From the Vault: A Glimpse at the Original Poets on Poetry Volumes

by Mikala Carpenter on July 8, 2013

Our “From the Vault” posts allow you to take a peek into the history of the Press, where you can rediscover past authors, projects, editors, awards, and more that led to the development of the university publisher that the Press is today. This window into our past spotlights backlist or out-of-print titles and series and also recommends and contextualizes them with similar current and forthcoming titles. Explore the drawers of the Vault with our intern, Mikala Carpenter, as we uncover the hidden treasures that await us in the archives of the University of Michigan Press. 

One of the Press’s most prolific projects, still in process today, is the Poets on Poetry series. Including more than 106 volumes, the Poets on Poetry series features books of reflective essays, interviews, and articles written and edited by well-known contemporary poets. The goal of the series is to get poets talking critically about the process of writing poetry in a variety of ways. The volumes’ subjects range from the creative process of writing poetry to the role of race and gender as articulated or revealed by poetic authorship. The Press’s Poets on Poetry series caters especially to an audience interested in the initial development, modern evolution and future continuation of the contemporary poetry genre.

The series began development in the mid-1970s with the 1978 publication of the first three volumes. Three poets were approached about writing volumes to include in a prospective series: William Stafford, Galway Kinnell, and Donald Hall, the series’ founding editor and University faculty member. These poets seized the opportunity to participate in the project and inspire future poets. All three, without agreeing to it, passionately argue that the most significant part of writing, the inspiration just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, takes perseverance to see but opens the mind to poetry.

Stafford’s first of four volumes in the series, Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation, focuses primarily on the process of writing and encourages beginning writers in their craft. According to Stafford, a writer is not merely someone who has the skill to write, but also has the ability to effectively invent and use a compositional process — he opens the field of writing up to anyone with eager interest and ideas. In encouraging his readers to embrace the opportunity to write, Stafford writes, “The correct attitude to take about anything you write is ‘Welcome! Welcome!’” Stafford’s volume was an instant favorite among promising as well as seasoned writers and appeared as a required text in many writing program curriculums.

Kinnell’s volume, Walking Down the Stairs: Selections From Interviews, presents a critical collection of the poet’s own views on poetry as a literary phenomenon as well as reflective and enlightening responses to his own work. In the Vault, I discovered an original interview transcript that, though edited down for inclusion in the volume, centered on the inspiration and plodding yearlong process that brought Kinnell’s poem, “The Bear,” into being. Kinnell allows readers a glimpse into the life of the writer and of writing. In advocating for the usefulness and necessity of “that sticky infusion” of poetry, Kinnell wrote, “Poetry can help us to feel more attuned to what’s real — to feel more a part of the rhythms of life.”

Hall’s volume, also the poet’s first of four in the Poets on Poetry series, Goatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird: Interviews, Essays and Notes on Poetry, 1970-76, features essays and interviews by the poet that narrow in on the creative nature of the relationship between poetry and the poet while also aiming, as Hall wrote himself in describing his project, to provide readers “a way inside the universe of the contemporary poet.” Full of the editor’s own personable character, this volume challenges its readers to see the act of writing in a new light — as the peripheral but all-important “experience of losing control and entering a world of total freedom” and inspiration and not as the hyperextended and calculated process of elaboration and precision.

Members of the Press that took part in the initiation of this project include editorial assistants Carol Mitchell and Christina L. Johnson and Press Director Walter E. Sears. Initial expectations predicted the series would only survive the publication of a dozen volumes, but Poets on Poetry continues with the Press’s most recent volume, T.R. Hummer’s Available Surfaces: Essays on Poesis, published in 2012 and available for purchase online. Stafford, Kinnell and Hall’s volumes are also available for purchase onlineGoatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird is also freely available to read via HathiTrust.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: