Q & A with Mark Halliday

Diana Ling: Where are you from/what kind of environment did you grow up in and how has this influenced your writing?

Mark Halliday: I grew up mostly in a suburb of Raleigh, N. C., playing games with the neighborhood kids in the green backyards. My father was a professor at N.C. State and he was from New York, and my mother was from Toronto, so I always knew we weren’t “real” Southerners. But it was a happy life. I feel I’m a person who has not suffered much. Some of my poems reflect a puzzled sense of the mystery of good luck and wondering what to do with it. When I was in eighth grade we moved to Connecticut, as my father became an editor of a history magazine in New York. My father was a great believer in clear, logical writing and this was a big influence on me even if I have rebelled against it in some ways in poetry.

D.L.: You wrote in an essay for The Georgia Review that poetry is inherently arrogant. In what ways do you find this to be true of poetry in general and also of your own work?

M.H.: My idea about poetry being arrogant has to do with the inherent demand any poem makes on the reader. Any poem – whether it is easy or hard, strange or familiar, short or long – says to the reader “I am something special, I am something important, not just ordinary like all the stuff you can say in prose. You have to give me special intense attention.” In this sense a poem is like a very proud, very confident (or overconfident) person who demands a lot of attention.

Since this is true of all poems, it’s true of mine too, but I try to

show some awareness of the reader’s needs, the reader’s probable responses, the possibility that the reader might be tired or the reader might be a person very different from me. I like to try to show a consciousness of possible reader reactions in the poem itself.

D.L.: Why do you feel poetry readings are important, both for the poet and for the audience?

M.H.: Poetry readings are often unsatisfying because the poet might be a poor reader of his or her own poems, or because the poems might be very quiet, inward, “mental” sorts of experiences that don’t go well with a microphone, or because it is so difficult to concentrate on a poem when you’re sitting there hearing it for the first time. But, despite all that, I still love the idea of a poetry reading. It gives the audience a chance to connect the poem with a voice and an attitude, it helps us imagine how and why the poem got to be written the way it did. And it dramatizes the idea that the poem is something spoken – or rather, it wants to be spoken, it wants to be heard as coming from a voice, it’s not just a “text.”

D.L.: In Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry,” a teacher wants his students to “take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide.” How do you want your students or readers to experience poetry?

M. H.: I encourage my students to meet a poem as an attempt to communicate some kind of truth about human experience. We try to imagine why a person might want to put these words in this shape. We try to imagine what mixture of feelings would call for this expression. We look for a kinship between ourselves and the poet. A good poem always has some element of mystery or strangeness in it, something that can’t be explained plainly. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should turn off our brains and just float with the poem. We should respond with our whole selves which includes our brains. Thus a thoughtful analytic response to a poem can be part of a good happy experience of it.

D.L.: How do you think college students could benefit from becoming poetry readers and in general, what purpose does poetry serve culturally?

M.H.: Poems decrease the loneliness in the world. Certain poems have said to me “You are not alone, others have felt what you feel.” Also, reading and writing and discussing poems helps people recognize the rich strange complexity of ourselves and of others, so that we are less likely to settle for stupidly simplified judgments about culture and politics, less likely to accept dehumanizing stereotypes.

D.L.: What poet/poems are you currently reading?

M.H.: This fall I’m teaching poems by Wilfred Owen who might be the greatest poet of war who has ever written in English. I hope my students can feel his sense of disgust and horror at the waste of war. Recently I’ve been excited by books of poems such as “Clumsy” by Claire Bateman and “The Radiant” by Cynthia Huntington.