Looking for a Necessary Poem:
Karen Bannister in Conversation with Jeffery Donaldson

Jeffery Donaldson

Malahat volunteer Karen Bannister talks with Jeffery Donaldson, the judge of our 2014 Open Season Award for Poetry.

What I love about your poetry is the density of your narrative. You really invite the reader in to form an image in their mind of what you are describing. In what way is poetry the ideal medium with which to communicate your ideas? Why do you write poetry (or write at all)?

I tend to hold with those who believe that you don’t choose your medium at all; the medium chooses you.  The fact that there are so many poets practicing an art that is unlikely to fill the coffers seems proof enough that choice has little do with the matter.  You find yourself writing poems and you find yourself communicating the sorts of things that your way of writing poems allows you to communicate.  You push at the limits of course, but a large part of the experience is just feeling a part of the Vast Unspoken, in all its “frequency,” becoming audible on that single, finely-tuned radio called you.

As to what sort of medium a poem is?   Words exist, like everything else, in the primary dimensions of time and space.  It seems no accident that writing forms have evolved that capture the unique essence of both dimensions.  Prose fiction – emphasizing the unfolding vectors of story, sequence, momentum – derives its essential initiatives from time.  Poetry – emphasizing metaphors, patterns of images, juxtaposing relationships – finds its initiative in space. 

Both include versions of the other of course, but fiction leans in the direction of music, a how-is-this-all-happening.  Poetry leans in the direction of painting, a how-are-all-these-parts-related.  Fiction asks, “Where is this going?”  Poetry asks, “What do I see?”  Poets then tend to be writers who incline to organize their experiences metaphorically, who look for flashes of the intelligible in how things fall together in their minds.  Fiction writers tend to be more curious about how things work themselves out from a given point or circumstance.  Those are mere starting points, and then you have every exploratory hybrid and mash-up between the genres that you can imagine.  In my own narrative poems that you are very kind to mention, I like to start with some idea of a process, in the form of a simple plot, but then look to find ways of whipping that particular cream up into a sufficient thickness of revelation that it will stand on its own for a moment, before it softens back into denouement. 

What do you feel are the elements of a good poem?

There are the usual suspects—unordinary images, strong language textures—that you usually want to take back as soon as you name them.  Every poet writing with command ought to make you want to revise the list.  I’ve always liked Mark Strand’s little adage that he can tell in the first couple of lines whether a poet is writing with any authority or not.  This doesn’t survive every test, but I like the inference, for instance, that there is something intangible and yet immediately convincing about the voice of a poem that has slipped into its necessity. 

One simple observation I could make: there needs to be a reason that things are the way they are.  One of the things we may overlook when we scrap over formal and free-verse territories is that both types of poem include a kind of formal intelligence, a reason that the words and lines appear exactly as they do.  W.H. Auden said that form is useful for poets because it obliges them to have second thoughts.  And indeed it does.  In this sense, so-called free-verse poems would be the more challenging to write, if executed well, because you have to generate the necessities of line and phrasing more organically, as it were.  They aren’t imposed, but you still have to find them.  On the other hand, finding your freedom inside imperatives that are not your own—as writers in form speak of it—and so making them your own, requires its own kind of creative focus.  Playing with the givens, as it were.  No one doubted the creative genius of Bobby Fischer just because he played chess by the rules. 

One other caveat that I often include in my creative writing class:  it isn’t what you have to say that makes you a poet; it is how you say it.  You have to love words and be curious about them.  If a sculptor doesn’t like the feel of wet clay on his fingers, he’s working in the wrong medium.

What was your journey like towards finding your voice in writing? Do you feel it is complete, changing, ongoing?

It is complete, changing, and ongoing, yes.  I wouldn’t worry too much about it.  Voice is something that other people hear in your work.  Think of your own “voice box” in your throat.  You speak and you think you sound a certain way—or you don’t think you sound “a certain way” at all—then someone plays back a recording of you speaking, and you think, “but that’s not me.”  And yet it is.  That isn’t to say that you can’t play with every possible register and tonal range within your voice.  And imitation is a great means of discovery.  I think no one must have understood as much about his own voice and “all he could do with it” as the impersonator Rich Little.  And you have to read a million poems.  Those students in creative writing classes who say they don’t want to read too much poetry because it will interfere with their own voice.  It’s like a fish saying that it tries to stay out of the water, for purity’s sake.

You are the judge this year for the Open Season Award for Poetry. What does this job mean to you? How does it mark, if it does, your evolution as an educator and poet?

It’s a chance for me to reward my friends and get revenge on my enemies, why do you ask? 

What kinds of things will you look for in a winning entry?

I’ll look for a good poem, a necessary poem, a poem that needed to be.  Perhaps we haven’t noticed, but they aren’t rioting in Egypt for more poetry.  The fact that more poetry comes along anyway is part of what makes it noticeable.  It is so strangely obstinate, like the child who keeps standing there after you’ve told it to leave and let the grownups talk.  Poetry seems to insist on getting itself into the world.  So something between  “I simply had to write this” and “this had better justify itself” seems welcome.

Of winning, failing and trying: if you can offer a piece of advice to aspiring poets, or words of encouragement about writing contests, what would it be?

If you win, it means you’re the best.  If you lose, it means you suck, go find another hobby.  What fun just to write that out!  Unfortunately, it is in the nature of contests to imply this, our honest intentions to encourage writing and reading notwithstanding.  You compete, and so you’re vulnerable.  There is a winner and there are the losers.  Here’s what will happen.  You’ll submit your poem and you’ll think of it every once in a while being out there, being read by someone, and you’ll wonder how it’s doing and you’ll feel hopeful.  You’ll wonder if the winner gets an email or whether you just have to check the results yourself.  Time will pass and then one day the contest winner will be announced online and you’ll look at the name and you’ll compare it with your own name and well, most likely you’ll find that they don’t match, which will be both surprising and disappointing.  You’ll feel this letdown.  That wind that seemed to fill the sails of “The Good Ship Maybe This Time” suddenly falls quiet, you’re adrift in a lull, feeling that you’re going nowhere.  Damn wind.  Problem is, you were on the wrong boat.  See that little dingy over there in the distance with someone still pulling hard at the oars?  It’s called the HMS “Fuck You, Poetry is my Calling.”  My money is on that one making it to shore. 

Karen Bannister

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