric poetry. The higher education system in America is far too diverse and competitive to present any kind of united front for anything, in my opinion. But I think underlying this question is the idea that many poems seem so convoluted and complex that poetry as an art form labors to escape a reputation of difficulty. And the reputation is not necessarily undeserved. There’s a world of difference between the work of Allen Ginsberg or Billy Collins and that of Wallace Stevens or Jorie Graham. Much of Stevens and Graham, to cite just a couple of complicated, intelligent poets, defies easy understanding. You read it, again and again, and more often than not the result is a species of cognitive dissonance. You read the words and lines but the synapses fail to connect properly. The same, however, could be said of the later works of James Joyce, especially Finnegan’s Wake, or some novels by Cormac McCarthy. Some writers demand more of a commitment than others. If you just want to read for simple pleasure, difficult poetry should probably not be on your nightstand.

There are a lot of poets today who have depth but are still accessible. Some recent poets whom I consider valuable are: Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Baron Wormser, Louise Gluck, Tony Hoagland, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Robert Bly, B.H. Fairchild, Carolyn Forche, Robert Hass, Chase Twichell, Philip Levine, David Wagoner, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, John Ashbery, David Lee, Kwame Dawes, Mark Jarman, Richard Wilbur, to say nothing of the Twentieth Century poets who are no longer with us, like John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Galway Kinnell, Ai, James Dickey, Randall Jarrell, Hayden Carruth, Richard Hugo, etc., as well as the Modernist giants Eliot, Pound, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams and others. I believe there are many poets working today who are writing poems that are not only accessible, but are as artistic and as moving as the ones from the recent past that we hold up as masterpieces.

What does poetry have to offer that is different from other art forms, or other types of creative writing?

To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, when a poet chooses a few words—the chiefest words, the best words—reading them can make your body feel so cold that no fire can ever warm you. Reading them can make you feel, physically, as if the top of your head has been taken off. Those are the only ways Emily could tell if what she was reading was a poem, and she wondered if there was any other way.

We could quote a hundred other poets and never repeat the same reason why poetry is unique. For me, when poems work well enough to become art—to explain my existence or to transform my life in some memorable, aesthetic way—they offer me an essential experience that I can’t get in quite the same way from any short story or song or movie or novel or painting or symphony. That isn’t to say I don’t love what I consider the best of those art forms—I do. But the poems that speak most forcefully to me confirm my hope that there is some inexhaustible spiritual essence inside me that I was once taught to call a soul, and that doesn’t usually happen to me at my local Cineplex 12.


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William Patrick’s works have been published or produced in a number of genres: creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction, screenwriting, and drama. His latest book, The Call of Nursing: Voices from the Front Lines of Health Care, published in July of 2013, presents twenty-three occupational portraits that reveal a profession which often hides in plain sight. Saving Troy, published by SUNY Press in 2009, is a creative nonfiction chronicle of a year spent riding along with professional firefighters and paramedics. From that experience, Patrick also wrote a screenplay, Fire Ground, as well as a radio play, Rescue, which was commissioned by the BBC and aired on BBC 3. An earlier teleplay, Rachel’s Dinner, starring Olympia Dukakis and Peter Gerety, was aired nationally on ABC-TV, and his third feature-length screenplay, Brand New Me, was optioned by Force Ten Productions of Los Angeles and used as the basis for the remake of The Nutty Professor. His memoir in poetry, We Didn’t Come Here for This (1999), was published by BOA Editions, as was These Upraised Hands (1995), a book of narrative poems and dramatic monologues, and a novel, Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family, that won the 1990 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for fiction. William Patrick founded and directs the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute, which is entering its 16th year, and he is also a faculty member of Fairfield University’s MFA Program in Writing. More information is available at www.williampatrickwriter.com.

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