Ten Bad Poems For Every Good One: A Conversation With Washington's Poet Laureate
Kathleen Flenniken is the 2012-2014 Washington State Poet Laureate. Her first book, Famous (University of Nebraska, 2006), won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, American Life in Poetry,and many other journals and anthologies. Her second collection, Plume,selected by Linda Bierds for the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, was published in Spring 2012 by University of Washington Press.
Flenniken’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Artist Trust, a Pushcart Prize, and grants from Artist Trust and the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop and was awarded an Emerging Writer’s Fellowship by The Writer’s Center in Bethesda in 2010. She teaches poetry through Seattle’s Writers in the Schools program, Jack Straw, and other arts agencies. Flenniken is a co-editor and president of Floating Bridge Press, a non-profit press dedicated to publishing Washington State poets, and president of the board at Jack Straw.
Interview by Lita A. Kurth
I happened to read of an event you were participating in, Poets, PowerPoint, and a Delightful Misuse of Company Time, in a copy of the Seattle homeless people’s newspaper. The event sounded like so much fun! Can you talk about choosing slides to go with your poems and how you would compare it to a “straight” poetry reading with a person standing and talking? It seems to have so much potential that I’m surprised more poets don’t employ visuals. Was there a difference in audience response?
We invited six poets to compose PowerPoint presentations, based on the rules of Pecha Kucha.( http://www.pecha-kucha.org/), and presented it as a fundraiser for the Poet Laureate program in Washington. Sanctioned Pecha Kucha events are always free, so we couldn’t get the official seal of approval and had to call the event by another name, but otherwise we met the obligations of the Pecha Kucha form: 20 slides/20 seconds each slide for a 6:40 presentation. Some of us let our text bleed between slides and some of us were more meticulous about keeping the slides individuated, but all of us worked toward one larger, encompassing theme. We created single poems in 20 parts, in other words.
I became interested when I read Terrance Hayes’ latest book, Lighthead, which includes four Pecha Kucha poems. I do think that new forms, like this one that requires images and text to speak to each other and at the same time, can bring out new ideas. I completely rewrote my piece three times and really labored over it, but it was so engrossing. It’s like thinking about songwriting or movie making—you have to account for all the information that the melody or image contains. Your text can either complement and underscore that information or it can overburden or compete with it. I began with a mix of text ideas and images, and in the end I both rewrote text for images and chose new images for successful text. It was an iterative process.
I have a sense this would bring a younger audience to poetry, and that of course really appeals to me. At this particular event, the audience was (as in most poetry-related programs, alas) mostly poets, and just about everyone came up afterward wanting to try a Pecha Kucha poem too. I’m going to do another event in the winter and I’m already thinking about my images.
You mentioned in an interview recently that you write ten bad poems for every good one. Could you talk about developing the capacity to winnow and sift? Did anything in particular help? Is there a “rubric of badness” that you apply or is the selection process intuitive?
My best trick is the oldest— putting poems aside and waiting. At first blush, my most convoluted inventions strike me as genius. Later, after I’ve half forgotten them, I can check in and be my own first reader: does this interest me? Sometimes I can be so heavy handed and those manhandled drafts rarely survive the incubator.
My good-to-bad ratio has climbed in the years I’ve been writing, probably significantly. But I’ve also developed a very bad habit of revising as I compose the first draft, which can kill the spark. So I’d trade more bad poems for more spontaneity.
Is there value and satisfaction also in writing the bad ones?
No satisfaction. Bad poems just make me worry I’ll never write anything decent again. But I do believe in the value. I mentioned that I wrote my Pecha Kucha poem three times (and tore my hair out in the process) before I presented it. I finally got something I liked reasonably well. A week later, I sat down to write the draft of a long poem that I’d been commissioned to present this fall. I rarely write long poems and think I’ve only published one poem longer than two pages. But this time I completed a draft of a five page poem in one sitting. It was because I’d been thinking in long form for weeks as I struggled with the 20-part Pecha Kucha. I know that’s why it came with relative ease.
Do you “save your scraps” and use them elsewhere or just plunge on, trusting new creativity will always arise (or take some third approach)?
Sometimes. You want to hear the latest one I kept using and using (I think in three failed poems) until it finally found a home? “The house, humid with sleep.” Which became a train compartment. humid with sleep. But I don’t keep a notebook of them--it’s whatever I’m carrying around in my head. I’m not a journal keeper.
