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The Scarlet & Black

Bruce whiteman gives reading, speaks to practice in poetry

Poet, translator and Grinnell, IA resident, Bruce Whiteman is the former head of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA and author of “Visible Stars: New and Selected Poems” and “The Invisible World is in Decline”—an ongoing long-form poem.

What do you write about?
Well, I’m writing two books. One, I’ve been writing for a very long time. It’s the one called “The Invisible World is in Decline,” which is a multi-book poem in prose that’s pretty philosophical. And the second book that’s called “Tablature”. Tablature is an old word that refers to a certain type of musical scoring, particularly in Jacobean and Elizabethan music. Which didn’t so much use musical notes, as language. So, I think of poetry as scoring of language. This book is poems in traditional lines. They’re focused on the present world around me, and they’re also kind of focused on the relationship between music and language.

What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?
I guess I’d say a couple of things. Definitely read, read, read. I think a lot of poets think that you don’t need to be that familiar with poetry in order to be a poet—that somehow it’s sort of this form of self-expression. I think that’s misguided. I think you really do need to train your ear by reading a lot of other poetry. And to … kind of have a storehouse in your brain of what’s been done before, before you actually commit yourself to actually making additions to it. So, I think reading is really important. And then, working hard at it in the sense that … I think every poet has a different practice as far as revision and rewriting and that sort of thing goes. But I think really writing something, putting it away, bringing it back out, rethinking it, and making sure everything is working out the way you want it to is good, rather than just letting it go as soon as the inspiration of the moment comes off.

Right. I imagine that’s hard.
It is. I mean, everybody’s different in this respect. And I’m, sort of for the first time in my life now, on a schedule … which I never thought was really meant to be for a poet. Which is to say, I have three hours a day, every day, when I’m supposed to be writing. It’s like scheduling a muse to visit when you want her to come. I used to think that you can’t do that. You just have to sort of be ready whenever the muse comes, and then you go and write. But actually, it’s working. And it’s working because of a certain kind of determination. And it’s not planning. There’s nothing for me that’s planned. I don’t sit down with an idea of what I’m going to do. I just sit down and wait for whatever it is to come. Sometimes three hours come and go and there’s no mark on the page. Sometimes there is. You have to sort of be ready for that, too. In my case, the music and the sound of the language is very important. I have some musical training, which I think helps. I mean, not all poets have to have musical training, but I think you have to be able to listen and really work on developing your ear. And that comes a lot of the time from reading other people’s work. Reading it out loud, I think is always good, rather than silent reading.

Do you think poetry is meant to be read out loud?
I think on a whole, it is. There’s probably some poetry that isn’t, but mostly, yeah. I mean, silent reading is a relatively recent practice in the world. I mean “recent” as in early modern 17th-18th century. I don’t mean last week. People always used to read out loud to each other, or they would have people read to them. And, I think that really helped with developing readers’ ears as well as writers’ ears. Even though that practice has kind of gone away on the whole, I think it’s good for poetry to be read out loud because it’s not like prose. It’s very dependent on its effect as the music of language. You hear that better when you hear it in the air, rather than in your mind.

Do you ever get so frustrated with writing sometimes that you just want to go back to being a librarian?
No. I—yes and no. Yes, I get frustrated with writing sometimes. It doesn’t usually lead me to think that I want to go back to being a librarian. The frustration is that every time you sit in front of the writing desk, it’s like you’re doing it for the first time. It’s scary in that sense. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. Every time I finish a poem, I think: what if this is the last one? What if no more occur? It’s a feeling which you would expect would go away after … well, it’s been many years. And it hasn’t, really. It’s always kind of difficult and slightly frightening to think that, well, that poem is drafted, or finished, or whatever, but what if no more come?

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