november 11, 2018, Reprinted with kind permission of rattle
Green: I always like to start at the beginning. There aren’t many people in the world who are poets. How did you become one of them?
Bridgford: I’ve been a poet since I was about six years old. So I started writing poems and stories when I was small. By the time I really realized I was doing it seriously, I was going into college and ended up at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Green: Oh, I didn’t realize you went to Iowa.
Bridgford: I did. But poetry was always something I liked to do. I liked writing fiction, too, but at this point the person who’s written most of the fiction in our family is my husband. I always loved the magical world of words, and the idea that I could go to the library and get a book and it would be someone’s mind from a long time ago, still there for me. I wanted to do that, and one of my greatest pleasures was publishing my first book.
Green: So that was your goal from the start, then.
Bridgford: My goal from age six was to be a poet.
Green: That’s great, and you don’t hear that very often, actually.
Bridgford: Well, that’s my story. And then I got a PhD. My specialization at the University of Illinois was 20th century American women poets. At that point, when I went to get my first job, I had been publishing poetry, and the irony was that I thought I’d get a job in literature: but that’s not how it went. They said, “Oh, you’re a poet?” So my job has always been as a poet.
Green: You’re most known now as a formal poet. What draws you to rhyme and meter as opposed to free verse?
Bridgford: At the beginning I wasn’t a formal poet. It wasn’t until 1999, maybe 2000, that I applied for an NEA grant as a formal poet. I had seen a crown by one of my former students at Fairfield, Jennifer Laura; she sent me a copy of her thesis, and she’d written a seven-sonnet crown. I was delighted she’d done that, but also a little jealous, because I’d never written anything like it. So I thought, “Hmm, let’s see what I can do.” I started reading up on crowns and other more complicated forms, and suddenly it was all I wanted to do. I realized that what was missing in my free verse was a sense of the technique and the technicalities that you find in formal poetry. I just hadn’t done enough of that to understand what it could do. So for the past twenty years it’s what I’ve mostly done.
Green: What is it about those details that seem so important to you?
Bridgford: There are a few reasons. One, I’m a little OCD, so I like to keep things in place. I also like finding just the right click with the rhyme or with the strategy that I can see coming. Bruce Bennett and I have spoken about how we know when a rhyme is coming—he knows it as he’s turning the bend of the line. I don’t know if I’m that quick [Green laughs]—I’m not Bruce Bennett, and I admire him so—but it takes me another half-line before I can feel it. I like that sense of anticipation. I also like slant rhyme a lot.
Green: Do you do it by ear? Do you feel the meter coming, and where it’s going to go, or do you break it down and diagram things out and count feet?
Bridgford: I don’t count anymore; I’ve had a lot of practice writing this way for many years. I do check it after the fact, in case my ear was off, but mostly I listen for the rhymes as they come. And as I said, I like puzzles and figuring things out. I like that formal poems can take me a long time.
Green: More and more that’s what I prefer to write, too—and in the same way, I didn’t write formal poetry at first, but that’s my preference now. There’s something that feels complete to me, when it has a form.
Bridgford: It does. I like to pitch it ahead, writing in longer series. I like to check ahead and pull the poem through. I like a fifteen-sonnet series. And I like regular sonnets, too, and villanelles—those are my forms of choice. It’s always different, even with a small variation, but sometimes when it’s doubled it feels like a new poem.
Green: Sometimes you still write free verse, too. Do you find it hard to go back and forth? Because I find, just reading submissions, if there’s a good formal poem, the next couple submissions are difficult just to read without expecting the rhyme or meter—you kind of have to slap yourself out of the metricality. Do you find it harder to write in free verse now?
Bridgford: Sometimes. And sometimes I have your issue, too, though the magazine I’ve edited for years, Mezzo Cammin, is a formal journal, so that doesn’t come up much. What I would say is that most of my students write in free verse, and most poets that I know write in free verse, so even though I can try to live in my metrical world, it’s not possible. But there is a disjunction when you move from one to the other.
Green: Originally at Rattle, in the guidelines from twenty years ago, it said that we prefer free verse, and I feel like I’ve been fighting the momentum of that ever since. At first, there were virtually no formal submissions. It’s gotten better lately, but I don’t know if it’s just that we’ve finally overcome that legacy, or if formal poetry is making a comeback more generally. But we’re seeing a lot of formal poetry now in the submissions.
