I think poetry can afford to be and should be elliptical and fluid: An online interview with Kris Saknussemm

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is the author of a book of poems, In the Name of the Father, which won the Mary Gilmore Award in Australia, and the internationally acclaimed novels Zanesville, Private Midnight, Enigmatic Pilot, Eat Jellied Eels and Think Distant Thoughts, and Reverend America, along with a collection of short stories, Sinister Miniatures. His latest book, Sea Monkeys is coming out from Soft Skull Press in the USA in November. Website: http://www.krissaknussemm.com

Dupur Mitra: Do you think poetry plays a role in your society? If yes, how and if not, why?

Kris Saknussemm: I think it plays a much less prominent role than it used to, and I think this extends even to the influence of poetry in the context of popular song lyrics. Generally, this is because people are reading less—and yet there is more to read—more competition and more distraction. In the USA, I believe the MFA programs have contributed to the problem by cranking out too many student poets and hopeful teachers, without they’re being positions for them to fill. This has also meant (inevitably) that certain styles of poems become the standard. So, we have both more poetry, but more of the same kind of poetry. It’s also been unfortunate that a strong background in literature is often not required, so that younger writers aren’t really bringing much depth of knowledge to their writing.

Older, established poets are also hanging around longer, and that means they’re hanging on to their positions of authority (grants, teaching jobs, etc) longer. W.S. Merwin won a Pulitzer Prize recently for a book that was but a shadow of his earlier work. He really won for reputation. It would be fine to give him a lifetime achievement award, but a major prize for that book undermines the value of contemporary poetry.

Dupur Mitra: Is illustration important in your poems?

Kris Saknussemm: Visualization is important in all forms of writing. I also try to emphasize sound and verbal texture. But I think really good writing (of any kind) engages all the senses at some point, in some way. The visual is simply our dominant sense, so it’s the most important. Poems can of course deal with very abstract concepts and ideas—but if they don’t ground themselves in the senses, particularly the visual, somewhere within them, I think they lose connection with readers.

Dupur Mitra: Why is poetry important?

Kris Saknussemm: Poetry should be important, because when it’s done well, it’s a unique art form that conveys ideas, sentiments and insights no other form does better.

Dupur Mitra: How does a poem begin for you – with an image, an idea or a phrase?

Kris Saknussemm: I find it works in different ways—sometimes a powerful dream image, or something that’s caught my eye in passing. I do like it when a particularly strong, arresting phrase gets me started. I think poems, like any form of writing, need to grab people’s attention or to seduce them into reading more. It can be dramatic, it can be subtle and enticing. One way or another, however, the start of a poem has to reach out to the reader or listener, and bring them into the scope of the poem.

Dupur Mitra: How do you edit your poems?

Kris Saknussemm: In terms of “subject,” I try to eliminate anything that isn’t absolutely essential, and I frequently chop out words, phrases, even whole sections that I think explain too much or which make the overall feel of the work seem more prosaic. That’s my main criterion. I think poetry can afford to be and should be elliptical and fluid. Give readers and listeners some credit—and give them something that’s distinct from prose. In terms of sound and structure, this is where I’m very hard line. I really want the sound and melodic / rhythmic flow (even if this is fairly subtle) to be right. I think a poem ends up meaning what it sounds like, so edits are often made in pure regard to this aspect.

Dupur Mitra: Can you talk about the importance of sound in your poetry?

Kris Saknussemm: As you can see from my earlier remark, I believe it’s vital. I think it’s important in prose too, but the special premium placed on sound in poetry is one of the defining features of the form.

Dupur Mitra: Is there a relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice?

Kris Saknussemm: Yes, in the sense that I always read my work aloud to myself while writing, and I try to insure that the finished poem is interesting to read or perform aloud. It has to suit my speaking voice, or give my voice a chance to expand and deliver.

Dupur Mitra: Can the poetry movement improve the poetry? If yes how, if not why?

Kris Saknussemm: It can create and maintain forums for poetry sharing (both live events and publications). The question is whether or not it promotes quality work—and one aspect of that must be variety. Insofar as it promotes a specific kind of poetry as the model for the art overall, I think it can be a very negative thing, and in part, that’s what we often see, at least in the USA.

Dupur Mitra: Can you describe your writing process?

Kris Saknussemm: I only write poems now when the mood really takes me, and I feel compelled to write. I’m principally a fiction and nonfiction writer now, but I did start as a poet. Usually my process begins with some kind of imperative—based on a dream, a poignant memory that’s just come back, something I’ve recently seen or read, or perhaps some lingering question I’ve had in mind for a long time that’s suddenly become fresh again. Like stories, I think poems need a sense of conflict and tension—or some sharp observation—to get them going. Then the process is really working on the extension of that initial crisis or revelation. What are the implications? Why should this matter to someone else?

Dupur Mitra: Who are your major influences as a poet?

Kris Saknussemm: I’ve had several streams of influence in my life. Early on it was the eccentrics like E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas. Then the heavy modernists like Yeats and Eliot. In my early 20s it was the masculine American rural and outdoor poets like James Wright and James Dickey. Then I moved on to the Surrealists, and their precursors like Rimbaud and Lautreamont. The Beats. I’m pretty well up on African-American poetry, the major Europeans like Rilke. And in more recent times, I’ve been reading the work of my friends and colleagues in India, Indonesia, and of course Australia, where I lived for a long time.

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