Read Widely: A Conversation with Stephanie Burt




STEPHANIE BURT IS MANY things: poetry co-editor at The Nation, transgender activist, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, the author of many books on literary criticism, which include, but aren’t limited to, Close Calls with Nonsense and The Poem Is You. Burt has a new book out called Don’t Read Poetry — not the title you might expect from someone (poet, literary critic, Harvard professor) who has devoted her life’s work to reading and writing poetry and reading and writing about poetry. The book is for those who are already reading poetry as well as for potential readers of the genre, but she is particularly interested in the latter — those who have avoided poetry or decided they hate it after being instructed to like a particular kind of poem. Burt is interested in having readers come to poems as “fan favorites” rather than as works in a professional hierarchy. Don’t Read Poetry might as easily have been called Read Many Poems, since Burt gives her readers a broad selection, helping them find a poetic niche or find their way back to poetry, perhaps after a long estrangement.

Don’t Read Poetry is divided into basic categories (Feelings, Characters, Forms, Difficulty, Wisdom, Community) so the reader can make sense of various poems’ raison d’être; ultimately, the book flows like a mixtape with the categories as organizing principles, reliant on each poem’s authenticity and voice. Burt’s intentions are clear from her introductory comments: “This book […] gives not just ways to read poems but reasons to read them, and ways to connect the poets and poems of the past, from Sappho and Li Bai to Wordsworth to some poems being written right now.”

We discussed Don’t Read Poetry over coffee in Belmont, Massachusetts, where we both live.

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VALERIE DUFF-STRAUTMANN: In the book, you say that what you’re looking for in poetry might not be what your reader is looking for, and you offer a range of poetry in English from past to present. I’m wondering if you go to one poet or poem more than another at certain times.

STEPHANIE BURT: I certainly do, and the six kinds of things I most often seek are the six chapters in the book! I tend to go to Donne for feelings/interiority and for craft, to Whitman for feelings and community, to Bishop for feelings and craft, to Terrance Hayes for craft and character, to Monica Youn for difficulty and wisdom.

When you read poetry, do you gravitate toward a particular category you’ve named here?

I value all six, although when I write about why I like a poem or a poet I probably focus more on the first three than on the second three.

Was there any poem or poet you wanted to include who didn’t fit easily into one or more of the categories?

All the poems I like a lot fit into at least one category, otherwise I wouldn’t have used those categories! But there were many, many poets and poems I could have mentioned in the book, poets and poems I admire very much, some poets I’ve written about repeatedly in the past (and expect to write about again in the future), who don’t show up in the book, for one or another reason. Alexander Pope! Sterling Brown. Paul Muldoon. Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt. Philip Larkin! T. S. Eliot!

Do you see Don’t Read Poetry as a natural next step or an entirely different enterprise compared with your earlier book The Poem Is You?

Their goals overlap, but they also diverge: The Poem Is You is about contemporary American poetry, and its implied or ideal reader has already read more poems, though maybe not many poems from the last five minutes or five years. Don’t Read Poetry should please and instruct somebody who loved The Poem Is You, but it’s supposed to cast a wider net: it’s for (though not only for) people who don’t read any poems in a typical week (but maybe want to start), and for people who feel they don’t know how.

Your book is called Don’t Read Poetry. I thought, flipping it out of the negative, Read Many Poems or Know What You’re After would work, too. Does that feel like an accurate substitution to you?

I’m okay with Read Many Poems — that’s nearly the subtitle! I’m less okay with Know What You’re After, because many of us don’t know what we’re after: especially when we are reading a new poet, or a kind of poetry new to us. We often hope for surprise.

Can you say more about the line in your book: “Learning the history of poetry […] is less like a struggle to become the Black Panther than it is like becoming a Black Panther fan”? And how this relates to ideas about a poetic canon?