Green: Yeah, I think so. It used to be a struggle to find anything that rhymed, and now, I think, as we published more formal poetry, we’re starting to be seen as a place that’s welcoming of it. But what’s your sense in general? Do you think more people are writing in form?
Bridgford: My answer is complicated, because it used to be a very closed world, and within that closed world most of the people who wrote forms were white men of a certain age. So that’s widened, and gradually more women have joined the conversation, and so on. As time has passed, and I’ve seen it particularly in the last ten or fifteen years, with a lot of different constituency groups joining the conversation. For instance, Terrance Hayes is the keynote speaker at Poetry by the Sea this coming year, and Alicia Stallings is our lecturer. They’ve both just written a lot of sonnets. Terrance Hayes’s book is 70 sonnets about Trump.
Green: I haven’t read that yet. Is it out?
Bridgford: It’s out, and it’s very good. And Alicia writes about many topics, including the refugee crisis. Depending on how you’re approaching it, it’s a different practice. And especially, given these new voices, people think, “I could write 50 sonnets on this.” People always came up with mechanisms that helped them, but I know it’s helped me, as a woman poet.
Green: That’s how it feels to me. For example, Patricia Smith, who started out with slam, and then free verse—she pushes herself all over the place, in all different forms, and we published a great crown of sonnets that she wrote, maybe ten years ago. But there was a time when even teachers were saying to avoid formal verse. I remember an undergraduate teacher once saying, “Don’t rhyme in here.” But it seems like those times have changed, and people are thinking of it more as a challenge, and are more open to experimenting in forms. Do you have that sense?
Bridgford: I think that might be right. I’m attracted to some hip-hop poetry, too, so when I first came to West Chester we brought some hip-hop poets. That was interesting, because when I went to the New York Hip-Hop Festival, I thought, “Wait a minute, these are the same conversations we’re having over in this other room, but it’s just a different set of players.” So mixing it up only brings out more possibilities.
Green: What do you mean by having the same conversation?
Bridgford: A lot of the same vocabularies. What imagery are you using, what kind of rhyme or meter are you using, what conceit? I thought I’d be walking into another language, but it wasn’t. So when we had some poets come to West Chester and Poetry by the Sea, like Tyehimba Jess, people said, “This is wild.” But once they listened to him in those contexts, there was much more in common with traditional formal poetry than they expected. And he had just won the Pulitzer when he read at Poetry by the Sea.
Green: Well, this issue features a tribute to persona poems, and your books tend to be big projects, often using persona. What draws you to that?
Bridgford: Some is ambition and some is fear. The ambitious part is that, if I’m interested in writing about bullying, can I be the bully? Can I be all of the players? It gives you more empathy—maybe not all the empathy you need, but some. And also, in my career, it’s been harder for me to write about my own experience. In recent years it’s been easier, but I always pulled down a screen. What I also found was that it was easier to sell books—so in that respect it wasn’t even ambitious, it was just marketing. Most editors wanted to have a pitch.
Green: That’s interesting. How organic is the process of deciding what to work on? Do you find that you’re obsessing over something, and then you decide you want to do it, or do you pick a topic ahead of time that you want to address? How does that work?
Bridgford: Different ways. An earlier book that I did on world records—I was working on another project on religious woman figures, and my son came home with the latest Guinness Book of World Records. He said, “Look at this woman with the longest fingernails in the world.” And I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” So I just dropped the project that I was working on and started writing about world records. Lately, I have book coming out on the Blue Whale Game—it’s a suicidal game.
Green: Yeah, I’ve heard about that.
Bridgford: It came out of Russia, and it’s a set of tasks, like a game, and as it progresses the difficulty of the tasks is increased, and the final task is to commit suicide. There were a lot of young people committing suicide. So I researched that phenomenon.
Green: I remember hearing about it at the time, but I don’t remember—who was behind it? Because people were interacting over messages online, so someone was giving the instructions. Did they ever find out who it was?
