“Always Look for the Perfect Word”: Al Rocheleau on Poetry, Publishing, and a Few Things in Between, Part I

Al's "On Writing Poetry" is a down-to-earth, highly valuable asset for anyone anyone interested in becoming a better poet.

Al’s “On Writing Poetry” is a down-to-earth, highly valuable asset for anyone interested in becoming a better poet.

In this month’s “Tell Me About It,” I enlisted friend, former writer’s group member, musician, author and poet extraordinaire Al Rocheleau to talk about the craft of poetry…and as I expected, he had a lot to say, on everything from sources of inspiration, to how societal literacy has changed over the years, to how a poet knows when their work is good…and that was just in Part 1!

Al’s poems have appeared in over 40 magazines in the United States, Canada, the U.K., France, Austria, and Poland.  His work has been read on WMFE, an affiliate of National Public Radio, and can be seen at Internet sites as diverse as the Surratt House Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Saint Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in New Mexico.  His teaching articles are archived in resource databases of numerous colleges, high schools, and middle schools.  For many years, Al hosted popular online workshops and served as Poetry Editor and Senior Columnist at Amazing Instant Novelist, a writers’ site sponsored by America Online.  In 2004, Al received the Thomas Burnett Swann Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Association.  He has lectured at Emerson College, the University of Massachusetts, and for many writer’s groups including the Florida Writers Association.  In 2010 his poetry manual, On Writing Poetry: For Poets Made As Well As Born, was published by Shantih Press.  It has been distributed to school and public libraries through Follett Library Resources and is also available from Amazon.com.  In 2012, Al developed and launched “The Twelve Chairs” seminar program, offering a 180-hour course in poetry writing for poets of all levels.  Al is a member of the Florida State Poets Association and resides in Orlando, Florida.

* * * * *

LW:  So…why poetry?  As opposed to fiction, essay, biography, etc.?  Or have you dabbled in those genres as well?

AR:  When I was young it was all about the short story and preparing to be a novelist. I submitted my first story to a magazine when I was fourteen. By high school, I wanted to be the next Thomas Wolfe. But at the same time, I was introduced through a brilliant English teacher to the gamut of English poetry, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Keats to Eliot. At Eliot, at “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” specifically, things changed. I couldn’t believe that amount of craft and fathomless profundity could be pressed into such a form. I was hooked.

I had intended to study with Anne Sexton at Boston University, and was lining up my ducks to do so when she committed suicide in 1974. So I hit the road, Kerouac-style (he and I were from sister mill-towns in Massachusetts), bounced around the country on a Greyhound Ameripass, lived in Berkeley, California for a time, came home, married, had kids, worked a workaday job, and in my real work time, wrote poetry. Forty years later, I’m still writing poetry, publishing, and teaching poets to write.

LW:  Since, as my piano teacher once said, “nothing exists in a vacuum,” who are your major influences?

AR:  Influences cross boundaries in the arts – among poets: Shakespeare, Donne, Dryden, Keats, Yeats, Eliot, both Cranes, and Bob Dylan; among novelists: Wolfe, Kerouac, Tolstoy.  Also, painters like Edward Hopper, Salvador Dali; among musicians: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson; among filmmakers: Luis Bunuel, Robert Altman.

LW:  I sometimes wonder – where does the gift of poetry come from?  The words, the images… Obviously training brings refinement, but is it simply a mysterious “gift”?  A matter of heredity?  Or something else?

AR:  Anyone can write poetry.  Horace was right about that.  While there may be something to be said for innate talent, I prefer to think some people simply have more desire to express than others.  To me, reading is as important as writing.  Both actions create images, associations, feelings.  Poetry is a physical wave produced by the act of writing or reading.  For that matter, poetry as a substance is produced by painting or viewing a painting, listening to, or playing music, watching dancers, or dancing, looking at a beautiful house, or living in it.  We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, attuned to the cross-patterns of the two most important forces of life – creation and admiration.  Some people have deep backgrounds and perspectives that can come from both experiencing life directly (really daring to do so), sensing it from works of art, or devouring its symbols from books, creating the images and associations that way.  At some point, you write down what you know, what you feel, and written poetry is an essential art – one we gravitate to, like playing an instrument, or painting, from the time we are young.  I hold that any person, however untrained, can write a great poem.  To write a lot of great poems, however, you have to work at the art a bit.  That’s why I teach all aspects of poetry to poets, from beginners to those who are well along.

Al Rocheleau

Al Rocheleau

LW:  Along the same lines, at least a couple of members of my family have always been baffled by my work.  For example, my mother once said, after reading one of my poems, “Well honey, it must be wonderful, because I don’t understand a word of it.”  Have you experienced similar reactions from those close to you?

