Poetry Talk with Ginny Kaczmarek
As you may or may not know, April is National Poetry Month. At the library, they’re showcasing collections of poetry and giving out Poetry-in-a-Pocket cards for people to carry around little poems. To celebrate National Poetry Month, I’ve got a wonderful interview for you with Ginny Kaczmarek, Assistant Editor in Poetry for Literary Mama and fellow New Orleans lover. She also blogs at Ginny’s Tonic and Broadsided.
1. Are you doing anything locally to celebrate National Poetry Month?
I’m embarrassed to say not much. As the stay-at-home mom of a young child, I don’t get out much. I do try to participate in local readings–there are several weekly and monthly poetry series — and to stay abreast of what’s going on around town, but now the decision is whether it’s worth getting my husband or a sitter to put our kid to bed (not to mention wanting to be in bed scarily early myself).
So I content myself with Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day and doing what I can through Literary Mama to keep the poetry flowing.
2. What first turned you on to writing poetry (a certain poem or poet, a moment or inspiration, an object, or…)?
Even when I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer, and I read and wrote poetry along with fiction and nonfiction all through school. But it was as an undergrad at San Francisco State University that I had that moment of Ah-ha! We were studying some really difficult Language poetry and I realized that there really wasn’t any big secret to “getting” this — it was all about my interpretation of the words on the page and how they made me feel. The rest — the craft, the theory, the history — was just tools of the trade, like the mechanics of photography or music. That opened up the possibilities of poetry to me, as if I discovered that the big mystery of poetry was that there wasn’t any mystery at all. To me, poetry is not that different than sculpture or knitting or painting. Once you learn a bit about the basics, you can create whatever you want — and likewise, read it with more pleasure.
3. Knowing nothing about poetry, I wonder: how much editing goes into a poem? I always had this notion that they just come out as they are, but given that fiction is 10 % first draft and 90 % revision (at least for me) I’m wondering what it’s like for poetry.
I think it’s the same as for fiction or any other art form: you have an idea (or a word or a phrase), you write it down, then you play and work the language until it’s in a shape that pleases (or surprises) you. Maybe occasionally a poem comes out “whole,” but I think that’s rare. I think traditionally, poets have been responsible for perpetuating that myth of the poem that springs forth from the poet’s brow. The Romantics (Wordsworth, Keats, etc) were particularly fond of writing about themselves and their art like that, and then the Beats took up the mantle of “first thought best thought.” But Ginsberg, Kerouac, all those guys revised like mad! The trick is to make the poem feel spontaneous, but it takes a helluva lot of work to get it there. I console myself by remembering that Walt Whitman, the master of spontaneous-sounding poetry, only wrote one book, which he revised over and over for his entire adult life. Makes my year-old unfinished poems seem a bit less pathetic by comparison.
I was also surprised by how much editing happens once a poem is accepted by a publication; the editors often ask to tweak this or that or chop lines here or there to improve the poem. It’s not like in a workshop, but I find it comforting to know there’s room for improvement even after I’ve submitted something, that it doesn’t necessarily have to be Norton anthology-worthy from the get-go.
4. Who are your favorite poets?
I like so many different poets for different reasons, and I’m always discovering new ones (or old ones I never read deeply before). I go through phases, too. Lately I’m really into formalist poetry, sonnets, villanelles, rhymes and meter, so I’ve been reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, for their takes on old forms. I love Thom Gunn, who wrote formal, British-proper poetry about biker gangs and his gay lovers and the plague of AIDS in the ’80s. Annie Finch inspires me with her feminist formalist experiments. I love Beth Ann Fennelly’s work, which is funny and true and elegant, and Wendy Cope for sheer hilarity. X.J. Kennedy, Billy Collins, and Kay Ryan remind me that poetry can be both fun and meaningful. I recently re-discovered Walt Whitman, whose longer works take my breath away, but the shorter ones tend to leave me thinking, eh? Then I feel better that even a genius has off moments. And shout-outs to Adrienne Rich for her complexity and Elizabeth Bishop for precision.
5. You recently recommended Blood Dazzler on the Literary Mama Essential Reading list, which is a collection of poetry inspired by Hurricane Katrina. What are your thoughts on literature that incorporates current, life-altering events such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11?
Ooh, good question. I just heard Billy Collins read, and his opinion was, “Poetry’s not about history, it’s about time,” meaning that poetry shouldn’t take on current events as much as universal themes. But I’d have to agree with my professor, John Gery, who taught that the poet has importance and value in society because of her ability to offer deeper, personal–and yet universal–commentary on the events of our day. I think immediate, event-based poetry can be an extremely valuable tool to help us understand the world around us. The challenge is to create poems that are still relevant 5, 10, 50 years from now, to discover how the personal or immediate translates into a universal, timeless expression of the human condition. Blood Dazzler did that impressively, transforming the personal stories of a collection of characters living through the hurricane and its aftermath into a mythological tale of heroes and villians in beautiful, powerful language.
6. How long have you lived in New Orleans?
I’ve lived here almost eight years. My husband and I first visited on our honeymoon in 1998 and didn’t want to leave. In a way, we didn’t.
7. I enjoyed reading your post on the violence that besets New Orleans. In consideration of that, what is it that makes you love New Orleans? Actually, that would probably be too long and complicated an answer, so why don’t you tell me three things you love about New Orleans instead?
Glad you liked the post. Living here is all about contradiction, the beauty and the violence, the third-world qualities despite our American address. I guess I love those contradictions, how this is a city unlike any other. The physical beauty of the place–the architecture, the flowers (now in glorious bloom; the streets smell like jasmine), the majestic oaks–overwhelms me sometimes. I also love the decay, the sense of history, the mish-mash of cultures and customs. We’ve got world-class music, art, and literature, and at the same time, lots of local, street-level performances that feel like anyone can join in, that we are all part of the ongoing project that is New Orleans. I feel like I could spend my life uncovering all of the facets of this city and always find some new way to participate in its culture, its community. I never felt that sense of belonging anywhere else I lived.
8. Besides Literary Mama, what other publications have you worked with?
I worked as a copyeditor for about 7 or 8 years, at CNet.com and then freelance for a variety of tech and computer book publishers. I went to grad school to focus on my first love, poetry, and was a reader for Bayou magazine and a copyeditor for Ellipses through the University of New Orleans. I am just beginning to develop relationships with Women’s Review of Books, Umbrella Journal, and Rattle, which I am hoping will continue, and am always looking for others.
9. What advice do you have to newbie and longtime poets who seek getting their work published?
Gosh, I’m still figuring it out myself! I guess first, just start sending your work out there–it doesn’t do any good sitting in your desk (or on your computer). You’ll get rejections–everybody does–but it’s the only way to get acceptances. To better your chances, seek out journals, contests, and magazines that have a niche you might fit into: for my work, I look for journals that focus on formalism, feminism, motherhood, New Orleans, and the South. A good way to begin developing relationships with editors is to submit book reviews, interviews, and essays about poets or poetry; they get to know your name and might look at your consequent submissions more closely. Definitely follow up with any that reject your offering but invite you to submit in the future–don’t let your bruised ego get in the way! I am also learning to take more risks: to submit to what might seem like a long shot, to offer my meager expertise when I see an opportunity (that’s how I got my gig at Literary Mama). Once you develop a reasonably thick skin, “No thanks” no longer seems like the worst thing to hear, and you begin to get more yeses. Start a blog–it’s a fun way to have a place to publish your stuff, get some feedback, and offer examples of your writing to potential editors.
10. How does one go about getting their work reviewed in Literary Mama?
Book authors and publishers send their books (or informational queries) to the reviews editors, who then contact me or other reviewers to see whether we’re interested or able to do reviews. I think authors who have had poems published on Literary Mama might contact Sharon Kraus, the poetry editor, about their forthcoming books, and she’d pass the info along to the reviews editors. Sometimes I find something on my own, by reading another review of a book or seeing a poem I like in a journal or online and looking into the author, and then I pitch it to an editor.
11. So I know you didn’t make it to the Tennessee Williams Festival this past year, but you’ve attended in the past. Tell me about seeing Yusef Komunyakaa. Did you hear him read his work aloud and/or speak on the subject of writing poetry? How did he inspire you?
I do usually go to the festival, but missed it this year. Seeing Yusef Komunyakaa a year or so ago was amazing. It was just him and an interviewer in an intimate conversation (well, as intimate as it can be with an audience). I was impressed with Komunyakaa’s ease and grace, his humor and his intensity. I’ve long admired his work, so hearing him speak about writing and living as a Louisianian was inspiring. Seeing someone like him makes poetry feel necessary, important–as if what poets have to say (and the ways in which we say it) are valuable resources for greater communal understanding. At the same time, I felt like he made poetry seem accessible, like any other vocation, one that requires hard work and gives personal satisfaction in equal measure. As much as I regard his work with awe, I felt like I got a glimpse into the worker at his bench, hammering it out. It gave me and my hammer hope.
12. To end with a lighthearted question, what is your favorite Mardi Gras parade and why? (I’m partial to Krewe d’Etat, on account of a wonderful memory associated with my first attendance of it.)
Krewe d’Etat is wonderful–I love the political satire and the emphasis on skull and skeleton imagery (the wannabe goth in me!). This year I caught a blinky gargoyle! But my favorite has got to be Muses, the all-women krewe that also has clever satirical themes (this year’s was Muses 009: License to Swill) and the best floats. Who doesn’t love a giant, sparkly shoe or an enormous bubble bath complete with blowing bubbles? Not to mention how generous and creative the women are with the throws: hand-decorated shoes, high-heeled shoe beads, shoe bracelets, (see a theme developing?) drink coozies, martini-glass-shaped beads…it’s just such a great time. Oh, I almost forgot the walking krewes in between the floats: the New Orleans Rollergirls on skates, the Rolling Elvii (dudes dressed as Elvis on mini-scooters handing out silk scarves), the Pussyfooters and the Camel Toe Steppers (grown women in costume dancing en masse). One of these years, I’m gonna get myself in there: I think being a Camel Toe Stepper would be a blast! That’s the parade that I’ll stand in the rain for. You get the best throws that way.
13. Anything else you’d like to say?
I think I’ve said enough! Thank you so much for your interest!
So are you ready to celebrate National Poetry Month? Check out Literary Mama’s poetry. Some really great selections in there!
This post contributed to Thursday-13.
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