March 2010

Paul Holler

features

An Interview with David Baker

There is a tradition in American poetry of exploring the landscapes, people and history of this country in words. The work of Robert Frost owes much of its power to the Eastern American landscape that the poet knew. Likewise, many of Walt Whitman’s poems grew from the poet’s view of New York City in the nineteenth century.

In our own time, there are poets who, like their predecessors, practice their art firmly in the context of the place and time in which they live. David Baker is one of those poets. Raised in Missouri and currently living in Ohio, Mr. Baker’s roots are firmly in the American Midwest. His most recent books, Never-Ending Birds and Midwest Eclogue explore diverse themes, ideas and images, many of which are rooted in the Midwestern landscape. Mr. Baker is currently a Professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and serves as Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Baker about his work as a poet, teacher and editor. Our conversation ranged from, among other things, the craft of verse, Romania, the Internet, teaching undergraduates, and why one writes.

“I won't get quite so melodramatic as to counter with ‘Why breathe?’ but it's pretty close to that for me,” says Mr. Baker on why he writes. “I write from a very vivid and sort of bipolar combination of inward and outward necessities. Writing gives me access, or gives me words for, an interior world of emotions and thoughts and music that I wouldn't have otherwise; I mean, writing poetry does that. But writing poems also gives me a connective presence; poetry is language, and language's use is to reach out and connect, to say something to someone. Both of those impulses, inward and outward, are especially intense in poetry.

“I was a musician as a younger person, seriously so, but I just finally couldn't see myself living as a musician. Bad hours, hard life. And when I began to write, I knew quickly two things: it would be poetry, since poetry is so rich and rigorous; it would be poetry, since poetry is so close to music. I set one instrument aside, my guitar, and picked up another, my pen. I love the rhythms, harmonies, counterpoints, phrasings, chords, stories that I learned in music and can create, in a different way, in poetry.

“Poems begin for me in a number of ways, but the beginning is not the start,” Mr. Baker says on how a poem begins in his imagination. “That is, after I have the first impulse for a poem, I take notes and memorize and plan, but do not start the poem. I wait. I stew, study, think; by the time I actually sit to write, I know the first several lines by heart and also have a sense of the line and line-break and structure of the syntax. Of course, those often change later. But I wait. I also will fold in the start of one poem with the start of another, or the material of one in the material of another, making one poem from the impulses of several. I like that kind of collision or friction.

“What is the first impulse? Sometimes a musical phrase, a tone of voice, an intonation. I started a poem once that I wanted to sound like a cello playing one string for a long time. Sometimes it's a linguistic phrase, a turn of phrase. Sometimes an event, or episode, or part of a story. Sometimes a social engagement (like a neighbor's conversation over a garden wall); sometimes a lovers' engagement. Sometimes a poem starts because of another poem I am reading, as a way to talk back; that's a social engagement, too.

“They don't begin with an idea, or with a visual image. Or, if an image, that image is part of a larger dramatic scene. Image isn't enough. And idea -- well, that comes later, if at all. Action is more evocative than idea for me. Drama [is] more evocative than exposition.”

A poem is composed of music, language and the imagination of the poet. Readers and writers of poetry may be attracted to the sound of a poem, the story it tells, the imagery it evokes or some combination of those things. These things may appear to be very disparate, even unrelated. But are they?

“I'm not one of those folks who sees a poem as either lyric or narrative,” Mr. Baker notes on the elements of poetry. “I think all good poems are always both lyric and narrative, and can be loosely identified or placed along a continuum defined by those poles. A poem had better have a rich set of lyrical values; and all poems, all language, are narrative in some abbreviated or extended way. Grammar itself is narrative -- time passes, things happen, whether that amount of time is tiny or huge, and whether its depiction is linear or fractured or multiply-layered. The relationship of subject to predicate is narrative.

“I tend to see narrative (again, I don't merely mean ‘story’ but drama or time-passing) as one of the structural bases of a poem, and its lyric qualities as the richness or intensity embedded with that structure. In fact, part of the story of a poem IS its musicality or lyrical articulation. The song is the story, just as the story enables one to sing.”

Just as the lyric and narrative aspects of a poem are related, the setting of a poetic work, and the importance of a place to the poet’s life, becomes a part of the narrative and the lyric. Much of Mr. Baker’s work refers to the Midwestern landscape, specifically that or rural Ohio. I asked Mr. Baker about his relationship to the place where he lives.

