An Interview With David Starkey, Creative Writer in Four Genres

An Interview With David Starkey, Creative Writer in Four Genres:

David Starkey has experience writing in four genres: poetry, dramatic writing, creative nonfiction, fiction, as well as pedagogical textbook writing. The following interview explores a moment of David Starkey’s insight.

Rebecca Kuder, published author and instructor in Antioch University Midwest’s Individual Master Of Arts Program, introduced me online to David Starkey, published and prolific poet, as well as head of the Creative Writing Program at Santa Barbara City College. I share in his enthusiasm for poetry and dramatic writing. Starkey teaches these genres, as well as others, and has a long publication career. He was gracious with his input, answering questions and helping me learn specific approaches to the writing process.

AA: Your poem, “Apology” touches me, speaking broadly about the experience of ‘leaving behind,’ yet so distinctly through those named in it.  I shared “Apology” with many people, and it resonated in such a way that we found ourselves recalling ‘our olden days.’  In poems like “Apology,” “Hope,” and “The Murder Suspect, Moments Before He is Confronted by Police,” and in manuals such as Poetry Writing, Theme and Variations, there is a universal good will and invitation to poetry.  I admire how your work reads easily and cloaks its complexity.

DS: That’s quite a compliment, Andrea—thank you. I’m not sure about the “universal good will,” but I do think poetry needs to invite the reader, especially when there are so many other distractions out there.

I’m typing this in the Newark Airport, after a week spent in New York, and it strikes me (again) how little high-brow poets seem to care about the sort of intelligent reader who might be willing to give poetry a chance, but instead feels immediately shut out by the deliberate obfuscation of avant-garde poetry. I sometimes wonder, to reverse your formulation above, if this poetry consists of simple ideas cloaked in unnecessary complexity.

That’s not say that I have anything at all against this sort of poetry being written and read. In fact, in my textbook, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief, I think I give far more space and play to avant-garde writing than any other contemporary textbook author. I want students to be able to decide for themselves which aesthetics are closest to their own. Still, while I try not to be a nostalgist myself, I suppose I am drawn to those poignant moments in our lives, rendered clearly and artfully.

AA: What was the process like when you became Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate?

DS: The selection process involves being nominated by several fellow citizens, then that nomination goes to an Arts Council special committee, where it’s approved by the full committee, and then it goes to the City Council and the Mayor for a final vote. Pretty complicated.

Fortunately, I was preceded by two good friends, Barry Spacks and Perie Longo, who had lived in the community much longer than I had. They gave me a lot of support and guidance—before, during and after I was Poet Laureate.

The highlight of my tenure was probably Poems for Santa Barbara, a half-hour video produced by the local TV station. I solicited ideas for poems from Santa Barbara residents, then I chose those I thought I could turn into the most compelling poems. I wrote the poems, and a camera crew and I went all over Santa Barbara videotaping. (You can find the video with a Google search.)

AA: When reviewing both your own writing and others’, what constitutes good work?

DS: That’s a tough one. My biggest poetic influences are probably 20th-century British and Irish poets: early Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Vona Groarke. So I suppose I’m always listening for the music I associate with that poetry, the telling images, the brevity. I want to hear it in my own work as well as in the poetry I read. However, I think I’m generally more forgiving of other poets than myself.

AA: What advice do you offer regarding submitting work versus keeping it in a prolonged seasoning, marinating state?

DS: I went to graduate school back in the 1980s, when there was still a chance that if you came out with a decent set of publications, you might land a tenure-track job teaching creative writing. So, early on, I always erred on the side of sending things out too early. I needed the publications.

Over the years, though, especially as I’ve moved to a community college, where no one cares if you publish anything or not, I’ve become more selective about the marinating process.

Nevertheless, I feel like there’s a tipping point. A piece of writing gets to a moment where it’s not going to get much better than it already is. If you still like the piece, send it out and see what others think. If not, it’s time to put it away and forget about it for a while.

