Mary Turzillo: Your poem “Equal Time” appears in the July ON THE LINE issue of r.kv.r.y. Why poetry? You have so many stories — why not fiction, or memoir, or even playwriting or screenwriting?
Herb Kauderer: I’ve written all those things. But one of the special joys of poetry is its ability to fit into the small spaces of life. There is always paper in my pocket. And a cell phone, if need be. Waiting in line. Stopped in a traffic jam. Poetry continues to happen. I’ve written screenplays, one of which has been produced, but it is a much longer process. I’ve been writing a novel for a decade. Meanwhile, ten books of poetry have happened. Poetry fits into life as it’s lived, rather than requiring life to change for its creation.
MT: So, are poems by nature lies, or only some of them?
HK: That’s a marvelously metaphysical question that requires secondary definition. Is a lie only a conscious attempt to mislead? What if the teller of the lie believes it? If the latter is true, then the teller is not qualified to call it a lie or truth.
I write some poems that are intentional lies in pursuit of a greater truth. I write other poems that are as true as I can make them at the time of composition, only to find out that time has turned them into lies.
Richard Dawkins created the concept of the meme, a self-replicating idea that perpetuates itself regardless of its validity. This parallels my view of poetry which I define as ‘speech memorable in its specificity.’ In any class of my teen-aged students a few will know what ‘veni, vidi, vici’, ‘carpe diem’, and ‘caveat emptor’ mean, two millennia, an ocean, and a language away from their creation. But just as a meme perpetuates regardless of its validity, a poem is memorable regardless of whether it is true. It’s up to the reader to figure out whether it’s true.
Therefore a concise answer to your question is, “only some poems are lies, but I’m not telling you which.”
MT: I sometimes feel your poetry is an elevated form of conversation: deep and brilliant observations honed in language down to subtle art. Do you sometimes get ideas for poems from interaction with other poets and non-poets? I mean, besides your excellent Book of Answers.
HK: I do, and I often write poetry while listening to other poets at readings. I adore good conversation and have oft been quoted for saying “the older we get, the farther we’ll drive for good conversation.”
I use conversation in my poetry in many ways. First off, I often try to capture the special rhythms of compelling conversation. Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk believes in the poetry in conversation. Secondly, I often mishear things, which is a great creative resource. Thirdly, I sometimes simply capture what I hear, and distill it with context and find I have a poem. It is a specialized form of found poetry.
MT: Any examples, or is that too personal?
Here’s a poem capturing conversation. It was first published in ArtVoice in the issue for the week starting December 30, 1999.
MT: A friend of mine who I consider fairly bright and educated believes that poems without rhyme are not really poetry. What do you say to people like that? In fact, what do you say to people who insist that only form poetry is really poetry?
HK: To those who insist that only formal poetry is real poetry I say, “enjoy your unfounded belief, but please don’t make any policy decisions based on it. If you do you might accidentally spill your belief on someone.”
It is the nature of interpersonal communication and symbolic language that words and concepts mean only what we as a society agree they mean. The overwhelming majority of all markets, publications, and classes dealing with poetry include open-form (or free verse as it used to be called) in the genre of poetry. Formal verse is a less popular sub-genre (excluding song lyrics which are more popular). People who want to change the definitions will succeed only when the majority of us agree. So far, most of society is not bounded by rhyme.
This is largely a question of labelling and semantics, but it’s fun to discuss, as labelling and semantics are a valid part of poetry. The thing about rhyming verse is that most of us have an emotional attachment to it because of its connection to our childhood. I would love it if all poetry spoke to me as vividly and with as much fun and creativity as the best of Dr. Seuss. I don’t consider formal verse as the only ‘real poetry’, but it is special to me, and clearly it’s special to others as well.
MT: What advice would you give a very new poet, say, a teenager, or even an eight-year-old?
HK: Mostly I try to stay out of their way. My two oldest daughters were published poets as teenagers. Had I said anything to them it would have been “be specific.”
MT: And what about new poets we should keep watch as they develop?
HK: I think Sarah Borodzik has the potential to breakout if she perseveres. Josh Smith is impressive. I wish I were better at remembering names, as there are two more I can picture but not name.
I’ll mention Don Scheller and Dan Sicoli as two poets who I think should be famous. They are neither young nor new.
MT: Do you have any dead-poet role-models?
HK: Two dead poets are overwhelmingly important to my development. Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s work absolutely took my breath away when I was around puberty. Her work made me consider poetry as a possible form for the kinds of things I wanted to say. I still adore her power and willingness to address uncomfortable subjects. Among my early poetry are a few attempts at Millay’s tortured sentence style of writing. In my old age I still love Millay’s poetry, but I am less enamored of the need to keep looking up her words in the dictionary.
The second and more currently influential dead poet for me is Dorothy Parker. I love her short snappiness. I still try to emulate it with some regularity. You may note that both poets were renowned for dealing with romantic unhappiness. There is a large section of my poetry that deals with that, including the poem above. It’s harder to write bitter romantic poetry now that I am very happily married. It’s part of the movement of life which individual poems defy by capturing a moment and freezing it while the inhabitants of the poem move on from the moment. Those old photos from the 80’s show how black my hair was, but those poems show what I thought and felt, who I was. I have not been that person for three decades, yet a good poem still feels immediate, and renders a vivid image of a used-to-be.
Mary Turzillo is a professor emeritus of Kent State University. Her poetry has won the Elgin Award, been nominated for the Pushcart, and has received many more accolades. Her Nebula winning novellete “Mars Is No Place for Children” and her novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl have been selected as recreational reading on the International Space Station.