Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard University and the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, 2008, and, most recently The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them.
Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard University and the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, 2008, and, most recently The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them.
The collections we’re going to talk about today were all published post-2000. Preconditioned as we are to look for defined eras, generations and other labels, how would you define this poetry compared to, say, the poetry published in the decade or two before the millennium?
In terms of US poetry, there are definitely turning points where you can say ‘American poetry really felt different after this moment.’ But 2000–2001, honestly, isn’t one of them. Things happened – George W. Bush became president, there was a well-known terrorist attack, the stock market went up and down, but the feel of US poetry in the new millennium didn’t change suddenly in the way that I think it did change suddenly in the early 1980s and again in the mid-2010s.
The poetry we’re going to talk about today belongs to the era that began in the 80s and ended around 2015. It’s an era characterised by an increased distance from the pre-modern past; by an increasing but in a lot of ways insufficient attention to the diversity of experiences and backgrounds, especially among white poets; by the integration of avant-garde techniques, techniques for avoiding prose sense, into poetry that ultimately did make prose sense. It’s also an era characterised by the integration of techniques and attitudes towards poetry that in the 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s would have seemed to belong to distinct camps.
Mark Oppenheimer, riffing on Willard Spiegelman, editor of Southwest Review, once described you as “the critic who, more than any other, understands the here and now” and “flourishes amid the hipsters and the sonneteers.” Because of your prolific criticism, teaching, panel appearances and so on, you’ve been described as a “tastemaker” and “talent scout”. Is it fair to say you gravitate towards the margins and the indies?
I don’t think the mainstream-indy distinction helps me to think about US poetry because the country is so big and because after the 1990s New York trade publishers became less important to poetry. Distinctions between a mainstream and an avant-garde became fighting terms in the 1990s, then grew less important as time went by. I don’t know that I’m looking especially for the marginal – I’m looking for the interesting. I’m looking for people who extend the capacities of the language and make verbal objects that either show me my own life or show me someone else’s.
“I’m looking for the interesting. I’m looking for people who extend the capacities of the language and show me my own life or show me someone else’s”
All of the poets on my list are people who are centrally positioned, or connected to, hundreds of years of writerly tradition in some ways, and then marginal or independent or pushing back against kinds of oppression in others. Every actual human life is multidimensional. Most of us have multiple identities, and most of us are more aware of one than the other, but all of us are multiple things, and these are all poets who are alert to multiple dimensions of identity, of experience as well as literary style and inheritance. So they’re all marginal in some ways, although maybe not in others.
How would you apply all that to your first book choice, The Infinitesimals (2014), by Laura Kasischke? She’s been going since the 1980s but, from the early 2000s, your championing of her work in reviews and your book The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence has helped her to gain a much broader audience.
Yeah, she’s great, I write about her every chance I get! She’s someone who is alert to the conversational and informal dimensions of language and to ways of talking about ourselves that have been there in spoken language but haven’t made it into the written language, or have but not in sufficiently memorable ways. She has written about marriage, and then about divorce and re-marriage, and about the ways that women’s lives are shaped by other women’s experiences and by what other women have told them. She’s a mom and a step-mom and she’s written, for most of her career, beautiful poems about parenthood and motherhood – and that’s something that’s been more talked about than written about for much of the history of poetry.
She’s also in her most recent work – The Infinitesimals, for example – writing about illness, about having elderly parents pass away, and her own very serious medical experiences (she’s had breast cancer), and those are experiences that have been more talked about than written about too. She’s been able to bring her thoughts and ways of talking about often taboo or shameful or suppressed experiences into a place where she can use the resources of hundreds of years of previous poetry, without sacrificing the appearance of spontaneity, without sacrificing the conversational, without sacrificing the vivid surprise of speaking with someone.
What does her title refer to?
It comes from the epigraph which is the 18th century philosopher George Berkeley objecting to Newton and Leibniz inventing calculus which, as you may remember from math class, has to do with how to account mathematically for ratios and ranges and qualities and numbers that are always changing, or that are too small to state as finite numbers. And Berkeley’s objection, in a letter, which Kasischke picks out is, “They are neither finite quantities not quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?” And this is a way for Berkeley to object to the new math that Newton was inventing, which turns out to be math that works pretty well, but it’s also a way of thinking about experiences that seem too small to state in memoir or in narrative form and whose only form can be lyric.