Bridgford: At the beginning, one person was a Russian who ended up going to prison. But then with the internet these days you never quite know who is behind anything, so it could be that there were other friends of his, or colleagues—so that kind of scared me. I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, so I like to think that people are inherently good—why would someone do something this awful? But they do, every day. And not to know who they are … People on the other end think they can prove their strength or loyalty, or complete the ambitious task, and then they get to the end.
Green: But there’s no sense of who’s actually giving the instructions?
Bridgford: It’s a mystery.
Green: And it could even be an emergent cultural phenomenon, right, with no single person or group behind it, just a virus of action that spreads?
Bridgford: It could be, exactly. I have another book that’s coming out that was supposed to be about fake news—I thought, “Fake news, that’s a great idea!” But of course everyone was thinking about that in the next second [Green laughs]—or maybe the same second—and so I had to shift the framework for that, and started writing a Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath book. I thought, “Help, I need to get away from this fake news!” I’d been fascinated with Plath for a long time, so I read Hughes’s biography. Persona always depends on the perspective of the person. This biography, which I never knew about, indicated that Ted Hughes was involved with someone Plath knew about, but also a second woman. So Sylvia wasn’t even quite sure what was happening. As with all people who are younger, over time, that would have become a much more trivial event, but then she thought her situation was the end of the world.
Green: What about the question of appropriation with persona poems? The reader who suggested this issue specifically said that we should do this because persona poems are so out of favor right now, given the problems with appropriation. And I was thinking about it, going through the submissions we receive, and it does seem that the use of persona is starting to fade. There’s a sense that poetry should be about your own lived experience, like a kind of neo-confessionalism, where people aren’t as open to trying new characters and becoming different people. So do you worry about appropriation? There’s cultural appropriation and power dynamics, but the same concept extends to individual people when you think about it, if you’re imagining that you are someone who really lived—you don’t know what it’s like to be Sylvia Plath, you’re appropriating her! But to me, the amazing power of poetry lives in the empathy that goes into imagining you could be Sylvia Plath.
Bridgford: Several things were running through my mind as you were saying this. My Bully Pulpit book originally had an opening quote from Taylor Swift, from one of her songs. So I thought I’d better get permission to include this.
Green: What song was it? We’ve got a Swiftie in the house at home.
Bridgford: I can’t think of the title at this moment, but the point was, “You’re not gonna get me.” I wrote to her, and she replied and said, “No, you cannot use my song.”
Green: Wow. How much of the song was it?
Bridgford: Maybe five to six lines. I sent the book, and they—her agent wrote me a letter—they said no. And the song was perfect. So I ended up using something different. But someone else told me I should just have run with it. Who’s going to come after me, the whole Taylor Swift machine?
Green: Well, to be sued by Taylor Swift would be great publicity.
Bridgford: [laughs] That would. But she said no, and I thought that was really interesting, because that was her song and her voice. On a certain level I understand, but we wouldn’t write a lot of things if we always had to worry about that issue. To get back to your point, some people are very territorial. And some people say, “Well, obviously it isn’t the other person, because you put your name on it.”
I did a series recently on Larry Nasser and the Olympic gymnasts, and that was good for me, because I was very preoccupied with that case. I don’t think that Larry Nasser has ever had one thought about me, but it was good for me psychologically to do the poem. So I think, in most instances, people can give you that sense that you might discover some different thing about the person, some perspective that they, for a range of reasons, would not be able to admit.
Green: So do you keep it to certain types of people when you write persona?
Bridgford: No, I do a range of different people. I suppose what you’re saying is that we’re getting into the realm of creative nonfiction, so if people are alive, they might feel maligned. I think in general I haven’t gone that far. I think occasionally people have to be fearful or should get the poem checked, but I don’t think in general people have those difficulties.
Green: Well, there are all these controversies these days when it gets into cultural areas. Anders Carlson-Wei, with that poem about the homeless man in the New Republic—
Bridgford: Yeah, I followed that.
Green: I still wonder what to think about that. What do you think about that?
Bridgford: I think people’s criticisms were more with the fact that he was impersonating a homeless person, but that’s more to do with social politics than about the poetry itself. I don’t think we have to stay away, necessarily. Some visual artists I know are more nervous than poets about taking on a point of view or representation of someone of a different race or background. For instance, I have a friend who always puts self-representation in her works, but when she had to change cultural backgrounds, she put someone else in it. I think it’s important to be sensitive, but, in general, she’s done many works, and she’s been the person. I think there are exceptions, but they aren’t as demanding as people are calling out.
