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Diane Kendig: “One can usually make more to go “be” a poet than selling books”

August 20, 2009 by · 1 comment

Interview with American poet Diane Kendig by Kristin Dimitrova

Diane Kendig

You have taught creative writing to university students, children, prisoners, as well as to groups of people who have nothing in common except their interest in literature. What is the difference between them in class? What is common between them in class? Where did you get the most unexpected reactions? Did you learn something from them? Did poetry help them somehow?

Of the three groups that you mention, the prisoners and the children arrived to class nearest to what I consider the core of poetry, a combination of three factors. They were in touch with their hearts and minds and able to express them in an original language as opposed to the everyday language of cliché. The younger the children, the easier to have them write poetry since they didn’t know the clichés: they were speaking in poems and all I had to do was get those poems recorded.

The most exciting was having each kindergartner say a poem about a color and make picture to accompany it. I wrote each down as the child told it to me; I tried having parents and teachers help, but they wanted to make the poem “pretty” or “nice.”Of course in prison, the men had a bit of a shell around them, but after one semester when they realized I and my colleagues were there to stay, the shells cracked and turned to dust. Most of my university students were harder shells to crack, though some arrived pre-cracked and ready to write.

The one commonality in class is that all of us can be stunned by a good poem, especially contemporary poetry as they were least exposed to it: Neruda, Ethridge Knight, Sharon Olds, Milosz, Heaney, and Plath.

I don’t think there was any one place where I got the most unexpected reactions. I got them everywhere from individuals: the fourth grader who had to go home sobbing the day we wrote elegies because she had always thought her grandfather’s dying was her fault and she had never told her parents; my low-achieving eighth grader who could not believe that a haiku about his motorcycle was a poem even though it didn’t rhyme and was not about flowers; a grad student who had said she would never write a poem and did; an inmate who came into the program in remedial writing and published a book of poems eventually.

Of course I learned most from my inmates because theirs was the life I was least familiar with. I learned that life in prison is horrid and hard, no matter what the folks outside think, and whether due to the hardness of the prison or the hardness of the lives that sent the men there, poetry seems nearer and dearer to them.

I’d be careful about speaking for anyone else about whether poetry helped, but I know it sustained me in the first hard time of my life, and I know it sustained some of my inmates and some of my college students who have continued to write or have not. For the children, it seemed a sort of disciplined fun in a time when they seem to get too much of one or the other: testing or running wild.

Who needs poetry nowadays in the USA? What is its social status? How are poets accepted by other people?

I’m not very sanguine on this score. When I began writing poetry seriously as an adult in the 1970’s, the MFA was not the major form of achievement, and today in the U.S. it is. I am just about to cancel my subscription to a writers magazine to which I have subscribed for over 30 years. It used to be a writer’s magazine, but now it is an advertisement for MFA programs.

One article this latest issue listed the 12 hottest poets and among the identifying categories defining them, the article listed where each got his/her degree. All but one had an MFA; the one who didn’t had only an MA and attributed her success to God. So that’s it in the U.S.A.: you either have an MFA or an in with GOD.

And so if there is any social status it is for those who teach in the MFA programs, and many teach in 2-3 of them!

Outside of the world of academia, I’d say poets are accepted with bemusement, as always, as Whitman and Ginsberg and even Dickinson were. The “real” American form has always been the novel, not poetry. I’ve noticed a difference especially among Latin Americans and Russians this way: poetry still has a high place in those cultures, and it never has in the U.S.

What are the relationships between poets in the USA? Is solidarity or competition the basis of communication between them?

I’d say that both solidarity and competition go way back in the annals of U.S. poetry. Robert Frost was particularly vicious in trying to undo his competition, Louise Bogan being a case in point. But solidarity does too: Eliot and Pound, James Wright and Leslie Silko. We had a lot of scandals a few years back with several notable professors choosing their students for major contests, or having their best friends choose their spouse.

Meanwhile, everyone who wasn’t chosen had paid entry fees for those contests. A brave, and subsequently ostracized man, set up a website (called “Foetry”) pointing out the relationships among judges and winners in several contests, with the result that many presses have cleaned up their acts.

You did research on the effect of Internet on poetry. What are the results you reached? Does Internet help it or kill it?

Yes, for several years I taught a course online about the effect of the internet. The students by and large were adults all over the U.S., most in the fields of engineering and business with little to no interest in literature. I sent them out to evaluate on what got them excited, and over and over what they wrote about was being able to see and hear the poets and poems: photos, voices, audio and video clips meant a lot. And of course, that was what captured me when I was in college, being able to see and hear the poets who came to my campus.

The internet brought that experience into their studies. One student whose grandmother was Polish wept when she heard Milosz read his poems online and discussing Poland in the 1940’s. And the student was able to hear the poem read in English.

Some of the men were very touched by reading Jimmy Santiago Baca read his poem about the men working in a gas station to patch tires. Baca had a very oral presence on the web because, he noted, many of his fans were not readers, but they loved to hear poetry.