AA: Recently, I read Paul Scot August’s interview in Connotation Press about your use of light and dark in your work, that you have a “cheerful public persona” but when you are alone you are “often quite gloomy.”  I feel a kinship to that.  Your piece, “In Praise of Happy Endings,” feels like it articulates this optimism/gloom, with the placement you describe, promising a wisecrack and moving to a darker strand.  Please expand on the statement about the duality of optimism with closeted gloom.  How does it find its life in your work?

DS: That just seems to be who I am. Laughing and joking with colleagues and fellow writers, then waking up in the middle of the night, obsessing about death. My wife has a trick for that when I start squirming at 3 a.m. She tells me, “Don’t worry: they’ll have a cure for that by then.” “That” meaning “death.”

I think my cheerfulness keeps my writing from sinking into the depths of melancholy, while the darker side keeps in check any literary silliness I might be inclined toward.

AA: What do you mean by “literary silliness”?

DS: Being overly clever, or being clever for its own sake. Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson are models for me of finding the sweet spot between darkness and light. Certainly, they were often disconsolate, but what great (dark) senses of humor each of them had.

And maybe that light/darkness is also a response to who I am as a writer. Fairly talented, moderately successful, but certainly not a name to conjure with in New York. When I was in my late twenties, I wrote a series of poems called Adventures of the Minor Poet. I guess I’m still living that life.

AA: Conjuring Plath and Dickinson makes me think of isolation both in their despair and their solitary, astute yet humorous observations.  How do you think they kept from sounding maudlin?

DS: Clearly, they actually feel the pain they’re writing about. That’s crucial, although I also think there’s some truth in Oscar Wilde’s famous bon mot that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” Plath and Dickinson don’t sound maudlin because they always put their art above their emotions. That’s the advice I always give to students: if you really want people to pay attention to how you feel, you need to express your feelings in language that’s worth reading.

AA: It sounds like you learned to balance the cheerfulness and the darkness early in your career.  How do you guide students who have a tendency to sink and stay in the depths in their writing?

DS: That’s hard. I think it’s probably true that creative people are touched by melancholy more than the average person, and to the extent that delving into that shadow world produces good work, I’m all for it. But I think you have to be able to step back from the work, and say, “Look how miserable I felt. Look how beautifully I wrote about it. Now I’m going to get an iced coffee and chat with a friend.” Writing should be a way out of despair. In that regard, Emily Dickinson remains a model. Sylvia Plath, alas, not so much.

AA: I notice that you do not have a blog.  Is that correct, and could you please expand your comments to include how you advise new writers on the matter?  What opinions can you add to the good and evils of Internet sharing?

DS: I admire writers who have the tenacity to write a blog, and I’m told by everyone that it’s an important element in remaining visible in the online world. That said, I’m personally turned off by writers’ blogs that do nothing but sing their own accomplishments. I’m thinking of a particular writer I know who seems to spend far more time crafting his/her blog than actually doing the real work of writing literature.

Still, if someone came along and told me of a fool-proof way of selling lots books through the Internet, I would most certainly be listening!

AA: Lastly, for artists who self-edit, in an attempt to keep from slipping into the deeply melancholic prose, what advice do you give to those who tamp the melancholic voice with such control that it strains expression?

DS: My advice would be to embrace the melancholic voice completely in the drafting stages, to explore it for all it’s worth. Then, in revision, privilege craft over pure feeling. Write the work that someone besides you will want to read.

David Starkey: Formerly the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, he is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Santa Barbara City College and an English professor. Amidst a wide body of published work, he has textbooks for creative writing instruction:  Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief (2008), Teaching Writing Creatively (1998), and Genre by Example: Writing What We Teach (2001). He has poetry collections including Adventures of the Minor Poet (2007); Ways of Being Dead: New and Selected Poems (2006); and Fear of Everything (2000).  Garrison Keillor of The Writer’s Almanac has featured David Starkey’s poetry.  Starkey’s fiction has been featured in American Literary Review, as well as Rio Grande Review, Sou’wester, and in the anthology Blue Cathedral: Contemporary Fiction for the New Millennium.  Many of his creative nonfiction pieces have been published, and his plays have been produced in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and other locales.

Originally Published Ob Nov. 19, 2014