By: Ernest Hilbert
X. J. Kennedy was born in Dover, NJ in 1929, the son of a boiler factory timekeeper. After collecting degrees from Seton Hall and Columbia, he spent four years in the US Navy as an enlisted journalist. He and his wife Dorothy “failed to complete PhD’s in English at the University of Michigan”; Kennedy went on to teach college anyway, “mostly at Tufts.” In 1978 he became a full-time free-lance writer of textbooks, children’s books, and verse. His latest books for adults are In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems (Johns Hopkins) and Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse (BOA Editions). The Kennedys have five grown children and six grandchildren; they live and work in Lexington, Massachusetts.
[private]In the late spring of 2007, I flew to Boston to interview the renowned poet and anthologist X.J. Kennedy. We met at the home of mutual friends, the poet Jan Schreiber and his wife, Fran, a painter. After posing for photographs at one of Jan’s two harpsichords, I recorded an hour’s conversation with the ever affable and cultured Kennedy. I transcribed our talk for posterity.
Ernest Hilbert: Several of my colleagues at the Contemporary Poetry Review wanted to know what the “X” in your name stands for. Xerxes, Xavier? Very few names begin with X.
X.J. Kennedy: Those are guesses that I usually get, or Xenephon, Xylophone, or Xerox. But the truth is that I was christened Joseph Kennedy, and all the time I was growing up I was mercilessly taunted for having same name as old Joe Kennedy, ambassador to England. When I was in the navy, I was even stationed for a time on a destroyer, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. The kidding was fierce. So when I started sending poems off to magazines, I thought I would sign my name any crazy way I could think of just to be different from all the better-known Kennedys, so I stuck the X on. I sent poems to the New Yorker, because I didn’t know where you sent poems, and they took two of them. And I thought: My God! This is marvelous good luck, so I’ve kept the X ever since.
EH: You have described yourself as “Celticly wild, teutonically fussy.”
XJK: Perhaps it’s my genetic makeup. I’m half Irish, a quarter Cornish, which is also Celtic, and a quarter German. It was Bob Newhart who said once that if you’re a mixture of Irish and German you’re a meticulous drunk.
EH: What drew you to poetry rather than fiction, drama, or another art?
XJK: I like the sound of words and the fun of putting them together. When I first made fumbling attempts to write, I tried writing fiction too. I wrote extensive imitations of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, but those projects didn’t get anyplace. Actually, later on I wrote some science fiction for pulp magazines, two fantasy novels for children, and some stories in little magazines.
EH: You studied and taught for a while at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. While there, you formed friendships with John Heath-Stubbs, Donald Hall, W.D. Snodgrass, and Keith Waldrop. Heath-Stubbs passed away this last Christmas, but the others are still active. Have you remained in touch with them over the years?
XJK: Yes. I’ve been in touch now and again with Don Hall and Keith Waldrop and his wife Rosmarie Waldrop. Another friend from Ann Arbor times is Dallas Wiebe, author of a wonderful novel called Skyblue the Badass, as well as stories and poems. I’ve kept in touch with all of them, and spent a few days near De [W.D.] Snodgrass in Mexico a couple of winters ago. There’s a San Miguel poetry week, and De and his wife Kathy live part of each year in that colorful town. Just saw them again in June at the West Chester Poetry Conference.
EH: You served for a time as poetry editor of the Paris Review, succeeding Hall in that position. What was that like?
XJK: Oh, it was terrible. At the time, the Paris Review was ailing for support. And although [Prince Sadruddin] Aga Kahn was listed as the publisher, he contributed only a set amount each year, not enough to cover the bills. The magazine was struggling, and it was more like an annual. Don Hall, having had the job for twelve years, couldn’t take it anymore; the influx of manuscripts was immense, and Don propositioned others of his friends-Louis Simpson, James Wright-to take the job, but they had more sense than I did. Me, I was thrilled to be asked. But I soon found that I spent all my time writing apologetic letters to poets whose poems had been taken years ago and not yet published. I could take very little new stuff, which made it frustrating. Furthermore, the magazine was printed in Belgium at the time, and Patrick Bowles was the European editor. Bowles kept slipping into the magazine rotten poems by his drunken friends, which, as the poetry editor, I was being blamed for. So after about three years, I followed Don Hall and threw in the towel.
EH: Around that time, you met Randall Jarrell. What was he like?
