Good morning and thank you for taking the time to interview with me. We’re here with The New Old Stock and David Baker, professor at Denison University and Poetry Editor of the Kenyon Review. We’ll be talking about the “dos and don’ts” and the ifs and whats of poetry. Further along, we’ll be talking about his new book of poems Scavenger Loop, coming out in early May 2015, so be on the lookout for that – let’s get to it.
So my first question is more of a technical one – we’re obviously a new literary magazine and I’m the Poetry Editor, so I have to ask, how did you come to be the Poetry Editor of the Kenyon review and what has that been like?
Oh, well it’s a great privilege, it’s a famous magazine, 75 years old this year, which is unbelievable. When I was an undergraduate I got involved with editing a little literary magazine we had at my college and I really liked it. One of my teachers actually set up a printing press in his basement, and we’d make books [and] a little magazine down there. I went to graduate school later (to the University of Utah) for a lot of reasons, but one reason was because that’s the home of Quarterly West a really good magazine.
The first office I visited when I moved to Salt Lake City was not the English department, it was the office of Quarterly West, and I said “Can I work for you?” and they told me that they had almost decided to fold – they ran out of money [and] were getting no support from anywhere – but that if I wanted to read manuscripts, they had plenty. So I’d go home with a big box and that year, the editor, Terry Hummer saved the magazine. We published one issue that whole year and we kept it afloat and got some grants, and I worked with Terry and became the Poetry Editor [the next year]. And then, the year after that, the editor in chief (for two years).
AS: (Laughter) So climbing up the ranks?
DB: Yeah, so to speak. We didn’t have much but we really had a good magazine and I liked the contact and the hands-on connection with writers. So I graduated, applied for jobs, [and] got a bunch of offers at different places including a one year offer at Kenyon College. I turned down tenure track positions to take that job and one of the attractions was the magazine; I liked Kenyon, I like the Midwest, you know? It was a cool job and it looked like it was going to turn into something permanent, so I wanted that to happen.
I showed up at the office in Gambier, said “Can I help?” and went home with a box of fiction. I was reading fiction for that year, and I continued for a couple years just helping them read (the editor had retired, there was a new editor) and while we searched for a new editor, a friend of mine, David Lynn, was appointed Acting Editor and asked me to be the Acting Poetry Editor. I did, and then I became the Assistant Poetry Editor to Marilyn Hacker, and then David Lynn came back as editor in ‘93 or ‘94.
AS: When I was a wee thing. (laughter)
DB: Yeah, I bet you were about two or something.
AS: Yes, about two.
DB: Well, he said will you be the permanent Poetry Editor of the magazine, and that was a little odd because I don’t work at Kenyon and they don’t give me any support there.
AS: Right, that’s what I was always wondering…we’re rivals! Bitter rivals!” (laughter)
DB: Believe me, there are people at Kenyon who have never quite understood that. [And] I won’t say this to them but I know what I’m doing (chuckle). I’m really good at this, I really like it, and David has said “You know, you can do this as long as you want.” And that’s how.
You know if you want to do something you show up and knock on the door.
AS: Yes, and start doing it.
DB: The people who show up do the work.
AS: That’s actually really helpful information, aside from being a fascinating [and obvious question] for an interview that is really helpful.
DB: Yeah, I didn’t take publishing classes or editing classes. I didn’t do any of that. You just show up and do the work and you do it well, or you don’t.
AS: Absolutely. So that leads perfectly into the second question that I was dying to ask. Again, [The New Old Stock] is starting up; we’re a new literary magazine [we’re millennials and] we’re in the social media era – so what do you think is the current state of contemporary poetry and what is the role of the literary magazine (in print or online)?
DB: Well that’s a huge question.
AS: It is a big question. (chuckle)
DB: Every couple of years somebody publishes an article in some place big like The Atlantic like “Poetry is dead. What’s the use of it?” –
AS: Same thing with the novel.
DB: Same thing. And it’s a stupid question about nothing, usually written by people who aren’t artists, but [are] you know, cultural critics, whatever that is. Poetry in this country has never been healthier. There are more people writing, subscribing, reading, going to readings – and it’s partly because of social media…there are so many more avenues for distribution or publication. I don’t just mean to run off paper – that’s one thing that publishing means. But to be published means to make public, so a reading is a publication, an internet magazine is a publication. And there are so many now – it’s no longer the case in this country that there are two or three great literary hubs. It used to be you were in New York, you were in Boston, maybe San Francisco. [That’s] not the case anymore. In fact, I can’t name too many really great poets (who live) in New York. It’s kind of boring.
