Tillinghast Came; Abstract poetry?

The events with Richard Tillinghast went swimmingly.

His reading had a really good turn out (though Tillinghast did say that half of the attendees were his relatives, since he’s from Memphis, but I imagine he was being hyperbolic.), and he read very well. Tillinghast doesn’t have an Irish brogue from his years spent living there; he still has a very mild-mannered Southern drawl. He read a few poems specifically about his father since he was thinking of him here, as well as one of the translations he and his daughter did of Edip Cansever’s poetry.

It is always good for any writer who wants to get into the field to attend readings and see other professionals in the field. Tillinghast read, kindly answered a few questions, and then was done.

The next morning, the University of Memphis hosted an interview with him by one of our MFA students. These interviews are also open to the public. Sometimes they go very well, like when a group of students jointly interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin (which will actually be showcased in the Fall 2011 issue of The Pinch). Sometimes they go badly, like when two students tried to interview one poet and he simply refused to answer any questions (which he’s done for years. He just hates interviews for some reason.). Every writer is different and some are more interview-able than others. Tillinghast fared well. He didn’t always stay on point, but he has so many interesting experiences to call from that I don’t know how he could ever bore an interviewer.

Finally comes the real blessing of attending the University of Memphis MFA program: the guest writers then host a workshop with the students in their particular genre. It’s a great opportunity to get to know a writer a bit more and experience how other writers run workshops, since Tillinghast has taught workshops at Sewanee, Harvard, and the University of Michigan. We’ve had some different experiences with these workshops: one poet talked about balancing plates and compared our poems to one another’s, which none of us understood too much; another poet did a great job at workshopping each line and talking about specifics. Tillinghast was kind, thoughtful. He had each poet read his or her work and then Tillinghast made some opening comments about it, then he’d open it to the class. If someone said something that he agreed with, he’d point that out and they’d talk about it.

He did point out something I said that he didn’t agree with. A poem we were workshopping included the line, “prime snatch lined up like fresh fish.” My comment was that it was disgusting and then I moved on to other comments. Tillinghast told me that my comment sounded like a moral judgment and that moral judgments don’t matter in poetry; what matters is the sound and the freshness of an image. I argued that comparing women’s genitals to fish was a cliché and did little for musicality. I said the author’s use of “poozwack” earlier in the poem was actually interesting and fresh. He was right though, using “disgusting” as a workshop comment doesn’t help at all. Sometimes the most disgusting things in a poem might be the most evocative.

What I took away from the workshop is that poetry can push the line of abstraction. I’m a very rational poet. I want each of my images to be very clear. I may push the space of reality vs. surreality, but my goal is not to go too abstract to lose my audience. Tillinghast made the point that sometimes regardless of whether he understands a line, it sticks for him and makes him want to understand the line. I don’t know where that goes in thinking about my own poetry, but it might help me be more empathetic for other poets who do choose to go more abstract. My response is always to make those abstract lines clearer, more in reality. I think the best poems are those that take reality and shape it to be clear in a new way. I always see abstraction as laziness, as a way for a writer to get out of being precise. Maybe it’s not so much that. Maybe there’s a playfulness to it that I just don’t get yet.

How do you deal with the line of abstraction? Do you play with it? Stay on one side of the extreme?

Richard Tillinghast will also be at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN on Sat, October 15th. SFB is free and open to the public, so see him and stop by The Pinch table if you get the chance!