Professor and poet Linda Gregerson bestows wisdom upon young writers

Virginia Lozano/Daily
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By Carolyn Darr, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 11, 2015

Someone who describes lines as gorgeous and certain writing as a miracle can only be a poet. Surprisingly, Linda Gregerson didn’t start writing poetry until her early twenties, after she had finished her undergraduate education.

“Of course I loved reading poetry and especially my scholarly period of 16th and 17th-century poetry,” Gregerson said. “I’ve always read Shakespeare, read Donne. Donne was probably how I first learned how to be in love with poetry, but I did not feel confident reading contemporary poetry. It was just something I was very frightened of.”

Thankfully, a poet friend took Gregerson aside and insisted that, as an avid scholar of poetry, she must begin to write herself, and so began to teach her the basics of the form. Gregerson wrote on her own for awhile, but once she became more serious about writing she started applying to MFA programs and ended up attending University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Today Gregerson values poetry as both a written, read and lived experience. She believes poetry allows its readers and writers to slow time and truly experience the beauty of living.

“It’s a very important instrument for encouraging us to really inhabit this very fleeting present tense, which mostly goes by without our noticing,” Gregerson remarked. “We’re so busy with something that just happened and what we’ve got to get done next that this moment mostly suffers from oblivion and neglect, and yet of course it’s all we really have.”

During her MFA studies, Gregerson honed her craft under such poetic greats as Bill Matthews and Louise Glück. Despite associating with these heavy hitters, Gregerson’s style is wholly that of her own. Her poems do not follow traditional or received form, but rather exemplify those of her own creation. A common technique running through a multitude of her poems is a tercet, or three line stanza.

“For me two durable components always, always are the line and syntax, and I begin by needing them to resist one another,” Gregerson stated. “It doesn’t begin to be written until it's lineated, so I don’t do some crazy drafts that then start going into lines. It’s about pacing, units of sense. It’s about how much light and air is going to be around the words.”

Gregerson has authored five books of poetry, and has won numerous awards for her writing, including the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pushcart Prize. It should be noted, however, that creative writing was never her original scholarly pursuit. Hired by the University in 1967, she originally began as a scholar of early modern England, a field that she is still very active in through both teaching and scholarly criticism. Today, while still introducing students to the lengthy beauty that is Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen,” Gregerson has become involved in the creative writing department and mentoring the University’s up-and-coming poets.

Unsurprisingly, due to the length and breadth of her poetic scholarship, Gregerson found it hard to name a poet she adores above all others.

“You know I have a million of them,” Gregerson said. “Well, of all time I can tell you Shakespeare, Donne and Herbert, but (there are) also 20th century poets who are very important to me. Lately I’ve been reading Marianne Moore a lot and a lot more seriously. We all adore Elizabeth Bishop, and learn a lot from her. Bishop’s villanelle ‘One Art’ never ceases being revelatory to me. There’s (also) just a world of wonderful poets coming up now in America. There’s just hundreds actually, but on the dear-to-me list at least scores really. I feel very lucky to be living at a time I’m living where there’s this much that’s good being written.”

I find it shocking that Gregerson manages to find time to commit to reading new work as she balances writing and teaching. Upon expressing my disbelief, Gregerson merely laughed and conceded that though time is difficult to find, she succeeds.

“It’s a sort of gift in disguise when you’re required to read on assignment,” Gregerson pronounced. “Most of us at a certain point start serving on prize committees and panels and judge and so forth. I chaired a committee for five years that called for me to essentially read the year in poetry. That’s what you do and it’s fabulous. You know, you read yourself to sleep at night, you get up early and read, you read on trains, on busses, you just read all the time.”

Reading as much as possible is the primary piece of advice Gregerson hopes to give to young poets. Reading and experiencing life to find new subjects to write about. Gregerson worries that those who have only focused on creative writing their entire academic careers are missing out on the lived experience that adds the grain and color to great poems.

“You need more world,” Gregerson exclaimed. “You need other stuff. Go do anything else. Poetry also needs the texture of other things, it needs not simply to be a closed circle. I find even for people who’ve been writing very early and know that’s what they want to do that sometimes the leaps and bounds forward happen when there’s a time away.”

As for Gregerson, there is no halt. Her next collection of new and selected poems will be released this coming September. Its title poem “Prodigal,” an excerpt of which is printed above, was originally released in her collection Magnetic North and may be her favorite poem ever penned. All of the new poems in her collection have a touchstone in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and those stories of change.

“There are only two subjects, right? I mean love and death and the way we try to absorb the fact that we live in a world founded on death, that we are radically mortal as is the world we live in,” Gregerson commented. “Love is probably our big argument both against death and our consolation for death and that inevitable sentence. I think it’s a business of poetry to help us navigate that both as writers and as readers.”

Gregerson believes poetry opens our eyes to the temporality of the world.

“I think poetry is about focus,” she observed. “It’s about trying to be attentive to the world so we won’t have to live in complete regret that it was lost on us while we had it. I really think it’s to give us an opportunity to actually say at some future point that we will have been here, we will have noticed what happened. That we took it in somehow, that we honored this very fleeting gift of consciousness, physical life, companionship, daylight.”