There are lots of poets but you know, the really, really important poets are in Lewisburg, PA and Missoula, Montana and Carbondale, Illinois. So that’s great. And then, because there’s so many internet avenues too, the work is available instantly everywhere. At Kenyon, we essentially do two magazines now.
AS: That’s exactly what we’ve been thinking about at The New Old Stock is what we put online versus what we put in our print editions (when we finally get to that point) and that’s essentially two different kinds of things; you have two different kinds of people that go looking for specific content, or for a specific layout, or for a specific experience.
DB: Absolutely. We’ve had the print Kenyon Review since 1939 and we’ve had KRO (Kenyon Review online) for something like five years – and we thought they would be kind of…well one would be a subset of the other. But in fact, the two magazines have totally different content. We publish one batch of things online and another batch of things on the pages. And that’s always a really interesting conversation – about which goes on which.
AS: You know exactly what I’m going to ask you (laughter). The next question I had was where should we look geographically for up-and-coming poets? Who’s coming out of where, and what’s coming out of where? You’re a poet of the Midwest, what do you see happening in terms of areas of the country? Is [poetry] more segmented now? Because with more poets, you’d [maybe] think that people would be more regional, speaking more specifically to their experience instead of a Walt Whitman who speaks for the “American” experience, or something similar. What do you think about that?
DB: I think there are all those kinds of poets, there are a few poets who have such capability with their work that they are pretty widely representative – global or national or human. Somebody like W.S Merwin is just a great poet who seems to speak for the whole world, and there are people like that. There are poets everywhere, and there are some really interesting gravitational hubs where there seem to be some really interesting things going on like in Idaho, between the University of Idaho and Boise State, of all places. There’s a lot of really good stuff happening around Denver and Boulder; there’s a lot of really cool stuff in Chicago, there’s always interesting things going on in Boston and New York and Philadelphia, lots of good writers now around DC. Lots of good writers in Florida [and] Central Texas (especially around the University of Texas), around Ann Arbor. There’s a lively arts group in San Francisco, but so is there in Seattle and Eugene. (Laughter) There are people everywhere, some of them are loosely in orbit around the major writing programs, some of them are not. You know, the really old famous writing program at the University of Iowa is one of the most boring there is right now. It’s living on fumes, there’s not much going on there.
AS: They’re living off of that legacy.
DB: Yeah, there’s still a lot of people that want to go there because it’s Iowa, but there are lots of other, more vigorous programs.
AS: Interesting. So then if you could name names…well I’ll ask this in two parts, because at The New Old Stock, we like to focus primarily on the connection between the old and the new, people that are channeling Dickinson, channeling Whitman, channeling Hemingway – who would you say are your favorite contemporary poets and who are a few of your favorite classical poets?
DB: Oh I don’t know I have so many (Laughter).
AS: I know, I’m sorry. I feel the same when people ask “What’s your favorite book?”
DB: (Chuckle) Yeah, [whatever] I have in my hand right now? Well, I’ll answer the second [question] first. There are poets I go back to over and over – they feel like family: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson…but I return very often to John Keats, I return very often to Gerard Manley Hopkins. I look a lot at Herbert and Traherne. I read Wallace Stevens all the time, those are kind of my foundational poets. I read, not his poetry, but Emerson all the time – his beautiful essays. Now in contemporary, I don’t know (laughter). I noticed that we just awarded the Nobel Prize in literature today.
AS: Oh, wow. Who was that to?
DB: A novelist from France. I keep hoping Merwin’s going to win. I think Merwin is the greatest living poet working in English, and I think that he’s one of the three or four greatest poets of the 20th/21st century in English. He is as good as it’s ever been. But there are lots of really fun poets, I read Stanley Plumly all the time. I read Joanna Klink a lot. I read Emily Wilson a lot now.
AS: I think [one of] Joanna Klink’s poems was on poets.org this morning.
DB: I think it was yeah. A little beautiful one. She’s got a new book coming out, I published her poems in [the Kenyon Review]. I like to watch what she does, she’s got this really interesting capability to do something that feels a little experimental or a little out there, and still maintain an extremely substantial sense of history, and the past, and illusion. This guy last night Jamaal May, I really liked him. I’m going to keep my eye on him.
AS: I really did too, I enjoyed him a lot. Not just his work, but as a poet in general. I think a lot of times people have these ideas of what a poet is supposed to be; you forget that they’re [normal] people, and then you go to a reading and you’re wondering how it’s going to go – but I just loved his energy. I love what he had to say about contemporary poetry, about how he is still rooted in the old. He talked about Rumi and it was great.
