David Tucker has been in the newspaper business 28 years and is a deputy managing editor at The Newark Star-Ledger. He writes odes to that sweet spot between deadlines, when time slows down and he can notice the world again.
By listening to—and making the most of—these silences, Tucker amassed the poems of his wry, soulful debut collection, Late for Work, which he published last year at age 58.
As he approaches 60, Tucker might just get his chance to slow down. Last month, it was announced that he had won the prestigious Witter Bynner fellowship for 2007.
The fellowship carries with it a $10,000 cash prize and is administered by the Witter Bynner Foundation in New Mexico, named after a popular translator of 20th-century verse, for the support of poetry.
The prize only asks two things of its recipient: that he or she set up a public reading in their local area and give a reading in Washington. A week before Tucker headed to the capital, Tucker talked with me about his poetry.
You're obviously a busy guy. Do you have to steal time to write? And if so, does that affect what you write?
It does feel like that sometimes, I guess. But my writing life is fairly structured—I usually write in the mornings, very early. I try to get up around 5, 5:30. I don't always make it. I don't get to the office until 10. So there is some time built in. But one of the real mysteries to me still is the time of writing: I can go for a long time in the morning and think I've written something I like, and then the next day I'll throw it away. And other times, you're in a rush, in 10 minutes something comes to you that seems just perfect.
Where do your poems come from?
That's a big question. The prosaic answer is they come from a daily notebook I keep, in which I try to get down a lot of imagery and phrases that may have come from the day before. Many have come out of the newsroom. I then look for a cadence, an image, a line of thought or something musical. And I do a lot of doubling back. So something I wrote down which didn't strike me as being close to anything poetic becomes so when I look back in a poetic way.
Which came first, the poetry or the journalism? Does one help you with the other?
It started with poetry. I became serious about writing poetry a few years before I became serious about journalism, which started as a day job. I think I began right away to use some of the things I learned about writing poetry day by day in journalism, particularly when it comes to spotting leads in news stories.
There is a kind of sound to a lead of a news story: There's a resonance you look for. We talk about buried leads when you're editing a piece. You might find something in the 14th paragraph that sounds more musical. Increasingly when I edit stories, I am editing for sound and cadence. Precision and truth have a distinct music of their own.
Who are the poets you go back to, to remind you what poetry should sound like?
It varies. I like the superstars everybody likes. That's Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Keats, those guys, but they are the air and the sunshine of poetry. They influence everyone. After them? Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa and C.P. Cavafy—I've been reading a lot of him lately. An old teacher of mine, Robert Hayden, was an absolute genius. I read Jane Kenyon. I like her very much.
There's a debate in the poetry world right now about how to best promote poetry. Do you follow such things?
No, but I am familiar with that constant churning out there about whither poetry and should it be promoted and not promoted. I don't want to say it doesn't interest me, but I think as a country we just haven't decided what place poetry should have. It never has struck me as a serious question. In fact, I see evidence that poetry is probably gaining a lot more readership than it's had certainly in the recent past. I mean, there are just so many more readings now, and it seems to me that a lot more books are published.
What are you working on now?
I am working on what some days feels like a second book—other days it doesn't feel at all close. I am working on a lot of new poems. I tend to work on several poems at once. I think I probably have 15 to 20 new poems that I like.
How do you know when a poem is done?
I don't know if I have a single poem I'm entirely finished with—I tend to wait a while, more than anything else. I distrust the initial flush after composition because on reflection I see things I need to revise. I may write a new poem, and I'll take part of an old poem and cannibalize from it.
I guess the better question for me is: When do I know it's close? For me, I think it's when the music feels right. When I've worked it over enough that I feel I've allowed the music of the subject matter to get on the page—that's as close as I can get.