The English Department continued their fall reading series on Oct. 21 with GLCA award winner Kevin McFadden. McFadden released his first book of poems, Hardscrabble, in 2008, and is the winner of the Erskine J. Poetry Prize and the Fellowship of Southern Writers George Garrett Award. Prior to his reading, he sat down with The Pleiad to answer several questions.
How do you approach writing a poem?
For me the thing that starts them is usually something in language that interests me, be it connection, meaning, pun. I begin poems with some piece of play; there always has to be something there. It can be the root of the word, it can be the sound of the word—that’s always sort of there. And the diction that goes around it is just painting out the rest of the painting. I’m always trying to make the language a little bit newer, put something in there that’s not cliché. But often those are the things that are easily misunderstood or different or missed out on.
Some reviews of Hardscrabble mentioned that it avoided “seriousness.” Do you think they misunderstood that?
You know, there are some that said that, and I think that sometimes people don’t realize how serious play can be – that there’s a level to a joke that’s very difficult or exposes something painful or (we) want to laugh off because we have no other way to react to it. It’s not just light verse, but it also has some inner pith to it, some gravity about it. I think that’s the type of book that I wrote. It gets misunderstood sometimes, but I think it’s always there. There’s always something about the joke and punch line that cuts a little deeper, and we laugh at it.
You definitely play around with language—how does that affect word choice?
I think in English it’s just the nature of our language. We have that interplay between Latin words and everyday Germanic words, so it’s just a fact of using language that you’re always going to have that dichotomy. Some sound better when they’re in everyday language, and some you need to turn it up a notch or two.
Speaking of voice, do you view poetry as more verbal or written?
You know, when I’m writing poems that have a strong sense of voice in them, that’s a very important distinction. I read them aloud, and if something doesn’t sound right or doesn’t fit write in the cadence, I change it. But there are other poems that are not so much written for the vocal register as they are for sight. The more conceptual ones, like the anagram poems, those all have this formula where there’s a borrowed line in the poem, and every line has to be worked out to be worked out with the letters in them. That’s obviously not something that’s just vocalized; it has to be in the written form to work those out. So sometimes I’m playing this game; sometimes I’m playing that game.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
My advice is just to stay open to as many different types of writing as you can. But ultimately, always “read,” because it clarifies for you things that have already been done, that you don’t have to, that you can appreciate. It clarifies what you want to do yourself.