Stir the Mind, Ground a Body

Our editor-in-chief, Rebecca Starks, recently spoke with our inaugural featured poet, David Biespiel. Here’s what he had to say about his work, the process of writing poetry, and his creative inspirations.


What inspired you to write this set of poems? 

The first three have some connection to each other in their composition. They aren’t a series, but they’re all concerned with psychic spaces. The fourth one, “Mayflower Compact,” is one of a body of poems I’ve been writing off and on in response to important American documents, such as the Mayflower Compact, the Constitution of the United States, MLK, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, Lincoln’s second inaugural, that kind of thing.


What do you hope people take away from these poems?

I hope someone finds one of them memorable.


What are you working on now?

Three things. I’m completing a book of prose about poetry, A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns, that will be published next spring. I’m writing a new book of poems. And I’m revising a series of essays I published in installments on The Rumpus this last spring and summer, which I half-hope, half-expect, will become a book in the near future, too.


What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

Something Stanley Plumly once said, “The language of the poem must be in sync with the language of the experience.”


Could you describe your writing process? Do you write with a collection in mind?

It varies from book to book. I described what was my process for many years in the book, Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces. In that period, I was building poems up from language into narrative almost from a molecular level. Instead of taking a slab of marble and chiseling it into a figure, I would start with scatterings of marble pieces and recombine them into a new slab.

The manuscript of poems I’ve been writing over the last few months has begun with a great deal of research and reading and also is ekphrastic. I’m not sure what this manuscript will be or if it will remain viable, so I couldn’t begin to assess or characterize my process. At this stage, I’m just writing. The poem at the center of the manuscript is, right now, over a 100 pages. So, I fear, simply writing and writing and writing is my process. When it comes to the prose and criticism, often I’m trying to answer a question. For the series I wrote for The Rumpus, “The Poet’s Journey,” I was trying to answer the question implicit in that title, what is the journey of the poet from modernity into the imagination and back again? It’s a 30,000 word answer, I’m sorry to say. I hope no one gets a headache reading it all.


What is the first poem you remember writing? 

The first poem I remember writing was a fairly direct imitation of something, I don’t remember which part, of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I imitated the anaphoric pattern. I must have been about 21 or 22 when I did that.


Your first poem, “Morning Prayer,” talks about God but not in a conventional way—as if God were the limit of a person, something to be overheard in another person. Could you talk a little about this, about what draws you to put God in a poem, and in this way?   

I don’t have a systematic world view of the divine. Nor do I have a clairvoyant one either. I do sense, in this poem, that the divine is within the scale of human experience. I can’t say that I was thinking of the lares of ancient Rome that protected the domestic and psychic domain of individuals when I wrote this poem, but I can see that the figure and figures of God in the poem resemble them.


You’ve edited two anthologies of regional poetry—Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poetry and most recently: Poems of the American South. You’ve spent long stretches of time in both places, and divide your time now. At the same time, your last book of poems, Charming Gardeners, was a book of poems written as letters from particular spots across the country, and sometimes in mid-flight. How would you describe your interest in and relationship to region, in relation to poetry? 

My relationship to place is complicated. In the Northwest anthology I began the introduction by stating that there is no such thing as regional poetry. In the Southern poetry anthology I state that poetry is more than pins on a map. There’s something like ten years or more between my editing of one and editing the other, and it appears my lack of enthusiasm for regionalism in art hasn’t changed much. I also feel that place can stimulate the imagination, stir the mind, ground a body in a sense of self-knowledge and psychic exploration. But any place will do. This is a debatable point, I know. I’m not putting it on my tombstone. But I would put that my relationship to place is complicated on my tombstone.


You’ve written a set of essays, recently, called “The Poet’s Journey“: about going back to the source of what makes a poet write, and how a poet can stay true to that calling. What made you want to write this now? 

I think I wanted to follow the idea of what it means to depart modernity, enter your imagination, explore the opportunities and obstacles there, and then return to modernity with an artifact like a poem in a systematic way. The Rumpus has been generous to allow me months to write this essay and publish it 13 installments, and now I’m rewriting it for a possible book. And, I feel I wanted to talk to poets about that process.


David Biespiel is the author or editor of ten books, including recent books of poetry Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women; Poems of the American South, published in the Everyman’s Library series; and the forthcoming collection of prose, A Long High Whistle: Reflections on Poetry

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