“We artists get on a tightrope when we tackle subjects that are beyond the merely personal. But far from ever trying to dissuade anyone from writing about these subjects, I urge them to head straight into those subjects. The risks that come with any writing project are in fact the opportunities of that project: they are what make the project worth doing in the first place. In poetry, there is no such thing as hands-off material. A poem never fails because of its subject matter—it fails because the poet has inadequately given depth and shape to that subject matter. Dramatic historical periods, natural disasters, grand personal wounds—writing about these subjects raises the stakes tremendously high when you have to write about them inventively, feelingly, thoughtfully. You have to be ingenious to avoid failure—or, at the least, ingenuity will allow you to fail well.
To my mind, when a poet deals with a subject that is apt to be simplified by polemic or sentiment, it’s contingent on form to prevent those reductions. By form I don’t necessarily mean traditional forms like sonnets and sestinas, though those forms are as viably powerful today as they ever were. I mean a shapeliness—whether it is the rapturous listing of Garrett Hongo’s “Nostalgic Catalogue” or the symphonic multiple sections of Adrienne Rich’s “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”—that asks the reader’s understanding to work at multiple levels.” -Rick Barot