Green: So you think poets should just ignore that and do whatever they’re drawn toward?
Bridgford: I don’t think poets should ignore that. Some of that, I think, is taste, and some of it is cultural sensitivity. This whole issue reminds me, a number of years ago I edited a journal called Dogwood. One of the poems we received as a submission was from the point of view of one of the individuals who bombed the Twin Towers. And we didn’t end up publishing the poem, but I’d never seen the editorial room so alive as while we were arguing about it. And the room was about split, with reasons for and against.
Green: I think a lot of times it is about what strikes up conversations, or even conversations within yourself, about complicated issues that are worth considering. One thing that poetry really does well is address taboos that we don’t talk about in our daily lives. So I think it’s a good thing when discussions like that happen—although it’s devastating for someone like Anders, I imagine. So it’s a tough situation.
Bridgford: I’m not sure that whole editorial team realized the reaction that would come from it. But, as you were saying, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. People have to think about why they’re reacting as they do.
Green: Let’s talk a little about Poetry by the Sea and West Chester. How did you get involved in West Chester? You mentioned before we started that it was one of your long-term goals to run a poetry conference.
Bridgford: It was. It was a dream of mine to do something on that scale. West Chester, at the time I took it over, had between 150 and 200 people. It was a formal poetry conference, but it was looking to bring in newer voices. So I did that for a few years, and then about five years ago the conference split into two halves. One was more local, and the piece that I claimed was more national. I found a new location, and our mission is to do national, global poetry. What’s happened in the years from 2010 until today is that the number of people in the two conferences has really increased. In the end, diversity is a good thing.
Green: What was your vision for it? When you had that as a dream of something to run, what were you imagining? What do you think people get out of it, and why is it an important thing to do?
Bridgford: In general, I really like to run things, so that’s part of my personality. And I have, you might even call it a childhood faith, that if you have a really fun poetry conversation, people will come and want to be a part of it. One of my goals is to have it be as welcoming to someone who is new to poetry as someone who’s been in it a long time. As strange as it may be, people get jaded over time [Green laughs], and poetry is one place I feel when you go in and sit down and share a meal. It should be something that you’re excited for in a way that you’re excited for other special things in your life. At Poetry by the Sea, which is in Madison, Connecticut, we have tables of ten people, and very often at all the tables we have a member of the faculty, and everyone’s supposed to feel really good at the conference. I still feel about it the same way I did in 2010. Even though we went through some struggles to get where we are, I think struggles and grit are good.
Green: You mentioned wanting to be welcoming to people who aren’t that into poetry already. Do you find that it works? At our festival every fall, we have the same goal, of introducing people to poetry through the events, but we have the hardest time getting anyone to come out who isn’t already part of the literary community. People from our town and the surrounding area say that they’re going to come, but for the most part they don’t. We have about 80 people who come to the festival, and of those only a handful are local. So what’s your experience with that?
Bridgford: People need roles. The poetry community in general, as sad as it is to say, is aging. I’ve been involved in poetry conferences for twenty years, and I’m in a different spot. Most of the people I know at the conference are still involved, but the hard demographic to bring in is that age 25 to 45. Part of it is financial. We try to have scholarships, and also break it down so that most people can afford a day. But then what happens is there’s such a tremendous talent pool that people feel like they have to do it all. So when you show up, most of the people are age 45 and above.
Green: When you say the poetry demographic is aging, do you mean your conference specifically, or the broader poetry audience across the country?
Bridgford: I’m talking specifically about my formal poetry contingency—they’ve tended to be the same people, and we’ve all gotten older together. There are some new people, but they really have to be invited, and they want to participate. Poetry by the Sea and West Chester before that—in the earlier days, many people were content not to have roles. They were happy to just go and listen. Over time, that hasn’t been the case. Someone thinks, “Well, I could do something on music and poetry.” And it’s more enjoyable if you’re looking forward to your panel. So the more you’re in, and thinking about who you can participate with and your part in the project, and what you might do next year, the more of a role you have, the more you enjoy it.
