An interview with Adrian Blevins

On February 15, 2016, Colby students, faculty, and other guests discussed their ideas about community. Following a “family style” dinner in Dana, the event moved to Page Commons for a series of artistic performances by students and faculty. Associate Professor of English [Creative Writing] Adrian Blevins was one of those people, and she blew the audience away with her recitation of three exquisite poems.

The first two poems were written by other poets: “If I Could Open You” by Leon Stokesbury and “Obituary for the Middle Class” by Bob Hickock. However, the final poem was her own “Ode to the Fish Fry,” a beautiful homage to paying attention. Blevins discusses the event and her musings on poetry with the Echo in the following interview.

How would you describe your poetry?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s a narrative poetry that is interested in the southern vernacular. So it’s a kind of a narrative spoken poetry that focuses on speech, sound, and this idea of the way that we speak. It’s about human speech and the way that we talk to each other, and I try to find a way to make that lyrical.

What made you choose the three poems that you read at the event last night?

The first poem is one of my favorite poems, “If I Could Open You” by Leon Stokesbury. I chose this poem because I love how it embodies this idea that in order to improve community, we have to overcome certain fears. I really do feel that one of the problems we have with community is that people are afraid of things they don’t know or understand—cultures they aren’t familiar with. So I thought using this poem would be a good way to encourage people not to be afraid of difference.

The second poem is about class, and I actually think that one of the things that we don’t talk about enough at Colby is class and class differences. So I chose “Obituary for the Middle Class” by Bob Hickock because it’s about this idea of a community that accepts all people from all income brackets—this is a hugely complicated idea at Colby and it’s something that people aren’t willing to talk about. My father taught at a university south of the Mason-Dixon line in the Appalachian Mountains, so the cultural capital that I gained from this experience led me to associate with the working classes. Particularly the poetry of the working classes in every single possible way.

When did you begin writing poetry?

Thirteen. I don’t really remember my first poem; I’m pretty sure I was pretty mad at my mom about something she wouldn’t let me do. My parents are big readers, so I think that part of the reason I wanted to write was to get their attention. I thought, well, since they won’t pay attention to me in real life, if I could get inside the books then maybe they would listen.

What inspires you?

I think for a long time that part of the reason I wanted to write was because I have a little bit of a justice complex; I mean injustice drives me really crazy. It’s been driving me crazy since I was very young. So I think I started writing as a way to sort of articulate that. I felt misunderstood, but it took me a long time not to write bad poems.

Do you have any favorite poems or poets?

So Bob Hickock, who wrote “Obituary for the Middle Class,” is one of my favorite poets. I really love Mary Ruefle and C.K. Williams. I’m still really fond of one of my teachers, Tony Hoagland, who I studied with at Warren Wilson when I went back to school. I actually studied fiction writing, but I was a terrible fiction writer! I would write these horrible stories and when they read them, my teachers would say, “You know Adrian, that’s really beautiful, but you know, nothing happened.” It took me a while to figure out that I was a poet.

What does poetry mean to you? Why is it important?

So my favorite quote about poetry is from the poet W.H. Auden, who said, “Poetry just may be the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I ask my students about their drafts: “Why is this a poem, not a film, novel, or a phone call to your mother?” This is the central question: why is it a poem? I really think it has to do with contradiction because feelings are very complex, and we can feel two contradictory feelings at once. Poetry is able to express that better than any other genre.

How can we use poetry to build community?

Right now I’m teaching American Poetry Since 1945, and we start with Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I’m beginning to see an interesting argument surrounding about two different ideas on American poetry. One is that poetry is only for an elite few and the other is that poetry is of the people, by the people, for the people. I actually think that hip-hop and all kinds of street poetry, slam poetry, all that kind of stuff is actually the people taking poetry back for the people.

If it becomes too rarified, too precious, then it’s not going to reach everyone. It contains so many voices—it’s polyvocal. We all need to know that it belongs to all of us. You know Walt Whitman had an eighth grade education and he’s one of the most famous American poets. I think that the more we get together, the more that we can make the case that poetry isn’t just this sweet, precious thing that’s in a gallery. It’s coming right out of the streets.

What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?

This is going to sound a little cliché, but follow your bliss, like Joseph Campbell would say. Poetry is about pleasure. Find the poets that you really just love and that you need. It’s not an intellectual thing.

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