Bringing poetry down from a pedestal: an interview with Mark Yakich

At one point in Mark Yakich’s Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide, this instruction:

“Work on one poem at a sitting. You most likely are distracted all day by all kinds of information…”

…is followed directly by:

“Work on multiple poems at a sitting. You will invariably circle around the same preoccupations at any given moment…”

While admittedly, this contradictory sort of structure may be infuriating to some, this is the spirited, playful nature of Yakich’s teaching style (and perhaps, also, of poetry itself).

Divided into two main sections: Reading and Writing, this “survivor’s guide” touches on everything from sections on poetry basics like enjambment and rhythm, to “reader’s block” and advice on applying to MFA programs and submitting to literary magazines. It includes bits of guidance (“Close study of how a line ends and moves into the next is as good as any entry point in examining a poem”) to moments of reassurance (“There’s no need to finish reading an epic poem you only got halfway through. It’s purpose was to be read halfway”).

Other parts offer cheeky commentary. On Elizabeth Bishop: “She wrote ‘One Art,’ a villanelle that is so exquisite the form itself should be abandoned. But ‘The Moose’ on which she worked for more than twenty years still has a title that gives too much away.”

I sat down with Yakich to discuss Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide and his hatred of poetry that lasted well over two decades.

Room 220: As I read your book, I kept thinking that parts sounded pretty familiar from the days I was in your classes. How long have you been writing this book?

Mark Yakich: Well, there was a piece called “Yakking Points” published in the Boston Review in 2011, and that was the first time I actually coalesced some of my little bromides. “Writing is just a bad translation of lived life, this sentence included” — that was one of the first ones in the “Yakking Points.”

Someone at a reading in Rochester or Denver said they had seen the Yakking Points online and then printed them out for their students, and the class had these great discussions around them. They were these, “How do you feel? Agree? Disagree?” type of discussions. I thought that was interesting.

Oh, and Chris Schaberg wanted me to write an Object Lesson essay, and so I said, well, what about on the poem? Because that’s the only thing I know anything about. So I wrote that essay that appeared in The Atlantic in 2013. It was kind of my little manifesto, because — well, you know, you’ve had my class — I’ve had to re-teach my students what a poem is and also because I had this unusual relationship to poetry. You know my whole story about how I hated it?

Rm220: Yes, you were originally a political science major, right?

MY: Yes, I despised poetry for 25 years. I hated it! I thought, poems are irrelevant! Why are they these little effed up puzzles? I don’t understand the point; just say what you mean. But at a certain point, I came to this backdoor to reading poems, and through foreign languages at that, through eastern European poets. I didn’t know who Walt Whitman was. I was practically 30 years old and had no idea. And Emily Dickinson, who’s that? It was kind of great, though. I had this other life experience, and I was older.

Rm220: The first time I was really exposed to Whitman or Dickinson was probably 7th or 8th grade. At that age, there was a certain structure to the teaching of those poets and their poems. For example, “This Emily Dickinson poem is about death,” that sort of thing. It was very guided, but you didn’t have that experience.

MY: You’re guided in a very weird way. You’re led to believe it’s a puzzle, and you need to find the hidden meaning. So the book kind of built from that. Chris suggested that I pitch a book to his editor, so I started to gather other things I had written and put a book proposal together. I knew this was gonna be an unconventional, unusual guide because I had never been happy with other guides. I mean, I never taught you from a book. Parts of those guides would be ok, but they would mostly piss me off. Over the years teaching, I found myself saying the same things, and I thought, I need to write these down. The problem is that we don’t always have time to talk about the lyric or personas, but now, I can point my students to a specific page for further reading. I wrote a manuscript that was twice as long as the book is now, and I just cut it down and put it in sections. There’s all this mysticism around Dickinson or Whitman or any of them, and I wanted to kind of disarm or bring poetry down from the pedestal. It’s just a fucking poem.

Rm220: Dickinson always struck me as a mysterious person. There’s one, maybe two known photos of her? I think because of the way her poems were found after her death that she’s a little more mysterious.

MY: Yes, and that makes you want to fill in her biography, which is a fun project, but it’s just a little ass backwards when it comes to understanding the work. This book grew out of all of that. Once Bloomsbury accepted it, I went back and looked at some of the other guides. Sometimes I’d read one and think, “That’s kind of bullshit,” so I’d write down the opposite. Sometimes I would write something prescriptive like, “All poems are this or they aren’t.” That’s ok too. I would push it that way too, and that would hopefully force the reader to ask themselves, “Well gosh, what do I think?”

Rm220: Someone who had just finished reading this book, recently said to me, “I just wonder if he can’t be trusted.”

MY: That’s awesome! “He can’t be trusted”!

Rm220: What do you think about that? Can you be trusted?

