The Condition of Poetry, or, What is it with poets?

by Britton Gildersleeve

Poets—let’s face it—are a bit different. Not just from “normal” folks, but from other readers and writers as well. We know this—even we poet types who also work in other artistic media. Whatever it is that beckons us to poetry, it’s most certainly NOT a call most others hear or heed.

The poet Mark Doty (two-time poetry judge of the Nimrod Awards) once told an audience that people responded with worse recoil he said when he was a poet than when they found out his partner was dying of AIDS. It feels like there’s a kind of fear of poets—and poetry—on the part of most people. And even more in today’s anti-intellectual culture.

When I travel, I sometimes read real, hard-copy books. And they’re often poetry. So it’s not like I could hide them, even if I wanted to. Once someone asked me if a poetry anthology was for a class, and when I said yes, they asked what I was taking. I’m not, I replied; I’m teaching a class in writing poetry. They didn’t ask for another seat—quite—but they did move to the outer edges of comfort in the one next to me.

Still, you expect to be safe with other writers. And, within broad limits, we poets are. We even join the ranks of prose writers: many poets also write prose—creative non-fiction, short stories, novels. Mark Doty, for instance. May Sarton, Nikki Giovanni. Even Shakespeare, if you count historical plays. Raymond Carver’s short stories, Emerson’s huge œuvre, Thomas Hardy’s incredible novels. Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. The list of crossover poets is lengthy and illustrious.

To be a poet is a condition, not a profession. — Robert Graves

So why say poets are different? If poets cross over, don’t prose writers, too? Wellll… the experiences of poets in the writing world leads me to think that once a prose writer (first off, at least), almost always a prose writer, with a few notable exceptions. A dear friend is getting an M.F.A. My friend is a poet, quite a good one. The leader of one of the prose workshops—a published writer—asked my friend, “Why don’t poets use more words?” Really?? Wouldn’t that be . . . prose?

Another example: if you say that you write or teach memoir, or the essay in general (all are true for me), folks are interested. They volunteer their life stories as possible topics, ask for advice. Volunteer that you write poetry? You can hear pins drop on carpet. Oh, I couldn’t do that, comes the eventual comment. My English teacher said my poetry was awful is another (I HATE that teacher!).

Yet another piece of anecdotal support: a good friend recently started a writers’ group. She asked two poets and another fiction writer to the first meeting. Both poets brought poems; she brought a short story. The other fiction writer had no draft. One of the poets handed around a well-done satire on current religico-politics, using the metaphor of the chicken crossing the road as a framing device. The fiction writers didn’t get it, although the poet who wrote the chicken poem was worried it was ham-handed. (It wasn’t.) Both fiction writers felt that the poem needed to be more concrete, more spelled out. (The poets didn’t.)

N.B.: My friend’s short story was excellent, but the other fiction writer felt that IT needed to be more oblique, that the ending was too obvious (the poets didn’t agree).  In other words, the two poets and the two fiction writers read the three offerings verrry differently. Why? What is the difference, ultimately, between reading as a poet and reading as a non-poet?

I wonder if the above quotation from Auden doesn’t (as usual) offer one of his utterly simple answers. . . . Fiction writers, even more than creative non-fiction writers, are creatures of narrative webs. While language, image, and other poetic devices may be important in revision, they rarely (almost never?) drive a prose piece. With poets, however, language IS the driver of most pieces. Whether it’s an image the poet is trying to capture in words, or the music of a feeling or experience, language is the raison d’être of poetry.

Not only is it a love affair with language, but poetry is almost a calling. A condition, as Robert Graves said. It’s why William Zinsser—that master of prose craft—found it impossible to think of himself as a poet. Through much of his “apprenticeship” as a poet, as a Diana Goetsch article shows, he sought to reconcile the difference between prose and poetry, even insisting that a poem had to be ‘true’ like non-fiction. Instead of “true,” as Tim O’Brien says of good fiction: Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.

