Kevin Prufer’s newest books are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011) and National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008). With D. A. Powell, he recently edited Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master (Unsung Masters Series, 2010). His poem “Elegy and Comfort” appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of KR.
KR: Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
KP: I am almost completely unable to write about myself; my urge is always away from me and toward fiction or history or some combination of the two. I began this poem thinking about the ancient practice of exposing unwanted infants – that is, abandoning them to the elements, where they would likely die or, in a few cases (Moses, Sargon, Romulus & Remus, for instance!), survive, strengthened and historical. As I wrote, however, I realized that the poem was, in many ways, not about the death of a child, but concerned, instead, the loss of a parent. When I knew my father would soon die, I imagined it would feel as if he’d suddenly been cast adrift. But when it actually happened, it was I who felt cast aside. Strange.
KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
KP: I have learned that, at least for me, it’s more productive to refer to historians as I write poems than to the work of other poets. Otherwise, it’s too easy for my poems to fall into conversation with other poems.
I’ve also learned that ambivalence—that is, feeling strongly in conflicting ways—is an ideal position for a poem to inhabit. Treated with fair complexity, ambivalence in the work of other poets—about mortality, about the irretrievability of the past, about God—is exciting to me. I love when I sense that a poem is like an engrossed (and engrossing!) mind at work on a great and unsolvable problem. In a broad way, this discovery about reading has been part of my writing process.
KR: Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?
KP: How Romantic of Philip Larkin! I love thinking of his work through this lens—that my experience of Larkin’s poems is the explosion of his emotional “concept” in me long after his death. And I also love the idea that poetry might be the medium through which the dead speak to the not-yet-born. But, truthfully, I don’t think about poetry the way Larkin does.
I do not know what it is I am feeling when I write a poem, and am not even sure I begin with an “emotional concept” at all, whatever that is! When I’m writing at my best, I begin with a story. What would happen if a giant bird preyed on all the people who live in that valley over there? What would happen if a colony of people lived in highway tunnel underneath a mountain, emerging only for food? Why won’t they let that harmless looking old lady through the security line at the airport? These questions begin narratives that, at least for me, are pretty far removed from any “emotional concept” – but they eventually help me to discover one. That is, I often don’t know what the emotional center of a poem will be until I’ve started to work out the story of the poem.
I’m not uninterested in communicating “emotional concepts” – but I like to imagine that poetry is also a very subtle, powerful vehicle for the communication of ideas that might extend beyond what is felt. I like the notion that we know who we are (as individuals, as members of a larger society, as part of a culture) through our interaction with narrative and our imposition of narrative on our lives—and that poetry might participate in this.
KR: 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 on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
KP: I’ll try! Here are a few very broad core beliefs I would argue for. They’re going to be big and rickety, like drafty old houses!
1) Literature—poetry!—does not complicate the world. It reflects on the complexity that is already in the world.
2) The job of the writer isn’t to withhold information from the reader and the job of the reader isn’t to break the secret code that the writer has put forward. Literary writing is a kind of communication. When it is difficult, it’s not because meaning has been encoded in it, but because the ideas the writer is grappling with are, themselves, difficult.
3) Put another way, the ideal mode for a writer isn’t in opposition to her reader, but rather in a mutual attempt to understand something larger and, maybe, ineffable.
4) I love the Emersonian idea that we know ourselves through the literature we have already produced and the future will know us through the literature we are producing now. Literature and art are like an enormous ship carrying us (or at least our sense of ourselves) into the future.
5) I’m not that interested in poetry as self-expression, narrowly defined. I do like to think of it as a kind communication. Sometimes that communication includes some self-expression. Sometimes it really doesn’t (beyond the fact that it includes something that a particular self was thinking at one time!).
6) All art is formal—insofar as all art is formed by the artist. This applies to poetry and is part of the reason every good poet I know spends so much time listening to the poem, trying to understand what the music of the poem is saying.
7) In poetry: something ought to be happening in the white space.
I suppose I could go on and on. But I’ll stop with those.
KR: Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
KP: When I was fifteen, I had a teacher at Western Reserve Academy (a little boarding school in Ohio) who made us memorize a poem a week. Each Monday, Mr. Demong would give us a poem that each Friday we would have to write out on a piece of notebook paper. Any error – even a missing comma – resulted in a full grade deduction. And each new poem was longer than the previous week’s poem.
Of course, we all complained about this, but it was an incredibly valuable exercise for all kinds of reasons. Most simply, I learned basic punctuation this way. It was, after all, impossible to memorize the placement of every comma and semicolon in “My Last Duchess” (or any of the even longer poems he assigned us). It was easier simply to know the rules that dictated where commas and semicolons ought to be.
More broadly, memorizing poems by Frost, Dickinson, Marvell, and Browning helped me understand the poems deeply. That is, I learned to listen to the nuances of rhythm and meter, gained a sense for how rhyme worked, and, in many cases, forged a personal connection with the speakers of the poems. Rereading those poems, I feel those same connections today.