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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Q&A with Kevin Pilkington




The following interview was conducted April 27, 2004.

Kevin Pilkington is a poet who sees the world through many-hued glasses, sometimes at an odd tilt, and employs strong verbs (that once worked as nouns) to speak his mind.  As an example, let me cite the opening of his poem "If You Want to Drive Rather than Walk the Rest of the Way Home":
    When you are on the road
    under a sky you don’t understand
    every time it talks crow, stay with it

Pilkington has authored six books of poetry, most recently Ready to Eat the Sky (River City Publishing).  On the jacket copy, Jay Parini calls Pilkington "…an essential voice in contemporary poetry."   Poet Eamon Grennan compares the poems in this collection to a mix of "…Frank O'Hara, cut with a splash of Raymond Chandler."  I would agree; there are definite echoes of O’Hara's love of American culture in poems titled, for example, "The Corner Where Jimmy Cagney Learned How to Act Tough" and "Martin Scorsese's Mother." 

But just when one might characterize Pilkington's voice as gritty and urban, he surprises you with sweet lines that resonate with the unequalled honesty of a child, as in this last stanza of "Apple Spider":

    So when my niece
    told me she heard
    I liked poet trees,
    then asked where do
    they grow, we both
    picked up our cold
    glasses of root beer
    held on to each other's
    hand, then headed out
    the door to see if any
    were growing in
    the backyard.

Ready to Eat the Sky abounds in wonderful images (a blanket "new until / a gust of wind blows it / into the air and shreds / it into a flock of pigeons" or "the river curved like / a woman’s hip….") 

In the following Q&A, I set out to explore what makes Pilkington tick.

Linda Simone: 
Kevin, what's your philosophy?

Kevin Pilkington:
My philosophy is aligned with my writing life, which means I'm driven by a love of language.  And I look at every day as a gift; no wake-up calls necessary.

What about your philosophy in life?

My writing and my life are always joined at the hip. I try to go through life with as much grace as possible and give back more than I take. I like to think that the same applies to my writing.

Let's talk about influences.  What one poet, no longer living, inspired you the most, and why? 

The poet Dylan Thomas and, more specifically, his poem "Fern Hill" — which is simply a brilliant poem. It was the first poem to show me exactly what metaphoric language can achieve. Everytime I read the poem, it's as if I'm reading it for the first time. I think that's the barometer for any exceptional poem. Every time you read it, it's the first time.

What one contemporary poet?

The contemporary poet I’m most inspired by is Gary Soto.  He's a talented writer — has a great gift for metaphor — and should be more widely read.

What's your writing routine like?  Are you a morning writer or a wee-hours-of-the-night poet?

Actually, neither and both.  I write when the urge strikes… it doesn't matter what time of day it is.  I live in Manhattan, so I used to like to write late at night when it seemed the entire city was asleep, or at least dozing.  I needed the quiet, or perhaps my concentration capabilities weren't as developed. But now I have the concentration of an ancient monk and could probably write in the middle of First Avenue during rush hour and not hear anything but the rhythms of the poem I'm working on.

So when the urge does strike, what's the creative process like for you?

Sometimes I imagine that I hear, or believe or even see a sound.  Then I wait to see what pops into my head.  I don't write on paper everyday, but I'm always writing in my head.  I sit down to write when I have time, in between teaching (I have a heavy teaching load) or when an idea or image just demands my attention. You know the feeling…you just have to get the thought down or it will disappear. That's the way writing was when I was visiting the Greek Isles…I couldn’t get the poems down fast enough. Maybe it had to do with the gods still being there or it was just the magnificent scenery.

I've heard you mention that Richard Hugo's Triggering Town was an influential book for you.  Why?

I love Hugo's relaxed prose and style.  When you read that book it's like sitting down and having a drink with the man.  There's no pontificating.  He simply says, this is how I do it and maybe you want to give it a try. He was a major influence on my writing.  I had a correspondence going with him when I first started getting serious about my poems. These letters were incredibly important to me since I never had a mentor or studied writing on the graduate or undergraduate levels. He filled those few letters with nuggets that I still use today and pass on to students.

