A Conversation with Don Share
By Kari Hawkey
Don Share is the Senior Editor of Poetry Magazine, our country’s oldest monthly poetry publication. He is also a published poet and was previously the poetry editor of the Harvard Review. I had the pleasure to hear the histories and anecdotes surrounding the recent poetry world, as Mr. Share serendipitously encountered them in his career.
Tell me your story. Why poetry?
I ask myself that question every day! Patrick Kavanagh’s explanation is the best one I know: “A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life. Versing activity leads him away from the paths of conventional unhappiness. For reasons that I have never been able to explain, the making of verses has changed the course of one man’s destiny. I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland. I might have stayed at the same moral age all my life. Instead of that, poetry made me a sort of outcast. And I was abnormally normal... I suppose when I come to think of it, if I had a stronger character, I might have done well enough for myself. But there was some kink in me, put there by Verse..."
During one of our conversations you explained that your poetry education came from working at a library and reading poetry books on the shelves, A to Z. Can you recall a poem or poet that compelled you to want to write poetry?
Yes; I came from the middle of nowhere and grew up unaware that there were living poets – I thought they were all grey-bearded and dead. Later on, I wasn’t an English major, or anything like that, so I had to teach myself about poetry. Well, starting with A: Auden. I’ve been compelled by Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Marianne Moore, Rosemary Tonks, Charlotte Mew, Frank O’Hara, Robert Lowell, Jacob Glatstein, W.S. Graham, Delmore Schwartz (my predecessor at Partisan Review!), Don Marquis (his archy & mehitabel poems), Apollinaire… I could go on and on, but ending with Z: Zukofsky.
How do I get your job? I mean, how did you become the Senior Editor of POETRY Magazine?
Well, I’d been stumbling through life working at such illuminating jobs as being a busboy at an internet café, driving a truck for a junior college library, serving as a no-hoper community college librarian. But at the same time, I was writing and sometimes publishing poems, so I found myself doing volunteer work at the now-defunct Partisan Review. I was told to keep out of plain sight and not to steal review copies of books. After a while, they had me reading and writing reports on poetry submissions. There was a “second reader” above me, and then there was the poetry editor, and above us all was The Editor. Being so low down on the totem pole, I simply wrote what I thought, and tried to be smart about it; I honestly didn’t think anybody was reading my reports. Then one day, William Phillips, The Editor, called me into his office and… I figured I was going to be tossed out on the street. I’d seen him throw people right out the door, screaming that they were “STOOPID WITH TWO Os.” But to my surprise he said, “We’ve been reading all these things you’ve been writing, and it looks like you might know what you’re doing. We’re promoting you.” He hastened to add that that plus fifty cents wouldn’t buy me a cup of coffee (and he was right). Eventually, though, some very kind people took notice of me and generously became my mentors: Derek Walcott, Christopher Ricks, Rosanna Warren. And after learning from them and paying all kinds of dues, I eventually became Curator of the famous Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, as well as poetry editor of Partisan Review and Harvard Review. Well, I was happy as a clam: I had the best job in the world for a poet and wasn’t thinking about going anywhere. But when Chris Wiman took over Poetry, I started paying attention to the magazine, like lots of other folks. And at some point Chris was looking for someone to add to the mix. They did a national search, and I interviewed in Chicago – and didn’t hear anything for ages; I figured they found someone else. But then… the phone call came. There was no way I wasn’t going to leap at the chance to work at Poetry: I’d been sending them work since John Frederick Nims was editor, and being published in the magazine by Joe Parisi was a dream come true for me, as a young poet. And when I met Chris and Fred Sasaki and Valerie Jean Johnson, I thought: these are the best and smartest and coolest people I’ve ever met! I had to work with them. The short answer: sharp study and long toil, to steal from Basil Bunting.
Do you have a particular poem that has stuck with you like a music earworm?
A lot of Yeats, and Auden’s elegy for Yeats; Delmore Schwartz’s “In the Naked Bed, In Plato’s Cave,” O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings,” Pound’s “Cantico del Sole…” Bunting’s Briggflatts…
You have said that Allen Ginsberg was the first poet you met and invited you to visit him in New York. Any other interesting anecdotes about the poetry world that you are willing to share, Mr. Share?
