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Interview with Michael White, February 19, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Michael White, February 19, 2008
February 19, 2008
Dr. Michael White, professor of Creative Writing at UNCW, is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: The Island, Palma Cathedral, and Re-Entry. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment of the Arts, and his poems have appeared in numerous journals including the New Republic, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares.
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Interviewee: White, Michael Interviewer: Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview: 2/19/2008 Series: SENC Writers Length 58 minutes

Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues. Today is Tuesday, February 19th, 2008. I'm at the Randall Library with award-winning poet, Michael White. Michael is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Island in 1993, Palma Cathedral in 1998 and the more recent Re-Entry in 2006 for which he won the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry Series. Michael has won the American Poets Prize three times in Utah, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, and is a recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including the New Republic, the Paris Review, Ploughshares and The Best American Poetry. Michael is also a Professor of Creative Writing here at UNCW. Welcome, Michael.

Michael White: Thanks.

Rodrigues: I'm gonna start with a poem that I read of yours recently, your poem The Thicket. It seems highly personal and I was wondering as I read it what role does personal experience play in your poetry?

Michael White: Well, I think that for me, any sort of art has got to be personal before it can be anything else. You know, I think you start with feelings and what becomes beautiful is that struggle to articulate those feelings, you know, try to think. I think the poem is for me not an object, but a process by which we understand, you know, our time here on earth. And so that's what I am trying to do in longer poems like that. I'm actually trying to hear myself think and I'm trying to figure out what has happened to me. I'm trying to come to whatever realizations I can come to, you know? And I'm trying to do that in an as full and convincing and engaging way as I possibly can given my own particular resources in life, such as they may be. And so The Thicket is a poem that, you know, is kind of a depressed poem. It's a midlife crisis poem which explores the aftermath of a divorce that I went through, but it tries to do that in as luminous and engaging and kind of elegiac way is I'm capable of, you know, knowing that this is a very common experience with people, that it's more or less universal in our culture and that by being personal, by exploring these sorts of things, you know, I'm doing some work on behalf of the culture at large, you know? Not that I see myself in some grandiose way like that. I don't at all. I'm just trying to make sense to myself. But, you know, once again, that's the only way that I have any hope of an audience, you know? So yeah, I mean I think all of my poems are personal. All my poems are personal. None of them are really about the art and none of them really are about even- I mean it's not about the awards, it's not about anything other than the fact that I am a human being who has had these experiences and some of these experiences have stayed with me and then I've ruminated on them and that I would like to think that people have these experiences and that some of them stick with them for a reason. I'd like to think that there is value in memory, that the imagination itself is a capable thing, you know, that we can accomplish certain recoveries. And, you know, I see the role of art primarily, then I explore these issues, I explore this landscape, and I would like to think that a reader then is touched and moved and moved toward understanding, you know, through engaging with my writing.

Rodrigues: I think that's one of the other things that struck me about "The Thicket" and another one of your poems that I read, "My Bicentennial Year," was how accessible your poetry seems to be. I've been reading a little bit of poetry and there are some poems that I read and I find them to be completely beyond my realm of understanding. What is your opinion on accessible poetry versus poetry that may not be so easily accessed by a reader and is it always a conscious choice then? And it seems to be that you make your poems accessible to a wide audience.