It’s also a way for Kasischke, I think, to think about the soul, the spirit, the persona of a human being, and it may also be a way of thinking directly about the soul or spirit of the departed. In this collection in particular, she’s thinking about ghosts, the people we used to be and no longer are, about the presence of the girl you used to be in the mind of the woman you now are, about the presence of people we mourn in the minds of the living – all of which are not nothing but are not tangible, and therefore belong in the domain of lyric poetry.
It’s also a rejection of the idea of stable categories; that there can be one stable definition of a thing, of a person – so 2 + 2 might equal 4 this minute, but it might not the next, or it might equal 4 to you but not to me… And what is 4 anyway? There are infinite ways of splitting it.
That’s right and an infinitesimal, of course, is also 1 over infinity. It turns out that when you focus on the tiny, you also end up imagining the very large. That’s one of Kasischke’s discoveries in this book in particular. When you focus on the spirit or the soul or the persona or the lyric voice or things that are too small to pin down in language, and you’re in the realm of the transcendental or the realm that has for many belonged to religion, you end up thinking about the end of everything.
You end up thinking about your own death, about the death of everybody, about the ending of civilisation, and about the death of the material world. A lot of these poems juxtapose the fleetingness of personal experience with the fact that all experience comes to an end, with a kind of apocalypse. It is a book – and this is new for Kasischke – where the structure of the book has a lot of call-backs not just to previous poets like T S Eliot and Sylvia Plath but to the Book of Revelation, to the end of everything. For instance, there’s a poem called ‘The First Trumpet.’ The title is a pun. Kasischke is overhearing a beginning trumpeter – perhaps a middle-schooler – who is practising taps and learning to play; but it’s also the first trumpet of the apocalypse…
“Kasischke overhears a trumpeter – perhaps a middle-schooler – who is practicing; but it’s also the first trumpet of the apocalypse”
She’s always got multiple moments and multiple recollections in her poems. They’re so conversational and so apparently spontaneous and yet when you go back and look at them, there are just so many sonic as well as psychological patterns that hold them together.
Does she belong in the category of poets that you defined as ‘The New Thing’?
No, she doesn’t. The New Thing as a potential school might be over. Some of its poets are still writing and still very good. For instance, everything Joseph Massey writes is worth reading. But that was a set of poets who wanted to make small, hard, definite, concrete, almost but not quite impersonal, poetry.
So, she’s the opposite?
Yes, she’s the opposite. Kasischke is very much oriented for voice and character. She’s a prolific writer of prose fiction and, honestly, an uneven one, but her best novels are wonderful. Her work as a maker of characters and situations and her thinking about individual lives very much informs the speaking voices in her poems.
Let’s move on to C D Wright. You’ve chosen Steal Away: Selected and New Poems (2002). Tell us why this one is on your list.
C D Wright passed away at the beginning of 2016. She did so many things so well. She has turned out – and this has been true for 20 years – to be a model and a sort of guidepost for American poetry. She wrote book-length poems with journalistic elements, about people in trouble, about the civil rights movement, about contemporary southern poverty, about incarcerated people. She is a poet of visuality – she often collaborated with a photographer – of the world as seen. She’s a poet of regional identity and regional English, she is a poet of the uncontrollability and the delights and the scary abjection of embodied experience and, in particular, of women’s sexual experience. She’s a poet who inherits the will to break apart prose sense: to resist certain kinds of clarity, to really give you fragments of statements rather than statements in order to be truer to the messiness of experience, and to resist institutional and empowered and hierarchical impulses to bring everything into a definite shape.
So, Wright is a poet of personality and of resistance to personality. She is a poet of a powerful shaping voice and of resistance to shapeliness. She is a poet of the present moment, but also a poet of American history. And she’s a poet of big messy book-length poems but also of tiny perfect lyric moments. She just does so many things so well. And in a way that’s really been true of no American poet since the death of William Carlos Williams, C D Wright is a poet where there is something in there for everyone.
