Eric Trethewey is the author of five collections of poems, Dreaming of Rivers, Evening Knowledge, The Long Road Home, Songs and Lamentations and Heart’s Hornbook. Evening Knowledge was a winner in the 1990 Virginia Prize for Poetry. His literary scholarship includes articles on various writers, including Matthew Arnold and Joseph Conrad. His poems, stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, among them The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review, Poetry, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, The New Republic, The Southern Review and Canadian Literature. The Home Waltz, a screenplay, won the Virginia Governor’s Screenplay Competition.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
My interest in poetry began very early. I set myself to memorizing poems that I liked, I think when I was in grade five. I remember two occasions, once while sledding and another while hanging around the train station, when I quoted aloud some lines apposite to the situation. I remember the other kids looking at me as if had done something weird. It certainly made me feel self-conscious. These incidents have stayed with me in memory, and I have written about them in fiction and essays.
Later, by the time I was in grade 9 or 10, when I was fishing, hunting or trapping, I would tramp the woods quoting to myself a number of Kipling’s poems, some of the verses of which I still remember. But I don’t think it was until grade 12—I was sixteen and seventeen—when I read in class Wordsworth’s poems such as “Tintern Abbey,” “Peele Castle in a Storm,” and the sonnets that I recognized qualities in poetry that went beyond narrative, sound and rhythm, that I seriously committed myself to writing my own poems, some of which I still have. They are not particularly good, but they are also not embarrassing. I had also discovered Joseph Conrad and began to try to write fiction.
I continued to write poems in college and began to publish them in student newspapers and literary magazines. I suppose that at this time I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, but I don’t think I consciously committed myself to the literary life until I went to graduate school. At that point I began to publish poems in literary magazines and university quarterlies—such as Canadian Literature and The Fiddlehead, The Southern Review and The Kenyon Review, and began to establish a reputation as a poet, and to some extent a writer of fiction and nonfiction prose.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Basically in the same places I have always found it: the literary tradition and the work of my contemporaries; nature; history; current events and concerns; the events of my own life, past and present; dreams; other artistic media, such as music, painting, photography, theatre, dance—in short, whatever comes to me either vicariously or through my own involvement in first-hand experience.
What is your writing process?
It varies according to circumstances, but usually it begins with a journal entry. For many years I have regularly kept a journal, recording what I do and see, and my responses to what comes within my ken. Sometimes an entry may result in a poem almost immediately—within an hour or a day or two. I will usually write several drafts out by hand before typing the poem. Then I will begin to fiddle with the poem for days, years, and sometimes decades, long after it has been published in a magazine or book. As one poet once observed, “Poems are never finished, they are only abandoned in despair.” Sometimes, however, I will make a notation and forget about it for years. And then, reading back through an old journal, I may come upon an entry and realize what I had written is already a poem in need of little tinkering.
What is your revision/editing process?
In addition to what I have written above, I usually have others—ideally other poets—read my completed drafts. I listen very carefully to what they say and am not reluctant to make changes if what they say is persuasive. Frequently it is. Sometimes editors recommend changes. I listen to them as well. In the case of one of my most successful poems I worked with the editor of a magazine through several changes until we both felt the revision was right.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
I mostly answered this in my response to the first question. It might be useful to add that it was helpful to have teachers who were knowledgeable about the literary arts and sometimes inspirational in their teaching. However, in the schools that I attended the focus was entirely on the reading of poetry with no attention to the principle that frequently we learn best by doing—or trying to do. So the actual writing of poetry was never part of the pedagogy. I believe it would have been helpful if I had gotten some practical instruction from my teachers—which I doubt, because of their training, they were capable of providing.
Consequently, my own poems were based on what I could learn from the poems we encountered in our texts. I am thankful they were by William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost rather than e e cummings.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I use whatever is available. I always have a handbook of poetry and poetics on or near my desk. Text books are not useless, particularly if you have a good idea of what you are looking for. I use the internet (google) frequently when I want to find our something in a hurry. But the best resource for a young poet is the poems themselves. Poets need to read widely and deeply in the poems of the tradition and the work of contemporaries.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
As I’ve already indicated in an earlier response, I think it would have been helpful to have a teacher who was a poet, someone who could speak from first-hand experience about the making of poems, everything from ideas to specific techniques. Then there are all those other issues that get raised about poetry that actual poets are usually obliged to engage with sooner or later: Why write poems? Where do they come from? What’s the difference between a successful poem and a failed one? How do we know? What is the raison d’etre of various poetic styles? Why are poets frequently so dogmatic in their conceptions of what constitutes genuine poetry? What political issues are raise by particular poems or poets? How does an aspiring poet get published? There is no end of good books addressing all of these issues, but students need the personal guidance of a poet in the flesh to begin with.
Eric Trethewey, age 16
This wildness regal with beauty,
at times appears forlorn,
yet gains in grandeur as the stream flows on
to the dawn of another morn.
Someday it may be a river
cascading over falls,
through meadows, into rapids winding,
or lashing stark and stony walls.
Perhaps it will still to a deadwater
of the marshes and far flung fens,
peaceful, fading, dying tracts
of dark and mysterious dens.
The river flows always onward,
the deadwater is always there,
the surging river becomes a lake,
the deadwater nothing, nowhere.
What inspired “The Stream”?
One of my first modestly successful poems was a paysage moralisé (I had no idea what that term meant when I wrote the poem) entitled “The Stream.” It relies on a version of the sensibility I encountered in Wordsworth—mostly the feeling for nature but also the sense that he conveys concerning the deistically conceived relation between nature and human value. Although the poem owes a great deal to Wordsworth, its other source is my own extensive immersion in wilderness as a consequence of my boyhood experience of following streams, fishing, hunting and trapping in the forest, tramping isolated trails and sleeping in the woods.
What poetic techniques did you use in “The Stream”?
The basic idea of the poem is the archetypal identification of the course of a stream and that of a human life seen in the context of moral development. The form is basically that of the ballad stanza, thus employing both rhyme and meter, although relying on a number of substitutions—necessitated less by intention than my own limited skill with meter. More deliberately than with the latter technique, I employ assonance, consonance and alliteration, and in the final stanza, anaphora. The archaic poetic diction represented by “morn” irritates me. It was already worn out in the 19th century.