XJK: Randall Jarrell was teaching at the Women’s College of North Carolina, where I taught for a year after leaving Michigan, so I got to meet him. I went to his house one time. When I first came to Greensboro, he very kindly stopped by my office and talked for a long, long time. It was wonderful. Jarrell was worshipped-and that is not too strong a term-in Greensboro. He was a culture hero. The students were quite dazzled by him, as well they might be. He would give brilliant lectures with very little class discussion, and the young women sat there with their jaws open and imbibed these pearls of wisdom. He was a merciless man in his opinions and his frank expression of them. I wrote a memoir of Jarrell that appeared in the Sewanee Review [Summer 2005]. I recalled how I was asked to give a poetry reading on campus. Jarrell politely came to it. I thought, “Oh, my, I must impress him.” Unfortunately, I read a poem that I said imitated the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I didn’t know it, but the Rubaiyat was one of Jarrell’s peeves. He did not like extremely formal verse, and from out of the darkness of the audience I heard a great “uuyyyaaahh,” clearly from Jarrell. That rattled me so much I had difficulty getting through the rest of the show. But he could be kind too. He was, of all the people I ever met, the one who had the most intense enthusiasm for good literature.
EH: In the 1970s, when rhyme and meter had largely disappeared from the center of American poetry, you founded the journal Counter/Measures. It survived for three years. Do you feel that it proved a useful antidote to the prevailing trends?
XJK: It’s hard to say. Dorothy, my wife, and I co-edited and published it at a time when rhyme and meter were definitely in the doghouse. If you sent a sonnet off to a magazine, it would come back like a boomerang. So we thought it would be interesting to see how much rhyme and meter were still out there. Being lazy souls, we thought we wouldn’t have much mail, but we were inundated by a lot of good stuff. It was an annual, but in the course of those three issues we must have printed the work of nearly two hundred poets. Most of the ones we hoped for did contribute-Richard Wilbur, Tony [Anthony] Hecht, William Meredith, De [W.D.] Snodgrass, J.V. Cunningham, Dudley Randall, John Hollander, A.D. Hope, Mona Van Duyn, John Nims, Ted Kooser, Paul Zimmer-as well as some people we never expected to get work from, like Louis Zukofsky, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Helen Adam, and that neglected star of the Harlem Renaissance, Waring Cuney. We were an early market for youngsters like Robert Pinsky, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Timothy Steele. It was great fun, and we kept it going until our money and time and family obligations forced us to let it go.
EH: In one of your earliest poems, also one of your best known ones, “On a Child Who Lived One Minute,” you seem to question the ability of literature, or art, to redress wrongs or restore things lost: “Who can restore a thing so brittle, / So new in any jingle?” Yet your poem allows you to express and communicate the wonder of life, “marvel . . . so much could stay a moment in so little.” Does this sentiment redeem literature, to some degree?
XJK: That is sensitively put. I would hope it might. Literally, of course, a poem can’t bring the dead back to life. If it can save some memory or sense of the dead, then so be it.
EH: In “Letter to Lord Byron,” W.H. Auden wrote, “Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather.” He continued, “She’s treated as démodé altogether.” That was 1937. Has this changed since he made that observation?
XJK: I think light verse is still under a cloud. Magazines and newspapers that once printed it regularly don’t anymore. The only considerable market for light verse in the country today is the magazine Light, which John Mella has heroically sustained for a long time now. Apart from it, there is I think very little light verse that makes it into magazines and books. I think especially of rhymed and metrical light verse, the traditional kind, which I’m still fond of. I never thought any publisher would take a risk on the book of light verse I have coming out until BOA Editions and their editor Thom Ward were willing. It’s called Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928 to 2008. I was actually born a year later in 1929, but I go by the ancient Chinese system of dating a person as being one year old at birth, and I’ve taken a pledge not to print any more light verse until at least 2009.
EH: To what extent is comic verse “light”? What is implied by “light verse” opposed to simply “comic”? Is it a distinction that is worthy of being drawn at all?
XJK: That is a difficult distinction. I prefer the term comic verse myself.
EH: Is comic broader than light?
XJK: Perhaps. Traditionally, verse that is light has been on relatively trivial subjects, or vers de société, pleasant, mildly comic satiric verse. It’s tough to draw a line between light verse and so-called serious poetry. Indeed, I’ve never quite been able to draw it myself. I like poems that are a mixture of laughter and sorrow. As Auden said: “Poetry is a clear expression of mixed feelings.”