Poets live for word play, for the nuance of an almost archaic etymology, for the slant rhyme or assonance of a line. And, of course, for the “inner life” that Zinsser bemoans his lack of. Also for the “truth,” whatever that is. Prose writers of the very best sort use similar figurative devices, but they don’t drive plot, nor narrative. The “truth” is better served, in fiction, by other elements: characterization, plot (or lack thereof), setting, the narrative arc.


But then again, what if the answer to why poets differ from other writers is an endemic fear of Robert Graves’s poetic “condition”? That would mean . . .I have such a condition! No wonder folks find poetry unsettling! Seriously, though? It’s not like poetic language is deadly, and certainly not more so than stories. In fact, the two often marry beautifully: narrative poetry, prose poems. But for some reason, the poets seem to be held in a great deal more fear than novelists and other prose writers. And I continue to wonder: why is that? What is there to fear? Any ideas?

Contributor Interview: Mary Moore

by Eilis O’Neal

Editor-in-Chief Eilis O’Neal spoke with contributor Mary Moore this winter. Mary is the author of the collections Flicker, Eating the Light, The Book of Snow, and Amanda and the Man Soul. She was the second prize winner of Nimrod’s 2017 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and her poetry has appeared in Nimrod, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, and New Letters.

Q: Many of the poems in the collection that won second place in Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and one of the poems that will be in our Spring 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, play with ideas of things that are more than one thing: chimera, part-human beasts, shape-shifting moths. What brought you to this theme/inspired you to write these poems?

A: The themes of monstrosity and hybridity came to me in both emotional and intellectual ways.  They initially filtered through the persona/character of Amanda who plays major roles in two of the Nimrod poems and in my forthcoming chapbook, Amanda and the Man Soul.  Amanda had existed in poems for quite a few years, usually linked to resistance or surrender to female stereotypes, and I had heard of the vanishing twin syndrome through various media:  one of a pair of twins dies in utero, and the dead twin’s DNA or actual tissue becomes incorporated in the viable twin’s body.  About two years ago, when I began writing more Amanda, I made one of those intuitive leaps and put Amanda together with that biological/genetic condition.  I’m not sure why:  I was an only child who, throughout childhood, longed for a sister, and I also always felt like what I’d now call an outlier, someone who didn’t fit anywhere. I had already portrayed Amanda as such a person.  I’m not sure why I felt that way:  I was physically awkward, too emotional, not able to handle aggression:  I always knew that something was wrong with me.  My native country must be the isolation that difference creates.  Once Amanda met the vanishing twin syndrome, I immediately knew that she would see her body, which contained DNA from another body, as monstrous and hybrid.  The poetic/fictional vision also drew on my background as a Renaissance scholar: I knew and had taught Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Theory, which posits that monstrosity is not an essential, natural condition, but a culturally inflected projection of disowned traits onto people who already differ from others, and I also knew post-colonial theory: both theoretical paradigms consider hybridity, one as a trait of monstrosity, the other as a result of colonizing cultures melding with native cultures.  Finally, on the, simplest level, if Amanda is already “two,” images of fusion, duality, and hybridity are a “natural.” Other hybrids, “monsters” such as the many-eyed butterfly and the manticore, are part of the menagerie she is.

Q: You mention feeling isolated as a child. Did you write as a child/teenager, and did that help? If not, when did you begin writing?

A: As I kid, I wrote a few poems for my mother, rhymed verselets; I just found one given to her as a Christmas thing.  It didn’t catch on then, and while I took a creative writing class as an undergraduate more than half a life-time ago, I didn’t begin writing seriously until after I’d had my daughter. I wonder if in some way having a child, that ultimate and sweetest creation, authorized me to write.


Q: What’s your writing process like?

A: Off-the-wall except in its regularity.  Sometimes I literally look out my window and write what I see.  I keep journals of beautiful or surprising words and phrases that I’ve read or overheard including inspiring phrases from other poets;  I brainstorm random lists of words, and start a poem using them; start a poem from another poem that didn’t work out too well; go out on the porch and write what I see and hear; write notes and descriptive drafts when I travel.  When I have a current obsession, I stumble on and also keep an eye out for objects or events related to it.  Most of my poems start from description.  Far from being impersonal, description is always tainted with the writer’s voice, ear, word choice. On first drafts, I allow myself to go anywhere that sound, metaphor or image takes me until I exhaust whatever it was that set me off.  I keep everything, but use whatever strikes me as surprising or new or at least engaging and write another draft from or inside that.  Lately, I’ve begun totally rewriting poems in entirely different directions than the first draft suggested. With all this in mind, I’d say that it’s associative, really like jazz improv, but then once I get something resembling a draft of a poem I like, I revise, and revise, and revise.  What makes it a poem is the revision; what makes it exciting is the drafting and the new insights that emerge during deep revision.  I have critiquers I rely on—especially my dear friend Art Stringer—an incredibly fine poet––and a “secret” Facebook group of women poets I consider very good, some of whom I’ve met recently and some I’ve been friends with for years.  I have some poems that have taken 20 years to come to fruition and some that came to me almost fully formed:  “On My Mother’s Suicide” which came out in Georgia Review last year and went into my last full-length book, Flicker (2016 Dogfish Head award winner) came to me like that from riffing on paired words with similar sounds and dissimilar meanings.

It’s probably useful to say too that I worked and taught my whole adult life, and writing always occurred evenings and weekends, and once I became a professor, in the early morning, on weekends, or over breaks.  I’m retired now and I actually GET to write every day, and I do it.

Q: Who are the authors you find yourself returning to, who have played a role in your own development as a writer?

A: Wow.  So many and quite disparate.  Galway Kinnell—Book of Nightmares is the best long poem of the latter half of the 20th century––Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorie Graham, Neruda, Marianne Moore, Rilke, Donne, George Herbert, Hopkins, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Madeline DeFrees, Mona Van Duyn, and more. Of immediate contemporaries, I’m enjoying Albert Goldbarth, Melissa Range, Donald Revell, Jericho Brown, Moira Egan, Dan Beachy Quick, and Caki Wilkinson. I read my poet friends, wonderful poets with books by small presses, who mostly are not nationally known:  Art Stringer, Jane Blue, Susan Kelly DeWitt, Victoria Dalke, Mary Zeppa, Diane Hueter Warner, Noel Crook, Beth Copeland, Sarah A. Chavez, and more.  Contrary to what some curmudgeons say, I find a lot of great poetry being written right now.  I think “my” poets have in common the love of image, word-play, and an obsession with the sacred, even if they profane it as I do, and they have wonderful ears.  Notice that while some of these poets are formalists, I’m firmly in between:  I sometimes write free verse, and sometimes I rhyme, but don’t do meter, though I might some day . . . or not.

Q: Do you have any tips for beginning writers?

