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‘Where Poetry Flourishes’: Book Launch Celebrates Smith Poetry Interviews

News of Note

Cover of  Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews book

Published April 13, 2015

Between 2009 and 2013, with the support of the Poetry Center at Smith, Northampton writer and teacher Christian McEwen conducted 35 hour-long conversations with visiting poets on campus.

In her new book, Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews, McEwen offers a collection of excerpts from 16 of her interviews, giving readers an inside look at the lives and works of established poets such as W.S. Merwin and Maxine Kumin, as well as newcomers such as brothers Matthew and Michael Dickman.

“Each poet has a private tale to tell,” McEwen writes in the introduction to the book. “And yet it is also possible to braid those tales together and to read them as a kind of composite biography centered on poetry itself.”

McEwen, author of several books and the poetry collection In the Wake of Home, will be at Smith’s Poetry Center for the launch of Sparks from the Anvil on Thursday, April 16, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

A dozen of McEwen’s interviews with poets at Smith have been aired on WMUA’s “Poetry à la Carte” show hosted by Daisy Mathias. Transcripts will eventually be housed in the Smith College Archives, and the Poetry Center plans to continue a version of McEwen’s project with faculty members conducting interviews.

Here are some thoughts McEwen shared about her book.

How did you select the poets you include in your book?

McEwen: “The full set of audio interviews were done with poets who were invited by the Poetry Center. For the book, the selection was very politic. I wanted a mixture of Caucasian, African American, men and women, gay and straight, and different backgrounds. And I wanted enough well known names to carry it forward, while including enough younger poets who might not be as well known but whose work I loved.

What was your process for creating the book?

McEwen: “I’m a fairly good natural editor, so it flowed quite easily once I had the transcriptions to figure out what to keep and what not to keep. The lengthier process came in having conversations back and forth with the poets. I would send them the unedited transcript as soon as I had it, and then I would edit it and give them a chance to change, add or elaborate on things.”

That must have been a lot of work.

McEwen: “Prior to each interview, I tried to read almost everything the poet wrote, which informed my ability to ask pointed questions. The poets were sometimes quite surprised that I read them so diligently, and that opened them up. They responded with great grace and generosity. The interviews all had this quality of delight. There was a sense that we had been on this adventure together and gone to places where the poet was really pleased to have gone in the naming of his or her interior territory.”

Do poets often get such opportunities?

McEwen: “The Association of Writers & Writing Programs does lengthy interviews in The Writer’s Chronicle, but for the most part, poets don’t get this chance. Interviews tend to be, ‘You’ve got a new book, tell me all about it,’ rather than ‘How did you come to be the person you are? Who have your inspirations been, and whose works do you admire?’

What stands out to you about your interviews?

McEwen: “One of the things that struck me was that the fame of the person, the sweetness of the interview subject and their skill as a poet were not always in alignment. You could get somebody who was really famous and who didn’t have great skill as an interview subject, and you could have somebody who was not very famous but who was utterly lucid. It was just humanly a fascinating business, sitting down at this level of intimacy with these interesting, rich, brave minds.”

Were there any commonalities that surfaced beyond their love of poetry?

McEwen: “I was working on my book World Enough and Time when I began these interviews, so one of the recurring themes is about slowing down and finding time. Again and again, people would talk with great gratitude, passion and tenderness about their friends, both the teachers they had as young writers and the cadre of fellow poets with whom they moved through time. Almost every poet I spoke with was nested in a friendship network, which was part of what allowed them to do their work.”

What was it like collaborating with Smith’s Poetry Center?

McEwen: “Big-name people like W.S. Merwin would come and say, ‘I’m so happy to be back at Smith. This is a place where poetry flourishes.’”

What do you think this book might offer to readers who say they don’t “get” poetry?

McEwen: “You’re listening to a poet not as a verbal king or queen but as a regular human being just talking, and in some cases people are very open about themselves. It shows that they’re regular folks and that they’re not regular folks—they become both more ordinary and more extraordinary.”

What are your hopes for Sparks from the Anvil?

McEwen: “My hope is that it will be picked up by college English teachers and readers of contemporary poetry, not just the general reader or the general aspiring poet, but also the young student studying poetry. If it gets picked up as a textbook, how marvelous!”