Back To Craft
I first encountered Paul Cummins, in 1997, as a new faculty member in the Human Development Department of Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences. It was his custom to greet the incoming faculty during orientation meetings, and to send us into the teaching year, fueled by the vision upon which the programs were built, still the Headmaster at that time. The buzz in the room was that we were about to encounter one of the greats, that we should expect this address to be one of the highlights of our teaching year. I was not disappointed. I became a fan of Mr Cummins' books on education and culture; and a teacher, greatly influenced, and improved by his wisdom and innovative programs.
Several years later, a Crossroads colleague, John Brennan, introduced me to Paul Cummins' poetry in WordWrights Magazine. I loved it!
This interview was granted on November 2, 2005, at The New Visions Foundation office, housed on the New Roads School campus, in Santa Monica, California. In Paul's modest office, a transformed classroom named Chompsky, we sat down to talk about his poetry.
PD : Can you talk about when you first started to write poetry, and what part it plays in your own education, and the creative process?
PC: I think overall I’m a late bloomer. I was definitely a late bloomer when it came to poetry.
I didn’t really fully understand it. Even as an undergraduate at Stanford, I just didn’t. Although my roommate was continually quoting poems to me. Particularly when he’d had a couple beers at a party, he’d get up, and recite an entire poem. I liked it, but I still didn’t understand it. And then I took a class from Yvor Winters, who was a poet/critic, and I was interested, but it was still pretty difficult for me. Then when I was at graduate school, I was looking for a doctoral dissertation, and I had a couple of ideas I was interested in, but my dissertation chair said, “Those are great ideas but they’ve been done.” And I happened to mention that I liked Richard Wilbur. So, my dissertation chair said, “Well, why don’t you do your thesis on his poetry, because I don’t think anybody’s paid much attention to him, at least at the scholarly level, yet.”
So, I did some research, and found that very little had ever been written about him, and he had published four wonderful, but thin volumes of poetry. He is not a prolific writer, but he’s an extremely elegant craftsman. So in the process of reading the complete poems written to that date in the life of Richard Wilbur, I was thrown into all sorts of the intricacies of the stuff of poetry: meter, and rhyme, and imagery, and metaphor, and how you structure a poem, and so on; because it’s hard to understand his poetry. You have to get knee deep into the poems.
I found one poem of his: “A Black November Turkey,” and I saw that it had three different meanings playing off of one word, and that it wasn’t an accident. When I went to the dictionary and looked it up, I saw that all three meanings could apply. So I started getting just immersed, in what poetry’s all about.
And I found one night, that I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt a poem composing itself. So I stumbled over to the desk and wrote it down. And I was looking forward to waking up in the morning, and reading my first poem. And I went in the morning, and looked at it, and it was just awful! It was just this bad imitation of Richard Wilbur.(Laugh, laugh) But what I did learn from it was that there was a little something inside of me that was actually now beginning to want to try to write poetry.
And then, I remember, shortly thereafter, my family was driving up to Yosemite, on Highway 14, I think it was, and we came to a place that said Red Rover exit, and I went into the phrase “Red Rover, Red Rover” and I just went into it. And I changed it. When kids play it, it’s whoever goes over.
And so for the next twenty or thirty minutes, I kept going over it, and memorizing it. I didn’t want to loose it. I pulled into a gas station, went into the men’s room, sat down, and wrote it out–the whole thing.
And I liked it, still, to this day.
So, I wrote it all out in my head, and it’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve done that. But, again, it was this message that there was stuff inside that wants to come out, and poetry is the only place where some of this stuff can come out, in the way I want it to come out. That is not to say that you couldn’t take that poem, and write out a prose version of it - but it would be different. It would be talking about the experience, rather than trying to kind of recreate the experience, and be in it.
Now, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Emily over. Send Emily over, and over, again. And over, and over, Red Rover, Red Rover, and over, and over, and over again.” But when you're talking about Red Rover, “and it’s a game that children play, and here’s what happens in the game,” that’s the prose version of it, but the poetry, the rhythm, the images… What somebody once said to me, and I tried to explain it to a class once, is that poetry is almost like a bomb; like concentrated energy. When you read it or write it, it’s like a bomb. It kind of explodes on the page, and explodes inside the reader, if it’s any good. So at its best … it’s an experience.
