What does poetry mean? A talk with Michael Odom

The Poet: by Jean-Bernard Restout When it comes to writing, a friend's comment has guided me whenever I've reviewed a book or thought about my own work. It's not the size of the book that matters but the distance the reader travels in a sentence (I'm sure he borrowed that idea from someone).

I kept thinking about that insight as I read Michael Odom's book of poetry, "Strutting Attracting Snapping." At 27 pages, this slender volume is anything but a quick read -- there's an intricate architecture to each poem that undoubtedly required time to assemble, and requires plenty of time to read and truly understand. You can find Odom's book through a variety of book  outlets, and here's one.

Michael generously agreed to share his thoughts on poetry and his writing process in the following exchange, via email. You can also read more about his book and views at Jilanne Hoffmann's blog, and at Odom's own blog, Mao's Trap.

This entry is a bit longer than the usual ones, but it's entirely worth it. Pour yourself a tall cold one (just don't spill it on the keyboard), relax, and listen to one poet's views of his craft and the role of poetry in our modern world.


How did you start writing poetry, and what’s your definition of it? To you, what does poetry mean?

I remember crafting my own edition of Peter Pan out of tin foil at 6 or 7 and co-opting my older sister’s college literature anthology when I was still in high school. But serious writing began with a year of study in West Yorkshire, England, beside the Brontes and the English Romantics. I was a Philosophy student on a year abroad when I found myself unwilling and/or unable to turn from William Blake back to A.J. Ayer. The turn to Poetry from Philosophy was so violent I almost didn’t finish my B.A. It was indecision between the fields that kept me from the MFA.

What happened after that?

For 20 years after college, I worked in bookstores at all levels, chains and independents, almost always as the Poetry Buyer. Poets and publishers came to me with their works and I hosted their readings. Books were free or discounted. It was easy to keep up.

All of the stores I worked at, except one (Barnes & Noble), are out of business now. It was the reality of bookstores in our time that made the MFA a real need. Even so, it took Ilya Kaminsky to steer me to it (he was Ilya, a law student/customer in San Francisco. Now he’s Professor Kaminsky, internationally famous, award-winning poet).

Most poets coming up through the MFA programs respond to one recent school or another. In the 21st century, when there is nothing more cliché than an avant-garde poet, I never accept a poetic that cannot include Alexander Pope & Basho, Plath & Li Po, Millay, Ausías March & Thom Gunn. If, to read or write like Hejinian, you must refuse everything to be learned from Yeats, your poetic is false. If Shakespeare is a counter-example to your theory, give up.

The poet works language for aesthetic effect. At its best, as with all culture, poetry engages and broadens our minds. At its worst, it narrows. In art, the great goal is the beautiful, not the pretty: the beautiful is attractive in the sense that your 75-year-old spouse dying of colon cancer is attractive. Your suffering spouse will attract your full attention because he or she means too heavily to not engage you in crisis. It is meaning that gives beauty. And the order, distance, & evocation of beauty in a creation make of it a work of art.

Reading the poems in your book requires time, slowness. At least it did for me. Your language demands it. There's density here — the way Dylan Thomas’ language is often dense.  For instance, “Under the tutelage of Orion’s arm/Lording above in the ocean’s leprous cousin...”  It seems to me that images like these don’t come quickly or easily — that it must have taken a long time to piece together the language and the obscurity of the images. 

odom_bookI do count obscurity as a flaw in poems, but a flaw that cannot be remedied by writing more directly. A poet must, like a poetry reader, come to the aesthetic experience of a poem, not the paraphrase, not the philosophy, not the story. In my best poems, I believe I reach that ideal.

The line you cite is one of my favorites both for itself and the role it plays in that poem. As to how I created it, that poem is one that came from the collision of a translated model (it is so far as to be unrecognizable) a collection of words & phrases I wanted to use, a memory & psychological guess.

The image of the night sky -- with its pimples, dimples, rashes, and dropping parts, as the ‘cousin’ of the ocean which at night can seem all but a blank dark sheet, and from that disease, Orion comes as a violent school master – is derived logically from the sensibility of a pubescent boy going wrong matched with the description of the night sky. I’ve heard the reasoning of poets contrasted with the works of logicians. With degrees in Philosophy and Poetry, I can tell you the logic is the same, if more intuited than diagrammed for poets.