Michael White: Well, it seems- well okay, first of all, poetry is not an art that enjoys a wide audience, you know? I mean sure, I would love to be appreciated by a whole lot of people, but that's almost too much to hope for these days. And so I'm hoping more of a one on one kind of thing. You know, that would be the ideal; that I can connect in some significant way with just some other imagined reader sitting on a bus or, you know, going through something and looking for, you know, a companion in that. But I would also say though that some of I think the best poetry ever written or the best art ever made works on a number of levels, you know? And I mean Shakespeare was an incredibly accessible artist. You know, he was wildly popular. He was mobbed at- they would open the gates to the Globe Theatre, you know, on a weekend night and the mob would literally rush in, you know, shoving. It was like a stampede to get next to the stage. Now that's partly because they wanted to lean against the stage 'cause it's a long time to stand, you know, and listen to a play, but it's also because it was the best show in town. And even though he was about as immortal as any writer could ever be in our language, he was also working on a number of levels. The first- and probably I think, you know, for a major artist like that, the first level is that you would want someone to feel as if they don't need to have a specialized education to appreciate your work, you know? And, you know, I think maybe of someone like Robert Frost. There's an immediacy that would invite any reader regardless of whether they'd taken poetry classes or not, it would encourage them and make them feel somewhat confident that they can understand the work. And once entering, then maybe the work could stick with them for a while because the difficulty is not on the surface; the difficulty is with, you know, there's a certain time and it slowly kind of unfolds in the same way that a great Shakespeare play unfolds throughout one's entire lifetime of thinking about that. You know, you might see King Lear once when you're a kid and still be thinking about it at the end of your life, you know? That for me would be the ultimate goal. And I think that, you know, in my first book, there's still some poems in there that I really like, I enjoy reading, but, you know, I feel as if I was so much in love with the art, I was so much a kind of prototypical graduate student and my head was full of great work and so I was reflecting that in my work. I was reflecting a love for art. And since then, I've been I think just gradually cleaning- you know, just kind of pulling the register of the vocabulary, the diction, you know, just kind of linguistic complexity, I've been trying to pull it in a little bit. And I've fallen more and more in love with simplicity. Although you don't really- I mean I know that if you read one of my poems and you see these sentences that go on for eight lines or something, simplicity is probably not the first thing you think about, you know? But that is, you know? I am trying to reach for something that's a little more common, you know, a little more- not to say universal, but a little more shared and a little less private in its aesthetic range.

Rodrigues: I think we've covered some of this, but in general, what role do you think that poetry plays then in the expression of the human condition? Throughout the years, throughout the centuries and even presently, what role do you feel that poetry is playing in that expression?

Michael White: Well, poetry is an extraordinarily powerful art which has never had a really wide audience. But that doesn't mean that it isn't extraordinarily powerful. I think those things go together, the fact that it is very powerful, but also it's somewhat circumscribed in its appeal. Well, it's because there are kinds of music in a language that maybe some- part of it might be that there's an acquired taste. Part of it might be that there are associations with a very old art, you know, in the same way that we associate classical music with being something very old and beyond the scope of most, you know, normal people might feel the same way about poetry. Oh, that's one of those elitist arts that they teach in the academy, you know? And I think that that's part of the feeling about it. But in the same way, probably it's very difficult for me anyway to imagine any sort of music that encompasses more of the human condition than say, you know, a Beethoven symphony, you know? It's difficult for me to imagine language being more active than it is in a great poem by, you know, a romantic poet or someone like that or a classical epic or something. I mean that is language that is- it is as inclusive and comprehensive in its understanding about what we, humankind, have gone through and the price that we've paid for everything that we've achieved and, you know, the personal sacrifice and just the depths of feeling and, you know, every sort of emotion imaginable. It's in that work and it's in the music. It's in the image and the metaphor and those structures of language that are operating somewhat free, you know, of the apparatus that we might find more comforting in say a novel or a movie. These are older, you know, forms that have- I don't want to say deeper understanding, but a very proven and very highly evolved understanding of, you know, what sorts of meaning the sound of the words that we speak.

Rodrigues: You said that poetry is not widely read today, but then you also referenced back to Shakespeare time when Shakespeare was a celebrity, maybe equivalent to what we might imagine today Tom Cruise being. Why do you think that's happened to poetry and do you think there's anything that can be done to change that?

