In the pursuit of poetry
IU South Bend's Nancy Botkin discusses her journey as a poet and why poetry intimidates many people
Since 1991, Nancy Botkin has taught creative writing and composition in the Department of English at Indiana University South Bend. For most of her adult life, Botkin has pursued the craft of poetry; her work has appeared in numerous journals including Poetry, The Midwest Quarterly and South Dakota Review.
Earlier this year, Botkin's first full-length collection, Parts That Were Once Whole, was published by Mayapple Press. In the following exchange, Botkin discusses the challenges of teaching poetry and the poets she most admires.
Live at IU: When did you start writing poetry?
Nancy Botkin: It was in the early '80s, shortly after I got married. My husband and I were living in Lexington, Ky., and he was in graduate school at University of Kentucky. I decided to take a night class -- a poetry writing workshop with Barry Spacks. I really liked playing around with language, and I've been writing ever since. Getting a couple of things published in their campus literary magazine gave me some encouragement to continue.
LIU: Do you think poetry intimidates people? If so, why is that?
NB: In general, I believe poetry intimidates people. Perhaps that accounts for the rise in poetry slams in recent years. People seem to want something that articulates their experience, but they can't spend a lot of time with books or things they don't understand. I'm not knocking that genre, but for me it's always been the poem on the page. Also, I think those who enjoy poetry are not bothered by being thrown into ambiguity, into mystery. We're not a culture that really prizes art or an approach to life that is more contemplative.
LIU: Which poets have most influenced your work?
NB: When I began writing poetry, I was drawn to the poems of Mark Strand. What I still love is their economy of language and powerful imagery. I also love William Carlos Williams for the same reasons. My poems have always been image driven and relatively short. Phil Levine, too, was an early influence; I thought he did autobiography well, and I was writing a lot of family poems. Louis Gluck is probably the poet I reread most. Again, I'm drawn to the very spare style, but also her mastery of the psychological moment which she accomplishes through tone and precise diction. Larry Levis is a poet I discovered a few years ago. I pick up his books frequently. I love the elegiac tone in his work and how he leaps from one image to the next. The images themselves are more associative, and he has taught me to take more risks with language.
Botkin's poem "Geometry" was selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser for his weekly poetry column, "American Life in Poetry." It originally appeared in "Poetry East."
All the roofs sloped at the same angle.
The distance between the houses was the same.
There were so many feet from each front door
to the curb. My father mowed the front lawn
straight up and down and then diagonally.
And then he lined up beer bottles on the kitchen table.
We knew them only in summer when the air
passed through the screens. The neighbor girls
talked to us across the great divide: attic window
to attic window. We started with our names.
Our whispers wobbled along a tightrope,
and below was the rest of our lives.