Interview with Tyrone Williams (page 6)
JMW: What's your response to folks who say that experimental poetry—to quote one of my student's recent emails—doesn't relate to "the average reader," that it's too caught up in self-referentiality to be meaningful to the uninitiated? What sorts of ways do you invite your students into various forms of poetry, from those you mention up through the Every Goodbye Ain't Gone anthology?
TW: First, there is no "average reader"; even less probable is the "average reader" of poetry. Since I just finished teaching some experimental poets the subject/ewc is very much on my mind. The truth is that most (American) people cannot, actually, read (I include most academics in this indictment). This broad generality includes students, of course, but they are by no means the exception that the town criers make them out to be. Of course, when I say "read" I mean reading "serious," difficult, challenging books, magazines, etc. The advantage many younger people have over their elders is their visual literacy vis-à-vis computer games. None of this is a criticism, of course, but the canard that the "average reader" is going into bookstores and walking out with stacks of Mary Oliver, Albert Goldbarth, or Thom Gunn—for example—is just that. What's really behind those kinds of statements is not anti-experimental poetry or even anti-poetry, per se, but a residual anti-intellectualism in general which, contrary to popular opinion, is not an after-effect of the rise of television, cinema, popular music, etc.
As for my students, the process of acculturation—and it is that—depends on their suspension of disbelief. I tell them the bad news first: learning to read poetry—any kind of poetry—is like learning to spell: there are no shortcuts. It is very much akin to learning to swim; you have to learn to trust your body in the water, so to speak. The first thing most people want to do—given the way we are trained in poor educational system—is to figure out a poem's "meaning." I tell them to look for patterns, for forms, for the internal logic of the poem. Those old standbys—alliteration, assonance, rhythm, etc.—come in handy. Pedagogically, I'm trying to do a kind of regression, to get them to shed years of reading habits, to return to a kind of play and wonder, not in order to romanticize poetry but in order to re-open those alternative ways of engaging language closed off by public and/or private education.
JMW: Your relationship with Cincinnati is a curious one—how has it affected your writing? What are you working on now?
TW: Not sure what you mean by "curious"—lots of people work at jobs they dislike and live in places they'd just as soon leave. I happen to be lucky that only one of those applies to me. I have a few kindred spirits in the Tri-State area—Dana Ward, Keith Tuma (Miami U. in Oxford, OH), Alan Golding (U. of Louisville), Norman Finkelstein—but I'm not part of any artistic "community." I don't want to give in to the exaggerations of memory, but in Detroit I felt part of a community—literary, political, artistic, cultural, etc.—even if I know that one of the reasons I left Detroit (the second time, in 1987) is because I didn't think there was anything there for me any longer.
As for current projects, I've been commissioned to write a piece for the Kootenay School of Writing conference in late August, and I'm trying to finish up the last section of a project for Atelos. I've had another manuscript of poems on "hold" now for two years—it was supposed to come out last year. I could not let it come out this year since I knew On Spec was coming out. So I'm hoping that manuscript (comprised of poems older than those in c.c. ) will see the light in 2009...