She described herself as an outsider – she said she wasn’t a “manifestoed” poet.
Yes. She wrote works that you can read as manifestos but she didn’t like telling people what to do. She wanted to support people who didn’t want to be told what to do. And her work, indeed, often says ‘don’t tell me what to do.’ She felt like an outsider in terms of her combination of stylistic influences. And she was certainly a regional outsider; came from a part of America that was rural and sort of off the map and and often looked down on or overlooked by people who come, as I do, from the large east or west coast metropolises.
“She is a poet of a powerful shaping voice and of resistance to shapeliness; she is a poet of the present moment but also a poet of American history”
She was very much a part of Arkansas and, at the same time, she looked outside Arkansas. And there’s quite a lot of her later work that doesn’t make sense unless you’re willing to look up something about Providence, Rhode Island where she made her home, along with her husband, the very good poet and translator Forrest Gander.
There’s a wonderful quasi- and anti-narrative multi-part poem in one of her later books, Rising, Falling, Hovering, that records their travels in Mexico, with and against the travels of her son. That poem, in turn, calls back to poems from the 1980s about Wright and Gander’s time in that country. So she’s also a poet of Mexican-American interactions.
And that’s another way in which she is making connections across differences. She wanted to be a poet of what we would now call intersectionality – of outsiders talking to other outsiders – rather than a poet of people hiving off into tiny little groups and not talking to one another. So, she’s a poet of connections made and I think she would say connections among outsiders. That’s part of the strength of her language.
And that’s consistent with her role on the publishing side of things, isn’t it, because she took over at Lost Roads in the late 70s?
Yes. So, her and Forrest Gander’s relation to Lost Roads has to be thought of in connection with the history of that press. It was a press that continued to exist – and I think it still exists – as a way to do independent publishing: to promote voices that wouldn’t be heard otherwise. It has its origin in the Arkansas poetry scene of the late 70s, shaped by Wright and a number of other writers, but principally by the poet Frank Stanford.
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Stanford was quite prolific and died quite young. It’s hard to separate the history of Lost Roads from the beginning of Wright’s career and her involvement with Stanford, but it’s quite important to look at the individual volumes excerpted within Steal Away, to see how much she changed. I like to start with Tremble. I don’t want to say it’s objectively her best – I don’t think there’s objectively a best volume – but Tremble is a vey good place to start. You can also start with String Light, from 1991.
It’s quite important to see someone like Wright as someone whose career has multiple stages, multiple genres, multiple goals, and not to reduce it to who she was and who she knew and what she wanted to do in her twenties. That’s where she started.
Next up we have D A Powell and Chronic (2009). You’ve said of him that “no accessible poet of his generation is half as original, and no poet as original is as accessible”. Can you elaborate on that? What is so original about him?
Powell is someone who doesn’t do a whole bunch of about-faces in his style, in the way that someone like Wright does. But he expands and deepens what he can do, and his subjects expand. It’s fun to introduce people to Powell. Powell is a poet who can be appreciated by people who mostly read short stories and novels. Powell is a great poet of sex; he is a great poet of coming of age and figuring out who you want to be.
Since he’s a gay man of a certain generation, he’s also had to become – almost as soon as he started writing – a poet of the HIV/AIDS crisis. And it’s very easy to go through his first book, Tea, and see how that book invites you to see it as a book-length sequence about sexual pleasure and sexual maturity and gay identity, at a time when you couldn’t be a gay man without being aware of what HIV and AIDS were doing and how those illnesses and deaths talked back to, and horribly echoed, the very old associations of sexual pleasure with sin and destruction.
Powell begins as someone who is trying to craft a style adequate to all of that, and to the Whitmanian, wonderful tradition of sexual pleasure as a kind of life. And also, he was trying to craft a way to bring gay and queer popular culture into high literary style. So, Powell evolved his first style, in Tea, in terms of long lines that keep restarting and keep trying not to stop in almost the way that the disco music that is so important to his early work tried to keep people dancing through the night.
He’s trying to turn something that was supposed to isolate you in a homophobic world into a source of solidarity. Powell develops this long line that is designed to bring people together to celebrate pleasure and acknowledge danger and keep going where you might expect it to stop. And then, he turns this long line back on to other subjects: back on to the lives of other people, back on to the southern landscape – he’s from the American South – and on to the Californian landscape.
