March 2005

Sonny Williams


An Interview with K.E. Duffin

K. E. Duffin has recently published her first book of poems, King Vulture, with The University of Arkansas Press. She was a three-time finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and a finalist for the Colorado Prize. Variously influenced by Hopkins, Clampitt, and Milosz, Duffin has rejected the “plain speech” that dominates much contemporary poetry to mine the English language and create a robust, baroque collection of elegant forms and classical themes. It would be difficult to choose a poem representative of this collection, but I’ll pick one that I came across some years ago.


Winter sloth. Wildly weaving shallows
in the near distance, light polished to the gleam
of silver and pressed, aghast, at all the windows
while yapping crows circle the house like a tomb.
Weather’s hauled in—from southern England,
where palm trees…but no, the cracked bread
of the coast grows sodden in sudden warm rain,
snow’s depressed cousin. December’s dead.
Till a freeze mortifies the scene again,
as buoyant rafts of neat, inscrutable birds
undulate toward Europe, the sky grows plain,
less near, and the point of crisp words,
distinct colors, boundaries—that shout stop,
pours in with the cold surf kicking up.

I spoke with Duffin via email, and I was taken by her intelligence and generous responses. In the interview she shares her thoughts on taking a poetry course with Seamus Heaney at Harvard, the creation of poems, the frustration of trying to get a book published, and the path of the artist.

Would you mind telling me what K. E. are initials for?

K.E. stands for Kathleen Elizabeth, which is a perfectly fine name, but I prefer the simplicity, and the mystery, of initials. I want people to have as few preconceptions about me as possible when they encounter my work.

Your bio states that you graduated from Harvard. What degree or degrees did you receive, and what was your course of study?

When I was young, I was very interested in the natural world, especially birds, and I always enjoyed reading history and philosophy, so I was encouraged to go in that direction in college. I graduated from Harvard, where I concentrated in history and science, and then went on to get a doctorate there as well, partly because I heeded the old "finish what you start" advice that's increasingly maladaptive today. Afterwards I decided to devote myself to poetry and drawing instead of the history of science, and continued to live on the periphery of the academic world, teaching writing and working as a freelance editor. Today I would encourage any young person to go directly toward what he or she loves, not waste time with detours and hesitations. The clock of the body is relentless, and you don't know what fate has in store for you. But it's hard to say what the right path is for an artist. Something warned me away from "institutionalizing" my desire to write, maybe because I was beginning to move toward toward rhyme and meter, which was still pretty much frowned upon. And the study of literature was increasingly about theory, and that felt like the wrong path. While I was working on my dissertation, I took a course with Seamus Heaney, and that was a turning point for me. Here was a master who was writing poems that appealed to the ear, with a dense, concentrated music quite unlike the slack, loose, prosy style of many American poets at the time. And he encouraged me to go my own way. One great advantage of being at Harvard during those (sleep-walking?) years was the opportunity to hear wonderful writers. Some of my most intense memories are of readings: Heaney, Milosz, Merrill, Brodsky, Holub, Brock-Broido. A long list.

I was also drawing during that time. It's curious how few people will encourage a gift for the visual arts if you are "a good student." Left to my own devices, I write and draw all the time. But life does not leave you to your own devices. People often think that poetry takes place in no space and no time. Art is a bit more bound up with the physical world. It looks like it might interfere with making a living, so people tend to discourage it more actively. At least that was my experience. But I still studied at art school, eventually. I love drawing and printmaking. Now I am exploring cliché-verre, the making of hand-painted photographic negatives that I print.

In retrospect, I see that all the things I studied have a place in poetry. What I used to regret as a meandering waste of time gave me a very broad range of reference, even my work as an editor. Nothing is wasted in art.

It often seems that going forward as a poet has been a matter of avoiding various paths that seemed innocuous enough at the time, but were traps of some sort. So I see myself refusing various things, and because of those refusals, being able to continue to live a life where I can be alert and ready to respond to a fleeting image, a word or phrase. A (besieged) contemplative existence very much at odds with the frenzied drive to get somewhere in the world. A series of defensive moves to make art possible.

You said you took a course with Seamus Heaney and that was a turning point. What kind of turning point? What kind of poetry had you been interested in before taking that course?