A: Please write because you love the act of it, the serenity or mania or insanity of it, and the discoveries you make about words and things, and about yourself as you write, not “for” publication.  You must love the doing of it so much that you can tolerate, have the courage to persist in the face of indifference, incomprehension, and rejection; see Mona Van Duyn’s wonderful poem, “The Vision Test,” about the Department of Motor Vehicles clerk who laughed her ass off when Van Duyn gave her profession as poet. And if you love it, you can consciously prepare yourself by observing the world around you and reading voraciously in the best poetry. I’ve sometimes thought some people do all this naturally, and become great poets without trying. Good poetry is chock full of things, not abstractions, so if you do need to try, start by becoming a sense-addict.  See, hear, closely observe people’s voices, inflections, body language:  look at, listen to, sense everything: streets, cars, people, animals, birds, plants, rocks, weather, cars, bugs, buses, anchovies, tomatoes, turtles. Love food.  Be Neruda, who wrote a loving poem about a tarantula.  Be Denise Levertov, who said, “O Taste and Be.”  Develop a vocabulary of living creatures and objects—literally, I mean: know their names. These are your materials, your marble, your paints, your instruments and notes.  Be John Muir. As to reading, if you’re unguided by teachers, pick up the great contemporary journals, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, The Cincinnati Review, Crazy Horse, Nellie, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and the many other long-standing, respected journals.  Read them cover to cover.  See what you like.  Use the library and the used book stores to pick up books by the poets you discover in the journals and books by the older dead poets you know about and may have taken as models—my list above is a pretty damn good one, though reflecting my life, age, education.  Analyze a few poems you love; see how they work structurally, formally, how they make ear music and word play, and find their patterns of image and metaphors.  Notice how the parts of their poems connect, or don’t. Acquire these traits, learn these skills.  Try to invite the spirit of play to infuse your drafts, and write, write, write for play, to be serious, to learn new twists and squiggles of words.  Discover, surprise yourself. Always revise, start again, start again, edit, revise, edit. If an editor gives you the rare gift of feedback, use it. If you’re lucky, maybe you can find at least one person who knows more, has more skills than you do, and who will read your work.  Be open.  Persist.

Q: When will Amanda and the Man Soul be out? And what else are you working on now?

Amanda and the Man Soul is out now.

I’m working on random new poems and also obsessing poetically on the twinned and the monstrous, or seemingly monstrous, through a full-length book called Chimera, which will include the Nimrod poems, some more Amanda, and related work on art, the family, and on what I see as monsters of various kinds.  At least that’s what I think it is right now.  Putting a book together is also a process of discovery.


Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod‘s Editor-in-Chief. She is also the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess.

Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking

by Helen Patterson

Where the Dead Sit Talking is Oklahoma author and writing instructor Brandon Hobson’s latest work. The novel is set in the winter of 1989 in a small town near Tulsa and narrated by Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee. Sequoyah has bounced around several foster homes and shelters while his addicted mother serves a jail sentence. At the start of the novel, he moves in with foster parents Agnes and Harold Troutt and their other foster children: seventeen-year-old artist Rosemary and thirteen-year-old writer George (who is possibly on the autism spectrum). The novel explores Sequoyah’s struggle to fit into the world and his conflicting desires to be alone and “to be liked, accepted” (37). Unfortunately, his heritage, upbringing, and facial scarring (from hot grease his mother accidentally flung into his face) all make him stand out.

Like Holden in “The Catcher in the Rye,” Sequoyah is an alienated teenager, the product of a broken system. His experiences make him angry and prone to thoughts of violence and degradation. He does not always act on these thoughts, but Rosemary does convince him to (unsuccessfully) shoot a dog, George is afraid of him, and there are a few hints of the mysterious future deaths of characters he doesn’t like which suggest a darkness simmering just below Sequoyah’s surface.

Perhaps more distressing than these dark thoughts is Sequoyah’s distance from those around him, the way he observes himself and others as if a play is unfolding before him. Given his need to distance himself from the pain of his mother’s imprisonment and his own unstable situation, this distance is understandable if unhealthy.

The other characters in the novel respond to Sequoyah’s outsider status, recognizing him as a person who is not fully formed, who is too flat and abstracted to be a real individual. They are constantly confiding in him, confessing startlingly intimate details about their lives and their dreams in relentless monologues. These jarring monologues strikingly convey the disconnect between Sequoyah and everyone around him.

The exception to Sequoyah’s isolation is his relationship to his older foster sister, Rosemary. At first, their connection seems like the typical infatuation of a younger teenager for an older, cooler one, but Sequoyah’s attraction is more the desire to be Rosemary, to feel what it is like to live in her skin. Sequoyah feels a kinship to Rosemary, partially because she is also Native American (Kiowa), but also because she, like him, is the product of a broken family and a dysfunctional system. Sequoyah wants to wear her clothes, sit in her closet, watch her in her most intimate and unguarded moments, as if he can feel them, too, and through them find some way back to a “self”—any self.

