Interview with Marcus Whalbring
Marcus Whalbring is a poet and teacher who recently published a book of poems titled How to Draw Fire. Photo from Finishingline Press.
Q: How do you teach poetry to high-school students?
A: I’ve found looking at one aspect of the poem at a time works best. I start by usually asking them which words or turns of phrase jumped out at them the most in terms of sound or meaning. Then I’ll ask why it jumped out at them. Once we’ve got a bit discussion going, I usually ask them to summarize the poem (if it can be summarized) as best they can so we can take a more comprehensive look at it. I’ll ask them to look for possible shifts in the poem as a way to track the movement of it. How does the language work with or against those shifts? If things are going well in that conversation it’s easier to get at themes and larger concerns the poem may be addressing. Sometimes I’ll just ask students if they liked it too. Starting from there can often lead to really interesting insights. But the most important thing is to let them talk so they can get comfortable with poetry. Yes, you’re the teacher, but dominating the conversation doesn’t help anybody. I’ve learned that the hard way.
Q: Can you describe your experience as a writer for the Greensburg Daily News? Does this past work as a reporter influence either your poetry or teaching?
A: The Daily News is a small local paper. When I was there, the work environment in the newsroom was intensely demanding, but it was also inspiring. There were only four reporters there at a time: two editors, a sports writer, and myself. We looked out for each other, talked about what was happening in the world, in our state, our community, and I learned to take all that seriously for the first time. The editors there were great people who cared a lot about creativity and strong writing. I felt supported, and that made me more confident. Also because it was a small paper, reporters wrote stories and took pictures, which I’d never really done, but the more I did it, the more I enjoyed learning that process and trying to improve at it. I also got to meet a lot of great and interesting people, people I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise, so I gained a new intimacy with town where I grew up. It’s served me well as a teacher too in that I can relay to my students what I’ve learned, practical things like writer’s voice, writing for an audience, research, writing with the best possible sources, and more idealistic things like an appreciation for creativity, community, aesthetics, wisdom, and so on. I definitely think I’m a stronger teacher and writer because of that experience, so I’m grateful.
Q: What was your experience publishing your book of poems, How to Draw Fire?
A: It was new to me, the process of working with editors, becoming involved with the publishing process. My first book was put together in a more informal process through a publisher in Michigan run by the author KJ Stevens whom I’d contacted as a fan. I’m thankful that he was willing to give me a platform like that when he did. With this second book, I learned a lot about the world of publishing. The editors at Finishing Line Press were generous and helpful. I’m glad to have been able to work with them on the project. Leah Maines and Christen Kincaid were especially supportive in guiding me through the process. They were great about getting me involved, encouraging me to get out and familiarize myself other writers, editors, booksellers, and so on. I enjoyed that process a lot. It’s something I’ve always wanted to experience, so I’m thankful to the people at Finishing Line for having faith in my work and giving me the chance.
Q: Where do you find poetic inspiration?
A: Sometimes there are great moments when a subject just presents itself to you, and you almost feel like someone else has taken you over and written the poem for you. Those moments are rare, but they happen. But the language has to be the driving force, I think. I have a poem in How to Draw Fire where I respond to someone who politely said “Bless you” to me after I sneezed, and for whatever reason, that time, lines started to form in my head. I was walking between buildings at work, and by the time I sat down at my desk, the poem was practically finished in my head, and all I had to do was write it down. But I can’t sit and wait for those moments of grace. I wouldn’t improve as a poet. My only goal is write a good poem, which is hard, so I’ll write about anything if I can achieve that goal. A lot of the poems in How to Draw Fire come from personal memory and daily experience as a husband and a father. So that’s one place that seems to inspire me. My wife Emily and our three kids are so much a part of who I am that to not write about our life together would feel dishonest. Everything good about me comes from them, so my poems are almost a record of the growth I’ve experienced over the years. Finally, I get inspired reading work by other poets I admire from the past and present. A list of names very long and inconstant, I couldn’t begin to present reliable examples. I get inspired too when I encounter other artforms as well, from music, to movies, to fiction, to photography, to illustration. There are so many great creative people out there who help me challenge myself to get better and create work I can be proud of.
Q: What advice would you give to a high school student aspiring to be a poet?
A: Write every day. Writing poems is like anything else. You won’t do it well if you don’t practice, if you don’t have the discipline to push yourself. If you write poetry every day you will get better. You can’t not get better if you do. And read every day, close readings of poems you like. Try to figure out what those poems have that moves you so much. And study poems you don’t connect with as much too. Where does the disconnect come from? Read poetry collections, anthologies, journals. Talk to people about poetry. People who like poetry, who share the same interest in writing. But talk to people who don’t like poetry too. You’ll learn a lot from both parties. If you do these things, you ARE a poet, as far as I’m concerned.
Q: What does your writing process look like? What role do editing and rewriting play in this process?
A: I’m always interested to learn what writers and artists do when they’re working things out. I think it’s because deep down I hope they’ll present some kind of formula for a more steady creative output than I seem capable of achieving. Formulas are good for assembly lines or for increasing revenue, but when it comes to writing poems, I think you could compare it more to something like fishing. You throw your line in and wait and hope you catch something. Sometimes nothing good comes along for weeks, then something happens and you write three strong poems in three days. Then another week or more with no bites, and so on. But I don’t think I’d catch anything if I didn’t throw my line in, so I write every single day. Pound said you should aim for 75 lines a day, so I try for that. Sometimes I have a subject in mind I want to engage with. Sometimes I’ll start with an exercise, or I’ll give myself a random word bank, or a form. Little disciplines like that can bear some surprising outcomes. Sometimes I’ll come with absolutely nothing and just put the pencil to the paper and see what happens. But I do whatever I can to get that pencil moving if it’s being stubborn. If I’ve been writing on paper for a while, I try writing on the computer. I used to write at night after everyone went to bed, and I still do, but I try to write in the morning now too before everyone gets up, just to see what comes out of that. I’m constantly shifting modes and outlets, which helps me to keep things fresh and reduce boredom. I get bored easily. Sometimes a poem of merit happens in one sitting. Others happen over the course of weeks. Some have taken years. Sometimes they need very little editing. Sometimes I need to let the poem sit for a while and come at it later with fresh eyes, and a lot of editing and revising follows. I just try to remain open to the process as much as possible. If the process becomes repetitive and stagnant, I’m sure the work will likewise become repetitive and stagnant. That’s something I’d like to avoid if I can.