"An interview with my poet neighbors about whether or not this is a good time for poetry," by Fran Hoepfner

Now more than ever, people are flocking to social media to share poems with a “hope this helps <3.” And it’s true, poetry can and does help in a time of uncertainty and pain. Not everyone is so lucky as me, which is to say, not everyone is getting their MFA in fiction and is socially quarantined in New Jersey with a gaggle of very sweet and smart poets. I was asked by Delirium Dot Blog to speak with my neighborhood poets on what this––everything––means for poetry and poets right now.

Fran: I wanted to talk to you about whether or not this is a quote-unquote good time for poetry, meaning––I want the record to show that Sara has put a finger gun to her head––are you feeling more productive during this time?

Weston: No.

Spencer: The answer is fuck no.

Sydney: It’s too early.

Spencer: Everyone is just posting the same Ilya Kaminsky poem on Twitter.

Weston: Well, that was during the Iran––

Spencer: It’s happening again. I’ve seen it four times.

Weston: I keep seeing one by Nazim Hikmet.

Sara: There’s the Edgar Kunz one too…

Weston: Okay, I finished filling out the census.

Spencer: This is what we care about.

Fran: Okay, let’s start over. How is writing going?

Spencer: There’s been no writing. I’m writing my will.

Sydney: Am I in it?

Spencer: Rise and grind Twitter is like, “We have to make the most of every single minute.” All of the poets I know on Twitter are tired and no one wants to write anything. These kinds of things look better creatively in hindsight. It’s hard to write into a moment as it’s unfolding. We would all be writing the same poem.

Weston: I’m not sure we would be writing the same poem, but that’s a theoretical thing. My writing is not going particularly well. Not to challenge the question, but there’s something unique to poetry that the process is less about generation and more about hammering stuff as you do it. My impulse with prose is that you just get the draft out, you just do it. In poetry, there’s an emphasis on the first draft being something. You’re made to attend to the language a lot more and that makes it harder to be precise in a moment where your mental energies are spent elsewhere. That’s where I’m at. I’ve ground to a halt, like everything else in our world.

Sydney: I don’t think we would necessarily all come out with the same poem because we are all handling this differently, some with more aggravation than others. That says a lot about your social class, your racial background, what your at-home life is. I personally haven’t been writing. Because I’m so stressed about everything but poetry, it doesn’t seem useful to me right now.

Weston: Poetry can do a lot of things, but in many ways, it encourages using a scalpel instead of a pickaxe to get at our emotional states. If we start writing about this, there is a wide range of emotional experiences to be tapped into.

Spencer: That wide range only comes from distance, but I guess that depends on if you’re writing narrative poetry, or from a place of self. Most of the poetry circles I run in are asking, “If we’re funneling all of our anxieties about the current moment into our poetry, what function do those poems ultimately serve, except feeding back into the anxieties that are already being put out there?”

Sara: If the question is “are we writing?” the answer is no. But that’s because I’m never writing. But poetry is also a business, and like any capitalist enterprise, you can see the poetry industry be like, “What can we do?” What I am doing is reading. We’re reading Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography Of Death for our workshop which feels… on the nose. 

Sydney: So much poetry and literature in general is written from a place of trauma or references trauma that it’s stressing me out. I’m interested, more than ever before, in writing poetry that accesses joy. In my writing, there’s not a lot of joy specifically. I started it as a challenge to myself and now it feels like a need.

Spencer: What I have been doing is these Rachel McKibbens prompts.

Sara: Those are incredible.

Spencer: They put me in a zone of thinking outside of the cultural noise. 

Sara: I’ve been making a lot of lists, and I do feel like that is creative-adjacent. It quells my anxiety, and the genesis for a lot of my poems in that past have been lists. The sonics of poetry lend themselves to lists and chant-like, rhythmic things. So I haven’t been “creating a poem,” but I have been doing groundwork.

Fran: When people are sharing poems on Twitter and Instagram, is that a boon for poets and/or poetry at large? Is widespread sudden interest in poetry something you take note of?

Spencer: My experience with this has been poets sharing work of other poets they know, so it all feels circular. It doesn’t hurt to post work that you feel moves you. It has no material value.

Sydney: I see stuff on Instagram and tap past it. Often, you see the same poem over and over again. But I do think it’s interesting how quickly we turn to art in a moment of vulnerability. People are looking for truth and connection in things that other people have created. There’s value in that, but I don’t know that it’s for poets themselves.

Spencer: I’m worried––or, I guess, preemptively annoyed––that someone is going to take a crown of sonnets and call it the corona of sonnets.

Weston: That’s already a term. A “sonnet corona” is something that exists.

Spencer: Ugh.

Weston: Poetry, fundamentally, has occupied this role of entertainment, like lowbrow comfort and that’s kind of what it’s always been, really. That’s what it starts out as. Whether people sharing poems on Instagram is good or bad, I can’t see it being particularly bad. Whether we pretend like it’s about something higher, this impulse, it’s a common expression like any other. Like Syd said, we turn to film and music and TV.

Spencer: Poetry does have a tendency to romanticize. Poems we see again and again on our timeline romanticize a “life in crisis.” As a reader, your vantage point comes into play. In a lived experience of crisis, there is no romance. The poems people post are trying to claim a positive aspect during these times, and for folks who are marginalized by those events, it’s pretty eyeroll-y. 

Sara: Is that condemning finding joy in dark times?

Spencer: What is the function of that joy? Here’s a poem that’s trying to poke a hole of light into something that didn’t need light. 

Sara: Can’t you still be a suffering writer and find joy in your own precarious situation?

Spencer: I don’t think so, but that’s my own pessimism. I’ll see a poem right now and I’ll feel like it’s neutering the situation.

Sydney: I’m between both of you. People are searching for hope. It’s useful to search for hope and to see it in art. Sometimes there’s no point in finding beauty in something ugly. There’s no reason to make something what it isn’t. It’s the difference between telling someone going through a tough time, “Oh, it’ll get better, don’t worry about it too much,” versus “I’m here to support you and I want to be there with you.”

Spencer: I wish there was more room for that kind of work to exist alongside work that delves into the systemic reality.

Sydney: That exists, it’s just maybe not what people consider poetry.

Fran: What are you seeking out for comfort right now? Or what are you reading?

Sara: Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon.

Sydney: I’m, like, playing phone games. And I’m painting.

Spencer: All The Gay Saints by Kayleb Rae Candrilli. That book is amazing.

Weston: I’m reading the Martin Crimp translation of Cyrano de Bergerac. That’s a play that’s really about language and about words and what words can do. And love!

***

Sydney Choi, Sara Munjack, Weston Richey, and Spencer Williams are all poets living in New Jersey.

Fran Hoepfner

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