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Exclusive Interview With Poet Kevin Pilkington

Like so many good poets, Kevin Pilkington also teaches writing--in his case, he's a member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College and teaches a workshop in the graduate department at Manhattanville College. But he doesn't consider teaching a means to an end. "I feel fortunate that I have always enjoyed teaching," says Pilkington. "It's something I do and not just something else I do besides write. I've been teaching writing workshops for most of my adult life and haven't lost my enthusiasm for being in a classroom."

After interviewing him, it's easy to see Pilkington's not just trying to say the right things. His writing informs his teaching, and his teaching informs his writing. And to great effect--he's the author of five collections, including Spare Change, the La Jolla Poets Press National Book Award winner, and Ready to Eat the Sky (River City Publishing), a finalist for an Independent Publishers Book Award. A new chapbook, St. Andrew's Head, was published by Camber Press. Over the years, he's been nominated for four Pushcarts and has appeared in Verse Daily. His poems and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines, including Poetry, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Boston Review, Yankee, Hayden's Ferry, etc.

As you might expect from a successful poet and teacher, Pilkington has a lot of great information to share in the following interview.

You mentioned in a previous interview that teaching influences your writing. Can you elaborate on this some?

Over the years, I have sharpened my critical eye and ear so I can guide young poets through their poems and help them navigate towards what is working and away from what is not. So teaching heightened my critical reading skills, helping me install what Hemingway called “a built-in shit detector” for editing my own poetry.

Also, any writing teacher will tell you the importance of reading if you want your poetry to prosper. Reading and writing go together like religion and church: One needs the other to survive. So reading the great poets from the past as well as more contemporary established poets is a major aspect of my workshops. I’ve always believed the best teachers are on the bookshelves. That is how I learned to write my own poetry since I never took a writing class on the undergraduate or graduate levels or had a mentor.

If you teach great literature and are surrounded by great models, it seeps into your own writing as if by osmosis. By its very nature, great literature makes you want to go home to your desk and write. A few years back, thinking I was suffering from writer’s block, I became reacquainted with Coleridge's “Dejection: An Ode” where one of the themes is not being able to write. It’s brilliant and shot holes in my writer’s block theory; I haven’t suffered from it since.

There have also been images and lines in many poems by talented students that have, to use Richard Hugo’s term, “triggered” ideas that pushed me to begin new poems. So I am quite fortunate to be working in such a creative, fertile environment. On the practical side, there is no heavy lifting.

Because of the academic setting, do you feel you get a good opportunity to network with other poets?

I know this is a personal response to the word “network” but it has always possessed a negative connotation when it applies to writers and especially poets. There are poets who network, meaning that they attend every literary social event and make sure to get to know the individual who may be an asset in furthering that particular poet’s career. And the stakes are high for them since they are in dire need of another grant, job, or book publication. In Manhattan, these types of events take place almost on a weekly basis. There seems to be an air of artificiality and desperation at such functions. I have never understood what any of that has to do with the real work at hand which is working laboriously over one’s poems. I’d like to believe if the work is good, the rewards (notice I didn’t say awards) will follow.

However, if network conotates friendships, then it applies. At SarahLawrenceCollege, where I have taught since 1991, I have met some wonderful people and formed lasting friendships. Some are poets and some are not. I have formed strong bonds with many of the poets and writers here on the regular faculty. These friendships have formed organically like most friendships and as a rule, I have a great deal of respect for their work.

For a small college, we have a large undergraduate writing program and a well-respected graduate program. During any given week, readings are taking place on campus along with an annual poetry festival. So there are many poets coming to read or teaching workshops. It is wonderful to be a part of such a bustling, creative community.

During the past few years, I have taught a workshop in the Master’s of Writing program at ManhattanvilleCollege. Aside from teaching, I’ve brought poets and writers to participate in their reading series. Some I know personally or just respect their work. It, too, is a wonderful creative environment. Obviously, I would much rather be a part of these programs that love and work with language rather than work on the roofs like my father did.

Because of these affiliations and friendships, some readings and conference work have come my way over the years. I’d like to think that anything I’ve achieved or have yet to achieve is through my poetry and teaching reputation and not by trying to make friends with some literary honchos or by hanging out near the cheese dip at the last book party.

You are a well-published poet in well-known journals. When do you know you have enough material for a poetry submission? Why do you choose to submit to one publication over another? Do you have any type of submission tracking process?

When the poems begin to pile up, I’ll go through them to decide which ones are ready to make their way into the world; make some final adjustments after months and sometimes years of rewrites; and then decide which journal may welcome them. I make it a point never to send to a magazine I haven’t read. For instance, there is no point sending any of my work to a magazine that only publishes haiku since I don’t write them. It’s a waste of my time and the editor’s as well.

