“Strive to remain an amateur”: An Interview With David Baker

by Keene Short

Filed under: Blog |

Recently, poet and editor for The Kenyon Review  David Baker gave a craft talk at UNL, followed by a poetry reading. His recent poetry collections include Scavenger Loop and Never-Ending Birds. I emailed him a few questions about his work with literary journals, environmental poetry, and about what advice he has for writers about entering contests and submitting to journals.

You’ve been Poetry Editor at The Kenyon Review for some time, and the past few years have seen the addition of some new features, such as KR Online and switching to six issues a year. How do you see the role of the literary journal evolving to remain a vibrant force in literary publishing?

I’ve been Poetry Editor of Kenyon Review since 1994, though I’ve been with the magazine on and off, in some capacity or another, since 1983.  That’s given me a great chance to watch our journal and the literary arts evolve.

The literary journal is a vital form of memory.  To me it’s the single most exciting publishing venue, since it’s often the first place a new work appears in print.  A journal serves a lot of purposes—to help us all select what we think is worthy or significant, to help new writers emerge and get established, to help established writers stay connected with readers, to provide a large diverse canvas for our expressions and our community.  

Just look at the huge variety.  There are journals in print and online. There are magazines for general and so many particularized audiences. The journal is also the single most important source for that vital first step of critical evaluation and conversation:  the review.  I can’t stress enough the importance of the book review nor emphasize strongly enough my concern that the state of reviewing is, just now, meager and under pressure.  It’s one area I would like to see enlarged and deepened.  I’d like to see more crossover in reviewing.  You know, established writers reviewing new ones, young writers working on books by older writers, critics from one group or affiliation writing about people outside their insular communities.  

Your writing and poetic interests seem closely tied to place, particularly the natural world. How has your movement from Missouri to Utah to a small rural town in Ohio affected your work?

I have a sneaking suspicion this answer would be better provided by someone other than me. We do all we can when we write our poems (or whatever we write), and then we release that work into the custody of others, who assume responsibility for its being sustained or forgotten. There’s a significant difference, at least in my mind, between the author and the authority.

But I am grateful for your attention here and your kindness in asking me this question.  So yes, indeed, I guess I am a “place” poet, a regional poet, a nature (or environmental or eco) poet.  Wherever I live, I look around.  Not only look, but I try to attend to the rhythms and particularities of that place.  I mean not only the green growing place but the human natural world, too, our neighborhoods and villages and farms and urban centers, all of which are “natural.”  What is a metropolis but a habitat?

Without a doubt I am a Midwestern poet.  Not because I think the Midwest is the best place, or most poetic, or whatever, but simply because this is where my life has been, and my family and my family’s family.  I wish to be attuned to the landscapes and manners and I try to learn and embrace the things that grow here and to live as peacefully as I can among it and us all. My movements in and around the Midwest have not so much “affected” my work.  They are my work.  My poetry is part of my daily life and my manner of attention and my devotion.  My poetry is my prayer and my curse, both, to my habitat.  

In your craft talk during your visit at UNL, you mentioned that The Kenyon Review will begin to publish more environmentally- and ecologically-themed work, and will have an issue devoted to the topic every May. What inspired this move? Do you see other journals taking a similar interest?

Yes, I am very pleased to see that we will devote much of our May-June issue every year to environmental or nature poetry.  In fact, in this forthcoming feature of “Nature’s Nature,” I’ve included a lovely piece of nonfiction, too, a lyric essay (though I admit this generic designation baffles me a bit) to go with all the lyric poems.  

The inspiration for “Nature’s Nature”?  Of course it is terror and depression.  We are in a very dire, long-term struggle to keep our home vital.  I mean, by home, both our tiny locale and our wholly interconnected eco-sphere.  We are a ruinous species with our heads buried in the sand, we are pitifully superstitious, and we are the victims of our own greed and hunger, expressed powerfully by the corporations and militias that shape our environment, our language, our identities.
Poetry can be a powerful voice of resistance.  We can name names—of those destructive corporations and militias but also of the gorgeous growing things.  We can remember and attest.  We can provide language and narrative and engagement in ways that insist on the values we hope to maintain or achieve.  So the “Nature’s Nature” feature will likely include political complaints alongside lyric descriptions of praise and adoration.  I hope the variety is rich, from experimental to more traditional poems, personal to collective.  I hope this feature will express some of the variety that the subject itself—nature, in all its definitions—offers.  I am really proud of the first iteration of this project, which appeared in our May-June 2015 KR, and I’m excited about the next, in 2016, which is editorially complete now, and eager to see what comes our way in the next months and years.  I can think of no more important thing for poetry to do now than rise in a complex single voice to sing about our home.

In the craft talk, you also mentioned the notion that every lyrical poem is a formal one. Can you elaborate on the shapes you see the lyric taking in contemporary writing?

