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Poets Should Evolve: An Interview with Joshua McKinney


WordSpring ’16 Preview #5

From song-writing, to fiction, to creative nonfiction, and now on to poetry — in this next installment of our on-going series of interviews with presenters from this year’s WordSpring Creative Writing Conference, Jasmeen Bassi interviews Joshua McKinney.


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Joshua McKinney WordSpring ’16

Poets Should Evolve

by Jasmeen Bassi

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Joshua McKinney, author of three collections of poetry: Saunter, co-winner of the University of Georgia Press Poetry Series Open Competition in 2001, and The Novice Mourner, winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize in 2005, and Mad Cursive (Wordcraft of Oregon 2012). McKinney currently teaches creative writing at CSU, Sacramento, where he encourages his students to evolve as poets, challenging them to try new things in their poetry. McKinney started practicing poetry and swordsmanship at the same time, and he intertwines the two in his writing and teaching. McKinney is a member of Senkakukan of Sacramento, where he studies Mugai Ryu, Toyama Ryu, and the curriculum of the Zen Nihon Battado Renmei. McKinney believes poets, like fencers, should evolve because fencing with an opponent who only knows one type of attack becomes predictable, as does reading a poet who writes in only one style.

Jasmeen Bassi (JB): In the preface of your poetry book Mad Cursive you state that you started practicing poetry and swordsmanship at the same time; before you discovered swordsmanship, what intrigued you about literature and poetry? In other words, did you always plan on becoming a published poet, or did it just happen?

Joshua McKinney: I did not initially plan to be a poet. I decided I wanted to teach literature long before I felt the urge to make literature. Throughout my schooling en route to my BA and MA, my focus was on teaching. I loved literature and wanted to share my love for language with others. Near the end of my MA program at Humboldt State University, I took a poetry writing workshop. That changed everything. After I completed my MA and began to contemplate a PhD, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher-writer rather than a teacher-scholar. That realization shaped my choices thereafter.

JB: Who are your poetic influences, and how does their writing push you to evolve as a poet? For example, what techniques have you been successful or struggled with? And what advice can you give aspiring poets about the importance of trying new things?

JM: I feel great reverence for my teachers/mentors: Judith Minty, Bin Ramke, and Donald Revell. From Judith I learned concision, how to compress narrative in a poem. From Bin I learned lyricism, how to use poetry as a mode of intellectual discovery. From Don I learned how to see. I learned many other things from these three, but these are some of the aspects of their writing that I sought to emulate early in my career. And, of course, any poet one reads is a potential teacher. I have too many to name.

As for struggling with techniques, the transition from narrative to lyric was tough for me. When I entered the doctoral program at the University of Denver, the thought of writing a poem without a plot frightened me. I had no idea how to begin. Both Ramke and Revell seemed to have a bias against narrative, and since I desired their praise I worked hard to jettison my narrative impulses. Later on, I realized that they had no argument with narrative per se; rather, they sought to deny me the mode I was comfortable with, the thing I could already do. Thanks to their prodding, I can now write in both modes. I consider myself an eclectic writer. I am comfortable writing poems that might be labeled “mainstream” and I am equally comfortable with the avante guard, the “experimental,” the “elliptical” (whatever they’re calling it these days).

I advise my students, many of them aspiring poets, to continually try new modes of writing. It amuses me when a nineteen year old tells me that she is a narrative poet or a nature poet or a surreal poet. How can one so young know what kind of poet she is or will become? Poets should evolve. Their poems should evolve. Poets whose work does not evolve hold little interest for me. Reading such work is like fencing with an opponent who only knows one type of attack. It might surprise you once, maybe even twice, but eventually it becomes predictable. Poets, like fencers, should constantly seek to add techniques to their arsenal. Who can say what methods may prove helpful? One must try them all in order to know their uses. As in the martial arts, anyone who criticizes another style as being ineffective is merely revealing his ignorance. All styles have merit.

