Kyle Austin Interviews David Allan Evans Regarding His Book, This Water. These Rocks.

1. In your 2008 interview on Through The 3rd Eye, you stated that you began to consider yourself a poet in your early 30’s after you started getting published in reputable places, “after many years of stops and starts as a writer.” What was it that made you come back to poetry ultimately, rather than pursuing another career or job?

As far as a career goes, I’ve always been a college teacher, which is how I’ve made my living. Poetry has been something I’ve done also, and in fact, being a Writer in Residence for many years, writing poetry was part of my job, though, again, I’ve made my living as a teacher. The two things are certainly connected: being a teacher of poetry for over 40 years, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to teach poetry to my students. Not on my own, of course, but from the great traditions of English and American literature as well as poetry in translation from Asia ect. I’ve excelled at two things in my life, I believe. The first was sports, and then after that, when I became a young man in my 20’s, I took up the writing of poetry. I always remember my dad saying: “Find something you can be good at.” I took his admonition seriously, and I was also a child of the 50’s, a decade in which the work ethic, as they call it, was extremely important. But I wouldn’t have taken up poetry in the first place, probably, unless I’d had some kind of feel for it, which, again, my dad provided with his love of literature, and especially of poetry. He played cuttings from HAMLET on his record player – old actors saying the lines from plays. I couldn’t help but be impressed and influenced by what I’d heard, even as a teenager whose life was pretty much taken up by sports. One more important thing – I found, early on, that I had a word memory, that is, I found that I was remembering poetry really well (even when I wasn’t trying to!). Memory is related to the ability to create, in any artistic endeavor.

2. The poetry in This Water. These Rocks. features a mix of reflection and observation. In your opinion, how important is it for developing poets to look both internally and externally for inspiration and subject matter?

Internally and externally – that’s all anybody has. What’s going on inside our minds, and what’s going on outside – what we observe, what we do, how we relate to people, and so on. Poets are nothing if not good observers. The same is true of scientists, and both are curious about the world – excited to be alive and able to observe and listen and feel and hear what is happening around them all the time.

Observation comes first, then reflection. That’s how the human mind works. We see something, we describe it, and then we step back and say: “Now what does that MEAN? What’s this all about?” We are the supreme reflective animal, that’s for sure. So poems tend to have two parts: first, observation, the event itself; second, the reflection on the event. Frost is a superb example of this.

3. I enjoyed the portraits of the characters in the “Some Guys” section of your book. The poems seem to work together to comment on the larger consciousness of American men. Do you write profile poems like this often? What inspired you to bring them to the page?

I always go back to E.A. Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote some magnificent “portrait” poems. I owe a lot to those two writers, and I’m not the only one who has that debt. Dave Etter is another really good writer on the subject of portraits, just individual persons and their character, their flaws, their triumphs and failures. I should say too that those “guys” in “Some Guys” are not just other guys. There’s a lot of me in a lot of them. I’m intrigued by the fact that so many of us are known for one thing, one quirk, one flaw, one experience or whatever. It tends to define us so well that that’s how we’re remembered. Like the guy who bragged that he ran the 100 yard dash in high school in 9.3 seconds, which was the world record held for decades by Jesse Owens! I find all these guys endearing, likeable, mostly. And of course, they have universal characteristics. Human nature is the same all over the world – always has been and always will be.

4. Many of the poems in your book seem to speak of an innate desire to connect with our natural environment, and it is evident that you have a deep relationship with your surroundings. Talk a bit about the relationship between poetry and nature and about what really solidified your connection to the natural world around you.

I started out in college as a biology major because I had the greatest professor of my life in my freshman year. He inspired me to love the natural world, though my dad had books around the house by Darwin and other biologists and used to speak animatedly on Darwin’s theory, for instance.

I would’ve stayed in biology I think if I’d had a good math background, but instead I opted for the more familiar field of literature and poetry, but I’ve retained my interest in the natural world since college. My main reading is in biology and poetry. Those are the two types of books I read, pretty much. The natural world needs poets to describe it and keep it alive, just as, we all know, the rain forests and thousands of species of plants and animals are dying out at an alarming rate across the world. The descriptions of what we have left in this century – the argument for retaining as much of the “wild” as we can – these can be enlivened and extended by poets and other writers and artists who love the physical world. We need scientists and we need poets. Anybody who has read some poems by Mary Oliver and Elizabeth Bishop know how powerful the written word can be when it comes to describing nature. Eventually, the animals we’ll have left in the world will be in zoos or poems, it seems to me. But let’s keep the natural world alive as long as we can. Let’s preserve biodiversity for coming generations. Poets can help do this, and yet of course, poetry is poetry first of all, and always will be.

5. When you began to consider yourself a poet, did you also have an interest in teaching, or was that something that developed as you got older? How has your experience as a teacher changed or influenced the way you write?

I answered some of this question earlier, I think. But let me say that when a person loves something so much, there’s always an instinct to want to show others that love. From the age of 14 or so I’ve always loved to teach – at first I taught my friends how to pole vault and high jump, or ice skate, and they taught me things they knew well and loved as well. So it was natural for me to want to teach poetry, and the writing of poetry later. So college teaching was the perfect job for me. All the great poetry to read and teach! Did it all change my writing? Of course. All writers have to be voracious readers. It was such a privilege to be able to read these wonderful poems, to learn from them as a writer, and then to teach them to students for over 40 years.

6. So many of the poems in your book seem to spring from a single image or memory. What is your process in writing a poem? Do you keep a notebook of ideas, or do you just jump right into working on a poem as soon as an image, experience, or memory prompts you to?

That’s about it: I usually start with an image or experience, maybe something I’ve seen. Two guys working in a barber shop, a couple of geese chasing my bike as I ride past them, and so on. Then I jot something down. I don’t keep a notebook but sometimes write something down on a piece of paper to remind myself of it later. I have a good memory and usually, if something has really intrigued me, it’ll stay with me and eventually insist on being put down on paper or on my computer screen. I go at it, mess around, and a lot of things don’t go anywhere. But if I get what poets call a “hook,” then I can keep the poem going and usually come up with something – possibly a poem. I’m an obsessive revisor; I can’t get enough of revising, to make a poem better and better, though I’m sure I’ve revised a lot of poems out of existence too, over the years. The delight is in coming up with something I never thought I could say, never in a hundred years. Something unusual, as Dylan Thomas put it: “like eggs laid by tigers.”

7. One thing that always interests me about writers is the ways in which their perspective and their worldview changes as they age. What is the difference between the writer you are today and the writer you were in your 30’s?

Tough tough question – a great question. I’m settling in, finally, at 70. I don’t write many sports poems anymore because I’m not in sports, though I love to watch some sporting events. I think I’ve become more mellow with age, more apt to realize that yielding to the way things are – which is a lot different from the way I’d like them to be – is better than “forcing the issue,” as they say. Age does mellow us, I’m finding, and that’s both good and bad. I miss a lot but realize that most of my life is behind me now, not in front of me. You feel a sense of “having done” a lot of your work, and maybe get uptight sometimes because you want it to have been, so far, worth the effort and time you spent on it, and yet you go on doing more work, just as a cow goes on producing more milk, because that’s what a cow does. And you learn too that you are a frail, mortal human being, who can be humbled by life sometimes when you try and think and act otherwise.

8. I particularly enjoy the blunt, matter of fact style of the poems in This Water. These Rocks. In fact, I noticed that you rarely employ lavish metaphors or similes. Not that simile and metaphor aren’t important and effective poetic devices, but talk a bit about why you composed these poems with such powerfully plain and direct language.

I dislike poetry that’s difficult and meant for a narrow audience. I’ve always believed that poetry, first of all, is communication between and among human beings. I want, above all, to be understood. I also believe that when we are truly being honest with one another, or excited about something, that we speak in plain words – they just come out of us naturally. People who write poems just to show off with words don’t appeal to me. And of course we all know there’s no such thing as a concise lie.

9. How do you go about assembling poems into a book, a collection? Do you set out to write poems that relate to each other on some level or another, or do you just write individual poems and piece them together when you have enough to put into a book? Do prefer to publish your poems in collections or individually in journals?

I just, as you say, write poems and when I’ve accumulated enough I put them together in a collection and go from there. I publish some poems in journals, but not nearly as many as I used to.

10. In addition to your extensive publishing record, you’ve been named the poet laureate of South Dakota, and you’ve been a Fulbright Scholar in China twice. What keeps you from resting on your laurels, from letting success dull your poetic drive? Is there such a thing as a retired poet?

I keep on going, and do the best I can. My output is not as prolific as it was when I was, say, 35 or 40, but I do what I can, given my ability to do it. Others will have to judge how successful I’ve been after 40 some years of trying to make poems. But if I’ve written a few good poems in all those years, and maybe a few more from now on – that’s good enough for me. The great Japanese haiku poet Basho said that if you write a lifetime and produce only one good haiku, it was worth the effort. I agree.

Works by David Allan Evans

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