Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s get to know Robin Becker.
What are you reading?
Right now I’m reading The Goshawk by T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, a novel I loved as an adolescent. In this novel, the narrator writes about trying to train a hawk, and readers see the struggle for “mastery” in which bird and human engage. White writes frankly about failure and disappointment.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to read poetry?
I discovered poetry in junior high, when my teacher, Miss Bickley, read William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” aloud to our class. Though I didn’t understand the long and complex sentences, the rhythms and rhymes captivated me. Later, we read some Milton and Shakespeare, and I recall loving the sounds without necessarily knowing the subjects or themes.
What is the role of poetry in the twenty-first century?
Like all the arts (dancing, film-making, painting), poetry can mean many things, do many things, serve many purposes. Art–in all of its forms–works against the machinery of bureaucracy. It opens up a space for creativity. For example, the human impulse to “make something” in the face of personal and social loss exists alongside the desire to celebrate and memorialize. Thus, the “role” of poetry may have personal as well as larger social aims.
Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
Years ago, I accepted an invitation to give a poetry reading at a conservative Christian college in rural Georgia. I read in a chapel filled with students who had purchased and read one of my books. At the Q & A after the reading, students asked me the following: “Why do you write about being Jewish?” “Do your parents know that you’re a lesbian?” Answering these questions with thought and respect for my audience showed me what good teaching can do. I believe that we all (students, faculty, visiting poet) came away from the experience changed.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
When I was in graduate school at Boston University, I wrote a poem about being in love with another woman. Because I feared my classmates’s reactions, I deleted all the pronouns. In 1973, I had not yet come out, and my poems reflected my timidity.
How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” the poem?
As I said earlier, poetry can do many things and serve different purposes. Some poets may value the music of the line and fill their stanzas with subtle sounds. A reader might appreciate the poem without knowing that the poet has worked hard to embed meaningful music there. Some poets want to tell a story and want readers to “get” the story. Other poets enjoy using unfamiliar or arcane language, requiring readers to look up definitions or names or places or historical information. Readers, over time, learn about their own tastes, and over time those tastes may change. Some may enjoy “digging” into the unfamiliar. Others may prefer more accessible poems. Reading is an “active” process which our lived experiences continue to shape.
Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Robin Becker has published five books in the Pitt Poetry Series including, Giacometti’s Dog, All-American Girl, The Horse Fair, Domain of Perfect Affection, and, most recently, Tiger Heron (2014). Recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Institute at Harvard, Becker writes the poetry column “Field Notes” for the Women’s Review of Books where she serves as Contributing and Poetry Editor. In 2000, she won the Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching from Penn State, and during the 2010-2011 academic year, she served as the Penn State Laureate. Becker’s recent book reviews and poems appear in The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.
Stay updated on the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival as information becomes available!