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How I made my writing career – poet, publisher and creative writing tutor David Starkey @WhatHaiku

David Starkey was always a writer at heart. After a few attempts at novels he found his feet in poetry, and has published a range of collections, including one that follows the plot of a series of The Sopranos. If that’s stopped you in your tracks, fear not, we will talk about it in due course. His latest book is What Just Happened: 210 Haiku Against the Trump Presidency. We’ll talk about that first.   

Roz Why did you choose the haiku form for this material?

David I initially started the series by writing one 15-line poem for each month of Trump’s awful presidency, but he did so many bad things in any given month, I quickly realized that I would have to go week-by-week. Around that point, I remembered David Trinidad’s hilarious Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera in which he’d written one haiku for each episode of that 1960s TV show. I didn’t want my book to turn into an epic, so that seemed like a good model, and I decided to stick to the traditional five-seven-five syllable pattern, which forced me to be careful with every syllable. Haiku purists might have trouble with some of the poems, but my subject matter was anything but pure.

Roz Why is poetry your chosen medium?

David When I was young, I wanted to be a novelist, but although I’ve finished a couple of (thankfully unpublished) novels, I haven’t yet been able to get the hang of it—though I haven’t given up yet. But basically, I became a poet by default. I had a knack for it, and the longer I worked at my craft—it’s been 35 years since I published my first poem—the better I got. At least, I hope that’s the case.

Roz What is poetry? Is it possible to answer this? What do you look for in a poem?

David Just about anything can become a good poem—I’m open to whatever a poet wants to try. But when it comes to the poems I really enjoy reading, they’re usually imagistic, concise and alive to the possibilities of sound. I like to hear assonance and consonance in service of the phrasing.

Roz How did you arrive at this creative career? Were your family in the arts or are you an outlier?

David Both my parents were schoolteachers, and while they valued education, they certainly weren’t big into the arts. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in unexciting Sacramento, California—it wasn’t the sort of place where anyone is expected to write poetry.

Roz Did you enter the world of professional creative writing directly or did you take a longer road?

David I always liked to write, but before I became an academic, I worked for an insurance company for a while. That was pretty miserable.

Roz You’ve got an impressive range of credits, with poetry published in American Scholar, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and many others. How long did it take to get serious attention for your work?

David I started getting published fairly quickly after I began writing seriously, but that’s probably because I was so persistent in submitting my work. This was back in the mid-80s, when you typed up your poems on a typewriter, used Wite-Out to make corrections, and surreptitiously made copies on the office copy machine.

Roz Were there many rejections? Are there still many rejections?

David Yes, I’ve been rejected countless times, and no doubt there are many more rejections ahead. I think that rejection just means that a writer, especially a poet, is still willing to take risks and experiment, to get things wrong first, before getting them right.

Roz I love that. But I think rejection is different in longform publishing. Certainly a book will be rejected if it needs more work, but it might also be rejected because it doesn’t suit the publisher’s audience.  

In your poetry, what are your main themes and concerns?

David I write a lot about family, and though I’ve just called my hometown ‘unexciting’, I frequently draw on the city and surrounding farmlands and foothills for material.

Roz Have these changed over the years?

David As I get older, I’ve begun writing more elegies. And I’m always open to some odd incident or happenstance becoming the germ for a poem. In fact, if I am an “underappreciated” poet, as I read a few years back, it’s partly because my tastes and subject matter are so idiosyncratic. You get a sense of that eccentricity in What Just Happened, which mines another of my favourite themes: politics, in particular America’s perpetually disappointing behaviour, which we saw so clearly during Trump’s reign.

Roz If I could whistle up a time warp, what would Today’s David say to Earlier David?

David I hope I’m more sophisticated and more concise than I was three and a half decades ago, but of course there’s a certain jouissance any young writer has that’s inevitably going to diminish over time. That said, I think tonally my work has been pretty consistent: there’s always lots of irony in a David Starkey poem.

Roz You’ve had 11 poetry collections published with small presses. Tell me about that.

David I completed my MFA in poetry writing at Louisiana State University in 1990, and of course I was hoping I would be the Next Big Thing. I’d received a lot of praise in my graduate program, but there are a lot of graduate programs in creative writing, and more coming online all the time. So, when I didn’t win the Yale Younger Poets prize, or any of its equivalents, I soon realized that my best publication chances were going to come through small presses, which are generally more welcoming to someone like me, who doesn’t excel at schmoozing.

Roz Is it possible to sum up each of your collections in a word or two? If we put them all together, would we see the barometer of David’s life?

David I don’t know that I could sum up each book in a single word, but I’d say the arc has gone from very small micro-presses to those that are more robust in marketing their writers’ work. I think if you read the books from first to most recent, you would get a pretty good sense of what was happening in my life and my general attitude toward things. One big caveat: I write frequently from other people’s perspectives—in fact, I’d say a good half of everything I’ve written is some form of a dramatic monologue. So, the actual details in any given poem might be completely fabricated. And, again, I’m liable to write a poem about anything, so there are a lot of tangents in there.

Roz Let’s talk about editing poets. How does one edit poets? And what do poets look for in an editor?

David I think serious poets want to write the best poem they are capable of writing at that particular moment. A good editor is someone who works with the material that’s already there, who doesn’t try and take over another person’s poem and make it their own.

Roz What about teaching? How does one teach poets? What kind of guidance do they need and seek?

David What young poets need and seek don’t always match up. When poets are first starting out, as they usually are when they take a community college creative writing class, they really benefit from being exposed to lots of different writing that they probably didn’t know existed. For instance, if all you’ve read is sentimental verse celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or on the other end of the spectrum, you think poetry equals hip-hop, and that’s it, you’re going to be surprised by how many other ways people have found to effectively express themselves. My creative writing textbook is going into its fourth edition this year, and I think part of its success is due to how keen I’ve been to seek out and share a wide variety of new writing, in all genres.

Roz I notice Wikipedia mentions your collection Like a Soprano, based on the TV series. This is such a surprising idea. How did you come to write it?

David The book by David Trinidad that I mentioned earlier was an inspiration for Like a Soprano. However, instead of writing one haiku for each episode, I went with the prose poem, which gave me a lot more flexibility to handle the nuances of the show. I was also thinking of how in centuries gone by poets would write about the gods and heroes, and yet they seem so distant to us now. Our new mythology is formed by television—and movies and video games—and Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure for our time.

One of the main characters in the show—Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti—lives in Santa Barbara and was nice enough to write a blurb, so I thought Like a Soprano would make a bigger splash than it did. But it turns out that if you make a Venn diagram, the overlap between viewers of The Sopranos and readers of literary poetry is, alas, pretty small.

Roz The unexpected combination of genres and readerships… This is also a hazard for longform writers. Anyway, tell me about another work of yours that you wish would get more attention.

David It’s the book I published just before What Just Happened. It’s called Dance, You Monster, to My Soft Song, and it contains the best poems I wrote between 2014, when Like a Soprano was published, and 2020. Like so many pandemic-era poetry books, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Roz You founded – or helped to found – the creative writing programme at Santa Barbara City College. How did that happen?

David Prior to my arrival at City College, creative writing was just a couple of classes offered every once in a while. As founding director, I went through all the official curriculum development that a college requires, gave the offerings some structure, set up a reading series, instituted student writing contests, and so forth.

Roz Does this mean you have created your own ideal creative writing programme – and what does that look like?

David I don’t know that it’s my ideal programme. American community colleges are designed to propel students into four-year institutions after just two years, so there’s not a lot of continuity among the student population, but I think it’s done a lot of good over the past 14 years. I just retired a month ago, and it’s been hard to let it go.

Roz You’re a co-editor of Gunpowder Press…

David I started Gunpowder Press back in 2014 because I wanted to publish two books of poetry. The first was by my late friend, David Case, who died when he was just 49. He named me as his literary executor, and I heard from publishers that bringing out a book by a relatively unknown poet who was no longer alive to promote it was a losing proposition for them, no matter how good the poems were.

Then my Santa Barbara friend Chryss Yost had a wonderful first book that she’d been having trouble publishing. As it happened, Chryss was also a whiz at book and web design, and after I published her book, I asked her to come on board as co-editor.

Most of the books we publish are through our annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, which is named after Santa Barbara’s first poet laureate. Chryss and I choose our 10 favourite manuscripts then forward them, without names attached, to our final judge, a prominent poet who changes every year. We also have an anthology series, started by Chryss, that features poets of California’s Central Coast.

Roz Also you’re co-editor of the California Review of Books

David I got the idea for The California Review of Books when our local arts paper, where I’d been publishing book reviews for years, decided to focus only on local writers. I teamed up with Brian Tanguay, another of the paper’s long-time reviewers, and Chryss Yost, and we’ve been publishing reviews since January.

Roz For both, are there any mistakes or shortcomings you see frequently in submissions from authors?

David It’s the standard thing most editors would say: some potential contributors don’t seem to be aware of the type of work we publish. But the submission chances for the two are very different, at least at the moment. Getting even a very good poetry book published by Gunpowder is really difficult, but getting a strong, 1,000-word review published in CRB is absolutely doable.

Roz What have I forgotten? Oh yes, your six textbooks on creative writing, and several other textbooks you’ve edited or contributed to. Do these represent changes or refinements to your teaching approach over the years?

David I think a lot of students, and teachers, dismiss textbooks as a not very important genre of writing, and it’s true some are pretty horrible. However, it’s extraordinarily hard, and time-consuming, to write a good textbook. As my teaching matured, I did become a better—and, yes, more refined—writer of textbooks, certainly since the first one was published in 1999. The older you get, though, the more actively you have to work to place yourself in the mind of a 20-year old student.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

David I’ve started and stopped several projects since I finished What Just Happened. I usually have a sense after five or six pages that something has the potential to make it to the finish line, and if it doesn’t, I will quickly abandon ship. I like Keats’s thought that ‘If it come not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of hard work and revision, but I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming upstream—to use my third cliché of this response.

Roz You’re teaching the writers of tomorrow. You’re publishing them too, and your own body of respected work. Are you living the dream?

David I always remind myself how lucky I am to have the time to write at all. Most people are too busy trying to make a living, or simply finding edible food and clean water, to even think about writing poetry. Having the chance to sit down and say what’s on my mind is an incredible luxury. I’m definitely living the dream.

Find David on Facebook and tweet him at @WhatHaiku

Find What Just Happened, which is published by Vine Leaves Press, here

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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