Welcome to our Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.
Today, we’re chatting with Gregory Orr!
Hey! What’s new with you?
After teaching at the University of Virginia for forty-four years and designing and setting up its MFA Program in Writing, I’m preparing to retire at the end of the spring 2019 semester. I just brought out a book with Norton—A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry—that I’m very happy about—in a way it let me sum up and close out all my long time as a teacher—what I learned as I did my best to persuade my students of what they already knew in their hearts—that lyric poetry is a great cultural and personal tool for discovering and expressing the dignity and miseries of being a person. Poetry saved me as a young person (first, the trying to write it; later, the learning to read it) and I hope my Primer (with its craft topics and writing exercises) can bring some of my excitement and insight to readers now that I am on the verge of retiring from face-to-face teaching. Also, I’ll bring out a new collection of poems in the spring of 2019. It’s called The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write. At the Festival, I’ll be performing a “concert” of poems and singing with the Parkington Sisters—it will be a mix of singing and reciting based on a long sequence of “beloved” poems that I’ve been writing, off and on, for the past fifteen years. I’m extremely excited about that. As someone who can’t sing the simplest tune, I’m in awe of the human voice when it’s skilled enough to explore all the nuances of melody and phrasing, so this event is really exciting to me. The poems in that sequence are incantatory and more “musical” than many I write, so I’m very very curious to see if they can be “lifted” right up into actual song.
(Editor’s note: You can see the world premiere poetry-and-song cycle The Beloved that Gregory mentions above on Saturday of the Festival. For more information, see the full program.)
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
I first discovered poetry through my high school librarian in the small upstate New York village where I was raised. Her guidance and encouragement opened up the whole world of writing to me and when I stumbled on the expressive form of lyric poetry, I knew I’d found what I needed to live fully and deeply and to survive certain miserable and traumatic events that marred my childhood. I’ve written about that in my memoir, The Blessing.
After sixty years of writing poems, I’ve come to this conclusion: many of us who are going to live and love poetry begin either excited/impatient to write it (to write expressing our feelings or experience) or we start by reading some poem(s) and get inspired to write ourselves (in imitation of what excites us that we read). Most of us (especially me) start with the urge to write a poem or poems because we feel something bursting or gnawing inside us and sense that poetry is one way to get it OUTSIDE us by turning it into words and putting those words down on a page. Such a relief/release—exhilarating and scary at the same time if you are dealing with difficult emotional or experiential material—is so powerful. I needed that as a young person. Truth to tell, it was a while before I could calm down enough to read other poets and discover that reading was another main way to learn the art and deepen the experience. What poets did I read first? Keats. His poems and then his letters (great letters for a poet to read). I still read my favorite poems of his every other year.
What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
See answer above. I was sixteen when my high school librarian showed me poetry by way of writing. I was part of a small group of “honors” English students in a small upstate NY village public school (graduating class: 36 students). This teacher/librarian, Dorothy Irving had us read and write constantly and one day the writing assignment was to write a poem and that was it for me. I immediately knew/felt that language in poetry was “magical”—that it created reality instead of describing it (as language in prose tends to do). I needed that “magic” because the “real” world inside me was kind of nightmarish and intense and I couldn’t write about it in ordinary language—I needed the intensified language of poetry (and song) to express what I felt and knew. Honestly, most of the poetry I read in high school English classes didn’t help me—I hated the way the poem became an excuse for questions that had “right” and “wrong” answers. I felt closer to the heart of what mattered to me when I heard the Beatle’s sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the only jukebox in town (Lawlor’s drug store, 1963). I think the process of introducing young people to the essential art and joy of poetry has gotten a thousand times better than when I was young (proof of that: the Dodge Poetry Festival).
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Yes. But the good news is: if I have written something, then I have already had the experience of sharing it with the page. The page “listened” to me and didn’t judge me. Maybe later, I’ll have the courage and/or opportunity to share what I’ve written with another person, but meanwhile, the page has heard me and so I’m already less alone. I knew early on that I would need to write about the traumatic deaths of my younger brother and my mother and that made me ashamed and scared, even though I knew I’d need to do so to survive. Poetry is there for people like I was: a place to bring your joy, sorrow, trauma, confusion. So it seems to me.
Gregory Orr is the author of eleven collections of poetry. His more recent volumes include The River Inside the River, How Beautiful The Beloved, and Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. His most recent book, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry, serves as an innovative and accessible guide in bringing the young poet toward a deeper understanding of how poetry can function in their life, while also introducing the art in an exciting new way. His memoir, The Blessing, was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books of 2002. Orr has received many awards and fellowships, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence.