Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Arthur Russell

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

You must be reading someone else’s poetry.

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

I think that the only distinction that makes enduring sense in poetry today is the distinction between spoken word and poetry on the page. Spoken word can accomplish a great deal in terms of argument and elaboration riding on the human voice. Not all of those strategies promise success in poetry on the page. Poetry on the page can explore and employ certain imagistic, metaphoric and sound subtleties that depend on reflection. I write for the page, but I love to read out loud.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

Yes, I do feel that, and I understand that people will assume that, and there is even a moral component to that assumption, such that writing that is not fundamentally autobiographical is sometimes thought to be inauthentic or artificial (in a negative sense). I believe that artifice is as important to art as honesty; that “conceit” describes the elevation that impels art; and that metaphor, which is the single most irrefutable form of rhetoric, is a means of rejecting the limits of autobiography. Yet, if you understand “autobiography” to encompass not only the sorts of facts that appear in job applications and news magazine exposes, but also the connections that have literally “occurred” to the writer, then the presumption is not only acceptable, but thoroughly appropriate.

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I would advise young writers to keep their ambitions in check, particularly the ambition to be well known or widely admired. The desire for acceptance can get confused with the desire to achieve excellence, and stunt your growth. Moreover, the pain of rejection is much more intense when it is linked to self-worth. Keep eternality and the immediacy in separate pockets. The best advice I have ever received came when I showed my first book manuscript to an older poet and asked him to review it so I could start sending it out to contests, agents and publishers. He said: “What’s your hurry? You’re only 60.”

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently?

Shorter lines.


Arthur Russell

ARTHUR RUSSELL is a poet and attorney living in Nutley, New Jersey. He is admitted to the practice of law in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His admission to the practice of poetry is pending.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.