Interview with Alan Britt
Alan Britt is a well-known and widely published poet from the US. He has been writing poetry for decades now and his recent books of poetry are Parabola Dreams, Alone with the Terrible Universe, Greatest Hits, and many others. Alan Britt teaches creative writing and poetry at Towson University. Below is his interview with Alok Mishra. In this conversation, Alan shares about his writings as well as many other things – general and personal.
Alok Mishra: You have been writing poetry, teaching poetry, and reading poetry for decades now, Alan. How would you describe your journey as a reader, teacher and poet?
Alan Britt: Thank you, Alok, for the opportunity to clarify a few things. I began reading poetry with a passion as soon as I attended the University of Tampa, then a hotbed for progressive poetry. During those days I was surrounded by innovative teachers and fellow young poets. Once I discovered the magic, the multidimensional possibilities of imagery, a la Lorca, Neruda, Desnos, Vallejo, Mansour, Trakl, Ritsos, and Mistral, I devoured poetry from all cultures because I had fallen beneath the spell of a language heretofore unimaginable. Reading poetry for the thrill inspired me to write poetry for the thrill. Teaching poetry elevated my awareness of it. Teaching poetry, especially imagistic poetry, requires patience to realize the symbolic relationship of one word to another, the intellectual and emotional nuances inherent from one concrete noun to another, plus the way verbs energize lines in a poem. I gradually absorbed nonlinear language in a way I hadn’t understood before. From Breton’s surrealism to Bly’s leaping poetry theory, I began to navigate how complex imagery made sense. So, the preparation for teaching poetry involved a closer reading of poetry than I was previously aware of. Over the years I’ve broadened my reading, teaching and appreciation of poets writing in diverse styles, and, as such, my understanding and appreciation for diverse poetries has deepened immensely. Teaching poetry is rewarding.
AM: Innovation, if I may say, has marked the poetry of the modern age. We see variations (in plenty) in form and substance of poems today. What’s your view on the contemporary poetry?
AB: Well, contemporary poetry, and poetry of any age, for that matter, should include variety. Today’s literary landscape is vast and extends far beyond a single approach that attempts to dominate the field. I love the diversity I see these days. Many beloved poets such as Donne, Shelley, Whitman, Tzara, Ferlinghetti, were rule breakers. We depend upon folks to step outside convention and continue the evolution of poetry. While a Shakespeare sonnet is sublime, we needed the 19th century Romantics and 20th century surrealists to show us new possibilities. The evolution of poetry depends upon innovation. Just as old “facts” of science are replaced by new awareness, the old “rules” of poetry must be challenged. Variety and experimentation are healthy, and while they don’t always produce iconic poems, they are necessary.
AM: You belong to the line of poets which features the great ones like Whitman, Frost, Dickinson, Ginsberg, and many more. Do you feel more inclination towards them rather than the great ones in the British hierarchy? On a broader perspective, does a poet’s inhabitant narrow the sphere of motivation?
AB: My introduction to poetry, besides my affection for luminaries discovered in literature classes, luminaries such as Marvell, Blake, Coleridge, and Keats, for example, included a heavy dose of world poetry: Native American, South American, European, and Asian poets, making my influential masters from everywhere. So, I felt no need to emulate modern American or British poets. Having said that, I believe you are correct in suggesting that poets must read widely in order not to become trapped in a “narrow sphere of motivation.” Poetry lovers should gravitate outside their own culture to enjoy the rich diversity that exists across our planet.
AM: Alan, is there anything called “poetry” that exists outside the walls of a university? I see the works of fiction—they are novels! Poetry sells rarely and poets are mere “secondary poets” because they have to survive on something else, and so they write only when they are free to do so. Where is poetry going?
AB: Poetry exists everywhere. The university identification with poetry today has much to do with the business of poetry, that is to say the marketing and selling of poetry books. Since poetry cannot compete with pop culture or most fiction, institutions provide monetary support necessary to keep many literary journals afloat. But when money becomes the foundation, the motivation to fill pages with reader friendly texts in order to retain readership often homogenizes the content of these institutional publications, and we lose the thrill of experimentation. University journals, because of institutional support, often achieve visibility beyond what most independent publications can afford. Make no mistake, however, that independent print and online journals outnumber institutional journals a hundred to one, and these independents drive the evolution of poetry. Innovation occurs in independent publications such as Osiris, published by Andrea and Robert Moorhead, now in its 45th year and going strong. Every issue of Osiris showcases excellent poetry in English and various languages. Another independent, The Bitter Oleander edited by Paul B. Roth, features imaginative poetry and fiction from writers worldwide. Thankfully, passionate editors keep the evolutionary flame burning.
AM: Please tell me something about your poetry. How does it occur? How did it happen for the first time, and how much do you think your poetry has changed over time?
AB: As a lover of various poetic styles, I’ll drift into a haiku-like poem, a three-page poem, or a prose poem depending upon mood and situation. While my favorite subject is nature, I feel compelled occasionally to write humanitarian poems—make no mistake, I am not a political poet regurgitating the political rhetoric of the right or the left—because I get distressed over the mandate of sending young men and women to kill and be killed in Iraq based upon an illogical agenda. The 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia, the place where the US transactions oil. But we didn’t retaliate against the Saudis. And today we have a president who believes that Frederick Douglass is alive and well and also unaware that Andrew Jackson died before the Civil War. You can’t make this stuff up. Sorry for that. But when I’m motivated to write a poem, I do so without an outline or plan appropriate for an essay, thus the poem flows organically from imagination. The rewrite process, which is never-ending, is where the poem’s final form takes shape. As alluded to earlier, my poems are as diverse as my appreciation for the various ways that humans express themselves. As Wittgenstein said, “I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought there was one possibility or only two at most. But I make you think of others.”