“Powell evolved his first style in terms of long lines that keep restarting, trying not to stop, like disco music that tried to keep people dancing through the night”
He spent his teen years and most of his adulthood in California, in the agricultural Central Valley and then in San Francisco. Chronic is an eco-poetry book. Chronic is a book that is super aware of sexual pleasure among men, but it’s also aware of the unsustainable beauty and ugliness of industrial agriculture in California’s Central Valley. It’s aware of what Elizabeth Colbert called the “sixth extinction” that we’re in the middle of now. The book is aware of climate change and it’s aware of the possibility that we are living at the end of civilization, at the same time as it is aware of the possibility that we are in a society that has more possibilities for human flourishing than ever before – and that maybe, in some ways, can continue.
So, it’s got apocalyptic and anti-apocalyptic, liberal and anti-liberal, humanist and anti-humanist, landscape and portrait views all put together in short and long poems, with very long lines that are characteristically and uniquely Powell’s. And it is Powell’s book that has the most internal variety.
I wonder if that’s what John Freeman meant when he said of Chronic that it represents something like a pivot in Powell’s oeuvre in that he went from being more introspective, perhaps, angry, localized, to then looking out at the same time as looking in. He’s doing both in this volume.
I think he broadened himself. Chronic is a book that pays more attention to landscape and the nonhuman world. For Powell, as for Whitman, everything can be sexual just as everything can be natural. But it has all the subjects that his previous work had and more. And if you’re someone who wants to read about biology and landscape and region, and doesn’t especially want to read about sexuality, then Chronic is the Powell book for you.
He’s been called a modern romantic.
He is a modern romantic, in the lowercase ‘r’ sense, in that romance – dating and hookups and sex and ‘who do you want to get busy with?’ – are among his subjects. He’s also a capital ‘R’ Romantic – like Wordsworth and Blake and Coleridge he is interested in the numinous; he is interested in how you get from the visible world of sublunary and historical experience, to the invisible world of spiritual experience, the world where everything that matters could be forever if it exists at all. He’s absolutely in the Romantic line, and I think he would admit that.
He’s also a religious poet. His poetry since the book Cocktails has a running dialogue with varieties of sex-positive Christian beliefs. When I read Kasischke, a lot of my experience is some form of mediated self-recognition. I read the poems of teen experience and I read the poems of parental experience. I mean, I’ve never given birth and I’m not a mom but I say ‘I’m close to people who have been there’, and I say ‘I really wish I could do that’. When I read Powell’s work, I sort of oscillate between ‘I’ve been there’, ‘I wish I could do that’ and ‘oh, that’s quite distant from me; that’s nowhere near my experience.’ The relationship to Christian belief – and I have this experience when I read Coleridge also – is one of the parts of Powell where I read this and I say ‘oh, that’s not in me.’ I love the way that he evokes both responses when I reread him.
Let’s talk about Terrance Hayes and Wind in a Box (2006). His poems lie at what he calls “the intersection of identity and culture” which reminds me of what you were saying about C D Wright. Music figures really predominantly in his work. There’s Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane and Miles Davis in Muscular Music – I think that was his first collection.
That was his first book, yes. It’s a book that I like, but all the other books I love. Yes, he’s very musical and he plays the piano quite seriously. I had the good fortune to get to interview him at length and his musical knowledge is really quite broad. And I think all of his books have both references to individual actual musicians – Grace Jones and Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson and David Bowie etc – but they also have references to musical genres where the examples are made up, and they are in dialogue with musical styles in a way that can’t be reduced to what we know about individual artists.
He’s even written a series of poems – in his book Lighthead – about made up musicians and reviews of made up records. So, he has tremendous range in the way to use the interplay between verse composition and sound performance throughout his work.
I’m really interested in what he said in a 2013 interview for Hot Metal Bridge when he said “I’m chasing a kind of language that can be unburdened by people’s expectations. I think music is the primary model—how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition with no words communicates meaning? It might be impossible. Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.” So, is that his drive: to find a language that is unburdened by thought?
