Musing on the State of Contemporary American Poetry: An Interview with Raymond P. Hammond
by Brian Fanelli
Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Amusement is probably not a book that is included on any M.F.A. reading lists, though it should be. The book is brave for its willingness to confront and critique the current state of American poetry and the proliferation of M.F.A. programs and tenure-track creative writing positions. To be fair, Hammond never calls for an end to the M.F.A. programs, but he does offer sound suggestions about teaching methods. He urges teachers to include diverse reading lists that cross cultures and time as a way for aspiring poets to place their poems in a historical context. Hammond also takes issue with the number of “workshop poems” being produced and an academic system that requires poets to publish or perish, thus creating a flooded market and a poetry that is rushed. In an age of hyper-consumerism and a continued growth of the AWP Conference, M.F.A. programs, and a competitive academic job market, Hammond’s book is as relevant as ever. The book should be a must-read for any M.F.A. professor or director. The following is an interview with Hammond, who is also the editor of NYQ Books.
Brian Fanelli: Poetic Amusement was initially written as your MA thesis for NYU and then revised and published in 2010. How has the poetry scene and “po biz” world changed since then? Are the problems you address in the book, namely the workshop poem, the proliferation of M.F.A. programs, and writing with the primary purpose to publish worse now?
Raymond Hammond: Yes, and it was originally written in 2000 so it is almost as old as some of the poets who will be reading this, but I, too, think it remains significant.
I would say the problems are still there and in some ways worse.
One good thing happening now, in my opinion, is the proliferation of the creative writing track PhD. The diagnosis for the MFA as a terminal degree is, well, terminal. The writing has clearly been on the wall for a number of years, at least the last decade, that the MFA cannot sustain itself which in academia means something higher must come along. Enter the creative writing track PhD. This solves a number of problems because as a PhD program generally these schools force you to read and understand across cultures and time periods to better inform one’s writing. I think these programs solve a number of the issues I talk about in my book.
The publication pressures, however, have only gotten worse. As more and more MFAs grapple for the few jobs that will still hire an MFA graduate, the pressure to be published has increased exponentially. This is not just for padding the poetry resume, so once the snowball gets rolling, it grows and grows, but it is for survival of the hiring process and even the review process, and if lucky enough to worry about it, the tenure process. And let’s face it, with few exceptions, I am sure, writing under these kinds of pressures does not make for the best most distilled and aged poetry.
As to the workshop poem, I don’t think that problem has changed too much either. Yes, there are still a lot of workshop poems out there, but I think the mindset surrounding workshops has evolved—at least in understanding—that a poet should take what they can get and make it their own and move on. And this is the only cure to the workshop poem for the poet to internalize what is said, and then accept and reject and inform one’s revisions—and then move on. I remember when I assisted with William Packard’s workshop he would often chastise a student for returning to his workshop the third or fourth time. He would say “you learned it, now go out and do it!”
BF: In the preface, you talk about this pressure poets feel to publish, which has resulted in a real glut on the market. You also note that there is classism here, meaning that some contemporary published poets look down upon poets who don’t publish. What is the solution, specifically to eradicate some of the classism that exists in contemporary American poetry?
RH: I think to eradicate the classism we need to attack the headwaters of that classism: capitalism. We as a society have allowed capitalism to invade the sacred art of poetry. The most obvious way we have done this is with contest fees and submission fees. And while I have heard all the rationalizations for journals and publishers to charge these fees, there is no doubt that it prevents people who are not at least middle class from engaging in the poetry community. It would have prevented me from submitting work when I was starting out as a poet had fees existed then – so I know first-hand that these fees affect submissions and publications – period.
I know there are well-intentioned editors out there who really don’t think they are exclusionary in their practice who refuse to see the bigger picture of having allowed capitalism to creep further and further into poetry. I must put a caveat here that capitalism has always existed in the publishing world to some degree. What I am describing here is the rise of unfettered capitalism that reflects our larger society’s greed over the last 30 years.
And here capitalism’s influence is very subtle. Capitalism by its very nature instills competition. There must be a way to get ahead of the pack; there must be a winner—the whole system is designed to establish a hierarchy—to constantly hold a carrot out to strive for. This is why sports are so popular—sports embody capitalism. But poetry should be above this. Poetry should have as little to do with capitalism as possible.
One way this unfettered capitalism is reflected is in contests. Not just the money involved, but rather the mindset of the best, the greatest, I am better than you – this is all capitalism’s influence. Does anybody really not just stop and ask themselves “Why must my poem be adjudicated to be better?” Why does anyone need to win a contest? It is because we, as a society, are so brainwashed by capitalism that there must be winners and losers—there can’t just be existence without gradation of some form.
