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David R. Altman

q&A with David R. Altman

Q: What’s the first poem you ever wrote?

Altman: It was in 1971 and it was called “The Garden”. I wrote it to my girlfriend in 11th grade. She’s now my wife of 49 years—and she still has the poem. Hopefully, it will never see the light of day (laughing).

Q: I guess she could hold that over head if she wanted to?

Altman: I suppose that’s right—I wouldn’t want to give her any incentive to release it!

Q: When do you write?

Altman: Sometimes late, but often early. While I may be a bit more creative after a glass of red wine with some light classical or jazz on in the background, I find myself more focused in the morning. Focus is as important as creativity. Both require discipline, something every writer must learn to develop. I’m still learning.

Q: What got you interested in poetry?

Altman: There were several influences, some early and some later. Like thousands of people, I loved the first Robert Frost poem I ever read. It took me to new places and made me experience them—to look at them--in different ways. I memorized those poems in high school and, looking back on it, many of Frost’s poems became almost Biblical (or mystical) for me. They provided a new dimension to both my life and my writing. I think the writings of Frost, Eliot and Bob Dylan were profoundly instrumental in my choosing the life I have. Frost’s “Reluctance” and Dylan’s “Forever Young” changed the way I looked at relationships, aging and even death. So did 'Prufrock'--and I have a recording with Eliot reading this poet and I still listen to it often. A second turning point was my freshman year of college, where I went to Agnes Scott College to hear W. H. Auden read. It was just a year or two before he died and I will never forget that night. At that point, I knew I wanted to write poetry--but also realized, as the late author Terry Kay once said, that I "had to keep my day job" to support my family.

Q: Is Auden your favorite poet?

Altman: He would be up there. I hate to pick favorites. It’s like judging creativity—it’s simply unfair. I love Auden, particularly his early work. His poem “If I Could Tell You” was a guiding influence on many of the obstacles I faced in my earlier career. Like most poetry lovers, I was very close to the poems I liked and those closest to me (my family and closest friends) knew how much they guided my thinking. I was also influenced by Yeats, Dickinson, Tennyson and, later, Dickey and Roethke. Roethke’s powerful poem called “The Meadow Mouse” was extraordinary. It was a poem about the difficulties—not the importance—of letting go.

Q: How about contemporary poets—whose work do you read?

Altman: There are so many great ones—ones that I hope my grandkids will be studying when they get to high school and college. Here in Georgia, we had the remarkable David Bottoms, a Whitman Award winner and former Poet Laureate of Georgia. His poems bring us closer to the natural world than any poet since Dickey (in fact, his poem “Under the Boathouse”, about a man who dives in a lake and becomes entangled near the bottom is an extraordinary metaphor about life and death and rebirth). Judson Mitcham, another former Georgia Poet Laureate and author of A Little Salvation, has also been influential. And, there’s Alice Friman from Milledgeville, whose Book of the Rotten Daughter is as touching as it powerful. I also love William Wright's poetry (he's a prolific writer and teacher) and the verse of Bill Walsh, both of whom teach at Reinhardt University in north Georgia (Walsh runs the well-respected MFA program there). There’s another young Georgia artist named Cliff Brooks, whose first collection of poetry was nominated for a Pulitzer. His poem “Nostalgia” contains a line I just love “Nostalgia is ruinous, the slow death of better days.” Clearly written by a young man in a hurry, but powerful. And Campbell McGrath, a Pushcart winner who has written nine books, who is like a modern-day Whitman, as his poetry deals with the America he sees—and the American he does not. 

Q: Why do you think poetry is not read much anymore?

Altman: Oh, it’s read, but it’s never going to be as popular as prose. The late David Bottoms said that, for him, writing prose was just too much work, In this 24-hour news cycle that has intruded into our lives and inhibited our ability to make our own impressions of the world, few people will take the time to see what poetry provides because, frankly, you have to work for it sometimes. A survey by The Poetry Foundation found that 80% of Americans find that poetry is “difficult to understand”. Still, there is hope, since 65% believe people should read more poetry. We also know that most people read poetry for entertainment value rather than for its emotional or intellectual value. I believe that’s why the classics have endured. Everyone “gets” “The Road Not Taken” or “The Raven”—but they have to reach some to get “The Waste Land”.

Q: You’re nearly 70, not exactly starting early. Any regrets?

Altman: Absolutely none. I’ve lived a wonderful life and am richly blessed. The fact that I can still write--and, perhaps more importantly--be moved by writing is just one more blessing. Would I have loved to publish some poems 25 years ago? Of course! Would I have loved to win a Pushcart or taught in college? Absolutely! But I write because I love to write, not for recognition. The fact that some may like my poems is like icing on the cake. The late poet James Tate said "Poets may end up with an audience or a following of some sort, but in truth they write their poems...mostly for themselves...and for the hunger and need nothing else can abate." But 25 years ago I was helping my wife raise three kids and very busy holding down a full-time job that was often 24/7. The physical and mental demands of small children don’t always create the most conducive environment in which to write (laughs).

Q: Any advice for younger poets or maybe older ones like you who are just starting out?

Altman: Three things. One, don’t be deterred. I remember former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue once said during a prolonged drought that having a dirty car during water restrictions was like having a badge of honor. I’ve always remembered that. I think getting a rejection notice is like a badge of honor. You accumulate a lot of them, and that means you are writing. Which is the second most important thing: write as much as you can, even if you think it’s terrible. You will be writing and you will move along and find a phrase that leads to a sentence that leads to a paragraph or a poem. Ideas hatch when you write. The final thing is the most important: read. Don’t ever stop reading. It’s the lifeblood of creativity—and it gives you a foundation upon which to build your poetry. I read once where someone said they wrote about 25% of the time and the other 75% was spent reading. I think that’s about right.