University of Memphis MFA Student Bethany Reisner recently talked with longtime NBCC board member Kevin Prufer about criticism, his work as editor, and his newest book of poetry, National Anthem, just out to rave reviews.
Q: How did you get into writing?
A: I first wanted to be a fiction writer, but pretty quickly realized that I didn’t have much talent in that direction. I took my first poetry workshop after I finished college, though, and discovered British and American poetry. I wasn’t an English major in college and had only taken a couple English courses, both in American fiction. Studying Wordsworth, Keats, Eliot and Bishop during a one-year stay at Hollins University in Virginia was transformative. I left there determined to become a good poet.
Q: Tell me about your writing process.
I write at night, when the lights are out and the house is quiet. I revise during the day, usually many weeks after I complete a first draft. That way, the poem has had a chance to become unfamiliar, so I can see it as if it’s new.
Q: You wrote very autobiographically in your first book, then later said that personal focus seemed trivial in light of a broader historical world perspective …
I found that when I swore off writing about myself—my own little frustrations, defeats, and joys—a whole world of better subjects opened up to me. Problems of American Empire, of history or God, seemed, well, so much more vital than, say, my parents’ divorce or the (mostly nonexistent) troubles of my (mostly happy) childhood. But my voice is my own, as are my historical and theological interests. I can never really escape from those, nor would I want to.
Q: Does your latest work, National Anthem, continue this theme?
Yes, absolutely. Though I felt as I wrote it that I was writing individual poems (as opposed to a cohesive book), the collection, as the title suggests, is largely political, largely about questions of citizenship, empire, nationhood, etc. Put another way: the book seems to me to be about the space between personal experience – mortal fears, for instance, or romantic or political ambivalence – and enormous social/political forces, the expansion of empires (ours and empires past), movements towards war, etc. How can we bring these two vastly different perspectives into some kind of agreement? (Of course, we never really can….)
I think (and hope) that National Anthem‘s political ambivalences will resonate with readers, especially in this very political year. From my view out here in the rural Midwest (and just down the road from Whiteman Air Force Base, where, just moments ago, I heard another B2 bomber taking off) we seem to be living in a troubled, imperialistic, complicated, sometimes inspiring time. National Anthem is mostly about that. Now I’m struggling with a draft of a new, very different kind of collection of poems tentatively titled Little Paper Sacrifice. At the moment, though, I’m just beginning to get a sense of what that book will look like.
Q: You do many different things—editing, criticism, writing poetry—how do they overlap and affect each other?
I read a great deal of poetry, both as Editor of Pleiades and for the Board of the NBCC. I also run the Pleiades Review of Books, which focuses primarily on new small-press poetry. And I write several reviews of new poetry each year for other publications. Writing and editing reviews can complicate my life as a poet. I think it’s important that critics hold poetry to the same standards as any other art form, that we say clearly to potential readers when a book isn’t working and that we explain why. Poets and publishers, I find, aren’t always used to receiving critical reviews, no matter how respectful—and I’ve often felt repercussions. (We’re a small community, and there’s an often wonderful (but sometimes debilitating) niceness that pervades it. As to my own poetry: my other jobs don’t affect it a bit.
There’s little in the world more important than the exchange of good thoughts. I think poetry is one of the most vital, beautiful, and efficient ways we have of communicating complex ideas. I write because I want to participate in that vast interchange. I edit and write criticism because I think it’s important that important ideas find an audience.
Q: What’s it like being a poet on the NBCC Board of Directors where poets are the minority?
You’d be surprised. Secret poets are everywhere. Nevertheless, one of the things I love about the Board is that everyone on it is a devoted and serious reader. That, after all, is what this is all about. An intelligent, sharp reader is worth a bucket of poets when it comes to the work of the NBCC.
Q: You focus a lot on finding up-and-coming authors who haven’t yet been introduced to wide audiences—you edited The New Young American Poets anthology, Pleiades (which includes 120+ pages of reviews of small, independent-press books in each issue), and The New Young American Poets. What’s your selection process? How do you find good little-known writers?
At Pleiades, I have a core group of about 25 very sharp reviewers, most of them interested in reviewing poetry books. I email them a list of the hundreds of books we receive each quarter and they select those they’d be interested in reviewing. Since we don’t pay reviewers (we survive on grants and donations, alas) I like to let them select books that interest them. I do, however, suggest titles to reviewers and sometimes veto reviews of books that might not be of interest to our readers or for ethical reasons.
For writers of poetry, however, I try to remain as open as I can to each writer’s project. What, I ask first, is this poem trying to do. Then: is it successful? Then: Is it worth doing? I work very hard to keep Pleiades (or The New Young American Poets) from identifying too closely with any one aesthetic, school, or style.
Q: Do you worry about the literary community’s possible skepticism about your decision to back certain lesser-known authors, or does the anticipation of discovering the next Troy Jollimore overshadow that?
I love working with lesser-known authors. It’s why I edited The New Young American Poets and (with Joy Katz) Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. It’s why I read so much. One of my great joys at Pleiades is publishing a truly amazing unsolicited submission by a poet I’ve never heard of. (We have an ongoing feature at Pleiades right now, in which established poets introduce the work of largely unpublished writers. Look for coming selections by NBCC finalists D. A. Powell and Carolyn Forché; their selections are a secret for now.)
Q: So what’s your take on the current state of American poetry?
I think we’re living in a confusing but exciting time. It’s easy to argue that most poetry being published today isn’t that good, that too many in the “poetry community” have allowed themselves to be divided into various, introspective “schools” and “aesthetics,” that few people read poetry and almost no one reviews it. And all this is true. At the same time, I have only to pick up new books by writers like Mary Jo Bang, D. A. Powell, Carl Phillips, Rachel Zucker, James Richardson, Victoria Chang, and so many others and, well, it’s hard not to think that, despite many problems, we’re still in a good place. It just takes a bit of unburying to know it.