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New York City
April 2001

State Laureates Speak of the Writing,
Reading and Revising of Poetry

by Sarah Elzas

“I like to throw a net over a wild beast and bring it into my computer,” explains Walt McDonald, the poet laureate of Texas since November 2000. “But then I rewrite. Rewriting is over half the fun—it’s where I get to train that wild beast to jump through hoops.” McDonald revises almost everything he writes; and he sends out three out of every four poems that he produces to be published.

Every poet—every writer—has his or her own way of approaching writing. Like McDonald, some get up before dawn and write to exhaustion; others write intensely on scraps of paper only when inspiration hits them. There are poets who marvel in the ease of editing on the computer, and others who are still faithful to the number-two pencil. But they will all agree that rewriting is the substance of the writing process. “Until it becomes a pleasure to revise, I don’t think you’re a real writer,” says Helen Norris, poet laureate of Alabama since 1999. “First drafts are not poetry,” agrees McDonald. Nor are generalizations or abstractions. “I am a compulsive rewriter,” says Fred Chappell, poet laureate of North Carolina. “I can’t stand to see something stay inert.”

McDonald, Norris and Chappell are three of about 30 state poets laureate in the United States. The position of state poet laureate varies from state to state: some are lifetime appointments, some, like McDonald, are as short as a year. Very few are compensated monetarily for the job; few have specific duties. A state poet laureate is usually an honorary title, but most are active, attending poetry readings, workshops and working with schools.

Bill Kloefkorn, poet laureate of Nebraska, started a ‘Poets in the Schools’ program that has now been extended to ‘Artists in the Schools.’ Most of the poets laureate are professors or former professors and are used to teaching and talking about poetry as well as giving poetry readings. But poets like Norris, who stopped teaching in 1979, take part in their fair share of poetry readings and teaching honors courses, but tend to keep it at that. Norris is no longer sure what to present to audiences. “It’s kind of hard for me to talk to young people,” she muses. “I don’t really know what they like.”

David Lee, the first poet laureate of Utah, is an exception to the honorary title. When he was appointed in 1997, the governor told him specifically, “It’s not an honorary position. It is active.” He says he averaged over 50 “gigs” a year in the four years since he has been appointed, reading and teaching poetry at “ladies clubs, cop conventions and schools.” Of course, like anyone promoting the art that consumes his life, he enjoys it immensely.

Leo Conellan, the late poet laureate of Connecticut, encouraged kids to write poetry. “He reached out to schools and communities to say that art is for everyone. He wanted to make poetry accessible,” says his daughter Amy.

State poets are not chosen because they write about their states, nor are they regularly commissioned to write poetry (although some have been). Rather, these poets were chosen to represent their states because they struck someone—people in the state arts councils, legislators and often, governors—with their words. “I prefer to think of the poet laureate position as an acknowledgement of the art as a whole,” says Marvin Bell, the first poet laureate of Iowa, appointed to his renewable, two-year term in March 2000. “I’ve written poetry that sounds like it was written by an Iowan. Some sounds like it was written by a Martian,” he jokes. “There’s no one way to write, and there’s no right way to write,” he says.

Poetry is a way of writing in which “not a word is wasted,” says McDonald, and consequently, “you give a lot of time and get back a handful of words. It’s hard but delightful work.” “A good poem is something that makes you a different person when you read it,” says Chappell.

After speaking with several poets laureate, a general picture emerges. For one, not many of them were born and raised in the states where they have been named laureate. Lee moved to Utah from Texas in 1970. Connelin came to Connecticut from Maine, Edmund Skellings, poet laureate of Florida, grew up and attended school in Massachusetts. Most of these well-traveled writers started writing poetry or fiction at an early age, “during the hormonal storm,” as Chappell so poetically puts it. While some laureates continued from there, others put it away and came back to it later, some in the army, others during college. These are intense writers who have made poetry their lives, many holding university positions teaching writing.

“I wrote my first poem at the age of eight,” says Norris. She lived on a farm outside of Montgomery, Alabama that according to her is now “officially the center of Montgomery.” One day, walking home from school, she had a “powerful urge to write a poem about spring. It was such a glorious experience.” By the age of twelve she had written two novels (“The first one was very derivative of the Bobsy twins,” she says with a laugh), and she was writing plays and musicals for her brothers and her to act in.

Lee also started young. He knew by the fourth grade that he was going to be a writer of some sort. Though he wrote poetry in high school, he quickly gave it up because “in West Texas where I grew up, it was considered effeminate,” which, at the time, was unacceptable to him. He rediscovered poetry when through reading it when he was in the army. A few years later he found himself in the position to teach a poetry class, and he had no idea what to do. “I had a student of mine give me a crash course. He told me to get out of that organized, metrical poetry.” Thus, another future poet laureate’s career was launched.