So I think the more poets can use the personal, the audio, the video aspects of the internet, the more it can help. When I began to teach the course, a poet said to me, “The internet will be whatever people let it become. If it becomes only a place for business, then it will be all sales. If artists want it to reflect art, they have to work to make it reflect art.” I think he is right.

It has been a struggle for me because I am a technological idiot, but I worked to have work in online journals and to build a website and to have a poem I have read aloud. I try to use as many free internet tools as possible and to teach any of my writer friends who want to use them. I also think that some literary organizations have helped. The Scottish Poetry Library is wonderful and two of them many in the U.S. are Poetry Foundation (/) and ()

What is the attitude towards poetry written by women in the USA? What are the changes and where are they leading? Is there anything we could all do? Which seems like a more feasible career for a woman of letters – poetry or fiction?

My young students do not feel there is any remaining gender inequality, so perhaps it is my age, but I am struck over and over by the inequities in number of publications and awards of women compared to men, despite the numbers of women writing poetry. And I don’t see a lot of changes yet except organized, researched presentations of the facts.

A year or two ago, two women just counted the number of poems by women and men in U.S. poetry journals and published their results: no sermon, just the facts. The resulting rationalizations that were published by some editors would make a rhetorician weep> It remains to be seen whether anything will change.

In the U.S. at least the only feasible career for anyone of letters has always been fiction. I keep a quote by Marvin Bell on my desk, “Poetry is a way of life, not a career.” And one by Mary Oliver when she won the Pulitzer prize in response to the question of whether it was difficult to make a living as a poet: “It is difficult to make a living as a poet, but it’s the best way to live in order to have a life.”

I am from the working class so I have always been well aware that I would have to make a living, which I have done by teaching and any number of things (housework, retail clerking, waitressing), so poetry has for me been mostly my life and not much of a source of income. Still it took me to the best job I ever had, the man I married, to travels and experiences and staying sane at my desk when I might have been crazy on the streets, and I am grateful to poetry for that.

Creative writing courses are something new and therefore rare in Bulgaria, while you had a number of generations being taught the workshop aspects of literature in that way. Do creative writing courses produce writers? How do they affect the general attitude to literature? What are the pros and cons of teaching people on a wide scale to write?

Taking your last question first, the problem here is that we don’t teach people on a wide scale to write. If we did that, we would, like the Nicaraguan government once did, send people into the ghettos and farmlands, the hospitals and insane asylums to write.

Instead, most of our creative writing courses are for those who can afford the $27,00-$108,000 that such programs cost, or who go into debt for the rest of the lives in which they can’t get a job teaching poetry, which they assume they are going to do.

So I am all for “Poetry in the Schools,” where visiting poets go into public schools and teach. And I love public workshops, open to everyone, and introductory courses to undergraduates. I think it really opens people up to language, teaches them to hear and avoid the clichés—not just in their writing but as those clichés are used to sell them politics and products.

But I just feel they are death to a literature when they become a career-building force. We will wait and see how many Nobel authors have an MFA in the coming decades.

Is there something you forbid your students to do? What are your rules which save them from writing bad poetry?

Not always. Often on campus, I wouldn’t let them write rhyming poems for the first half of the semester because their version of rhyme was the quick, the cute, the clever, and empty. Once they had read and studied some good rhyming poetry, I would sic them on it.

I never had any do’s or don’ts, mostly a long list of things to try, to always be trying new things. If they had been writing poetry, they had been basically writing the same poem over and over, so they needed to get out of that rut. And few had ever read much, so if anything, they had to read: read traditional poetry and contemporary.

And this will mark me as a dinosaur, but I have always made my students memorize poetry: 10 lines every two weeks from 8 different periods/genres: Shakespeare, the Bible (or some holy book), Contemporary, Modern, 18th century, translated. They could write it out or recite it. At the prison, most of my men would recite and often more than 10 lines.

Writing poetry can be a difficult experience of self-questioning. Which are the classical and modern names in poetry which help you not to feel alone when you are alone?

Classical: Sappho, Proverbs and Psalms, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth
Modern: T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent-Millay, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Carolyn Forche, Jimmy Santiago Baca, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich…

But as Mark Van Doren has written:

How shall I name them?
And in what order?
Each would be first.
Omission is murder.

The world is shrinking into a global village. Do you think this village would like to read each others’ stories? Would it be able to?

I do. Translation has been so important to me, and it is the way, I think. The U.S. is an awful supporter of translators and translation. Of course, learning languages would be another way, but the U.S. is just as bad in that area.

Can a person make a living off poetry in the USA?

A person can make a living teaching poetry, but no one that I know of makes a living on poetry outside of academia. W.S. Merwin maybe, who made it in part on his translations, especially his translations of El Cid.

In some years, I have definitely had my living augmented by my poetry earnings—grants and awards, readings and workshops — one can usually make more to go “be” a poet than selling books: reading and leading workshops, being interviewed. But poetry was first an oral art, so that seems okay.

