Poetry can’t just be image; it has to be language: An online interview with Don Yorty
Don Yorty: Lives in New York, Writer & teacher
Published work: A Few Swimmers Appear, Poet Laundromat, the prologue, and What Night Forgets
Dupur Mitra: When and where do you write?
Don Yorty: I often walk and write, sit in a park and write. NYC is good for this because there are a lot of parks where I live in the East Village. I live close to a nice long park along the East River. If I am in the country, I walk in the woods and do the same thing. I like to write in the morning. During my life however I have made use of any hour of the day.
Dupur Mitra: Can you talk about the importance of sound in poetry?
Don Yorty: The sound is as important as the thought. Some poets in English are very good with sound; well many are. But very quickly John Keats comes to mind and Bob Dylan too: they produce wonderful sounds with their words. Sound helps to make the words memorable. When it comes to sound I like the Latin poet Catullus, I like Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Juan Ramón Jiménez…I better stop because I love the sound of so many poets. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right no matter what you are saying or trying to do. I say my poems out loud and try to recite my work from memory. It helps me finish it. It is so important to hear your work, not just think it. But it can’t just be sound. Some poets like Dylan Thomas always sound good, but the thought or the construct doesn’t work so well. Sound must go with thought, thought with sound, one.
Dupur Mitra: What advice was most helpful to you when you first started writing poetry?
Don Yorty: “You’re good. You can do it.” I had a high school English teacher when I was 16 who encouraged me to write.
Dupur Mitra: Why is poetry important?
Don Yorty: It mixes thought and feeling together and condenses it to its essence. It brings the past to the present letting us know there is a future. All holy scriptures around the world (doesn’t matter what religion) are poetic. The poem seems to last longer than just about anything. It keeps us near our past and our human qualities: things haven’t changed much since Homer.
Dupur Mitra: How important is your Welsh identity and background to your writing?
Don Yorty: I’m not Welsh. I’m American with ancestors who were French Swiss, German, and English. My identity as an American I think might just be that coming from a country of immigrants, there are many other cultures, writings, thoughts available and acceptable. Even though there is racism in my country as well, and intolerance, tolerance and acceptance are much stronger and seem to prevail.
Dupur Mitra: Is there a relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice?
Don Yorty: When my writing is good there is. It has to be you. You can’t fake you. If it doesn’t sound like you, you are faking, hiding who you are. You have to talk.
Dupur Mitra: How does a poem usually start for you?
Don Yorty: Sometimes I very consciously decide to write a poem. Sometimes there is a desire, thoughtless but impulsive. I have been creative since I was very young. I began to write as soon as I could. I read as soon as I could read.
Dupur Mitra: Can you describe your writing process?
Don Yorty: Well it’s partly conscious and partly unconscious. Often before something really works, I am confused, overwhelmed, think my writing is terrible, feel awful, struggle, do draft after draft. A bad day is often followed by a very good one. But you must work. Work when you are bad, work when you are good, and the end result will be good. My writing is work work work. I rewrite sonnets sometimes a hundred times. Often. Sometimes it takes me years to finish a poem. I am working on a poem now called Fucking that I started in my 20s. I am now 63.
Dupur Mitra: Did you get any helpful advice when you were first starting to write poetry?
Don Yorty: Two American poets who were famous in the 60s, Louis Untermeyer and John Wheelock, read my work when I was 16 and encouraged me to continue. It was encouraging when a few people said to me, “You are good. You must write.” That was helpful. Praise has always given me more energy than criticism. As I said before, I had an English teacher who really encouraged me to write.
Dupur Mitra: What are the pleasures and difficulties of writing about your own family?
Don Yorty: Well, a pleasure might be in the memories. I think it is hard to be truthful. Or you don’t want to be truthful because it is too personal. It is all right to write about yourself, but it might be viewed as intrusive by your siblings or other family members.
Dupur Mitra: What is poetry?
Don Yorty: Well, poetry can’t just be image; it has to be language. When the shock is over, it has to resound. It has to resonate; it must make sense and be the truth in some important way that can almost be grasped, but not quite. A good poem is metamorphic, eternal. Each time you read it, it changes, is different like a diamond reflecting different angles of light at that particular time that the light exists. Ah, there it is. Then it isn’t. It’s ephemeral. It’s understood and a mystery at the same time.
Dupur Mitra: What are your observations about trending of world poetry?
Don Yorty: I am not sure if I know so much about that. I have been enjoying poems from different writers around the world on Facebook. We are all human and our experiences are universal.
Dupur Mitra: Can a poetry movement improve poetry? If yes how, if not why?
Don Yorty: The more you read other poets, it can only be good. One drawback is that poetry really needs its language. I only know some French, Spanish and Latin, so I am more aware of the poets in those languages. It would be wonderful to know Arabic, Bangla and Chinese for example, but unfortunately I don’t. I love listening to music, songs, singers from around the world. Listening to a song gives you a good feel for the language. Also listening to a poem. You have to be open to it though.
Dupur Mitra: What is your opinion about today’s world poetry movement?
Don Yorty: Mmmm, I don’t have an opinion really. It would be nice to think that one is happening. I like people. I like the world. With globalization and travel everybody is everywhere: you can see it at any international airport. So it’s hard anymore even for repressive governments to repress the people; there is beginning to be more exchange. Pussy Riot in Russia right now is an example I think. Putin can’t repress those women because everybody is watching and though Putin says he doesn’t care, he does.
Dupur Mitra: Describe the writing process in your poems.
Don Yorty: I have written poems in one draft in one sitting (not often) and I often do a rough sketch like an artist might do and then I fill that sketch out. You have to work, but a good poem has its form and you just help the form appear. It’s already there; you’re just giving shape to it: like a sculpture in space, words are in the ear. I really do work a long time on things. I worked on my novel What Night Forgets for 20 years. I will probably continue to rewrite and work on my stuff until I die. That’s when I’ll stop.