Kevin Pilkington is a writer and teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. Here, he gives advice to aspiring writers, and discusses his work as a writing instructor as well as writing itself. His poem, “Flu Shot,” appears in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review.
You studied literature at St. John’s University where you earned a BA and at Georgetown University where you earned an MA. Can you talk about what you have learned from these programs? What advice do you have to aspiring writers applying to a BA or MA/MFA program?
I received a BA in Literature from St. John’s University and went on to receive an MA in English Literature from Georgetown University. In fact, although I have been teaching writing classes for most of my adult life, I never took a writing class on the undergraduate or graduate levels or had a writing mentor. My writing teachers were on the bookshelves–I learned to write through reading. To this day, I tell students that the best teachers are the writers you read. I have always felt that writing teachers save students time by telling them whom to read and usually not what to put into their writing but what to take out. The poet Robert Lowell said, “Learning to write is learning what to leave out.” Hemingway said it another way: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” On a very basic level, writing workshops are time-savers by showing students what not to do in their writing so they have more time to work on what will enhance whatever genre they are working in. If I knew my life was going to turn this way, I certainly would have enrolled in an MFA program. I am sure I would have matured faster as a writer and achieved more goals that much sooner. However, studying literature, mostly classical, at both universities was invaluable to me as both a human being and a writer. I can’t imagine how my writing would have progressed without reading Philip Sidney who tells us in The Defense of Poetry, written in 1595, “The aim of poetry is to teach and delight.” This is a phrase I still keep on my writing desk. At Georgetown I first came into contact with Horace’s Ars Poetica, probably the first and best creative writing handbook although in reality it is a letter-poem. Later I was introduced to the visionary lyricism of William Butler Yeats, a poet whose poems I have read almost every week since then. Studying great literature seeps into your own writing, as I hope it did mine, through osmosis. However, I don’t write poetry in traditional or given forms; I chose to write in open or organic forms since like many contemporary poets, I want my poems to sound closer to everyday speech and flourish in their own time and place.
I believe Sarah Lawrence College where I teach was the first, or certainly one of the first, to offer workshops for undergraduates taught by professional writers. There are now many fine undergraduate writing programs across the country. I would recommend to any aspiring writer who is looking to major in writing not to apply if they have stories to tell in prose or poetry. Only apply if you truly love language. Then you will succeed and thrive. Do your research; see which writers are on the faculty and are actually teaching classes. Many high profile writers only teach sporadically even though a given school will use their names as recruiting tools. Visit the school you are interested in and visit classes to make sure it is the right fit. Majoring or having a concentration in writing enables you think critically and to communicate your thoughts clearly and effectively, which is beneficial studying across the curriculum and prepares you for a variety of careers once you graduate. For those considering an MFA, I would offer some of the same advice as above–make sure you research programs thoroughly and speak to students in the program who will offer truthful insights into its strengths or weaknesses. Remember the best programs create an atmosphere that allows you the time to explore and concentrate on your craft and is taught by professional writers in the classroom who are not just names on a catalog, writers who love and are passionate about language. I can’t think of time better spent than paying homage to language.
You are a writing coordinator at Sarah Lawrence College. Can you discuss what this entails? What is the best part of your job?
As a writing coordinator at Sarah Lawrence College, I work with undergraduate and graduate students to help them become more competent and confident writers. I work in one-on-one conferences with student writers of all levels and disciplines on a variety of assignments and projects, such as short class papers, semester or yearlong research papers known as conference papers here at the college. I also work with graduate poetry students on their poems and as their thesis advisor. What I find most satisfying is helping students discover the power of language and all its possibilities, helping them discover their own voices and become astute critical thinkers, and observing how their writing changes and strengthens over time. It’s always a thrill when I find a newly published book in my mailbox from a former student or when another asks for a blurb for a book that is about to be published.
You are the author of several poetry collections and a novel. Do you have a preference for one genre over the other? How do you compare fiction and poetry, and what challenges do each genre present?
I am first and foremost a poet who happened to write a novel, and I hope an entertaining one. I say “happen” because the novel began as a series of poems until I realized they were not quite working. William Carlos Williams said, “Writing has to find its own breath,” meaning the appropriate form. I realized I needed something more expansive than a series of poems, and prose in the form of a novel felt right, more suitable for what I wanted to say. In a sense, it found its own form or breath. I am most comfortable writing poetry where I can let my imagination soar, write in the moment and not be concerned about the past or future. In prose I find that less possible when developing characters and setting, and developing a plot that is more linear in its progression of events. That said, I do find both genres inform the other, cross pollinate so to speak, and have made my poetry and prose wealthier for it. Often I try to blur the lines between the two or create what Whitman calls “a heaven of prose,” the blending of poetry and prose. Many of my poet friends often discuss who has the best “ear” in poetry. William Butler Yeats tops my list, or has since I began reading him, along with Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, and James Wright. I also felt that with prose James Joyce, arguably the most influential novelist of the twentieth century, is the most sound conscious of writers incorporating numerous low and high frequency vowel sounds in his prose. Ironically, his poetry is quite bland. Hemingway’s beautifully pristine rhythmic sentences flow across the page. The point is, these brilliant writers have taught me that I can write in either genre and have the luxury of combining the two.
How do you believe formatting can add to the overall meaning of a poem?
Formatting, or what I call architecture of the poem, usually begins with a phrase or an image and then arranging those words in what Coleridge calls, “the best words in their best order.” So much goes into the building of a poem, but I will touch briefly upon the line where it breaks and upon its length, especially how it relates to my poem, “Flu Shot.” There are many reasons for breaking a line that involves rhythm, tone, and emphasis. In general, I always try to break a line on one or two syllable words that are a unit of strength in the English language. Landscapes always trigger poems for me and, although I have written poems that concern various places in the United States and Europe, many of my poems are urban-based, specifically Manhattan where I live. I have spoken about this elsewhere but have always enjoyed writers who have a strong sense of place in their writing: Joyce’s Dublin, Levine’s Detroit, Lowell’s Boston, Hugo’s West always come to mind. All have had and continue to have a strong influence on my writing. The length of the lines in “Flu Shot” are relatively short and are metaphysically connected to the narrow shapes of Manhattan sidewalks, streets, subway, and railroad tracks and highways. There is a fast pace to the city and the short lines in the poem create a quicker pace as opposed to longer lines that flowed across the page that I first tried in earlier versions. There also isn’t any eccentric syntax or spacing that would have slowed down the urban pace the poem ultimately achieves.
Where can the literary world expect you to be in five years? Are you working on any projects right now? & &
Since no one is pounding on my door demanding new poems, I can take my time and continue to work slowly, diligently, and eventually publish poems that I am proud of and are not rushed into print because the literary world demands more in a hurry. Critics claim many poets’ and novelists’ later works suffer because their talents have been diminished along the way. I believe if there is great demand for their work, usually it is the quality of the work that suffers. It has to do with supply and demand rather than loss of talent. It is the flip side of fame. Frost had the right idea–publishing a collection of poems every ten years. I think that is the main reason critics never accused him of losing his poetic gifts.
I have always considered teaching a privilege, so I hope the privilege continues beyond the next five years. Also I hope to write poems that broaden in scope, focus, and mature with the riches that only a life well lived can bring. I am presently working on a new novel whose title is Elgin Fig’s Grandson and putting the finishing touches on Where You Want to Be: New and Selected Poems, a collection of poems that will be published next spring by Black Lawrence Press.
The Worcester Review would like to thank Kevin Pilkington for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series. You can click here to visit his website and click here to purchase his books.