Charles Baxter is the author of five published novels, five collections of short stories, three books of poetry, and two essay collections. His most recent story collection, Gryphon, was published in 2011 by Random House. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.
The state of mind that's employed/involved in writing a poem is running at higher RPMs than the state of mind that's employed/involved in writing a novel, as a rule. A poet friend of mine compared writing a novel to laying down bricks and mortar. It's slow work and requires patience. Whereas you can write a great poem in half an hour, if your mind is working fast enough. You can't write a great novel or even a great short story in half an hour. It's not possible.
What are the sparks that usually make a poem?
Magical, crazy, sexy, and brilliant associations of thought that are true. They have to be true, or no one cares.
How would you describe your poetry? What is it made of?
I can't describe my poetry, and I don't think any poet should try to describe his or her work unless he or she is under duress or torture. Self-consciousness is the death of spontaneity.
What does the poem do that fiction can't, for a reader? I'm also tempted to ask, what does fiction do that poetry can't? The spaces between are interesting.
Stuart Dybek has said that prose can do anything that poetry can do except for the mind-messes created by line-breaks. But obviously poetry relies on association and compression in a way that prose fiction doesn't always. If you compress everything and concentrate it in fiction, the fiction becomes exhausting to read, and sterile.
What poets or poetry have you been interested in lately? Has that changed over the years?
It's harder for me to read poets who are much younger than I am because I don't always know what they're talking about, or I don't feel that way anymore about my experiences, the way I once did. But I try to read a book of poems every two weeks or so. I won't name names. I try to read everybody, but of course I fail.
What do you do when a poem feels frozen?
I try to figure out what's wrong with it. I get drunk. I read it aloud. I make it sexier or crazier. Frozen = timid or cowardly or scared.
Can you talk a little bit about what you see contemporary poetry doing these days? What is working about it? What isn't?
This is an invitation to an over-generalization. My temptation is to say that American poetry is getting too abstract and self-centered. I don't see enough of the world outside of language in contemporary American poetry. You could get a lot of contemporary American poetry by flipping the dial on late-night radio. Modern history, our history, needs its poetry, just as contemporary life needs legible poetry, and the wild associations that can see metaphorically what's going on at the Mall of America and the candidacy of Rick Santorum. But I would never, ever, tell poets what they should write about.
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