By Taylor Gould
When you left your undergraduate program with a degree in English, you didn’t intend to be a writer or teacher. What convinced you to transition? Which took hold of you first: writing or teaching?
I did not understand myself very well when I left college. But during a four-year, post-college stint in Boston, I came to realize that I negotiate the world by relating it to or turning it into art. I had been writing on and off since high school, but I turned to poetry in earnest as I realized that I needed it to make sense of the world. To be fair though, teaching took hold first. Teaching is my family business: my parents, an aunt, an uncle, a great-great grandfather. I suspected I would end up in the academy, but I also knew that I needed a broader experience of the world to be an effective teacher, and I spent some time outside of the Ivory Tower as a young man.
You teach in both a graduate MFA setting and a high school setting. What differs in your approach to each? What similarities are there?
The two settings are remarkably similar. Teaching is the business of people, no matter the age or level. As a teacher, I work to understand my students and meet them where they to make my lessons accessible to them. Obviously, the discourse is more sophisticated in an MFA workshop than in a high school classroom; also, all the members of an MFA workshop want to be there instead of being forced to attend by their parents or the State. Overall, I’m more blunt with my high school students about manners and behavior while I’m much more direct with my MFA students about writing I do not think is up to snuff.
You’ve described your approach to leading a creative writing workshop as more laid back. Why take this approach? What do you hope to achieve in the ideal workshop environment?
I’m suspect of authority and those who ostentatiously wield authority. I never want to make a workshop about me, my aesthetic, my school, my great and inflexible idea. It’s impossible not to do so, on some level, but I try to minimize my centrality and the centrality of my ideas to the workshop. In my experience, students learn more about poetry and their own poems from having to actively critique their peers’ work. If I dominate the workshop with my cant, I interfere with my students’ process of learning to think critically about poetics and technique. I do not, therefore, sit at the head of the workshop table and I allow plenty of room, most of the room, for my students’ perspectives.
How do you balance your time between writing and teaching? How often do you find your work as a writer informs your work as a teacher, or vice versa?
I find writing and teaching inextricable. Through teaching, I’ve learned people and had plenty of moments that have floored me, made me more humble and empathetic. I can’t imagine being a poet who did not teach, or have some other profession that brought me into intense social contact. I also, ironically, learn an incredible amount from my students about humanity, human emotion, and literature. I find, therefore, that I do not have to perform a juggling act: most everything I do—teaching, cooking, playing with my son, reading, grading, etc., prepares me to sit down at the computer to write and revise poems.
Who are the mentors (academic, literary, or otherwise) who have provided you the level of “intense social contact” you seek as an educator? How have these relationships shaped your approach as an educator?
Both of my folks are educators—teaching is the family business—and I have learned reams about teaching from talking with them over the years. And, naturally, the parent-child relationship is one of “intense social contact.” Through his example, Brooks Haxton, my mentor when I was a young poet, reinforced many of the ideas about teaching I gleaned from my mother and father. Haxton would have me over to his house once a week to comb over my manuscript. The sessions were always very friendly, but I invariably walked away with a clear sense of the weaknesses in my work as well as how, to Brooks’s mind, I could fortify the poems. He was a tough critic and a thorough, particular editor, but Haxton did not deliver his critiques with a cudgel. One can be incisive and tactful—he made that clear. I also left his house every week wanting to write more, and that was as valuable to me as any feedback on individual poems. I try to keep both of these lessons – the balance of cordiality and candor as well as protecting the joy of writing – in mind when I approach my own students.
You once said that, for you, the impetus to write is most typically “triggers to memory,” resultant of moments spent “reading or watching or listening.” How do you balance memory and immediacy when writing your poems?
That’s a difficult question. All experience passes instantaneously into memory, so any sense of immediacy in a poem is artifice, and I try as much as possible to avoid what I perceive as artifice in my poems. But yes, some poems I want to be mired in memory to show how the experience radiates or aches, but I want other poems to have images and experiences that feel very present, born in the moment. I don’t think that I consciously try to balance memory and immediacy, but shift along the spectrum between them as the individual poem requires.
You write on varied topics – the city, inward versus outward identity, music, family, violence, art – often alongside one another. What effect do you hope to achieve in commingling such subjects? What do you see as the unifying thread in your work?
I have not set out to be a writer of “timeless” poetry. I want my time and place writ large in my poems; therefore, I try to tackle the diversity of human experience as manifest in my own life. The unifying thread to me is that I intend my work as a poetry of witness. This is what one human witnessed in the world and in himself during the late 20th and early 21st century.
What artists, musicians, or writers do you most admire? Who most informs your work, either on the page or during the writing process? How?
This list is always evolving and will always necessarily be incomplete. Tomorrow, my answer to this question will change. I’m tempted to give you a long list of all the writers I’ve read and all the art I’ve experienced. But the truth is an overhead snatch of language or ribald stories told by close friends are as important to me as the intellectual biography I could recite. I feel very caught up in that central American tension between “high” and “low” culture. I swing between those two poles – sometimes I turn to the great name for inspiration; often times I turn to my neighbor.