Michael White: I don't necessarily lament that. First of all, I mean Shakespeare's fame was as a dramatist, you know, and part of his genius was that he was not- he didn't have the same sort of mortal limitations that most artists have in which we can only excel in one form or another. He seemed to, you know, find greatness in just about everything he did in the same way that, you know, someone like, you know, Michelangelo or Rembrandt or Picasso, you know, took up many forms of art and would have left a lasting legacy regardless, you know? Shakespeare was that kind of genius. That is to say that if his reputation were riding solely on the sonnets, he probably would not have been a celebrity. It doesn't mean he would not- he would have still been an immortal canonized writer, but, you know, the drama was- that was the Hollywood of the day. That's why he was famous I think. As far as what we can do about it, you know, there are some pretty eloquent treatises about the situation of poetry. And I'm not so sure, you know? I'm not so sure that it's really a tragedy. You know, like I said, I think that finding a reader is the important thing. That's what we really want to do. We want to connect. And beyond that, as far as numbers, I don't necessarily see that that's- it's not that- I don't know, to me anyway, it's not that important. You might have the feeling well, if only everyone were forced to read poetry then it would bring so much light into the world. And I don't know, maybe that's true. But I'm all right with it, you know? As Milton said I think in Front Piece or something, I think one of the first editions of Paradise Lost, he'd talk about fit readers though few. In other words, his readers, you know, as long as there were- as long as he was really reaching someone who was truly interested in what he was writing, it didn't really matter to him if he didn't sell very many. In fact he didn't sell very many. I think there were twenty-five hundred copies sold of Paradise Lost during Milton's lifetime which is, you know, probably no greater accomplishment in poetry than that, you know? Most of us nowadays who write a book of poems, we understand what we're getting into when we do that. We know that it's gonna sell, you know, five hundred copies if we're lucky, if we get out there and really beat the bushes, you know? We might publish a book and sell out a current run in a year or two and go into reprint and we feel very fortunate then. Those goals are very modest compared to, you know, just about any other form of literature these days. And once again, you know, I think humility is probably pretty relevant here, you know?

Rodrigues: Let's talk about your collections. You've written three full-length collections of poetry: The Island in 1993, Palma Cathedral in 1998 and Re-Entry in 2006. And I should clarify that those are the dates of publication that I'm mentioning. Will you discuss with us the genesis of each collection as in-depth or as briefly as you like and the themes that tie them individually together?

Michael White: As I said, I think in my first book, I was just smitten by the art itself, my love of poetry. I'd been in graduate school and I was fortunate in graduate school that I had some really good courses in great poetry, you know, that were taught by people who were truly, truly passionate about great writers like Wordsworth or Keats or, you know, Stevens, etcetera. And it didn't just enlarge my sphere of reference as a writer, but it did something in my brain, you know? It kind of filled me with a sense of- it was a deeper kind of music that I began to feel, you know, that I began to hear. And that's what I try to express in The Island. Now some of those poems- I think the best poems in the collection were written through times of extreme personal difficulty when I found certain kinds of memories, certain kinds of awareness to be very comforting and I tried to capture those memories in some of the poems about childhood. And some of those poems still work for me. But, you know, a lot of that book, and I still continue to emphasize music and the fact that the voice that echoes in our mind, that there's- I guess it just is a revelation that we're trying to find. It's actually having a voice. It's actually having an awareness. It's actually having those memories alive. It's actually having a life, you know, that we carry with us. That is very important. And poetry is a way that you can take the most meaningful episodes, the most meaningful strains of music and put them on the page and see if it might make sense, see if you might be able to create something that pulls together and goes from here to there that might make some sense for a reader. That's what that book is about. And the second book, Palma Cathedral, was after my first wife had died of cancer and so the poems are kind of- some of the poems directly address that. There are also other poems which I think begin this process of stripping down the language and dealing kind of directly and bluntly with a more kind of- and some of those poems are sort of street poems, you know? They're poems about being- working my life as a bartender, you know, in a hotel bar or a pool hall or, you know, those kinds of things, or the long title poem of that collection is about my experience in the Navy, you know, and trying to construct some sort of cathedral of that, you know, trying to recover parts of my life and making something beautiful with that. As much sense as you can make of your life, as much beauty as you can make of it, it seems to me to be worth doing. And so that's what that book was about. And then Re-Entry, it was- how can I- as I said, I mean you talked about "The Thicket" and I told you it was a divorce poem and I think that some of the poems respond to that. There are poems of domestic bliss and there are poems of domestic sorrow. And it's maybe more of an older man's book in that those are the topics, that you know, that I'm working with there, more of a family-oriented book. But, you know, trying to- even though I'm still working with a lot of the same structures, the stanzas and there's a metrical- generally most of my poems have a kind of metrical quality to them that a lot of contemporary poets don't have. That's still there. It's something I still enjoy working with. Can I take a break?

