Fifteen Years of Listening
“The poem I want to write is impossible: a stone that floats.”
When the first issue of Asheville Poetry Review was released in
June 1994, the price of a gallon of gas was 1.05. The #1 song in
America was Whitney Houston’s cover of the Dolly Parton ballad,
“I Will Always Love You.” Kurt Cobain had shoved a shotgun in
his mouth and joined the immortals in April, the same month that
800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda. In late June, O. J.
Simpson was arrested for the murders of his estranged wife and her
friend. Richard Nixon and Jackie O left their mortal coils mere
months apart. For the first time in history, chain bookstores would
outsell independent stores. “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump”
were all the rage at the cinema, and the word “spam” was coined
to recognize the glut of promotional ads that would flood the
fledgling internet. In the 15 years that we have been publishing the
Review, the American population has grown by 50 million people.
Our own distribution has gone from three local stores to more than
600 in 35 states and six foreign countries. We have published more
than 1300 writers from 22 different nationalities, and receive over
8000 submissions a year. In this issue alone, there are eleven different
languages represented and poets hailing from nineteen states.
The world has grow considerably smaller, and faster, and as the
rest of the world catches up to American convenience, those cultures
too fall prey to our addictions.
Technology is not an image of the world, or its mirror; it is a
praxis whose purpose is to change the world or cast it aside. Poetry
is our best vision of the world as it exists and what is good is
always rare. Most of our thoughts of poetry are made of memories,
or a world-view filled with snapshots that string out along the
clothesline of our consciousness, but memories deceive, and poetry,
like all living things, must change as memories do, in order to survive.
Poetry is language with a shape. It communicates by giving
and yet, as it elicits answering energies from the reader, more
energy is poured back into a poem by its various readers than the
energy taken to create it in the first place. It took Shakespeare two
weeks to write The Tempest, and Ben Jonson chided him for taking
that long. “I need the sea because it teaches me,” wrote Neruda, “I
move in the university of the waves.” For our own private reasons
we commence the journey through poetry to find someone listening
on the other side of silence, for whom our efforts were intended all
along. “The poets,” said Emerson, “they are free and they make
free.” The poems we make become one with the sum of all other
created things and so there is no end to the making.
A poet’s first need, says Seamus Heaney, “is to make works that
seem all his own work,” or to find his voice, the one he alone can
sing with and through. The poet’s second need is harder though,
because he has to go beyond himself and take on “the otherness of
the world in works that remain his own, yet offer right-of-way to
everybody else.” The capacity for continuous transformation means
being an open vessel through which new sounds and ideas may
pass. Learning to be wholly yourself requires patience and a dutiful
ability to listen and observe. If you’re talking half as much, then
you’re listening doubly, reflecting the attitudes of your time and
more importantly, assimilating the bourbon of the world’s words,
the colloquial unguarded communications. Some poets, like George
Oppen or Bob Kaufman, feeling thwarted in their artistic missions,
lapsed into long periods of silence. They were not suffering from
writer’s block, but became transparent in their dealings with the
world, allowing the world to pour through them, and both reemerged
more vital and vivid than before. For them, the more the
universe seemed comprehensible, the more it seemed pointless, and
the writer who claims to have no fear of writing in a vacuum is
either a fool or a robot.
By the time most good poets start to publish their work consistently,
they’ve amassed dozens of reaction slips, in all shapes and
sizes. Even great manuscripts have failure rates worse than the best
batting percentage of a major league player, and it is difficult not to
quit. But Keats said that “poetry must come as naturally as leaves
to the trees or not at all.” If the words keep coming, we owe it to
ourselves to hone our axe, to sharpen our perspective and our
tools, to make for ourselves the best possible atmosphere for success.
But trying to teach someone how to write poetry is like trying
to assemble an instruction manual for a sunset.
What the reader of poetry craves are beautiful accidents, surprise
and astonishment in the poem, doors opening outward to true vistas
for the first time. Something built up from within, not merely
extracted from the exterior. The connective tissue is the evanescent
need to become part of something that is larger than humans or
mere language, but parts of both compressed into radioactive
poetry; the right words in the right order, lending light. A poem can
be an animal big enough to ride, teeming with unexpected energy,
charting a course into the unknown, providing moments of agility
and delight that do not throw the rider off its back, but serve as
reminders of the exquisite muscularity and nimbleness of the animal,
and the reader is made more beautiful as well, by having ridden it.