You have a really wonderful website in which you offer reviews of books about poets’ letters with little snippets from, say Marianne Moore to Allen Ginsberg. Do you read many poets’ letter collections or biographies? Do they help you as a poet in any way?
I didn’t start writing poetry until my 30s. I had two engineering degrees. So I always felt insecure about my reading background. I decided to get my MFA [Rainier Writers Workshop] in good measure because I wanted to do that reading I ought to do, and in order to help me embrace Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore and W. C. Williams, etc., I decided to read their biographies and letters. And I have to say, reading the letters was the most wonderful experience. It is like getting to know this person face to face. And I developed a sense of these writers’ sensibilities, their priorities, their thinking patterns. It turned me into a Wallace Stevens lover, and it allowed me to appreciate Marianne Moore—who is so organically odd—for her style that would otherwise strike me as mechanical or remote. Her book of Selected Letters is one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. It may not reflect well on me as a poet, but I love her letters more than her poems.
Some of your poetry, such as the beautiful “News Item” has a political side to it, or seems to me that it does, yet it doesn’t jab a finger, rather participates in the dilemma of “wow, how did we get to this place as a country?
“This is why you’ve staged your house like a catalog
why you can’t bear to open the bills
why streets are jammed with luxury cars
and your country is at war”
(previously published in Tar River Poetry (Spring 2012)
Do you ever feel so angry about something that you can’t help taking a side in your poetry or even pointing out wrong-doers (even though the dangers of diatribe are enormous)?
I was born with a guilty conscience, and it’s present in most of my poems. After writing for seven or eight years about my hometown of Richland, Washington and the nearby Hanford Nuclear Site, and feeling both betrayed and embroiled in the story, I’ve started looking at America and writing about it with that same dual sense of responsibility and alarm. The truth is, my choice to implicate the speaker is rooted in style as much as temperament. I prefer that edge and I find it more truthful.
Do you find yourself pressured as poet laureate to speak out or take sides on certain issues?
No. If anything I put pressure on myself to be neutral, and I keep blowing it.
Did you ever, upon first reading, feel an extreme attachment to and gratitude for a poem as if it were meant for you in particular and spoke your truth? (for me, it was “The Wasteland” and “Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock” among others)
Yes. I discovered a Stephen Dunn poem in my 30s when I first started reading and writing poetry, called “All that We Have.” It spoke nakedly and without judgment about those moments when marriage is almost impossibly difficult. I needed that poem, in that voice.
Is there a poem you are a little embarrassed to like? (I still love Rachel Field’s “Something Told the Wild Geese”)
Not so much a particular poem, but I feel defensive about one genre of poems that still speaks to me—the first person lyric grounded in everyday experience. It’s unfashionable, but it’s what brought me to writing.
Is there a poem or poet you really couldn’t get into at one time and then eventually appreciated? (For me, it was Emily Dickinson; in high school, I found her cold and annoyingly cryptic.)
I started reading and writing when I was 32. I guess you could say I resisted every last one of them. Though I did love Robert Frost, and the little bit of Roethke I knew. And a fragment by Sappho that I copied out of a book in high school about the moon.
You started Floating Bridge Press in 1994. How did the idea of a nonprofit press specifically for Washington State arise? I see you have both a board and an advisory board. How did you assemble those and how long did it take for people to figure out who would do what and when?
I came on the press in 2001, part of a second wave of editors. The first wave have all retired except our executive director, Jeff Crandall. The founders were part of a writing group and after complaining about the lack of publishing opportunities for poets, put in $50 each and started a press. They began a chapbook competition and published their first book that first year, A Steady Longing for Flight, by Joannie Kervran Stangeland. That competition is still going strong. Our newest title is coming out in October, Exile on the 45th Parallel, by Jodie Marion.
How do you decide what to wear to a reading?
I’ve started wearing higher heels since my appointment as state Poet Laureate. Confidence is a big part of it. And my 16-year-old daughter has to give me the okay on my way out the door.
Lita A. Kurth (MFA Rainier Writers Workshop) teaches Composition and contributes articles regularly to Tikkundaily.org. She has published essays, poems, and short stories in the Santa Clara Review, the Exploratorium Quarterly, Tattoo Highway, and VermontLiterary Review as well as erotica under a pseudonym in Cleansheets.com and Oystersandchocolate.com. A story, “Marius Martin, Proletarian” appears in On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work (Bottom Dog Press).