JB: In your book The Novice Mourner you’re able to express grief by reflecting on your childhood in order to create a voice that is quite moving, strong, and relatable. What advice can you give aspiring poets about creating voice in their poetry? In other words, when selecting poems for this book, did you hold back or leave out any poems?

JM: I’m suspicious of the term “Voice.” I use the upper case V because for many writers discovering “Voice” seems akin to finding the Holy Grail. Most people seem to understand the term to mean that quality which makes one writer’s work distinct from that of other writers. In practice this usually translates to a consistency of style or subject matter—or both. And based on my answer to the previous question, you can see why I am not interested in voice. But if I had to use the term, I would prefer to use the plural. If a poet wants to discover her voices, well then, I’m okay with that. Your question about organizing the poems in a manuscript seems to equate voice with thematic cohesion. While I think this can be important in a book (indeed, I think most editors these days demand it), I think it can also be quite limiting. Does anyone really want to read forty to fifty poems on the same theme? What I’m suggesting here is that there is more than one way for poems to talk to one another in a manuscript. There needs to be some kind of arc, yes, but in most books I find a kind of mind-numbing redundancy in both style and theme.

To answer your questions, I did leave some poems out of The Novice Mourner. As my friend Indigo Moor is fond of saying, you have to kill your darlings. Just because a poem is good or one of your favorites doesn’t mean it belongs in the book you’re putting together. It has to fit, and that fit has to do with the arc I referred to. I prefer range, scope, and subtlety in this regard. It is my sincere hope that The Novice Mourner doesn’t come off as a collection of grief poems. That’s there, sure. But there are many modes of grief. But, as I said, the publishing industry seems to demand consistency. They seem to want books of poetry to behave like novels: one long, continuous narrative. When was the last time you saw a book titled simply Poems, or X and other poems? Prufrock and Other Observations? This used to be quite common.

JB: In Mad Cursive you state, “Passivity is not an option. We all speak the language of violence. Perhaps it is the most fluent who know best when to be silent.” What advice can you give aspiring poets about passivity when it comes to their poetry? Basically, what tips can you give aspiring poets about approaching and learning from criticism?

JM: The primary difference between poetry and prose is that poetry, good poetry anyway, cannot be enjoyed passively. It defies passivity by denying the transparency of language. Reading poetry is not like watching a film or reading the average novel. I’d say it’s more like facing an opponent with a katana; there’s something about a three-foot razor blade that sharpens one’s attention. Good poetry sharpens the reader’s attention. It makes readers aware of words as words, not merely as signifiers.

As far as accepting criticism, I might as well play my martial metaphor out to the end: a writer needs a good sensei. Criticism from the ignorant is usually not helpful. Any teacher, no matter how good, is likely to pass his or her flaws on to their students. So when choosing a teacher it’s best to choose wisely, actively. Pick a teacher with few flaws. How do you know? You know by reading, by studying good poetry. That will give an aspiring poet the context for choosing a teacher. We don’t always have a lot of say in our choice of teachers. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it takes people years to undo the damage. Some never undo it. Whitman said, “He best honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” I’ve always loved this statement. It tells me that Whitman was not interested in cloning himself. It tells me he hoped for active readers, readers who would question, readers who would become their own teachers.

JB: What is your process when it comes to writing a new poem, and are you working on anything new?

JM: My writing generally begins with reading—poetry, prose, often theory. It’s like warming up for a run or like stretching. When I come across a phrase or an idea that interests me, I sit down and start pushing words around. When they start to push back, I know a poem is in there somewhere.

It has been a rough semester. We in the CSU narrowly avoided an unprecedented system-wide strike, and this occasioned a lot of chaos in my teaching schedule and curriculum. Also, my nephew was recently killed in an auto accident, and our family is still dealing with the aftermath of the shattering loss. In short, I haven’t been writing lately. I have been shopping around a new book manuscript. It’s a collection of ecopoetically-oriented poems (stylistically varied, of course), entitled Small Sillion.

JB: Can you list a few of your favorite poetry books, or quotes by poets that inspire you?

