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An Interview With Poet Casey Thayer

Poet Casey Thayer

This week at the Poetry Blog of 32 Poems Magazine my interview with poet Casey Thayer was posted. He’s a contributor to the magazine and was a delight to interview. I’m especially impressed with his answer to the elitist myth about poetry, since I feel the same way about the issue.

First, let me tantalize you with a bit from the interview, and then you can go on over and check the rest out for yourself.

Without further ado, here’s the interview.

Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

This sure is a question with very large implications, and I don’t necessarily want to dive into the print versus spoken word debate, but I will say that poetry adapts much more easily to performance than other written forms—it was, after all, historically an aural form—and I do think that spoken word can delight in ways written forms can’t. For me, however, this adaptability doesn’t necessarily mean that poetry is better or more accessible when performed. Personally, when I hear a poem in performance that catches my ear, I need to see it on the page. This could very well be a shortcoming in my ability to stay attentive or process spoken poetry, but I can’t escape the page. The page, that tactile experience of holding a book, allows me to sit with the work, to mull it over at my own pace. That reflection time is what initially drew me to poetry. I don’t find this same satisfaction with spoken word poetry.

At the same time, it might be pointless to evaluate them by the same measure: I classify them as different forms that simply strike different chords. If I’m trying to engage young readers, I forego Ashbery for Taylor Mali. If I’m curling up on my couch, I reach for Sandra Beasley’s new collection instead of queuing up Youtube clips of Saul Williams. I see performance poetry as walking a middle ground between print poetry and hip-hop freestyle and improvisation. It satisfies my need to be engaged visuals and audibly, but it doesn’t replace my desire to see poetry on the page.

To answer your second question, one of the arts’ most-enduring benefits is its ability to foster tolerance, to expand one’s perspectives, and to encourage reflection and non-linear thinking. We hear the ignorance and apathy of younger generations continually bemoaned, but there perhaps has never been a time in our history where more younger people can engage with art: computer programs have opened the door to self-recorded CDs, design programs to DIY chapbooks, Youtube to greater recognition for independent films, the internet to vloggers and the rise of Justin Bieber. As for bringing artists together, I think mash-ups and the popularity of bands like The Hood Internet and GirlTalk (among many other groups) illustrate that we’re hungry for collaboration.

Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

For me, inspiration comes less from any rhetorical text or how-to manual and more from collections of poetry, though I did find Triggering Town very influential in forming my aesthetic and Bird by Bird served as a good introduction to the world of writing. When I feel directionless, I will pick up a collection of poems, searching for techniques I can steal. I don’t feel any of Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.” Jude Nutter’s Pictures of the Afterlife is especially inspirational, as is Cecily Parks’ Field Folly Snow. Jack Gilbert never fails to inspire, and Sandra Beasley’s work (especially her recent collection I Was the Jukebox) spawned so many poems that I should probably send her a bottle of wine.

As for writing groups, I have trouble joining them. It’s not that I don’t want to commit myself to the work of others or to help them improve (I am a teacher, after all). However, it’s difficult to know whether all the effort of fully giving oneself to a poem in workshop will be appreciated. One time, years back, I responded to a batch of poems sent to me by an old friend with copious commentary, suggestions, praise, and constructive criticism. I suggested readings, enclosed in the manila envelope poems, and photocopies from essays. I never heard back. It was such a deflating process, to give so much of myself and to have that dedication ignored, that perhaps I’ve been guarding myself from that disappointment ever since.

Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Poets, just like any writers or communicators, have an obligation to their readers. Unless a poet has developed her craft, obscuration frequently reads as a lack of control. Young poets (and here I’m talking more about undergraduate writers than young professional writers) too often hide behind the John Ashbery defense—if he doesn’t make sense, I don’t have to. He even says in his book Other Traditions: “Unfortunately, I’m not very good at ‘explaining’ my work… I am unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my thought, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled.” I find that young writers point to this same defense, though Ashbery has already staked that territory. Young poets need to find their own.

All that said, although there are examples of unnecessary obscuration in poetry, this cry of elitist and inaccessibility is often not due to faults in poems but in the inability or unwillingness of readers to engage with poetry. I do think that poets should and should be able to demand more of their readers. Readers simply are underdeveloped critically; they have not been given the tools to appreciate poetry. The way to solve this, in my opinion, is to stress the teaching of poetry by those who know how to crack open a poem for students. In my creative writing courses, I have student boldly proclaim their hatred for poetry, yet when I take them slowly through “To His Coy Mistress,” they sit amazed that way back in the 17th century, boys were trying to pull the same tricks they do now: “C’mon, we’ll be dead soon, so let’s quick have some sex.” The key is to take poetry slowly, to analyze and fully understand each line before moving on to the next. With the short-attention spans bred by twitter, aggregating blogs, etc., teachers may find it very difficult to slow students down. But this meticulousness is necessary in understanding and cultivating an appreciation of poetry.

He also included a poem for readers to check out:

Aubade

Leaving Hotel Skandia in the grey dawn’s growl

of car horns and red light district litanies—

Oh little boy, you run an ache through my bones.

We trade our hands for luggage, haul off

what I’m carrying home: a bag of salt licorice,

a list of useless Danish words—My ham

is frozen and Spot me. I have nothing

for moments when grief comes heavily

like a mouthful of peanut butter and sticks

in my throat the whole way down.

I choke out an order for two train tickets,

lights flicking off at Tivoli, the terminal

hunkering over us as the clock tower

calls out the hour and keeps on counting.

When I tell you, The stars like your hipbones

shine, and, If you sing, you mold me like

a pastry in my crude translation, I misspeak.

I mean to say that love is hard when we

have only our hands to help. The train car

filled with passengers asleep on one another,

winds its way through tunnels to the airport.

The morning nearer now, we press our lips

together. Where we open, we close.

The city like a book covered in words.

About the Poet:

Casey Thayer completed an MFA at Northern Michigan University and has published poetry in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. New poems are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, North American Review, and Devil’s Lake. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County.

Please check out the rest of the interview on 32 Poems Blog.

  • I agree that more time should be spent teaching students how to read poetry. Great interview!

  • YES! Thayer’s comments about reader expectations and engagement are spot on with what I’ve been grappling with lately. The problem is that we can do little to educate those adult readers who have already passed through the educational systems that didn’t adequately prepare them for reading poetry. We still have to overcome their reluctance while hoping for a better-prepared generation to come.

    • I agree to some extent, though I hope that my blog has helped some adults take a new look at poetry.

      • Yup. You are doing important work here – I hope it makes a difference for many readers!

        • As do I. Thanks for stopping by.