Keith Ekiss is a Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford University, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow, and a recent graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. He is the author of Pima Road Notebook (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2010) and the translator of The Fire’s Journey by the Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio (Tavern Books, 2013). Two of his poems can be found here, and the full set appears in the Summer 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poems? What was the hardest part about writing them?
I’ve lived in San Francisco for many years but spent most of that time writing about Arizona, where I grew up. After I finished writing Pima Road Notebook, my book of desert poems, I was ready to direct my attention to the ground beneath my feet. Formally, I started writing prose poems after writing an essay about living in the Petrified Forest National Park. I enjoy the freedom and range of prose and the compression and patterning of poetry. The difficulty in writing prose poems is to find the pacing and lyricism of a poem without the guiding hand of the line. You’ve got to make the sentence do all the work. Now, after three years of mostly writing prose poems, I’m returning to lineation. And so it goes . . .
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Years ago (more than five years ago), I heard Dean Young at the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference say, “Everything a poem accomplishes it does through one or more poetic devices.” I love this quote because it’s an essentially formal, technical approach to poetry from a writer who’s regarded as zany and surrealist. It took me a few years of writing, an MFA degree, and several years teaching creative writing to fully understand this idea from the inside, as a writer. Make what you want as a poet: wild laments, cool ironic poses, gnomic utterances, but the best poems, the ones worth re-reading, are the best written, the poems that use the limited tools of poetry, those poetic devices, to maximum effect. I want a poem to hold water; it has to be well made.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
My wife Robin Ekiss is also a poet, so we’re a two-poet household and there are always a lot of journals around, whether magazines to which we subscribe like The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Poetry, or American Poetry Review, or magazines to which we’ve contributed. Although it’s an impossible wish, I want access to everything and to read everything — one journal doesn’t cover it. But, I’ll say that I’m a sucker for a good special issue and recently enjoyed the Field symposium on Tomas Transtömer and the Northwest Review issue on Charles Wright, which was unfortunately their final issue.
When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper-fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?
The web creates the illusion of abundance and leveling—“everything” seems available to us all of the time. The reality is somewhat murkier. If you want to introduce yourself to Lorine Niedecker, for example, you cannot only find many of her poems online but hear poems read out loud by the author herself at PennSound. This still strikes me as amazing. Quick access, however, doesn’t equate to the absorption I want from a poem. Reading is a physical experience that has the potential to change me. I will always love the physicality of books and journals.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I like working with language as a material; I like the sound and rhythm of words. Whether as a reader or a writer, the first requirement is engagement at the musical level. To quote Dean Young again, “Convince the body and the mind will follow.” Poetry strikes me as the best kind of music: sound and sense forever intertwined. Writing can lead me any place—there’s a freedom to it that’s irreplaceable.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
The first thought that comes to mind is from Whitman: “Creeds and schools in abeyance.” Subscribing to a particular credo, or defining a credo for oneself, sounds narrowing in a unproductive way. But, with a little reflection, Whitman’s statement seems (not surprisingly) utopian: we always shape our thoughts and values from a mixture of conscious and unconscious borrowing. The slate is never blank.
So, to revise Whitman: creeds and schools are inevitable, at once suspect and welcome. I try to cast a wide net as both a writer and a reader, and I like something simple that John Ashbery said in his introduction to the first edition of The Best American Poetry 1988: “I like poems that are good of their kind.” In other words, first and foremost, a poem should be well-written. This doesn’t mean grammatical precision but rather the construction of a poem that serves the kind of poem I want to write. Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger,” to give an example, is a wildly imperfect poem, but I wouldn’t change a word of it.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
For better or worse, I’ve never had a specific mentor. As a writer, I’ve never wanted to find myself too directly under the thumb of one particular teacher or poet. I believe in hybridity: we progress through the study of a wide field of writers and make our poetics out of that engagement. But, although I can’t (or won’t) point to one particular person, I’ve been astoundingly fortunate to have many wonderful teachers: the poets who visited the University of Arizona when I was an undergraduate and gave off-hand advice during their readings, the teachers at The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, the faculty of the Wallace Stegner program at Stanford University, and most especially the many friends who’ve taken the time to read my work over the years.