EH: Life itself is both tragic and comic.
XJK: Isn’t it?
EH: Perhaps that style of poetry is the most accurate reflection of life. But can poetry on whimsical subjects aspire to the seriousness of other modes of lyric poetry?
XJK: I’m not sure that it tries.
EH: You write poetry that some might actually consider a bit risqué. For instance, the first stanza of “Flagellant’s Song” is “When I was young / And jackass-hung, / A lecher by persuasion, / Each girl who stirred / My nesting bird, / I’d rise to her occasion.” Lovely stuff, where I’m concerned. But some might wonder where bawdy leaves off and plain old dirty begins? Is that just in the ear of the beholder?
XJK: [Laughs] That’s a great question. As Yeats said: “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.” I have always been fond of bawdry. In Peeping Tom’s Cabin, there is a section called “Tawdry Bawdry,” and the eye of the beholder may squint at it, as the beholder likes.
EH: Have you encountered any difficulties with the censor’s pen?
XJK: Only a couple of times, and not because of bawdry. Once I was supposed to read at Campbell College in Bowie’s Creek, North Carolina, but then I got a telegram saying that Mr. Campbell, the president of the college, had cancelled my reading because he heard I’d written a book called Nude Descending a Staircase. Apparently he hadn’t heard of Marcel Duchamp. Another time, there was a brief poem for children that was damned by the board of education in North Kansas City as being subversive of adult authority.
EH: What was it?
XJK: It was a little, four line poem called “Mother’s Nerves,” in which a small boy says:
“My mother said ‘If just once more, / I hear you slam that old screen door, / I’ll tear out my hair! I’ll dive in the stove!’ / So I gave it a bang and in she dove.”
EH: I once wrote that John Updike is much more than merely a light versifier, though that is often how he is viewed. I pointed out that light verse made up perhaps a quarter of his total poetic output, and that, perhaps, it is simply the case that he excels in that mode. What percentage of your work could be similarly classified?
XJK: I would have to sit down and count heads, but I would guess about a third of the stuff I’ve written could be called comic, perhaps more than that if you counted all the poems for kids. That’s a curious thing, you know. For quite a long time, the only way you could publish a book of light verse in this country was to claim it was a book for children. I have some books that I think might go for adults. There’s a series called Brats, Fresh Brats, and Drat These Brats that adults seem to enjoy, though they were published as books for children.
EH: In Cross Ties: Selected Poems and Lords of Misrule, you cordon off light verse from other kinds, assigning it to its own chapters. Do you feel this sort of enclosure is necessary? Will the light verse taint, if you will, the more serious lyric poems, if you let them free to run among them? In other words, will readers not know when to take you seriously?
XJK: I don’t think that light ones are rotten apples that will spoil the barrel especially. I did that in Cross Ties so that people could clearly see the lay of the land, and if they wanted something light they could turn to it.
EH: Aside from Wendy Cope, who enjoys a large audience in the UK and is beginning to acquire more serious critical attention, what contemporary practitioners of light verse do you admire?
XJK: There are a great number around. I admire greatly a guy named Bob McKenty, a faithful contributor to Light magazine. He’s had very little attention. He’s a genius at comic verse of a topical nature. He has a book of poems out about baseball. I think Kay Ryan, who is usually taken seriously, is a wonderful wit, and mistress of a kind of curt, deep-going light poetry. Dana Gioia and Andrew Hudgins have done good light verse. Gail White, Thomas Kerrigan, Richard Moore, Bruce Bennett, Ed Conti, and many more have done large quantities.
EH: In his introduction to the American end of The New Poets of England and America (1962), Donald Hall referred to a rift between the “sandals” and the “tweeds,” what Robert Lowell described as the raw and the cooked. You appeared in that anthology. Which group did you belong to?
XJK: I guess I was one of the tweeds because I rhymed and scanned.
EH: Hall explained that most dichotomies that sprung up in that era, such as academic and beat were largely misleading if not outright false, but the divisions seemed real enough to some. Is there a comparable division today?
XJK: If you go just by the criterion of form, yes. You can easily tell those who rhyme and scan.
EH: Though academic, or tweed, was once identified with form, has there been an inversion whereby those who write in form tend to operate outside the academic world and those who hold university positions tend to be free versifiers?