Red Rover, Red Rover
Send Emily over
Send Emily over
And over again.
And over and over
Red Rover, Red Rover
And over, and over
And over again.
And as she grows older
Red Rover, Red Rover
Still she comes over
And over again.
And over and over
Red Rover, Red Rover
And over and over
And over again.
But then comes a day
When is becomes was
And was then has been
Oh Rover, Red Rover
And over and over
Is over, is over
It's over, Red Rover
It's over again.
Now, in terms of the relationship of poetry to my education, there isn’t a day that goes by now, that I don’t read a few poems. Sometimes it’s a favorite, or when new poems come out. Whenever I read the New Yorker, or get my new issue of Poetry Magazine, or the American Poetry Review, or whatever. I am constantly reading, and learning someone new that I really like.
In the classroom, I think it’s a great way of grabbing kids. Because you’ve got this six, eight, ten, or thirty-line poem in front of you, and already you can see what the writer wrote, you don’t have to send the kid home to try to read a five hundred page novel, which he, or she’s probably not going to do. So, you’ve got this wonderful teachable moment, and if you pick your poem carefully, then you can pick poems that are particularly teachable. Some poems are not very teachable, but others lend themselves to it, they just cry out to be brought into the classroom. And all the ingredients of good prose writing are present in poetry. They are just present in a more concentrated fashion.
PD: Do you write prose in addition to poetry and non-fiction?
PC: I don’t think I have the talent to write fiction. I tried it once, as an undergraduate. My roommate was wonderful at it, and my stuff was just horrible. It was embarrassingly bad. But it was also at a time in my life where I couldn’t write poetry either, so I don’t know if I tried to write fiction today, and I stayed with it, whether I could or not. I just know that I’m not driven to do so. Whereas, I know that I am constantly driven to write the essence of given experiences into poems.
I was over at the home of a dear, dear friend, who just died, and it was the point at which, well, for a while she was wearing these wild kinds of wigs, and hats, and things, and then she just decided to stop doing that, and she took them off. And what was there, was this short cropped grey hair, where she was always flowing black hair, and she had this mannerism, in meetings, or whenever we were talking, to toss her hair back. And I wrote a poem to her, called "Tossing Hair." And I liked it. I don’t always like what I write. But I liked that particular one, and I read it to a couple small groups of people, who knew, that when she stopped wearing the wigs, that was the moment of, why pretend?…..but I’m sure I more than answered your question.
She tosses back long black hair
A conductor like sweep of the hand
Prefacing careful considerations with this
Gesture unconsciously graceful as waves
Of the tall Kansas grass
Wafting in the summer winds;
Stirring and rearranging gravity
In our conference rooms and seminars,
Her gesture cloying in its cadences
Yet changing the very currents of our thought.
When her hair began to disappear,
She adorned rainbows of scarves
Then soon allowed us to see
A new silver-gray crop of hair
A terrible new beauty born there
And we could feel a shift
In the weight of the air.
When you write a poem you can go right to what it is you want to capture. You don’t have to create atmosphere. You don’t have to set it up. I remember one poem I wrote a little while back that also captures a moment. (That’s what happens to me a lot.) My grandfather had fainted and fallen, and called for help. When my father and I found him, he had, kind of slid off the toilet between the potty and the wall. And so, there he was, this lovely, silver-haired, 84 year-old man, who was the most kind, gentle man, and he was stuck there. Years later, when I wrote the poem (I was twelve years old when it happened, so he was long gone when I wrote about it) I just sat down and went right there, I didn’t have to go into the history of my father, or my grandfather, or what the house looked like….I just got right to that particular moment and what it represented to me, and then, without trying to moralize, or anything, there it is.