MY: You know, I wish I didn’t have to deal with these things, these fucking poems. If I could stop writing them and reading them tomorrow, I would. I can’t wait until the day when I no longer feel the urge to write a poem. Life’s so valuable. You’re gonna have to let it go, so you better start figuring it out now. Or maybe not, maybe just wait until the end. He can’t be trusted. Can he be trusted? That book is me. I wrote a book, so it must be everything I think.

Can I be trusted… with what? With poems? With your children? You know, you can disagree about things in poetry, and that’s ok too. People think that there’s always a grand answer. Now, you say that in class and students think it’s a free-for-all. So you have to say, “Ok, let’s back up a second, it’s not a free-for-all either.”

Rm220: How do you balance that?

MY: Let’s say we have a poem about squirrels. Now, from there, we can start talking about your grandmother, who has a phobia of squirrels. That’s fine as a reader response, but is your grandma in this poem? That’s fine because that’s how you’re relating to it, but if it’s a free for all, we can just talk about anything, and there’s no reason to have the poem in front of us.

Rm220: You take the poem on the poem’s terms.

MY: Yeah. On the one hand, there’s no right answer, but it is a system. You have to work within that system. If it’s gonna be anarchy, you might as well do anything. You might as well start talking about breakfast or basketball or whatever, even though you have a squirrel poem in front of you.

Rm220: “Please do not story-fuck a poem.” What did you mean by that in the book?

MY: Do not try to force every poem you read into some kind of narrative. For so many years, students would come to any poem and say, “I wanna know the backstory.” If it was a purely lyrical poem, a moment, or a song, they would say, “Oh I see, he’s in love with her, and he was beaten by his father as a kid and that’s why he’s mean to her,” or something like that, and I would say, “Where’s the evidence of that in the poem?” It’s because they’re trying to force a narrative when the poem’s not asking for a narrative. Maybe the poem just wants this little delicate moment — let it have it.

Rm220: Why do you think we do that as readers?

MY: Because we need to. Because we’re so story-driven, so narrative driven. Look at newspapers, or other writers, who say, narrative is everything! Then you have other writers, especially poets, who want to resist that. A lot of poets by nature are demure; but they like to push back, they like to rebel or be subversive in their writing because they like to question things. Some poets like to go anti-narrative, and they will write fragment-y poems and things like that, which is fine — people try to defeat narrative by writing in fragments — but a lot of readers still want to figure out the narratives from which those poems come. Maybe that’s why erasure poems have become so popular. You can still see there’s some kind of context there, but you don’t know exactly what it is. You just get the lyrical bits out of it, so it’s kind of a beautiful combination of narrative and lyric. I think we just need to tell ourselves stories. Without story, as an individual, you have no identity.

Rm220: So you talk about memorization in this book, and how important that is.

MY: Yes, it’s tricky though, because you don’t want to seem pretentious. You don’t want to show it off, but then it’s like, well when should I use it? You know what, sometimes I just use it for myself. Sometimes there’s just lines that come out — I won’t have the whole poem memorized but there will be 2 or 3 lines stuck with me that will hit me like when I’m in the park taking a run. You know now they have these running shoes with really thin soles, that really allow you to feel the ground. So I think of that Gerald Manley Hopkins poem — “Nor can foot feel being shod” — and he’s talking about how we can’t even feel the earth anymore because we’re wearing shoes. If you’re barefoot, there’s nothing between you and the earth, you can feel it more, it’s more genuine or something. So sometimes that line just comes in my mind when I’m on a run.

My parents both died within a year of each other, and my dad’s was pretty awful, terminal cancer. I was taking care of him, and it was very intense. It came down to just the basic things, and you realize that all this shit you’ve gathered over the years. He had all these books, just tons of books. He was in the family room in the hospice bed in the house I grew up in, and on one wall, there were about 5,000 books. Almost all non fiction books — religion, science, engineering, math — and he had read them all, some two or three times, and at the end all that knowledge, all those things… nothing. There was this moment my dad looked at the books, and said, “Mark, do you want any books?” He had never said that before; it would have never occurred to him. It just struck me because I am an English professor, I have probably 10,000 books, and they sit on shelves. That’s mostly what the books do. So at the end, what am I gonna have? Some memorized lines and maybe a memorized poem. That’s what I’m gonna have at the end. And that’s fine.

Taylor Murrow is a New Orleans-based writer and editor, focused on arts and literature. Check out samples of her work here, here, and here. You can find her every month at the Dogfish Reading Series.

Mark Yakich is a professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, where he is also editor of New Orleans Review. He is the author of Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (National Poetry Series, Penguin 2004), The Making of Collateral Beauty (Snowbound Chapbook Award, Tupelo 2006), Green Zone New Orleans (Press Street 2008), The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Penguin 2008),  Checking In/Checking Out (NO Books), and A Meaning for Wife (Ig Publishing 2011). With Christopher Schaberg, he is also co-founder and co-editor of, a new media project that aims to rejuvenate airplane reading. In spring 2012, Mark was a Fulbright Fellow in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Lisbon.