I was reading The Bloomsbury Review the other day — the new issue (May/June/July 2009) just arrived in my mailbox — and came upon something that caught me more than a little off-guard.
The cover story is an interview with Greg Kuzma (“Poet, Critic, Editor, Publisher, Teacher, Mentor, & Screenwriter’), someone whose work I was previously unfamiliar with. His bio is quite extensive, with “more than 30 books and chapbooks to his credit”, and he’s a much beloved teacher. So I was more than a little shocked to read
“I used to be a poet who only wrote out of inspiration and I never revised anything. And screenwriting is all revision. I have fallen in love with polishing, and rewriting, and solving problems within the screenplay.”
“To my knowledge [these poems] are the best I could possibly do. They’re as factual and as honest as they could ever be. And when everybody was leaving the reading, I heard a couple people saying things like, ‘He seems so sincere!’ And I wonder if people, when they read some of these things, think I made them all up. I would prefer that they not think that.
I’m trying to be faithful and truthful, and I don’t think there’s enough respect for that. Maybe that’s where creative nonfiction is headed.”
With all due respect to Mr. Kuzma, who is clearly very successful, so whatever he’s doing is working for him, but — really? Screenwriting is all revision, but he doesn’t revise his poems at all? All these years of writing and publishing poems, and he’s fallen in love with polishing his writing in another genre entirely?
And when I think about the best poems I’ve read, or written, what I’ve admired about them had nothing to do with whether they were “factual” or “honest”. Poems are not autobiographies. Even Sylvia Plath, when speaking about her poems, was always at pains to differentiate the persona from the poet. What’s important is fidelity to the poem, not some literal story. Haven’t we all heard the one about the student writer in her workshop protesting, “But that really happened!”
This is old news, an old debate. But it bothered me. A lot. I gasped when I read it. Swore audibly. I read a poem. Which I didn’t care for. Which is not the point. Many poets write poems I don’t care for. I don’t care for some of my own poems.
But it seems to me that this poet cares for his stories more than his poems. I don’t mean the screenplays, but the stories which inspire his poems. And I guess I’m just hoping that he’s not passing this misplaced fidelity on to his students.