Christian McEwen

320 pp.

7 x 9,  Gatefold paperback


April 2015


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What does it mean to grow up attuned to the particular, to the natural world and the inner world, to be astonished by language? What connections and what solitudes nurture a writer’s genuine voice? How can one find the time and space to engage with the world’s mysteries, with what Yusef Komunyakaa calls the “singing underneath things”? These are the kinds of questions Christian McEwen posed when interviewing visiting poets at the Poetry Center at Smith College over the course of five years, and the responses are by turns affirming, surprising, and gratifying. Many of the interviews are gathered here, in Sparks from the Anvil, a collection of conversations modeled after The Paris Review interviews. McEwen’s deep knowledge of poetry, her delight in these particular encounters, and her prodigious skill as an interviewer elicit deeply thoughtful answers—responses full of extraordinary insight, both delicate and frank, nuanced and bold. In McEwen’s own words: “Each poet has a private tale to tell, yet it is also possible to braid those tales together, and to read them as a kind of composite biography centered on poetry itself—where it comes from, what forms it can take, what circumstances encourage it to flourish. If the poet is indeed a blacksmith, what does her smithy look like? How does she swing her hammer? How smoldering-bright her coals? If poetry is a tree, how does the forester prepare the soil? What gives him faith that little sapling will take root?”

The next best thing to sitting down with these sixteen poets—after reading their work, of course—is getting Christian McEwen to sit down with them, and ask them all the questions you would have asked, and several you wouldn’t have thought to ask. She is a knowledgeable, sympathetic interviewer and a deep reader, and the poets respond to her generously. This collection is for fellow poets—at whatever stage—and for poetry readers alike. Rita Dove says she wants to tell students “to live, live, live—while they read, read, read, of course! If they live intensely, they’re also going to read intensely,” and these interviews tell us a lot about the living and reading done by a very fine group of poets.

—Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library

In Christian McEwen’s irresistible Sparks from the Anvil, McEwen encourages, delights, surprises, and enlightens her subjects, drawing astute connections about their lives and about their poems that they themselves may have never considered. Underscore the quest in questioner. Willingly, the poets hand over the grail, share the luscious richness of their experiences: inspired wisdom, vivid childhood stories, revealing personal and professional challenges. In the excited exchange of her every query and their every answer, McEwen communicates her prodigious knowledge of their poems, her palpable pleasure and her intellectual joy, as she conducts this reciprocally generous process. Above all, her great gratitude to the poets buoys this bountiful book. Read it and be thankful too! —Deborah Gorlin, Editor of The Massachusetts Review and author of Life of the Garment.

In his interview, Patrick Donnelly suggests that in the deep core of everything we experience, “there is light, there is luminosity, there is tenderness.” These words aptly describe as well the fundamental gifts to be found in Sparks from the Anvil. Sixteen of our finest contemporary poets shed abundant light on the poetic process. They also offer luminous observations on how and why a person might devote a life to the practice of poetry. Above all, these interviews affirm the worth of tenderness—the openness to feeling—as the sine qua non of art. Friend, this is a book you will love as you love poetry itself.

—Fred Marchant, Author of The Looking House