Rodrigues: Yes.

(tape break)

Rodrigues: We're back with Michael White. Michael, you were just discussing your poetry collections and I was curious, how do poetry collections come about? Does the poet write a certain number of poems over the course of many years and when they feel they're ready, when they have enough do they then move forward with putting together a collection? Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

Michael White: Well, that seems to be the great mystery in poetry, at least judging from the frustrations and sort of extreme anxiety that my students seem to go through when they're putting their manuscripts together in their last year of the MFA. But I've never felt much anxiety about it. For me, there are times in my life when I write something that I know is kind of at least in my terms, in the terms of my accomplishment, it's kind of big, at least I feel it's kind of big and that it's maybe something new that I haven't done before. In any case, it's somewhat notable, you know, compared to my other poems. And my books tend to shape themselves around those accomplishments, something that I feel pretty strong about. And as I live with that work for a couple of years, I began to feel that poems, you know, kind of sort form themselves around those poems, but not only those poems which seem notable, but also the aesthetic discoveries that I've made or some new interest or some, you know, great moment of my life that I seem to be going through. I realize I can't have that again. I can only live through an experience like that once usually. And so it seems appropriate that I would group the poems according to some of those things. A lot of it's very intuitive though. It's not really a rational process. And I doubt if it is for most poets. They can talk about it later, but they can't talk about it very well when they're doing it because they don't really know what they're doing. They're just feeling their way through.

Rodrigues: You've won the American Poets Prize three times in Utah, the Colorado Prize for Poetry recently, the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry Series and you're a recipient of a fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. How important is it for a poet to have their work recognized in that manner and then also perhaps after we discuss that, we can talk about how important it is for poets to receive fellowships.

Michael White: Yeah. You know, as far as the awards that you read, there's a variety of kinds of awards. I don't even know if they- I think they still give the Academy of American Poets Prize, but that's an in-house graduate school kind of award and I put that on the back on my first book because it was the only thing I'd ever won. And so the fact that I won that three times at Utah, that seems to be kind of a lasting impression, although it's not a big deal outside of the world of graduate school at all, you know? But it's a big deal if you're a grad student, you know? My first year in grad school, you know, like I said, I was in the Navy and stuff and I was a bartender and I had no sense that I necessarily even belonged in the academy. I had a feeling that the other students in the program were much smarter and much more accomplished than I could ever possibly be. I wasn't sure that I would ever even publish a poem. And, you know, I saw these poets who were actually publishing their books and winning, you know, all kinds of tremendous acclaim. And it wasn't even so much envy that I felt, it was just awe and the feeling that, you know, I'm probably not gonna be such a great success. And then I won the Academy of American Poets Prize at the end of my first year and, you know, I think it was a hundred bucks or something. And I have to say, that was a huge deal. The Academy Poets Prize was a hundred dollars. And a few years later, I won the NEA Fellowship which is still twenty thousand dollars. It was twenty thousand dollars then. And that was very important. It helped me to live for a while. But winning that hundred dollar Academy of American Poets Prize was probably a much bigger deal because it validated the choice that I had made. So I took that hundred dollar check and I went downtown and bought me a pair of cowboy boots which I still have to this day, my first poetry money that I ever won. And I knew that I wanted to get something that I would keep so that I would remember that in fact, you know, I could maybe reach someone. It's not so much about being celebrated, it's about the fact that I'm capable of writing something that someone else might read and take something, you know? They might sort of see where I'm coming from. They might see what I'm going for and appreciate it. So that was a huge deal for me. And as I went on through my life and I did win some awards, you know, the book prizes are big because you publish a book and it doesn't really guarantee anything in terms of a readership, but, you know, that's what we want. We want to publish a book and it's good to get that validation. There have been times in my life when I was very poor and I wasn't sure how I was gonna support my work. But I have always found that any money that I received, it was more important to me as a kind of gesture from someone that I was doing something significant. It was more important in that way than it was as a monetary, you know, prize or gift.

