Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
The Rumpus: The business side of poetry has quite a few demands that poems themselves don’t have or have never thought about. For instance, the importance of a website. What’s it like to have an electronic “face”?
Kara Candito: I agree. After devoting so much time to reading, writing, and talking about poetry, it was something of a surprise to encounter this world of promotion and marketing. When a publicist at University of Nebraska Press first suggested that I create a personal website, I was really taken aback. Poet? Website? Of course, lots of poets have websites these days, so the suggestion wasn’t a complete surprise. I quickly discovered that web design was therapeutic. There’s a definitive goal, a beginning and an end. So unlike poetry!
When I put the site together my concerns were the color palette, what to include in the navigation bar, how to create hyperlinks. Very gratifying. Maybe this is just my way of coming to terms with the business/promotion side of poetry, but I think of having a website as a matter of utility, a way to organize and present my work and discussions of my work on the web. I feel as if I’m giving my poems, and not myself, an electronic face. Sometimes, the poems are embarrassed or reluctant, but they shut up and come around eventually.
Rumpus: So many writers play the I’m-so-insecure-and-self-conscious part when it comes to public presentation. How do you feel about the ego’s place in the world of a poet?
Candito: Ha. But I am so-insecure-and-self-conscious! I think most contemporary poets occupy a fairly humble place in the universe, that we have few Byronic illusions about our fame. I’m a fairly private person, and for me, poetry is a personal, though not necessarily autobiographical phenomenon. The act of reading my poems to an audience has and will always be a bit scary, as if someone were broadcasting a telephone conversation I’d had with a good friend.
Recently, as I’ve done more readings, I’ve actually begun to enjoy them. It’s wonderful to have the chance to present your poems the way you hear them in your head. I think it’s the physical presence element of readings that I find most daunting. This probably stems from a traumatic elementary school recital memory, which I won’t bore you with. Last winter, I recorded a few poems for Blackbird, and I think audio is my true medium. So, I haven’t answered the question. I think that the ego’s role in the world of a poet depends on the poet. For me, the id has been more of a poetry tyrant.
Rumpus: Is it kind of an ego-trip to have your own website?
Candito: Maybe. Maybe not. I think it depends on one’s motivations for having or not having a site. If you simply think that poetry and the internet are on two different planets, then don’t have one. If you have a website and you see it as the altar of your poetic genius, then that’s an ego trip. If you don’t have a website because you think your poetry, as Art, is head and shoulders above the banal spectacle of late capitalism, then that’s an ego trip, too. Having hosted a few readings series, I think that having a website with a bio and a downloadable photo can be an act of compassion. This way, the host doesn’t have to put together a bio and search for a photo, praying that it’s not one the writer’s ashamed of. For me, it goes back to the question of utility. If I read a poem in a journal and enjoy it, I often search for more of the poet’s work online. It’s great when most of that work is pre-catalogued on a website.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of discussion in the contemporary poetry scene concerning “book contests.” Some say they’re creating a hazard for the poetry world, while others argue vehemently for their existence. As the winner of a very prestigious prize can you comment on your choice to enter such contests and your view of their place in contemporary poetry?
Candito: That’s a great question. Book contests have been around for a while, and the vast array of contests out there today might be a response to the growing number of writers submitting to them, and also to the economic pressures on smaller literary and university presses. When I began sending out my manuscript, I submitted to contests and presses that published books I’ve enjoyed. Honestly, this is an issue that I haven’t thought about deeply enough. I’ve been more concerned with contemporary poetry’s audience (or lack thereof).
Sometimes, the knowledge that our audience is comprised, for the most part, of other poets with vaguely similar training makes writing poetry feel a bit like masturbation: it’s satisfying, but limited. Rather than dwelling too much on this, I’ve tried to reach different readers by participating in non-academic readings series and gifting books of poetry to friends and acquaintances who aren’t writers. As a teacher, I also try to turn students on to poetry by introducing them to poems that feel fresh and relevant to them. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying, Try it.
Rumpus: Taste of Cherry had just been accepted when we first met at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and I remember you asking several of us if we thought the title was too “racy.” How do you feel about it now that the book’s been out for a while?
Candito: I think there’s a definite moment of panic when you realize something that’s been so private for so long is going to be printed and published. I got some great advice that day: if people don’t like it, that’s their problem. More specifically, no one’s work is going to reach every reader. I think we’ve all had the experience of picking up a book of poetry that a trusted friend recommended and thinking, What am I missing? I’ve since learned to live with (for the most part) the static of critique. Though it’s nowhere near flawless, I’m happy with my first book because it was an honest exploration of my interests and obsessions at the time. Of course, I’ve since begun to develop new interests and obsessions. Several years from now, I hope I’ll be able to say the same about the poems I’m working on now.