Tuesday 5 November 2013
Interview with Doug Johnson
1. Given the ways contemporary authors have been trying to compose all kinds of poetry, how would you define ‘poetry’?
That's kind of a difficult question. There are many varied formats in Western poetry, I'm in danger of being the blind man defining an elephant. I may just have the trunk and be calling it a rope. For all the variant forms, to me poetry has two elements. 1) There are a set of arbitrary rules decided upon by the reader and poet. These may be that stanzas have meter and rhyme in the West. These may be a certain amount of characters and syllables in the East. This is qualified by the fact that free-verse and other ideas make anarchy of rules in language. The important issue is that the reader and poet understand a shared definition. 2) The second element of this, in the modern mind-set, is that it is not a linguistic form that will work through heavy prosaic fashions to communicate a story. Prose has been given wide range to serve other functions where the reader does not have to be extremely educated on the type of forms the writer is using. (For instance that an Italian Sonnet with a heroic couplet is a requirement.) Yes there are poets working at the edges between these two ideas. That's where I defer to my earlier comment. I may just be a blind man holding an elephant's trunk.
2. Many people say poetry is dying. Do you agree or disagree with this statement, and why?
All types of art forms come, go and or resurrect themselves for a new generation. Poetry has definitely impacted by technology and the ocean of words that get printed everyday in blogs and articles in the internet. In this way words have become extremely cheapened. The poet, as an artisan, carves words out of a grand idea, much like a woodcarver cuts at a block. That has been for different reasons. Lao Tzu's ideals of the "Unfinished Block" lent artisans to shape their words in an effort to offer no ego. Other poets have offered a standard of "Confessional Poetry" where the deepest secrets of a soul are left on the page. Is poetry dying? I think only in the way that leaves on a tree die. To me, at the end of the day, there are poets and songwriters in each generation. Bards tell of their poems. Sing their songs. The technology has changed how much we value the current types of poetry, but it hasn't stopped some people from crafting words with care for a new generation.
3. What defining features do you think ‘best’ poetry should possess? In other words, what is your personal or working definition of ‘best’ poetry?
This is subjective and difficult to comment on. I tend to study Han Shan and his collected songs to find by base in poetry. If you are of a Taoist or Bhuddist mindset and you study those ancestors you will look for certain elements. If you are of a political mindset and think that poetry must witness and protest then you will use the standard of "Content" as your grading scale. People prefer many elements. If anything I come to appreciate the craft of the poet for whatever set of rules they have chosen to emulate. If you want to write a sonnet with a solid rhyme scheme, those are the rules. In our modern ideas, this might appear to be an archaic exercise, but each well-crafted genre has things to teach a modern poet. The 'best' poetry speaks to their generation, using a set of rules that allows the reader/listener in. Otherwise it can be perfectly formed and sit simply as an ornament on a shelf for your own collection.
4. What are the most important makings of a ‘great’ poet? – please name 3 greatest poets the world has produced thus far.
Again, this is a challenge for me. I prefer Han Shan of Ancient China. I prefer the sonnets of Shakespeare. Walt Whitman paved the ways for rules to be broken and adjusted for new generations with the use of free-verse.
5. Who are the 3 most important or noteworthy contemporary poets according to your personal/working criteria?
I prefer William Stafford of the Pacific Northwest and Naomi Shihab Nye. Past that, I prefer Langson Hughes. All three of these people have worked within a shared set of arbitrary rules and communicated to the generations of the 20th (and now 21st) century
6. Considering the contemporary poetry writing/publishing reality, what are the most important changes that you think should be made to promote poetry as a worthy cause?
The most obvious one is for the poetry community to join the rest of the world in the realm of technology. There is a deep seated angst for all people who are used to seeing their words on paper. Paper is still the 'gold standard' and when people see poetry in a blog or on the internet is has 'less value.' That is much the same as the first automobiles that were driven. They were scene as toys and not as helpful as the common horse when transporting goods. It isn't all the poets. As the internet continues to dominate the written word, poets will have to find a place where they have carved out their niche. The copyists that were displaced by Guttinberg's press wanted to smash the press. Eventually the culture and the poets came to an understanding. The same thing needs to happen now.
7. Which 3 poetry editors or magazines would you like to recommend to all poetry lovers? Or, which 3 are your most favorite poetry editors/journals?
I think one thing the internet has shown is that people's region dominates their poetry. It is a huge challenge to be recognized in poetry unless you have connections to certain regions. My favorite journals are in my region. As a small press, I pay attention to what is happening in my region and state. Here is one resource. http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/resources/poetry_journals/ It offers a clearinghouse of what is in your area. I don't have a favorite journal the way I don't have a favorite genre of music or art. I want to constantly be cross-training with my poetry so that new ideas can influence the way I write.
8. What are the most important or interesting things that you have learned about poetry writing/publishing as a poetry editor?
People have varied motivations and interests in publishing poetry. I have found it interesting that although poets many times say they are open minded, they really don't like to collaborate. That goes back to the regionalism.
9. What is the most or least enjoyable part of being a poetry editor?
The most enjoyable part of being poetry editor is being able to help an emerging poet get excited about seeing their words in my blog or in print if it is a large project. People expressing themselves and sharing words with an expanded audience make this part of the journey a great thing. Thanks.