The power of poetry

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To describe David Baker as a poet is a bit like calling the Mississippi a river. Yes, the basic description is accurate, but it only skims the surface. Baker, a professor of English, has just been awarded the coveted Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize for his most recent volume, Never-Ending Birds, and, like the Mississippi, he and his poems are much more than what meets the eye. We sat down with Baker in his second floor Barney-Davis office and plumbed his thoughts on the purpose of poetry, the substance of art, and why living in the Midwest is integral to his work.

Why he writes poems:
“They are beautifully rigorous. You can do more things in a poem than in other writing because several layers of meaning can be embedded in one piece. These stacks of layers can get you closer to real life. And they can act as a sort of instruction manual on how to survive the complexities of life. Poems weigh more per square inch than other writing.”

“Most people don’t think about poetry. Poets aren’t about writing bestsellers or crowd-pleasers. In the short term, you’re trying to write something so good that it won’t go away. So I don’t write for a broad audience. I write for a long audience, one that will always be there, interested in poetry.”

Where to find inspiration:
“I tell my students, art comes from turmoil, rupture, breakage, and stress. Never-Ending Birds addresses the upheavals and crisis of life and yet, for all its grimness, I think it is the most beautiful book I’ve written and certainly the most intense. It’s about living in the Midwest and its landscape, people and neighborhoods. With this book, I invented for myself a richer definition of the artful and beautiful.”

Why the Midwest is so important to his work:
Baker says that while we live in a place and in a time — which for him is the latter-day Midwest — that place also encompasses the physical history and stories of the people who have lived there. The scope of reference is much larger than the obvious present day. “These poems are not just a memoir about myself. There are many things going on in them at the same time; they may be beautiful or political or provide commentary.”

On winning the Roethke:
Baker has written 10 books of poetry, and his poems and essays have appeared in more than 100 magazines, including American Poetry Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The Yale Review, but the Roethke is especially meaningful to him. “Roethke is one of my favorite poets of all time,” he says. “He was a fellow Midwesterner and very attuned to how things grow, which is evident in his rich, intensely lyric poetry.” Baker also has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Poetry Society of America, among others.

What’s next:
Baker will head north on November 15 to collect his Roethke Prize and give a reading at the Saginaw Valley State University. He has a few books nearly finished and more underway. A book titled Talk Poetry is scheduled for release this coming February. It’s a compilation of interviews with nine contemporary poets who represent a range of experience in the art.

David Baker reads from Never-Ending Birds and reflects on teaching (2010):

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