Taking a poetry course with Heaney was a bit transgressive, given that my doctoral degree was going to be in history of science. But I took his writing class for credit anyway, and no one in my department seemed to care. It was a turning point because Heaney gave me the great gift of ratifying my attraction toward more formal poetry. And my growing awareness that writing poetry would be at the center of my life. The poet George Seferis writes in his journal that he lacked someone who would accept his fresh attempts at poems when he was starting out. I was lucky to have Heaney as a teacher. Many other poets might have tried to discourage me, to treat an interest in form as a kind of adolescence to be outgrown, or training wheels to be discarded in some "natural" progression toward freer verse. Actually, I was going in the other direction. After years of writing free verse, I was writing a series of unrhymed sonnets (I edged slowly into the world of rhyme) in response to Hiroshige prints, and Heaney encouraged me to follow my natural inclination toward dense and compact poems. Some people challenged (even angrily) the whole idea of these sonnets. "Why all these sonnets? Why?" But Heaney made a space where the impulse was respected. Of course the example of his work was immensely inspiring and we all learned a great deal about the reading and writing of poems, about the seriousness of a life devoted to poetry. I remember, in particular, rediscovering Hopkins during this course. There was also much discussion of Lorca's concept of duende, that dark intensity or soul at the heart of any true poem.

Years before I studied with Heaney, I had been reading South American poets in translation. Especially Vicente Aleixandre, translated by Lewis Hyde and Robert Bly. I was attracted to energetic leaping, lightning zigzags of perception, and also the elemental vocabulary -- almost a sacred vocabulary -- of nature: sun, moon, rocks, water, light. A surreal strangeness. Aleixandre’s poems were divided into “Poems with Red Light” and “Poems with White Light.” This intrigued me. I even did a series of small ink drawings in response to these poems. I was also reading Elizabeth Bishop. And Robert Lowell, though what I liked best was the early Lord Weary’s Castle, where words were under some kind of formal pressure. And that was a fairly eccentric taste back then. I think the unrhymed sonnets of History also had a strong influence. Then one summer I immersed myself in American poetry, auditing Helen Vendler's course in the summer school. I began reading widely and deeply, as if searching for something I had lost. I rediscovered my love of Crane, Bishop, and Merrill. The real music of the line. It felt like waking up from a kind of stupor, resuming a path. A year or so later, I applied to Heaney's class.

Heaney used to say that no one needed to take more than one poetry workshop. Probably because of the danger of judgment by committee. And I suppose I followed that advice, going my own way. Isolation suited me. I followed my instincts, gravitating toward Milosz, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Brodsky.

You speak of an attraction to formal poetry, and you have even revealed the antagonism you received for writing formal poetry. Subsequently, some have labeled you a formalist. Are you comfortable with that label?

Labels are always a source of contention, because they come with so many built-in assumptions, and more ominously, they are at the root of human discord. They are usually about exclusion. They serve an insidious social function. You see this in the starkest way in isolated human tribes that invariably refer to themselves as the real humans, in contradistinction to everyone else. So in reaction to this seriousness, I tend to take labels lightly, even though I know others do not. I'm not that social, so alliances and camps and all the intellectual paraphernalia that go along with them do not interest me. And I believe that artistic integrity -- or any kind of integrity -- may demand a severing of ties that bind the like-minded; you have to be ready to go your own way for artistic or moral reasons, whatever the social cost. So when people call me a formalist, I see the dangers of being labeled that way (any way) but I also see the (provisional) usefulness. For most, the designation means rhyme and meter are somehow involved, strictly or loosely. And that's been true of my work. Although any artist demands the right to be a shape-shifter. Anything can happen in a poem, if it works. There are no rules in that sense. Milosz tells us that Brodsky valued Frost for his metrical mastery, and then says, "I, however, am absolutely on Walt Whitman's side." But Whitman, Milosz, Brodsky, and Frost are all indispensable. So in some sense, labels do not matter. I do not mind being called a formalist, but I have no agenda beyond writing the best poems that I can. However, I do believe that rhyme and meter -- and other forms of verbal patterning -- connect with the mind on some deep neural level. They link up with memory. To ignore that reality can impoverish poetry. Likewise, to refuse to relax the ties of rhyme and meter can also impoverish it. I grew up in an era when a lot of contemporary poetry was so slack and "talky" that it did not satisfy me. The pendulum had swung very far in one direction, although there were always great exceptions like Wilbur and Merrill. I followed my instincts toward language that was patterned and dense, a concentrated richness that does justice to perception in the way only poetry can. If that's called formalist, that's fine.