Do you find the concept of female writing as basically and uncompromisingly different from male writing helpful?

No. Some of my good friends on the Women Poets List Serve do and could argue that vehemently, but I’m not much of an essentialist. I do think that historically and culturally much of women’s poetry was different and devalued because of that difference, that hauling it up in the light of day and looking at it for what it is rather than what it isn’t has been a useful exercise for me.

For example, I have never understood why writing about war can be considered good poetry in and of itself while writing about domestic topics can be considered bad poetry automatically.

Many social clichés are connected to poetry: a poet is a revolutionary / a prophet / an intellectual / a street preacher / a university scholar / a political figure / an entertainer / a hermit, etc. Which of these poetic avatars work in the USA today? Do you feel any of these close to yourself?

If there is one good thing about poetry in the USA today, it is that all of these types stand under the umbrella of US Poetry today: Some are in the center holding the handle and staying dry, some are on the fringes getting wet and pronouncing their wetness, but all have places/publications. I think that’s a good thing.

I think I have a bit of all of them in me though my capacity for prophecy is rather lame and my preaching is tinged with agnosticism despite my Protestant roots. (Still, like Sharon Olds, I hear the Protestant hymns in my lines sometimes.)

Which was the most fulfilling experience you had connected to poetry?

It’s ongoing: still today, eight years later, several of the men that I worked with in prison for 18 years continue to stay in touch. Some are still writing, some have turned their talents to acting, music, staying alive and raising families. But at the core of our friendships is the time we spent reading, writing, performing, exchanging, and thinking about poetry.


Diane Kendig has worked for over twenty-five years as a poet and writer, translator, and teacher. She was born and raised in Canton, Ohio in a house her father Russ Kendig built himself when he came home from WWII and her parents still live in today. He married Gladys May Young, and they had four children, of whom Diane is the oldest.

Diane was educated in the public schools before going off to Otterbein College and then graduate school at Cleveland State University. One of the two big influences in her early years of writing remains her family and its community, which included her neighborhood, schools, and church. Second, she was fortunate to spend her twenties in Cleveland, with its expansive poetry performing and publishing scene, where writers from many classes, races, and professions collaborated in readings, workshops, and conferences.

She was thrilled to go back to Cleveland in 2006 to see one of her poems as part of a permanent art installation designed by Koryn Rostad at the Cleveland State College of Business. Since then, Diane has lived and worked other places in Ohio and in Santa Cruz, CA, Rochester, NY, Managua, Nicaragua, and currently, Massachusetts.

Her poetry has been published in two chapbooks, A Tunnel of Flute Song (Cleveland State Poetry Center) and Diane Kendig’s Greatest Hits (Pudding House) as well as over fifty journals, including Colere, Minnesota Review, Poetry Midwest, Slant, and Poemeleon, and anthologies such as Grrr: A Collection of Poems About Bears, Modern Poems of Ohio, and Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn.

She has been the recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Individual Artists Fellowships in Poetry and a Yaddo Fellowship.  In addition to poetry, she has published creative nonfiction and fiction in journals and anthologies such as Ariadne’s Thread: A Collection of  Contemporary Women’s Journals, From the Heartlands: Photos and Essays from the Midwest, and Those Winter Sundays: Female Academics and Their Working-Class Parents.

As a translator, she first published poems from the Nicaraguan poetry workshop movement, including a bilingual chapbook of Nicaraguan poems with photos by Steve Cagan.

Titled And a Pencil to Write Your Name: Poems from the Nicaragua Poetry Workshop Movement, the book took Diane to the National Endowment for the Humanities Translation Institute at UC Santa Cruz and to a 1991 Fulbright Lectureship in the Translation Department of Central American University in Nicaragua.

From 1984 to 2002, she was a member of the English Department at The University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio, where she developed the department’s creative writing emphasis and its visiting writers series.

In addition to courses in composition, creative writing, and teacher training, she developed a literature course in Ohio Writers, a career course for English Majors, and two advanced courses in poetics and rhetoric to be delivered both face to face and online.

During her tenure at UF, she participated in the university’s prison education program, teaching often Lima Correctional Institution.

In 1980 out of an abiding belief in public poetry workshops, Diane joined the Ohio Arts Council Artists in Residence program, where she remains as a Visiting Writer.  Because of her work with children and in collaboration with jazz musician Jack Taylor, she wrote a children’s musical, Talk to the Moon, which was produced by the local children’s theater in 1998.  She also led a writers workshop for inmates at the Lima Correctional Institution from 1985-2002.

Since moving to the East Coast in 2002, she has been teaching writing at Bentley College and doing public creative writing residencies in a national park, schools, and colleges.

She currently resides in Lynn, Massachusetts with her husband Paul Jude Beauvais and their new packmates, Robbie Burns Beaudig and Fiona Beaudig, two wheaten-colored Scottish Terriers.

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