I notice you write both free verse and formal poetry? How do you categorize your work?
As eclectic, I suppose—though I prefer not to categorize it at all. For me, the subject of a poem is what drives its structure.
The rift in the poetry world between free verse and formal verse gives me a headache! Personally, I want all the crayons in the crayon box at my disposal. This allows me to be surprised by whatever form a poem takes. That’s what draws me to my desk in the morning: the possibility of astonishment.
It’s also a matter of temperament. It happens that I grew up in a miserable atmosphere of repetition. My parents fought all the time, and they had the same fight over and over, triggered by the same things, expressed in the same words. It left me with a core revulsion to the very idea of recurrences, I think. Is not the most marked characteristic of Homer’s hell the damnation of repetition, of filling the unfillable jar for eternity, pushing the same rock up the hill? I have to try new things, otherwise it’s perdition.
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Are you bucking the system?
Maybe, but that’s not what motivates me. For a long time, in fact, I was innocent of the split between formalism and free verse. Didn’t get out much, I guess! And I was inspired by the example of certain poets whose approach was also eclectic, e.g. Hayden Carruth, Anne Sexton.
So you love formal poetry and free verse equally well?
As strategies, yes, but when it comes to what I encounter in print, in general I admire the formal poems more. After all, I’m a craft freak. Paradoxically, the successful formal poets today write with much more variety than the free versers do. I mean, at least they use different forms! Whereas the big-name free verse poets tend to write in the same style, poem after poem, book after book. How ironic that those who practice “free” verse are so unfree!
Yet they are said to have a unique voice. Is not “finding one’s voice” the main thing?
That’s a truism today, yes. The problem is, “voice” is defined so narrowly, as a consistent sound, a particular subject matter, an unchanging emotional tenor. How limiting! The poet becomes a “brand name.” Each book is like the previous book, just as each Triscuit is like every other Triscuit. This is the down side of American poetry in particular, for branding is a uniquely American thing.
So you don’t have a poetic voice, then?
A core philosophy underpins my poems, I think, but they make a various sound.
I prefer not to pin down something that is ever evolving. Certainly, though, it is a heterodox philosophy, one which finds wisdom in many belief systems without subscribing to any one. I’ve been influenced by psychoanalysis, quantum physics, feminism and religion, particularly Catholicism, for that is the religion in which I was raised, but more and more by other faiths, Buddhism, Judaism, and I’m fascinated by atheism as well.
Anyway, my heterodox way of thinking leads naturally to my heterodox way of writing, in form, in nonce form, in a free verse of strong cadence, and in a free verse of little cadence.
Are you prolific?
I’ve had prolific periods, the most stunning being in the year 2002 when I wrote over 100 pages of poems, most of them keepers. But that was very unusual. I’ve had dry periods lasting years. And I was a late bloomer. Though I’ve called myself a poet since the age of 19, and wrote some decent things in my 20’s, it wasn’t until I was 36 that the poems really started to flow.
Were you blocked?
Totally. Before my mid-30’s I lacked a core identity and a strong philosophy. These things are essential for a writer. Maturity is essential for a writer—at least this writer! Even now, it can be difficult to get a poem going, but once I have my topic, and my first line or two, the rest is just a matter of going with the flow. It is not a laborious process for me, it’s fluent and it’s fleet, and more like exploratory play than work. Of course, a prose writer would still be horrified at how much time a poet spends on a few lines, indeed a few words. And the revision process can be endless. I sometimes think a poem is never done.
How do you find your topics, your subjects?
The great mystery, that! A simple word or phrase, encountered in the Times or heard at a business meeting, can inspire a poem. Memories inspire poems, memories of pivotal events that call out to be re-experienced and re-interpreted. Strong emotions inspire them, and I find that some emotions percolate a long time before a poem is distilled while some send me to my desk almost immediately. Whatever inspires it, for me a poem’s topic has two components, an overt subject matter and a shaping idea. I call it the umbrella idea. Only when these two things come together am I drawn to write a poem.
This has been true for me from the start. My first “good” poem, and my first published one, was called “Meditation on a Typo.” One day at work I dragged out the Liquid Paper for the umpteenth time and got an inkling that there was a poem there. The poem would “meditate” on the experience of making a typo, which would stand in for other kinds of errors and misunderstandings. So there I had it, a nascent concept, which, in the writing of the poem, I was able to work out rather well. It’s young work but it was pivotal; from that point forward, I knew that this was the type of poetry I wanted to write, idea-based poetry, conceptual poetry, but with a strong experiential basis in the real world.
Yet some of your recent work has a certain unreality to it.
Yes, a sea change for the work! Some recent poems conjure up a liminal place, a place like this world and not like this world. Time and space seem more elastic. Yet there is usually something concrete going on in the poem as well—refugees wandering in the desert, a vintner going about his day, a hiker on a barren trail.
In these perilous times, I am also drawn to writing poems that are more “political,” I suppose you could say, in that they deal with homelessness, war, the threat of nuclear annihilation and so forth. Since I dislike poems that editorialize, I had to find a way to write about these things in a new way. The liminal approach has been key.
Who are your influences?
For these recent “liminals,” Conrad Aiken. His universe was quite Einsteinian, really, time-traveling and shape-shifting. In the Senlin poems, for instance, the figure Senlin keeps fading away into some other dimension and then reappearing in an armchair, smoking a pipe. Aiken was long-winded, though; my approach is more lyrical.
Similarly, while I am drawn to the expansiveness of Whitman, the accretion of detail in his work, I find that the long-windedness gets tiresome and seems grandiose. I write list poems too, but they are shorter and the lists are more focused. They avoid the excesses of Biblical diction.
I’m also a fan of the confessional school, I must admit, though I dislike the term “confessional.” This is a psychological poetry drawing on the power of personal experience. As I mentioned, Sexton was an early influence. She published much too much and she sometimes wrote carelessly. But her work gave me hope, for here was a woman poet writing about a woman’s life, telling a woman’s secrets. And I suppose I was drawn to the “madness” in it as well; nowadays I am not enamored of madness.
Sylvia Plath was a much finer poet. I enjoy the complete spectrum of her work, the early formal work, the late screeds, but mostly the controlled poems of her middle period. Tulips, The Surgeon at 3AM, Mirror, Insomniac, just dozens of fine-tuned, original poems, each with that “umbrella idea” from which I learned so much.
Richard Wilbur writes this way too, with the umbrella idea. This is what he and Plath have in common; this is why, at age 20, I could sit on my bed, happily reading both of them, learning from both of them, and not seeing them as opposite in any way. And I thought, even then, you know, if you could combine their strategies somehow, if you could write with both formal excellence and body-based passion, you would create something wonderful.
Is that what you’ve sought to do?
That’s what I've sought to do.
—Kate Bernadette Benedict