You mention while taking Heaney’s course you rediscovered Hopkins. Your own poetry follows this lineage, but I also detect some Marianne Moore and Amy Clampitt. Were Moore and Clampitt part of your reading?

I was passionate about Hopkins before I read Clampitt, but of course the appearance of The Kingfisher in the early eighties was enormously exciting to me. Here was a maximalist in a landscape of ascetics, an inclusivist in love with the dictionary and world. She swept everything into her poems, and they had the momentum of music, the drama of the monologuist alone on stage who suddenly taps a hidden well of eloquence. Something Shakespearean about it. I first read Clampitt after studying with Heaney, and there was an instant recognition that this was interesting, and new. My own work was more spare. As the years went on, I continued to admire Clampitt, although she seemed to become more garrulously rococo as I was becoming more Hellenistic and dark.

For a while, Marianne Moore was obscured for me by Bishop who came to the fore and seemed more robust. I think I began to rediscover Moore after reading Clampitt, revisiting such poems as "The Steeple-Jack" and "The Pangolin" where I was charmed by her hyper-intense vision and disciplined verbal ebullience. She is a taxonomist, a tremendous cataloguer of distinctions very finely drawn. And this appealed to me greatly. The syntax is muscular, deliberate, and often astonishing.

Both Clampitt and Moore were very important for me, and yet I always felt more drawn toward the tragic and elegiac vision of Milosz, who is also brilliant at describing the particulars of this world. In Milosz I found an essential engagement with time, the poet as time-traveller as well as recorder of present sensations. An essentially tragic vision combined with immense curiosity and wonder.

Let me continue with the Moore/Clampitt comparison. You studied the history of science. Moore spent most of her time at Bryn Mawr in the biological laboratory, and Clampitt, who was also an avid bird-watcher, has been called a naturalist, a term used in reference to your own work. You also use much scientific language in your poetry: anthracite, barium, beryl, bituminous, brachycephalic. How much does your science background affect your poetry, to create that “concentrated richness” you desire?

I believe that my background in science and history is strongly reflected in my work. Like Moore and Clampitt (Bishop and Milosz as well), I was always interested in the natural world. Growing up, I was fascinated by birds and my mother encouraged this by letting me feed sparrows on the fire-escape outside our window. (I remember the white dress gloves I was supposed to wear because the birds would actually perch on my hands). When we moved from the Bronx to the "country" -- an hour's drive to the north -- I became quite a naturalist and collector. I had rock collections, insect collections, and notebooks full of Latin names and sketches of plants and animals. I kept tadpoles and frogs, raised orphaned birds successfully, learned to tell time by the sun, and the temperature by the rate at which crickets and katydids chirped. I roamed the woods and fields, absorbed in the sounds and sights of each season.

Books were an important part of this fascination. For example, Anna Botsford Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study, a giant tome filled with old black and white photographs of long-vanished frogs and butterflies and woodchucks. There were short lessons you could follow, a sort of self-directed study, and this appealed to me. But the illustrations -- sometimes bleached out and a little dreamy -- haunted me because they were of creatures now dead. The descriptions were general, but the photographs were of individuals. Intended to instruct, they were also visual elegies. I would stare at them, trying to imagine the lost reality just beyond their edges. What the sunlight had captured was now dust. When I was quite young, maybe eleven or so, I remember making pilgrimages to the local public library to read Darwin. There was something very attractive to me even as a child about his way of looking at nature, describing things, and reasoning about them. I basically explored natural history on my own. My curiosity was part of an intensely private and solitary world. But my parents encouraged my interests, and bought me whatever I wanted for my somewhat mysterious studies. I remember many nights outside in the freezing cold with my father, looking through our telescope at the moons of Jupiter or the constellation Orion.

