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Rhina Espaillat talks about T. S. Eliot and reading

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Rhina Espaillat, author of the 1998 prize for Where Horizons Go, has published eight books of poetry and won numerous awards for her work. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she taught high school English in New York City and is a frequent reader and speaker at universities.

“Where Horizons Go, a beautiful, typo-free volume whose appearance alone, inside and out, recommends and honors the poems. It was my first large prize and therefore got me more publicity than I had ever had before. It attracted the attention of other poets I respect and admire, and helped to create a readership for future books. Most important, the book appeals to ordinary readers—the people we want to reach—and is being used in college courses, reaching young people with some interest in writing, who are my favorite readers. I like the poems of T. S. Eliot, read them early in my writing life, and learned a lot from them. I felt it would be a triumph to win a contest named after such a poet.” —Rhina Espaillat

How did you decide to start writing poetry?

I grew up hearing poetry in the home of my poet grandmother in the Dominican Republic, where I lived as a child, so that it was part of my life right from the beginning, long before I understood any of it except for the word music, which I loved. Making poems seemed a natural part of life—in Spanish first, of course—but later in English too.

When and how did you first get published?

An English teacher I had in high school, herself a poet, sent several of my poems to a national magazine without my knowledge, and they were accepted, much to my surprise. They were published during my junior year, and then I began to submit poems myself, and others were accepted by various magazines in the USA and in England.

Your book, Her Place in These Designs, is full of mostly form poetry, yet the form rarely reveals itself, since the lyricism and pacing of the lines blend together seamlessly. Do you often write using a form? Why do you choose to do so?

I read a great deal of poetry as a child, in both English and Spanish, and learned early to imitate the devices—meter, rhyme, figures of speech­—of poets whose work I admired. Form came easily to me because I found it in the work of others and responded to it with my body, as children respond naturally to music, dancing, chanting and every other form of sound play. As an adult writer, of course, I soon learned that all of those devices can be used to work with, or pull against, the intellectual or emotional content of what you’re writing. Meter isn’t an ornament, but a tool, both useful and fun to use. And yes, I do especially love the strict forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, sestina, ballade and so forth. 

How did this book differ from your T. S. Eliot book of poetry?

This most recent book, and the one before it, Playing at Stillness, were both published by TSUP, the same publisher that sponsors the T. S. Eliot Prize and awarded that prize to an earlier book of mine, Where Horizons Go, which TSUP also published. I suppose all of my eight full-length books and three chapbooks differ from each other, but they all do have certain themes in common, certain experiences and concerns that turn up in all of them. Her Place in These Designs, though, has a particularly strong focus on the life of the woman, examined through my own experience and that of women I’ve known and women from fiction and history.   

Which poets or authors have influenced you? Why do you enjoy their work?

Too many poets to name, in both English and Spanish, but certainly the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, St. John of the Cross, Federico Garcia Lorca, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kunitz, Richard Wilbur, the list goes on and on. The poets I tend to love are those whose work sings what it has to say, even if it’s not the kind of insight that calls for celebratory singing. I think of the poet as a kind of “Oven Bird,” the bird in Frost’s poem that asks itself “what to make of a diminished thing.” I also prefer poetry that is meant to be understood, designed to communicate rather than mystify. And of course their poetry is truthful, in that it can acknowledge the inconsistencies of real life, the opposites that manage to be true at the same time.

Can you talk a little about your involvement in the Powow River Poets?

The PRP is a marvelous monthly workshop that began as a small informal group and has now grown to some two dozen members, of whom about 18 are regulars. A great majority have published one or more books, several have won national and international awards, and all are rigorous and serious about improving their work and publishing and presenting readings in good venues. The group mentors a creative writing student group from the local high school, and also presents bi-monthly readings by guest poets and members at a local bookshop. Our real job, though, is helping each other grow, learning from one another, and supporting one another.   

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

Read, read, read. Try everything. Be prepared to throw out almost everything you try: that’s how you learn. Do it for love, not for personal gain or prestige. Don’t be afraid of tackling formal structure, which is a challenge and a delight, like the arbitrary rules of any game worth playing: there would be no pleasure to any game if it didn’t entail the risk of losing, and if there were no obstacles to keep you from winning. It’s impossible to “think outside the box” unless you first have a box to get outside of! The pleasure of poetry is that you first get to make the box (by learning how to build it, with language) and then willingly climb into it, then tempt the reader into it with you, and then manage to get out of it without destroying it, all while dancing. It’s one of the oldest arts, after all, and art is the only activity I know of that can take a profound sorrow and turn it into an artifact that inexplicably provides comfort without changing anything.