Interview with
Paul Guest

by Colleen Marie Ryor
Paul Guest
PAUL GUEST's first book, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World, won the 2002 New Issues   Poetry Prize. His poems appear in Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Lyric, West Branch and elsewhere.
Q: When did you first begin to write poetry?

I was seventeen, a junior in high school. The very last week of my junior year, in fact. My biology teacher had run out of things for us to do so he sent us outside to 'type' the various trees on campus. And in the midst of that, out of the blue, I had an impulse to write a poem. I rushed inside and wrote it up on a computer. It's like an unused chunk of my brain suddenly switched on. I must have wrote fifty poems that summer. I've never looked back.

Q: What were some of your first encounters with contemporary poetry?

Ashbery. Berryman. Ginsberg. Whatever was on the shelves of the bookstore.

Q: Do you enjoy reading the work of any foreign poets?

I love Tomaz Salamun. His poetry is really delightful, strange and beautiful.

Q: You have said that it all seemed too easy to have your first book published, yet to have the second seems to be taking some time…

It is taking some time, which on odd days can be frustrating. But so are lots of things. The book has improved a great deal in all that time so in the end I'm grateful.

Q: Your books were written several years apart. How does your second manuscript differ from your first? Do you feel your voice has changed at all in the second book?

The second book is sadder, more elegaic. It's colored by some bad times. But there is also the arc of a great love scattered through out it. And that gives the book a glow, a warmth, I think.

Q: You received your B.A. in Humanities, then an MFA in Poetry. What made you decide to go for a degree in poetry?

I'm not good at anything else! And it seemed the right thing to do:  it's hard to go wrong spending a few years when you're mostly expected to write poems.

Q: What are your thoughts on MFA programs today?

There's not a thing wrong with them. It's popular today to criticize them, which I think is terrifically misguided.  People claim that MFA programs are a homogenizing effect in poetry. Let's assume this is so. If we take as a given that most of what is written will fall away anyway, then I refuse to accept that what is left, what is lasting, will be in some way impaired by the rise of the MFA. It's just silly. We could go back and identify in other eras other forces that influenced what was being written.  And yet we still hold on to the Eliots, the Whitmans, the Keats. Finally, the idea that too many people are writing too many poems is just goofy and so anti-democratic. Join the club, I say.

Q: Do you think there is such a thing as a southern sensibility in writing poetry?

There might be, but all that I could identify would be the influence of the King James Bible. Anything else that registers as particularly southern would be something others see or hear.

Q: What themes do you find yourself returning to in your writing?

Love, loss, grief. The basics, really.

Q: What about fiction?

God forbid! Too many words! I admire fiction writers for what they do, but I don't think I could. Not happily, at least.  Everything I love about poetry, the compression and speed of the language, is in some ways counter to the needs of prose.

Q: You recently started teaching at your alma mater, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. How has that been?

It's been quite nice. There's a wonderful creative writing program here and it's good to be immersed in it, around young writers.

Q: What is a teacher’s role in a student’s writing, if any?

Writing can't really be taught, I don't think. It can be coached. It can be encouraged. But I don't think it can be taught, at least not in the sense one teaches someone how to solve for x or y. My job is to create the environment in which writers make mistakes and it's ok. I can teach reading, though. That's the secret. How to read poems, others, your own. I can teach you how to teach yourself.

Q: What’s the state of poetry in America today? Are poets writing only for other poets?

Some may be and if so, that's fine. It's not as though they suddenly don't count, or that they somehow are worth only half a "real" reader. It seems we labor under these persistent myths about a Golden Age of poetry when everyone was reading it.  Catullus complained of the poor readership. The bottom line is that we write for anyone who cares to read. And that's enough for me.

Q: What are your feelings about on-line literary publications? Are established writers slowly becoming more open to them? Do you still see a lot of reservations from some?

I don't have any reservations. Not really. I think most people still prefer the printed page, all its tactile value. But publishing on-line has different advantages. It's likely, even probable, that you'll reach far more readers than your average print journal. And very quickly. I think more and more writers see that and are open to it. I think far more books are sold because of online journals. You read a poem, and then can Google the poet, and in five seconds you have this wealth of links before you. It's great.

Q: How can poets reach a larger audience?

I don't know. Stevens famously said that if poetry dedicated itself to the same concerns of the Bible, it would rival the Bible's readership. I'm not sure that's precisely true, however good it sounds. I think, in the final analysis, poems reach the readers who need poems. James Wright said his ideal reader was one with intelligence and good will. It seems like there are always at least a few of them with us in the world. Poetry, and the world, are the better for them.