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TODAY

Tuesday, September 19

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Airbags

Chicago poet Averill Curdy has been announced this week as the recipient of a 2007 Literature Fellowship from the NEA. Curdy worked as an arts administrator and as a marketing manager and technical editor in the software industry before starting to write poetry in her mid-30s. She received her MFA from the University of Houston and her PhD from the University of Missouri. A co-editor of The Longman Anthology of Poetry, her own poems have appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, The Paris Review, Raritan and the Kenyon Review. As well the recipient of a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, she lives in Chicago and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University. To experience Curdy's poetry visit her page at Poetry magazine.

Q: I have often found that poets write the strongest criticism. Criticism in the hands of a poet seems to be more poignant — more poignant in terms of how the poet asks his or her questions. Do you believe the poet's proclivity for risk makes him or her a stronger critic?

Curdy: I would suggest that it's a combination of risk and ardor. Poets read differently, from the inside of a poem, as it were, thinking about how it's made and why, rather than seeking to paraphrase meaning or frame a poem theoretically. Every poet I know is trying to extend or deepen the tradition in which he or she works, so the poems they write are in conversation both with the past and the future. And the poets that I most value reading also possess a kind of restlessness, an unwillingness to accept their own previous achievements and masteries. The criticism these poets write requires the ability to engage with another's aesthetic, to define and interrogate one's own assumptions with equal rigor to judge the success of the poems by the standards they establish, and then to decide whether what the poems are trying to do is worthwhile. It's like falling in love — you risk losing yourself — and it can be as uncomfortable or destabilizing to write criticism as it is to write a poem.

Q: Writing is a lonely craft, but writing poetry is an even lonelier one. How do you experience this loneiness when you're sitting before a poem-in-progress? Do you conjure an audience, or do you revel in the loneliness?

Curdy: Well, when the writing of a poem is going well it's all the company I need. As a lyric poet, the poem is an instrument for me to figure out what I think, why I'm obsessed with a particular image or line. So I'll work for a long time on a poem before worrying about an audience. But I suspect even Emily Dickinson believed that eventually her poems would find their sympathetic readers. And I'd say that it's an ethical value for me that my words should communicate, should establish a common bond with a reader, create a shared world, even if readers are asked to work as hard as I have to help create that bond.

After I'd left the software industry and started writing seriously, I dreamed that I was riding in a car with James Merrill and W. H. Auden. They were returning glasses after a party and weren't aware of me in the back seat. The sun shone through the windshield, silhouetting their distinctive profiles: Merrill looking a bit elfin and refined, and Auden looking like a partly melted candle. The conversation that I overheard was a combination of gossip and poetry shop-talk. Mostly my particular loneliness as a poet is assuaged by the company of previous poets I love — Donne and Dickinson, Keats, Hopkins, Eliot and so on — wanting to write something that might measure up.

Q: I believe there exists within the poetic mind a longing for the ability to transform words into the colors on a painter's palette — to essentially lose words to the visual. As a poet, do you ever have a deep yearning for a sort of silence?

Curdy: No! I think silence is the condition of despair. (And now we have to contend with the white noise of our age of substanceless content.) Obviously, we live in a visual age, but there are complexities and nuances of experience that only words can approach. However, I do agree that many poets, including myself, are compelled by the visual arts, perhaps because a painting or a sculpture has an immediate authority and appeal to the senses. We spend our time in school analyzing poems, discussing what they mean, rather than experiencing them sensually or bodily as structures and combinations of sounds. My response to a poem on first and second (and sometimes third) reading is to architecture, to sound and rhythm, to relationships between line and sentence. In my own work the aural quality and weight of words is very important and I think it's partly an attempt to make them feel as material as the smears of color on a painter's palette.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to tqf@gapersblock.com.

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