Rodrigues: I'm just curious. You've spoken about making this individual connection with a reader and how that's really important for you to know that your work is maybe becoming personal to someone else as well and sharing your experience is helping them to share or to understand their own experience. Have you ever had a reader come up to you and share an experience after reading one of your poems and talking to you about how it affected their life and then if you could share that with us.

Michael White: I have and it's not always an easy thing. I was reading a poem at a conference not long ago, a poem from my third collection called Interim which recounts the death of my father. And it's a very simple poem, really kind of short lines, to the point, not much imagery, you know, fairly blunt poem about the death of a loved one. And there was a student in the room who had- she had gone through a similar experience and she left the room in tears as I was reading the poem. And I felt terrible. I felt like I had maybe offended her or something. And I heard later from a friend of hers that that wasn't the case, but that she said that I had, quote, "nailed it or something." And I hope that what she took with her as she left the room in tears was a sense that we were in it together and that she was moved because I understood and that her feelings were not going to just be forgotten or dismissed, that we could maybe have a conversation through the work. And so that's maybe a good, you know, impact that one's work might have. And at another reading a few years ago, I was reading from my second book. I was reading a poem called Pool Hall which is about being a bartender at a pool hall. And it's a poem that I don't read that much any more, kind of a lowlife poem, you know? And I wasn't sure how the reading went. And then a guy approached me afterward and he was just coming straight for me and he was all animated, you know, and excited. And I was thinking well, this is great, you know? He must really like my work. And he said, "Yeah, I got to talk to you about that Pool Hall poem. You know, I go to a place called Buck's down the street. Why don't you go to Buck's? It's just like in your poem, you know?" And I felt a little defeated at that point because it wasn't really- it isn't really about that, you know? I do want to connect with people as human beings and understand our emotional lives and not necessarily celebrate Buck's Pool Hall, not that there's anything wrong- I think it was called Buck's. I'm pretty sure it was Buck's. But I'm not pro Buck's Pool Hall. I'm more- you know, I'm hoping to reach people in a somewhat slightly more emotional or spiritual place.

Rodrigues: Poetry seems to be really popular among adolescents who experiment with the form, but typically seem to produce poems that rhyme but also are highly emotional poems I would think. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that poetry seems to appeal strongly to a young adult coming up?

Michael White: Well, I think that young people are more engaged in poetry because their lives are more private than ours. They are not- you know, they don't necessarily feel the hold into a community in the same way that a grownup does. And they might be lonely or they might be more sensitive, they might be more less confident, much less confident about themselves and the validity of their experience. And so a poem, a private art like poetry can mean something much more I think to a younger person. I think we kind of lose our sensitivity to someone else's private experience as we get older. We become really immune, you know? We can look at the TV and just kind of watch the catastrophes of the world unfold and we've learned to do that and not be affected. And as we do that, I think we do that as a defense mechanism, but as we do that becoming less responsive to the plight of another human being is not really a good thing. Young people haven't done that yet and so they're more open to the experience of the poem. They also I think have a heightened sensitivity to the music of a poem just as they have a heightened sensitivity to any kind of music. You know, their ears and eyes are sharper, you know, than mine for instance and they hear what you're doing in a poem. Of course they're interested in rhyme, you know? It's very delightful to them. I mean if you go to a playground, you're going to hear a million rhymes from the girls skipping rope or the boys playing Red Rover or something like that. It's a natural part of the way that we express ourselves. There's a tremendous amount of meaning in rhyme. And although I don't rhyme that much in my own poetry, I think it's central to the power of the poem and it would probably be good if that was an ability that we could keep, you know, as we develop as poets, but we don't.

Rodrigues: When did your own obsession or passion for poetry begin? Was it as a youth? Or was it?

