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What Kind of Poetry Do You Write? (1 of 2)

"I think it’s important for poets to occasionally try to articulate 'what kind' of poetry they write," I wrote in a recent Harriet post, but, like most writers, I hate having to publicly answer this oft-asked question. I asked a bunch of writers how they answer this question. If you too have trouble with this question, maybe you can find your answer (or a version of it) here:

I sometimes ask if the question might be rephrased as one with multiple-choice answers. What are the possibilities? But usually it’s a sincere inquiry, so I’ll say “the kind that defies category; the kind that cannot be paraphrased; the kind that values the sound of its saying as much as, if not more, than what it actually says; the kind that provokes questions and does not offer answers.” I can go on in this vein for a long time, of course. Duende! Terrible Angels! Loading mercury with a pitchfork!

—Bob Wrigley

First I say, "I am primarily a poet, though I've also written a lot of "cultural criticism"--books on opera, art, celebrity..." And then I say, "I guess you could call me a poet and essayist."

—Wayne Koestenbaum

I say, “almost all of my poems navigate the territories between visible and invisible worlds.” That usually engages the person who has asked, or completely turns them off. But it’s the truth.

—Valerie Martinez

I say BOOK-LENGTH ESSAYS. (If I'm asked follow-up questions, I perform a little jig around the word MEMOIR.)

—Sarah Manguso

Asked what kind of poems I write, after I groan inside, I usually say something like "an absolute variety" or "about anything you can imagine." I figure if they are asking that, they are not likely to read much poetry, or really care? Not sure.

—Lyn Lifshin

I write personal poems that rhyme.

—Molly Peacock

For a long time I would tell people that I love narrative like someone loves pimento loaf - secretly. And I do write stories, but lately I think those stories are secret ones, ones you can only unwrap in an unlit pantry while everyone else is drinking wine in the living room. I don't think I'll ever give up stories, but they are becoming more dependent on affect than on any narrative arc.

—Michele Battiste

I say that many of my poems are about science and/or mothering.

—Martha Silano
I write poems about naming, about the impossibility of capturing anything in language and my obsession with doing it anyway. Screw truth. My poems want to be leaves announcing the wind, sometimes losing their lives to it, always trembly and veined and smelling like open-armed-spinning when they burn. I write about mucking around with the invisible, I guess, but not so much the god parts, or only god as god is a good example of impossible naming. And burning too.

—Kirsten Kaschock

Right now, I am writing complex narrative poetry. I am interested in the way the tools of poetry -- lineation, white space, meter, the music of the language, the possibilities for scenic/temporal jitteriness--can influence my telling of a story. I love the idea that our sense of who we are -- as individuals, as a culture, as a nation -- is informed so deeply by the narratives we tell about ourselves.

—Kevin Prufer

When people ask what kind of poems I write, I usually get all awkward and then say, simply, "sad ones." To really answer that question seems to me to involve blathering about a kind of poetry geekery that the people who usually ask that question would find boring. Though perhaps my attitude is a very problematic one. I find the question deeply embarrassing, though, because it usually means confessing to a person who doesn't write poems the fact that much of my life orbits the writing and reading of poetry. But I'm not very good at writing happy poems, so "sad ones" is an honest, if vague, answer.

—Craig Morgan Teicher

Read part 2 here.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2012

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...