Q&A with GMU English professor Eric Pankey on his new book of poems

“I always tell my students that one practices poetry. One is constantly learning and discovering how to write the next and the next poem,” explains Eric Pankey, a George Mason University English professor and a celebrated poet.

(Photo courtesy of Eric Pankey.)

Pankey’s work has been published in numerous literary magazines. He has also published nine collections of poetry to date. In addition to being a professor of English at Mason, Pankey also serves as the Heritage Chair in Writing for the English Graduate program.

Following his most recently published work, “Trace,” Pankey will be releasing a collection of prose poems entitled, “Dismantling the Angel,” later this year.

“All the poems in the collection were begun responding to student-generated writing prompts in a class, 'English 619: The Prose Poem,' I have taught about five times over the last sixteen years,” explains Pankey. He adds, “The book is dedicated to my students.”
In an interview conducted by e-mail, Pankey shares his insights about the evolution of his poetry, and his latest published work, “Trace.”


C2M: “Trace” is your ninth collection of poems that has been published. In what ways, if any, do you feel that your poetry has evolved from “For the New Year” to “Trace”?

I always tell my students that one practices poetry. One is constantly learning and discovering how to write the next and the next poem. Writing a poem one knows how to write with only lead to repetition and not innovation or discovery. Given that my first book was published a little over half a life ago, I hope I have become at least more practiced as a poet, a least more fluent in the language that one toils with to make one’s art.  I can look back through the nine books and see that many of the concerns and obsessions of the poet writing the poems have remained. A question I can see myself asking in book after book is “How does one access the ineffable, that which is beyond words, in a medium made of words?”

C2M: Poetry, like other forms of writing, is often a very personal and emotional expression of one’s self. Have there been times when you were reluctant to publish certain poems because of their significance to you? Over the course of your career, have you become more comfortable publishing these sorts of poems?

Pankey: I write poems to be read, not as a private record, a diary, or personal journal. As I am making them, I always imagine them being heard, either spoken directly to another, or perhaps overheard, as an eavesdropper might overhear or a god might reluctantly give attention to a prayer. I see the poem as a speculative space, a place where I can give shape to that which is as yet inchoate, working with and against the possibilities and limitations of my medium, the language. One of the investigations I have continued throughout my career as a poet is to consider, as your question phrases it, just who “one’s self” is.

C2M: Do you have any advice you would like to share with budding poets?

Pankey: I believe that artists should immerse themselves in their art. Poets should read widely and deeply the poets who have come before them, just a dancer would watch other dancers to learn all the possible ways a body a can be moved. Originality is not novelty, but how an individual artist makes something singular out of the history and conventions of a medium. Sometimes that is an act of subtraction. Sometimes it is an act of addition. Sometimes it is an act of rearrangement, an act of destruction, an act of preservation, or resurrection. In short, a poet should read!

To learn more about Eric Pankey’s work, or to purchase Trace, visit: http://milkweed.org/shop/product/311/trace/.

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