This month, we’re proud to spotlight the work of George Kalamaras, author of fourteen books of poetry (seven of which are full-length) and Indiana’s new Poet Laureate. George was also kind enough to answer a few questions from yours-truly. Enjoy!
Michael: George, thanks for sharing your poems with us! I was immediately struck by the profound humanity of your work, a quality that reminds me of the writings of Richard Hugo. I saw echoes of ancient Chinese poetry here, too (maybe because I’m a sucker for poetry with an “eastern” flavor). Can you talk about some of your influences?
George: I’m deeply honored with your observation, Michael. Gosh, to have “humanity” perceived in one’s work is one of the greatest compliments. I’m also pleased that something of the Chinese poets (as well as the influence of others) comes through to you in the poems. I cut my teeth on the Chinese poets of antiquity nearly forty years ago, and I simply adore them, continuing to study them deeply to this day, especially the poets of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.). This was a remarkable moment in world literature—in art, really. The T’ang was a very high period in Chinese culture, and several memorable poets emerged. I’m thinking of Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Po, Li Ho, Meng Chiao, and Han Shan in particular. I simply can’t overstate how important these poets have been to the development of my poetry and of my consciousness, in general. Part of what drew me initially was their clarity. Also, their vision of Oneness with Nature connects with mine—a reciprocal view of “one in the other,” or as the Chinese poets often say, “the world of the ten thousand things.” This is not simply a “love of Nature,” but a profound vision of the world as interactive, even among those forces we might at first perceive as “opposite.” The influence of Taoism in Chinese verse is palpable, for example, in which such apparent contradictions are cast as complementary, rather than contradictory.
The other most significant influence in my work is the poetry of the poets of Spain and Latin America, especially César Vallejo—my very favorite poet—but also Federico García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Miguel Hernández, and others. In fact, world poetry—especially the poetry and poetics of Surrealism—have meant the world to me. And there are other world poets who have shaped me deeply such as the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and so many others.
And you’re right about Richard Hugo. My wife and I lived many years in the West, and Hugo was a large presence and was still alive when we lived there. I find so much vulnerability in his work, as well as his deep love and compassion for the working class. In fact, my most recent manuscript draws upon Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams—his book of letter poems—as you’ve seen from some of the poems you’re running in this feature.
M: I love how the short sentences in “Below Buffalo Willows” build tension, plus the overall stylistic range I see in your work. For instance, several of these poems are constructed as letters. Can you talk about how you settle on a poem’s particular form?
G: I allow the poem to tell me what it wants to be. This is a rather significant shift from a poetics of dominance to, say, a “poetics of generosity,” as one of my former teachers, Judith Johnson, uses the term for her own process. In other words, I don’t want to impose an arbitrary order upon my poems, trying to “shark-wrestle” them into compliance, if you will. More along the lines of the 1950s and 1960s San Francisco luminary, Jack Spicer, I want to have a “practice of the outside,” in which my ego dissolves more and more—enough to allow other forces into the poem, forces the mind or intellect alone can’t control. This is not an abdication of responsibility or commitment, mind you. It becomes more a complex dance between two partners—what do I want the poem to be and what does the poem itself want to become? Just as I mentioned reciprocity with Nature in regard to the Chinese poets, there also needs to be a reciprocity with the poem in the very process of “making” the poem. In other words, yes, we make or create the poem, but the loving act of writing the poem should also allow us to be made or created by the poem itself—as we engage in the practice of writing.
M: What do you see as the risks and advantages of a letter-type format in poetry?
G: That’s a great question! One of the risks, of course, is that one fears the audience could become limited or feel excluded. You know, “Hey, he’s talking to so and so and not to me, as I’m only listening in on a one-way conversation.” However, nothing could be further from the truth. We are never simply talking to one person anyway in any conversation, are we? I mean, look at this interview, for example. It’s not just you and me talking alone—but we carry with us the sense of audience and even future generations of poets who will read what we say to one another. More significantly, I believe, is that we are all constituted of many voices and experiences. I’m not only talking to you right now, but I’m also talking to all the voices that have talked to you and that have shaped you—from your love of this poet and that, to conversations you may have had with your mother and father. All that is inside you, so I’m also talking, say, to your mother.
This is what I mean about a shift in consciousness, Michael. We need to expand the way we see our interconnections in the universe and step away from a more limited sense of self—moving, instead, into a more expansive sense of Self.
The advantages of the epistolary form, then, are several: it allows for greater intimacy of voice in which we can say things supposedly to “one person” that we might not reveal to others; it serves as a springboard into a larger conversation with the voices that constitute that “one person”; and the form itself, seemingly informal, allows the psyche to expand and, thus, include more abundant material from the unconscious, as it’s relaxed because it’s “just writing a letter,” in effect, as opposed to composing a poem.
M: It seems to me that poetry has undergone an almost exponential number of changes over the past, say, sixty years, so that we now have almost as many schools of aesthetic thought as we have poets. Do you have a certain aesthetic philosophy that you like (or don’t like) to identify with?
G: Well, as I mentioned, I’m most drawn to the poetics of Surrealism. Keep in mind that people often misperceive Surrealism as simply “weird” or “dream-like,” and they may picture one of Salvador Dalí’s melting watches. Sure, that’s part of it, but the more profound aspect of Surrealism is that it recasts seeming opposites—like the intellect and the unconscious—in more reciprocal and interactive terms. Plus, the very processes of Surrealism grant one access to a wider breadth of material, material not often available to the intellect alone.
As far as what I’m less interested in, I’d say irony and even language solely for the sake of language, the latter of which I comment on in the “Dejected in Boulder . . .” poem you’re running in this feature. As I say, a bit humorously, “Language for the such of so and sake.”
M: Where do you see poetry going in the coming years?
G: I suppose I’m not sure. I think the internet has already changed poetry profoundly, making it more available, and that’s a good thing. However, it also carries with it a tinge of the disposable culture, even to the point where we seemingly no longer need the physical object of “the book.” I think that’s a problem and may serve as a challenge for future generations of poets.
M: So for those of us who don’t know (like me), what are the duties of a Poet Laureate?
G: They are multiple. Primarily, the Poet Laureate is really a position of service. It’s less about personal accolades and more about being an ambassador for poetry. To that end, I’ve started a website, The Wabash Watershed, which includes poetry features (and interviews) with Indiana poets, a regular video blog in which I read the poetry and discuss the poetics of my favorite poets (both national and international poets), and other ways into poetry. The Poet Laureate also visits schools, universities, poetry clubs, and so on to talk about poetry and provide the audience with a way into one of the oldest and most loved art forms. These are just some of the responsibilities. In short, the Poet Laureate works to promote poetry throughout the state in as many ways as possible and puts a public face on poetry.
M: Any new projects in the works?
G: I’m always working on a few book manuscripts at a time. Most recent is this book of letter poems we’ve been discussing, but I’m also revisiting some other older manuscripts with which I am not yet satisfied. I’m busy revising older poems and writing new poems all the time!