But not all started so young. “I came to poetry as a middle aged air force pilot,” says McDonald. Some of his friends died in Vietnam and he wanted to write about them. “My first stumbling attempts at poetry were letters to the dead.” He began to read more and more contemporary poets, something he never did growing up in a small town in Kansas. He never took a poetry class, even in college at the University of Iowa, which he regrets. “I would have profited by working with some of the poets who were working there [at Iowa] at the time.”

When he starts writing, McDonald takes “a swatch of language and I go with it. I never know if I’m going to find a poem. For a while, I feel totally ignorant when writing.” David Lee writes all of his open-verse poems in his head. “I live 50 miles from where I work,” he explains. He approaches his poetry not in terms of individual poems, but in terms of a book, and every year during the month of August he sits down and commits his poems to paper. “I’ve always learned to trust my memory,” he explains. When asked how he does it, he says simply, “just teach yourself where you put things in your mind.”

Connelin wrote on scraps of paper everywhere. “He always said he wrote because he couldn’t not write,” says Amy. He wrote in blank verse with the attitude that “in the 20th Century, the only reason to rhyme is to carry tradition,” according to Amy.

“Every poem must have a form. But the form should not call attention to itself,” says Lee. Norris says that form, in the form of rhythm, is essential for her poems. “It’s hard for me to write free verse without a beat. The beat is in my head. I have a strong sense of meter.”

In the days of epic poems, poets would write poems to be repeated from mouth to ear. In our day of print saturation, poetry has found itself embedded in collected works, brought out for poetry readings, but little else. But Skellings, who runs the Florida Center for Electronic Communication at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale, is bringing poetry into the modern age of technology, which ironically means he is actually bringing it back to its origins: the spoken word.

Students work with state-of-the art computers to animate Skellings’ and others’ narrated poems. When he was in school Skellings took speech classes and cultivated his voice.He released his first book of poems with a record of his reading them in the front cover. He is fascinated with the sound of the poem—the phonemic side of the language.

“I am doing something no one else is doing,” he says of his award-winning animations. “Instead of using the recording equipment to record what used to be, I am using the computer to record what could be.” While some poets play with the form of the poem, Skellings plays with what the words themselves look like. He asks, “What is the most often used phrase in the English language? I love you.” Changing the juncture—the spacing between the words—he comes up with “Isle of View.” Say it out loud: I love you. “Isn’t that fun?” he asks, rhetorically.

Skellings is not the only one mixing media. Bell has performed his poetry with musicians like bassist Glen Moore. At the University of Iowa he has had his students collaborate with music students, with the musicians setting the poems to music.

“Poetry is oral in nature,” says Lee. He thinks that a poet has to “make music over meaning.” “I think all poems should be read aloud,” agrees Norris. “Poetry ought not to be ugly. It ought to be capable of being read aloud.”

However, Chappell says, “some poetry is too convoluted” to be read aloud. Bell says that a poem can go either way. “Reading poems aloud has the advantage of hearing the music of the poem. But on the page, the mind can do more things,” such as read more levels of meaning into the poem. Perhaps therein lies the beauty of poetry. “There’s a complexity to good poetry,” continues Bell. “We don’t just think one thing at a time.”

While style and substance, revising and rewriting can make a good poet, a lot goes on behind the scenes. Reading good poetry is half the battle towards writing it. “Good poetry is only obvious to those who have read good poems,” says Bell. “The secret of good writing is reading. Originality is really a mixture of influences.” He can read a poem and often tell what the poet was reading at the time.

“Anyone who wants to be a poet needs to read,” agrees Lee. In the course of his poetry workshops, it is very rare that he does not quote several poems from memory.

“If it hasn’t been read aloud to you, it hasn’t been embedded in your brain,” says Norris. She loves Shakespeare. “You never hit the bottom of Shakespeare. That’s just the thing with great writers: they’re so deep.” She also admires Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa.

McDonald’s favorite poet is John Dickey, a flyer in World War II. When someone recommended that he read Dickey in the air force academy, McDonald says, “I could not understand him at all.” Later he reread him and was amazed. “Some people say he’s a chauvinistic macho guy,” says McDonald. “But his metaphors are so daring.”

Lee likes to read the poets, Homer and John Milton, but of modern poets, he cannot give enough praise to his colleague, Bill Kloefkorn. Chappell was “electrified” when he first read Rambeaud, the French poet, and Kloefkorn is attracted to the “voice and understatement” in Mark Twain’s writing.

While poets read voraciously of the old classics, they also are very aware of their contemporaries, especially since many are teaching the poets of tomorrow. As McDonald puts it, “the poet that inspires me the most may be the one I discover tomorrow.”



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