Sure. Fandoms (I am in X-Men fandom a lot these days) are communities that try to be horizontal rather than vertical, that try to avoid professional hierarchies, that you can join (or leave) because you care about the material (rather than because you’re already an expert), where you nerd-out together over something that matters to you (rather than cramming for a test). I want my favorite poems to be fan favorites, rather than centers of institutional power. Of course, many poems, especially old ones, end up being both. But the personal liking (as Marianne Moore says) comes first.

What’s wrong with the way poetry is taught in the United States? And can you think of any better ways to teach poetry?

Yes! There are several ways that poetry is taught in the United States. Some are lovely but incomplete, and others are genuinely counter-productive. The incomplete way is as “creative writing” — here is a way to be creative, use words, and it doesn’t have to rhyme, and it doesn’t have to do anything in particular, just “express yourself” and, by the way, use some metaphors. That is often a way that the art of poetry is presented to middle and high school students, and it’s not wrong, but it does encourage students to see poetry as something that each generation makes for itself without particular reference to the past. It can encourage intellectually ambitious students to see the writing of poetry as something that is not intellectually demanding. And it can encourage, I think, adults to see poetry as something for kids or something you outgrow.

Right.

And none of that is the case unless you want it to be. Poems, poets, and poetry are also, in this country, taught as something you have to learn because they’re going to be on the AP test — as a subject that you study in the way that you might study the American Revolution, or the Earth’s core and geology. And that’s not entirely wrong. If you would like to treat poetry as an academic subject (which is part of my job), then please go ahead, there’s a lot to learn. But poetry is a living art form, not a closed field.

What I would like to see is a United States and a world, or at least an Anglophone world, because English is the language in which I live my life, where poetry is more like music: where we’re aware that there are a lot of different kinds and some of them are technically difficult to play and some of them are easier to play, and they’ve all got a history, and you can combine them or you can just pick the one that you like.

I would like to see a culture in which people encounter the work of Natalie Eilbert, or Terrance Hayes, or James K. Baxter, or Emily Dickinson, or Langston Hughes, or Geoffrey Chaucer in the way that we encounter the latest Halsey single. Or maybe the way that we encounter — oh, what’s a really good television show? — Dead to Me. I don’t know if you’re watching Dead to Me. It’s really good.

[Laughs.] Not yet.

But, I would like long poems to feel more like appointment television and binge-watching television. I would like short poems, which are most of the poems that I think about when I think about poems, to come to us more in the way that pop hits come to us.

Do you see this book being taught in schools? I mean, I think, you know this is described as a primer, I think by Publishers Weekly, but I saw it a bit more like a mixtape in the way you’re describing the songs coming into the culture.

Oh, I’d love to have it be a mixtape with commentary. The Poem Is You is much more like a mixtape because you get 60 complete poems. For reasons of length, space, emphasis, and, when it comes to modern and contemporary poetry, copyright and permissions, many of the poems in Don’t Read Poetry are quoted partially rather than whole. So it’s in a way more like the clips that you get on band websites. And if you’re using, I guess, Spotify as a free rather than a paid service, here’s 30 seconds of a five-minute song. Check it out. Maybe you feel like paying 50 cents for it.

Right.

I’d love to have it taught in schools. Of course! It is anti-academic in one sense, but it is not anti-academic in other senses. I’m an academic. I enjoy taking poems apart to see how they work. I think when you do it responsibly you can put them back together again. If you, as a teacher, find that when you take poems apart with your students they don’t fit back together and the students walk away from them, that is a pedagogical issue for you. And it has been for me. I hope I’m better now. But I don’t know, you’ll have to ask my students.

So if someone says, “Okay, poetry’s fine. I’m going to go look into this a little more after reading your book.”

Yeah.

Where do they go? Do you see them going someplace in particular?

It depends on who they are! Right? Part of the point of this book is that there’s not — it’s supposed to lead people in different directions. And in that, it is like a mixtape. If you are looking for extremely, sort of virtuosic craft and patterning, and a really strong voice, and/or contemporary African-American experience, or versions of contemporary masculinity, or reactions to the public and political culture of 2017–2019, or, you know, ways to think about the prison-industrial complex, or humor, then perhaps you should be reading Terrance Hayes. And I would like everyone to read Terrance Hayes. If you are interested in extremely intellectual problem-solving combined with tremendous amounts of humility and self-abnegation, and self-reproach, and how to be a Christian in a way that makes you a better person, perhaps you should read George Herbert. If what you want is 19th-century feminism and strongly developed characters and also rhyming stanzas, Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt would be great. If you’re interested in early 20th-century constructions of physical disability, Hazel Hall is really good. There are a lot of poets out there!

One of the things I discovered as I was writing the book, and the conclusion sort of talks about this, is that the world is full of poets who have something for someone, and I’m discovering new ones every few weeks who have something for me. But the poets who really have retained large, devoted audiences and readerships over time, both inside and outside the academy, tend to be poets who have something for, if not everyone, a lot of different people. Poets who can do a lot of different things at once. Langston Hughes is such a poet. T. S. Eliot is such a poet. Elizabeth Bishop seems to be such a poet. Adrienne Rich certainly is. Yeats is. I’m not sure that Alexander Pope is, unfortunately, and I love the guy. But he does have a narrower range of things he’s great at, and a narrower fanbase now. You know, Wordsworth is, although he’s also really pompous. Robert Frost is, although he’s also a jerk.

[Laughs.] Where do you go from here? Do you go back to your own poetry? Do you have other ideas for a next book or —

Well, partly, I mean, what I do as a writer of poetry is dependent primarily on what I need to read that I haven’t read by somebody else. What I do as a scholar, and what I do as kind of a public critic, is dependent on what I want to do but also dependent on what it seems like other people want to read. If anybody really wants a short book about Whitman or a short book about William Carlos Williams, I would do that; possibly a short book about Yeats, although that may just be some articles. I get to teach Yeats at length for the first time this summer, which also lets my family take my mom to Ireland, so that’s exciting.

Oh, wow! So where is it?

The Yeats Summer School in Sligo. Matthew Campbell, who’s a really distinguished critic in Britain, has made that possible. Yeah, I’m really excited. So, you know, single poet books. I would consider doing a sequel to The Poem Is You, which is non-US poetry, cause there’s a lot of great non-US poetry in English that we do not read.

That would be great.

It would be a lot of work and a lot of checking in with people to see that I’m not getting things about New Zealand or Singapore or, you know, Jamaica deeply wrong. I would never write a whole book about how to read New Zealand poetry or how to read West Indian poetry because that’s for people who are from there or who have made their lives there.

I may well write a book about X-Men.

[Laughs.] Great.

I’m not going to do that by myself, but there are models. Anne Jamison’s book about fandom and fanfiction is a good model here for how to write a book about an important non-high culture art form in collaboration with people who know it best who maybe don’t have PhDs. The X-Men have meant a lot to me recently and that would be fun to do.

I’m periodically asked to explain trans stuff to people and I’m happy to do that under certain circumstances and willing to do that under others. There ought to be a good anthology of trans literature, and I haven’t seen one yet. I’ve been talking to a university press about whether to do that.

That’s great.

There exist good anthologies of nonfiction on trans topics and literary theory and cultural criticism on trans topics. I leave that for the people who want to do that. But we could really use a multi-genre trans lit anthology.

But the next book is none of those things! The next book is probably going to be a collection of very free adaptations and translations and imitations of a poet of late antiquity who wrote in ancient Greek called Callimachus, whom I’ve translated or imitated before in some of my books of poetry. And to my delight and surprise, a couple senior figures in the poetry world and the university press that I respect very highly and hadn’t really worked with before, came after me and said, “You know, if you did a book of these you might publish it.”

Do you remember how you first became interested in poetry and what started the fascination?

I don’t know. I did a report in third grade on John Milton for library class and ended up copying out part of “Lycidas” longhand, and that was fun for me. So that meant something. But I also sort of discovered that there was a lot of poetry out there that was by dead people.

In, I suppose, middle school, I wanted to write science fiction and discovered that my favorite science fiction writers, who were people like Ursula K. Le Guin — who I get to write about this afternoon — and Samuel R. Delany and James Tiptree Jr. seemed to have read a lot of poetry and used canonical poems as font points, or references, or for titles of their stories. Science fiction from the ’60s and ’70s does a lot of that, so I found myself looking in Bartlett’s quotations for poems I could use as titles for stories I wanted to write when I was 12, and then read the poems and discovered that, you know, not only were there poems by dead people like Yeats and Matthew Arnold, who I admired, but also, there were poems being written now and maybe I wanted to write them; and I should go read a lot of living poets because then I would learn what poetry was like now.

So what are you reading now besides rereading, I gather, Ursula Le Guin?

I’m rereading Yeats because I have to teach a Yeats class, which is an honor and a responsibility. I like Rob Schlegel’s new book, which is partly about having visions and sort of depicting a post-Blakeian allegorical world. It’s also about being a dad. And now that everyone knows I’m a mom, I haven’t thought about how to be a dad for a while. I think Chris Martin’s book was the last one that I reviewed that was about being a dad. At the time, I was still trying to be a good non-binary parent, and I wrote about that and sort of put the topic aside. And now everyone knows I’m a mom and my life is much, much better and clearer.

Tommy Pico — everyone’s reading Tommy Pico right now — I’m trying to get to write about his new one. There’s a book that Noemi just did — Unmanned, by Jessica Rae Bergamino — that is poems with science fiction components like talking satellites and Star Wars stuff. And it’s someone who’s trying to write on the age-old subject of personal lyric, abandonment, the erotic, loss, and attachment using various tropes from NASA, and from science fiction film. It’s a lot of fun and it’s very thoughtful.

That’s great.

I’m also reading a lot of YA. That’s also something that feels collaborative to me.

Are you reading it because you’re interested in it?

Yes!

Or because of your kids?

I’m reading it because I’m interested in it!

[Laughs.] Okay.

I’m interested in it as a kind of trans and Queer rep[resentative] and as a kind of way to have political agency in culture. But it’s also just a lot of fun. There’s a lot you can do within the genre limits of YA that you can’t do in other kinds of fiction. And it is the case that, you know, I have a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old and they don’t really want to talk about John Ashbery. And they don’t really want to talk about Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt.

Did that have any effect on how you structured your own book in terms of —

My kids’ response to poetry?

Yeah.

No. No.

Or students.

Students of course! I’ve been a teacher for most of my life at this point and, of course, how my students respond to what poems and what they want and what they’re into has affected what I choose to write about, what I teach, and how I write, and, maybe, at the margin, what I like.

And things like social media, you know, things that have come up, probably, for you in many interviews before, but how things are changing in terms of looking at poetry or getting into poetry.

Social media as something that’s had an effect on poetry has been great.

You think it’s great?

I am very much in favor of social media. The corners of the world that I spend the most time in are corners where social media literally saves lives and makes the world better. Part of that has to do with making older poems available. Part of that has to do with making newer poems available. Part of that has to do with creating writing communities for mostly younger writers and readers that are horizontal and supportive, and that work as fandoms or in fandoms or like fandoms, rather than like classrooms. And these communities, as people begin learning from them and begin writing in them, have an effect on what gets published in books that I like. I think our modern social mediascape is much better than what it replaced, even though there are certain losses.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Read widely. Trust your own tastes. Talk about it. Write English papers if you want to, and don’t mistake — as much as I love the academy — what you get from the academy for the sum total of experiences with the art of the memorable and feelingful arrangements of words, because that’s a much wider art. And I hope you can find what you love in it.

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Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s second book of poems, Folk Magic, will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2021. Her book reviews have appeared in Salamander, the Boston Globe, PN Review, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor to The Critical Flame.


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