Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Don Share of Poetry Magazine

“What could be more American, more vitally important to our own time, than to let voices in, and to listen?” -- Don Share

Don Share is the editor of Poetry magazine and an acclaimed poet and translator. His recent books include Union (Eyewear, 2013), Wishbone (Black Sparrow, 2012), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions, 2012), and his translations of Miguel Hernández were published in a revised and expanded edition by The New York Review of Books in 2013.  The recipient of three National Magazine Awards for editorial excellence—as well as a 2015 VIDA award for his contributions to American literature and literary community—Share is an artistic and editorial force. We spoke with him via e-mail on his creative process, how growing up in music-rich Memphis influenced his poetic sensibility, and what excites him about the poetry that’s being written today.

NEA: What was your earliest experience with poetry?

DON SHARE: My earliest experience, to be honest, wasn’t a happy one: having to memorize long stretches of Longfellow in grade school: “This is the forest primeval….” Alas, they never told us what “primeval” meant, for some reason. Thus began, however, my happy life-long dependence upon the dictionary! Still, it’s fair to say that I was nonplussed by Evangeline and Acadie. Yet around the same time I somehow discovered Robert W. Service, and Don Marquis’s marvelous archy and mehitabel poems. Being a kid in Memphis, I had to love “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” who was, famously, from Tennessee, and the legendary poetry-writing cockroach, archy, who tapped out the following on the keys of an office typewriter one night:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went
into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life

In no time, I started writing my own ballads and “vers libre”– blissfully ignorant of the possibility of being a bad writer. I was never an English major, for obvious reasons; but I did go on to teach myself poetry as I got older. I did this by making sure I had the kind of jobs that gave me access to whole libraries full of poetry books, which I read in alphabetical order from, you could say, Auden to Zukofsky!  No grades or papers necessary. It was a great education, and quite possibly one that is no longer possible.

NEA: What is the impulse that makes you sit down and write a poem? Would you describe it as an impulse?

SHARE: Impulse is the right word. Being an impulse, of course, one can’t quite define it. But I like what the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh says: “there was some kink in me, put there by Verse. […] A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life.” Just so. As it happens, I don’t own a desk. So I can’t quite sit down and write. Instead, I do most of my writing on the el here in Chicago during my commute to and from work. There’s a level of energy and pathos in urban life that serve as an impetus to write things down. My scribbles come to feel like part of whatever else is around me.

NEA: What are some of the questions you find yourself returning to again and again when you write? Is there an element of surprise in terms of where your poems take you? 

SHARE: The main question is: what should a poem, this poem, be doing? Why do I have the idea that I’m here to do such a thing as write a poem? Does the world need another poem? If so, does it need a poem by me? I then put all these foolish questions out of my mind and get on with it. If a poem isn’t a surprise, then it isn’t a poem, so yes, there’s got to be a way in which a poem is saying things I hadn’t quite bargained on. I’d want my own poems to surprise me as much as anybody else’s. 

NEA: Your poems are deeply attuned to sound. Can you talk about how the music and texture of language guide you in shaping your poems?

SHARE: Well, music means the world to me, almost literally. I grew up in and around music, thanks to my father’s almost Lomax-like archive of records. He wasn’t, in most ways, a capacious man, but the crucial exception was music, and every Sunday morning all my family would listen to music together. And I’m from Memphis, where music is built into everything. I taught myself how to play guitar and piano at an early age, and listened at night to radio stations from all over the place, so it was all quite a gallimaufry. Now, I’d say, musical textures are present in almost every aspect of my thinking: I seem to hear music constantly. As a person with hearing problems, I have to imagine music to fill in for what I cannot actually hear. And that’s a process that feels analogous to ways in which I encounter poetry. For example, when someone is speaking, I often run rhymes though my head to try to make sure I understand what words are being said. That has taught me a whole lot about the sounds of words!

NEA: How has the experience of translating poetry changed the way you write or think about your own work? Has translation been transformative for you in other ways?

SHARE: In some ways, yes, because when I reflect on the character, not just the poetry, of someone like Miguel Hernandez, I realize that poetry has the power – more so, it must be said, in other cultures than our own here in North America – to be truly transformative. Miguel was considered a dangerous man by Generalissimo Franco because he was a poet. I also understand translation as a way of highlighting differences among people, which is an essential project of imaginative literature: as Empson says, it exists to put us in touch with people whose values are very different from our own. Yet I don’t really write very differently for having been a translator; in the end, whatever I do must be proved upon my own pulses, to mangle an axiomatic bit of Keats.

NEA: From your vantage point as editor of Poetry magazine, what excites you most about the poetry that’s being written today? You’ve showcased so many terrific new voices in the magazine.

SHARE: The true multiplicity of voices around us is most exciting to me. There’s a diversity – in every sense of the world – breaking like an axe through the frozen sea of what was, for a long time, a seemingly monolithic literary culture. We live, no doubt about it, in interesting times, when it comes to poetry.

NEA: Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on the relationship between poetry and the world at large, and the ways in which you see poets confronting—or poems reflecting—social issues?

SHARE: You know, even before Ferguson and the subsequent succession of tragic events around the country, poets like Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine, Frannie Choi, Ocean Vuong, Solmaz Sharif, and many more were resonating with a great many readers: they have told us what our world is really like. And because the best poetry is proleptic, when the bad times came, their work was there to help us understand things. Their poems of witness and provocation get 8,000 to 10,000 readers a day on the website. It’s really stunning. We turn to journalism and history books to try to understand the facts of a situation, and get context; but we turn to poetry to connect with the individual human narratives that together drive the current of events around us. And the multiplicity of voices and visions in American poetry is heartening. Alice Notley talks about getting voices into her work, how she tries to put people into a poem who haven’t been in one before, to the extent that she can hear them.  “I knew I couldn’t hear everyone,” she writes, “but I tried.” What could be more American, more vitally important to our own time, than to let voices in, and to listen?

NEA: What do you think poetry can do—in terms of telling a story or exploring a question—that other art forms can’t?

SHARE: I don’t think of poetry as being in some kind of competition with other art forms, happily. But I think poetry can do anything! Truly, I do. Poetry can go well beyond storytelling and yearning. Like other art forms, it is capable, at its best and in its own way, of continual surprise and delight.

NEA: For readers new to poetry, what advice might you offer for approaching a poem?

SHARE: Just read it. Let the words flow. Let your own thoughts come. Above all, be capacious. Don’t search for sententious messages, or symbolism, or worse yet, that which confirms your own comfort. Whitman says to have great poetry there must be great audiences, too. Be great. Do this by letting your mind open to what might feel strange… and let it stay open.

NEA: Fill in the blank: The arts matter because …

SHARE: If they didn’t exist, we would have to invent them.  



Mr. Share is another great example of "what's in a name" and proof there is a great organizational force at work in the universe.While the unknowing, led by the unimaginative tend to say, "poetry is dead", the converse is quite true, poetry is a growing force with the internet giving both outlet and fellowship among a widely diverse collection of both poetry readers and poetry creators.  Mr. Share has occupied the position at the crossroads thereof.We give him thanks.

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