XJK: That’s probably true. I don’t like that dichotomy because I think you can write in form and still be a bit wild. There’s a marvelous young black woman, Erica Dawson, who has a book coming out with Waywiser Press. She’s formal as all hell, but really daring.
EH: In the sequence “Emily Dickinson in Southern California,” you mimic the Belle of Amherst’s spare, modified Protestant hymn stanza to great comic effect-have you channeled any other authors?
XJK: I have written pastiches or parodies of Robert Frost. Lately I finished a series of three take-offs of poets rewriting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”-W. S, Merwin, Sylvia Plath, and the early Robert Lowell.
EH: Where will we see them?
XJK: In Peeping Tom’s Cabin.
EH: You published your first book, Nude Descending a Staircase, in 1961. What has changed in American poetry since then, both for the worse and the better?
XJK: In 1961, I was on the tail end of the great era of rhymed metrical stanzas. Since then, the revolution of free verse has continued, so that the poets you hear most about are free versifiers.
EH: Surely free verse, as an innovation, was already quite old by 1961.
XJK: Right. William Carlos Williams was writing something he wouldn’t call free verse, but it was rhymeless and unmetrical verse. It all harks back to Whitman, of course, as the father of the present-day free verse movement.
EH: Jon Stallworthy told me that he once graciously removed his own entry in the Norton Anthology of Poetry in order to make room for Bob Dylan. Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation?
XJK: I’m not as saintly as Jon Stallworthy.
EH: He’ll be happy to hear that. How does your work as an anthologist sit with your work as a poet?
XJK: Ain’t got much to do with each other. I’ve always left myself out of my own anthologies, because I think anthologists who put their own stuff in are risking the accusation that they are egotistical swine. It’s not modesty at all, just a way to dodge insults.
EH: What about “midnight appointments,” or stacking the deck with friends and mentors? Aren’t anthologists always faced with this temptation?
XJK: God, yes. To be an anthologist is a heavy cross to bear. I suspect there are many poets who hate my guts because I haven’t used their work. I have dear friends whose work I haven’t used either. A poetry textbook may well be the only poetry some students will see in their whole college careers. You can’t just print all your friends. You’ve got to show them what is excellent-not only excellent, but poems they’re going to like and understand. Not all excellent poems are textbook material, either. There are many fine poems that if presented in a classroom would probably fall dead before everybody but the instructor. So you have to have some kind of sense about it. I am happy that anymore I don’t have any final say about what goes into the textbooks that bear my name. I kibbutz; I put in suggestions; but I no longer make up the tables of contents.
EH: When I wrote on Richard Wilbur’s collected poems for the New York Sun, I made the point that some of the finest poetry in the collection was his work for children. You have written quite a lot of verse (and two novels) for children, and you’ve also edited anthologies of children’s poetry. Does the introduction of poetry to young children translate over time to adult readers of poetry?
XJK: I would hope so. Dorothy and I get mail about our anthologies of poetry for kids, and the ages of the kids extends up to teenagers. And I think if you still like poetry when you’re a teenager, having read it earlier on, you’re likely to continue to care for it.
EH: Do you feel it is harder to write for adults than for children?
XJK: I think it’s equally hard to write for adults and children. You certainly can’t assume, as some do, that when you’re writing for a child you don’t have to work as hard. You cannot say to the child, “here, my little man or woman, is a nice poem lollipop for you.” A healthy American child might spit in your eye.
EH: You have edited some very successful anthologies, including Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, with Dana Gioia. Can you say a few words about your approach to the anthology?
XJK: When you’re making a textbook anthology, you’re not operating in a vacuum. You do not have creative rights in the matter. Many previous anthologies exist. You know there is a certain body of work teachers will expect. You have to put in the greats. You know you have to put in Keats. But when you get up to the contemporary period, that’s when you do have more freedom. I always try to put in some new writers the teacher might not be familiar with. You can try new things on them. Sometimes, the customers will complain: “Bah, that bombed, take it out!” Or they might say: “Yeah, that went over well in class.”
EH: Since an anthology does not contain infinite space, despite what some publishers might like to believe, each time you add something to a new edition you must also take something out. Some old chestnuts that have been memorized by past generations might seem to us old-hat, irrelevant, or even offensive. Have you ever had to make the difficult decision to remove something?