I was writing during these years, and my old notebooks are full of attempts at poems. Once I actually sent one of these poems -- with a letter -- to John Ciardi, whose name and work I must have encountered somewhere. But I never heard back! For a while I also kept a "Sunset Box" full of descriptions of each sunset on a file card. The desire to record individual things so they would not disappear was already there. As was the sense of futility about trying to get all the particulars down in writing. The only way to recapture an experience or a being is by condensing it, searching for its essence. Careful choices have to be made. Things have to be translated. You have to travel lightly through time.

In my teens, I worked as a volunteer at a research station, a tern colony. Life and death up close, on a grand scale. By then, I was studying evolutionary theory, but always from a literary perspective. I liked the writing of the great naturalist explorers, their gifts for description. I also respected Darwin's recoiling from the revealed suffering of creatures as he was putting this enormous puzzle together like a man solving a murder mystery. At Harvard, I was taught by great scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Mayr. My way of thinking has been shaped by evolutionary reasoning, and in later years I was surprised to find that such a perspective is not necessarily shared by colleagues in the humanities. I had a different -- sometimes hyper-logical and pessimistic -- take on things because of this foundation in reasoning about a process that creates novelty and beauty through undeniable brutality.

So science expanded my vocabulary and encouraged my looking. I like to look at everything, to scrutinize. Even sand grains. Bits of mica. My work is intensely visual. Science also reinforced a sense of tragic complexity, the morally questionable nature of the universe revealed by reason. I think science whispered "translate, turn a thing into something else to preserve it." Genotype, a set of instructions, yields phenotype. Science has led me to think of poetry in terms of DNA, the concise language with a tiny alphabet that expresses us. Language travels forward, outliving the body. Our work is translation: world into word.

The natural world is an obvious impetus for your poetry. You are also concerned with the evolution of a poem, its patterns. How does a poem start for you? Is your “evolutionary reasoning” based on deterministic laws, or is it based on a certain amount of randomness, emergence, and self-organization, creative evolution if you will?

I don't think about the making of poems in any explicitly evolutionary way, although variation and selection are clearly involved in moving toward realizing something glimpsed or heard. It's intriguing that you mention emergence. My dissertation was on that very subject, in its nineteenth-century context. So I've always been interested in this question of novelty. But in the end, the process eludes intellectualizing. For me, a poem usually begins with a sense that something is about to happen in a timeless space beyond the ordinary. I know that makes it sound like the appearance of an aura, or something unfashionably mysterious. But it is mysterious. It usually begins with a phrase and an image. I sense a relation between them, something combustible, maybe. A sense of a completeness I am charged with getting right. The relation is one of sound, but always in a space whose dimensions I am not quite sure of: will it be compact like a sonnet? will it be more opened-ended? All these possibilities are usually open at the very start. Something like synaesthesia is involved: hearing a space, seeing a sound. What rings truest for me is what Milosz says: it's like dictation. I am listening for something. And receptivity seems the greater part of it. Some syllabic rustling that suggests a rhythm. The poem grows around this nucleus (now that I'm thinking in terms of biology), which may wind up in the middle, at the end, or in the beginning. I rarely know at this point, although I may Selection is there from the start: this word fits and not that. Why? It's not yet clear. But form is suggested by these initial sounds and their relation. Then the words begin to encounter the constraints of limit, the thrill of finding a sound, and a placement, that harmonizes with other sounds and placements. I begin to see that the poem is taking a certain shape, and I suppose I could say that this shape exerts a selective pressure. Words have to fit a niche, and this is one of the beauties of working within form: the pressure it creates, and the counter-pressure of invention it provokes.

There is a curious distinction between poetic and musical invention in our era. A composer writing in the older forms can still say, "I'm writing an opera that was commissioned," or " this summer I'll attempt my first symphony," and no one will doubt the authenticity of the result just because the form was decided upon beforehand. But if a poet says, "I'm going to write a collection of sonnets," people find that suspect. How could you know where you are going? Can you just choose a form as a starting point, an ambition? Doesn't the form have to choose you if you are to avoid merely doing exercises? In my own work, the question of form is almost always uncertain at the start. But I wonder if it has to be that way for everyone. It seems a prejudice of our time, and not something essential to art. (It's always difficult to separate the two.) In any event, I feel that play within some system of rules is immensely freeing, and has produced much of the great art we still admire today. "Play" is the crucial word. Novelty requires a background against which it can stand out.

