William Haskins, AW Poet Laureate, January-March 2007
1. When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote poems as early as the age of 7 or 8, but it amounted to little more than the mimicry of a child—simple concepts that were stylistically derivative of whatever I had been exposed to by that time. I do remember I was hell-bent on rhyme and, although I don’t use it most of the time, I still feel pretty confident about being able to pull one together when the situation calls for it. And I think it’s largely a result of toying with it a lot as a child.
It wasn't until I was 10 or so that I began to comprehend the nature of individual vision and voice, and this was reinforced by a fortunate crossing of paths with my 7th grade English teacher, who greatly expanded my knowledge of poetry and its potential.
By the age of 14, I was working pretty steadily toward developing a style and experimenting quite a bit. But it was still mostly observational stuff, very externalized, like a sketch artist sitting on a park bench. Some time around this age, it became more internalized… psychological, philosophical. And, let me tell you, most of it was pretty bad.
2. What other writing do you do regularly?
Well, I’ve written a lot of stuff to pay the bills, much of it in the video/computer games and film industries. But in terms of my own writing, it’s poetry first and then fiction.
3. Do you think of yourself primarily as a poet?
I try to, you know; but life has a way of beating the poet out of you. Still, when the mind is firing on all the right cylinders and language starts clinging to the invisible, it’s a pretty good feeling. But I realize and accept that considering myself a poet is something I do for me. I would never print it on a business card, or try to force people to see me in that way.
4. Why do you write poetry?
The same reason people take photos on vacation—to keep a record of my travels.
5. How does writing poetry relate with your other writing?
I think it helps most with economy and compression of language. It helps me write more sharply, more succinctly, more visually.
6. Beyond Absolute Write, what is your publication/performance history?
I published a dozen or so poems and some short fiction in small press and university magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. But, once the Internet came along, I really stopped worrying about publishing. I put a good deal of my writing on my site, so it’s there if someone wants to read it.
I understand that some poets want to sort of climb the prestige ladder that comes with publishing in increasingly bigger markets, ending up one day in the big glossies, but that doesn’t really appeal to me. And I have absolutely no patience for people who see poetry as a commodity and attempt to fashion careers whereby they plan to get rich.
7. How often do you write poems?
I average a poem a day, I suppose. Some days I might write three or four; another day I might only write a line or two. But I try not to let a day get past me where I don’t at least tinker with one.
8. What goals, if any, do you have for your poetry?
To go back to the photography metaphor, I guess I’d have to say my goal is to achieve the most accurate snapshot of the feeling, idea or object. To me, the poem is an end in itself.
I write it, I post it on AW, then eventually on my site. And that’s about it.
It’s mostly just for response, though. I’m a horrible poet for peer critique. Unless it’s a glaring grammatical error, I usually resist revision. From my perspective, it’s like (again to invoke the photography metaphor) someone looking at your photos and saying, “Wow, it’d be great if you’d been turned 60 degrees to get that sunset in there.” All you can do is roll your eyes and say, “Okay let me dig up Aunt Mabel's grave and haul her back to the Grand Canyon and re-shoot that for you…”
I enjoy and appreciate critical comments, but I rarely act on them.
9. Do you set out to write a poem, does it compel you to write it, or something else?
I’m convinced that some people are just wired for poetry. Two people could be standing outside a restaurant and see a woman walk by, obviously tormented. One might just think: “Wow, something’s bothering her” while the other might think: “She takes every step as if approaching a cliff”. The physical observation is of the same person, but it’s processed in much different ways.
But to answer your question, I think the poem writes itself. I just try to take accurate notes.
10. What formal, semantic, or thematic traits do you prefer to use in your poems?
I’m not much on formalism, though I enjoy reading formalist works. I write a great deal of free verse, and I sometimes seek out the symmetry of form, but always on my own terms, in the places of my choosing. I don’t like writing to a template.
Semantically, I love words with double meanings, and I like to construct playful language, especially when it will be juxtaposed with fairly dark subject matter. There’s something about the emotional contradiction of it that appeals to me.
11. Which usually comes first: Topic/idea, form, words? Other?
Form always follows function. The idea is the main thing and the words are chosen to illuminate, explain or support it. Form, inasmuch as it’s used, is self-evident.
12. Do you revise? Right away, later on? How do you decide when you've finished with a poem?
Very rarely, and it’s almost always limited to punctuation and line breaks. I trust myself to make the right word choices right away (though others may well disagree).
For the vast majority of them, it’s done when the last line is written.
13. How did you come to be interested in poetry?
There were always a lot of books around the house, so I was lucky to be exposed to a lot of writers before other kids my age might have been. I think that was a big part of it. But I always loved language, and I recognized, and was attracted to, the poetic aspects of everything from the elevated language of the Bible to the lyrics of the Beatles. Like I said, I think some people are just wired for poetry.
14. What particular poem or poet first attracted you to poetry?
It probably started with Robert Frost. But Poe and Lewis Carroll and Longfellow were all heroes and influences in my pre-teen years.
15. What poems, poets, movements or eras have influenced you as a poet: which do you particularly enjoy, admire, or aspire toward?
I embarked on a study of poetic movements in my early teens. I was searching for some touchstone I could use to break free from a fairly traditional style that I had slipped into like an old pair of hand-me-downs from the poets I had been exposed to by that time.
Fortunately, I never sold my soul to any of them, but rather picked and chose elements and approaches that seemed intuitive to me. If I were to point to those that influenced me the most, I would have to say it was the Imagists and the Surrealists.
16. What single poem of yours would you recommend to someone who had never read your work?
A single one, huh? Probably “Colors”.
17. What are your thoughts on poetry today: its function, future, direction, relevance?
In terms of a poem on a page, I think it’s all but dead, to be honest. It’s sad in a way, but it doesn’t deter me from writing. I just recognize that for Western culture, in particular, it no longer resonates. Most fans of poetry are poets themselves, and this makes for a sort of inbred, incestuous game of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine”. It might turn around and become important again, but I don’t have high hopes. I take some comfort, though, in being a kind of monk, toiling in the shadows to preserve an ancient art form.
That said, there can be no doubt that elements of poetry show up in song lyrics and raps, in children’s books and greeting cards and ad campaigns. If anything, it shows that there’s something about it that appeals to people on a primal level—as long as they don’t have to think too hard.
18. What, in your view, makes a written/spoken work a poem?
For me, it comes down to metaphor, which I feel is the fundamental building block of language and, by extension, human communication.
19. What do you like about your own poetry?
I like that it is, for the most part, an honest representation of what I thought or felt at a particular moment.
20. What would you say to someone who wants to learn to write poetry well?
Get to writing. Along the way, you need to read widely and learn as much as you can about various techniques, but there’s no substitute for actually creating poems. They might be shallow, perhaps even bad; but each one will be a step towards greater clarity, better use of language and deeper meaning.
As with anything, there are no shortcuts.