How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?
I love telling people that I’m a poet. Just a poet. Not vaguing it up by saying that I’m a “writer” or qualifying it by adding that I’m a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. I think that, deep down, people appreciate the uselessness of poetry, its lack of clear market value and profit potential. “For poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden said in his elegy for Yeats, adding a little later that poetry is “A way of happening, a mouth.” For just a moment, they encounter something that can’t really be bought and sold, or at least not dearly.
Some people feel a bit threatened by that, or indifferent to it, but most are curious, and then a little amazed, as if they’d just met someone who could photosynthesize and therefore didn’t need to spend time working in order to buy food. Of course, the question “How can you live on that?” inevitably comes up, to which I always say, “Prize money.” That way they get the impression that they’ve met a really good poet. And who knows, maybe they’ll look me up.
Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).
I completed two graduate degrees in creative writing (one at Hollins, one at UVA), and while I’d say I write quite differently from how I wrote back then, I think that those workshop experiences were crucial for me, because they allowed me to accelerate through many styles (and errors) that likely would have taken me a decade to reach, let alone write through.
Before that time, I was a bit isolated as a writer (I wasn’t even an English major in college), but I was lucky in the writing books I encountered, and a few have stuck with me. When I began writing poetry in college, a close professor friend of mine sent some of my poems to James Merrill, who was a good friend of his. Merrill sent me some very encouraging letters, along with a copy of John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, which I read religiously for years. Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town was a wonderful practical aid, and Hugo’s wry gruffness made him a good companion during less productive stretches. I’m also truly thankful for my copy of Walter Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, which I delve into constantly, stunned by the marvelous ways our words refer to ‘the things of this world.’ And these days, the book that’s most on my mind is Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry; Bly is wonderful when one doesn’t take him too seriously.
How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
I run (rather slowly these days), and whenever I’m stalled on a line, I do push-ups. Eat well, etc. Try to stay away from booze, but coffee’s another story.
A Psalm Before Healing
A bowl of noodles with oil and sesame on a drizzly night,
A mug of scalding coffee, a braid of chala from the neighbor,
These small services uphold the firmament of stars, selah.
Never forget that the dove grieves but won’t share her story.
The hunters never understand. When she bolts skyward,
She is the skiff the exile rows through morning rain, selah.
How lissom the homerun swing of the left-handed catcher,
As if his bat had caught a comet’s arc and made it shine.
He shall never read this poem or know his own grace, selah.
With its notched legs, the Jerusalem cricket can’t help but sing.
The Alps can’t help but storm. The corn can’t help but grow.
The world is a second language we can’t help but speak, selah.
Once healed, the blind must be taught the ways of vision.
Diamonds in a green cloud are sunlight showing through leaves.
They learn, but dream of seeing in the dark once more, selah.
Just when you think you’re coming to the end of these poems,
Of your life, of a bowl of noodles, there’s an unexpected sweetness,
A last trace of oil you can sop with a handful of bread, selah.
If you've enjoyed Temple's answers so far, I suggest you check out the rest of my interview with him over at 32 Poems Blog. Once there, you can find out about his workspace, inspirations, and much more. Feel free to leave me comments about his interview or your thoughts on poetry in general.
Temple Cone is an associate professor of English at the United States Naval Academy. His first book of poems, No Loneliness, received the first annual Future Cycle Poetry Book Award in 2009.
Awards for his work include two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes in 2007 and 2008, the Christian Publishers Poetry Prize in 2008, a Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC) Individual Artist Award in Poetry in 2007, and the John Lehman Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Academy Review.
Cone holds a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia, an MA in creative writing from Hollins University, and a BA in philosophy from Washington and Lee University. He lives in Annapolis with his wife and daughter.