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“I don’t understand it”: Why you should read our newly relaunched poetry interview series

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The following is a guest post by Anastasia Nikolis, the poetry editor for our newly relaunched Interview Series.

Poetry has a reputation of being eccentric and esoteric; of being stunningly opaque but deeply meaningful. This is why people say they “don’t understand it,” won’t often read it, and more often turn to poems at times of tragedy, or at weddings, or any time when emotions run high. But if poetry is difficult and only turned to by a general audience when our emotions are running high, what is the role of an interview with a poet? Who reads these interviews but people who are already poetry readers?

When the Poetry and Literature Center approached me about serving as poetry editor for the relaunch of their Interview Series, I wasn’t sure what niche there was left to fill in a literary landscape overgrown with excellent online interviews. The Paris Review has been conducting extensive, probing, deeply personal interviews with some of the most acclaimed poets and writers of the age since the 1950s. The Kenyon Review interviews many writers and poets about the most intricate parts of their craft. The Poetry Society of America conducts short interviews with some of the most on-trend writers of the moment. And many outlets—from newspapers to blogs to popular magazines—interview writers about their autobiographical backgrounds as a way to better understand the texts they publish.

So, where does this leave our interview series? The Poetry and Literature Center is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between seemingly impenetrable writing and willing, but unfamiliar, poetry readers. As poetry editor I will ask poets about their process and their influences, as well as questions that focus on technical aspects of how poets write their poems. Most of my questions will include definitions of poetic terms or principles, and I will often draw attention to particular poems so that readers can look more closely at a poem for the techniques a poet used, right alongside the poet who wrote it.

Joan Naviyuk Kane

But poetry isn’t only thought of as esoteric because of its subject matter. Often it is thought to only belong to certain populations or locations. The series looks for poets who are writing in places or as part of communities that broaden the typical poetry-reading community from being localized in urban literary epicenters, or belonging to the university. Furthermore, the series aims to highlight mid-career poets (poets who have published a few books) because there are more opportunities to celebrate the work from both debut and established poets, but fewer opportunities to look at the work by poets who are experienced but still maturing and growing. It feels fitting to grow as a poetry reader by reading an interview with a poet who has an established style and approach, but who is still growing too.

This is why I am thrilled that Joan Naviyuk Kane is the inaugural poet in the series. With her careful attention to diction (poetry term for word choice!), and her incorporation of the Inupiaq language into her English poetry, she introduces readers to her native Alaskan heritage through the dynamic space of beautifully-wrought poems.

When I asked Joan about how she approaches difficult poems, she replied: “I look to poems for complexity. Not just a symptomatic complexity, but one that changes me from beginning to end of a poem’s utterance.” Her response helps us think about the relationship between difficulty and complexity, and reminds us that many simpler things are brought together to make a complex, and that those simpler things are changed merely by being put in contact with one another. When thinking about the way English and Inupiaq are braided together in her work, it feels right to think of the power, and complexity, that comes from the combination. Her response, as well as her poetry, teaches us to embrace complexity and difficulty in poetry, and hope we can be changed because of that encounter.