Sometimes beautiful accidents occur outside the poet’s sphere of
influence. These accidents enter our writing because of our ability
to listen and to be open to the possibilities of any influence. Be one
of those people on whom nothing is lost and all will be possible. “I
want to be with those who know secret things or else alone,” said
Rilke. The ceremony of writing takes place every day, by going
constantly to the well. Once, when Jack Nicklaus overheard a fan
yell, “Lucky!” after a particularly well-placed shot upon the green,
he turned to the gallery and said, “The more I practice, the luckier
I get.” Thus, there are no famous writers, only famous re-writers,
who become professional or published or famous by their force of
will upon the words, unwilling to settle for the first thought or
effort, and committed to the lifelong process of honing and sharpening
their tools. In this respect, the poet can never settle for easy
or quick satisfaction. The idea of gratification comes from the surrender
to the process where the search, not the arrival, is the thing.
All editing is subjective. When we place ourselves in the hands of an
editor, no amount of background, biography or back-slapping will
help them decide to publish or reject a poem. There is only the
poem in front of them, and it is as naked or sophisticated as the day
it was born. The decision an editor makes in those moments is as
arbitrary as possible, and yet, contains a million other factors,
dependent upon his or her mood, the weather, the amount of work,
the themes of the issue, conscious and unconscious stylistic bias,
their last meal’s agreeable digestion, the time that it took to read the
mountain of poems in the first place, their children’s piano lesson,
the lack of a title, the length of the title, the worth of the first line,
the color of the paper stock, the unmitigated gall to send a multipage
biography, the fact that it’s another damned sonnet, the fact
that it’s the perfect damn sonnet, the lack of a shower, bravado,
pitch, vocabulary, humility, sweep, vision, humor, shape, rhetoric,
form, diction. The action of the editor, however quixotic, is riveted
with love. I have been submitting my own poetry to other editors
for their appraisal since I was eighteen years old and have known
from firsthand experience the pain of that rejection letter. So I treat
prospective contributors the way I would want to be treated myself,
and I hope my process bears the quality of tenderness.
Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We
make a life by what we give.” The best poems stop us in our
tracks, shut us up, make us read the poem again and again, because
it has suddenly opened another room in our brain that was hidden
to us before. Poetry is born of a painful awareness, “a religion
without hope,” said Cocteau, and is naturally averse to the swell of
conformity from every age. It requires unadorned explosions of
expression, channels of air blossoming with sounds, the orchestras
of the mind playing as a single instrument, breaths overlapping and
interlocked like feathers on a wing, the body in thrall, surrendering
to the primitive central force of the imagination. Words change as
history changes, and meaning is distorted by the pressure-cookers
of governmental and academic controls. But the best poetry is timeless,
its symbology fixed and its propulsion strengthened by the
tests of time, chipping away the excess until the streamlined spear
tip of its message cuts uninterrupted through the air, rhythmically
perfected and lethal.
You can’t be wise and in love at the same time, but the best poems
are drunken frenzies, soberly told, controlled mayhem tumbling
forward on the weight of their own sonic momentum. Charles
Lloyd, a jazz musician, called being present in the center of the creative
storm, “restful alertness.” That’s the calm expression of a performer
as the cascade of chords and ideas crashes through them.
The capability to allow your thoughts coherence as quickly as they
are born, patient but immediate context derived from hour upon
hour upon hour of obsessive rehearsal, woodshedding, nurturing a
solitary marriage to an inanimate object or idea. Slavish attention
to your intuition. Thelonius Monk, maybe more than any other
artist of the twentieth century, would sit unperturbed in the midst
of dramatic expectation and jerk the onrushing chord changes and
rhythms like a balloon artist twisting rubber filled with air into recognizable
I have never given one thought to the questions of can poetry survive
or does poetry matter? It is as immutable as my next breath; it
sustains, guides, challenges, defeats, distorts, regales, mocks,
shocks, and stocks me. My life would be unimaginable without it,
and as a result, I have never pondered its omission or extinction. I
have spent, however, most of the last twenty-five years pondering
what it is, and how to create it. Many of the ideas discussed in this
introduction are included in a book of essays that was released last
year by Writer’s Digest Books, entitled The Rhythm Method,
Razzmatazz and Memory: How To Make Your Poetry Swing. In
celebration of our fifteenth anniversary, here are fifteen rules to
FIFTEEN RULES TO WRITE BY
1. Always allow your true nature to be expressed and apply no
limitations to your beginning flow. Let come what may, as
much as possible. “The road of excess leads to the palace of
2. Inspiration is fleeting. Technique is eternal.
3. “Compose aloud: poetry is a sound.” —Bunting.
4. Music is the universal language because it is mathematical.
Always know the number of beats in your line, the number of
lines that want to be a stanza.
5. Never fall back on cliche, or use any metaphor, simile, or
other figure of speech that you have ever seen in print.