As for Dylan Thomas: my son is named after him.

The technological world tries to invade your poems, but you give it a firm backhand and transform it. For instance, I like the subtle sudden shift from technology (cellphones) to the physical body in the line :  “Cell? All of your cells....”   Do you think poetry still matters in our twittering, technology-saturated society?

Technology is like houses, trees, grass, sky, people, etc: it is scenery and props. Twitter is a figurant in the daily drama. The essential, the poetry part of the drama, is still the same and as essential as ever. That said…

Google, Skype, email, etc., give the individual brain infinite memory, infinite capacity: Many libraries worth of reference works and an Earth of contacts are within a few seconds’ reach.

Also, though Twitter is limited, YouTube, Skype, Google, self-publication, blogs…  limited attention spans, so readily distractible, are an opportunity for an art form that begins in an acorn but grows to the size of an oak tree for the enticed.

But it will have to be a pretty interesting acorn. Like Shakespeare needed the stage, so poets may find great use for YouTube. Of course, they will have to be better at it and at least try to engage the muffled curiosity of the browser. The novel, even the short story, may be in trouble. Poetry has an opportunity for a michael-odomrenaissance.

It does?

Yes, but we lack the true gatekeepers, the critics, who once played a sorting role for readers. YouTube has many critics playing that role for videogames with varying degrees of prominence. My son watches them and his buying choices, experience of games, and his best work in school reflect them. Most critics who bother with poems, unfortunately, are poets themselves. Their primary goal, conscious or not, is self-promotion.

We need to transcend the chumminess of poet/publishers, poet/editors, poet/critics. We need poet/poets and the rest can be readers. The internet could create a demand for the sorting kind of critic and, in doing so, share poems far beyond the confines of academia.

The blurb on the back of your book describes these as "love poems." But when I come across lines like "The snail leaves slime here. She leaves lust" and  "The bible never called her sirloin. It called her prime rib" (about Adam's Eve, a great line), I feel like editing that blurb so that it says "poems of violence and desire" instead. For you, in your poetry, what is love?

When our most basic needs are kept behind the will of another, there will be anger, pleading, desperation, resentment, even hatred. When not functional, these pass and, functional or not, return again. Wisdom and intimacy play roles I’ll get to one day but, for now,  the cultural nightmares come when denied need becomes an ideology of oppression, repression, renunciation, or demand.

These are Love poems in that they concern that Homo sapien need that precedes social construction. But I have to admit a kind of Stephen King fascination with desperation. I think the half-worked conundrum of Feminism/ objectification/stalking mixed with Romeo waiting in the bushes outside Juliet’s window is the most existentially traumatic modern transition the West is trying and failing to make.

What poets do you read and admire?

The 20th Century canon is always in my head. When I first got the job at Tower and became enamored of poet’s voices, I bought all the Caedmon tapes and many more. I would take long walks listening to poems and have them in the background when I washed dishes and such. Ezra Pound was on my answering machine declaiming “…this is a darn clever bunch”. To this day, I read first as a listener.

I read a lot of translations and classics. My great passions are usually lyric poets, often canonical (recently Louis MacNeice) or translations (Salvador Espriu).

Of contemporaries, I believe Anne Carson and Alice Notley (The Descent of Alette) are essential. Kaminsky has been a friend and an enormous influence but I suspect his book to top all is being revised yet one more time and we will all die before it comes out. I admire David Ferry and A.E. Stallings but the most fun I’ve had reading poetry lately was in Stephen Scafidi’s books.

You're also a translator. What translation work has been the most meaningful for your life and your poetry?

Linguists translate language. Poets translate Poetry. But poets translate the way burglars study architecture. I’m best at identifying the rich people’s houses and deciphering their locks.

Over the last two years, with the poet on Skype watching like a security camera, I’ve been translating Lluís Roda’s Nadir from Catalan. His influence has lopped the terrible titles off of my poems and affirmed the broadest & greediest approach to language and love.