I think of him as an intellectual, so I’d be surprised to hear him describe his work in that way. I think he is trying to find ways of thinking in language that are more like the kinds of thought made possible by music composition – whether it’s improvisational music composition, or the kind of composition that you do when you are arranging a pop song, or composing a string quartet. I think there are a lot of kinds of thought that are not discursive and not propositional. And his formal versatility – his formal restlessness – and the fact that his poems are always embracing and reinventing some formal and some generic model has a lot to do with his wish to think experimentally, in ways that are non-propositional.
Powell and Kasischke both have a relationship with poetic form that is always interesting tactically. Why does this line sound that way? Why did you put that phrase there? Why is there a barren rhyme here? Why are you repeating that word? There are infinite things to say about how Powell and Kasischke do in terms of their use of form, tactically, moment to moment to moment.
With Hayes, the consistent and inexhaustible interest in form and technique is not just tactical but strategic. I often find myself wanting to say ‘what kind of poem does he think he is writing? Or what kind of composition?’ It might be a be-bop piece with a series of solos, or electronica, or some other musical form that he’s starting from, rather than a piece of received poetic form. But he’s interested in composition, in what kind of form I am using and how I can tweak it as poem-wide strategy.
“Terrance Hayes’s games have major emotional stakes, but you have to familiarise yourself with how the game is played first”
With British and Irish audiences, I like to compare him to Paul Muldoon. I think Terrance Hayes and Paul Muldoon have things in common with each other that they do not have in common with, really, almost anyone else at work in English language poetry. And it is fun to see how both of them have had their reception shaped and deformed – this also makes me mad – by parallel things. If you read Terrance Hayes and you don’t understand how deep the feeling, how deep the desire and love for others is, and you don’t see that anger and resentment at inequality – if you don’t see those emotions – then you complain that he’s dry or intellectual or just playing games. And he’s not. The games have major emotional stakes, but you have to familiarise yourself with how the game is played first.
The same is true with Muldoon, whose reception is spiked with people saying that there’s no feeling there and, of course, there is. But it’s encoded feeling or mediated feeling. There are also non-black readers who read Hayes and think that it’s all about the black experience because he’s a black man 100 percent of the time. And that is part of what he writes about, but he has many subjects.
Non-Irish readers can read Paul Muldoon and then say ‘oh, it’s all about Irish identity’, or ‘it’s all about growing up during the Troubles.’ And, of course, Belfast, and before that County Armagh, inform what Muldoon has written about, but it’s stupid to reduce Muldoon to Irishness or to the Troubles, which is a way that – especially outside Ireland – he is often read. I suppose, as a fan of Muldoon and Hayes, I’m describing parallels in their reception which have made me want to throw things across the room.
For several years, I’ve been writing about both of them. I think that it might help Americans to see what Muldoon is trying to do, and it might help British and Irish readers to see what Hayes is trying to do, to see how much they have in common.
Your final poet, Brandon Som, articulates two of those things, as well. He has the musical language, I suppose, and he talks of sound on the page and the sonic quality of verse. But identity is also a cornerstone of his work. He’s Chinese-American and Mexican-American and it’s really interesting to see how he plays with that in The Tribute Horse (2014).
That’s right. And it’s not just those two ethnic identities that are at play. There are other themes at play in that book. Som is someone who wants to find a new solution for every poem. He really doesn’t want to repeat himself with his projects. He is like C D Wright – and unlike Hayes, Kasischke and Powell – in that he is really in two minds about making prose sense. He has been intellectually shaped by people who were very resistant to prose sense; people who think that the major modernists are Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, rather than the people who think – as I do – that the most useful modernists now are Williams Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.
So, he is someone who asks with each poem ‘how much do I want to say that I have a lyric identity, a speaking voice, that is consistent, and how much do I want to make the poem inscriptional instead, like writing on rock, like a piece of gallery art.’
He’s also someone who is interested in the fact that English is only one among many languages that he could speak but that he doesn’t speak – that people like him speak. He is in dialogue with his Mexican-American ancestry but he’s also in dialogue with Chinese, which he does not speak.
And Spanish, Italian, and Latin – all of these languages pop up in the verse.