You were a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, twice I think, the National Poetry Series, and the Colorado Prize. What is your take on the whole idea of poetry contests?

Poetry contests have become the standard way of sifting through massive numbers of manuscripts. The abundance of poetry has made poetry an awkwardness that has to be “dealt with” by the proliferation of these near-lotteries. Contests are a mechanical means of addressing a problem of scale: too much work, too little time to review it all, and too little demand for it. So, contests are big, bureaucratic systems that have evolved to deal with unprecedented quantity, that’s all. And that’s rather depressing to think about: giant systems of elimination for art. But this is happening throughout our society. People submit dozens of college applications, hundreds or thousands of resumes for jobs, and still the chances of coming up empty-handed, even if you are talented and skilled, are really quite high. As the number of applicants increases, the randomness of the outcome for any one applicant also increases. And this terrifies people, because it means the future becomes more and more unpredictable.

When something is no longer rare, it gets devalued. This is true of art as well as people. (Witness the way certain journals and publishers say “No poetry” as if it’s a kind of toxic waste in danger of burying us all.) Contests are ways of building back value by creating scarcity through a fiction that many people find quite appealing: that only one
manuscript in a thousand or so is worthy of publication. Of course that’s almost never the case. But most contests depend on the twin notions that “the best always wins” and that “winner takes all.” Notions especially popular in America. Given varied tastes in poetry, the wildly eclectic contemporary landscape, and the sheer number of contests, it can take many, many years for a fine manuscript to find a publisher. Or it may never happen. I’m not a believer in happy endings just because I experienced one. It’s paradoxical: so much apparent opportunity, so much concern with (or controversy about) fairness, and then you get these incredible stories of talented people trying for over twenty years to publish their first book. Twenty years! I think there must be some formula -- you plug in number of contests, number of competing manuscripts, chances of your manuscript finding a sympathetic reader, and some variable representing sheer tenacity -- and you might get such a mind-boggling number as two decades.

I haven’t any sweeping solutions. But I do think the proliferation of big contests and the dwindling of any other ways of submitting work represent a skewed ecology of the arts. Maybe there are simply more talented writers than ever before. Or maybe more people are able to write in some fashion, and be awarded degrees that seem to promise careers, and so the population to be sifted has grown immensely. Under the circumstances I think it’s far better to have contests like the one that the University of Arkansas Press runs: if there are several manuscripts they like in a given year, they will publish all of them. I think getting away from a “winner takes all” approach is a healthy nod in the direction of reality. And it makes sense that my book saw the light of day in just this kind of contest.

What we always have to remember, of course, is that contemporary ratification is not the same as the test of time.

Did you submit the King Vulture manuscript to these contests? If so, do you think there was a particular bias against your type of poetry being chosen? Was there any frustration?

I had been submitting my work for many years before the call came that King Vulture would be published at last. The manuscript had been submitted, under various names and in various forms, to many contests. It was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award three times, for the National Poetry Series, and for the Colorado Prize. Of course none of these “achievements” really added up to anything, because the manuscript had to be submitted blind to the next contest. So being a finalist didn’t move the manuscript any closer to publication, and I envisioned this state of affairs going on forever.

I am not sure if bias against “formalist” work entered into the picture. Certainly formalists were being published in the years when my work was being rejected. So it’s difficult to say. I tend to be cautious in attributing reasons to outcomes that may have been the result of randomness. It’s very tempting to look for reasons, but it may have been chance: the lottery factor, and the sheer difficulty of encountering someone who happens to like what you do more than they like something else. On a given day!

You ask if this was a frustrating experience. It was more frustrating than I can describe, because I had been encouraged to expect my book to appear within a few years at most. Some people -- not all -- who had known an older and smaller literary culture could not comprehend why it was taking me so long, and they tended, to my shock, to blame me for the situation. But a writer keeps writing. I simply went on, even as I kept revising the first manuscript and submitting it. I grew more detached from praise and blame, which is a good and necessary thing. And I began to understand more deeply the price of persistence. Intellectually you can applaud the notion of going your own way. But it comes down to this: you have to accept being looked at with contempt.

