a q&a with david rivard, our first mpf featured poet

David Rivard will be one of the featured poets at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which will be held in Salem on April 29 through May 1. David is a native of Fall River, Massachusetts, though he now lives in Cambridge and teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of New Hampshire.

David has won many awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Civitella Ranieri, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Robert Pinsky says of his poetry, “The speed of mind, compressing details and emotions, covering the maximum distance in the least time, gives [his] writing its thrill.”

You’ll be able to experience that thrill at the festival, but meanwhile we asked David a few questions to give you a sense of his thinking about American poetry today. In March we’ll also feature a poem of David’s in our Poem of the Moment.

  • What do you find most interesting in the poetry world today?

I’m interested in two very different kinds of energy on the American scene today.  One is the big, expressionistic kind of poem some poets are writing—it often has a lot of social or biographical detail, but it’s inflected with a tonal spin and wildness of spirit. I’m thinking of distinctive stylists like Olena Kalytiak Davis, Tom Sleigh, David Tomas Martinez, Jamal May, and David Blair. The other impulse I’m attracted to is much more minimalistic, compressed, and nuanced—it’s often a highly imagistic, associative poem that leaves a lot out and gets things across through implication, it’s indirect. I especially like recent work of this sort by Michael O’Brien, Jean Valentine, Maureen McClane, and some others.

  • What value do festivals have for the poetry loving world and for American culture in general?

Festivals are great way for poets and the poetry audience to get outside of the “gated-communities” that we all tend to live in these days—they can expose us to aesthetics and sensibilities that shape voices in ways we’re not be used to.  It’s so important to make these discoveries “live,” so to speak—to hear the poet say his or her poem is to make the immediate connection.

The proliferation of festivals like this one is a sign—despite whatever else we may think—that American life has been so considerably changed in the last fifty years.  It just seems a whole lot more open to all the arts, poetry included.  There’s an amazing arts infrastructure that didn’t exist several decades back.  We shouldn’t take those changes for granted, or underestimate the work that goes into organizing events like the Mass Poetry Festival.

  • Do you schedule time for writing each day, or is your schedule more irregular?

Well, I tend to write in notebooks each day, yes, and almost every poem that I’ve written in the last fifteen to twenty years has been collaged initially out of notebook fragments. To a certain extent, many of these passages exist already. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, and I don’t know that this one belongs with that one until I actually sit down and improvise. It’s a very intuitive method, very associative, but I’ve practiced and refined it for so long, and I know how to go about reinforcing and revising the poem.  The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become acquainted with my mind and its nature. And for me, I was always aware that I had a very associative mind. I just couldn’t figure out how to use it in the act of composition until I was almost forty and had published a couple of books.

It often takes me months, sometimes years to revise the initial drafts of the poems.  I usually write a great number of first drafts in streaks—say 20-40 pages during a six-week period—mainly at times of the year when I’m not teaching.  I’m more receptive to the process when I can unplug. I’m looking for a kind of openness to intuition and chance.  Then I revise the drafts during the times of the year when I’m teaching.  I can do that kind of work then, once I’ve got something on the page.  The energies are very different.  I suppose the answer to your question is that I’m working pretty constantly, each day, for some part of the day, but the length of time is really quite variable.  But I’m not somebody who has to “schedule” time to write really.  I like doing it, it’s a pleasure, even when it’s difficult—I’m not one of those writers who goes around moaning about how hard it all is.

  • What are you looking forward to in the Mass Poetry Festival?

I’m especially looking forward to reading with Charles Simic and Laurin Macios.  Laurin studied with both Charlie and myself, and she’s become a marvelous poet.  I’ve taught with Charlie at UNH for eight years now, and we’ve been talking for a long time about doing a reading together…but somehow never have!  His work is that rare thing, both masterful and entertaining.  I think it’ll be a high-energy day.

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Standoff, David Rivard’s new book, will be out from Graywolf this August.  He is the author of five other books: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.  Among his awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and the NEA, as well as two Shestack Prizes from American Poetry Review and the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching.  He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of New Hampshire.

Rivard was born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, in a family of Azorean Portuguese and French-Canadian mill workers, firefighters and police officers.  The first in his family to graduate from college, he lives now in Cambridge, a city that is increasingly at the epicenter of cutting-edge bioscience, boutique academia, and venture capital.  Directly or indirectly, his writing often reflects that journey, and the personal changes at stake in such a shift in class and place.  What interests him in particular is the sheer mobility of day-to-day American life, and the tenuous, lovely, disastrous, comical, brutal, bewildering, sweet, and cruelly necessary illusions we’re driven by at the moment.