JM: I already mentioned one (the Whitman quotation).

Robert Creeley said something that I like to think about: “A poem denies its end in any descriptive act; that is, any act that leaves the reader’s attention outside the poem.”

I think William Carlos Williams offers some good advice—good advice poetically, and good advice in general: “Don’t get killed.” I like it so much I used it as the epigraph to Mad Cursive.

As for some of my favorite, most inspiring books of poetry: The Lice by W.S. Merwin. The Book of the Green Man by Ronald Johnson. Erasures by Donald Revell. Practical Water by Brenda Hillman. Torn Awake by Forrest Gander. Susan Stewart’s The Forest. Claudia Keelan’s Utopic.

JB: What advice can you give aspiring poets about publishing?

JM: Realize early on that publishing is a game. These days I think many young poets behave as if they have MBAs rather than MFAs. It all seems to be about marketing. That’s to say that “making it” as a poet seems to involve ceaseless production, getting one’s name (brand) out there in as many forms of media as possible, etc. It seems to have less and less to do with writing well. The next time you go to a writers’ conference, check to see which session is the most popular. In my experience, it’s generally the one titled “How to Get Published.”

A friend of mine told me the other day that he has signed a contract to publish a book of essays. Before they would decide to publish his book, the folks at the press checked to see how many Twitter followers he has. Granted, his book is prose. But I fear poetry is not far behind. So I tell young poets that any notoriety they get via poetry isn’t likely to come from the quality of their work; that is, from their actual poetry. And, of course, that’s the most important thing: the quality of the actual poetry.

JB: When you’re not writing or teaching poetry, what influences your poetry besides language, swordsmanship and other poets?

JM: More and more I find myself studying and taking glad instruction from lichen. Consider: a symbiotic organism, both a fungus and an algae—a fusion of two things much like a metaphor.  Ubiquitous yet largely unnoticed by the general populace. Strangely beautiful. Beautifully strange. An indicator of environmental health. Sounds a lot like poetry, yes?

JB: Can you give us a sneak peak of your WordSpring workshop “Relieving the ‘Stress’ of Iambic Pentameter“and “Writing the Contemporary Eco-Poem“? And how do your workshops reflect your own interests as a poet?

JM: If my own experiences in high school and college are any indication, and I think they are, the concept of meter is typically mis-taught. It’s no wonder that most students get a glazed look in their eyes when the term iambic pentameter comes up. If you don’t understand I.P. (my nickname for iambic pentameter), you can’t fully appreciate English poetry from Chaucer to Whitman. To put it another way, you can’t drive a Ferrari until you can handle a manual transmission. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult. In fact, linguistic factors are responsible for the dominance of I.P. in English poetry. In my workshop students will come to understand why I.P. is suited to English, natural, and they will get to write some I.P. lines of their own. I hope that participants will leave ready to tackle traditional poetic forms such as blank verse, sonnets, etc.

In my ecopoetics session I want to focus on the issue of identification. In other words, how do we view and speak about the natural world, the non-human. Most of us are so deeply interned in anthropocentric that we filter all our discussions of nature through a human lens. I hope to make participants aware of the ways we do this, and to practice some alternative modes of speaking about/through/for nature. And I hope to look at some lichen (just kidding!).

Both of these workshops reflect my somewhat long-standing interests. Getting serious about formalism improved my poetry—especially my free verse. As for the ecopoetics, how can anyone living on the planet earth not be concerned about our current environmental crises?

JB: Lastly, if you were stranded on a deserted island and could pick only one poetry book, one character from an epic poem, and one famous poet to bring along, who and what would you bring?

JM: I guess Keats, Achilles, and I would sit around eating coconuts and discussing The Cantos of Ezra Pound.

LeHab still has more interviews in the pipeline! Next up, a mother-twin daughter trio. Don’t forget to go to to register for the WordSpring ’16 conference. One day, 17 workshops, and a whole community of writers with whom to connect.


About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.


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