Green: It is the same economy everywhere when it comes to poetry. Every consumer is also a producer, so there’s this ouroboros effect, which is a central problem with every publisher, too—everybody who wants to read it is getting rejected at the same time. It’s a difficult ecology to balance. Do you find that difficult to balance at the conference, too? Because everyone can’t have a reading or a panel spot.
Bridgford: It is. Some people are content to just go and listen year after year, but more often you’re finding the balance and saying this person hasn’t had a part in a while, but you did this last year, so let’s wait until next year for you. And maybe we’ll have a competition, so we’ll move them into judging positions. But, no matter the roles, people bring their hearts and minds to those opportunities.
Green: Do you think there’s a way to break out of that circle of everybody participating? I’m talking more about poetry in general. It seems to be that your books in particular, because they have a topic—you mentioned that they’re easier to pitch to editors because they have a subject matter, but I think they might be easier to pitch to lay readers, too. Do you find that there’s a way to get new readers who aren’t already reading poetry with your work?
Bridgford: In some ways that’s true. For example, my parents are not poets. At a certain point they began to like what I’d written even more as it became more accessible. I also write fiction, so that was really easy for them, and at one point they said, “You should just write fiction,” but my heart is in poetry. I don’t know if I was ever making the choice at that level, but I have given a lot of readings, and I have noticed that people have a better response when they hear the pitch. Whether or not they like the poems, at least they know what they’re about.
Green: It is much more effective if you talk a bit and introduce your poem first. So having a pitch is important just for categorizing within your brain what you’re about to encounter.
Bridgford: It’s a lot to expect from people. We all spend so much time on the work we’re doing, but people are bombarded and always have been. It’s not that much extra work to provide a framework, and then people feel included. I appreciate it when I’m in the audience.
Green: The other thing I think is that formal poetry has more of a chance to break out of the limited audience. Because one of the things you hear from people who don’t read poetry, if you show them a poem, is, “This doesn’t even rhyme!” There was a time when nothing rhymed; there was the new formalist movement off in a corner, but that was it. And there was also a lot of obscurity a few decades ago. Now there’s a lot more accessibility in the poetry that’s being published, and a lot of varieties of forms, too, that people can enjoy just on the level of the music. Do you see poetry breaking out in that way? Where do you see poetry going, as far as readership and book sales, and all that?
Bridgford: What I’d say is that a conference experience is something that I think most people would really enjoy. I know my parents, even though they’re both in their 80s: it’s still something that they’d really enjoy. They read my books, they read some other books that I suggest, but they have different interests. It’s somewhat like saying, if you really like speed chess, “Is this going to catch on?” And it might. [both laugh] It’s a specialized talent. I don’t think it will ever be something like basketball. But I think it can move in that direction with other kinds of venues, to help people start seeing that this is really fun. I think there are so many different ways of reaching out. We’ve been doing readings of our faculty at Poetry by the Sea on Instagram and Facebook, and people love those. People like just a little bit at a time.
Green: What do you think about the poetry being published on Instagram? Our next issue is going to explore that. Are you familiar with the well-known poets coming out of that platform?
Bridgford: Some, but not much.
Green: Rupi Kaur is selling a half-million copies of her book. Have you read it?
Bridgford: I have not. I’ve read some samples—how should I say this … many traditional poets think, “Oh, I’d never dream of doing that.” But that said, if it ends up being a really good platform, maybe some other poetry would move in that direction.
Green: I’m definitely curious to see how it goes. We did a slam issue about ten years ago, and it was back when slam wasn’t really welcomed within the literary community.
Bridgford: And now a lot of slam poets have transitioned to other things.
Green: It is an interesting phenomenon, and I think maybe Instagram poets might end up doing that, too. It’s very similar to slam, where there’s a way that it can be wonderful, but it also gets monotonous. There’s a pattern to what works, a certain style that works well for the medium. I always think of slam as a kind of religious revival; it’s a kind of preaching to the choir that gets a big communal ball of energy rolling that builds and builds. But there’s only so much you can do. There’s humor, or there’s emotional power, and that’s kind of what works. And with Instagram there’s a certain affirmational positivity that works well in that format, but I think the authors will probably end up getting bored and branch out.
Bridgford: But it could be that there’s something in between.
Green: Exactly, yeah. You write fiction, too, as you mentioned. What do you think the difference is between poetry and fiction, as far as the creative spark. What drives you to one and not the other at any given time?