The more pragmatic answer, however, is that poets now need to win contests for their resumes. Yes, the poetry resume; the carrot collection card. The more carrots, the more likely to be chosen to be published or hired. How else will one judge who to publish without first knowing who has liked their work before? How else will that hiring official tell anyone apart? The poetry resume is very problematic. Not only should you have other publications on there (that cost money to submit to), and contest wins (that cost money to submit to), but also you must have the stamp of approval of which MFA program you went to (which also costs a lot of money).
Capitalism as an economic system has very successfully kept certain populations down in society. And in poetry the subtle persistence of capitalism has mimicked the economic system by keeping the same general populations down. Right now I don’t see an economic system better than capitalism; so I am not advocating changing economic systems (maybe better regulating it until we can change it into something better). But it is no wonder that a system of economics that we have allowed to creep into an art that should be void of systems and economies to exist in its purest form has brought with it the subtleties that serve to destroy that art. It should be about the poetry and only the poetry and never about the resume. You remove the fees and the resume and the capitalism in general, and you remove the classism.
BF: At this moment in American culture, with the rise of Trump and the alt-right/white supremacy, is there potential for American poetry to move away from the safe workshop poem and find its soul? I ask because you quote Donald Hall, who says that workshop poems “make no great claims.” Will poets take more risks now, due to the increasing uncertainty about the future of our country and what it means to be American?
RH: I think they have to. I think we are already seeing it online and in print. And for the most part it is coming not from the classroom or workshop, but from the gut of every one of us who is horrified at what is happening.
But this cannot be accomplished just by writing didactic political poems. It is only through poets consciously defending the language that we can really define what is American. The politicians have already co-opted words such as patriot and freedom and Christian and belief; and used, and continue, to use them for manipulation, maleficence, and malfeasance. Remember freedom fries? Disgusting. Remember when a Christian was someone who believed in love and understanding and was Christ-like, and not a roguish thug filled with hatred of everything they aren’t? (And to be clear, I know not all Christians have changed. I am talking about how the word’s meaning is changing.) We must use words to keep the evil in check. We must call Nazis, Nazis, and liars, liars. We must re-take the terms patriot, freedom, Christian, and belief – at the very least. The alt-right has managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the American people by twisting definitions and making words meaningless – it is up to the poets to maintain the language and pull the wool back so those blinded by the co-opting of language can see the ugliness.
BF: You state that poetry has been affected by what you label a “committee mindset.” Can you explain that term and how it pertains to poetry workshops?
RH: I am talking about the danger of the homogenization of voice. I have seen people with very interesting poetic voices go into workshops and come out with that voice beaten into submission and sounding the same as everyone else in the workshop. Now this doesn’t normally happen after just a few workshops, but it does clearly happen in workshop-heavy MFA programs. When we were still screening submissions to the magazine, we used to play the game of “guess the school,” and I would say at least 75-80 percent of the time we got it right. That is a problem. The individual voice must be better cultivated in the MFA programs.
BF: You state that creative writing programs need to train writers to start out as readers. How does an M.F.A. program, which is typically two years, make space for classes that encourage and require a really deep reading, even a course on the structure of the English language? How do professors teach students to develop a critical eye and place their poems in a historical tradition? Can that even be taught, especially in such a limited window of time?
RH: Many of the MFA programs have incorporated reading into their workshops over the years, and that is a good thing that solves some of the problems. But much of this reading is approached simply from the standpoint of either opinion (I liked it or didn’t like it) or an eye simply towards poetic technique. Therefore, I would still advocate strongly for two basic courses to be included in all MFA programs.
First of all, I would suggest a Reading for Writers course which would have the students reading texts from across genres, across history, across cultures, etc. This would give the students exposure to literary criticism and academic writing about texts and hopefully inspire students to continue their reading after graduation from the MFA. It would also help poets understand how their texts will be approached by others in the future.
The second course I would propose would be a hybrid course of History of the English Language and Composition. You really don’t want a brain surgeon doing brain surgery on you who is unfamiliar with the tools of the trade do you? The English Language is the tool of the trade of the American poet.
The poet should above all else love language. And part of that loving of language is to know from whence it came, that it is constantly evolving and that as a poet you are now a crucial part of that evolution. Doing my homework as a kid I would screw-up and my mother would say “That is wrong.” I would ask “Why?” She would respond with that familiar refrain “because they said so.” Who the hell are they? I used to always think. I was freed one night in my History of the English Language class when the instructor related a similar story and pronounced that “we” – sitting in the class – are now “they.” The “they” that pilot the English language. And the poets are the “they” more than anyone because they play with and stretch the boundaries of that language further than anyone.
