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Competing With Keats

August 09, 1987|SUSAN SQUIRE

WITHIN IRVINE'S poetry workshop, life is fairly serene. There is no anxiety about making connections to agents and editors and publishers, no debate over literary versus commercial work. The only thing anyone ever frets over here is how to keep writing and still have the occasional hot meal.

"No one goes into this thinking they can make a living at it, because you can't sell poetry," says Cynthia Huntington, who directed UCI's graduate program in poetry during the 1986-87 academic year; James McMichael returns from sabbatical this fall to resume his directorship of the program. "There's no emphasis on publication or even on getting a set amount of work done." Huntington's definition of success for a poet is simply to keep at it. "If you're still working and evolving after 10 years in spite of all the things you have to do to stay alive, then you are a poet. There is no other way to measure it."

Last year, Huntington replaced the much-anthologized Charles Wright, who moved on to the University of Virginia. McMichael and Wright ran the workshop for nearly two decades as an individualistic haven that stressed writing for its own sake. "If you want to compete," McMichael is fond of saying, "then compete with Keats. Don't bother looking over your shoulder."

And if you want to associate with name poets, there are regular poetry readings by guest writers. Off-campus and off-season, there's the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. The poetry division is directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award recipient Galway Kinnell and staffed by Sharon Olds, winner of the 1985 National Book Critics' Circle Award in poetry, and Robert Hass, another MacArthur winner. Beyond that, you're better off at, well, Iowa.

"That's where I tell people to go if they want to meet other writers and feel like they're in the middle of a literary hotbed," Huntington says. "But if you want a lot of attention, few distractions and time to write, Irvine's the best place."

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