Why Poetry and Prose Matter

A conversation with Pamela Alexander and Martha Collins

by Marci Janas '91


If the ultimate test of friendship is whether you can rely upon someone to drive you to the airport, then Pamela Alexander and Martha Collins, friends for 13 years, have nothing to worry about. When both were among the final candidates for the directorship of Oberlin's Creative Writing Program, each drove the other to the airport for her respective Oberlin interview. Both got the job. In a rare turn for academe, Alexander and Collins share directorship of the program, begun more than 25 years ago by Stuart Friebert, who retired in 1997. The dialogue that follows provides a glimpse into the creative minds of these poets as they discuss why poetry matters - not only at Oberlin, but beyond.

Pamela Alexander and Martha Collins COLLINS: "Does poetry matter?" not "Why does poetry matter?", is what used to get asked. Poetry is basically human - if it doesn't happen on one level in society, such as in the academy, it will happen on another, in bars or coffeehouses. Making music out of language is universal; it happens in all cultures; it's pre-literate. The question is how it comes to matter in the society in which we live. I've spent time in Vietnam - a culture where poetry and the poet are honored - working with the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, translating his poems into English. Seeing what a difference poetry makes to everybody in that culture - where a famous poet is a famous person - was instructive for me. For much of this century, poetry was not honored much outside of the academy; although honored among poets, I'm not sure it has generally been honored by other people. The poetry taught in the academy and the poetry honored by the folks is not necessarily the same poetry. With the split between modernism and traditional poetry, there was no filtering-down process; there wasn't a Longfellow there for schoolchildren to learn - and they were not going to memorize "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

ALEXANDER: That sort of war between the free verse poets and the traditionalists in the '20s confused readers, and may have been part of the eclipse of poetry - it was such a major, disjunctive development that the public got left behind. Now, with the poets-in-the-schools and popular poetry in bars and poetry slams, things are changing; poetry's become more popular. Now there's an aftershock from the Imagist earth-quake going on - poetry slams and performance poetry at the same time as a renewed interest in traditional forms. The so-called new formalists are saying, "Wait: traditional meters and forms have been lost; we must regain them." I think the majority of poets would say that many of us do write both kinds of poetry; it's not an either/or choice poets have to make. Poetry right now is enormously diverse - there's no reason for anybody to say 'I don't like poetry,' because poetry is dozens of different things depending upon where you are in the country, whose book you pick up, or whom you go to hear.

COLLINS: I think that even at Oberlin there are a number of students who want to write who really haven't read poetry. Haven't you experienced that?

ALEXANDER: Well, I certainly did at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [where she taught for 13 years, the last five as writer-in-residence]. Here they're clearly better read, although I have students whose enthusiasm is far ahead of their reading experience. One thing that I notice here about beginning students - because they're young and some haven't read widely - is that they might have latched onto Allen Ginsberg and write like him exclusively, or Emily Dickinson, and you don't want your students to be imitating all the time.

COLLINS: Well, I'm not so concerned about the people who read Ginsberg as the people who don't! Those are the students that I've been teaching all of my life [at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where she founded the creative writing program]. I'm conscious that on this campus there are students who have not read even Ginsberg, who have not really had the experience of poetry at all, and who would like to. Our course offerings - large sections of poetry in the fall and fiction in the spring - are open to all students without application, to introduce them to poetry and prose they might not have read in high school. Students who haven't had a wonderful background in creative writing have the chance to at least try this out. When you have a good program, such as Oberlin's, the students who come here to take it tend to be pretty special. That can often exclude somebody who didn't know this was out here and who may want to explore it.

ALEXANDER: Besides exposing them to all sorts of literatures, they have a chance to develop their portfolios and to think about technique - to read as writers.

COLLINS: Step one is to read.

ALEXANDER: I agree.

COLLINS: I'm delighted by the fact that you tell Oberlin students to read and they read; they work very hard and produce some wonderful things. I'm delighted by their work in my classes. I think what everyone in the Oberlin program - and everyone who's ever been in it in a serious way - shares is an interest in the craft of writing, whatever genre they happen to be working in. One of the special things about the Oberlin program is that students are required to take workshops in three of five genres - poetry, prose, playwriting, nonfiction, and translation. In MFA programs, you usually do one thing - you almost can't do more.

ALEXANDER: I know. It's shocking.

COLLINS: The different genres help one another. Poetry helps prose on the level of the word - prose writers tend to think large, and poets think small, in this century at least. Prose does the opposite for poetry: to think prose is to think structure in a way that poets often don't.

ALEXANDER: Yes, as with point-of-view, one of the underpinnings of a story's structure. It often doesn't come up at all in poems since so many poems are short- to medium-sized lyrical language events. Working in multiple genres is important. At the undergraduate level, people often don't know what they're good at yet; they might think they're poets but then discover in the introductory course, where they're writing in several genres, that they're damn good at writing fiction, too.