For Hugo, small towns triggered poems.  Is there one "trigger" for you that frequently leads to a poem?

Usually an image that I can twist to fit the context. An example: I once saw a cow drinking from a pond in Vermont and later put it in a poem as, "A cow walked over to the pond / leaned over and drank its face."

You live in Manhattan, which seems to figure into a lot of your poems.  Let me quote the first six lines of "Turning Things Around" as an example:

    No matter how long a shower
    I take, I still can't get this city
    clean.  I guess it doesn’t matter
    since I always knew I'd make it
    to the top and now I have: fifth floor
    of a five-flight walk-up.

So, I guess my question is, are you a poet of place?

I guess I'd like to avoid labels but I certainly am a poet of place. In my collection Spare Change, I deal at least 80% with urban themes. And that is simply because I live in Manhattan. However, there are a lot of other poems in that collection and in my newest collection that have nothing to do with Manhattan at all.
    In the new collection, there are poems that deal with various parts of the country as well as the Amalfi Coast of Italy, which has its own self-contained section. I guess I don't want to be classified as just an urban poet. Speaking of Hugo, I remember he actually became somewhat annoyed because he was constantly referred to as a poet of the west.  So he got a Guggenheim and went to Italy and wrote an entire collection about returning there since he had been there in World War II.  It's called Good Luck in Cracked Italian and I think it's his finest collection. After it came out he said, "I guess I'll be referred to as an Italian poet now."

How does teaching impact your writing?

It impacts my writing a great deal. I've been very fortunate to teach at Sarah Lawrence College where they take writing very seriously. So I've taught very talented graduate and undergraduate poets. I'm constantly impressed with the quality of work that comes before me. My teaching informs my writing.  Teaching forces me to stay sharp and think critically — and then look critically at my own work.  Oftentimes, I even read poems by students that inspire me to write better.

In addition to Sarah Lawrence, you also teach in the graduate writing program at Manhattanville College.  What differences do you see in the work of your younger and older students in both places?

My younger students are enthusiastic and love language.  My older students are enthusiastic and love language.  The difference is in the latter's wider scope of experience.  The older we get, the more we have to draw from.  We write about more than breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend.  Poets are lucky that we're not ballerinas or football players.  They are all washed up at a very young age.

What's the most surprising thing someone has said about your poetry?

Someone once told me that in my poems, I capture what a camera or painting doesn't.  I never thought of that but I kind of liked hearing it.   

Has a critic or fellow poet ever pointed out qualities in your poems that you didn't know were there?

One person pointed out that I use lots of Christian or religious references.  I didn't realize I did that to such a great extent, but after looking over my work, I saw that he was right. I like to refer to myself as a recovering Catholic but I've begun to realize once a Catholic, always, etc.  In some ways, I owe my Catholicism a debt of gratitude. It helped ignite my love of imagery.  In grammar school, some of the most frightening images were of hell or of St. Michael, pissed off and kicking Lucifer into a fiery pit of damnation. I never cared much for what the priests and nuns were saying, but I loved staring at those images.

Let's talk about Ready to Eat the Sky.  How do the poems in the collection hang together?

I wrote a poem, wrote another poem, then another poem and after four years, I realized they were somehow connected.  When I had enough of them, I pulled them together into a collection. Some of the poems are urban in theme, others are about life, and then I wrote a whole bunch of poems, as I said earlier, on the Amalfi Coast, which made a unified section and, to me, forms the heart of the collection.

The poetry world is a competitive one.  What's your best advice for struggling poets?

I'd tell them that no one makes a living at poetry.  You have to fit poetry into your life. William Carlos Williams was a doctor.  Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance broker.  We all have to find something to fulfill the soul and make us happy to go to work every day.  But then we need to set time aside for poetry. Just like we have to set time aside to eat or sleep. And to their family and friends, they have to say, This is my time to write...see you in a couple of hours.   Then they should lock the door and get to work.  



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