Julie Geng, V Form, Interviews Sarah McCann, English Faculty
Q: Hi Ms. McCann. Thank you for letting me interview you. To start off, could you please talk a little bit about when and how you discovered your passion for poetry?
A: Sure. I actually love words always, and my parents read to us. And we told stories to each other, and all sorts of things. But I didn’t really know anything about poetry until I was forced to write a poem in fifth grade. And it was really my teacher that opened up that territory for me because I needed that encouragement. And he wrote on my paper “A+”, which was nice. I don’t know how you can get an A+ on a poem, but that was okay by me. And then he said: “Please promise me you will be a writer.” That was enough for me to start exploring that because I thought: “Hmm, I can do something with words that people like”. I wanted to pursue that, so I just continued to write poetry. That was really in high school when I started to think about it seriously. I read poetry then. That’s when I started to read poetry, which is very important.
Q: What did you write about in your first poem?
A: I wrote about the seasons, which is a common topic. I wrote about fall, but I don’t remember what I wrote in particular, except that I used particulars. So I’m one of those people who doesn’t ever really trip when I am walking along because I am always looking at the ground. I am always looking at the small things, and I pay close attention to the world around me. I have no doubt that in that poem I probably picked something that I thought was very small to talk about. I made it seem more important than it would seem to most people. That’s the kind of thing I like to do.
Q: So after high school, how did your schooling enhance your passion and prepare you for a career?
A: “Career in what?” I guess that’s the question I would have. Because you don’t really have a career in poetry. It’s more…I associate career more with making money, and I think that I know that no matter what I was going to do as a job for my life, I’d be writing. I had read enough poets in high school to know that you can have any sort of job at all and still write. You would still, if you are a real poet primarily describe yourself as a poet. In high school I learned to read, and I knew from high school, and encouraging teachers in high school, and winning some contests in high school, and getting some poems published in high school that people like to read my work. But I also knew that I needed to read other people’s work to get better and better. So in college I was able to do that. I worked in the Creative Writing department, also the English department, Philosophy department, and Modern Greek department. I did a lot of things having to do with language and how to use it precisely. That’s where the philosophy comes in. I knew what classes I wanted to take at Princeton in the creative writing program. But what I wasn’t prepared for, I guess, is kind of more interesting, which is that you had to take certain courses as an undergraduate there. My favorite classes were the ones that I was forced to take. So I was forced to take a geology class, and I can tell you that more poems came from taking that class than from taking my creative writing workshops.
Q: How so?
A: Because I was learning new vocabulary that I wouldn’t normally have thought of. It wouldn’t spring to my mind because I didn’t even know it, or the word existed, or the ideas or concepts existed. In taking that geology class, we were out exploring all of New Jersey and looking at rocks and things. I just was so interested that I wanted to write about it all the time. I think for half a year I was writing poems about rocks and rock formation. Sometimes you can be prepared for something. I was prepared in that I knew I liked poetry. I was not prepared to see it coming at me from every angle, I guess.
Q: After reading your bio on the SM website, I noticed that you have done a significant amount of translating work. How does translating relate to poetry?
A: Personally, I started translating as a way to get through writer’s block for myself. It was kind of a selfish task at first. I translate from Modern Greek, and I love the language. I think it’s so beautiful. When I write my own poetry, I love the sounds that we can create with English language too. I saw beautiful sounds being made in Greek, and I wanted to get the same sounds into English. It had to do with re-creating sound or imitating sounds. But the selfish part was that I was also, just like I did with the geology class, stealing words from another person and getting a new vocabulary by translating. Words that wouldn’t normally be in my head were then in my head. I could then infuse that language into my own poetry. Since beginning translating, I think I have become more generous about it. I really try to be faithful to the people I have been translating, whereas before, in the beginning, you would not want me as your translator. Because I was turning every poem into my own poem. Now I think I am more faithful to the intent of the poems that I translate. I think it’s a great exercise for any poet, and I know students at St. Mark’s are involved in many different languages. It’s just a great way to get someone’s voice into your head. You can read, but translating is something entirely different. You’re actually living with that person in your head. It’s a very strange feeling, but it’s rewarding in terms of vocabulary and mindset.
Q: People often say that you will lose something when you move from one language to the other, but how would you preserve the poetry moving from Modern Greek to English?
A: It’s very hard with any literary translation, especially hard with poetry, because of the things that you are concerned about: the rhythm, the music, the actual meanings of the words. In Greek, the way that the language works tends to rhyme. A lot of lines are going to rhyme naturally. What I have to do is that I have to look at what I know about that poet, think to myself: “Does this poet want the rhyme there, or is it simply there because the language is forcing the poet to do that? Would this poet want it to be in rhyme?” A lot of times what I have to do is adjust it. Perhaps it wouldn’t be an end rhyme, but it would be an internal rhyme in English. The repeated sound is still there, but it doesn’t stand out as much. So you have to make decisions like that all the time.
There is also some very strange decisions you have to make in terms of culture. In poetry, you have someone citing an event or a brand that people reading the Modern Greek would know, but people reading in the United States would not. Do you just try to write out transliterate the name of that brand? Do you put a footnote? Sometimes the people that I’m working with are very contemporary, very modern writers. They use the slang of Greece, and I try to think to myself: “How can I do this without putting a footnote?” That’s one of the harder things, and I try to make it relevant to [the United States]. Also, writing in American English is different than writing in British English. There are all sorts of decisions to make. I think it’s just different with every poet that I encounter to. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot living poets, so I have been able to ask them some questions, which is nice.
Q: When I talk about poetry to the students here, they often say: “Poetry is just for people who are good at it naturally”. What do you think of this statement? Is poetry natural to you?
A: Hmm…That’s a good question. I think I have to say that it is natural to me in that I can’t think of anything that brings me more pleasure than writing a poem that I like, or reading a poem. It is natural in that you can have an inclination towards it. The way that I write is not naturally in grammatical English. It’s poetry. But I think that’s true of every person. I think that everyone is naturally a poet. We speak in poems. The way that we use rhythms in speech, the way that we use rhythms when we tell a story or a joke is poetry! It’s just that sometimes when people take their ideas and try to put them on the page, they don’t know how to make it look the way they are already making it sound. The way that we try to describe things and make things vivid for other people and the way we tell stories…that’s poetry! I think that sometimes when people hear the word “poetry”, it’s a scary thing. But it really is the most natural thing we have. It’s the most common thing that we do. I would like to say to my classes that probably the earliest form of language was a curse word, and the second type of language was poetry. I think it’s probably curse because you are expressing “I just dropped a rock on my foot”, and you want someone else to know about that, or there is a tiger. Then you want to tell people about the good stuff. That’s where the poetry comes in.
I think that children naturally are poets, and it sloughs off us as we get older. We try to be tamer. We aren’t as amazed by things as we are when we were little kids. I think if you can keep some of that amazement, you are a poet. This is a strange philosophy of mine, but I believe that you are every age that you have ever been. So you contain the two-year-old you, and you contain the fifteen-year-old you. I contain the 27-year-old me as well, and all of the ages I have ever been are still in me. Sometimes I think very immature thoughts because I’m still a little kid. I think that as we grow older, we learn to suppress the younger ages in ourselves. But if you are a poet, you need to be able to access those younger ages. You need to be wide-eyed. You need to want to be amazed by everything. I think it’s just a matter of being able to tap into that so that people are naturally poets. They just need to access it better than they have been.
Q: Sadly, I don’t think the majority of SM is extremely passionate about poetry. What do you think can make poetry more appealing and approachable to students here?
