On Thursday, April 10, poet Dan Albergotti read a selection of his poems to an eager audience in the Wendell Will Room at the Stockwell-Mudd Library, as part of his current tour. On Friday, The Pleiad had a chance to sit down and talk with Albergotti about his poetry, his tour and his adoration for John Keats.
The Pleiad: Yesterday evening, before you read one of your poems, you said that all poetry is an act of witness. What did you mean by that, exactly?
Albergotti: We’re all temporary creatures: we will be gone, and yet, John Keats, who died at 25 in 1821, when I read “Ode to a Nightingale,” I feel like he’s in the room with me, and I feel like I’m experiencing human grief and mortality and confusion in a way that almost transcends time. I feel like he’s being a witness to his own human feelings in his own time and place. And that witness is at once both historical – I feel it as a 19th-century man – and universal, because I feel it as a human being in ways that I can recognize. So, I think it’s witness that way. I think every poem is showing us how a certain human being at a certain time is having the human experience, and I think the more we understand that over time, the more we feel a part of the human family – what it is to be a person, to live in a human consciousness, in the human predicament.
When did you first happen upon Keats, and did you know right away that you loved him?
I’m sure I must have read some Keats poems in high school, but I don’t remember it really until I started studying the romantic poets in college. I really fell in love with the romantics in one of my sophomore literature classes in college. And I always had the notion that I liked the romantics from early on – there was something a bit rebellious about them, you know? I was kind of a little bit of an unusual kid in high school and I liked punk rock and all that kind of thing, and I was rebelling, and there was something – I know this is ridiculous to say – but I noticed, as I was looking at their poems in these anthologies, I noticed that Byron’s dates had him dead at 36, I think, Shelley at 30, and Keats at 25. And I felt like, “Man that’s like Sid Vicious – they’re burning brightly and dying young, and James Dean-ish.” So that was weirdly attractive to me.
That kind of appealed to me, so I was already into the romantics by the time I got to college, and then I really started studying them as an undergrad – I loved them all, but I gravitated toward Byron. I thought he was just fascinating, and the personality, the autobiography of his work. And Keats was kind of to the side. I went back to school and grad school, and teaching the romantics, in those instruction years, had me going back and looking more at Keats and as I gravitated more towards writing poetry than writing about poetry, Byron became less interesting, and Keats became more interesting. And reading and re-reading and re-reading the “Ode to a Nightingale” and “The Eve of St. Agnes,” in class made me feel closer and closer to those poems, and closer and closer to Keats. So there’s a life dedicated to poetry, and I felt like I was on my way to doing that, too. You know, he’s my favorite of all time.
How often do you travel like this for your poetry readings?
Almost never. I travel to readings, but it’s usually like I have one reading on a Thursday on a campus, so I fly there, and I fly back the next day. I’m on sabbatical this semester, so I’m not teaching, so I had one of those university invitations in Maine, and then, coincidentally, the people in Kalamazoo, at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, invited me to read in their Poets in Print series this Saturday, so those were close together. And I thought, “You know, Kalamazoo wants me here, why not get in the car and contact some other people and see if there might be potential reading opportunities?” So I put it together and got a reading in Ann Arbor between the two, and got another invite, so I put this little tour together, and I’ve got one stop on the way home in Greensboro, which is the town where I did my MFA, so I’m driving about 3,000 – 3,500 miles in about two weeks, with about seven readings. So this is really the first time I’ve ever really done something like that. But it’s fun. It’s great, I’m really happy to be doing it.
Has there been one standout interaction with a student at one of your readings that has had an impact on you?
There was someone. I read at Dalton State College in Georgia this past fall, and that is a very small college in rural Georgia, just south of the Tennessee line, a lot of first generation college students. And I had a student come up to me afterwards and said that it was his first poetry reading and that it’s certainly not going to be his last. It was something that he had never experienced before, and that was very gratifying, that he enjoyed it so much that he wants more poetry, so hearing people say that kind of thing means a lot.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in poetry or just writing in general?
Stay interested. Read and write as much as possible. If you’re a writer, read omnivorously. Read just as much as you can, as widely as you can. Read contemporary poetry, but read the classics, too, read the cannon. But it’s very hard to access contemporary poetry. There are two excellent websites that do a really good job of making contemporary poetry available to readers, and very digestible pieces. They’re called Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and what they do is everyday, they feature a new poem from a recently published collection or literary journal, so that anybody who wanted to, without plucking out a whole lot of money to subscribe to literary journals, can sample a poem a day at these sites, and then decide what’s interesting to them, what journals to subscribe to, what poetry collection to buy.
So, young writers, the way to get a sense of what’s happening now, is to just check that site every day. And I do always tell my students this is really important, that if they want to write poetry today, a lot of them are English majors, that they do that, that they read contemporary poetry, and not just write poetry having studied 19th century poetry alone. Because what happens is that you of course model your poetry on what you’ve observed, and to write poetry having only read Poe and Frost and everything like that, you find yourself approaching it in this archaic way. You’ve got to be familiar with the conversation you’re entering, so read as much contemporary poetry as you can.
Albergotti’s second full-length collection of poems, Millennial Teeth, which won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, will be published later this year by Southern Illinois University Press.
Photo via Coastal Carolina University