DB: I know. He’s a real magnet, there’s something very dynamic about his personality. I love Carl Phillips, I love Robert Hass, I love Louise Gluck.
AS: Well you mentioned Stanley Plumly, and this is now moving into Scavenger Loop, but why was the book dedicated to him?
DB: Well he’s like my big brother, we’re very good friends. We’ve been friends for 25 years. Something in my poems comes from Stanley. About 15 years ago I got really interested in writing syllabic lines, and I took that partly from Marianne Moore, and partly from Stanley. Something he has, some ability he has to think through a syllabic line in a lyrical sense, he can do that beautifully. And we hang out a lot; he was in my house for thanksgiving. He’s a very dear friend. He’s from around here – grew up in Amish country Ohio, went to Wilmington College, played basketball I think (chuckle). I don’t know, we just have a friendship. We talk about poems. I show him everything, he shows me everything. When he put together his selected poems we did it in my living room, we got hundreds of poems and just spread them around the room. His book, Old Heart, which is one of my favorites [is dedicated to David Baker].
AS: Ah, there you go!
DB: Yeah, so there’s a conversation.
AS: So you mentioned syllabics, and that’s something I noticed while reading, but now that that’s been addressed, what about the four-part separation? Is there any significance in that? Or did it just fall into four?
DB: Oh, nothing falls (Laughter). The oldest poem in there is probably fifteen years old and it was in completely different form, and I thought, “Well, it never went in a book.” and here it showed up. I’ve been working on the book especially hard for 6 years. I didn’t think about it as a book – I don’t think about them as books, I just try to write one poem and then try to write one more, and at some point look for a center of gravity.
AS: Right, right.
DB: This book was in five or six different shapes and different kinds of sections – and then this really big poem came along. The book wasn’t originally Scavenger Loop – I didn’t have that poem. I was working on a poem about farming, corn, and GMOS.
AS: Typical Midwest.
DB: Yeah, and then my mother got ill and I spent a long time with her and she died and I thought, “That somehow belongs in this poem”, and I started all over again and it ended up [being] a big poem and the title. I knew it had to be a section by itself, it was a matter of trying to create something, not [necessarily] a narrative, but [like when] you listen to a big piece of music, like a symphony, there are movements, there are parts to it, there a different moments when an instrument or another rises or falls and I think about putting together a book like a big piece of music. It was just a matter of shuffling and shuffling, and taking some out. I had some other poems that I really liked that just don’t go in here.
AS: Absolutely. I was going to say I remember when I was reading the manuscript, there were little lines that seemed to come back, little snatches; there are lyrical lines and I’m a classically trained musician, so that makes perfect sense to me. There might be four or five sections until something comes back, and it might only be for second, and it might be in a different key, or a different instrument, they’re ascending and your descending – but it [comes back].
DB: That’s exactly right.
AS: So it seems like much of Scavenger Loop as a poem and as a larger work deals with halves: half lights, half memories, half consciousness, poems that are halved, literally, on the page – you have that quote “The world gives you itself in fragments, in splinters” – it seems like that largely defines the book. What is it about things being splintered ? (Obviously it deals with the passing of your mother) did that theme or tone come before or after you decided to include [her passing].
DB: That’s a great, complicated question. I don’t know. So two different answers: the one answer is poetic. I’ve been playing a lot with the syllabic line and thinking harder about the caesura, the break in an eight or ten syllable line that goes all the way back to the Anglo Saxons, and I’ve been thinking about that. As I’ve written some of these poems, they’re very pure on the page, some of them don’t even use punctuation, and they have a kind of purer syntax for me, but I’ve tried to embed in that purity all kinds of rupture or hesitation or erosion, they’re like seismic shifts.
AS: It literally rips.
DB: Absolutely. So it goes back to “Oh, I’ve been reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, I’ve been reading some of the Old English stuff” (Merwin does some of that in his poems in the late 80’s, that rupture), that’s one thing. The other thing is, I wanted this to be a book about time and living in a place over a long time in a neighborhood, in a family, in the Midwest, in a landscape –
AS: In a body.
DB: In a body, absolutely…and thinking about different ways to embed in that narrative the presence of erosion, erasures, things that are falling apart and reassembling – of when the scavenger picks up something and takes it somewhere and drops it, and then it has another life. This is an ongoing, natural evolution to things.
Expect to see the second segment of this interview in the coming weeks.