Or I know I could make a really astute line break at a certain juncture, but I might decide against it for various reasons. Having that background in technique gave me permission, I believe, to depart from conventions in an attempt to find my own aesthetic territory. I am really thankful that Oberlin helped me to realize that. The MFA, for me, has served as a venue for this aesthetic search. All the decisions I make, at the end of the day, are calculated, even if people might read them as “loose” or unpolished.

Don’t say a word––project our voice
through pool not of sea but of sequin
unhinged to hoard glamours.

In creating my 209 course, I modeled it based on a class at Oberlin called Technique and Form in Poetry, which was basically Poetry 101...a lecture/workshop hybrid course with more attention to reading, discussion, and lecture. I hoped to give my students the opportunity to further their technical mastery of poetry in ways that would not only improve their writing, but also in ways that would hopefully give them more confidence in themselves as poets.

BC: I have known you over two years now and have observed and admired the parallelism between your artistic and academic ethos. How do you manage to operate simultaneously as an artist and as an educator/scholar with a similar philosophy? Can you give a behind-the-scenes peek at how you developed harmony between these two domains?

DK: I think I gained much of my artistic and academic ethos from the poet Carol Tufts who teaches dramatic literature in the English program at Oberlin. I observed, I suppose, the parallel nature of her art and work. It seems so natural for her to a certain extent. I think it goes back to what I was saying about a “poetic mission.” I think missions such as these come directly from the self, so maybe if you honor your self or leave room for the self’s values in whatever you do, a sort of natural parallelism occurs in various parts of your life, which, of course, includes your art and your career.

BC: If I'm reading it correctly, at some point in your time in the MFA Program you gave yourself a conscious and articulated permission to break out of literary and poetic traditions you clearly value. What was the engine driving this breakthrough?

DK: I remember having a conversation with Martha Collins on the phone at the beginning of the MFA, when I was questioning if writing was really what I was meant to do. I was kind of a mess and really needed someone I had known for years to tell me something. At some point during the conversation, I remember talking about a few new poets I had read and that I was interested in exploring some techniques that they were utilizing in their work. She responded with something like, “Drew, I’ve known you for five years now, and you’re a really good imitator. Perhaps it’s time to figure out what you want to do.” Also, I spoke with Jane Miller about the dual role of artist/student. That was a helpful conversation, too. I came to the conclusion from listening to them both that I couldn’t let concerns for grades, etc. worry me in terms of what I needed to do with my work (which sounds awful, but hear me out...). I took a leap of faith in order to believe that if I was working hard on my art, if I was reading consistently, if I was using the MFA in a way that would be helpful to finding my aesthetic territory, that my success as a student would naturally follow.

I think it goes back to trusting yourself, and I think the way I came to trust myself as an artist was to be able to objectively tell myself that I had tried everything I could possibly think of to try, that I’d read as much as I possibly could read on a certain topic/aesthetic concern, that I’d worked as hard on my poems as I possibly could. I might be kind of obsessive, but I think there’s a certain sense of power that comes when you can honestly say those things to yourself, and that power gives you a sense of freedom to do what you want or need to do. But that’s how I found that sense of freedom; other people might find different ways to access that. I’m by no means claiming my way is the right way, or anything like that.

We jive for, pose for, trill for, we need
more, to feed our, make our, pay our
birds forward―― swimming――
swimming――swimming to splash us.

BC: Finally, what gives you the courage not to write what would please a given audience but rather to write, as you have told me, what you want to read?

DK: I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in the sense of Audience with a capital A and to assume that any Audience must be outside of the self or that one must target poems to specific journals or write in dominant aesthetics in order for a poem to be successful. This concern of Audience mainly has to do, I think, with the visibility of one’s work; that being widely published or embraced somehow authenticates one as “Poet.” If that logic makes one happy as a poet, great. But I know if I did that, I would ultimately be unhappy with my own work.

There was a moment early on in the program when I realized I was reading amazing published work, but that most of it had one or two dominant facets that didn’t go over well with me. So, as an audience member, I took the time to try to figure out what I thought was missing from all the poetry I had been reading, however strong or weak I felt it was. I rarely pick up a book and find something that is exactly executed and balanced (or un-balanced) in ways that I strongly desire, though much work gets close to fulfilling my predilections. I started to ask myself, even on a line or word level, what could be changed in specific published work to make the poem the ideal poem for me as a reader? This worked best with poetry I felt most strongly about.

The best illustration I have for this process is how this one time I was reading a book from a new poet I really admire, but something about it was not “exactly executed” to my liking––I realized after a really close read that her frequent nominalization of verbs (or maybe her use of nouns as verbs...it’s been a while since I’ve read it) became overwhelming for me at points; this was something I was doing fairly frequently in my work at that moment so I made an effort to resort to this only when there really was no other way to express a certain line. Also, I must mention most of these readings occurred at the Poetry Center, looking at the new books section and the new issues of literary journals. I’ve found reading really current work is helpful, and the Poetry Center is a great resource to find new titles and new poets.

When one reads a really strong poet, one recognizes the poet’s work immediately, even without a name at the top of the page. No one person is really the same and the same goes for the work of great poets. I postulated, then, that if the poet becomes the audience for his/her own work, that the work will distinguish itself naturally from the other work around it. Not everyone can have the exact same taste, right? Similar, sure. Exact, no. So, I saw this self-as-audience construct as a way to access a voice and style I found to be most intimately me.

The danger, I suppose, with this way of looking at audience is that you are the only audience member who likes it. But if you can find yourself in a place where you trust yourself, you can feel that at least a few other people out there will be getting something from your poems that they weren’t getting from other poems before, and they’ll become fans of your work. That audience could be large (say, Quentin Tarantino sized) or more intimate (a group of your friends and your cat named Mooky).

When I chose to look at my work in this way, I came to terms with knowing that I’m still going to be a poet—even if none of the poems from my manuscript see publication. I’m not saying publication is bad. Not at all. Publication would be dreamy; recognition would be dreamy; hell, “poetic fame” would be dreamy. For me though, these could only be dreamy if I knew that the work being praised is work that I believe in, work that functions on its own terms, my terms. We all take risks on some level with our work, and this is the primary risk I’m willing to take.

“They’ve found your sparkle.” No
please, no swim――and the bodies
drown, the clown’s hands captioned,
removed. Boys and girls attempt
migration. Diamonds melt to scream
under their wings, which fan the
flames.

An Interview with Drew Krewer
by Barbara Cully

Drew Krewer received his BA from Oberlin College and will be finishing his MFA at University of Arizona in December. I have had the honor of working with him as his teaching advisor since his first year in the grad program and as his thesis advisor during the past three semesters. During this time, I've come to admire his writing process, the careful development of his artistic sensibility, and the ethical commitments he brings to his poems and to his teaching. For these reasons I wanted to interview him here, for the benefit of those who would like a particular and clear window on the MFA program in poetry.

Krewer's awards include a Bucknell Younger Poets Fellowship and an Academy of American Poets prize. His work has appeared in Poor Claudia, Pequod, Quick Fiction, and Hanging Loose. He plans to live in Tucson until he feels his manuscript has reached its final form. Excerpts of his poetry accompany this interview.


Barbara Cully: I observed that you were onto something substantial very early on in your MFA, even in your first semester. Will you talk a bit about your process and stages in this--what were you reading? What prompted your motivation to start something and get a book project underway quickly?

Drew Krewer: When I entered the program, I knew I wanted to start thinking of poems working together instead of separately; I wanted my manuscript to have an overarching concept instead of being a collection of poems that were only somewhat related. I was very frightened to settle so early on one concept, so I read as much as I could, hoping that I would have “smart luck” and see in the writings certain trends emerge in which I was interested. This established research as a very important part of my process.

During this time, I constantly questioned whether I was meant to write or not. If it was something that reached beyond desire for publication and approval from fellow poets. There were days I felt dishonest and thought I should quit and find another calling. I promised myself at this juncture that whatever my project was, it must be in some way politically aware without dictating the reader’s experience or being didactic. That needed to happen, I decided, if I were to continue writing poetry. This became my central poetic mission, and I let that guide me in terms of the content of my book...to find a content that would allow those political questions of language to be enacted and explored.

I read the essay by C.K. Williams entitled “Beginnings,” in which he discusses how he started his career as a poet. Something in that essay detonated for me. I’ve read it again since, and I can’t really say what it was that set me off initially. Anyway, that same evening, I came across a book called The Land of Desire by William Leach, which detailed the historical development of consumerism from the late 1800s until the 1930s. I was so disturbed and provoked by the history set forth in this book, I knew my manuscript would be a great venue to explore this intense anger I had discovered. I also realized that I had always been concerned about issues of consumerism; it took this book to make that concern more apparent to me.

So, I suppose what prompted a quick move to a project was finding a topic of concern that made me feel disempowered to some extent. The anger that resulted made me very invested in starting a project that reclaimed (in my mind) some of the power I felt had been taken away. I had found something politically charged, something that raised issues about the “currency of language,” something that questioned the power play between poet (producer) and the reader (consumer). I found my mission as a poet in this material, and I knew this is what I needed to be exploring in my project.

Search the body vital signs––boys and
girls, model the sparkles. Clowns
must juggle fire within. Watery voices
are useless and must be submitted to
sorry––sorry––sorry to splash you.

BC: What roles did the MFA Program proper (the workshops, craft seminars, elective courses) play in the development of your poetic aesthetic, and your project emerging from it?

DK: The craft seminars were particularly helpful; at the risk of sounding reductive, I read most all of the texts with an eye for issues I was having with both my aesthetic and my manuscript as a whole. I was operating under the assumption that people would bring their own concerns to the table during class so that the reading of class texts would become multi-faceted through a collaborative discussion. I always seemed to be asking myself how did writers address concerns similar to mine, and how might I address them differently? Something you said in craft class, Barbara, really stuck with me...that craft choices are, in some way or another, solving for specific “problems” or complexities.

Craft seminars also led me into looking at visual art and experimental music, which I looked at as either a visual or aural metaphor for poetry. How might the specific work of a visual artist or a contemporary composer translate into language? What might be helpful to my work when considering this translation? Certain craft choices came directly from the answers I had to these questions (especially in regard to the work of Tara Donovan, Andy Warhol, and the compositions of Steve Reich that incorporate recorded voice).

Workshops functioned for me as an audition space, of sorts. What I wanted to know most from workshop was if my poem was hitting a nerve. If people argue over my poem in class, clearly people care about it or are infuriated by it, etc. Something is working. I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to line editing, which I usually do as I’m writing; then, I continue to line edit over a course of months once the honeymoon phase is over. So workshop wasn’t so much about line editing for me, though I’ve had unanimous class distaste for certain lines before, lines which I ended up cutting. Or I’ll find someone making a cut that I was considering prior to workshop. That’s really helpful. Overall, I believe thinking of workshop as an audition/practice space as opposed to a first aid station gave me support and insight from my peers and professors while also allowing me to gain trust in myself as an artist.

If all our poems smoldered inside the
aqualumination, a voice transferred―
we would barely hear our self sparkle:
no, ring: not diamond but thought:
no, spell: no, cathode.

BC: How did "where you are from" artistically--in other words, your undergrad work--influence your approach to the MFA and help you develop a pedagogy for teaching your own undergrad workshop, English 209/Introduction to Poetry Writing?

DK: Oberlin was a great environment; when I was there, the program encouraged a strong foundation in poetics––meter, form, and technical concerns were emphasized in the lower level classes. More advanced aspects of form were discussed in the upper level workshops. I created reading lists with professors in which I read books for specific trends in technique, sound, form, voice, and style. I took literature courses in seventeenth century poetry and early American literature. If one worked hard at Oberlin, he/she could graduate with a firm grasp on how to write a competent, if not successful, poem. Also, I might add, Oberlin is a very politically active campus so politics and poetry have always seemed intimately entwined to me.

In the years between undergrad and grad, I searched for poets whose aesthetic somewhat honored my poetic lineage, but I also wanted these poets to depart from that lineage as well. Poets who were somewhat non-committal, if you can call them that. I wanted to see the possibilities beyond my most familiar territories. This curiosity remained steady and carried over into my time here at Arizona.

I think what Oberlin really did for me was give me confidence in my technical skill. I know how to make line breaks work on multiple levels; I know how to write a sonnet; I know how to make a line lyrically beautiful, etc. What has been so helpful to me is knowing that I have this knowledge; if I decide to abandon perfectly lyrical lines, I know that I could be writing them perfectly.