In the beginning of my writing career, I sent to journals with wide circulations and were well known, at least to poets. Then after reading them I realized the poetry they published was rather bland even if written by a well known poet. One journal that I would like to appear in because if its longevity and since it appears on most newsstands, I decided early on I would only submit to when they started publishing poems that were engaging, energized and took risks. Needless to say, I still can’t send them my work.

I learned that it is the quality of the work a journal publishes and not the quantity of its readership. I publish in some magazines with very small readerships because of the high caliber of the poems they publish. It’s easy to discover journals that publish fine poems by poets who might not have name recognition--the editors are after quality and that alone. Of course, many journals mix it up publishing good poems with not so good poems. To be fair, most editors are subjective in their tastes. What I am trying to say is I look for journals that might go for my kind of stuff, no matter how large or small its readership may be.

I can remember when I first started sending work out, I wanted to publish in Poetry. I figured all the great poets of the twentieth century, my heroes, had at one time appeared in its pages. More importantly, John Frederick Nims was the editor at the time, a poet I greatly admired and respected. So when he took five of my poems, published them in two issues and ran my name on the cover, I don’t think my feet touched the ground for months. To this day, I am thrilled those poems appeared there and more importantly were chosen by Nims.

My tracking process hasn’t changed. I write down the poems I send out, who I sent them to and the date I sent them. If a poem is taken, I put a check next to the name and if it isn’t, a line goes through it.

In an interview you mentioned that poets are lucky to not be football players or ballerinas since they tend to be "washed up" at an early age. Can you elaborate a little on this concept of how poets can mature over time? Do you think poets' skills increase or decrease with age?

“Washed up” does sound a bit harsh but what I meant to say was when an athlete or dancer has to consider retirement in their early 30s, a writer is just beginning to come into his own and excel creatively. We are lucky there are no age limits. In fact, the more one lives and experiences the joys and sorrows of everyday life the more there is to write about. The longer a poet lives, reads and writes, as is the case for many older poets, you can see how their style matures and is enriched from book to book. That is how it often works and sometimes it doesn’t for even our most highly esteemed poets. I believe there is a basic reason why some of their skills decrease.

A case in point is Robert Lowell, who in the last decade of his life published six very weak collections. This was after publishing three brilliant books early in his career. Then publishers and the rest of the literary world wanted more, as they certainly did from Lowell, so he like some others in his position stepped up the quantity of poems he published as the quality diminished. It’s the law of supply and demand--something suffers and usually it’s quality. It’s not so much a decrease of poetic gifts, it’s more rushing into print that is at fault. After all, America is a fast food society. This could also be said of John Berryman who rushed too many extra dream songs into print. It’s not necessarily a loss of poetic skills, like so many critics claim; it’s fame, what Milton calls, “the last infirmity of noble minds.”

There are poets who stuck to their guns and did not step up productivity and publish inferior work, such as Bishop, Stevens and Williams to name a few. Frost was another who didn’t rush anything into print ever; he wanted his poems to be like a “burr under a saddle” and stick around for awhile. Perhaps that is why it took him a decade before a new collection of his poems would appear. He wrote slowly with precision along with all the other gifts the greats possess. He had a long life and no one accused him of any decrease of his poetic gifts.

I'm reminded of a poem by James Cummins in which he chants "What do we want? Immortality. When do we want it? Now." Do you feel younger poets should learn patience with their poetic goals and ambition? Or do you think they should always feed off that passion and desire to write great?

That is a fun quote. Cummins must attend a lot of sporting events. When talking about “poetic goals and ambition” for the younger poet, hopefully it pertains to language and writing the best possible poems they can. In “Ars Poetica,” Horace says that when a poet finishes a poem don’t publish it for at least 10 years, continue working on it so after a decade it should be ready to go out into the world. Great advice! Who am I to argue with Horace. Pope says in “An Essay on Criticism” 1,700 years later that poets should hold onto their poems for five years. He cut the waiting time in half. The point is as Frost says “to make your poems better.” However, many younger poets rush through their poems then rush them into publication. It stands to reason that first books by poets in their twenties and early thirties who are right out of grad school read like collections of first and second drafts.

As I said earlier, if work by a poet of Lowell’s stature suffers because he rushed his last poems into print, how could a young poet who rushes poems into print expect them to last in the classical sense, meaning to stay around for at least one hundred years. Of course, I don’t expect young poets to hold on to their poems and keep revising for five or ten years. I do however urge them to keep revising even if they think a poem is done. Their “poetic goals and ambitions” should be focused on paying homage to language and making their writing better. Many do realize that this is no easy task, nor should it be. I keep reminding them of Williams’ declaration, “Erase while you have the time, one word can change the world.” I take his pronouncement literally.