XJK: It was usually made on the basis of what the teachers found they could teach successfully. Milton’s “Lycidas” was actually removed from one edition, but it was restored after many readers complained. When you are the editor of an anthology, you’re like a little dog following a band. You’re not the master of your fate or captain of your soul.
EH: Along with James E. Camp and Keith Waldrop, you also edited Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse. Why read bad verse? Aside from the laughs one might have at their expense, do bad poems actually teach us anything? In other words, can we learn what is best in some poems by comprehending its absence or misuse in others?
XJK: Certainly you can. The main reward of reading bad poetry should be laughs. But I do believe that if you can figure out why a bad poem is so bad, you’re a long way toward figuring out what makes a good poem good.
EH: So you learn by negative example.
XJK: Sure. You learn what not to do.
EH: There is a persistent tendency among readers of poetry today to associate “formal” poetry with staid subject matter, prudishness, with being “old fashioned” or “old hat.” Is there a good reason for this? Are there formal poets and audiences who earn this stereotype?
XJK: There must be some formal poets somewhere who write Hallmark Card verse, but as the work of all the best formal poets writing today shows, there is no correlation between formal verse and dull old-hat subjects.
EH: Alongside Anthony Hecht and a handful of others who continued to write in form through the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the New Formalists adopted you in the 1980s as a guiding light. It is now a historical movement. I think of it as something that has already happened and that we can look back on. It’s been two or three decades now. What do you think of New Formalism?
XJK: Is it over now?
EH: That’s one question. Is it locked in our past? Some poets my age feel they are too young to have been new formalists but that they have in some ways benefited from the battles that were fought.
XJK: I think it was a useful label when it first appeared, but now that there is a clear phalanx of good formalists among the younger generations perhaps the label is less useful. When New Formalism as a movement came along, there were some people who attached themselves to it thinking that all you had to do is rhyme and scan and fill up the old form and then you really had something. Well, you had something different. At least the lines were recognizably even in length [laughs]. Of course, there’s far more to it than that, as the best practitioners have always shown.
EH: In magazines like Poetry, one will find the likes of Charles Bernstein shoulder to shoulder with Alicia [A.E.] Stallings. I find this openness to be quite a welcome thing. Do you feel that the New Formalism of the 1980s have created the conditions for this openness?
XJK: I hope so. Since the house of poetry has many mansions, it would be a shame to lock the doors on any of them.
EH: We are in the Auden centenary year. Some of my friends wanted me to ask about a member of the Auden generation, Louis MacNeice. Auden has become such an imposing figure that he has eclipsed others in his generation. How do you feel about MacNeice?
XJK: I would put him down several stairs below Auden, but the best of him certainly was well worth remembering.
EH: Do you have any particular favorite from him?
XJK: Well, I still love his rollicking “Bagpipe Music,” and can’t forget “Among These Turf-stacks Graze No Iron Horses.”
EH: I would like to cite your epigrammatic poem “Ars Poetica” in its entirety: “The goose that laid the golden egg / Died looking up its crotch / To find out how its sphincter worked. // Would you lay well? Don’t watch.” This reminds me of W.B. Yeats’s line from “Adam’s Curse”: “A line may take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” If this is true, what should participants in a workshop or an MFA program be doing with their time?
XJK: My point was that when we write a poem in the white heat of-I won’t say inspiration-but whatever it is, you want to pretend you’re Jesus Christ and can do no wrong and not worry too much about the process of writing. Once the thing is down on paper, that’s where the workshop is useful. Then you can look at it, take it apart, scrutinize it from every angle.
EH: Paul Valéry remarked that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Can’t a certain kind of poem find its perfect finished form?
XJK: Yeats said a poem can come shut with a click like a closing box. I’ve had this happen sometimes. Not often enough. But you have a sense of “okay, this is done. If I mess around with it any more I’ll just louse it up.”
EH: Do you ever feel the temptation to tinker with a poem after it has appeared in print?
XJK: Oh, yes, all the time. I look at it and say “Ugh, what a stupid line.”
EH: If you look through twelve printings of some books by Allen Ginsberg you’ll notice that certain lines have changed nearly that many times.
XJK: Is that so? And he was thought to write spontaneously.
EH: He was an obsessive reworker of his own poems. So much for first thought best thought, though I suppose that was more Jack Kerouac’s mantra.