“I grew up in Missouri (where I lived my first twenty-four years), and live now in Ohio (where I've been for the last twenty-seven),” Mr. Baker explains. “That makes me pretty thoroughly a Midwesterner -- from the small towns and rural areas of those states. Those places -- that place -- are essential to my imagination and, so, to my poems.

“In fact, I gave a lecture just a few weeks ago, for the Academy of American Poets in New York, about the relationship of place to poetry. I think that will appear in American Poet early next year.

“A poem ‘takes place’ in several places at once -- on the page, in the poet's mind, in the readers' imaginations, in the meeting ground among them all where all the poems we have with us continue to live and converse. And for myself, too, poetry often takes place in a certain lay of the land, the rural and small-town Midwest with its big fields and deep woods, its villages and neighborhoods. As a region, the Midwest is massive, bigger than most countries, and while I certainly won't say that it's ‘better’ than other places, it is nonetheless my place in the world.

“More so, I am finding myself devoted to finding language and song for the things that grow here. The names of the plants, the habits of the birds and big cats and deer, the flow of water -- I take sustenance from these things, just as I take sustenance from the crops and fields.

“So ‘connection’ is almost too tame a word. But… I find a connection between my poetry and my place in the world. I am sure that my work would be different if I lived a long time somewhere else; of course it would, though I have no real way of estimating what that would be, how my poems would change. As it is, I can't see how I could write without a devout attention to place -- the language, ways of life, my neighbors and family, the rigor and leisure that grow here where I live.

“Wallace Stevens wrote that ‘we live in the mind.’ But I would add to that, to assert that if we live in the mind, then the mind lives in the body, and the body lives in a particular time and place in the world, taking sustenance, loving, working, laboring in that time and place.”

One of the poems in Mr. Baker’s new collection, Never-Ending Birds, brings together the elements of place, narrative and lyric that we had been discussing. “Bright Pitch” begins with the image of barns with advertisements for Mail Pouch Tobacco painted on their outside walls. Barns like those Mr. Baker describes are a common sight in rural Ohio. Farmers in that region typically allow advertisements to be painted on the walls of their barns in exchange for maintenance of those barns. It is an old tradition that has allowed some of the old barns to survive into the 21st century.

              "A few survive, black-
              shellacked and
                            bannered with ads
                            (as, Chew Mail Pouch
Tobacco), but the un-
              subsidized implode –"

“To be specific first, ‘Bright Pitch’ began with barns,” says Mr. Baker on that poem. “I love them, especially the old wood barns all over the Midwest. They are falling down, being replaced by pre-fab pole barns, which I hate. I love the wooden ones, each different from the others, and the old Mail Pouch paintings.

“I read quite a bit of physics, and encountered the word ‘barn’ in physics. A barn is a cross-section of an elementary particle. So there was my trope, and the barn door also played in to the big open door of Barney's the store in Manhattan that figures into the poem, too. Heat and cold, the nuclear winter, the waste of hot air flowing out of the department store in winter. All these things swirl in the poem.

“I am devoted to the natural in my poems, as I said earlier. Science is one way of finding a language for nature; so is mathematics, and music, and poetry. I mourn the devastating waste of nature, the green spaces and wild places, so imperiled by our ravenous culture and species. Part of my commitment as a poet is to remember; and to find language for some things (the animals, the growing things) that don't speak for themselves. This is so basic to me and my imagination that it's hard sometimes to think about what isn't nature, in my poems.”

The incorporation of landscape within a poetic work can sometimes create a degree of universality in that work. A place that is familiar to a poet can resonate with a reader, even if the reader has never seen that place. Mr. Baker’s work has in recent years attracted the attention of Romanian poet Chris Tanasescu. In late 2009, Mr. Baker traveled to Romania to give public readings of his work, which had been translated and published in the Romanian language.

“[It was a] completely random thing,” Mr. Baker says of that experience. “This fellow, maybe two, two and a half years ago, emailed me. Chris Tanasescu, who is a Romanian poet at the University of Bucharest, had come across a poem of mine and wanted to translate it for a magazine. And he just kept going and about a year ago said that he would like to put together a ‘selected poems’ from all my books and show it to a publisher. He did, the publisher took it, the book was published [in November 2009] and I went over for the launch. I’d never been there, I know two words of Romanian, but I’d apparently written a book called Omul Alchimic and had an amazing time.

