Published poet Charles Rafferty to read Sept. 28, Grizzly gets interview
Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m., Charles Rafferty will give a poetry reading in the Pfahler auditorium, which will be free and open to the Ursinus community. Rafferty is a widely published poet and professor at Albertus Magnus College, where he directs the MFA writing program. His poems range hugely from naturalistic to amusedly self-critical, featuring such titles as, “Poem after Bouncing the Rent Check and Waking with a Hangover, while Searching for My Car Keys Twenty Minutes before a Very Important Interview.”
We spoke to him about his poetry and career.
Can you tell us about how and when you first discovered your passion for writing and poetry?
Well, I’m sure a girl was at the bottom of it. In high school, I wrote crappy love poems that failed as the obvious propaganda they were. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began taking writing more seriously. I had the happy accident of having Stephen Dunn as my workshop teacher. He wrote a kind of poetry that I decided I was aspiring toward — subtle, not loud-mouthed, more interested in exploring human failings than in persuading women to take their clothes off. Dunn gave the impression that he took the class’s writing seriously, and that encouraged me to take my own writing more seriously.
In college, what role were you looking for poetry to play in your life in the future?
Pretty much the role it’s playing right now. It’s something that absorbs all my free time. I get pleasure in making a small clarification of the world sound as good as possible coming out of my mouth.
Where along your professional path did you start pursuing technical writing? Was it ever a day job for poetry?
I’ve been in the technical editing [and]writing field ever since I got out of graduate school. And yes, even though I worked full-time, I did my writing at night and on lunch breaks. My first book, “The Man on the Tower”, was pretty much written during my lunch breaks over the course of four years. I’d revise a draft of a poem at lunch, type up a new version that night, and revise again the next day. I’d keep doing that until I couldn’t think of anything else to change. Sometimes it took 10 drafts, sometimes a hundred. I find it necessary to advance a little bit each day. A slow drip eventually fills the bucket.
In an interview with Indie Bound, you said that since taking your MFA in 1990, you’ve been “more or less divorced from academia … except for part-time teaching jobs … out of necessity.” Since, you’ve been more widely published and now you’re the director of the MFA writing program at Albertus Magnus College. Do you find there’s been a relationship between your job title and the frequency of your publishing?
Ha! That’s true. I direct the MFA program at Albertus, so on paper, I suppose I do look like I’ve gone over to the dark side. But I’m just an adjunct at Albertus. I still teach out of necessity only. While I do enjoy the work, I’d really just rather have my full-time job as a manager of technical writers[and]editors.
I would say there’s no correlation at all between my publishing and my position at Albertus. I’ve been publishing 20 to 40 poems per year since I got out of graduate school, and I’ve only been directing the MFA program for about five years.
In prior interviews, you’ve made clear your belief that the purpose of poetry is clarification, not salvation. What do you get out of poetry today? How has it changed since you started writing poetry?
Hmm. I said that? Well, I completely agree! When I read poetry, I’m looking to be startled into some kind of fresh awareness. It doesn’t much matter what the awareness is. “That” a poem means is more important than “what” a poem means. Every once in awhile, I’ll encounter a poem that shifts the course of my life, but this is rare and definitely unsustained. My vices are too deeply ingrained to be thwarted by mere poems.
I don’t think the writing of poetry has changed what I like about reading poetry — except to appreciate the difficulty of certain good moves I used to think were easy: a clear image, a consistent voice, the closing couplet of an English sonnet. There’s nothing like your own failings to make you recognize someone else’s triumph, however unwilling you may be to say so publicly.
In addition to poetry, you’ve published short stories and essays. What inspires you to start projects in mediums other than poetry?
More and more, I see fewer distinctions between my poetry and my fiction. In part, this is because my stories are tiny — often a single paragraph, rarely more than a thousand words. When I decide to write a story, it’s usually because I have two characters that I want to make bump up against each other. For whatever reason, I find that tedious in a poem. A story format seems much more welcoming. At least for me.
Can you tell me about the role that writing plays in your happiness?
It does make me happy, though “satisfied” might be the better word. I’ve been writing for so long and so regularly that I’ve trained myself to need to do it. It’s a healthier version of smoking, I suppose. If the rest of my life overwhelms me, and I have to forgo even 15 minutes of writing, I feel like I’m letting myself down. It’s like falling asleep on the couch because I’ve done nothing but watch TV all day. I feel like I’m wasting my time. One more day closer to the hospice and all that.