Alfred Corn, on the back cover of your book King Vulture, states, "K. E. Duffin will be among the poets most discussed over the next couple of decades." How do you regard that statement? Does it engender a sense of purpose? Does it create pressure? Or do you disregard it?

I am very grateful that Alfred Corn believes my work will be read and discussed. I am especially grateful that he was willing to say what he believed. So many people err on the side of caution until they see which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps more readers will find my work as a result, and that is a good thing. But as I mentioned above, contemporary ratification is not the same as the test of time. And an artist has to be willing, if necessary, to break any pattern that has been applauded, and go another way, even if it disappoints everyone. So I try to remain somewhat detached from praise and criticism alike. My own history has shown me how quickly one can mutate into the other, and literary history shows us what a fragile thing judgment can be. All that matters is going forward, continuing to write in my own way.

Speaking of going forward and writing your own way, you have spoken about the path of the artist and of a life devoted to poetry. What do these things mean to you?

The whole idea of working as an artist in our society is such a confused and complicated matter. There are so many competing definitions, and no agreed upon paths. Is it a profession? A vocation? What does “professional” mean in a situation where outside jobs (and I include teaching) are almost universally necessary? People tend to get caught up in the whole idea of social definition, and degree-granting programs foster the fiction that there is a standard route forward, some socially acceptable means of validation, not to mention livelihood. Supposedly over 95% of people who graduate from art schools have stopped producing art within five years. What does that mean? A friend of mine who is a painter told me that a gallery owner once asked her “Do you want to sell paintings, or do you want to have a career?” This would have been a bewildering question for, say, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter. For a poet the more appropriate question is probably this: “Do you want to not make money and not have a career?” But these questions have nothing to do with art itself.

So what I mean by going forward and being devoted to art is simply this: I want to see what I am going to do next. (Of course I also like to see what other people are going to do and what they have done in the past). And it means living a bit defensively to preserve the time and space to make that possible. This is the most important thing for me, and something quite apart from social definitions. Social definitions are only useful if they help make the work possible. If people accept that you are a serious poet or artist, certain opportunities may arise to reduce the scatter of too many demands and jobs, the time squeeze. Maybe. But you can’t count on that happening, or think if it does that it means anything decisive about the quality of your work.

Being receptive to new perceptions and to memories. Clearing space for contemplation in a world that prizes outward signs of busyness. Having art at the center, no matter what else is happening. It’s not discipline, and it’s not asceticism. Those are common misunderstandings. People like to boast of the hours they put in, how they avoid ordinary pleasures. I remember that one of the instructors at art school insisted that a real artist would never just spend a day at the beach, waste time like that. For some reason, this beach avoidance thing keeps coming up. And it’s comical, really. One thinks of photos of Picasso prancing around on the sand. I think the harder it is to judge the work itself, because our era is so eclectic, the more people focus on outward signs, the shoulds and shouldn’ts of behavior, to define a “good” artist. (It’s also funny to see poets -- like everyone else -- boasting of contextless numbers: “So and so has published over 2,504 poems in 300 journals.” What could that possibly mean to anyone who has not read those poems?)

All that matters in the end is the work itself. Not how it came into existence. There are no formulas. Except for attentiveness. Having a mind filled with possibilities. And going forward. Making things to the best of one’s ability. A vocation in that sense. Something instinctive. A radical playfulness that pushes to the head of a pack of tasks.

“If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you regret not having done?” -- Of course you’re supposed to realize the answer would never be “More work.” But that’s exactly what I would answer. Not work in the sense of fulfilling social and economic obligations, or showing professional discipline, but work in this sense: what more could I have done with this mind, these nerves, these perceptions and memories, this individuality? A curiosity, and a compulsion.

I haven’t spoken at all about the larger context of art. Do I believe art is essential to humanity, to civilization, to ethics? Absolutely. But this belief is not what drives my work.

Is there anything else I would rather do? No. As long as this is possible, it wins out over other quite lovely and significant things.