A Gentleman From Iowa
When I think of my grandfather,
Dead now for forty years,
I think first of fine white hair-
As thick as August wheat,
As pure as starlight,
As soft as
I think of notebooks of homilies
Filled with a lifetime of cut-outs
Of the ‘Do unto other’ variety;
But mostly I think of one afternoon:
My father and I summoned
By his plaintive calls for help,
From different ends of the hall,
We arrived at his bathroom
And found him wedged between
The toilet and the wall.
Unable to move, with a twinkle
In his lovely, peaceful eyes,
He said not a word but let
The situation speak for itself.
There was no embarrassment,
Simply light laughter, and love;
A recognition from three generations
Of what has been, what will come,
And what holds it all together.
PD: I remember that poem from your book. Is A Postcard From Bali your only book of poetry?
PC: Yes, it’s my only published book of poetry, but each year I gather what I’ve written that year, and self-publish it, and give it to family and friends. I haven’t had the courage yet to approach a larger publisher. I have a problem and that is, my poetry is almost too accessible, and sentimental, when it’s bad. I mean, when it’s not great. Somehow, it is not the kind of poetry, that is at all in vogue today; which is poetry that is highly dense in metaphor and images, to the point where sometimes, I almost feel as if the poet is really obscure, then that’s what helps sell him, or her – but then, that’s just sour grapes for not writing that kind of poetry, and not being capable of writing that kind of poetry. I write what I’m capable of writing. It’s funny, people, almost everybody but critics and other poets, think it’s wonderful, but then that is suspect, because the general public thought that Rod McKuen was wonderful, and he wasn’t all that great a poet. There are a lot of people who think Hallmark™ cards are fine verse, and it brings tears to their eyes. I hope that’s not the kind of poet I am.
PD: Well, I think your poetry captures the essence of a well-lived life. If it’s sentimental, then I think the world is in need of a little more sentiment these days. Maybe I’m confusing sentiment with reverence.
PC: And, I guess, there’s also a difference between sentiment presented with some degree of subtlety, style, and craft, and pathos sentimentality, you know, sloppy sentiment. There’s a fine line.
Say you’re trying to write a poem about your dog. People can get so icky on such topics. I’ve written one about my Golden Retriever that, I think, is actually kind of a nice poem. But it’s dangerous when you write about family, love, the passing of time, the beauty of sitting by the river watching the water; it can be such a cliché, and so, one enters into those arenas, writing on those topics, with fear and trembling.
PD: You are possibly more well known for your non-fiction writing, and your educational vision; how do you compare that writing, with writing poetry? Does it come from the same place?
PC: Well, the passion may come from the same place. But with poetry I really can’t be in a room full of people. I have to get very quiet. When I’m in that place, I stay as long as I can, and let whatever’s trying to get out, get out, because then the phone’s going to ring, someone’s going to be saying, you forgot this meeting, get your ass over there, and wherever that place is, it’s gone, and it’s really hard to recapture it. So, I find that I, unlike other poets, want to get out as much as I can get out, and then go back, and start playing with it, and scratching out, and rearranging, and so on.
Writing my doctoral dissertation on Richard Wilbur, I asked him how he worked, and he said he would sit at his desk, and I remember him saying that his family sometimes thinks he’s comatose, because he would just sit there. He said he would sometimes spend a whole day on one line. Then when you read him, he’s so god damn elegant that you realize what went into it.
But I don’t write that way. I mean the Red Rover poem came out in twenty minutes. I wrote one the other day, a first draft anyway, and then what I’ll do is, once I get the first draft written, then I’ll go back and start editing. And even though my wife says I have the worst rhythm in music and dancing that she’s ever seen, when it comes to language, I do have a sense of rhythm, it’s not great, but I do have a sense of rhythm, and I have a sense of where the lines should break.
So each time I rewrite a poem, I rewrite the whole thing and say it out loud. Then I can hear clumsiness, and I can see that I’ve broken a line where it shouldn’t be broken. It should go on one more word, or it went on one word too many, and that word needs to be in the next line, so I’ll put my slash line in there, and keep going.
PD: So, Richard Wilbur is one of your main inspirations?
PC: Well early on, and then I went through an intense phase, and then it’s just lasted thereafter, of reading Yeats’ poetry.