AR:  Sure.  Just as you learned to write, you learned to read.  Literacy has two definitions; one is to communicate on a basic level.  We all do that all the time.  We can read work instructions, a newspaper, a book.  We can write a note (or these days, an email), a report perhaps, occasionally even a heartfelt letter.  But that is all on one level.  The other definition, that of a personal aesthetic response to what we read and write, goes much deeper.

Perhaps our parents (mine were Depression-era parents, had little formal education, even past elementary school) had no time for the humanities, especially the arts, past what you might hear on a radio or TV variety show or melodrama.

For most of us, we have for many decades taken most of our formal communication in one direction, from television, and that material is meant to be basic most of the time.  Actually, basic and declining.  There are no more Playhouse 90’s, Hallmark Hall of Fames.  Even a gothic soap opera like Dark Shadows, which we ran home from school to watch as children, and the Dick Van Dyke Show, with its wit and invention, were amazingly literate compared to today’s offerings.  It is not that anyone is stupid; we just don’t get the fare we used to get without trying hard to find it, and in single-parent families or two-parent working families, there’s no time to gain that kind of deep effect.  So we absorb on a basic level, the level of the note, the email, the abbreviated text.

When presented with art, and especially an art as condensed as a poetry, we aren’t used to dealing with heightened syntax and metaphor (beyond the cliché metaphor we use in sayings all the time), and if we can’t get an immediate understanding of what we are reading, having no time to savor nuance, we just shut off.  (Play a classical symphony for someone who has only been exposed to pop music, and you’ll get a similar response.)  We aren’t prepared for it.  Beyond the occasional lines we pick up from the popular song, poetry seems to escape most of us.  It wasn’t always that way.  As late as the early part of the 20th century, collections of poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, Edgar Lee Masters and Edna St. Vincent Millay sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and going further back, so did new volumes of Byron or Wordsworth.  Back then, if you could read, and could afford a book, you devoured it, and poems were read over and over, their full content gleaned, the lines memorized. 

"It is not enough that poems should have beauty; if they are to carry the audience with them, they must have charm as well." - Horace (65-8 BC)

“It is not enough that poems should have beauty; if they are to carry the audience with them, they must have charm as well.” – Horace (65-8 BC)

Well, that was then, this is now.  People know what they know, and often aren’t interested in knowing much more.  Life is busy; we can debate how much of the business is required economically, and how much is useless or mindless cultural conditioning, but there you have it.  People don’t understand because they can’t give themselves the time to understand. That’s not a deprecating remark – they are still good people, still intelligent, capable people, and we love them no less for their response – but yes, that happens to all poets.  So we write for those who can still take the time to appreciate us, and know that, as it has been throughout history, when there’s a very happy occasion, or a sad one, the poet in the crowd will always be brought forth by those who usually say they “can’t understand” us, to say something profound, to make sense of what can’t be “understood” or fully appreciated in our lives.

LW:  Nearly every writer works to “get the words right,” but how do we know when they finally are?  Is it all subjective?  One definition I read from an editor was that, “If it looks good at 6:00 in the morning, it probably is good.”  Any truth to that, or is it too simplistic?

AR:  I guess that depends on how awake you are at 6:00 am.  A poem can be done in fifteen minutes, or not done in fifteen years.  I have experienced both circumstances.  The best thing I can say in this regard, is that ideally, you must have a perfect idea, and then the perfect words to express the idea.  I tell my students, “always look for the perfect word – there is only one.”  In creative reverie, entire poetic statements, even entire poems, can come quickly.  The editing process is not one of reverie, but of imagination, of searching, finding, coordinating – and then searching and finding some more.  Imagination can be an airy exercise, or it can be like driving spikes into railroad ties.  Work, in other words.  One has to find the right words, mold the right phrases, establish the right clauses, and then end, enjamb or break the lines into the sculpt that makes the poem a tangible object, something of three dimensions, that you can hold in your hands, radiating or directing its poetic waves as can be amplified and re-directed by the reader.  Sometimes you find that shining nugget lying on the ground, other times you have to mine the ore, and burn off the baser elements.  When it’s done, it’s perfect. At 6:00 in the morning, or any other time.

T.S. Eliot helped get Al hooked on poetry.

T.S. Eliot helped get Al hooked on poetry.

LW:  And speaking of getting it right – you rendered me a great service by putting my first poetry collection into order, something I had little idea how to do.  Frankly, I expected nothing more than an emailed list of titles in the order in which you thought they should go. Therefore, I was surprised by the level of work that went into it.  As I know other writers struggle with this, could you describe your system?

