Take Five: Q & A with Neil Shepard on the Saving Graces of Revision, Music & More
Neil Shepard’s six-week workshop at Poets House, The Art of Concealing and Revealing in Poetry, begins Wednesday, February 20, 2019. We asked him a few questions about teaching poetry and his own path to becoming a poet.
1) What’s your favorite aspect of teaching poetry?
I love introducing workshop participants to an array of exciting poems by well-known contemporary writers and examining how these poems work their magic; I love, too, interacting with the creative minds around the workshop table and getting to know their interior worlds as presented through their poems.
2) Who was your favorite writing teacher and why?
I had many gifted teachers over the years: Bill Tremblay, with whom I studied in Colorado, channeled the whirling ecstasy inside a poem and made the linguistic music come alive; Stan Plumly, with whom I studied in Ohio, smoothed over some of my wildness, focusing my attention on the importance of voice, rhetoric, underlying argument, and narrative strategies in a poem. For shorter duration workshops, I loved the metaphorical flash and electric wit of Bill Matthews; loved Heather McHugh’s linguistic play, from scrambled anagrams to fractured idioms; and loved Eamon Grennan’s rapt attention to painterly imagistic detail.
3) What was the first poem you read that made you want to become a poet? (Or, alternately, is there a particular book of poems that has been formative in your evolution as a poet? )
Two poets made me want to become a poet: John Keats, for the melancholy and music of his language (in particular, “To Autumn”); William Butler Yeats, for everything else—showing me how to modernize verse, from poems of myth and dream (“Who Goes with Fergus”), to poems of political responsibility (“Easter, 1916”), to poems of aesthetic contemplation (“Sailing to Byzantium”) and spiritual fascination (“The Second Coming”). Not long after falling in love with Keats and Yeats, I came under the spell of my first contemporary poet: Galway Kinnell. Two of his books, Body Rags and Book of Nightmares, made me want to become a contemporary poet. Two other poets had a big influence on me when I was just starting out: Adrienne Rich (Diving into the Wreck) and Sylvia Plath (Ariel).
4) What’s one piece of advice that you’ve been given as a poet that has really stuck with you?
There’s a time to reveal and a time to conceal information in a poem. That’s part of what we’ll study over the next six weeks in my workshop.
Whatever you believe about the sanctity of the first draft, trust to the saving graces of revision, which will lead eventually to a more radiant poem.
Stephen Dunn said that a poet needs equal parts arrogance and humility. Arrogance allows you to believe your life can be a source of art; humility reminds you that you had better work hard to make that source of art into a full-fledged poem.
5) When you’re not writing and teaching poetry, what feeds your creativity/helps you stay sane?
Marvin Bell once told me that within 10 minutes of meeting a poet, he could tell whether the poet’s second medium was music or visual art. In my case, he guessed correctly: my second (perhaps, even, my first) medium is music. When I’m not writing, you’ll find me listening to a wide range of music or else playing jazz piano. If Marvin had given me more choices, I’d have also said that my other medium is the natural world, which feeds my creativity and sanity, perhaps in the way it did for a poet like Mary Oliver.
Neil Shepard is the author of eight volumes of poetry, most recently How It Is: Selected Poems (2018). He has taught for many years in the BFA program at Johnson State College in Vermont, as well as in the low-residency MFA Writing Program at Wilkes University (PA). He is the Founding Editor of the literary magazine Green Mountains Review, and he is a founder and former director of the Writing Program at the Vermont Studio Center.