Complete Transcripts of Faculty and Poet Interviews
Kelsey Donner & Sara Krauss, UR Writing Consultants
(printable version here)

Dr. Sascha Feinstein, Professor and Poet

What are your pet peeves when reading beginners' poetry?

We can start with mechanical errors-because, with mechanic errors, there is no start. Especially now that we're living a texting world, proper grammar and presentation often seem arbitrary to young writers. I try to explain to students that mechanical mistakes are just like scratches on a CD: When I encounter them, the poem's over, finished. If you can't trust the writer as a writer, how can you become emotionally involved in the poem?

I've grown to dislike the phrase "I can relate to that," although it inspires some valuable discussion. What students really mean is, "I've personally experienced something like that"-and yet person experience should never be the yardstick for someone else's artistic success. In other words, we should be able to "relate to" poems about different ethnicities, gender, ages, history, and so on.

What common mistakes have you noticed in student poetry?

Young writers tend to state emotion, e.g., "I hit the ball with anger," or, more simply, "I feel angry." Similarly, there's a tendency to explain what actions or images mean. I tell students over and over again to use specific imagery and to let the image do the talking. Avoid commentary whenever possible. This is crucial. If I had to teach just one thing to young writers, it would be the power of the image.

Students also need to embrace the simple truth that art demands tension. (You can write poems without any tension, but you'll want to publish those with Hallmark.) For this reason, my very first assignment often asks students to write a poem that unites opposites. Without some kind of tension, there's no room for development.

What are some misconceptions of poetry?

For about 100 years-ever since Eliot-many people have assumed that poetry must be obscure in order for it to be powerful. They also think that an unclear dramatic context results in a wider audience. As a result, a lot of poems rely on generalities.

One way to break through this misconception is to point out that we cannot house, emotionally, the thought of 6 million people being murdered. We can't even imagine the deaths of 6,000, or 600, or just 60, you know? The numbers are too big, and so we lose any intimate connection to humanity. But if I were to tell you a story about my friend's grandmother who survived Auschwitz-her name, how they blinded her after she watched soldiers shoot her daughter-I'd have all your attention. We respond to personal history with clear contexts. That's when we feel, and, through feeling, that's why we remember. We experience global issues through precise details.

One last thing: Poems tend to be taught as though they're puzzles. Figure out the key, and you've unlocked all the poem has to offer. Ergo, in Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," sleep must equal death (even though Frost himself insisted the poem was not about death). It's summed up this way: "I've got lots to do before I die." Done. Digested. Mission accomplished. Yet the poem is not just a fortune-cookie statement about obligation. (Why spend so much time on the horse if it's merely about the speaker and his work?) No, the poem address our human position on this planet: What makes us respond to beauty for the sake of beauty, and doesn't that help define us as human beings? It raises enormous issues that should never be summed up simplistically. But, of course, a lot of teachers and reader fear loose ends; they'd rather "get" the poem than consider its spiraling questions.

How do you remain detached during the revising process? Why is revision so important?

The art of writing is the art of revision. Period. Unless you're Shakespeare or Mozart, with brilliance emanating from every stroke of the pen, you need to revise over and over. Ginsberg and other Beat poets thought "first thought, best thought"; I disagree-especially if we're writing to purge something scarring or upsetting. (While witnessing arguments, we tell friends to think before they speak. Why? Because their first thought probably isn't their best!) Also, when we're overwhelmed with emotion, language tends to fail us. The longest string of clichés that ever escaped my lips took place when my first child was born. (I'll spare you the details.) We need to go back to our emotional bursts and inspired ideas in order to shape them into art.

Put much more simply: Write from the heart, but edit with the head.

What do you most appreciate about poetry as an art form?

The line-the music of the line-and the ability to create a dual sensation within the reader: Line and stanza breaks emphasize end words that work on the reader, like notes that end a musical phrase, if only subconsciously. That's a huge advantage of poetry over prose.

I'm also a fan of writing in form. Like jazz musicians who improvise over set chords, I enjoy the challenges of working within the framework of, say, a sestina. I love the elegant, compact structure (and history) of sonnets-even the brutally obsessive nature of a villanelle (although I've written far more failures than successes).

