Interview with David Allan Evans, Poet Laureate of South Dakota

1. When did you consider yourself a poet? How old were you?

I began to consider myself a poet when I started publishing in good, respectable magazines, in my early 30s, after many years of stops and starts as a writer. But when I began to see my poems published along with poems by writers whose works I really admired, then I figured I must be at least capable of writing a pretty good poem now and then.

2. What prompted you to begin to write poems about sports?

In my apprenticeship as a poet--my early years--I must not have thought that sports were a very good topic for poetry, since I didn't address the subject. But then, after I began to see poems by James Dickey, who had a similar background to mine--he was an athlete too, a very physical person--then I started to write about pole vaulting, playing football, and so on. But reading Dickey was the breakthrough I needed. Of course, other poets I've read since then have also written about sports.

3. What serves as your inspiration for writing poetry?

My inspiration, I think, is to be able to make a poem that people will not be able to forget. Writing poetry, like everything else in life, has a competitive aspect. All of us, whether we're poets or not, want our place in the sun. The early Japanese haiku poets would sometimes get together and have a contest to see who could make the best haiku. I like that idea. I'd like to have sat among them and competed with them. It would've been a challenge, and a lot of fun. The kind of camaraderie you find in a locker room, especially after you've won a game--everybody contributing to the friendly but serious atmosphere.

4. Who are some of your favorite poets?

James Dickey, Philip Larkin, Richard Eberhart, Reed Whittemore, W.C. Williams, Walt Whitman, John Keats, James Wright, Robert Frost, to name a few of them anyway. I have lots of favorites, and lots of favorite poems I always go back to. But I think I have a lot more favorite poems than favorite poets. Some poems I remember were written by poets who are not so famous.

5. What is your favorite sport to write about? Has anyone influenced you to write sports poetry?

I like to write about all kinds of sports, not a particular one more than any other. It's not the sport but what I can do with the sport in a poem that really matters to me. James Dickey is in my opinion the best poet of the body, the physical life, in our country. I also love a poem about softball by Richard Hugo called "Missoula Softball Tournament." Robert Frost was also pretty physical in his poems--athletic, even (see "Birches"). Robert Francis is another first-rate poet of sports--the observer type as opposed to the participant type, which I tend to be, like James Dickey. In other words, some poets of sports write as athletes, some as observers. My poems come out of having been involved in sports very directly, in other words. Good and great poems can come out of either one of these types of poems.

6. Are there any other reasons that you use verbs, than to show action? How do you go about selecting those verbs?

Verbs are the guts of language, the guts of poetry, along with nouns. Action is a key, of course, in any poem. I like dynamic poems, not static ones that just sit there and do nothing. I like a poem to move, to do something--to act. "Poetry," Robert Frost said, "is as good as it is dramatic." I believe him. I try to make my poems dramatic. Life itself is drama. Otherwise, you just go to sleep since there's nothing going on.

7. Where is your favorite location to write poetry?

I write in my home office--only there. It's quiet and I have access to my books there. And coffee is not far away, in the kitchen, six steps up.

8. When you write a poem, do you know whether it is good or not?

Great question! I wish I could say, or know, when I write a poem that really works. I have to go on my own prejudices on that one. There is no objective-sure way of telling if a poem is good. Every new poem a poet writes seems like the best poem he or she has ever written--when he or she is writing it . . . but after the poem cools down for a day or two, it doesn't seem so good, usually. And yet there are some poems that you just feel great about: you say to yourself something like: "I made a good poem today. I did it!" But the fact that you never know for sure, keeps you honest, and keeps you going as a poet, a writer.

9. Do you get a special feeling when you write a good poem?

See no. 8 above.

10. Of the poetry books that you have written, which is your favorite and why?

My favorite book by me? My last one, THE BULL RIDER'S ADVICE: New and Selected Poems, because it has most of the poems by me that I like over the past 30 or so years.

11. Do you teach poetry to adolescents?

Yes, I teach poetry to adolescents. But I teach mainly to older persons.

12. What advice do you have for young poets?

My advice to young poets: write, write, write. And read, read, read. Find poets you like, and devour their work. Learn from them. Study them. Imitate them. Eventually, you will find your own way with words, but it takes a while--it can't happen over night. Also, don't forget to go back and make sure your poem works well. Revise it, re-see it, turn it around in the light and see it from all sorts of angles. Check it for accuracy. And also: don't forget: if you are a poet, when you say something in a poem, you say it with images. "No ideas but in things," said the great W.C. Williams. Be very thingy as a poet, very concrete. Avoid abstractions, generalizations. They can kill a poem fast. Try to always see and hear and feel and smell and taste. Remember what the poet Denise Levertov said in her title of a book of poems: "Oh Taste and See."

Works by David Allan Evans

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