DaRK PaRTY: What do you think makes a good poem?
Del Ray: Good depends on who is reading it. Good is different to everyone. Good changes from day to day. Good isn’t just what can be found in books from poets still being published who wrote last century or centuries ago. Good disappears.
Bad flourishes, too. But, again, what is good to me is good to me at that moment and that doesn’t need to mean anything to anyone, not even me. I say ‘not even me’ particularly because I’m sure I can’t produce a real answer to your question, even with regard to what is, in my opinion, at this moment, good to me. Or, if I could, it would take a very long time, evolve from moment to moment and perhaps be a terrific exercise. If you read any issue of SHAMPOO you’ll get a good idea of what good was to me at the moments I was putting an issue together.
A number of qualities appeal to me in poems, often depending on how I feel when I’m reading them. Poems I really like usually have several of the following characteristics, and they do not necessarily have to include any of them: intelligence, humor, humility, confidence, completely unexpected turns, interesting or poignant use of sounds, bizarre or lovely metaphors or similes (see James Schuyler for brilliant similes, particularly relating to clouds), an awareness of sound, maturity, innocence, honesty (extremely important), shows and/or induces emotion, narrative (especially when that narrative is really screwed with), they are shock-inducing; scandalous, incomparable, personal, and the list could go on.
A poem that coyly or cunningly or straightforwardly (seems to) reveal characteristics of the person who wrote the poem can often appeal to me. Well, usually if those are characteristics to which I can relate, or which make me curious. I’m sure this doesn’t reveal much, and I’m at a loss as to how to express what truly makes a poem good to me – but this is how I articulate it today. Ask me again tomorrow.
DP: There is so much bad poetry out there -- what is the biggest mistake beginners make when writing verse?
Del Ray: I’m not sure. I do receive a lot of what I might consider immature and not particularly enjoyable (to me) poetry submissions and I read a lot of books and magazines that are really difficult for me to get through, but please see my answer to question number one. That’s just my assessment. And beginners are beginners – one has to begin somewhere. Nobody makes a mistake by writing a first, second, or third poem.
In my opinion, if one continues to write poems, and one wants those poems to possibly be read and enjoyed by others (or not), one should start reading every book of (and on) poems that one can get one’s hands on. And take an introductory poetry class or two. When you find a poet whose work you really like, read every poem you can find by that person. If that person is alive, look that person up, write her a fan letter, send her your poems, try to write like him, go to his reading, become pen pals, meet her for coffee or a beer or a donut (if she’s amenable), become friends with him, if possible.
Get to know as many poets as you can. Form intimate group swaps of poetry where you simply sit around and read your poems aloud to each other and talk about (not criticize) the poems. Keep getting to know poets and poems. By all means, reread the poets you love. Keep looking for new poets to love. The quest for something new that you love gets more difficult as you go along, but by the time the difficulty arises, you will have begun to find your community, your ‘audience,’ your place in poetry, your voice. Once you feel you’ve found any of those things, keep screwing around to shake things up. Give yourself different communities, different audiences, different poetries, different voices.
Two more recommendations I’d give new poets:
2. While I’m honored to be asked to impart poetic wisdom please don’t take my words as gospel – go out and find answers to these or similar questions by other people who are much more eloquent and better at giving good poetic word.
DP: Who do you think is the greatest poet in history and why?
Del Ray: I don’t know who the greatest poet in history is. If such a thing were universally quantifiable, I’m certain that person would not be my favorite, or anywhere near the top. Many of my favorite poets are listed in the answer to your next question.
DP: Pretend you have met an alien from another planet and he wants an example of the perfect poem. What poem would you give him and why?
Del Ray: Another difficult question. I’m not going to pretend that if I had a favorite poem (I don’t) that it would be universally or galactically perfect or good. None of my favorite poets are universally appreciated and while it’s fun to fantasize about one’s own posterity, and spend a lifetime preaching your own poetic gospel and trying to influence what will be published and read well into the future (and one CAN influence this, it’s certainly a reason why I’m a publisher, but that’s a different question), I wouldn’t expect a positive reaction to what I would present to an average human, much less someone from another planet.
If I had to choose just one poem, I’d walk over to my bookshelf (and/or Google) and start taking out books by the likes of Jack Spicer, James Schuyler, John Wieners, Stephanie Young, Kevin Killian Juliana Spahr, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Joe Brainard, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Gluck, Kenward Elmslie, William Corbett, Wallace Stevens, Albert Goldbarth, Frank O’Hara, Paulo Javier, Dodie Bellamy, Sean Cole, Eileen Myles, Michael Palmer, Cedar Sigo, a very incomplete list, and, you know, I’d be exhausted at the concept, but really enjoy the journey.
My getting to an enjoyment of most of these poets, though, required an appreciation of some earlier favorites, many of whom would not be on this list. So should I hand the non-earth being a book by Allen Ginsberg, ee cummings, or Walter de la Mare? Probably. I’m also pretty certain my purpose in life is not to turn folks who’ve never enjoyed a poem onto poetry (not that it’s a bad thing to do).
DP: Can you give us a short list of modern poets DaRK PaRTY readers should consider reading?
Del Ray: See that answer to question number 4.