Ross White is a poet and teacher living in Durham, NC. With Matthew Olzmann, he edited Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He was the 2012 winner of the James Larkin Pearson Prize and the Gladys Owings Hughes Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Poetry Daily, New England Review, The Southern Review, and others. He is a four-time recipient of work-study and administrative scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches poetry writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
You’re a teacher as well as a poet and editor – how do those three jobs affect one another?
I think all three are born of a curiosity about the human condition and an unflappable belief that it is mutable. Mutable in the sense being apt, and perhaps likely, to change, but also in the sense of being inconstant in one’s affections. Editing is the act of allegiance to a manuscript while pushing for it to become something else, whether that something is a set of copy edits or a change in the project that steers it more clearly toward its true intention. Teaching is the act of allegiance to the student as a person, even as the education you provide changes who that person is. Writing is the act of allegiance to the human experience and a desire to transform it into something new.
I try to approach all three with tenderness. I try to approach all three with ruthlessness. The balance between those two is always in flux. What I learn on one side of the equation is often reflected on the other– as soon as I am smart enough to adjust. Though I am often not quick to adjust; so much of each of those roles comes first from the gut, and I often need a lot of time to reflect on what I have learned by doing. Only then can I transfer the knowledge from one discipline to another. Early in my career, I overthought so much of my writing and teaching, but I had so little experience and knowledge that the base of what I was thinking about was narrow. Whatever towers I was building were so easy to topple. The more I read, the more I experiment, the more confident I become in trying things that I haven’t seen before, in trying things where the outcome remains uncertain and mysterious once I’ve begun.
What is one piece that you have accepted for the press that has changed your perspective on reading and writing, and how has it done so?
I can’t say that there’s a book, poem or story we’ve accepted that changed my perspective on reading and writing. I can say that some of the pieces we’ve accepted changed my perspective on what it is to be human. They made the world at once more vast and more intimate, and I’m truly grateful for that. As poetry requires that the reader use imagination and empathy, so too does it provide an imaginative kindling, and the books that have changed me have left me with new space to explore what lived experience might mean. Tommye Blount’s What Are We Not For is a profoundly animate book, one I have savored every time I’ve read it.
What is your personal writing style and preferences, and how does this affect the works you choose for publication?
I always have the hardest time answering questions about my own style. I think that’s because I’d prefer not to have one– if there’s something I can’t do yet, I’m probably trying to learn. I don’t think anyone who reads my poems would call me a formalist, but I aspire to that; I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being an experimentalist, but I aspire to that too. I love reading a little bit of everything and when I sit down to draft poems, I find myself borrowing strategies from whatever has me enthralled at the time.
As a reader, I know I have a bias for the unfamiliar. I love strangeness in its many forms– the grotesque, the absurd, the dissociative, the transgressive– because strange poems are so often, for me, the jumper cables that recharge my own sense of wonder at the world. But when I encounter a poem or a chapbook that gives me that jolt, the editor in my brain almost immediately converts to the role of skeptic. I begin interrogating the poem like it’s a Russian spy. I begin wondering if I’m falling for a misdirection or deception because it supports my pre-existing view of the world.
I also want poems to feel lived in, which is something I try to do in my own work. I mistrust poems that rely on centuries’ worth of someone else’s feeling, and add little to that field of feeling. I generally call these poems “pretty birds and trees” poems out of snarkiness, but really, they’re poems that pretend to join the long poetic conversation, where poets ranging from Lucille Clifton to George Herbert to W. B. Yeats to Emily Dickinson are speaking to each other, without ever adding something new, something vital, about the world as it is today.