Interview with Kendra Mills, student at the Credo School of Arts, Letters & Sciences. January 2013.
KM: How has poetry affected you personally and professionally? (How does it relate to who you are/what you do?)
JT: Poetry has taught me to value time, love, solitude, other poets, and the natural world. In a way, poetry brought me to this island. I don’t know if I could live here if I weren’t a poet and a writer. Poetry leads me far from the maddening crowd and yet it also constantly demands that I consider it, those worlds that exist apart and away from my small one. I suppose it has also led me away from money-making (not that I was exactly destined for Wall Street) and certain comforts in life, but I’m very happy here—working at a library, living on an island, riding a bicycle; it’s a poet’s life.
KM: Who are the poets (or what is the poetic movement) that have/has influenced your poetry?
JT: I can’t think of one particular school of poetry that has influenced my work especially, but I have been very much influenced by poetry in translation. While they are not a school or a movement, these disparate poets, eclectic in subject matter, diverse in style, constitute a group of sorts, albeit a vast, meandering one. What they share, from my vantage point, is that their viewpoints are wildly different from my own and from so many of the contemporary American poets with whom I’m familiar. They share too, regardless of national origin, language, or culture, the power to transmit messages across centuries, continents, borders, and oceans. Despite time, despite distance and circumstance, they have all reached me.
Anna Ahkmatova, Ingeborg Bachmann, Bashō, Paul Celan, Gunnar Ekelöf, Vladimír Holan, Li Po, Osip Mandelstam, Czeslaw Milosz, Ovid, Rainier Maria Rilke, Eleni Vakalo, Maria Tsvetaeva et cetera.
There are plenty of American poets who have influenced me as well: Michael Burkard, Robert Hayden, Fanny Howe, Li-Young Lee, Carl Phillips, Mary Ruefle, W.S Merwin, Jean Valentine to name a few.
I also read a lot of poetry by my peers; they influence my work as well. Some favorites: Hadara Bar-Nadav, Monica Ferrell, Katie Ford, Sarah Gambito, Regan Good, Kathy Garlick, Suji Kwock Kim, Paul Legault, G.E. Patterson, Vera Pavlova, Dan Beachy-Quick, Srikanth Reddy, Brian Teare, Alissa Valles, Ocean Vuong, Jane Wong, Jason Zuzga…
KM: What’s the first poem you remember reading?
JT: I honestly don’t remember that. I remember my first book of poems. One day, my mother brought my sister and me to Leon’s, the used bookstore in our hometown, and told us we could each pick any book we wanted. Being the library people that we were, this was a highly unusual occasion. What bliss! I chose Robert Frost’s very thick and sophisticated-looking (to my child’s eye) Collected Poems. It had a beautiful, glossy picture of light-dappled trees on the cover. I associate the line “Whose woods these are I think I know…” with that experience. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was certainly one of the earliest poems I pored over, if not the first poem I read.
KM: What’s your overall opinion on the purpose of poetry and its relationship to human consciousness?
JT: A friend of mine once said that the best love poems are also love poems to God. I always liked that. I expand that to include all poems. The best poems are poems to God, poems that lead to God, poems that commune with God.
KM: How does your poetry (your own and others) relate to your consciousness?
My poetry is closely aligned with, if not one with, the larger I of me, the I that observes the small i of me living my life. It’s the one who knows and stands by and watches over things. Perhaps when I read poetry of others, their I stands in for my own, joins with my own.
KM: Have you ever observed a relationship between your personal evolution and the evolution of your work?
JT: My first book The Man With My Face deals very much with issues of language, immigration, and culture. My new book Red Flower, White Flower, while certainly preoccupied with death, addresses a much wider range of topics. The lens through which I see the world has widened over time. I try to see more of the world than I once did and, more and more, I venture to write about the unseen.
KM: What is important to you about the history of poetry?
JT: As someone prone to doubting, on occasion, the entire enterprise of poetry, I take comfort in the fact that poetry has a history. If Li Po wrote poems while drinking wine, if Bashō wrote poems in a hut his students built for him, if Ilona Karmel wrote poems at Buchenwald, if Marina Tsvetaeva wrote poems despite threats on her life and the lives of those close to her, if Emily Dickinson wrote poems in her bedroom wearing a white nightgown with a pencil pocket sewn in, if anonymous women in Nyasa wrote poems that became traditional songs of their country, if anonymous detainees wrote poems on the walls of their detention center on Angel Island, then surely poetry is a great river that has been flowing for centuries and will continue to flow after I’m dead. And perhaps when one writes a poem one steps into the river, bathes in it, swims in it, drinks from it, changes, like a grain of sugar or salt, the taste of it, becomes like a drop of water oneself, a small part of that great, rushing whole.
KM: How has your poetry changed throughout your life?
JT: If you look at the first poem I remember writing, circa sixth grade, not much has changed:
The brook in the woods
Sheltering it lovingly
The hands of the trees.
After all these years, I’m still the brook, the little trickle trying to move through, find my way, be a part of the greater world. Poetry is the forest: ancient, complex, mysterious, surrounding all. And yet it’s simple too: a place to hide, a place to rest, a place to live.
KM: Can you relate poetry to your consciousness or to turning points in your life?
JT: My first book The Man With My Face, though written over a period of fifteen years, was written upon the occasion of my leaving home. It works to integrate the individual poet and family into the greater world. Red Flower, White Flower, written over a period of three or four years, was written upon the double occasion of my father’s death and my daughter’s birth. The poems are at once entrenched in their earthly existence and reaching beyond the physical world for meaning.
KM: Who is your favorite poet and why?
JT: It’s always tempting to avoid the favorite poet question because it is impossible to answer. And yet there’s a way in which the question is irresistible. One feels compelled to announce such beloved names to others. To make it easier (not easy but easier) for myself I’ll limit answer to living poets and say that my favorite living poet is Jean Valentine.
I was slow to enter Jean’s poetry. If it weren’t for my friend Kathy Garlick—-also a beloved poet-—introducing me to Jean’s poems and then gently urging me to keep reading whenever my attention faltered, I might never have entered her work fully. I can no longer imagine what it was like to be a person moving through the world without the poems of Jean Valentine. Her poems are shattering in the best sense of the word. They transform vision and feeling, they restore meaning, they dream, they intuit, they search, they struggle, they believe. Jean’s poems are like the most mysterious, endlessly interesting, and yet weirdly reliable friends; I turn to them constantly for guidance and company, hope and love.
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