Michael White: You know, it was a little late. I'm still not totally sure what I'm gonna be, you know? But, you know, there were times in my youth when I did really love poetry. And I remember having a Longfellow book. It was like a secret book, you know, that I kept and I revered. And I became interested in other kinds of writing and for a long time I thought I was gonna be a novelist. You know, I would fixate on certain writers like Faulkner as a high school student. I just thought that that was the ultimate. You know, the grand macho dream was to be like Faulkner or Hemingway or someone like that, later Nabokov. And so actually I started- even into graduate school I was still writing fiction and poetry and really enjoyed being a graduate student too and writing papers about literature of any sort, you know? And so I didn't zero in, you know, decisively, but it was somewhere in my mid twenties I started to zero in on poetry and I started to realize that I loved the focus on a shorter length, I loved just making each word count. I loved the challenge and I loved the sound of the words, I loved the beauty that was there.

Rodrigues: Let's talk about the differences and some of the terms in poetry. Could you explain the difference between a poet who is a formalist or an experimentalist and would you say that your writing falls into either category? And then maybe you could tell us how you feel about categories in general.

Michael White: Oh, I can tell you that first. You know, I think people are much too invested in their own view of things in general. It's partly 'cause it is such a private art and so we want our own style and our own way of thinking to be the right one. And the people that we know, we want their way of doing things to be the right way. And there's really so little at stake in poetry, you know, in terms of- you know, I mean, like I say, you might win a prize and it might mean something to you, but there's not much to fight over and yet there is animosity and there's, you know, entrenchment and a sense of us versus them between various factions. And it might be between a formalist or an experimentalist or more language-driven poetry or more, you know, confessional kind of poetry. And I think if you look at all the poetry that I've published, you'll see some things. You'll see that there's a lot of lyricism. This is something that a lot of the more experimental schools of poetry don't like. They don't like lyricism. In other words, they don't like a focus on songlike elements of the language. They don't like a sense that the music and the beauty can be a driving force it seems, although they probably would redefine that and say that well, you know, the word itself has its own beauty and music. And I'm sure they're right, but it's very simplistic when you start drawing those lines between schools of poetry. Most of the poets who are asked it seems to me can't really even make meaningful distinctions, you know? There are poets who seem very experimental in their outlook, say Robert Creeley, also extremely formalist in many ways. And he once told me that late in life he rediscovered the sonnet form and he said, "You know, this really appeals to me. I wish I had known this, you know, I think when I was young I would have loved to write sonnets if I hadn't been so busy trying to destroy them." You know, and that's really how it is for me. There are these- as I say, there are elements of my work that you would see that it's maybe a heightened sensitivity to rhythm which is not a formalist devotion. I don't feel like there are any points to be scored if you do something in some proper, traditional way. But on the other hand, there's a lot to be learned from the tradition. And in a way, I think my first take on it in The Island, that love of great poetry, you know, I think that's something that we ought to encourage in our students that often there's a sense that the more experimental or the more novel approach is the more exciting one and that's where the real work is. I don't really see it that way. I feel like the real work is important for that day, it's important because of who you are, it's important because of who your reader is. It isn't important because of the school of poetry or because of the fact that someone might not have done something stylistically like that because that's irrelevant whether it's been done stylistically like that or not. I don't really care, you know? I use what I use because it helps me express what I need to express. And I think that an experimentalist poet probably feels the same way, that they would probably feel limited if they took up some of my apparatus, you know? I find that my imagination works in a certain way and I find that by paying attention to the stresses of the language and by making that, you know, an organizing principle of the poem in the same way that a painter might take the canvass and think about how to organize the foreground, a middle ground and background and might use some elements of real perspective, you know, and not doing it so much for the accomplishment, for the object, for the school, but because this allows them to say something about being a human being and what it feels like to be a human being in time and space. That's why they do it and that's why I do it. And I have to go.

Rodrigues: Well, I want to thank you for your time today. This has been a great interview and we wish you all the best in the future.

Michael White: Thanks.

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