Bridgford: It’s been a few years since I’ve written fiction as regularly. My first response was that you make more money writing fiction. [Green laughs] And it’s a big difference. However, in terms of journals and so on, fewer people get to play. Even if you have really good pieces of fiction, there’s only so much space in a journal. You can publish four or five fiction pieces, but you can publish twenty poems. So if you’re a prolific author, you can get frustrated very early in fiction. The numbers are against you. I enjoyed having some nice publications in fiction. My husband’s also a fiction writer, so we had a little good-natured tension. [laughs]
Green: What’s interesting to me is that you write concept books of poetry, but fiction books are always concepts—you start with an idea and then you have to develop it. So why write in one versus the other?
Bridgford: My fiction is more popular—it’s not too artsy; it reads kind of quickly. We laugh in the house because my husband does the exact opposite; it’s really artsy, and people are shocked—they think it would be the other way around. But I like doing pieces with a suspenseful setup.
Green: Well, with the Blue Whale book that’s coming, it’s so easy to imagine that as a novel. So how do you approach it as a book of poems? Do you think about it as a plot?
Bridgford: I did alternating sonnets from victims and the perpetrator. You can imagine a book of stories or a novel set up in exactly that way. So a lot of the elements of fiction apply to both, and they all collide. In the same way, in an early incarnation of my life, I was a comedian, which was a wild time, but some of the elements of performance come in to poetry. Occasionally I like to do some funny poems, and it’s very much like a performance on the stage. My students laugh when I share that because I come across as a gentle English professor—and that’s who I am. But you’re always your next self, so all of these different personalities can cross back and forth.
Green: I didn’t know you’d been a comedian. What was that like?
Bridgford: This was in my late teens. There were competitions in various genres, and I did comedy for a few years.
Green: Like the comedy club circuit?
Bridgford: Not that advanced, but I would be in statewide comedy competitions, and the people were great. I enjoyed it, but I also realized I didn’t want to do only that.
Green: It always interests me—I don’t know that much about the comedy genre, but it seems so much like poetry. Even the structure of the system—climbing up on stage and performing, hoping for a big break. I remember when we went to the National Poetry Slam when we were doing that issue, I was talking to the poets there, and I can’t remember who it was or the exact phrase they used, but they were talking about how the goal was to pack as many zingers as you can within a minute. And it struck me that that’s how comedy works, too.
Bridgford: It is. You want to invite people in, and enjoy what you presented, and have it be an experience in the same way. What both are doing is framing an experience that they can enter and be a part of. And it’s interesting—sometimes you realize your routine was perfect, and you’d compete with the same routine, and then you’d change it up and people would be shocked. But I enjoyed that self, and some elements of it are still useful now.
Green: You’ve invested your entire life into poetry, really, and from a young age, because you loved it. But what do you feel it offers to the world?
Bridgford: From a young age I wanted to be part of the conversation. And I felt that it was the conversation “on high.” And to a degree it is. So as I got older and have participated in different niches—not that you ever meet everybody, and it’s always a humbling craft—but you find out you know a lot of people. I still do feel that it is the conversation. My teacher was Donald Justice, and he would always talk about the platonic script of writing a poem, and that we’re always trying to get closer to it. For me it was always the platonic script of the community. It’s been a lovely way to spend a life.
Green: Do you think the more rewarding part of poetry is the personal experience of writing, or is it the act of sharing it with the world and being a medium that people participate in? Is there an outward focus, or is it internal?
Bridgford: I always thought that I liked writing the poems best, but I’m not sure I do anymore. I’m sure it’s divided in the middle, because I still get a visceral excitement having done conferences now for ten years; I’m still always excited about the next conference. I do feel that way sometimes about a poem I’m writing or a book I’m doing, but I think the way my life has evolved it has all these pieces to it, and for me that has been essential. However we’re remembered, we want to be remembered for something positive, but I hope that one of my contributions is that I’ve been able to bring a lot of people together in a lot of different ways, and that, once people met each other that I thought should, their lives were better after that. And then they meet other people, and it moves forward. So I think that’s it, to bring talented people together.
Green: That’s a great place to end. Thanks for meeting with us.
Bridgford: Thank you for the opportunity.