Yes, that’s right. His poem called ‘Oulipo’, my last lit crit book has an essay about it. It’s one of these essays where I wrote 5,000 words initially and, of course, nobody wants to read 5,000 words about one poem unless it’s ‘To Autumn’ or Marianne Moore’s poem ‘Poetry’ or something else that lots of people already love. So, I had to cut the heck out of that essay. But there’s so much to say about that poem and it points in so many directions, because it can be read as a meditation on third generation Chinese-American identity, it can be read as a series of experiments in sound, it can be read as a response to a cross-cultural and classical transoceanic lyric tradition, and a pushback against the idea that lyric is this bourgeois idea that’s not that old.
And, of course, it can be read as a sort of exercise. The title of that poem – ‘Oulipo’ – is a wonderful trilingual pun because it is a series of poems in English that take their sonic qualities from the sonic qualities of a very famous lyric by the classical Chinese poet who, in English, we call Li Po. The title asks ‘ou Li Po’ – ‘where is Li Po?’ Where does Chinese lyric go, as Chinese speakers and Chinese people come to America and have kids and grandchildren who become American? They become American and urbanized and they move out of Chinatowns and into the American university system. The poem has a certain amount of thinking about Asian-American manhood, which is an interesting line in Asian-American writing more generally.
“The title asks ‘ou Li Po’ – ‘where is Li Po?’ Where does Chinese lyric go, as Chinese people come to America and have kids and grandchildren who become American?”
“Oulipo” is also the name of a Paris-based and international and polyglot group of writers. (Daniel Levin Becker wrote a good introduction to it.) Italo Calvino is possibly the most well-known. “Oulipo” is an acronym in French whose English translation means: “workshop for potential literature”. Writers in the Oulipo tradition are poets and novelists and essayists and sort of puzzle-makers. They want to make literature that gave pleasure in the way that mathematical games give pleasure; they wanted to make literature that has some of the quality of scientific experiment and mathematical recreation. Som’s poem ‘Oulipo’ succeeds in all these dimensions, as a mathematical game, as well as a very serious, pathos-filled and angry, sustained meditation on Asian immigrant identity.
Brandon Som’s work is so internally varied and there are just so many kinds of poems with him – “Oulipo” is only one kind. There are poems that are more narrative – including the title poem – and poems that are more like looking at pieces of gallery art, ones that are very small and hard and Williams-y. I’d love to see a world in which Brandon Som’s book becomes a model for first books by people who share his set of concerns, who are writing in Aberdeen or Melbourne or Singapore.
The historical and political underpinning of the collection is interesting. I didn’t know much about the Chinese exclusion laws in place in the US from the 1880s to the 1940s, and he takes that and he opens it up into a broader meditation on how modern immigration law in the US still acts on groups and individuals now. He made a point about the modern rhetoric of the exclusion laws being echoed by “certain people who were running for president and expressing anti-Muslim sentiments.” Do you think poets struggle to make themselves heard to the wider social discussion?
Honestly, my take on this is that effective resistance to Trumpism – which is an acute danger – comes within the United States through running for school board and very practical things like that, and in engaging people who aren’t already reading a lot of literary poetry. In terms of preventing the further undermining of democratic institutions, we need practicality, solidarity, and coalition-building. Contact your elected representative, show up at a direct action if it’s your thing, write an op-ed for a local paper, be visible in your principled opposition, run for local office if you can. And it might still not work. We might end up with 16 years of a kleptocratic police state. But if we’re going to get rid of these people, which we’ve got a good chance of doing – a better chance than England and Wales had earlier this year of getting rid of the Tories – then it involves poets doing things other than writing poetry.
That said, and whether it takes two months or ten years to get rid of authoritarian nationalism in the White House, poetry is going to change in unforeseeable ways in response to Trumpism. It’s already changed in that white poets have to think about non-white experience and they cannot take white experience as the default or generic kind of experience. And white gatekeepers and white editors have to think about what we’ve been conditioned to not see or what we see as a special case whereas it might have become general. There’s that sense that it’s time to put poets of colour, and styles that come from poets of colour, at the centre of what US poetry can be. This is fairly new, and it started before 2016, but it’s already quite visible and audible.
Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi