David Baker
Never-Ending Birds
David Baker

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with poet
and poetry editor of The Kenyon Review

By Ellen Birkett Morris

October 2009


In the title poem of his volume Never-Ending Birds David Baker presents us with the familiar, universal and eternal.

A father and daughter traveling in a car notice a cloud of never-ending birds, a term the daughter coined long ago that has been adopted by the family. The poet describes such endearments as:

Apt clarities. Kiss on the lips of hope.

There is mention of a divorce, two houses, and the final observation:

Dear girl. They will not—-it’s we who do-—end.

“My poems are about chronologies that are bigger than my life. . .”

“My poems are about chronologies that are bigger than my life,” said Baker, who teaches at Denison University and is the poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. “I like poems that aren’t just about me but that explore a life, other lives, the life of a landscape.”

“We operate under the presumption that a lyric poem represents an instant in time. I argue that there is no such thing as time stopping. Time passes, things like a landscape, opinion or an event change. Those are the things that give a poem a turn, not static moments of epiphany,” observed Baker.

His latest collection is full of such turns and has been described as “part map, part travelogue, part chronicle, part autobiography.” The book explores the landscape of small Midwestern towns, large cities, divorce, loss, raising a child, uncovering old worlds and discovering new loves.

The first child in his family to attend college, Baker thought he would pursue a music major but ended up earning a Bachelor of Science in Education degree from Central Missouri State University. He went on to earn a Master of Arts in English from the same school.

As an English major, he took his first writing workshop and decided he wanted to become a writer. After a stint teaching high school English in Missouri, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in American Literature and Creative Writing from University of Utah.

“I chose to be a poet because of the line, the stanza, the architecture of the poem. I am interested in the demands of the form. Poems apply more pressure per square inch as opposed to prose,” said Baker.

He tells his students to view the formal restraints of poetry as “an array of options” and “a menu from which to choose.”

“The discipline, rigor and measurement of poetry are freeing.”

“The discipline, rigor and measurement of poetry are freeing. They direct you. They let you know what needs to happen next in the poem,” Baker explained.

On the question of whether or not poetry can be taught Baker, who teaches at Dennison and the yearly Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, is circumspect.

Blogging on http://poemsoutloud.net/, Baker wrote:

Marvin Bell has the best answer I have ever heard: “Maybe nothing can be taught, but anything can be learned.” And that’s the point: to be present in our students’ lives, to guide them as they learn, to help them learn how to learn to write.

He urges poets to find their own place in the context of the wider art by reading and studying the history and craft of poetry. “This gives you choices,” he noted.

Baker advises new poets to read widely and without judgment, read “the old stuff” including the poet John Clare, and invest in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

“Read science, physics, history, and math. Find the language of other disciplines and include them in your work,” suggests Baker.

He describes his work pattern as “fits and starts.” “I may work all day and all night or weeks may go by when I am not working on poems. When I am working on them I work very hard. I have to be in a quiet place. I can’t work on new poems in a coffee shop or with music on.”

He works in midst of his regular life with the demands of teaching, family and friends and doesn’t worry about writer’s block.

“I am always doing something with poetry (writing, reading, editing). I don’t worry that I won’t come back to my own work, I will,” said Baker.

He does worry about the “over-professionalization” of poets with the profusion of MFA programs and argues that poems are not products to be sold, but works of art

“Nurture your own devotion to the art. Trust yourself more than anyone else. . .”



“Nurture your own devotion to the art. Trust yourself more than anyone else,” said Baker.

He is excited by the “huge variety in styles, voices and uses of poetry” today found on blogs, in bars, on the subway and in respectable literary magazines. He has a long list of modern poets whose work he admires including G.C. Waldrep, Meghan O’Rourke, and Atsuro Riley.

Baker advocates patience, both in the creation of work and in efforts to get published.

He said that while he may write a poem in a few days or a week it takes several months to a year or more for him to revise, shape and trust the work.

“The world doesn’t need anymore okay poems. Don’t just send something out to build a resume. Send it only when you’ve really nailed it. Be patient. It is hard to get published because of the sheer number of people sending out work.”

As poetry editor of the Kenyon Review, Baker reads “100 poems or more a day” during the magazine’s reading period. He looks for poems that surprise and engage him.

“I like poems that speak with authority of voice, stance, point of view or form. I don’t like to be confused or left in the dark,” said Baker.

He seeks “remarkable moments of observation” and “musical articulation.”

If traditional publication eludes you, he suggests you try another route.

“There are lots of ways to make your work public. Do a reading, write a blog, publish online or in a small magazine. The same 375 people will find your work wherever it is,” said Baker.

About the Author

David Baker, author of several volumes of poetry and criticism, is the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing at Denison University and Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review. He lives in Granville, Ohio.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.