But if you mean “goals and ambitions” that pertain to jobs, awards and grants, that is something else. It’s politics and that has nothing to do with writing. Their ambition should be focused on the integrity of the poems they are writing and take to heart what Keats said about his ambition: “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”

In teaching, are there certain points you try to emphasize to your students? If so, what are they?

There are many points I emphasize in class but first and foremost is lucidity. I want them to write clearly--I believe clarity is a virtue. That is not to say that there should not be complexity to their poems; complexity should rise to the surface after each reading. So if they are writing about a car, I want to know that. A reader should be able to get their footing and know where they are before moving around in the poem.

The Romantics made sure of that. They wanted their readers to know in no uncertain terms exactly where they were in the beginning of the poem. Closer to home, James Wright is another. He made sure his reader knew exactly where they were. There shouldn’t be any secrecy--how can you get anywhere if you don’t know where you are?

Also many younger poets feel obscurity and difficulty imply value. It doesn’t, it implies obscurity. It is much braver to write clearly since you are directly engaging your reader. You are saying, "This is what I think, now you can respond." It’s much easier to write obscure poetry because you are hiding behind a wall of abstraction. I tell students it is an act of cowardice if a poet does not convey to their reader what they think or feel. The obscure poet engages no one. Primo Levy said that writing obscurely is showing your reader you don’t care what they think. So if you don’t care about lucid communication then you are just being rude.

Young poets should listen to Pound who told us that we should go in fear of abstraction, or something like that. I ask them to avoid clichés since they are dead forms of expression that are readily available to the tongue. They are devoid of emotion. In a sense they are forms of denial; they avoid real feeling. I stress writing as rewriting and any strength becomes a weakness if it is overdone. And there are many other elements that pertain to what is found in the architecture of a poem such as: the importance of titles, rhythm, tone, the effectiveness of subtle rhyme and line breaks.

I've noticed in your poems that you often have a keen sense of location and an interesting way of sliding in interesting images. Also, I agree with a comment made by Thomas Lux about your poetry that your "speaker is always open and vulnerable." When writing your poems, do you notice that you try to do certain things, or achieve certain effects?

Landscape has figured prominently in most of my poetry. I was always taken by poets and writers who capture a strong sense of place in their work. I enjoyed reading about Lowell’s Boston, Wright’s Ohio, Levine’s Detroit, Hugo and Stafford’s West, Joyce’s Dublin. I am intrigued how they connect not just physically but emotionally and spiritually to their surroundings. In the case of poets, it’s more the spiritual and emotional connections, since the physical is subject to change, that engages my interest. In Hugo’s “Degrees of Grey in Phillipsburg” the decaying town is bonded to the speaker’s mental and spiritual state. The work of those writers had and continues to have a strong influence on my writing.

Because I live in Manhattan, many of my poems are urban in setting, but I’ve traveled some and know if I connect with a landscape it’s going to find its way into my writing. So the speaker in my poems and the physical landscape are connected in the metaphysical sense--one is a reflection of the other. I love metaphoric language and I’m pleased you find my images interesting. I agree with Shelly who suggests new metaphors create new thoughts and thus revitalize language. So I try to capture an image the way a photo or painting does, then put a slightly different spin on it that only language can bring. Hopefully many of my images could never be totally duplicated by the camera or paintbrush.

I was pleased Tom Lux found my speakers “always open and vulnerable.” They are certainly not the all-knowing speakers found in some poetry but men who take on what the world offers them for good or not so good. My speakers might be down on their luck but are always looking for ways of turning things around. Some lost jobs and are looking for another no matter how menial. Still others have lost at love though are willing to try it again even if they were scorched by it in the past. They are all flawed but more importantly willing to take risks, do whatever it takes to survive. And risk in art is a necessity as well.

What is the best book you've read in the past year and why?

A memoir by Albert Harper entitled Good-Bye, Union Square (Quadrangle Books, 1970). He’s a writer who seems to be forgotten unfortunately. He covers the entire decade as a young writer in the 1930s living in and around Union Square, New York City. I always enjoy reading about the city I live in and this is the closest I can get to a time machine to experience when a $3 Italian dinner in Greenwich Village was extremely expensive. I also enjoyed his take on the young writers he met including Richard Wright, Bertolt Brecht and Langston Hughes. I found the book in a used bookstore, and it has been out of print for years. I also enjoyed his clear, concise prose style--sentences that are so unadorned that if you picked one up you could almost see through it.


If you're interested in reading Kevin Pilkington's work, here are some poems available online:

* "Promises" from the Valparaiso Poetry Review

* 4 Poems from the Boston Review

* "Travel" from Verse Daily and Green Mountains Review


Also, if you wish to read another interview with Pilkington, here's one done a few years back by Linda Simone for the Valparaiso Poetry Review:


If you're a publisher or poet interested in being interviewed in a future post on Poetic Asides, go here to get more information.


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