AR:  I don’t think there’s any one system that works best, but I have a way I developed over the years.  First, have enough really good, completed poems so that many don’t make your list at all.  Save those for further working, or to append to the Collected Poems of your dotage.

The ones you decide to keep now enter the crucible.  Yes, we love all our poems, don’t we – they are all just peachy – that is, until you completed that previous step, painful though it was.  We write poems based on our abilities to coordinate the three factors of a poet’s talent: craft, scope, and voice.  Craft, short for knowing and applying the tools of the trade, is learned and apprenticed; scope, or the combination of purpose, vision and ambition, is acquired through experience and sheer daring; voice is what emanates from the acquisition of the other two factors, combined with the aural impact (both off the page and in the air), originality, and spiritual volume of the poet.  All poets, and poems, contain at least some of each factor, whether learned or partly innate.  It is the poet’s job to develop the three points of what might be considered a triangle of potential power, just as this process, in turn, develops the poet.  In putting a collection together, one must decide on just how much of each ingredient has combined with the others to assess the ultimate worth and impact of each poem.  In quick-and-dirty fashion, each poem, I grade them.  A. B. C.  It doesn’t require more than that.  Based on the combination of craft, scope, and especially voice, that come out A, B, or C.  (If you’ll recall, D’s have already been culled at the very first step, separating the pebbles from the dried beans.)  You can at first list your poems any way you like, since it’s not a table of contents, just a list of things.  Then you must look hard at each poem, keeping the three factors in mind, and grade each in isolation.  Don’t compare (at least not yet).  Don’t cheat on this step – grade each one alone and honestly.

When you’re done, you have so many A’s, B’s, C’s.  The proportion of craft, scope, and voice will be different for each poem, as will its tone – dark or light or somewhere in between.  The poems grade out this way: A: a top-echelon poem in anyone’s regard, and certainly among your personal best, by way of craft, scope, and especially voice; B: an excellent poem of your personal estimate, one that you consider in the top 30% of all your poems; C: a very good poem, not merely competent; it may not have the ambition or striking voice of some of the others but the craft is still there, and you still have something to say that is unique.  Anything further is a detraction and…guess what?…you missed another D – take it off the list.

Hopefully, your proportions are somewhere along the lines of A: 10-20%; B: 20-40 %; C: 20-40%.  If not, keep working your poems and add new ones to the list when they are polished and finished.  That will change your proportions in the right way.  Remember that no one decides when a collection is ready except you, and that no one cares to read a single lackluster poem of yours.  So be honest with yourself, and make that list as good as it can be before you proceed.

Now, create the sculpt of your body of work.  Work along two lines concurrently.  One: string clusters of your best poems (A’s or A’s-and-B’s) as if they were the poles of a circus tent.  Obviously, you want to start strong, then position the next “pole” a quarter of the way in.  The next pole will not be situated at the half, but a bit beyond the half.  Think of the “golden ratio,” a proportional progress that expands past the mid-point, essentially between the second and third quarters.  Place the pole there.  Finally, you want to finish strong, so the last pole is at the end.

Each of those pole-clusters (again A’s or A’s-and-B’s) will be in “packets” or “clusters” of three, four, or five, depending on the length of your manuscript.  Beyond the midpoint, you can also station one of your longer A’s (or B’s) to extend beyond the halfway point, as mentioned, or just use extra poems of that quality.  The poems in between are going to be your other B’s and your C’s.  C’s are worked away from the poles.  They are still, of course, worthy poems, but they will not charge up the reader’s progress and overall appreciation of collection as the A’s and B’s will – hence they are not “poles,” just connecting “canvas.”  Does that make sense?  One can certainly use another method, but this does the trick for me. 

Don't call your work a "cheap book!"

Don’t call your work a “cheap book!”

And by the way, even if your collection is a narrow one, don’t call it a “chapbook.”  Chapbook from its origin meant “cheap book.”  No one’s blood and tears, not to mention sweat, should go into something cheap.  It’s a book.  If you’ve completed one, however modest, you’ve earned that title.

* * * * *

I had more to ask and Al had more great things to say in Part II, on synesthesia, poetry therapy, music, and, of course, what almost every writer wants to talk about: publishing…as well as the groundbreaking “Twelve Chairs” course he developed from his many years of experience.  You won’t want to miss it!

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One thought on ““Always Look for the Perfect Word”: Al Rocheleau on Poetry, Publishing, and a Few Things in Between, Part I

  1. Pingback: Lucie Winborne interviews Al Rocheleau | Darlyn Finch Kuhn

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