And I love that poetry forces us to slow down. Again, and at the risk of griping too much, we live in a world of constant input. CNN gives us world news (world news!) in less than thirty minutes. Everyone's a multi-tasker. Most research gets answered-no matter how minimally-by Wikipedia and Google. We're buried in a snowstorm of Facebook and Twitter hail. OMG. But poems refocus our attention, and they engage the senses. They force us to evaluate what all too frequently gets dismissed. How often do we question the human condition, what we're doing here, what matters? At their best, poems open up the way we experience the world so we can lead richer lives.

Do you have any additional comments or tips you would like to share?

Free writing cannot be emphasized enough. It liberates ideas and creates surprises. And the act of free writing chips away at the wall between our conscious and unconscious selves.

Read as much as possible-and read the good stuff. If you land on a poet you admire, read everything she's written.

Consider writing a series on a topic that means a lot to you. As inspiration, take a look at Yusef Komunyakaa's Magic City (growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana), David Wojahn's Mystery Train (rock-and-roll-related sonnets), or the center section of Marie Howe's What the Living Do (on her dying brother). These texts work really well in the classroom. Plus, writing related poems helps to alleviate writer's block (although there's no better solution to that than free writing).

Tarfiah Faizullah, Professor and Poet

Some of her pet peeves when reading student poetry:

  • poems without any emotional resonance or nuanced ideas
  • cliche and mediocre metaphors
  • a lack of clarity
  • vagueness
  • abstraction

Misconceptions of poetry:

  • it must be vague
  • it must be abstract
  • it must be "deep"
  • it has to rhyme
  • the language has to be fractured
  • the subject matter must be lofty or highly philosophical
  • the language must be lofty or highly philosophical

She remains detached during the revising process by:

  • privileging what the poem needs to be a stronger piece of writing rather than privileging what "actually" happened
  • putting a poem that I feel too personally about it away for a few days, weeks, or months before beginning the revision process

Revision is important because:

  • it forces us to reexamine and reevaluate what we thought we already knew
  • it allows us to constantly improve upon what we have already written so that we may get closer and closer to enacting the complexity of the world.

What she most appreciates about poetry as an art form:

  • the multitude of ways in which it can be written
  • the varied subject matter it can enact: even the most seemingly innocuous or quotidian things can be presented as poignant or beautiful, devastating or awful
  • that it can be either spare or expansive
  • that it challenges us to see the world in a different way
  • that regardless of form, subject matter, length, or rhyme scheme, when it is excellent, it challenges us to be more attentive to the world and our places in it in a way we haven't before
  • that it can enact our very humanness, and our desire to transcend our own humanness

Caitlyn Paley, Poet

What are your pet peeves when reading beginners' poetry?

Beginners sometimes forget they are writing for an audience outside of themselves. A poem has to open up in order to matter to readers. A successful poem resonates with others, which is achieved by constantly asking what is at stake. Beginners should also keep in mind the function of the line and think hard about where each line and stanza should break. Techniques like rhyme, repetition, and alliteration are best used in moderation.

What common mistakes have you noticed in student poetry?

The thesaurus is a great resource but it's a bad idea to substitute words you would never use. The diction of the poem ends up sounding forced and unnatural. It's often unnecessary to repeat the information the title contains in the body of the poem.

What are some misconceptions of poetry?

Poetry isn't reserved for momentous occasions; some of the best poems are about everyday observations and objects.

How do you remain detached during the revising process? Why is revision so important?

It's easiest to be detached when you put a poem away for a while--let it sit. When you come back to the poem you will have a better idea of what you were trying to say. Reading a poem out loud is a great way to hear what is and isn't working. Sometimes I like to put a draft aside and write down the lines I remember of the poem. I painlessly eliminate the weaker and less memorable lines this way.

What do you most appreciate about poetry as an art form?

A good poem is an experience. I like that I have to slow down and give it my full attention. My favorite poems are those that made me feel like the poet had described a thought or feeling that I thought no one else shared. A good poem cannot be summarized, reduced to a sound bite, or skimmed. A good poem forces you to be present in your own life, even if just for a moment.

Do you have any additional comments or tips you would like to share?

Don't get frustrated if your poems fail. Every poem gets you closer to the kind of poems you were meant to write. Poetry is a process that requires patience, careful attention, and a sense of humor. It's worth it.

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