XJK: I knew that Howl was not the impromptu hymn that he pretended at first. Stanley Kunitz told me he had seen a work draft of it that had many crossings-out. This increases my already great affection and respect for Ginsberg.
EH: Did you know him?
XJK: No, not really. We never met. I heard him read once. I was at a party where he was at one side of the room and I was on the other. We exchanged a couple of postcards of a business nature.
EH: You wrote a poem about him.
XJK: “For Allen Ginsberg.”
Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright,
Taunter of the ultra right,
What blink of the Buddha’s eye
Chose the day for you to die? [stanza one]
EH: Poetry is very heavily subsidized in this country. David Fenza has suggested that universities alone provide literary writers with over one billion dollars annually. What do you think would happen to poetry if all the institutions that facilitate poetry-university programs, conferences, prizes, grants, retreats, colonies, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation, the NEA-were to suddenly disappear?
XJK: I’m afraid poetry would still go on.
EH: What would change?
XJK: I don’t know. Poets might have less free time to write, so they would publish less. That might be a good thing. But it’s lovely to get a grant or a prize. Lord knows I’ve been grateful to the givers of the few I’ve received. Just showering someone with money does not produce good poems. It doesn’t work like just cranking a handle: Put in the money out come the poems. Many people who get grants go to Europe and spend all their time trying to cope with exigencies of daily life and perhaps a language they’re not adept in, and find they have a hell of a time writing anything at all.
EH: Does popular poetry, by which I mean poetry that is read by the widest possible audience, face the possibility of being deemed less than important by both poets and critics? Is it the case that poetry must shed a certain level of complexity or difficulty in order to reach that audience?
XJK: Who would be an example of a popular poet?
EH: Billy Collins, Charles Bukowski, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, even Franz Wright. They all sell enormous numbers of books. There are others, but those are the ones that leap out. We also had Rod McKuen, who sold millions of copies of his books.
XJK: Rod McKuen was not so good, but the others are. In the long run, who knows what posterity will remember? Posterity is a very good winnower and it will decide what it will keep. We can’t really know. I’ve seen critical damnations of all the ones you mentioned, the good ones who have become popular. Billy Collins has certainly had his share, though I think the best of Collins is both delightful and could well stick around.
EH: When speaking with Elizabeth Lund at the Christian Science Monitor, you remarked “I don’t think anybody is a poet 24/7, only in those rare moments when a person is producing a poem.” Auden held similar beliefs. What do you make of poets who play up the role of the poet? Is it what the readers want? Is it put on in order to justify a salary or a faculty position?
XJK: There are many people who perhaps for good reasons put on the robes of the poet and like to sport them. I am skeptical of people who do that.
EH: Are traditional techniques of poetry, such as meter, rhyme, allusion, metaphor, essential in some way to poetry?
XJK: People are under no compulsion to rhyme and scan, and Lord knows some of them shouldn’t. There have been poets who force themselves to rhyme and scan to the detriment of their work. Denise Levertov was one. She published a first book in England that rhymed and scanned all over the place but was really pretty dull. When she discovered old Doc Williams she became a thousand percent better. You can’t prescribe for anyone else.
EH: What do you think of the incredible explosion of MFA programs over the past two decades? How has it changed the art form and the audience?
XJK: It has made for more poets trying desperately to publish their books. Still, I don’t think of MFA programs as evil. Every poet at some early stage needs an audience of peers and can learn a good deal from them. Back in my day, said he, tugging his long white whiskers, we would share poems with friends over beer at night. That’s the MFA program we set up for ourselves. Today, people have been drawn to do it in a more organized fashion. I reckon that isn’t bad as long as people don’t expect an MFA to be a door to a career or a surefire meal ticket.
EH: One of your “Japanese Beetles” is the epigram “To a Young Poet,” which runs “On solemn asses fall plush sinecures, / So keep a straight face and sit tight on yours.” You counsel patience. What other advice would you offer a young poet today?
XJK: Thanks for reminding me of an epigram that our host at this moment, Jan Schreiber, improved by cutting from six lines down to two when he was editing a book of mine for David R. Godine. Sententious advice? Read and don’t just read what’s new and trendy. Read the work of your true rivals. Go back and read Blake and Milton, Keats, and Emily Dickinson. Don’t settle for just reading the current magazines in order to case the market. Set your sights long and take in the best you can find-whatever great stuff speaks to you.[/private]