Sure. I mean this literally.  A lyric poem is always a formal poem. But let me slow down. First, I find no productive and no logical reason to argue that a poem is either a lyric poem or a narrative poem, to begin with, though many others do hold to those poles. I think it’s more helpfully accurate to see every successful poem as both a lyric and narrative construction. The question is not, then, to identify whether a poem is lyric or narrative but rather to describe the nature of its lyric and narrative elements.
Likewise a poem is always a formal poem, with a body, a shape, a rhetorical enterprise or purpose. The point is not to determine whether or not a poem is formal but rather what kinds of forms it operates in and around. I am writing a long piece, maybe a book, about this. I find every poem always to be a matrix of forms, ranging from its outer forms (its manner of lineation and visible structures) to its interior forms (its methods of troping as well as its rhetorical designs). Yes, a sonnet is a form. But so is a performance piece. So are a georgic and an erotic and a complaint.  
Contemporary poetry, like all the poetry before it, is made of these ancient and evolving forms. But there are also thrilling new methods of formation in our present work, ranging from attentive experiments with erasures and fragments, to an intensified hybridization of forms and rhetorics and narratives, and currently also a heightened awareness of the social or cultural voices and aptitudes of poetry. To listen to some contemporary poets, I do have to say, you’d almost think they have invented the political or collectively voiced poem. Poetry has always had the capability to plumb deeply interiorized spaces and well as social spaces. It has always been able to sing the song of oneself but also insist on those more plural concerns like justice and equality. This is why we have more than one poet at a time, right?

You were a guest judge for Prairie Schooner’s 2015 Book Prize in Poetry. What challenges do you face judging book contests at that level, considering manuscripts by some of the best new and emerging poets?

I just don’t think of an honor like judging a book prize as a challenge.  It is an opportunity, a lucky one.  I have been able to judge a number of book contests and have a couple on the horizon as well as a couple of major judging opportunities for published books.  The only challenge is really time.

Because there are so many poets and poetries, I try to approach each book with sympathy, to meet it halfway in its aspirations and aims.  But I read with that intention anyway, whether I’m judging or just reading a new book at night in my lamp-lit study.  I try not to worry about the professional implications of such choices, I should add.  There’ve been times when I’ve been shocked at the apparent significance of even the smallest decisions—how they affect other publication and grants and jobs and fellowships and tenure—and the pressure and panic people can feel over such things.  

I try very hard to read with a good heart and a demanding eye to find what is, to me, a book deserving of the prize I’m tending.  It is frustrating, very much sometimes, to find two or even several books of merit and have to send all but one back home.  That was the case with the Prairie Schooner prize.  But that’s the case with The Kenyon Review, too.  I say “no” so much more than I say “yes.”  That’s why we have more than one editor, one judge, one contest, one press.

What advice would you offer to writers about entering contests and submitting to journals?

Don’t submit your work to a magazine you do not read. Don’t submit your work to a magazine you do not respect. Don’t submit your work to a magazine whose presiding aesthetic is utterly different from yours. Don’t heckle.  Don’t pester.  Don’t keep asking the editors whether or not they have received your manuscript, just because you haven’t heard from them in a month or three months.  They got it.  They got others, too, more than you can imagine.  Be patient.  Read a book. Do you subscribe?  Do you support?  Or do you only want to be validated?  If you want to be validated, get a dog.

Try to read first as a reader, a lover of the art.  Only later read as a potential submitter.  This is all about the art more than it is about you and your art.  Or it should be.

Read and heed the magazine’s submission requirements.  Note such things as the editors’ statements regarding special issues, submission periods, and simultaneous submission policy.  I hate simultaneous submissions, by the way, though my magazine accepts them.  If everyone stopped that practice, each magazine’s submission pile would shrink by a huge percentage and you would hear from us editors much more promptly.  I say this is a writer, too, who is frustrated when a manuscript sits somewhere for many months or even more than a year.  I have a batch of poems right now at a Big Magazine in which I’ve published several things previously, and these poems have been there for eight months.  But then, what’s the hurry?  You are trying to write something incredible and lasting, not merely publishable.  Or if your aspiration is merely to be published, alas, why?  What would that mean, what would that validate, what would that prove?  Who would love you more?

Contests are a vexing issue.  The frustrations are obvious.  They are expensive.  They provide, usually, only a single winner.  They seldom result in a real relationship between writer and publisher; once you win a contest, then you often have to start all over with the next book, the next contest, endlessly.  Contests are our version of patronage, though; when we enter a contest, we are supporting a system in a culture that otherwise provides very little support, either material/financial or emotional.  The up-side is that the many contests, large and small, provide a necessary forum for the selection and publication of new work, often by first-time writers.  That’s exciting.  

Don’t go in search of “your voice”; don’t possess that voice.  Write—and your voice will emerge, your real voice, after a long while, maybe.  Voice is the result of style and vision, the intertwining of them all, and it all comes most deeply from some unbidden place.

Be an amateur at your writing and strive to remain an amateur.  Be a professional at your occupation—whether teaching or editing or counseling or any other job.  Be a professional for your job and an amateur for your writing.  That means, simply, be in search of the new and the strange, the thing you don’t know how to do.  Sit in the shadows of the things you don’t know how to do.  Grow.  You are making art, not a product.  The professionalization of creative writing is lamentable—agents? spread-sheets? projects? suitable briefcases?—though the professionalization of teaching is worthy.  

Final advice:  be patient.  Be patient with the process of submission of individual manuscripts.  Be patient when you put your book together.  Get it exactly right.  That may take much longer than you think.  And finally be patient with yourself.  I would hope you aspire to write a poem, not a book.  Write one magnificent poem.  (It will require writing many non-magnificent poems—so throw those away or at least keep only the good ones).  Be patient to write a fine thing.  The world does not particularly need a zillion more okay or decent poems.  But it’s dying for a great one.

For more information about The Kenyon Review, follow this link. You can purchase David Baker's most recent collection, Scavenger Loop, here.