A: It’s a good idea to have people coming in like Taylor Mali we had recently, and Project VOICE, and getting more and different kinds of poets to come in to show people that there are different kinds. There is the spoken-word type that some people tend towards. There is the written-type which is more what I tend towards. I feel that it shouldn’t be the scary thing. That’s why I love the idea, which I’m sure annoys people too sometimes, of putting the poems in the bathrooms. To me, it’s symbolic. These words are just as natural on a toilet stall as they are in a book. This is something that should be part of your everyday life. Every little thing has a poem about it. There are anthologies of poems that talk about every sort of food, and they have all the poems that attach to each specific food. Same thing with sports. I can find so many sports poems. I feel that everyone has a poem out there. They just maybe haven’t found it yet. I would love to help people do that. That’s why I love the idea of writing poems on sidewalks during poetry week. Just posting poems everywhere. And helping people find either that one poem or that poet. You ask any teacher at St. Mark’s what their favorite poem is, and they can tell you. That tells me that people do like poetry and do find it meaningful. It’s just that at school it becomes part of another subject. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Q: Who is your favorite poet and favorite poem?
A: This is really hard, and it probably changes week to week. I won’t hold to this, but I’ll say today it is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Shall I say that? I guess I will. No! Yes…No! Elizabeth Bishop today. Pablo Neruda tomorrow. Hopkins yesterday, maybe. Elizabeth Bishop is one of the people that I read in high school, and she and Neruda made me want to write. What her poems did for me [is that] they made me feel as if someone else in the world feels the exact same way that I do and can talk about it better than I can. So I need to figure out a way to talk that way. That’s what Elizabeth Bishop and Neruda did for me because they were describing what I was feeling, but they were doing it in such a more beautiful way. I thought: “Hmm…if I can do that and have someone memorize my poems the way that I want to memorize all of theirs, which I didn’t do, but I wanted to, that would be the best thing I can do with my life. To give someone that company, like they were giving me. I read both Neruda and Bishop in high school, and they changed my life.
Q: I know that you do not like rhymes, or you don’t force rhymes into your poems. Why is that? A lot of people enjoy poetry because of the rhymes. Aside from the rhyme scheme, what do you think is the essence of a poem?
A: I’ll say one thing about rhymes first. There is the danger of sounding too much like children’s poetry when you rhyme. When I tell my students, which you must know, “you can’t rhyme in this poem! I’m giving you this assignment, and you can’t rhyme”, it’s because a lot of times I think students turn toward rhyme, and that’s the first thing they think when they hear poetry. They think: “Okay! Gotta rhyme something!”, but that’s not really what poetry is at all. Rhyme was used to help bards remember what line came next and what part of the story came next. It was a place-holder. It also was pleasant to the ear, but I think that today we don’t need it in the way it was needed before. It can be pleasant, but all too often it fails in sounding good and too often strays towards sounding like fluff. I don’t mean to say that children’s books are not useful. They are, so kids can learn how to talk and how to remember things. In rhymed poetry, I just think you have to be a great poet before you can rhyme well.
I do give assignments with rhyme in my classes. It’s just when I’m asking students to write in free verse, I ask that they first try to do it without rhyming. There are so many other things to play with. For instance, if you are not gonna rely on end rhymes to do something in your poems, I actually like internal rhymes a lot. I like assonance, and I like consonance. Assonance is the repetition of vowels throughout a line, and consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds. Alliteration is just the repetition of the beginning consonant sounds. I like alliteration, but sometimes that’s overdone as well, just like rhyme. I really very much like assonance and consonance, and I probably use a little too much of that. I try to keep myself from going crazy with those two things. There are lots of different techniques of sound that one can use, and I just don’t think it has to be rhyme.
Q: For a beginner poet like me, what do you suggest doing before jumping into the rhymes?
A: I would say…try, if you are young, alliteration. Go for that because that’s fun. It’s the repetition of the beginning consonant sounds. You can make tongue-twisters, and it’s just good to get your ear trained to be looking out for sounds. Once you have alliteration done, move to consonance and assonance. Try to work those into your lines. I think that [in] elementary school you get your alliteration in, learn how to do that well, and play with it. Then when you get into middle school and high school, you really start using them more sophisticatedly; assonance, consonance, internal rhyme. Then maybe once you become a master poet, then I’ll consider your end rhymes.