AM: You must have read some of the Indian poets. How do you see Indian English poetry in general? How much different is it from British or American poetry?
AB: I see many impressive Indian English online and print publications. Clearly Indian poets are interested in British and US poetry. Today’s instant modes of communication bring poets together as never before. We email, we text, we post one other at a moment’s notice, and I love how one culture nourishes the other. I am happy to connect with Indian poets such as Glory Sasikala who publishes GloMag, Divya Dubey who publishes Earthen Lamp Journal, Jagannath Chakravarti who publishes Culture Cult Magazine, Dr. Rati Saxena who edits Kritya, and my dear friend Bina Sarkar Ellias who publishes the elegant cultural arts magazine International Galerie. Bina is a wonderful poet and perfect example of someone whose work reflects the influence of US poets Silvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg, plus poets as diverse as Pablo Neruda, Arthur Rimbaud, Octavio Paz, Arun Kolatkar, Gulzar, and Jayanta Mahapatra. The electronic age that merges our borders allows me to enjoy Indian poets whose work I might otherwise never see in my lifetime, talented poets such as Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Abhay K, Jayanta Mahapatra, and Vinita Agrawal. I see in their proficiency a lexicon influenced not only by English speaking poets but also poets writing in other languages as well. We are blessed in this electronic age to share cultural struggles and triumphs. If our planet is to survive, we must embrace what makes us unique as well as what makes us universal.
AM: As a university instructor, how do you take up the job of teaching creative writing? How easy or how difficult is the task? Please share your experience as an instructor.
AB: Teaching poetry to students in the US is challenging but rewarding. Most poetry that students are exposed to in middle and high school in the US consists of the classics such as Shakespeare, Arnold, Longfellow, Frost, Cummings, Silverstein, and (thankfully) Whitman. Few contemporary poets are introduced to students. As enjoyable as the classic poets are, their language rarely reflects the imagery that we see in poets today. When it comes to poetry, I introduce writing styles that often include a highly symbolic lexicon. My students deserve a range of poetic styles, so we read modern poets. But upon being introduced to the eclectic styles of many contemporary poets, students must exercise imagination in a manner foreign to them in order to suspend their disbelief, as Coleridge said, thus, allowing them to apprehend the symbolic and expansive nature of nonlinear imagery. I find it curious how many current “scholars” find it difficult to comprehend nonlinear language, a deficiency in their own education, which causes them to pass along the deficiency to their students. This shortcoming of expertise in the field makes my task more challenging. Many students in the US desire immediate gratification and lack the patience necessary to absorb the nuances that poetry embodies. But patience is the key to success. Complex poems require patience, or as Miguel Hernández once said, “It requires work and love.” Through patience students gain appreciation for even the most complex poems we discuss in class. When we slow things down by going through poems one line at a time, if that’s what it takes, students learn that poems are not always the conceptual texts they’ve previously learned to dissect. We digest symbolic connections, plus the music, the tone, the flow, and encourage various responses as we read. Little by little students achieve clarity. Some poems can be gulped, but some poems must be savored until their significance is assimilated through onionskin layers of imagination, intellect and emotion. That’s the way it goes.
AM: Is there any established theory today on which we measure poetry produced by poets? It used to be there, I think, till early twentieth century, and then there was chaos. How do you see the theory part in poetry today?
AB: The chaos you refer to simply points to evolution. In the fields of painting, sculpture, music, photography, poetry, etc., there must be evolution, evolution fueled by discovery. The old ways of rhyme and meter are not bad ways; they are simply ways that poets today find restrictive. So, chaos is a bit like sifting mud while panning for gold. Not every mud pile reveals gold, so you keep panning, experimenting, discovering. The old definition of poetry focused upon a poem structured by rhyme, meter and format. If it looked and sounded like a poem, it was a poem. And if its language was prosaic, so what; it was still a poem. Free verse that Robert Frost railed against as playing tennis without a net, because Vers Libre didn’t challenge those enchanted by objective detail, is immensely challenging to one desiring a poem that feels physicalized. Attention to music, flow and imagery cocooned in a compelling lexicon is vital to creating dynamic poetry. Breath rhythms, enjambments, caesuras, end-stops, assonance, and much more contribute to vigorous poems. Theories vary, as they should. Isms come and go, as they should, and future poets will incorporate music and holographic accompaniment as technology allows. Aesthetic evolution like human DNA will continue as long as our species survives. I see no single theory today that guides what poets should or should not do.
AM: Are there any books which you are planning to bring out in coming days? How do you manage time to write and what is the general motive behind your poetry? Please explain a little.
AB: Two books are planned for the near future: the trilingual chapbook of a long poem called Ode to Nothing and a larger book called Guilty Pleasures whose cover will showcase a painting by the esteemed Mel Ramos. The primary motive behind my poetry is to write for bliss, and, as Lorca intimated, to expand imagination as far as humanly possible. Joy is the motive that fuels me.
AM: What would you say to someone who is willing to become a poet tomorrow? And many thanks for your time, Alan! Best wishes for your poetical journey!
AB: The easiest question. Fall in love with poetry, for poetry is easy to fall in love with. Poetry is intoxicating. Poetry is infinite. Digest hundreds of poets. Embrace what you love and discard the rest. But reread the discards over and over to see what you missed first and second time around. Then write and rewrite. Write and rewrite. Embrace what you read and embrace what you write, but don’t be fooled by ephemeral praise. Discipline prevails. And remember Miguel Hernández: “It takes work and love.”