Don Share is Senior Editor of Poetry magazine. His books include Squandermania (Salt Publishing), Union (Zoo Press), Seneca in English (Penguin Classics), and most recently a new book of poems, Wishbone (Black Sparrow), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions), which explores the British poet Basil Bunting’s time in the Middle East; Share has also edited a critical edition of Bunting’s work for Faber and Faber. His translations of Miguel Hernández, collected in I Have Lots of Heart (Bloodaxe Books) were awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize, and will appear in a revised edition from New York Review of Books Classics. He has been Poetry Editor of Harvard Review and Partisan Review, Editor of Literary Imagination, and curator of poetry at Harvard University. With Christian Wiman, he co-hosts the monthly Poetry magazine podcast and has co-edited The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine (University of Chicago Press).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
That first book changed my life by, well, by failing to change my life. I thought it would be momentous, and momentously gratifying, but though it was given a good write-up in Publishers Weekly, the press died suddenly and ignominiously, and so then did the book. It was devastating and humbling, so maybe the change consisted of teaching me not to be excessively proud of myself.
In my earlier work I was very careful with each poem in a technical sense. I’m older now, and as I go to pot, so does my prosody: I’ve let myself go to seed, and take that metaphor rather literally – it has been, shall we say, productive. Then again my early poems were written pre 9/11, and my language, like everyone else’s in our culture, has come to incorporate a version of (for lack of a worse word) instress.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first. When I was done with college, I was out of work for a while and sat down to write a novel: six hours a day, nothing but writing and some coffee. The result was abject and appalling junk. I’d always loved poetry, but thought it was too good for me. But the humiliation of writing prose ended up teaching me the writerly humility required to take up poetry in, as they say, earnest. As for non-fiction, well, I simply haven’t got the requisite diligence or patience.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I don’t have writing projects. I realize that they’re very trendy, but I disbelieve in them. Anyway, writing for me is a slow process because I’m in no hurry, and can’t think that writing is like running, that the more you do it the better you are. If that were true the most prolific among us would be the best, and it’s just not so (and how would we account for Larkin, Empson, among others?).
Because I have a job that requires my attention at just about all times, I have to write whenever life lets me do so, which is to say when I’m on the train to work, or pushing myself to stay up late into the night with a notebook in my lap. This induces a kind of pertinent reverie, so I don’t mind at all.
When I started out, I revised poems for years. I don’t know how many years I have left, so now I revise them for months. My drafts do resemble final versions; the relationship is genetic, but a poem can seem to grow up before your eyes almost the way a child goes. Then you let it leave home.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem begins for me as a mystery. That’s all I can say about it. Short pieces for me used to get woven into larger work, but now I let them stand alone and fend for themselves. If they’re too weak to stand, I just kill them off. I do somehow seem to know when things are part of what might become a “book.” It’s a question of knowing when and where to begin – and when to leave off.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
The best critique of a poem, in my experience, comes from having to read it in front of other people. If something sucks and you’re not being dense or perverse, an audience will let you know that… vividly. It’s not right to use people in this way, but we all do it, yes? That said, I enjoy doing readings, and try to do them well, because I know how difficult it is to sit through them.
There’s a story that comes to mind. I was in, shall we say, a bad way when trying to write the poems that went into Squandermania. At a reading for Amherst Books, I read aloud the angriest poems I thought I’d ever written. And people started laughing – a lot. At first, I was pretty confused and upset; I figured that I’d misjudged things so badly that I felt I’d better give up writing altogether. But then I realized how right my listeners were: the pathos of personal anger really is comedic. That insight put me on what felt like the right track, after all.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Lord no, no theoretical concerns. I’d have to be a philosopher or scientist or rabbi to address those adequately. It’ll sound portentous (part of the comedy, really), but it feels as if my poems are asking questions. Asking me questions. Like what the fuck do you think you’re doing? I’ve yet to come up with any answers.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m sure that the writer has a role in larger culture, alongside all the other kinds of roles that makers and doers have. But I can’t really say what that role consists of, exactly. I suppose the role of a writer is to write, and take his lumps, and then lie down, as Machado says, under the ground.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve never had an outside editor, as such, for poetry. Well, once, the poetry editor of a pretty well-known magazine said he would publish a poem of mine if he could rewrite it. I was so charmed and fascinated that I let him do it. He did a worse job than I did. I wouldn’t let it happen again. Poets are pretty much left to their own devices.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There’s an Allan Sherman song, “Good Advice,” which nicely points out that good advice is just the same as bad advice. “Good advice costs nothing, and it's worth the price.” (Video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MInOApCkA98) That’s about it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Critical prose is very hard to do. I adore reading it, and am relieved not to have to write it. Most of what gets called poetry criticism now is really just book reviewing mislabeled, or writing for the entirely understandable purpose of academic credentialing. Mostly, I’m lucky enough to get away with blogging, or writing pieces of what used to be called “appreciation.”
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have any kind of routine. I do carry all the implements with me, in case there’s a chance to work on something. Otherwise, I’m just living what passes for my life. And so a typical day begins for me with my eyes opening and becoming adjusted somehow to the light… after which I let the coffee and anxiety kick in. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled, I figure it’s my writing’s way of telling me to shut the hell up. So I stop. And then, unaccountably, it starts up again, particularly thanks to reading a lot (and not just reading poetry). At some point, one will have worked on his very last poem, but they don’t tell you when that moment comes.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Great question! Memphis BBQ.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above. But beyond influence, one needs stimulation. The crap that happens every day is the stimulus (I spend a lot of time on public transportation in a vast city, which is quite nicely stimulating). Books come, in other words, from life.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The list changes daily, sometimes even hourly. Louise Gluck says that we feed on other writers and move on. That’s pretty accurate (and vivid). We’re cannibals, aren’t we, when we read and write?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Once when I was young, one of my mentors, Derek Walcott (the other was George Starbuck) shoved a sheaf of okay-ish drafts back at me and said, “This is fine, but it’s not a life’s work.” He was right about that. So what I would like to have accomplished, and have not yet, is something resembling a life’s work.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, I’ve had all kinds of odd jobs in my life already. I’m quite happy doing the work I do now, thank you very much. If I hadn’t been a writer, well, Patrick Kavanagh has the best response. [You won’t be able to use the whole quote, but here it is! - ]
“I am always shy of calling myself a poet and I wonder much at those young men and sometimes those old men who boldly declare their poeticality. If you ask them what they are, they say: Poet.
There is, of course, a poetic movement which sees poetry materialistically. The writers of this school see no transcendent nature in the poet; they are practical chaps, excellent technicians. But somehow or other I have a belief in poetry as a mystical thing, and a dangerous thing.
A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life. Versing activity leads him away from the paths of conventional unhappiness. For reasons that I have never been able to explain, the making of verses has changed the course of one man’s destiny. I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland. I might have stayed at the same moral age all my life. Instead of that, poetry made me a sort of outcast. And I was abnormally normal…
I suppose when I come to think of it, if I had a stronger character, I might have done well enough for myself. But there was some kink in me, put there by Verse…
But I lost my messianic compulsion. I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal in the summer of 1955 and let the water lap idly on the shores of my mind. My purpose in life was to have no purpose.”
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
See above. I really have no idea. And yet… my fifth grade teacher - to punish me for doodling rather than taking notes on his lecture about volcanoes - smacked me on the crown of the head with the stone in his bulky class ring, exclaiming "One day, Don is going to be a GREAT WRITER." The gauntlet... almost literally... was laid down. Pete Townshend had his nose for motivation; I had Mr. Kramer.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Volume 4 of W. H. Auden’s collected prose. It was a better education for me than college! Last great film? 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I saw in Cinerama in 1968. I do think Spielberg’s Duel is a minor classic. I don’t get out much, as you can see.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A book of poems that are one sentence long each – not to be confused with tweets, by the way. In looking over a pile of recent drafts, I realized that almost every poem has maybe one good line in it; why not, I thought, just cut to the chase and keep that one line?
12 or 20 (second series) questions;