Sadly, Rosemary dies. I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this—it is in the first paragraph. Waiting for Rosemary’s death gives the entire novel a sense of inevitability. I’ve read a lot of books where the mysterious, creative female character dies, and usually I feel a pang of resentment. The women who die in these books often seem to die because it is convenient to the story, particularly the male characters in the story who are trying to find themselves. But Rosemary’s death is not for the convenience of the story; it is the story. Rosemary is the culmination and distillation of years of injustice and pain, both her personal pain and the pain and violence inflicted on indigenous peoples, particularly women, that is still often undiscussed and unseen. Meeting Rosemary forces Sequoyah, and the reader, to realize that life is often bleak.

Rosemary’s final words to Sequoyah are: “You never listen” (246), but long after finishing Where the Dead Sit Talking, the reader will listen and wonder what else the dead have to tell us. I hope Hobson will fill the silence with other books soon.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.


Poetry as History: The Literary Vision of Natasha Trethewey

by John Coward

Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (2007) and former Poet Laureate of the United States (2012–2014). Despite her literary acclaim, I only discovered Trethewey’s work a few months ago—a happy accident that has made me appreciate the power of the historical imagination in contemporary poetry. I say this because the poems in Native Guard, her award-winning book, confront issues of identity, race, and racial injustice in the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era and beyond.


Poetry is not exactly history, of course, but as Trethewey shows in this collection, poetry can tell historical stories in an imaginative way. In fact, this intersection of the personal and the historical is one of the strengths of Trethewey’s poetic vision. She links her life, her story, to the broader themes of the Civil War and Southern history in ways that give readers today—150 years after some of these events took place—a way to reimagine the twists of history.

As it happens, both Trethewey and I lived in Mississippi as children. I am not a native of Mississippi like Trethewey, but I was a schoolboy in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s. Like Trethewey, I was shaped by my experiences as a child in Mississippi. One of those experiences was the shadow of the Civil War, which was ever-present in Tupelo because of several skirmishes fought nearby and a major Civil War battle, Shiloh, fought some miles north in Tennessee. My father, who was a history major in college and a Civil War buff, often took the family on battlefield tours around Tupelo. Thus Trethewey’s recollection of Civil War activities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast was—and is—familiar territory for me, even though, until I read this book, I was unaware of the role of former slaves who served in the Union army in units known as the Native Guard. Her poems about these men and their experiences guarding Confederate prisoners on Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico form the foundation for this collection and serve as a vivid reminder of the agonies and ironies of war. Here’s one voice from Ship Island:

The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.

Unlike Trethewey, I’m not a biracial woman and I never suffered discrimination or racial injustice. But I do recall the inequalities of life in Tupelo in the 1950s and ’60s. Like a lot of towns in the Deep South, there was a white side of town, which was relatively prosperous, and a black side of town, which was not. As a middle-class white kid in Tupelo, I went to segregated schools and a segregated church and swam at a segregated pool. I also saw the black schools in Tupelo, which were older and more rundown than the schools I went to. At some point in my adolescence I had to confront the ugliness of Mississippi segregation, which even as a child I sensed was deeply unfair and which I could not defend. And although I did not suffer racial discrimination in Tupelo, I was shaped by the Civil Rights movement in ways I did not fully understand or appreciate at the time. I’m sure my experiences in Mississippi were very different from Trethewey’s, but we share some ideas about that fraught place in that tumultuous era of American history.

Trethewey came to poetry more or less naturally through her parents and her mother’s extended family in Mississippi. Her white Canadian father was a poet and scholar who earned a Ph.D. in English at Tulane. Her mother, who was black, majored in theater in college. Her father read his poems to her as a child and she paid attention to her mother who, she recalls, was a very precise speaker. In a 2016 interview, Trethewey also remembered the storytelling tradition of her mother’s family. In Gulfport, her family lived next-door to a great aunt, known as Sugar, who worked with children in Sunday school at the Baptist church. Trethewey recalls Sugar’s love of language and practicing recitations with her. She also remembers the ladies of the church meeting at her grandmother’s house to read scripture and to talk and sing and tell stories. “Language came to me in all of those places,” Trethewey has said.

