Voracious reader, prolific author, mother, teacher and community activist, SKD has a new book of poems titled, The Fortunate Islands. I spoke with her about the craft of poetry…
FG: Your titles have always been intriguing to me -- The Fortunate Islands, Feather's Hand, To a Small Moth, Cassiopeia Above The Banyan Tree and an upcoming collection, Ghostfire. What does it take to find a good title for a collection or a poem? Do you find a title before a poem is developed? After it? What should the title do for a poem or collection?
SKD: I’ve never considered myself an especially good title writer, but I believe a good title should be a seed that somehow contains within it the pattern of the whole—the way a tupelo or a flowering plum tree is contained inside its seed.
That said, titles arrive differently to me—some before, some after, some in between. In the case of The Fortunate Islands, the title and the shape of the book appeared suddenly in my mind—the sections, etcetera—and though poems shifted around during the editorial process, the basic shape remained the same.
Feather’s Hand was an attempt to honor Feather Dundee, who created the original collage I used as the cover art; it was also an attempt to frame the main theme of the chapbook. For Cassiopeia Above the Banyan Tree—the title (and the poem called “Night in Manoa Valley”) for me captures some of the mystery of my childhood in Hawaii. One thing that was very present on an island in the middle of the Pacific in those days: the amazing web-work of the stars at night. The title also alludes to myth and myth-making, which I hope is alive and well in that collection.
Often I’ll say to students, cut the first stanza – in a draft, use part of it as a title. As a lesson in writing titles, I recite this poem to my students:
“She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;She saw the berries, paused and sampled themWhere a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.”
(Dewitt recites the complete poem)
What do you think the title of that is?
Don’t put me on the spot. I ask the questions!
That’s what my students say. The title is “My Grandmother’s Ghost”. – then we go through it again and the students see what work the title does for the poem. The poem is by James Wright, by the way.
You’ve written so much about nature, not necessarily nature poems, but it is all woven in – even the stars and constellations…
I do think that being a little girl in Hawaii, maybe that’s where it started—Plants had more presence than people!. I’ve been a Master Gardener, I’m an amateur naturalist. I love looking at things under microscopes and magnifying lenses and I think the life of the bug represents the cosmic questions. Why are we here? What does it all mean—brevity, struggle, beauty, in condensed form.
What are you trying to teach when you teach poetry?
I think I’m operating out of the assumption: words matter. I believe in the art – but how do you do the craft of it. I’ve read thousands and thousands and thousands of pages on craft, as well as letters and biographies of poets.
I like to think of once when I took a painting class from Ann Gregory in the mid eighties – watercolors – she gave us secrets, short cuts – mixing colors; if you want this color you do this. She saved us so much time. Those of us who had the passion to keep painting, kept painting. If we’d tried to come up with these things ourselves, it would have taken forever. She was willing to give away trade secrets, and that’s how I feel about poetry.
If you have the passion, you’ll stick with it, but what I can do as a teacher is show you the secrets to make it better.
Are those the same short cuts we use for poetry?
Gregory told us: You’ve lived. You have ideas and feelings. Your painting will reflect that. Keep working on the craft—developing your skill.
So I say, if you’ve lived, you can write, and only you can write what you write. You as an individual are the prototype – you’re making this for the first time. That’s scary because you’re out there, forging your way. But I can help people form concrete images, how to surprise -- I can teach poets how to surprise themselves, how poetic devices work, give them good things to read that will inspire them. That’s what I see my job as.
What do you recommend reading for the aspiring poet?
A short list?
Oh brother. Oh boy.
Where would you begin?
The history of the art. Certainly, American poets, English and Irish poets. Then twentieth century poets. The Chinese poets. Just like any other art, you need to know what the context is -- for your moment in history. Obviously -- Whitman, Dickenson, Yeats, Stevens, Bishop. Akhmatova, Rilke, Neruda, More contemporary poets like Wright (both Wrights), Oliver, Levertov (who I subsequently studied with at Stanford) Kenyon, Kinnell, Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Hillman, McPherson, Hass.
How do you stimulate the power of the word, I mean, we’re the prototype…but where do you go from there? Writing assignments?
I do give a lot of writing assignments, and I do believe in the power of the word.
That sounds spiritual.
Well, I mean, I hope passion for the word communicates itself when I teach. I believe that words change things because they change people, sometimes in small ways, invisibly, and sometimes in ways that we can see and point to.
In this country we’re lucky, but in a lot of countries they kill poets – and they don’t kill them because they’re not powerful.
I’ve noticed references to ghosts and hummingbirds in your poems –
I didn’t realize they were so prevalent until I read those reviews (laughter). I wasn’t thinking about it. I don’t know.
Do you remember any discussions of ghosts or apparitions?
Well, growing up in Hawaii, there was a lot of mysticism …my mother was raised Catholic – at one point I went to Catholic school and Unitarian Sunday School at the same time—I was five, so that must have created some spiritual angst! And spirituality, the spirit world is so very much a part of Catholicism. I was an ardent young mystic. My confirmation name is Joan (of Arc). So I was very caught up in all of that growing up. I read a lot of theology, a lot spiritual tracts as a young person—Underhill’s books, Meister Eckhart, Swedenborg, Blavatsky, (I pretty thoroughly investigated theosophy)—Suzuki, Kapleau—people like that. Thomas Merton has been very important to me, as both a spiritual thinker and as a poet. That’s off the top of my head--
The poem, “Whiskey Nights”—I really did see that and whether it was a trick of my mind, or something else, I don’t pretend to know what it really means. I think a ghost may be a way of ….something. Who knows what our minds are capable of—we use such a small part of our brains. Today, I see myself attached to the natural world and the things around me.
Have you ever used the technique of denying yourself the use of one or more of your senses to develop a poem? Are there any tricks like this that you’ve used?
Over the years, many things like that – but I don’t really resort to them often now – I would like to live three more lifetimes. If I don’t have an idea on a day I write, well…this morning I was reading a book and I wrote two different poems. So reading brought to mind several ideas. I put it through a few drafts, I continued reading the book and I came up with another idea and went and wrote it down.
Later I was reading something about Mississippi and it triggered ideas about my memories of Hawaii—
I want to get back to ghosts and hummingbirds, we covered the ghosts, but what about the hummingbirds?
Well, it’s such a beautiful creature. They’re fierce and interesting. Their flight pattern…
Do you think analyzing makes you less productive?
I think it’s dangerous to analyze your own poetry. Just do it. Try to get better at it. I think you can get caught up in the analysis and not write the poem.
I don’t see my job as analyzing my own poems. It is to get down as much as I can of the world before I die.
There’s a good bit of dread and fear in this book of poems [The Fortunate Islands], very beautiful, very colorful – but is looking at your own death part of your source?
I think most poets are out to beat time. We don’t like to buy chrysanthemums, put them in a vase and watch them die. We hate the idea that whatever lives will vanish, perhaps through suffering.
I know that I’ve outlived most of the populations in history, so I know how lucky I am. I hope that when I do die, I’m ready for it, but I dread the deaths of those I love.
And there’s something in these poems that goes beyond our life here on earth…
I love reading Chinese poets because they’re so alive, so present in their words. Poetry is such a connection across time. I like to think that something I’ve written is something someone walking down a street years from now can—will—call to mind.
Your relationship with your father is at the center of much of your work. Is writing about difficult experiences a different process? More stressful or liberating?
I won’t talk much about my father here, but I will say that certain poems have been very difficult to write. In general, some things are so close to the bone that it takes many years to gain enough distance. This has at least been true for me. However, when a poem that addresses one of these concerns or experiences does seem right, it is very liberating indeed.
“Bypass,” which is about my husband David’s bypass surgery a month after we were married in 1974, when he was twenty-nine, took me about twenty years to write. I made various attempts but they all failed. The final poem evolved from a much longer and more angst-ridden, poor-me/poor-us umpteenth version. I stuck with it though, and I have been glad to learn that the poem is useful to others.
You've won a prestigious prize or two, and have had some lovely publications produced. What advice can you give to poets struggling to get their words noticed, either in print, academia, or otherwise?
My advice to poets is: don’t depend on prizes! If you win one, rejoice—dance around! Hurray! — Then get back to work. The next judge probably won’t like what you’ve written anyway. Dennis Schmitz once said to me of prizes and publication, “Put your nickel in the slot machine!”
You do need to keep putting the nickels in though—rejections today, an acceptance next month, another rejection. That’s just how it works for most of us most of the time. Hang in there. Find ways to keep yourself alive as a writer. Try not to lose heart.
I am very grateful to the presses and the people—to Carol and Laverne Frith especially, who took a chance and published my first chapbook, A Camellia for Judy—to Sandy McPherson, David Humphreys, Kathy Keith, to my daughter Jennifer who designed, printed and bound The Book of Insects by hand; by publishing these small collections they literally kept me alive. I had a gag in my mouth and they took it out and allowed me to breathe, to speak, to sing. If that sounds dramatic, good!—it was. And they all did it selflessly, for the art, and to encourage the poet and the poetry.
I feel that a prize, if it is honestly awarded for the work, is a little vote of confidence in the work—that others have found it speaks to or for them, and is thus somehow worth reading and maybe even rereading. It’s also a vote of confidence in the work to come—in the potential of the poet and the poetry.
If there’s money attached, that means a little more guilt—or worry-free time to concentrate—also pretty nice.
You're so prolific, I wonder if you're writing while doing errands – is that the case?
Elizabeth Bishop said that poets should be writing poems in their heads all the time, even if these poems never make it onto paper.
I think most poets are always “cooking” things subliminally, though what eventually arrives on paper might end up in the paper-mountain “draft” pile.
If I am out and about (or if I wake in the night) and start to get an image or a line in my head, I begin working it there, until it feels taut—until it has some muscle, some shape, some music—and then I push that as far… for as many lines as it will go, reworking and repeating it to myself until I have it memorized. I memorize as much as I’ve composed, and when I can, I write it down. I revise from there.
Also, I do read a lot of poetry. I find it very hard to read without wanting to write—responding with some lines of my own, a kind of conversation. That’s why I always tell students to just read, read, read if they want to write.