Q: Who is your most talented and accomplished student so far in your career at St. Mark’s? You don’t have to mention his/her name, but can you describe how he/she developed to become a poet? How did you mentor him/her?
A: This question reminds me of myself as a high school poet. There was this teacher, Ms. S, who taught me in ninth-grade English. She knew I was a writer. She liked my poetry, and she saw that I was entering these contests. I went to Arts High School for Poetry one day a week. She saw me in my junior year and then in my senior year just hanging around. I had a free period, so I just [stayed] in the library. She came up to me one day, and she said: “If you want to use your free period to work on your poetry with me, I’d really like to do that”. She said: “I’d really like to do that”, and that stuck with me. I was thinking: “Why do you want to do that? I don’t even want to devote my time to that. This is my free period.” I try to keep her in mind because I didn’t take her up on it, and that was ridiculous. I think I was scared, but knowing that she was there and had said “I want to devote my time to helping you and your poetry,” made a huge difference to me. I wrote more on my own because of it. I always think of her.
I think that that’s the sort of person that I want to be. I want to be that person with the people that I see who are trying to write, who are already good writers, who want to write but don’t know where to begin, or who like to read poetry; I’d like to search them out. A lot of times, they are quiet people. There are some people who are very talented and broadcast that, and that’s wonderful. I try to be in touch with them too and let them know that I’m available. It’s usually a very sneaky way that I tap people, not literally, on the shoulder and I say: “Hey! Do you want to work on some poems whenever you want to? Let’s do that!” I would say that there were a couple of stand-out students that I have found at St. Mark’s. These are people that I noticed because they cared to put the energy and time into writing. They would write a poem for a class, but they would want to learn why they were using that form and more about the form. How do I actually convey this? This is want I wanna say. How am I not saying that? How can I say that better? There are a couple students who are like that, who really wanted advice on what to read, who they should read. That’s the most important thing you can do to be better writers. If you have that natural talent, it doesn’t really matter if it just stays in you and doesn’t develop. When you are reading other people, you are learning. Having other voices in your head I think is a good thing. I’m trying to avoid your question. Have you noticed? I actually do. I have one person in mind as an absolute superstar who didn’t really show her work enough. I’ll leave it like that because this is a person who was a great writer, had some idea that she was a very good writer, but didn’t want to show her work to other people. That scares me. It makes me sad.
Q: So she didn’t end up pursuing the poetry path?
A: Actually, I can’t say that that’s true. But if you don’t have a network of people, and you are not really showing your work to other people, you can’t really get better, and you can’t really know if you are reaching other people. I am guilty of that myself. I don’t give my poetry out enough to people to get feedback and to read, but I do have a network of people that I share with. I think that’s essential, and I hope that this person chooses to do that. I think that it is important to get your work out there. I don’t mean to get published and have a book in your first year of college. I think that’s crazy and impossible, but I do mean that it’s really great to have some people that understand poetry with you. Even if they are not writers, maybe they want to read your poetry. I think that’s great, and I think that can happen at St. Mark’s, too. I think there are enough writers and people interested in reading for that to happen.
Q: Like tonight!
A: Like tonight! The Coffeehouse, which I think we’ve been having for 3 or 4 years now. Thanks to Finn for organizing that. It should be fun! I like that the teachers read, too. We sometimes share our work as well with each other.
Q: What’s next for you in terms of your poetry and your career?
A: I don’t get a lot of writing done during the school year. I keep notebooks all the time, so I am writing down lines all the time. In the summer or longer breaks, what I do is I assemble the lines into poems. I almost, if you have done this in class, write my own exquisite corpses. That’s this game where you bring lines together by different people. For myself, it’s different selves writing at different times of my life. I will take two lines I wrote two years ago and add them to two lines I wrote yesterday. Somehow they have been talking to each other this whole time, and I just didn’t know it. I put those lines together, and they become a poem sometimes. Sometimes it’s ridiculous and doesn’t work. That’s what I’m trying to do in my breaks. That and translation!