In her review of Native Guard, poet Carrie Shipers writes that the poems in the first section of Native Guard “ask what home means after we have left, as well as what happens when our home leaves us or refuses to acknowledge our claim to it.” This is a perceptive observation. Indeed, these questions complicate the idea of home, and what it means to be from somewhere, even after we have left that place far behind; or, what it means when the place we once knew and loved has changed and is not really the same place anymore; or, finally and more cruelly, what it means when the place we once knew and loved somehow contests our very claim to that place.

To put it another way, Trethewey’s poems grapple with the ways that time changes things—how lives become history, how history becomes hazy and distant, and how the meanings we attach to the people and events alter in our memory. Trethewey is working through this fertile ground in her poems—contemplating place and history, family and race, as well as loss, memory and meaning. For readers who take the time to savor these poems, Trethewey offers powerful insights into our nation’s complicated racial history.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

The Love of a Typewriter

by Adrienne G. Perry

My mother kept her college typewriter in the basement of our house in Cheyenne. It came in a heavy, jade green case that made whoever carried it lopsided. I didn’t give it much time then. Typewriters were for filling in official forms or addressing a special letter’s envelope. An occasional plunking of the keys satisfied me, as did the fast, cranking sound of loading paper around the machine’s cylinder. I learned enough to know to use two sheets, but in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, all of my friends and I wanted computers. Typewriters were like great-great-aunts watching public service announcements from their La-Z-Boys. Their time had come and passed.

Around 2009, my opinion on typewriters changed. I was working fulltime at a boarding school and my writing—what writing!—had veered off into a ditch. When I was visiting a friend who does book arts in Western Mass, we stopped by the “Amherst Typewriter and Computer Store,” which I had passed largely without curiosity during many years of living in the Pioneer Valley. I thought, “This might be a fun way to get back on the horse.”

Wood paneling lined the store’s walls. Papers, vintage laptops, and personal computers cluttered its surfaces. It smelled of cigarettes and housed gorgeous typewriters of different sizes and temperaments, which Bob, the owner, was happy to let us test-run. I remember, fine and mechanical as a praying mantis, a small, bright green typewriter that would have wiped out my savings. I chose a 1930s Smith-Corona with smooth, cat’s eye keys. Bob loaded a new ribbon and showed me how to reverse it for extra use.

Back at my apartment in New Jersey, I slid in two sheets of printing paper and wrote. I do not remember what I wrote, but I do remember it involved ladybugs and I was pleased—both with the tactile feel and the sound of the typewriter’s keys, but also with the way my writing appeared when not constantly edited and second-guessed.


Over the last eight years, writing on a typewriter has played a key role in getting writing done, minimizing self-censorship, and writing in more imaginative ways. My handwriting is virtually illegible and goes too slowly for drafting, but typing on the Smith-Corona is fast, clear, and connects me to a well of thought and language beyond my surface-level thinking. In working on my novel yesterday, I rewrote on the typewriter a scene I’d worked all the juiciness out of. In the typewritten draft the tone darkened, the sense of persona clarified. I’m not sure this rewrite represents the “right” direction, but the sentences and imagery were livelier and got me thinking anew.

During her visit to Houston last year, Annie Proulx spoke to a group of young writers. She talked about the pleasure of getting a nice notebook you’re excited to write in and a pen you’re excited to write with. At the end of a day of writing, she suggested, try to make one or two sentences so beautiful they’re like sculpture. The way Proulx feels about a journal and pen, I feel about a typewriter. It brings me back to the pleasure of writing, of crafting worlds with words.

(Note: Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, was born the day this post was written, Valentine’s Day.)

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014-2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.