The following interview for Katonah Poetry Series was first published by KPS in September 2022 in anticipation of the writers’ November 2022 reading at the Katonah Village Library.

Kevin Pilkington is a member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of ten poetry collections, including Playing Poker With Tennessee Williams (2021); Where You Want To Be: New and Selected Poems (2015), an IPPY Award Winner; The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree (2011), which was a Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award finalist; In the Eyes of a Dog (2009), which received the New York Book Festival Award; and Spare Change (1997), a National Poetry Series selection. He is also the author of the novels Summer Shares (2012) and Taking On Secrets (forthcoming, 2022).

Ann van Buren: You are both a poet and a prose writer. Please describe the confluences and divergences of these forms in your work.

Kevin Pilkington: I believe committing words and ideas to the page is an act of courage and a demanding challenge. So as a poet I try to write poems that get close to those human emotions that often defy language. Some of the techniques in my tool box are: simile, metaphor, unique syntactical arrangements, tone and sonics. I labor diligently over each poem and go through numerous drafts. I hope to create narratives and images that present fresh realities a photograph or paining cannot capture. Each is a personal journey triggered by the landscape I inhabit. The landscape ignites each poem so I try to plug into the place wisdom of my surroundings. Although I’ve written about spending time in other parts of the United States and Europe, I’ve lived in NYC all of my adult life so many of my poems are informed by the city and it figures predominately in many of them. I’m fortunate it keeps offering poems and I gladly accept them.
As a poet who also writes novels, I find that rather than concentrating on the differences between the two genres, I prefer to examine where they intersect so I can blend elements of their internal architecture. In doing so, both genres are enriched. NYC once again suggested I write a novel after overhearing so many fragments of stories between pedestrians passing me on its sidewalks. It made me realize there is very little dialogue in poems, or at least in mine, and I wanted to write dialogue in a more expansive genre – the novel. In my new novel Taking On Secrets recently published, NYC figures predominately in it as it does in so many of my poetry collections. In fact, it is a major character. Poetry found its way into my novel through descriptive, figurative language. Whether I’m writing a poem or a novel I approach them in a similar manner. I’ll take a line and rewrite it over and over or a sentence and rewrite it over and over until I hear the melody I’m after. In both genres I’m in pursuit of music or what Yeats called “a more passionate syntax.”

Ann van Buren: Please tell us about your approach to teaching poetry and the protocol for your workshops. How does this relate to your own writing process?

Kevin Pilkington: At Sarah Lawrence I teach everything from academic papers to creative essays and poetry. Any writing teacher will tell you the importance of reading if you want your poetry to prosper. Reading and writing go together like religion and church. One needs the other to survive. So reading the great poets from the past as well as contemporary poets is a major aspect of my workshops at Sarah Lawrence and at other schools and conferences where I teach. I have always believed the best teachers are on the bookshelves. That is how I learned to write my own poetry since I never took a writing class on the undergraduate or graduate levels or had a mentor. However, in graduate school I studied classical literature and found if you teach great literature and are surrounded by great models, it seeps into your students’ writing and your own. As a teacher I can guide my students through their poems and help them navigate towards what is working and away from what is not. On the other hand, there have been images and lines in many poems written by some very talented students who have ignited ideas and have pushed me to begin new poems. As a teacher and writer I am quite fortunate to be working in such a creative, fertile environment.

Ann van Buren: If we can believe that we are emerging from the pandemic and that life may resume as “normal,” what literary adventures do you see on the horizon?

Kevin Pilkington: When the COVID-19 virus emerged in NYC in March of 2020, the city where I live and figures so predominately in my poems became the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. NYC looked on as thousands of citizens were hospitalized and over 40,000 died. The city I loved was sick and my friends and neighbors dying. I isolated in my apartment and did not venture out in fear of contracting the disease. However, I felt fortunate I had the healing power of poetry that was always a personal benefit which greatly decreased my sense of isolation and provided much-needed healing. Poets have always written as a way to find their way through moments of national turmoil and crisis. Poetry now more than ever became my therapeutic life line. Zoom teaching eventually enabled me to connect with students although necessary I feel it is an inferior medium to the printed page. I also missed the energy of in-person teaching and reading to a live audience. Of course travel was out of the question with most of the world in lockdown but I could still travel in a poem. I had read and lectured in the United States and in Europe prior to the pandemic. I found myself journeying back to Italy, Ireland, England and Paris in new poems. In a sense poetry got me out of my apartment and back into the world again. I was able to return to those countries and didn’t have to spend a dime. Now that we are moving away from the pandemic phase thanks to vaccinations and proper health protocols, poetry has proven to me over and over how we really survive is by reading and writing so we can take better care of ourselves and better care of the world.

Peter Filkin’s primary interest is writing poetry and, besides his new volume, Water / Music, he has published four volumes of original verse to date. He has also translated the poetry and prose of Ingeborg Bachmann, novels by H.G. Adler and Alois Hotschnig, and a critical work by Bernd Stiegler. He is currently at work on a biography of H.G. Adler and a new book of poems. His poems, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in numerous journals, including The New Republic, Poetry, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, Partisan Review, Paris Review, and the New York Times Book Review. Professor Filkins has also taught at Bard College’s main campus, Williams College, Hiram College, and North Adams State College. He has been teaching at Simon’s Rock since 1988.

Ann van Buren: You are both a poet and a prose writer. Please describe the confluences and divergences of these forms in your work.

Peter Filkins: Poetry is to prose as love is to marriage. While love offers its enticements, mystery, discovery, and romance, marriage needs to contain a fair measure of the same in order to remain its own adventure. I feel most alive when writing poetry, yet grounded and sustained when writing prose. I need to open myself more wholly to wonder in order to encourage poems to occur, just as one must open oneself to love in order for it to happen. But such openings also occur and reoccur in an extended and loving marriage, as does the sense of transport and arrival when prose goes well. Each is inextricably tied, indeed married, to the other.

Ann van Buren: Please tell us about your approach to teaching poetry and the protocol for your workshops. How does this relate to your own writing process?

Peter Filkins: I don’t believe approaches to writing poetry and teaching have much to do with one another. When I teach poetry, I might tap what I have experienced while writing poems in the past, or even what other poets claim about writing poems, but that should have nothing to do with what I might do in the next poem I write. Otherwise, I’d end up writing the same kind of poem over and over, a mistake that I feel too many poets make. Writing poetry should lead to surprise. Teaching aims for shared understanding and delight. The former cannot be entirely arranged or predicted. The latter, like a good recipe, can regularly satisfy when done well.

Ann van Buren: If we can believe that we are emerging from the pandemic and that life may resume as “normal,” what literary adventures do you see on the horizon?

Peter Filkins: I think most writers did fairly well in the pandemic, for we’re used to being holed up by ourselves, looking inward. However, the lack of immediate experience no doubt posed the danger of not having enough material and happenstance to draw upon. Travel can provide a wealth of insight and stimulation, so I look forward to traveling in Austria and Italy this October, after which I’ll spend this coming spring on a Fulbright to Vienna in order to do research for a biography of the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann that I’m writing. Though I don’t expect to be writing poems about any of that, no doubt moments and subjects will provide various inspiration along the way.