Interview conducted and post written by MFA Creative Writing Graduate Student Lena Ziegler.
On Monday March 28th esteemed poet Gary McDowell will visit WKU for the annual Goldenrod Poetry Festival. Author of such poetry collections including American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), They Speak of Fruit (Cooper Dillon, 2009), and Blueprint (Pudding House, 2005), McDowell is also the co-editor of the anthology, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010), and Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Belmont University and has published extensively with literary journals and presses. In a thorough and engaging exchange, McDowell shared some insight into publishing success (and sometimes failures), the role of the contemporary poet, and what subject matter shows up in his work again, and again.
Q/A with Gary McDowell
Q: You are visiting WKU as a poet, but I always like to ask this question. Do you write in any other genres? Are there any genres you have yet to explore that you would like to?
In fact, I do. I write pretty extensively in the lyric essay as well. I’ve a collection of them that I’m hoping to one day put out in the world. They’ve appeared individually in several publications such as Gulf Coast, Green Mountains Review, Prairie Schooner, Quarter After Eight, Massachusetts Review, and many others. The lyric essay, for me anyway, is an extension of the poems, a longer, more meditative space, but poetic nonetheless. As for genres I’d like to explore, I guess I’m always tossing around the idea of trying to write a novel one day, but it seems such an insurmountable beast.
Q: Has poetry been a lifelong interest? How did you get started writing? Do you remember the first poem you have ever written?
I’ve always loved telling and writing stories, but poetry didn’t enter my life until I was midway through high school. I got started when a rather tragic death, the first I’d ever experienced, occurred in my family: my stepfather, brain cancer. I turned to poetry via the advice of a counselor at my high school. I found solace in it and started to write my own. I’d ride my bike down to the shores of the Fox River in Cary, IL and write really bad nature poetry. I mean really bad. But it was therapeutic in a way that nothing else, including actual therapy, was. The first poems I wrote were imitations of the poets I was reading: Frost, Poe, Wordsworth. They were bad, but they were essential to me.
Q: For a creative writer of any genre, it can be scary to stand up in front of an audience and share work. What advice might you give to a writer who might be a little more hesitant to participate in a reading?
My first inclination is to say, “just do it anyway!” But that’s probably not fair as I realize a lot of people do have legitimate fears of public speaking. I used to be that way, but in college I studied (and paid my way through school doing it, really) sleight-of-hand magic. Performing for dozens of people with nothing but a deck of cards, some coins, a handkerchief and my own practiced dexterity taught me a lot about self-reliance, confidence, and the ability to bullshit my way through just about anything. So I guess my advice would be to have confidence in yourself! Be you. Go out there and let your work be what people see/hear.
Q: Are there any themes as a writer that you come back to time and time again? Why or why not? Are there any themes you are still hoping to explore? If not themes, is there any subject manner that seems to show up time and time again?
My themes are my subject matter. I suppose this is true of many poets, at least the ones I seem to come back to again and again. I write about fathers and fatherhood in nearly everything. I can’t escape the fact that a huge part of my identity will always be father. I love it. The themes connected to that experience are omnipresent, too: fear, legitimacy, love, hope. As for other themes or subject matters, I think my poetry is more concerned with image than subject matter. The subject of the poem often only arrives after I’ve been chiseling at the images of which the poem is made. Recurring images are plentiful in my work though: rivers, lakes, fishing/fish, father figures, stars/space, birds. All pretty typical things, but my eye/ear turn toward them when I’m writing.
Q: Do you have any regrets with work you’ve written, but specifically work you have published? Does the thought of any earlier work make you cringe?
No regrets at all. Sure, some of my early published poems aren’t as competent as the things I’m writing now perhaps—though I suppose that’s completely subjective; not to mention that my newest work is having a really hard time finding an audience; rejections have been plentiful lately. I’m proud of the work I’ve out there in the world, and I hope to continue to be.
Q: For the MFA course “Reading as a Writer,” students are asked to write an intellectual autobiography detailing significant experiences relating to reading, writing, and literature. Are there some significant experiences, or even just influences, that you could share?
Oh man, influences are one thing of which I have plenty. It started for me with my first and still favorite poetry teacher: Amy Newman at Northern Illinois University. She instilled in me a work ethic; a responsibility to be a student of poetry always, even when not writing; and the fire to work harder than anyone else. She’s, a lot of ways, my muse. And then there were many more wonderful teachers along the way: Larissa Szporluk, William Olsen, Nancy Eimers, Jon Adams, etc. I’ve been blessed, no doubt. As for other “intellectual influences,” I’d have to make a longer list than you’ve space for, but some of the names at the top would be Tom Andrews, Rilke, Faulkner, Charles Wright, Peter Gizzi, Linda Gregerson, Jack Gilbert, Lia Purpura (maybe my favorite writer in any genre; her On Looking is so stunning as to be impossibly good), Carole Maso, David Baker, Dickinson, Whitman, C.D. Wright (especially Deepstep Come Shining), Marilynne Robinson (I read Housekeeping as a sophomore in college and it changed my life; I dropped my Computer Science major and switched to English), and so many others. This isn’t even to mention all of my poetry friends; the community I feel with other poets, both my contemporaries (like Chad Sweeney, Traci Brimhall, Adam Clay, TJ Jarret, Christina Stoddard, Jennifer Sweeney, Andrea England, Kendra DeColo, Keith Montesano, and on and on) and my teachers is absolutely essential to my “intellectual autobiography.”
Q: What is the value of poetry in a society like ours? What is the role of the contemporary poet?
You know, I’m not sure. I’m typing this as NPR relays the story of this morning’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. These types of events have become so common in our world today that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not feel numb to them. If there are any answers to these societal issues, I don’t know if poetry can solve them, but it can damn sure help us cope. And maybe if the right person reads the right poem at the right time, they too can be changed. The role of the contemporary poet is to keep singing, to bring to light their experience of the world so that others can feel connected to this, our human plight.
Q: Describe your poetry in one word.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to a writer who has had little success with publication in literary magazines and journals?
Don’t ever give up. You have to work hard to find the right audience for your work. Think about this: an editor at a prestigious literary journal might get between 10,000 and 20,000 poems every year. So that’s approximately 30-60 poems EVERY DAY. Do you read 30-60 poems every day? If you do, do you ever worry that maybe you’ve skimmed over something worth noting? So much of publishing success—aside from being a talented writer, of course—comes down to timing. You, in a way, have to find the right editor on the right day in the right mood. It’s not easy. Like I mentioned above, even those of us who have had a bit of success publishing work get rejected ALL the time. I got four rejections yesterday, and I bet if I checked my email right now, I’d have another. It’s the game we play to professionalize. It’s important, sure, but it’s not nearly as important as the work you do on the page. Write like hell, send out poems, and be patient. And know your market.
Q: When writing a poem, how do you know when you are finished?
“Poems are never finished. They are only abandoned,” said/wrote, and I likely paraphrase, Paul Valéry. Honestly, a poem is “done” when I feel as though I can’t do another thing to it to make it better. Charles Wright talks somewhere in his lectures/essays about how everything in a poem should add to its overall effect and not take away. So when I’m editing (and editing is NOT proofreading; I’m talking more about rewriting), I look to be sure that everything in the poem is adding to its effect; when I feel as though I can’t do that any longer, I abandon the poem and call it “finished,” if you will.
Q: The world can be both a wonderful and terrifying place. What do you consider the greatest challenges facing coming generations? On the other hand, what gives you hope about the future?
Wow. Well, I’m no sage, and I’m certainly not aware of all of the atrocities and beauties our world has to offer, but I think one of the largest challenges we face as a species is maintaining our ecology. We are, as humans, ruining our planet. If our leaders can’t agree to do something about global climate change, oil production, natural gas production, and other harmful and deleterious man-made issues, I’m fearful that we won’t any longer have a planet. Clearly this is WAY beyond my expertise, but I nonetheless hope that someone (or someones) much smarter than me are trying to solve these issues. What gives me hope? My babies. The love I have for them. The wonder and excitement with which they experience the world. They are my hope, my entire life, my consolation for knowing what I know.
The Goldenrod Poetry Festival is on March 28th at 7pm in Cherry Hall 125. McDowell will do a reading of his own work, the finalists for the Golden Poetry contest will read their poems, and McDowell will announce the first, second, and third place winners.
The Goldenrod Poetry Festival is sponsored by English Club, and is a yearly event. All students are welcome to submit their own original works of poetry. The top ten poets participate in a private workshop with a visiting poet (which changes each year), who also gives a reading during the Goldenrod Poetry Festival. This event is free and open to the public.