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Interview- Charles Harper Webb


An Interview with Charles Harper Webb
                                                                                          -by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum:
You may not recall, but when we first met, you made the point that one of the major problems with contemporary poetry is its lack of a “contract” with the reader.

First, could you tell us what a contract with the reader is and explain why you think it is of such importance for reader and poet alike?  

Charles Harper Webb:
I use the term “contract with the reader” in several contexts.  I think I must have meant, in this case, an implied agreement that the poet will provide a poem of interest and relevance to the reader—one the reader will enjoy, and can understand without the aid of an army of experts.  Or at least, that the poet will try to do so.  I’m concerned that many American poets seem to write as if the reader is irrelevant.  That’s one reason so few readers of American poetry exist.

AMK: Is a contract something you know immediately when coming to a poem?  Or does it develop over time?

CHW:  The contract for an individual poem is established in the title and first few lines.  It tells us what kind of poem we’re in for, what its strategies will be, what it will be about, what perspective on “reality” it will take.  If this contract is violated—say, a Richard Wilbur poem turns into a Charles Bukowski poem—the reader is likely to (silently, for the most part) scream foul, and either stop reading or stop enjoying what is read.  

Artful and conscious violation of this contract, as in certain post-modern strategies, is a different situation.  

AMK: I like “Enthusiasm” because of its personal approach to this sort of criticism we see so often of poetry.  

It makes fun of “The Committee,” declaring “‘screw him’” to the literal and figurative patriarchs of the poem.  At the same time, though, we certainly see how the life of the poet and the life of the poem itself cannot break free of such barriers.  In this case, it seems inappropriate to disassociate the poet writing the poem from the speaker within the poem.  

I’m always fascinated by poets’ varying opinions regarding this issue.  Is it your view that the “I” in a poem is the poet, some version of the poet, or some outside speaker the poet attempts to create?

CHW: No poet is ever ENTIRELY the speaker of the poem.  Nor is any poet entirely NOT the speaker.  I don’t lead the restrained life the speaker in “Enthusiasm” describes as his.  On the other hand, I do like the things the speaker likes; and I did receive the comment cited in the poem—about the stupidest response to poetry, or life, of which I can conceive.  

AMK: “The Death of Santa Claus” details the dramatic event of the Santa Claus’ death while simultaneously showing the backtracking of the mind of the child who is now a poet who now must find a way to tell his story.

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how we present stories, how we take a narrative from its conception and to its birth and maturation on the page.  

CHW:  For me at least, it’s different every time.  Every good poem involves a lot of groping in the dark, hoping I pull out a few good things, and don’t encounter any open bear traps or angry black mambas.  

AMK: Myths like these tend to be cross-cultural, mirroring one another despite time and history.  Is the American childhood a sort of myth in and of itself; all of us sharing similar experiences; all of our imaginations and realities created and torn asunder in startlingly similar ways?

CHW: Sounds good to me.  

AMK: I think most of us can relate to the emotional register of both of these poems.  I oftentimes find myself trying to write like this and simply give up because it can be a lot “harder than it looks” to write about such childhood “tragedies” without coming off as overly sentimental.  But you write this way with seeming ease.  

While I usually avoid questions like this, my final question is how, in fact, do you pull off poems like this so consistently?

CHW:  I’m glad you think I pull it off consistently.  If I do, it’s because I try very hard to tell the emotional truth, because I do not go in dread of emotion (should a swimmer go in dread of water?), and because I bust my butt trying to make my poems seem natural and easy.

AMK: Thank you.   

CHW:  You’re welcome.  Thanks for asking.