JMW: Since we’re talking about belief and the call to poetry: what’s your advice to somebody just starting, somebody who’s just been caught in the caul of poetry? Aside from hunting up an old Underwood typewriter, how do you direct them? What do you tell them to cultivate or avoid?
PO'L: In his essay “Hurrah for Euphony,” Ronald Johnson writes that it takes as long to become a poet as it does to become a doctor: ten years. I think that’s the most practical advice about becoming a poet that I know. If you want to become a poet, be prepared to give a decade of your life to learning the craft. Principally, this involves doing a lot of reading as well as some writing – often direct imitation (in the sense that Eliot describes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” an essay I often teach in the context of learning to write). I encourage students to keep several notebooks: not only journals and/or diaries, but reading notebooks for quotations, words, titles, as well as notebooks devoted to specific topics – basically research notebooks. In A Wizard of Earthsea, when Ged, the young wizard, undertakes his study on the Isle of Roke at the wizards’ school, one of his charges is to spend months of study in the lonely tower of the Master Namer, who lives on a remote part of the island, where Ged pores through archaic tomes writing out the names of things – all things – in a ledger of his own, a task he finds initially odious and unnecessary (the fruits of this labor eventually save him). I don’t necessarily think this would be a bad idea for most poets learning the craft: keep notebooks filled with lists of words, things. And do it for years, all in preparation of the work to come.
The other thing I always emphasize to poets starting out is to begin publishing each others’ work in journals and chapbooks. I discourage them from pursuing these goals electronically: instead, I think you should learn what’s involved in putting out a little journal, even if it’s just something you’ve run off on a photocopier. Putting out LVNG with my brother Michael and Joel Felix when I was a younger poet was as crucial to my education in poetry as it was to facilitating my connections with other poets – both peers and established poets whose work I admired. I don’t think you can replace the value of that contact with some sort of hustling in the biz.
If you’re called to religious life, you don’t enter a monastery and become a monk and never see the world again. There’s a lengthy period of formation during which you are a novice. Why shouldn’t this be true of poetry, too? You feel called and then you give yourself over to the process of learning for a good long time, committing yourself during that time primarily to the caretaking of the art. And when your period of initiation is through – after a decade or so – you’re ready to commit yourself to the art with solemn vows.