I've been on the road much of this spring giving readings from my new anthologies and newest collection of poetry.  Three very different books for often radically divergent audiences.  At the end of the majority of these readings, I’ve conducted a question and answer session.  Every once in awhile someone asks a new question, but for the most part, the questions are usually the same.  I say this to point out that the general public seems to have some fundamental questions about what it is poets do and why.  I thought it might be fun to list the top 5 questions here and to give a crack at getting to the root of why each question remains consistent across time and space.

1.  When did you start writing poetry?

Behind this question seems to be another series of questions:  How on earth did you get it in your head that writing poetry was a thing someone could do with a life?  Doctor, fireman, astronaut, poet: Who thinks such a thing?  Did your parents support this wild notion of yours?  Did you make this choice in one of those liberal, West coast schools you went to?  Could I have made a similar decision?  Will my son/daughter take it upon him/herself to make a similar decisions?  Are there markers in youth that we can look to in order to discover a child might grow up to be a poet, the way we might look for risk factors for diabetes or signs of possible mathematical intelligence?  Did you always know this was something you wanted to do, or was your road slow and rocky and full of unexpected surprises?  Is becoming a poet a thing I could possibly do one day?

2.  Your poems often seem to tell stories. Why don’t you write fiction?

This brings me to Wanda Coleman’s recent blog post about how poorly poetry is often taught in our schools.  Just yesterday in my very own undergraduate class a student expressed elated surprise when he managed to read a non-narrative catalog poem “correctly.”  And so we talked about how one of the powers of poetry, American poetry post-Whitman in particular, is that it can “contradict [itself].” That there might not be one distinct answer when we exit a poem in the same way we might expect one distinct answer when we exit a newspaper article.  And my students admitted this made them deeply uncomfortable.  And I told them their discomfort was perfectly okay.  But they don’t like it one bit.  They think there ought to be one right answer, and they think poetry is unfairly complicated because it won’t necessarily give that to them. So, when I go on the road and read poems that do fit together to tell a story, my audiences are often relieved. This isn’t what they thought poetry was about.  They “got” what I was talking about.  It made sense and was even somewhat pleasurable to listen to (even if the stories themselves are not exactly breezy tales to tell). This wasn’t like reading poetry at all, more like reading a short story or a novel, which is something they feel secure doing. My own father, who displays most of the markers of mathematical intelligence, prefers the linearity of my narrative poems to some of my other, non-narrative work. When I read poems that are not linear narratives I will often warn the audience. Just ride the wave, I say, it’s okay.   They don’t always seem to agree with me.  How about writing a novel next time, they will say.

3.  Who’s your favorite author?

This is the only question on this list that I actively dislike.  I always know it’s coming, and I should just acquiesce and compile a list.  But, really, one thing the question reveals is that the audience doesn’t quite understand that I read for a living.  Reading is what writers do.  I read more often than I write.  I read and read and read and read and read.  Then I read some more.  And, in case that weren’t enough, I published two anthologies this year. I collected the work of nearly 200 poets and presented their poems to the world as some of the most illuminating representations of African American nature poetry or some of the most exciting representations of poems that sing, rhyme, resound, syncopate, alliterate, and just plain sound great. Given the fact I devoted three years of my life to collecting and publishing these anthologies, and I am on tour partly to promote the work in these books, it should be pretty clear that I have some favorite authors.  Of course, plenty of my “favorite” writers’ work I couldn’t collect in my anthologies.  But, the question really isn’t about me. The question is about the interlocutor wanting to know what books s/he should put on his/her To-Read List. I should tackle this question like I tackle creating a syllabus and just narrow it down to a few books I think a particular audience might be able to learn the most from.

4.  Do you ever experience writer’s block?

I’m not sure if the audience wants me to say “yes” or “no.”  I think some people want to hear me talk about a certain brand of poetic suffering.  Others want to hear me say I write, I’ve always written, and I always will write.  The answer, for me, is someplace in between.  I’ve had plenty of periods of silence, but I’ve come to understand them as fallow phases, the time off soil needs in order to produce bountifully.  Then again, there are pursuits I’ve given up completely and that, when I consider their absence from my life, I do not miss.  So if one day I wake up and am no longer writing poetry, I imagine I won’t miss it very much.  This, I think, is more distressing for an audience to hear than it is for me to say.  I present myself as a passionate, diligent writer after all, and now I’m saying I might give up writing poetry one day and not miss it very much. On the other end of writer's block is supposed to be revelation, the audiences’ discomfort suggests.  That I sometimes suggest otherwise unnerves them.

5.  Do you have a particular routine when you write, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?

Do you need a special room?  Do you need a special pen?  Do you chant a special chant?  Do you write on napkins in the middle of dinner parties?  Do you walk a mile, read, then write?  Do you practice yoga before your writing hour?  Do you wake up early?  Do you stay up late?  Do you light a candle?  Would you write after a particularly comical date?  What’s the magic ingredient, all these questions ask, that makes a poet write a poem?  Can I catch a bolt of that lightening too? I say I write regularly, like a real runner must run nearly every day. I say I still practice, like even a veteran musician must regularly run scales. I say I sometimes go whole writing days, at my desk, writing, and produce nothing the world will ever read. I say I am a poet because I have been persistent more than because I have been passionate.  These answers often seem to bore my audiences.  Do you wear certain clothes when you sit down to write? they ask.   Do you own a beret?  Is becoming a poet a thing I could possibly do one day?

Originally Published: April 21st, 2010

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...