And this leads us to the second part of this course suggestion that in order to expand the language, students should first understand it as well as, if not better than, anyone else. So there should also be a composition component that includes an eye towards basic grammar, syntax, diction, etc. Know the rules before breaking the rules. I see so many manuscripts with poor grammar or just plain limited or bad diction. And this composition-based part of the course would use styles of writing that poets also need to know but usually only learn through self-taught mimicry: critical articles, book reviews, blurbs, synopses, etc. as a platform to teach the basics. Kill two birds with one stone.
And I know many MFA program directors will say that the student should already have this expertise before arriving at their program, and many students will say they already know this material and don’t need it. No they don’t, and, yes, you do! Otherwise, there would consistently be error-free, well-written manuscripts pouring across my desk. Knowing the tools that you are going to use should be a basic requirement.
BF: You mention the Muse a lot in your book and link it to the poet’s subconscious and ability to observe and contemplate. At this time, in an age of hyper-consumerism, and with a number of poets working in academia, how do poets return to the Muse and really tap into their subconscious to write more risk-taking, truthful poems?
RH: I, as most, believe that art imitates life. What is happening in our society is political, of course, but that political is being driven by deep-rooted, individual beliefs. You cannot believe in science—we should have never allowed the Tea Party to even suggest that scientific facts can be a belief. For one to hold a belief in scientific fact is an absurd concept. Belief is a very easy term. People believe but have no faith. Faith is a much more abstract term to deal with. Ultimately belief is a shared political thing. It has to be. “I believe in this god.” This identifies one with others who have the same belief. A personal statement becomes political because there has to be a shared understanding by some group of that god or religion. And religion is always political. But faith, faith is a state of no doubt, a spiritual place achieved only within the self.
This is exactly what is happening in the poetry world.
Poets are forced into this political space of academia and publishing by capitalism – this is the belief in poetry: book sales, acceptances, jobs, publications. Poets need to move away from a belief in poetry and towards a faith in poetry. This inward spiritual place of faith is where the Muse dwells. As long as poetry remains holed-up almost entirely in academia, it will remain political (this school versus that school, published versus non-published, schooled versus un-schooled, etc.).
Practically speaking, however, poets can better tap into their subconscious to write those more risk-taking, truthful poems by doing three things: Know their voice, feed the Muse, and give things time.
“Gnothi Seauton,” Greek for “know thyself,” was one of the phrases written upon the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Poets must prepare to write by examining themselves, knowing their own voice, both their inner voice and literary voice in order to delve into that subconscious. This means looking inward not outward. Making your poetry a gut reaction, an emotion, rather than a thought. What do you really have to say from the depths of your gut?
Feeding the Muse is simple: Read. Read across genres, cultures, time periods, etc. But the Muse must have information to process in order to generate ideas.
And that information must have time to digest in the gut. The Muse must have time to mull it over and put it all together. This is accomplished through contemplation. And contemplation yields intuition. Plus, even after the piece is written, time must be given to “sitting with it” for a while to make sure it is what you want to present to the world. If we took Horace’s advice in his Ars Poetica, we would wait a full nine years to publish anything.
Basically this process can be defined as information gestated through contemplation results in intuition that yields inspiration.
BF: You really stress the importance of poets reading more than just contemporary works. If you taught a creative writing class, what books would you recommend to poets as starting point to deepen their knowledge of poetic tradition?
RH: I will keep this simple and short for the very beginning writer. This could also possibly serve as a reading list for the Reading for Writers course suggestion in my response above.
The first and foremost books for any American poet are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I don’t know how anyone can be an American poet today without having read the two poets that gave us the American voice.
From there I would suggest going back to the beginning with the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. Starting near the beginning point of it all is a good thing. Then Sappho and Catullus for the freedom and lyricism. I say freedom because these two are good examples of the uninhibited writing styles of people long before someone contemporary breaking the mores—thinking they are cool and original in using “dirty words” or talking about sex. The Divine Comedy of Dante is essential and, of course, Shakespeare, any and all of his work is seminal to both knowledge and craft of the modern poet. As well, the King James Bible. So much of our culture is about wrestling with religion I think that a poet is completely hobbled if they do not know even the most basic of bible stories. Plus, there is just a lot of good poetry in that particular version of the bible. And I would expand this to other religious texts, as well, over time, but since our country is primarily Judeo-Christian, then the bible should be first.
One more modern book, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, is a must read for every poet coming up. This book is important if for nothing other than it is where “write what you know” comes from and that statement should be evaluated in context and not just batted about capriciously by creative writing instructors.
I think these ten books are the absolute basic reading for any contemporary American poet.
A Note About the Interviewee: Raymond Hammond is the editor of the New York Quarterly and the author of Poetic Amusement.
A Note About the Interviewer: Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Verse Daily, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.