By Paula Sword Orr and Halie Rosenberg
Ron Koertge is super prolific. He’s an award winning poet AND Young Adult author. Borrow his work ethic and you could be right on your way to a new book of poetry — maybe even a novel, too.
Ron’s poetry has been included twice in The Best American Poetry. He has received a N.E.A. fellowship for poetry, as well as a California Arts Council Grant and two PEN awards for YA Fiction. Ron’s Red Hen Press poetry books include “Indigo
,” and most recently, “The Ogre’s Wife
.” His University of Arkansas Press poetry books include “Geography Of the Forehead
” and “Making Love to Roget’s Wife
.” He’s teaching a poetry class
here on Sunday, May 18. He’ll show you what you need for your poems to sing, and by the end of class you’ll have some great feedback on one of your poems and have learned how to write an irresistible couplet.
How he was able to carve time out to sit down for a tête-à-tête, we don’t know. But we’re very grateful he did.
1) You write both fiction and poetry. How do you find these two mediums to be similar, and when do you decide something is going to be a piece of fiction versus an idea for a poem?
I tend to think that ideas choose me more than me choosing them. I’m not able to write the two things at the same time very well, so I either write fiction every day or I write poetry every day. If I hadn’t been a poet all my life, I wouldn’t write as well as I do as a prose writer. I teach in an MFA program for YA writers, and I tell them all the time: read poetry, read it out loud, walk around the room while you read it. It doesn’t matter who you’re reading, doesn’t matter if you understand it. Forget about that. Read it. Listen to it.
2) What do you hope to achieve by the walking around and saying it out loud?
I used to go to a naturopath. His wife taught foreign languages, and she would make her students move around as they studied. It has something to do with imprinting the declensions into your body. I still do that.
3) How did you first find writing?
Process of elimination. I wasn’t a good musician. I wasn’t startlingly good-looking. I wasn’t a lot of things. But I could write a little. So I thought, why not do that?
4) When did you find yourself first writing, where you were like, oh this is something I can do well? How old would you say you were?
I was in high school, probably, but it wasn’t good. I thought it was good.
I was stupid in high school. But I got a lot smarter. Then, in graduate school I met a poet named Gerry Locklin who still lives and teaches in Long Beach – the most widely published unknown poet in the country. More than 200 books.
He introduced me to what was then modern or more contemporary poetry – magazines like the Wormwood Review. I didn’t know how to send poems out to get them accepted. So Gerry told me, and I would show him poems. He’s a year younger than I, but he’s very paterfamilias, and is a big burly guy. We used to go to the Green Dolphin every night, drink some beer, shoot some pool, and talk about poetry. I thought he was divine.
5) You have said you can either write poetry in a day or you can write fiction. How do you decide what kind of a day it is?
Well if I get started on a book, I stick with it. I do three or four pages a day every day until the first draft is done. I tell my students, “One page a day gets you over 300 pages a year. So, get off your butt and do a page a day.” They’re always thinking ahead, about their fame and how much trouble they’re going to get in with their parents for outing them about their nasty secrets, blah, blah, blah.
Put your butt in the chair, do the page a day, leave the house.
6) How do you feel about writing in poetry form? Do you have a specific style that you like to work in?
No, I just do my little tuning fork, and I open a book or two—I always read before I write—and I just see what’s there.
7) You don’t find that if you read before you write that it affects your voice at all?
God, I hope so. I totally want to be affected. I want to write like somebody who is better than I am. I get these students who are like, “I don’t want to read because it will affect my voice. I want a pure voice.” That’s just horsesh*#. I want to be affected all the time. I want these dead poets’ hands on me. Then, in a draft or two, pretty soon, it’s mine.
8) Your poems cover a range of topics, from the inner life of superheroes to relationships to writing, how do you get these ideas?
I tend to read somebody else until something they’ve written about or said. A single word in somebody else’s poem will just get me going. I mean, I don’t get elated particularly about writing well, and I don’t get depressed about writing badly. I go to work. I take my little lunch box upstairs and Buddy the cat and I go to work.
9) What advice would you have for an aspiring poet or someone who’s just starting out writing?
There’s just no choice. You just have to find someone you love and read him or her a lot, and then find someone you detest and want nothing to do with and then read him or her more than the person that you love.
Take another medium, take pottery. You can’t just sit around and wait to be inspired. You have to sit down and work with the clay, the language. It’s what you’ve got. If I don’t work literally every day, I get very hard to live with. I’m cranky, and I go to the track in the afternoon and I lose a couple hundred dollars, and I’m really cranky. My wife will just say to me, “Jesus, shut up and go to work.” So I do.
10) Who are favorite authors?
Oh, Billy Collins is my favorite. I’ve known him for thirty years, so its easy. But he’s also wonderful. I’d love him if I didn’t know him. And then I read people like Longfellow. He’ll just drive you crazy. It’s so arcane and weird, but there’s stuff going on in Longfellow that I kind of like. I’ll read Tennyson – that I don’t like very much, but there’s stuff going on that I don’t know how to do. So that’s where the advice came from. I do it myself. Then as far as other living poets go, there’s just such a handful: Gaylord Brewer, Charles Harper Webb, literally the list goes on and on and on, and they’re all alive which is unusual. I’ll go to the library and arbitrarily take out a book to see what’s there.
11) What do you think is an essential quality for a poem to be good? Your poems are very deep, but they’re also very direct. How do you feel about poems that are more elusive or abstract?
Well, they’re not for me. When I read poetry, three-fourths of what I read I have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t know what’s going on. So I put the book down. But I go to the library fifty, seventy times a year, and for a couple bucks get these ILL books, Inter Library Loans. And sometimes I’ll just scan through the poems and think, “Oh, for Christ sake,” and just put it right back in the bin. I want nothing to do with it. It’s kind of like long shots at the track: I only go five days a week, but they only run five days a week. You have to take the shot every now and then.
12) What is your process for writing a book?
Not many more than four pages a day. I outlined a book once and it was jejune beyond belief, because I knew what the steps were going to be. I can’t even think of an analogy, probably like sex with Masters and Johnson: someone telling you what to do next. It was really bad. Hemingway had terrific advice. He would stop in the middle of a sentence after he’d worked a certain number of hours or pages.
Ron, thank you so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it. It has been such a pleasure.
Want to see a video of the entire interview? We have it here!
And don’t forget to sign up for Ron’s poetry class on Sunday, May 18 before it’s full.