6. Never use a long word when a short one will do. Scientific
terms are rarely short, but have their purpose if they do not
have to be explained. Never explain, never apologize, never
7. Examine every sentence for more active verbs. Never use the
passive where you can use the active.
8. Clear your poem of abstractions. Never use an abstract concept
when a concrete image will do. “No ideas but in things.”
9. Fear gerunds, participles, adjectives that bleed your nouns of
10. Beware the artificial music of prepositional phrases. Remove
them when you can.
11. Give a poem the distance to speak clearly and never send a new
poem to be published. Compose in a flood. Edit in a trickle.
12. Cut out every word you possibly can and realize that every line
is a muscle in the body of the poem. Be muscular.
13. Less is more. Repeat number 12. Condensation is the final
14. Admit no impediment. A poem must flow with authority.
Remove all obstacles, technical, psychological, or musical.
15. Rhythm loves proximity. Balance all like sounds for greatest
impact. Avoid syncopation unless that is your goal. Variance in
rhythm creates surface tension, propulsion and momentum.
P.S. Start the poem with action and leave it in motion.
I have long loved the poetry of William Matthews and am delighted
to present our readers with an amazing compilation of interviews
conducted with the poet over the course of his career. A book of his
Uncollected Work will be forthcoming and should be full of surprises.
Here is an excerpt from that collection that is a remembrance
of Matthews as a teacher, and bears an uncanny resemblance to my
list of writing rules.
I thought it might be instructive to compare and contrast these
strategies. Each poet develops his own system and technique. The
purpose of my job as a teacher and editor is to share my tools with
other poets, that they may place in their own toolbox whatever tool
they find useful, and discard the others. We come to poetry for different
reasons and may never know if poetry is all we need until it is
all we have. One of Matthews’ students, J. Patrick Madden, remembers
his time with the poet like this:
About half the time we’d get together to discuss my work; he didn’t
want to talk poetry at all, preferring instead to talk about jazz, basketball,
or even baseball. Somehow I figured out these “non-poetry”
poetry sessions were important to him, where he could just be himself.
So I didn’t bring up that week’s poems I’d turned in. The other half of
the time he would go over my work. I still miss his genuinely good
soul. He always wanted the best for his students and their best poems
from them too. What follows is his advice (some of the best I’ve ever
had) mostly as I wrote it down, though some bits I’ve made more
generic. They are in no particular order, but my personal favorites are
6, 8, 10, 11, 14 and 15.
1. Who speaks affects tone.
2. A false audience leads to false habits.
3. Don’t look over your shoulder too much.
4. Don’t be too careful not to travel in your poems.
5. Is your first stanza doing work or is it a “pre-echo” of what’s to
6. Find a way to talk about what interests you.
7. Watch out for big words that slang hasn’t caught up to.
8. Be careful of being on your best behavior.
9. If you can’t dance to it, it’s not true.
10. The ear can hear too great an urge to be believed.
11. Tentative rhythm equals tentative thinking.
12. The ear is related to your best thinking and your best thinking
equals your best confidence.
13. When putting a manuscript together, there is no secret order. You
impose the order. It can be chronological but it doesn’t have to be.
14. Organize your poems to show what you don't know about them.
15. Don’t necessarily end on an up note.
16. Technique has consequences.
A word overused to describe Matthews, that he’s a wit, or witty,
doesn’t begin to define his sense of timing, the aptness of his work,
knowing when to change the pace, or when the last line is the right
line, the time to close the lid. This requires restraint, but stems from
relentless curiosity, and a buoyant belief that discipline, when
applied to poetry, constitutes its own reward. “The power of music
that poetry lacks is the ability to persuade without argument,”
Matthews has written, but the best poems hide their argument, as
well as the seams in their form. The style is the mysterious bond
between the audience and the poem's mechanics, slipping in and out
of the reader, inviting him or her back to read it again and again,
coaxing the imagination out like “energy in a spring.”
From that miraculous generation of American poets born in the
1920s, a flowering of literary and lyrical talent perhaps unequalled
by any nation from any era, only a smattering remain. Look at the
staggering roster of names: Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur,
Anthony Hecht, James Dickey, Alan Dugan, Anne Sexton, Louis
Simpson, Denise Levertov, James Schuyler, A. R. Ammons, Bob
Kaufman, Kenneth Koch, James Merrill, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert
Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn, Robert Bly,
Charles Tomlinson, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin,
Jonathan Williams, James Wright, Shirley Kaufman, Philip Levine,
Richard Howard, Edward Dorn, Jack Spicer, Galway Kinnell,
Richard Hugo, Donald Justice, John Haines, Donald Hall, John
Logan, Philip Lamantia, Hayden Carruth, Charles Bukowski,
Barbara Guest, Robin Blaser, Cid Corman, Grace Paley, Jack
Gilbert, Gerald Stern, David Wagoner, and Maya Angelou.