Yes, well, he was very nice to young people, and invited everyone to see him, back in the day. He also edited a poem of mine by crossing everything out in it and saying, “Guess you’ll have to start over.” Anyway, when I was a mere prat, some folks and I pestered George Starbuck for gossip about Anne Sexton. He told us some things that shut us the fuck up. And much later, when I took over the Poetry Room at Harvard, I asked a question like yours of my predecessor, the legendary Stratis Haviaras. Over a period of about 26 years, he’d met every famous poet you can think of. Well, he growled at me that he was taking his secrets to the grave. I was taken aback and didn’t have a clue what he meant! But now… [Sighs.] I can’t count the number of poets I’ve met in my line of work, and I guess I have some good stories: poets do some pretty damn unimaginable things. Yet if discretion is the better part of valor, then I’ll stick to discretion. Having seen what I’ve seen, I know just what Stratis meant, and I’m taking my anecdotes to my grave. Unless you buy me a few drinks and start me talking, that is.
What poets/poems do you think every writer should read?
I pretty much resist the idea of a pat reading list. Poets and poems come to us in mysterious and unpredictable ways, and you can’t force them to appear at the right time. That said, any poet worth his or her salt will figure out how to cover the bases, and add some extra just for you, to wrench a phrase from Larkin. As an autodidact myself, that seems to me to be the best way.
Other than reading and writing poetry, what else do you do?
I work a lot at my job. An awful lot. And I just try to, you know, live life. Otherwise, it’s music, a dribbling of art, and an unseemly interest in ridiculously bad psychedelic music.
In your experience as an editor, what have you learned about poetry?
I’ve learned, and this is no joke, humility.
What do you look for when reading a submission for POETRY?
There’s nothing in particular I look for. One wants to be taken by surprise. But it’s always terrific when I find something that succeeds on its own terms, yet also defeats expectation - something that reminds me of why I can’t live without poetry.
Since you spend a lot of time reading submissions and handling the concerns of the magazine, when do you find the time to write?
So much of my time is spent on work and commuting back and forth to work that I have to write on the El. It’s like having a movable office, albeit one with very few amenities.
Has your career as editor of POETRY informed your own writing?
Yes, in the sense that I can’t, in good conscience, do in my own work what I would criticize in others’.
When you edit your own work, what is your process? Or, rather, is there a process?
No process, I’m afraid. I have no idea, and don’t even want to have an idea, of what I’m doing. James Thurber said, “I don’t believe the writer should know too much where he’s going. If he does, he runs into old man blueprint—old man propaganda.”
Other than submissions, what are you currently reading?
I’ve just read Paul Durcan’s new book, Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being, and the new edition of Lew Welch’s collected poems, Ring of Bone, both really wonderful. I keep returning to Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning. And Mary Ruefle’s new book of essays, two of which we published in Poetry. I’m just now dipping into Ian Hamilton Finlay’s long-awaited selected poems.
I really enjoyed your words on “The Rejection Slip” and I also read Alice Corbin Henderson’s piece from 1916. Her statement in regards to the length of the subscription list vs. inflow of manuscripts seems surprisingly relevant today, as well as it seems that the “state of poetry” has been surviving regardless of how many write its’ obituary.
When you look into your crystal ball, what do you see in the future for poetry (as well as POETRY)?
Who can tell? Poetry is a hundred years old this year: would Harriet Monroe, its founding editor, have predicted that her magazine would still be around? Anyway, the best thing about poetry is that it’s unpredictable.
With regard to “The Rejection Slip,” any words of encouragement for poets or writers dealing with the dreaded rejection letter?
We all get them. Chris and I are both writers, and we get them just like everybody else does. It’s no fun, and disappointment comes bitter and hard and, for most of us, with great regularity. But you know, the right reader is out there for your work. So I’d encourage poets to keep going. If you end up snarky or bitter, what’s the use?
Any advice for poets aspiring to be published?
A few don’ts, to steal a phrase from something Ezra Pound famously wrote for us. Don’t copy writers who have the kind of success you think you want for yourself. Don’t send out work that isn’t your best. Don’t blast out reams of poems hoping that one or two will just stick someplace. Try to be someone on whom nothing is lost. Most of all, don’t take any advice.
Can you define poetry?
Absolutely not. On the contrary, I expect poetry to define me.