April is National Poetry Month. I am not a poetry reader. So in honor of NPM, I decided to branch outside of my comfort zone a little and see if there really is poetry out there for everyone (I heard a rumor that there is)! Before I dove in, however, I decided to talk to my good friend, Louisa Spaventa, who also has an MA in Creative Writing/English from UT and teaches composition and an honors class, Queer Writings, at Austin Community College, to get her perspective on poetry and find out where her love of it comes from.
What made you want to major in poetry in college?
It really was because of my love of words. I like to repeat words, look up new words, I like the way they sound. And I like the way the words can connect you to something. I had several experiences in college where I’d be studying art or science, or I’d have some other experience, and a poem would connect with that. It would articulate something that I already felt and knew to be true, but it would articulate it in an artistic way that would match with my aesthetic of the concept, as well as my understanding of it. So I would feel like that poet saw the same lines connecting A to B, or I would make new connections and I would see something as beautiful that I didn’t see as beautiful before. I remember reading a Denise Levertov poem and it was celebrating the glittery parts of the concrete, and now I can’t look at concrete again without seeing the occasionally beautiful part of it. (One of my favorite Levertov poems is “Come into Animal Presence”)
Poems can reveal rawness of human emotion and also really beautiful ways to see the world. Like, if you read a poem by someone with Palestinian heritage, like Naomi Shihab Nye for example, whose heart is just broken over the constant war, and over having her people being seen as terrorists… She wrote in an essay, and when poets write essays sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between essay and poem, about this little boy going to school with the word terrorist in his backpack that’s as heavy as a brick. She thinks, and I also think, that poetry can make people better people through understanding. Certainly if you read the Harlem Renaissance poets they really give you an understanding of what it was like to feel that racism, that boot in your face, all the time. I can never be a black man in the U.S. As close as I can get is to read a poem about it. I feel like that allows for an intimacy that sometimes stories don’t offer as quickly.
Is that what you would say to someone who asks why they should read poetry?
Yeah, because it can give you something that nothing else can give you. It’s somewhere between a story and a song and a movie. It’s its own thing, nothing can totally replicate it. Like, I love Sherman Alexie’s poetry, and he has more of a conversational style. But his style fits the aesthetic and the mood he’s trying to convey, of someone coming from a reservation and having to combat an oppressive country, and at the same time has so much humor in it. It’s a very compact cultural experience to read his poems.
There is a type of poetry for everyone, and people are only exposed to a very small taste of poetry in their classes in high school and college, but there is so much more.
From what I recall of my high school experience, the classic poets, I couldn’t really relate to much, and at the time it kind of turned me off of wanting to explore more. And that idea of what poetry is kind of stuck with me because I was at such a formative age. But as an adult seeing something like Def Poetry Jam on TV, it was a totally different experience, and something accessible to me, but the old ideas I had about poetry were still there.
Well, that’s what’s good about studying, especially older poetry, as a group. You can collectively unpack poems. A lot of those poets, their values are more driven by nature or some kind of human connection, and there’s a lot more subversive material in there than you might think. Also, I think you would like “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. It’s a longer poem about this very detached man and, there are so many themes in there, but you can just take little parts of it. You can take a couple of lines of it and they have their own profound meaning. Like “I have measured my life out with coffee spoons.” I mean, that’s pretty depressing. Every morning you repeat the same thing and your life is just that small.
When I’m working with my students and they’re just like “I don’t know, I don’t know”, I just tell them to find the door, anywhere in the poem. You don’t have to start at the first line, just anywhere in the poem that there is a place you can touch. Either this one word or image, you can enter the poem there and start piecing together images and start understanding it that way. When you are looking at a poem sometimes you have to work harder.
Maybe that’s why more people are resistant to it, since it requires more work!
I want to clarify, not all poetry is work. You don’t have to work to appreciate a lot of poems on the first read. But the more that you do work with it, the more you read it, the more you get out of it. Like, it’s an enjoyable thing. You can squeeze a little juice from a fruit and get a taste of it, but the good poems are fruit that you can never squeeze all the juice from. And also speaking it helps, it makes it really intimate. When I read a friend’s poem, wow, a poem a friend has written, it kind of makes me blush. It’s a really intimate experience.
I tend to stay away from the poetry section because I know so little about it. But since it’s National Poetry Month I decided to ask some people who they liked and just go look at some stuff, see if anything jumped out. I picked out three books in a pretty short period of time.
Yeah, the thing is, no matter what your interest, someone has written on the subject. If you are interested in sex workers, somebody’s written on it. If you’re interested in writers from American Indian reservations there are, thankfully, more poets being published. Those are voices that we should hear. They make us better citizens and better people to hear other voices, especially the voices of the oppressed. If you just want joy out of it, you can read poems about cake, or dressing in drag, or pop culture poems. There are poems about mowing the lawn, lots of poems about fishing, there are sports poems too! So whatever your interests are… It’s something that can enhance your appreciation for what you already like, or it can give you appreciation for other sorts of things. It can be just a pleasurable sitting around and laughing kind of thing, or it can be a deeply mystical experience. It can make you cry. Sometimes I read poems that are published and they make me angry because I just don’t see the appeal. But that’s just like any other kind of art… Like when people walk through a museum and they get to Abstract Expressionism and they’re like “I could f***ing do that!” There are lots of poems like that, from the outside they seem easy or basic, but people don’t have to appreciate the same things in a poem. A lot of it is just having the desire to connect with it. If you don’t then you’ve already put up that barrier. And there are just so many different types of poems out there.
I would recommend finding either specialized journals or anthologies and just going through them to find something you connect with. Or the best thing to do is to spend an hour in the poetry section pulling out different books, randomly opening them to a page and seeing if you like it. Seeing if there are, like, narwhal analogies or something, and just being open to that connection.
I did just that. I’ve got three books, one of which I have already started and am thoroughly enjoying.
When I’ve finished all three I’ll come back and, in proper English class style, give my book reports!