Jonathan would have loved that last sentence. He longed to be
remembered among the finest minds of his time. For all the discoveries
of young talent, native talent, old neglected masters, and the
solitary one-of-a-kind empurpled primitive artisans that Jonathan
generously championed and collected, he never felt that he enjoyed
the kind of acclaim that he deserved, either for his discriminating
taste, or his clear abundant love of the Southern dialect and culture.
I always thought of Jonathan as an Old West sheriff, one of the
holdouts between chaos and justice, who did not negotiate with the
latest gang as he stood on his porch and tipped back his hat, squinting
fearlessly into their gun barrels.
He was a throwback whose vision still remained ahead of its time,
whose radar was always tuned to the ineffable, the inchoate, the
inevitable divine. He was what he loved, singular and facing in all
directions at once. There will never be another like him.
Somehow our conversations always veered into baseball. We would
quickly dispatch the literary business at hand and then pick the
other’s brain for statistics and associations, tendencies or news
about our favorite teams or players. I’m a forty-year fan of the
Giants. He was definitely a Braves man. He told me about a particularly
beautiful afternoon he spent with Jack Spicer at the beach in
San Francisco, listening to the Giants game over their little portable
Arvin radio and how they both felt happy in the sun discussing
poetry and brushback pitches, and Jack was healthy and still full of
magic and everything seemed possible.
“The imagination is not a state,” said Blake: “it is the Human
Existence itself.” Jonathan sometimes railed against the readership
of America, wherein “the whole body of traditional reference is
going out of currency.” He couldn’t believe that no one simply read
the Bible for its language. Because getting the words right was his
life’s mission, to imitate Nature’s “moves in the mind’s music.” I’m
going to let Jonathan have the last word here. The following excerpt
is from his essay, “Colonel Colporteur’s Winsome-Salami Snake Oil
(JW to His Students),” written in 1973 and later included in the collection,
The Magpie’s Bagpipe:
A pseudo-translation of mine from the Chinese says: “Fox plus razor
equals the eye—get sharp, or you’re dead?” Accordingly, please don’t
let the world turn you into a Gadarene, a Midianite, or a Laodicean
(see the New Testament).
Do not overestimate yourselves. Remember Delacroix’s remark: To be a
poet at twenty is to be twenty; to be a poet at forty is to be a poet.
Write poems for the most passionate of reasons and beware the
Rational Mind; i.e., Celebrate. Bruckner said the thing wrong with
Brahms was that he could not jubilate. A curious remark, in the light of
those four symphonies. One man’s epiphany is another man’s easy chair.
Eyes&ears, and a place you stand on. Go easy on imported nightingales,
if you don’t know what the wood thrush sounds like. Be down
to earth. Be earthy. Be at home where you are. Make the things in your
rooms sacred by paying them attention, space and quiet. Be silent more
often before the loom of the world. Be nicer to rattlesnakes and trout
lilies. And know what things are called.
Be more on your own; go your own way more often. Stay away from
crowds of poets with all their hustling and envy and backbiting. Stay
away from Big Mac and Whopper. Learn how to cook a hamburger
worthy of Orpheus.
Read everything by some really absorbing “minor” or fifth-rate or
ignored writer, like M. P. Shiel, or Arthur Machen, or Mervyn Peake.
You can get into an anthology edited by W. B. Yeats if you can write
one poem as good as “The Sunflower” by William Force Stead, late of
Be more responsive. Or, as Tina Turner would have it: “Rub it on us;
turn it loose?” Get the hots over words. Give things a break, including
rattlesnakes, trout lilies, and even the androids who purport to run the
United States. We are responsible for what they do.
Be both elite & elate. Discover why Rachmaninoff’s performance of
Schumann’s Carnival reveals mastery as opposed to the mere competence
of most other readings. Persons are equal before the law and the
folks are as good as the people, but Earl Scruggs is better than most
fireless poets. Listen for that enkindling difference and adhere to it and
measure yourselves against the best as you find it. Your “Best” will
change as you explore the world.
Charles Ives said: “Stand up and use your ears like a man!” Picasso
said: “Have balls. Look into the sun!” Macho statements, I suppose,
and, anyway, if you write poems you will be considered a fruit-and-nut
case for life. Better advice would be: don’t be cussed about your poems
all twenty-four hours of the day. Walt Whitman, in an amazing line,
said that what he aspired to do was make companionship as thick as
trees by the rivers of America. We are all here together.