THIS Sunday, explore the enduring beauty and importance in poetry.
Olivia Stiffler’s lecture, “Poetry: Why Read it? Why Write It? Who Cares?” is the first in the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home fall lecture series.
She’ll discuss her journey of becoming a poet and how the perception of poetry is changing from stale to fresh.
She’s the author of two books of poetry: Otherwise, we are safe in 2013 and Hiding in Plain Sight in 2017, both by Dos Madres Press.
We spoke with Stiffler last week.
Have you always written poetry?
I don’t only write poetry, but primarily I do. I decided it’s too hard to spread too thin. I really needed to focus, even though I’m drawn to other things as well and mess around with other types of writing. But I always go back to the poems. I think that’s where I belong.
I started wanting to write when I was a kid, and then I got more drawn to poetry as I got into high school and particularly in college thanks to a really good teacher. I was just drawn there. I would mess around but I didn’t have time to do it. It wasn’t until I retired that I was able to focus.
What career did you retire from?
I was a freelance court reporter.
Oh, so that’s totally different.
It’s all language, but it’s a different approach to language. You’re always listening.
Your first book of poetry came out in 2013. How did you feel when it was done?
I was so excited I could not contain myself. They’re sitting right in front of me! It’s not anything I ever expected. It was a major excitement for me.
What topics do you explore in your books?
Both books are really personal stuff. I’m a confessional-type poet, kind of like Sharon Olds. I like that sort of thing; I don’t shy away from it. The first book is really personal, and the second is a little less so.
Why is poetry today important?
I’m always repeating this: the problem with American poetry is T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The problem is that so much for so long had been this formal kind of work, which is okay, it is what it is, but it’s work only understood by heavy studying. You need a Master’s to unwind it and figure it out. I compare that kind of poetry to a symphony. There’s all kinds of music, but it’s not for all of us. You might enjoy it, but you can only appreciate it on a really heady level if you’re schooled in music yourself and understand those instruments. Otherwise, you may get something out of it, but it’s not going to be thorough. You’re going to have to study.
There’s a whole raft of new poems and new poetry that just don’t take that approach. They use everyday language, they feel quite comfortable talking about their own lives, you can understand what they’re saying the first time you read it. It’s not that hard, and it’s not meant to be.
What’s wrong with simple? Absolutely nothing. That’s not the measuring stick. There is a lot of garbage everywhere, and [simplicity] is not how we should measure. We want them to read it.
What do you plan on addressing in your talk?
I’m going to talk about grief in poetry, and why there’s so much of that in modern poetry. I’ll talk about what that’s all about, how I got to be a poet—which is quite a story of its own.
I’ll tie that to this concept of grief in poetry. The talk will wander a bit, but I’ve anchored it around some Flannery O’Connor quotes. It’s kind of fun doing that.
I’m also going to read from other people’s poetry. I want to give people a sense of what’s out there and I’ve picked out some that are my absolute favorites.
Whose work did you choose to read, and how?
One thing I like to do is encourage people to throw away their old concepts of what poetry is. Some of it’s about that. I’m going to read Terrance Hayes, a young black man who won the McCarthy genius award a couple years ago, and he’s from South Carolina. I have a few others. I’m also going to read a poem by my own mentor and see if I can get through it!