How have your personal experiences shaped your poetry?

Knowlton:

We are, in essence, what we choose to see, and how we choose to see. We shape our personal experiences, as they shape how we are and what we do.

Varnes:

I'm not sure that I have the self awareness to answer this question. I suspect my reading, my reactions to reading and literature shapes my poetry at least as much if not more. But I do know that my work might seem more confessional than other poetry. I don't have an interest in poetry that refuses to link the intellect with the heart. I try to do that, and naturally I draw on my own perceptions of life, culture.

Vogt:

The older I get, the less direct the roles of personal experiences become. I no longer write about my feelings or what I observe unless they can be grounded in specific objects, places, scenes, or narratives. My personal experience come from the study of outward things—those objects or people that influence me. This gives the poetry a greater resonance and a greater audience. I don’t see myself creating the poem, so much as I see the events and objects around me creating the poem through me. If I experience love, and what to write about it, I have to ground my interpretation of emotions in something specific—this is usually a natural object, but can just as well be something man-made. It could be the sound of a train or a dove’s call or the scent of roses or the sensation of mud—something specific and concrete and real. No sentimentality, no vagueness, no abstraction. If any of those come they can only come after I’ve grounded the poem, and then only in small revelatory doses.

 

How do you use structure as an element of your poetry?

Knowlton:

The structure is secondary. The structure might be something like scaffolding, which doesn’t really hold up a building, but it’s a sort of exoskeleton.

Varnes:

It keeps me in line. Literally. It forces me to make choices that push me past the obvious or pedestrian options I'd no doubt settle for if I were writing a less structured verse. For me, the rhythm and sound of poetry is very much the heart of it, what's not said as much as what is. I love to see what repetition can accomplish for me.

Vogt:

With formal verse it is sort of a given, but I still proclaim the function of the poem dictates form. Stanza are one main element of structure, and each defines a room that hold a slight tangent in topic, an introduction of a new idea, or the need for a silent pause to help build the poem and give time to digest one part before moving one. Sometimes a poem needs to move fast, so it’ll be thin. Sometimes it needs to absorb the reader to bring it into its intention, so it becomes wider. Form is often a sensation, an instinct of how the poem needs to pause, be silent, breathe, or effect the reader. But ultimately, form is the last concern of the poem in early drafts since it might too easily dictate what’s being said.

 

How do setting, plot, and character--typically elements of prose--work into your poetry? Which one do you feel is most significant, and why?

Knowlton:

Great question. This varies from poem to poem. I like to imagine that the “characters” are sort of universal, that they are all of us, that the plots occur over and over again (whether we want them to or not), and that setting may possibly be the most significant. In fact, I like to think of setting as, sometimes, a sort of character.

Varnes:

It would depend on the work. For "Folding the Laundry, I Think About Aesthetics," setting is crucial, character secondary, plot not so important. For "Works on Paper," that's more about the voice of the speaker and the ideas, the leap of the mind, so I'd say character is primary.

Vogt:

All are important. Robert Frost is a pretty darn good example. Setting is a character is the plot is the setting et cetera. They all define one another and are integral in any genre. In poetry, this continual interdependence is more important simply because of the poem’s scale—its desire to do a ton of work in a small space and have each word do more than it normally might in prose. Probably not the answer you’re looking for, but it’s the right one, I think.

 

How do you tie tone and attitude into your poems for the reader to interpret your poem in its intended way?

Knowlton:

Well, there really isn’t an intended way to interpret a poem, particularly one of my poems. When I was in college, I took a course (two terms, I liked it so much) in Chinese literature in English translation. I remember more of this course than any other I took in college. A few things stand out. One of the most prominent is “If you want to run away, then run.” I have mixed feelings about this. The other is the concept that the Chinese believe (remember, this is a paraphrase) that there are no truly original poetic ideas – it’s ok to “lift” ideas. Hope that I’m not opening Pandora’s box here.

Varnes:

Well, readers and how they approach poetry pretty much baffles me. I have a poem that in my mind is about this great dad doing fantastic, loving things, though limited by a 1950s role of what fatherhood is, and readers used phrases like "sexist pig" and "jerk" to describe him. I was stunned. So apparently I don't.

Vogt:

Diction is the key to tone. So is line length, word choice, the choice of form—either stanzas in free verse or more formal verse forms. I think tone is relatively easy to achieve if you put yourself in the mindset of the poem your writing, i.e. don’t write an elegy the day you get engaged, unless you’re into black humor (good luck in that marriage). The title is a good place to introduce the reader to your intention as well, and many writers just slap on any ‘ole title they come up with at the drop of a hat. But a poem depends on its words carrying multiple workloads, shouldn’t the title contribute to that intensity? That tone?

 

How does the reader's expectations influence your writing? In what way is the role of audience significant to you in your writing?

Knowlton:

The poems that you’ve seen weren’t written with an audience in mind – at least in the initial “seed” stages, I wasn’t aware of a future audience. This is not to say, either, that they were written “for me.”

Varnes:

Well, I'd like to have an audience, but in my world that seems premature. I have a couple ideal readers that I write for, and they don't have expectations so much. They love everything I do! (Big kidding.) Actually sometimes I write poems against certain kinds of readers, readers who think "you" in a poem means "me," for instance. That really bites. But mostly, I'm just trying to "get it right." The audience is gravy. Even though I do write to be read.That's my writerly paradox.

Vogt:

I just try to write a poem that makes sense. I always look at my work while editing from the perspective of a reader. Is this logical? Does this seem superfluous? Is this explained clearly enough? Does this expand on this the way it needs to? Is this just dumb? The best way to write a poem that will mean something to someone else is to let it sit in a drawer for a few weeks, or even better half a year or more—then take it out and voila! you are now reading your work from the vantage point of a reader. You’ve distanced yourself from the work and can now begin the real act of writing. If a poem doesn’t make sense to the majority of people, but sounds beautiful, it’s not a poem. It must speak to people on multiple levels in multiple ways, sound AND sense.