Benjamin Myers is the 2015-2016 Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma and the author of two books of poetry: Lapse Americana (New York Quarterly Books, 2013) and Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). His poems may be read in The Yale Review, The New York Quarterly, 32 Poems, The Christian Century, Nimrod, Measure and other journals, as well as in general readership publications like Oklahoma Today and In Touch. He has been honored with an Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book and with a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He reviews poetry and books on poetics for several publications, including World Literature Today and Books and Culture.
1. What poets and writers influenced you early on?
The first poets I really loved were Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, both of whom remain important to me still. Eliot, especially “Prufrock,” was also important to me early on. By the time I got to college, I was very interested in Ginsberg and Kerouac. Then I took a course on Yeats, Eliot, and Auden, and that had a huge influence on my work. I also read a lot of Richard Wilbur when I was an undergrad. These are all very different writers, but I think the overall shared element is a certain commitment to the lyrical. That is something that has stayed with me.
2. What poets and writers influence you now?
I read a lot of Jane Kenyon now. Her simple elegance and precision are something I aspire to. The Tang era Chinese poet Du Fu has recently been a big influence on my work, as I more and more explore writing about family and responsibility. B.H. Fairchild and Andrew Hudgins are also major influences. They help me think about writing about my own local world. I’m still always reading Frost. For a few years I’ve been obsessed with John Berryman, but I’m not sure what impact that is having on my own work.
3. I know that self-analysis of one's work can be difficult, but could you discuss the ways your craft has grown or changed?
I think from my first book to my second my work shifted away from a certain kind of romanticizing element (probably the lingering influence of Kerouac) toward a more direct and honest style. At the same time, I’ve grown more comfortable mixing narrative, lyrical, and experimental elements in my work. I’m making bigger leaps in my poems than I was before, but I’m trying to avoid a kind of cheap surrealism that seems to be everywhere these days. In short, I think I’m moving toward a kind of realism, but one I hope is charged with a sense of the sacramental nature of the everyday. That’s my ambition, anyway.
4. Are there any poetic structures that you like to work in? Any that you refrain from using? If so, why?
I often say that I’m more interested in exploring what a poem can do than proscribing what it must do: the possibilities of poetry. That openness extends to form as well. I love to try different forms. I’m drawn to the puzzle aspect of more difficult forms, like the sestina. Next to free verse, my most common form is probably the sonnet, as I’m very, very interested in the effort to make such a quintessentially Renaissance form function naturally for a contemporary poem. I don’t think there is any structure I avoid. I’ll try anything that might make a good poem.
5. You are a university professor. Could you talk about the effect teaching poetry and writing has on your work?
Teaching takes up a lot of time I would, frankly, prefer to spend writing, but, if one must work at something other than the art, teaching is, for me, the best option. The biggest part of my job as a professor is reading and talking about books, so that keeps my head in the game, so to speak. I find myself writing more poetry when I’m teaching poems in class than when I am preoccupied with teaching novels or other kinds of prose works. I think teaching in the traditional liberal arts contexts has pushed me to read more widely and deeply than I might have otherwise, not that I don’t have a lot left to get to. I hope I teach like a writer more than I write like a teacher.
6. Could you tell us about your writing process, writing schedule? How many times do you revise a poem before you feel that it is ready for public consumption?
I try to write a significant amount of time every day. Usually I work on generating drafts for a while and then turn to revision. Sometimes, however, I’ll just chip away at the same poem day after day, changing little things like lineation and working for greater compression. I usually draft rough versions, sketches, random lines, paragraph outlines, etc. in a notebook (either on the fly or, most days, sitting on my porch in the morning) and then go back later to shape and revise on the laptop. Working in a word-processing program makes it hard to say how many drafts I go through, but I work on most poems for several months before I submit them anywhere or consider them finished (abandoned). A few poems come more quickly, a few much more slowly. Regardless of what else I’m doing, I’m always taking down notes on poems.
7. What advice would you give aspiring poets (or any poets)?
Read all you can. Read. Read. Read. Workshops and classes are useful, but the only way to learn to write is to read. I’d also say that it is important to find a community of writers, a working community of writers, as opposed to just a group of people who want to write someday. I’ve always tried to hang around writers who are producing work I admire, people like Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and Ken Hada. You need to be around people with enough flame to add sparks to your own fire. Also be lucky but not too lucky.