I was a history major who almost got drafted, and at the last moment I was offered a job teaching English. This was during Vietnam. I knew I didn’t want to go into the army, so even though I was a History major, I took the job, and that summer, at UCLA, before the semester started, I took two courses; one on modern poetry and one on Shakespeare.
The modern poetry class was just extraordinary because every poet we did (from Hardy, to Yeats, Eliot, and Pound) well, I was excited by all of them. And I remember particularly reading Yeats, and then picking up Richard Elman’s biography of him, and then my wife and I went to Ireland, and we were in Galway, so I rented a car and drove out to Coole Park. I completely puddled-up, looking out there, hearing the words for myself, being there, where this magnificent poet wrote this magnificent poem. So, I went through a Yeats phase, and now I go back, and pick a poet out, and read him. Old ones, and new ones.
I also have a lifelong love affair with Robert Frost’s poetry. I just think when you go through his poems, they’re tough…they’re tough-minded poems. John Ciardi, another poet and critic, once said, “Robert Frost was no lollipop." ( Laughter) And I think that’s right on.
PD: So far, you’ve mentioned only male poets; any favorite women poets?
PC: Yes, mostly twentieth century poets. Yes, I think Marianne Moore’s poems are wonderful. I went through a Sylvia Plath stage, where I read a lot of her work. I still think she’s quite extraordinary. Denise Levertoff is wonderful. And a personal friend (we sat on a board together), whose poetry I just love, is Carolyn Forché. And Emily Dickinson, of course.
PD: Who do you think had the most direct impact on your writing?
PD: I had poetry lessons from a guy named Peter Levitt, who had a huge impact on me. He teaches at Antioch, and he lives on an island off of Vancouver. So, he does most of his teaching electronically, now, but I used to go to him, off and on. I’d go once a week, or once every two weeks, and bring him a poem, and he’d read it, and say, “Well, why?” “Hey, drop those last two lines. Take this stanza here and make it the second.” …or, “ Paul this is crap. Go back and try this one again. This one just doesn’t work and there’s no fixing it.” Or he’d say, “I really like this but maybe you need to go deeper into this image.”
And the one liners that used to come out of Peter Levitt’s mouth. I have a whole notebook at home of Peter Levittisms. And one of the things he said, is that “poetry is a conversation between strangers.” I remember (in fact I used it in a poem once) Peter had a huge impact on my wanting to write.
He was teaching creative writing, and I got up the courage one day to ask if he would give me private lessons. And I paid him as if I were going to a piano teacher.
PD: There is the ongoing debate about form and content within the poetry community, which is more valid; between the more academic/ traditional writers, and the modern/slam style poetry.
PC: Phillip Rahv, an American critic back in the late 40’s, theorized it as the debate between the pale faces, and the red skins. And the pale faces were poets like Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur, as opposed to poets such as Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsburg. Both are valid, both can be inspirational. It just depends on what the reader likes. A lot of readers gravitate toward one in a given mood, and the other in a different mood. There are times when I feel like reading Whitman, and then times when I feel like reading Stevens.
PD: What do you think are the most important things that a writer can bring to his work?
PC: Well, what we’ve just said. What do I wish I could bring more to the table? Well, I think of Dylan Thomas, when he was aspiring to poetry. Dylan Thomas was a guy who just had poetry in his bones; and I read a biography, and he said that for months at a time, he would write these rolling sentences, almost like the King James Bible; or he’d become Tennyson for a month, and he’d write Tennysonian verse; or he’d try to become Keats, and he’d emulate Keats.
I went through a period, where I tried to take a poem, and follow the same rhythmic pattern, and then change the language a little.
So, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets begins, “When to the session of sweet silent thought, and I might keep the when,” but I might say, “When in the moments of … whatever,” change the words, therefore learning what the patterns were, and what the substitutions were. Thomas did a ton of that. So, you look at some of his poems that look free and abandoned, and you start to see the structure. And the same with e.e. Cummings. I remember analyzing a poem of his, and the line pattern was one of the most intricate I had ever seen, but you wouldn’t even notice it.
I guess the answer to your question, “What do you need to bring to the table?”, is, I think, some knowledge of your craft. And authenticity is essential. One of the dangers of studying other peoples’ images, and other peoples’ rhythms, is like coming out of the dream, and finding the bad Wilbur poem. It’s hard in the year 2005, if you read tons of poetry, to hear your own voice. And that’s an expression we hear all the time. Writers are constantly talking about how difficult it was to find their own voice.
Or, for me, to be able to change the voice that I’ve got, when I’m still struggling to find it, and when I feel I’m an accumulation of all these other voices.
PD: But aren’t we always an accumulation of everything we’ve learned up to the moment?
PC: I suppose so. I suppose, maybe, I’m beating myself up unnecessarily, but I’m nonetheless aware of the danger of borrowing, without realizing that that is what you’re doing. And that’s why, again, I think it's so important that when you do write, you get to that quiet place. I’ve thrown away as many poems as I’ve kept. And the ones I do throw away are the ones that are skating on the surface, and then they sound contrived, and they don’t sound right, and they don’t feel right. I’ve probably kept some that still fall into that category. If I had the courage I’d probably go back with a rake, and throw more of them away.
PD: What do you think it is that makes a poem become universal, and last through time?
PC: Well, universal themes, I suppose, and again, craft. A lot of people write about the passage of time, birth, death, and why do some poems survive, and some don’t? I guess some people do it really well, and some don’t. You know, Salieri was a really good composer. He wrote some really nice stuff, but he wasn’t Ludwig von Beethoven. There you go! Over time, craft and quality survive.
PD: And quality transcends? What guidance would you give to a new poet?
PC: I’d fall back on a lot of what Peter Levitt did. He once had me take a big sheet of paper, and markers, and then he suggested that I do some deep breathing, and write whatever the page suggested to me. And then throw out everything except one line, which would become the first line, and whatever that one line suggested, was what I would write.
And Peter says, “It doesn’t matter what you write about.” What he was trying to do, was to teach me to think in a nonlinear way.
There was one poem that came out of that:
Standing under a streetlight
Bent like Harold Lloyd’s clock,
It is better to purchase alternatives:
meanwhile shadows linger on cracked sidewalks
As in silent midnight dreams.
‘Hallelujah!’ the crazy screams
painting furiously an invisible canvas.
And there, by god, there emerges
Our doppleganger the ragpicker
Standing within the mute canvas,
His hands searching empty pockets,
eyes staring at a statue of god
in the lonely center square.
I kind of like it, even though it is hard to give a one for one meaning to it.
PD: So this came from a phrase?
PC: It came from playing around, using that method, and then getting rid of a lot of it, recrafting it, so it’s a complete, and kind of weird way of composing a poem; but what Peter said is, “It doesn’t matter what you get down on the paper, how you get it down, where it comes from! That doesn’t matter, but what finally matters is the shape that you give it.”
PD: Back to craft?
PC: Right. Yes. Back to craft.
Bio: Paul Cummins serves on the board of trustees for The American Poetry Review. His poems have been published in The New Republic, Poetry L.A., WordWrights Magazine, and Slant, among others.
In 2002 Argonne Press published a collection of his poetry entitled A Postcard From Bali.
Mr.Cummins was a founder of Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, where he served as headmaster for thirty years. He continues to pursue his educational vision, as a founder, and current Executive Director of The New Visions Foundation, which umbrellas New Roads School, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and the Center for Educational Opportunity. He is also spear-heading the development of an educational village, which will blend community nonprofit services, with educational reform projects, and will address the needs of foster care students, and students with special needs. The Herb Alpert Educational Village is described in detail, in chapter twelve of his latest book, Proceed with Passion: Engaging Students in Meaningful Education, published in 2004 by Red Hen Press.
His additional nonfiction publications include Dachau Song: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper (Peter Lang 1992), For Mortal Stakes: Solutions for Schools and Society (Peter Lang & Bramble Press 1998), Keeping Watch: Reflections On American Culture, Education and Politics (Firstbooks Library 2002).
*For information on The New Visions Foundation go to www.newvisionsfnd.org