05 December 2011

An interview with poet Robert Abbate

Below is the unedited text of an interview with Concord, NC poet, Robert Abbate. Abbate teaches English Composition at Rowan Cabarrus Community College in Kannapolis, NC.

Piedmont Poetry Project: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?

Robert Abbate: What I achieve in poetry has always been concerned with reaching a broad reading audience, which, unfortunately, in contemporary times has become a readership of poetry editors, other poets, and critics in academe. I recently read Dana Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and I have come to the realization that a general readership beyond the poetry coterie is the most coveted goal any poet might strive for. When collections of poetry like Alfred Lord Tennyson's _Idyls of the King_ or Marilyn Nelson's _Carver: A Life in Poems_ become best-sellers, then the poetry world has regained is lost stature in the publishing world. i can only dream about such a collection crafted by me.

PPP: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?

RA: I decided I wanted to be a writer in elementary school through the encouragement of my fifth grade teacher who encouraged me to write stories, but poetry came to me later in middle school and high school. My high school creative writing teacher encouraged me to write poetry and serve on the editorial staff of the literary magazine. I developed a thirst for having my poems published that endures to this day. I eventually studied creative writing at Penn State University with nationally renowned poet John Balaban, now the MFA director at NC State. I also went on to study creative writing at UNCC and i am currently working on my MFA in craft poetry at Western State College of Colorado.

PPP: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?

RA: Poetry matters because it touches the human soul and transforms people's lives. Since people continue to memorize the poems of Shakespeare, Donne, and Blake, the evidence of poetry's relevance for society takes on the stature of a spirituality akin to the religious fervor found in studying the holy scriptures. I often joke with my friends that I have joined the Church of Holy Poetry and that I have become a Knight of Poetry's Holy Grail.

PPP: What inspires you to write?

RA: I am inspired by nature, especially birds and wildlife. I attempt to mine the metaphoric ore in what I see around me. i am also inspired by people's stories, the ethnogrpahic poems that capture the voices of people telling their stories. My first collection of poetry _Courage of Straw_ reflected on my decisions to donate a kidney to my sister and to speak out about physical and sexual abuse.

PPP: When do you write?

RA: I usually write in the morning or evening with a steaming cup of brewed tea beside me. I still draft my poems on paper before transferring the drafts to electronic format.

PPP: Is there a particular place that you like to write?

RA:I have been very productive with my writing at home in my living room in a comfortable chair. I like having windows nearby so i may look outside and see the beauty of nature. I also write in the local coffee houses.

PPP: What poets do you read?

RA: The most influential poets upon my writing have been John Balaban, Seamus Heaney, Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byers, Betty Adcock, Marilyn Nelson, Daniel Tobin, Mark Jarman, Timothy Steele, David Mason, and Richard Wilbur. I have been studying with the New Formalists and New Narrative poets at West Chester University Poetry Conference for the past eight years. Craft poetry pays particular attention to form, meter, and rhyme, the traditional modes of poetic expression.

PPP: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?

RA: The best advice I can give for those who want to write poetry is to read the best poetry available, to immerse oneself in the whole scope and sequence of the English poetry tradition, not just the latest trend in contemporary poetry. Once an aspiring reader gets a sense of their favorite writers, he or she may then emulate them. Also keeping a daybook or journal is helpful. I have kept a dream journal for years attempting to capture the vivid images from my dreams. Writing takes work and commitment, but remember composition isn't always about committing words to a page, its about meditating on lines and composing while you are busy doing other things like Wordsworth taking his daily round around the Lake District, Wallace Stevens composing poems in head as he walked to work at the Hartford Insurance Company, or Kathryn Stripling Byer forming her lines while hiking through the woods in the mountains of North Carolina. Be patient with the lines that that you cast and keep them pliable. Be willing to cast your lines in multiple ways until the poem takes on the "Sound of Sense" as Robert Frost called it, poetic expressions that pass for everyday conversations.

PPP: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?

RA: My poetry has become much more formal over the last eight years. I have been writing fixed lyrical forms such as sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, rondeaus, rondolets. The West Chester University Poetry Conference has challenged me to experiment with form beyond free verse. Even my free verse pays close attention to stress meter now. I think Robert Frost was right when he said that free verse is like playing tennis without the net. The rules of meter help poets achieve lyrical effects. Otherwise, poetic lines in free verse are merely prose poems.

PPP: Share a comment or two about life, parenthood, nature, teaching, writing, or anything else that you'd like:

RA: Poetry is a mirror of the soul. When the mirror is clear, its expression can be transformative for both readers and writers. Keeping the mirror's reflection unclouded is a challenge that poets and writers may courageously face provided they are willing to revise their work for the sake of clarity and audience appeal.

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