We spoke with our three Forward Prize nominees – Stephen Devereux, Lydia Armstrong and Frederick Pollack – about poetic forms, inspiration and editing.
What makes for a strong poem, in your opinion?
Stephen Devereux: I like poems that are closely observed, that use original metaphors, similes and images. I think there needs to be some kind of connection between subject matter and form or a deliberate contrast between them, such as a sonnet about something disturbing and sordid.
Lydia Armstrong: I think honesty is the best element of a strong poem. Good writing should make you feel something authentic. It should hit you in the gut a little bit, and a writer usually has to be vulnerable on the page and honest in what they’re saying to achieve that. I’d rather read an honest poem that isn’t the most eloquent than a beautifully written poem that isn’t saying something real.
Frederick Pollack: Any poem is a conjuncture of historical forces – political, cultural, biographical, conscious and unconscious. What makes a poem strong is the power of this conjuncture: IE, its historical necessity, which is not the same as “timeliness”. Though this quality cannot be successfully planned, a poem whose conceptual horizons are narrower will probably not achieve it. The horizon of today’s “mainstream” poems is the ideology of the private life; their rule is “Have a childhood (or a bad marriage, etc) and write about it.” What passes for the avant-garde, meanwhile, is an academic diversion. The former will be forgotten when the “middle class” finally rots; the latter, when poststructuralism no longer impresses. Poetry, for me, is about something. A good style serves content. A strong poem is about something that is a) important, b) not perceived by the ideologies of the time or expressible in their language.
Why do you write poetry? When did you start, and was there anything in particular that compelled you to do so?
Stephen Devereux: I enjoy making something that someone else might find interesting. I’ve always done it but only began offering poems for publication about ten years ago.
Lydia Armstrong: I started writing as a kid. I had journals and stories and poetry by the time I was seven or eight. I got really into poetry in high school. I was a rebellious teenager and had a really hard time finding my place in the world, and poetry gave me a voice. My notebooks were one of the only outlets I had to work out how I felt and who I was. I actually spent some time in a couple juvenile detention centers as a teenager, and would steal the broken tips of pencils to write poetry in my cell. When we would have recreational time in the yard, I would walk the perimeter and write a new poem out loud to myself, repeating it over and over to memorize it until I could get my hands on some paper to write it down. I think that in a hopefully non-cliché way, writing saved my life as a kid.
Frederick Pollack: I knew from the time I was twelve that I had to write. Poetry was my first love, but I was less interested in my moods than in telling stories. The obvious solution was narrative poetry, but for 150 years poetry has meant lyric; every narrative poet must reinvent the genre. After writing two novels, neither published and both garbage, I wrote my first good line of poetry in 1979, when I was 33. Since then I’ve written 43 books, either book-length poems or collections. Three have been published; one is scheduled to appear in 2018.
Can you name a poem that has influenced you or that you particularly love?
Stephen Devereux: John Donne – all his poems. George Crabbe – “Ellen Orford”, “Peter Grimes”, “The Village”. Anne Sexton – “My Kind”, just about all her poems. Emily Dickinson – “I Felt A Funeral In My Brain”, most of her poems. Robert Bloomfield, “The Farmer’s Boy”. John Clare, “The Shepherd’s Calendar”. Anne Bradstreet – most of her poems. Ted Hughes – most of his poems. Walt Whitman – “Leaves of Grass”. Robert Lowell – “For The Union Dead” and many of his other poems. Liz Lochhead – most of her poems. Norman MacCaig – “Summer Farm” and all the rest. Hugh Macdiarmid – “Island Funeral”. Sylvia Plath – “Cut” and most of her poems. George Meredith – “Modern Love”. Thomas Hardy – all of them. That will have to do for now. If I could only have one poem it would be AE Housman’s “Cherry Tree.”
Lydia Armstrong: I love Anne Sexton. Her poem “The Abortion” really struck me when I was young – that someone would write so honestly about such a taboo subject. It felt really personal, and I think that helped to shape what I consider to be powerful writing. I used to carry around a volume of her collected works everywhere.
Frederick Pollack: Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” – both loved and a great influence. Six other favorites, if you’ve room: Salvatore Quasimodo, “Quasi un Madrigale”; Gottfried Benn, “Wenn etwas leicht…”; Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Old Trails”; Robinson Jeffers, “The Double Axe”; Zbigniew Herbert, “Why the Classics”; Czeslaw Milosz, “The World.”
What inspired your nominated poem? And what was the writing process like?
Stephen Devereux: Looking at old family photos. The writing process varies. Sometimes I get most of the words in my head and scribble them down as soon as I can, then type them and have a go at getting them into some sort of shape. With others there’s something I want to write about and I keep trying until it gets somewhere (or not). “DNA” came out in five minutes and wasn’t altered very much.
Lydia Armstrong: “The Doctor” is about a man that I kept meeting around town in this really fateful way. He was strange and forward, and never recognized me or knew who I was, but each time I saw him, he would single me out and interact with me in some odd, charming way. Finally, we exchanged phone numbers and hung out a few times. He asked me to leave everything and move to California with him, where he was going to finish medical school. It was like our third or fourth date. It turned out he was a tremendous alcoholic and had been drunk every time I’d ever seen him, even one afternoon shopping in Target with his mother. So I broke things off. He was a train wreck, but the whole experience was sort of magical, like one of those moments of your life that feel a little bit like a portal into something bigger than what happened. Like a look into the human condition, or some layer of the universe that we normally can’t see into. He gave me a bullet he found on the street. I still have it.
Frederick Pollack: I was thinking about Blake’s “giant forms.” He avoids allegory by making each figure represent broad sets of facts and ideas. I decided to court allegory; capitalism, for example, appears as a figure called “Capitalism”. At the same time I recalled an insight of William Burroughs’s: that drugs, heroin especially, are the ideal product; they require no advertising, and are always a sellers’ market. The writing went quickly and was great fun.
Do you write in other forms? If so, how does your poetry differ from your other writing?
Stephen Devereux: If you mean different poetic forms then I like to use free verse, rhymed verse, blank verse, sonnets – whatever seems to help the process. If you mean other genres – I’ve been short-listed for a couple of playwriting prizes, I’ve had short stories published, as well as essays – lit crit, travel etc. I’ve also written a novel that is too odd for any publisher to get any money from publishing it. I find writing plays the easiest – once I’ve got the characters right I let them fight it out. Short stories are the hardest to write because they have to make no sense the first time you read them and a great deal of sense the second time. Poems need time and the courage to abandon them when you can’t get them to work the way you want them to (which is what happens with two thirds of them).
Lydia Armstrong: I actually consider myself to be more of a fiction writer than anything. I’ve been working on a novel for several years, and have written less poetry lately as I focus my efforts on finally finishing it. Writing a poem is a pretty quick process for me. They usually come out in one or two sittings, and I edit lightly. I think if you have to edit a poem too much, you wrote the wrong poem. Poetry is a way for me to organize thoughts and feelings I have. I think my poems are more about what I’m saying to myself, and the novel is what I have to say to the world. And the fiction gets edited to death.
Frederick Pollack: I’ll write essays if asked. Otherwise, prose has been cauterized out of me.