“[Chris Tanasescu] was interested in some longer poems I had done. He’s interested in history, he’s interested in poems that are polyphonic. And I also think he was drawn to the Midwestern and the sort of regional stuff. He’s an expert, a professor of American Culture in Bucharest and he’s really interested in regional things. I think that was one of the things that drew him as well.”

Perhaps Mr. Baker’s experience in Romania shows how an international community of artists has developed in recent years. The internet with its proliferation of new venues for the arts has created new outlets for writers as it has changed traditional publications.

As Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review, Mr. Baker is in a position to observe both the state of the “little” magazine and also the development of contemporary poetry. Just as language and customs shaped the literary works of earlier times, the poetry of our time reflects not only modern language and thought but also changes in technology.

“It seems to me that we have turned a corner in the last ten years or so, but it’s hard to comment on it because it’s happening right now,” says Mr. Baker on poetry in the twenty first century. “In a way, I can’t be very specific because I see so much stuff, it looks like everything is going on. But there are trends. [There is] what Steven Burt was calling ‘elliptical poetry’; a kind of quickened, shifting, highly image driven poetry that also seems informed by critical theory. There are poets doing pretty explicit political things these days, which I find interesting. There are poets who are writing very extended, sort of complicated historical narratives, or blended or hybrid poems. I find that kind of interesting.

“The troubling thing is a kind of hyper-professionalized poetry that I read right now. And it’s not specific to any one of those camps but it’s infiltrating a lot of younger poets. It seems to be as much connected to career and the building of resumes and Facebook. That I don’t like. It’s coming out of the proliferation of MFA schools, I think.

“But there’s just a lot of good poetry. Rather than to talk about it in terms of schools or groups, there are a lot of individual poets who are doing great work. So that’s encouraging. We get everything at The Kenyon Review, so I see a pretty good cross section of what’s happening.

“There are great old magazines that are gone or in peril,” Mr. Baker says on the impact of the Internet on small literary magazines. “The future of paper text, the print magazine is in some doubt. We’ve got, essentially, two magazines now at Kenyon, the print journal and The Kenyon Review Online. They talk to each other, these two magazines, and I really am happy with the way that’s working. We have a very big readership in print and an even bigger one online.”  

Like many poets and writers, Mr. Baker is also a teacher. To become a teacher, particularly at the college level, one has to obtain an advanced degree. The relationship between the pursuit of an advanced degree and the work of a poet or writer of fiction is an interesting one. Does an analytical approach to the study of literature help or hinder such a writer?

“I have a PhD because I wanted to be a teacher,” Mr. Baker says. “I taught high school for a couple of years before I went back to get the doctorate. That’s almost incidental to being a writer. I think if I weren’t a poet I’d still be a teacher. I know that if I weren’t a teacher I’d still be a poet. In my case, they went together. I can’t say that teaching creative writing particularly helps me write a poem. I feel lucky that I have a job that’s close to what I do as my vocation as a writer. But no student has ever helped me finish a poem. It happens that a lot of the study that I have done as a critic or as a scholar has shaped my poems. And sometimes I [even] embed those critical texts or historical readings inside my poems. And I guess that’s a fairly direct borrowing of one of those professions by the other.

“I don’t think a poet has to have a PhD to be a poet. I don’t think a poet has to have an MFA, I don’t think a poet has to go to college to be a poet. A poet has to know poetry. But there are lots of ways to learn that. I do what I do because I wanted to be a teacher. And I feel lucky that I’ve been able to do that. In fact I think there are so many poets who are in schools right now that it’s a problem. I think there’s a danger of a kind of sameness, a kind of institutional security that can be complacent or same sounding. It’s less getting out as it is making sure that one lives a big, full life. That one’s sympathies aren’t contained entirely inside one’s job or inside the walls of a university.

“I don’t teach my own work, I don’t talk about it in class. I teach undergraduates, first of all. The sort of professional development of, you know, a thirty-year-old poet with her briefcase… I’m just not interested in making more of those. I’m interested in undergraduates. I like teaching undergrads. I’m interested in their work, what they bring and how to begin to shape their imaginations as writers and even more so as readers. That’s what I’m really interested in.”