Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

A Conversation Between Adrian Koesters & James Crews

Adrian: James, this is a lovely opportunity and I have been very much looking forward to our exchange here.

The first thing I wanted to ask you, now that you've edited an anthology, is with so many genre possibilities open to contemporary writers, what is distinctive about poetry, and what should any poet be aiming for in their poems?

James: Equally, Adrian, this is a wonderful opportunity to talk.

I guess I would say that poetry is more flexible a genre now than it has ever been in the past, and I think that's one of the most attractive features for writers nowadays, giving them permission to write hybrid forms, use pieces of found text, compose traditional lyrics and narratives, and even create their very own languages in some cases. For me, though, the intention of poetry is to slow down, try to fully enter a moment in time, and then convey that to a reader in as simple and accessible a way as possible. With each of my poems, I'm trying to create a past scene or snapshot of where my mind happened to be, so it offers me the opportunity to really practice my descriptive skills. Poetry also gives me the chance to be fully present and aware when I'm in the act of writing. I believe that any creative act, if pursued with the whole heart, can be a form of deep spiritual practice, whether we call it that or not.

So that's why I've gravitated toward creativity, and especially poetry, so often over the years. I have a very distracted mind and often resist staying put exactly where I am, without thinking and planning for the future, without going over and over things that happened in the past (and wishing I'd done or said something differently!). For the past few years, I've been teaching Mindfulness and Writing workshops, and it's been fascinating to see who signs up for those. Almost without fail, students arrive who are also interested in a deeper presence in the world, and who (like me) struggle with that, given all the terrible news streaming from our phones, and all of the chances to interrupt our attention again and again in our daily lives. The process of writing (or any art-making really) seems very revolutionary to me as it runs counter to the speed with which our lives so often move these days. Writing also requires so very little in terms of materials: a pen and pencil and paper. That's it. So it resists the rampant consumption that also rules our culture right now.

As to process, I do morning pages every day when I wake up, based on Julia Cameron's practice in The Artist's Way, writing at least 3 longhand pages in my journal -- and sometimes more -- but also giving myself permission to follow whatever comes, whether that's a poem or shorter essay or (more rarely) a piece of fiction. I also make it a practice not to check my phone or email before I sit down at my desk with coffee, doing my best to leave some space in my life and my mind before the noise of the world rushes in with its demands and tasks and often useless information. The intense focus required for a poem seems an ideal practice for being present, and the more experienced I become with writing, the less I realize I know about the whole process. I do know, however, that all of my writing springs from intuition, and if there's one thing I have learned over the years, it's how to surrender to that. When a line comes to me that seems to have that extra nudge behind it, letting me know it wants to be a poem, I sit down with my notebook and try to let it emerge, trusting each word that comes, and allowing the next line to unwind without my having a say in it. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't, but after many years of writing poetry, I now know that I only want to put poems into the world that have come from the deeper, truer place that we might name the soul or intuition. When you get down to it, I suppose the mystery of poetry is what draws me to it the most.

Adrian: That's very interesting, and I think speaks to a strong discipline that demonstrates your sense of vocation. I tried doing morning pages a long while back and for some reason always ended in a kind of panic attack, but as you describe them, they sound like a wonderful discipline. I am also moving more and more to a set routine, and it bears such fruit but also gives such pleasure (even when things are not shaking out as easily as one would like!).

I think for me the most important thing about poetry is sound, and almost everything else is commentary, as the saying goes. Poets right now who insist on a political or identity agenda in work I think are missing the boat in some important and, in some cases, even dangerous ways. By dangerous I mean both that anything that insists on "a certain way," including certain subject matter, truncates the possibilities inherent in poetry and, far worse, suggests that art is worthless that does not fulfill a social obligation. I would never agree with that point of view.

That is not to say that I don't admire the poetry of those who are primarily fueled by the "idea," far from it, or that I don't admire poetry of politics and social justice. But if the poet is not demanding something of the words, the beats within the lines and stanzas, and pushing against "the already heard," then I don't respond to the words, and a lot of the time not even to the idea. I recently revisited a poem I've loved since I was in high school, Neruda's "The Mountain and the River," which is a tremendous example of what I'm getting at. If you know the Spanish (which I do only minimally), it's even more of a case in point. What he wrote was a highly charged political poem, which is also an exquisite love poem:

            Night climbs up to the mountain
            Hunger goes down to the river

The accomplishment is far from obvious, that our hungers are in body and in place, and our "struggles" are personal and collective. Now, we can say that in any number of ways, but those translated lines are musical, and even more so the original:

            La noche al monte sube
            El hambre baja al río

Those are the kinds of sounds and rhythms that when I hear them, aloud or in my head, are the most exciting experiences imaginable. The intuitive inspiration you describe also happens often to me, and then as I work through from that "first moment," when my ear gets hooked, then I know I'm on to something.

James: I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the sound of words versus the idea driving you to the page. It took a while, but I finally learned that idea-driven poetry just didn't work for me, or at least, that was not the work that others responded to the most. There is also more inherent pleasure for me in following the sounds and rhythms of words that seem meant to go together, for lack of a better explanation! If I'm just following an idea or a political conviction, the language starts to sputter and seem inauthentic in most cases. My process is quite similar to yours, I think, and I love your description of the "first moment" of inspiration when your ear gets hooked by something. Poetry writing seems to involve the whole body, and almost calls for more of our attention, and that's part of the draw for me--the challenge of focusing so closely on words, sounds, movement, all of it.

Working with our old mentor, Ted Kooser, and reading/reviewing his work, has also taught me a lot about going between genres. There are pieces in his delightful prose book, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, which he said originally began as poems. He realized there was more to explore, however, when he sat down and unraveled the lines, gave them a little more room to spread out. I've done this some myself, and it works for my shorter non-fiction (when it wants to, at least!).

Sometimes, for me, a poem might emerge from that "first moment" or that itch that wants to be scratched, and after the poem is finished, the itch hasn't quite gone away. So it's fun to let the words and images romp on the page a bit and see how they all shake out. This has especially been the case with my latest project, which is a book of short prose meditations on spirituality called Only Moments Matter: Mindfulness in Daily Life. The entries are only about a page or less, and many began as poems or "moments" (there's that word again!) drawn from an instance of close attention in my own everyday life. One example from the book was a time I was riding the commuter train from Boston back to my then-home in Providence. It was late on a Friday, and everyone was exhausted and mostly dozing. As usual, I was looking around and saw a man in a suit pull a phone out of his inner pocket, look at the screen, and break into one of the widest smiles I've ever seen. I wrote a poem about that sudden shift in his demeanor, and how happy his happiness made me for the rest of that long trip. But it dawned on me that there was more to say about this, so I let it stretch out into a few paragraphs. It occurs to me that, although the word is overused in our culture nowadays, "mindfulness" is maybe another name for the practice we're discussing here, no matter the genre: you sit down and mindfully allow what wants to emerge.

I'm always curious to ask others who work in multiple genres: when you sit down to the page, do you know what you're going to write? I know you've completed two novels now, so I wonder if it's part of the commitment and discipline of working on a longer prose piece, or if you have a practice where you just allow things to happen, trusting whatever comes? 

Adrian: I do have the similar experience to yours, that when I sit down to the page I am more often than not "visited" by an idea, or image, or some phrase puts itself into my hearing, and that, whatever time of day it is, if I am nagged by an idea I better write it down that minute or I'll regret it. For that reason I have an indecent number of notebooks going at any one time.

I think you are asking in part whether I keep going with a particular genre for a while, or do I bat back and forth? The answer, probably not surprising, is I don't have much of an idea what might happen on a given day. Whether or not I'll work on anything else while preoccupied with a certain genre, I really don't know until I am doing it. Sometimes a poem sparks a bit of an essay, and sometimes the essay will have a line that I immediately try to turn into a poem.

Poetry I find to be quick and then slow, and then steady, by which I mean, I'll begin to write a few poems, often while I'm working on something else, and after a time I often see there are similarities arising in the poems, and sometimes that means an overall theme. I am just now moving toward a new book of poems begun with a definite theme in mind, and the first poems came out very fast. Now they are muddling along, but as the collection grows I expect I'll alternate with some days a poem arriving nearly intact, and others having to grind at for a while.

Fiction and poetry together, I have learned, don't usually work all that well, unless I am at a place where a poem shows up every once in a while and I sketch it down and then return to the fiction. In fiction, the story is sort of driving you and if you can see ahead a bit on the road, you are usually doing okay. Poetry for me has a much closer and narrower focus; in other words, I can't think too far ahead or what I come up with is horrible--again, usually too idea-driven. Here we get back to your idea of the snapshot or the moment. When writing fiction, I am completely in the moment, but there is this whole aerial view going on at the same time.

You asked about long form, and I do very much like "prose poems" that are sort of run-at-the-mouth, which many of my fictional characters are, and which, let's face it, I am myself once I get going. But I don't enjoy writing short stories hardly at all. The novel, though, requires almost no discipline from me, except that of committing to the thousand words a day suggested by Caroline See that I took on some years ago--that's just about the right number of words on most days. But mostly I love the landscape of the novel, the time, and run-at-the-mouthiness you can give to it. Assuming your readers are from the nineteenth century or something.

Poetry, I find, is simply an entirely other experience. I love prose and poetry equally (and writing that just realized I struggle with nonfiction in the same ways as short stories), and would not wish to find myself in the place that I could not get to either one.

James: Because fiction is a genre I almost never dive into, I love getting the perspective of those who work in longer-form prose -- the practice seems so foreign to me at this point. I think that's in part because I struggle with the "aerial view" aspect of fiction writing (and especially novel writing) that you mention, though I can appreciate the freedom ("run-at-the-mouthiness!") that it must offer writers, the intoxication of letting the words run wild. I also agree with what you say about poetry, and needing to keep a narrower focus. I've found that if I think beyond the line I'm writing down right at that instant, the poem can easily veer off-course, and lose momentum. That's again why it's such good life practice for me, for staying in the moment: we never do know what will happen next.

As a younger writer, I convinced myself that you could only do one thing, and I think a lot of folks just starting out still carry this conviction with them, and to their own detriment. For a long time, when I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer at first, that kept me from writing more poetry, which came to be my true love. And when I thought I was "just a poet," it kept me from writing non-fiction. I just thought all of my energy had to be poured into one kind of writing, or even one book or project at a time. But as I gain more experience and perspective, I've been able to juggle lots of projects at once, in their separate manila folders. Like you, I also keep a ridiculous number of notebooks, large and small, and often have poems or prose excerpts in the Notes section of my phone that are in need of transcribing.


Adrian Koesters and James Crews hold degrees in poetry writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and were both fortunate to be graduate assistant editors for Ted Kooser's syndicated newspaper column, "American Life in Poetry," produced by Mr. Kooser and Patricia Emile at UNL for the Poetry Foundation. 

James is the author of the collections, The Book of What Stays, winner of the 2011 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry, and Telling My Father, winner of the 2017 Cowles Prize.

Adrian is the author of the poetry collections Many Parishes and Three Days with the Long Moon, as well as the novels Union Square and Miraculous Medal forthcoming in 2020.

Website Powered by Morphogine