Ellen Bryant Voigt is seen at her home on Thursday, Sep­tember 17, 2015 in Cabot, VT. The poet was recently selected as one of the 2015 MacArthur Fellows. Ellen Bryant Voigt | Courtesy

Ellen Bryant Voigt, a poet who has been nom­i­nated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among others, read her work and lec­tured on the poetry of Randall Jarrell last Wednesday and Thursday as part of the Vis­iting Writers program. Her work includes “Kyrie,” “The Lotus Flowers,” “The Art of Syntax,” “Mes­senger: New and Selected Poems,” and, most recently, “Head­waters.” She teaches at Warren Wilson College and lives in rural Vermont.

In your most recent col­lection, “Head­waters,” you make an inter­esting editing choice for a writer inter­ested in structure and rhythm: You avoid all punc­tu­ation. Why?

What I found when I started writing this most recent set of poems is that they had a very high degree of rep­e­tition to that extent that I thought was quite bad. So the first thing I went to cut out was that rep­e­tition, but when I did, there was nothing left. It wanted to be repet­itive; it wanted to be full of refrain.

So that became a formal problem: How, then, can you maintain that degree of rep­e­tition without it being slack and boring? One way is to have a longer, com­pulsive line that does not allow the reader to stop on any of those units; don’t honor them with that normal rhythmic system of the punc­tu­ation mark, but drive through all the way to the end of the line. So what I wanted was not to elim­inate punc­tu­ation, but to elim­inate what we call caesura: any arti­ficial stop in the poetic line created by punc­tu­ation. Take out all inter­rup­tions and the reader isn’t allowed to stop until the end of the line.

That’s what I wanted, that kind of propulsion that then allowed me to maintain a higher degree of rep­e­tition and also allow me to shift tones more quickly, so that I could go from some­thing comic to some­thing not so comic within the same line.

What do you think about trends in poetry that break with forms in other ways?

[Avant-garde poetry] doesn’t interest me. There’s been a mis­taken interest in a sort of mimetic fallacy, which is to say that the world is dis­junct and therefore a poem should be dis­junct. But would you also say that the world is full of boring people, and therefore all stories should be full of boring people? I think what art tries to do is to bring some new insight into whatever our con­dition is. So to me, that doesn’t really justify itself. It becomes clever, and I’m too old to be inter­ested in clever. I’m inter­ested in shaken-to-the-soles-of-my-feet insight. I’m inter­ested in learning some­thing, being gob-smacked, bowled over.

Certain natural images and themes run through your poetry — trees and birds, for example. Why do you keep coming back to these?

My second book, I had a hard time putting it together because there was a tree in every poem. Every single poem has a tree. I said to myself, “Don’t do this again; leave the trees alone. Take the trees out and put some asphalt in there, or some­thing.” But you’re drawn to the same things over and over again, because you’re trying to dig out some­thing.

What mis­takes do young writers make? 

Right now, it’s a very divisive time, I think. And there’s a trend to ghet­toize, to say: “I have the right to tell this story, and you don’t.” And the flip side of that is that I am com­pelled to tell this rep­re­sen­tative story, that hasn’t been told yet. What that does is deny the power of the empa­thetic imag­i­nation, which I think is one of the chief func­tions of the art, is to try to get us to under­stand a little better what other people’s expe­ri­ences are like.

When you’re reading great work, there’s a res­o­nance. And I think, then, to find those com­bined, where it’s a piece of work written by whomever, a Catholic monk [Gerard Manley Hopkins]: There he is, writing: “I wake and feel the fell of dark…” You kind of go, “Yeah, me too. Me too.”

Here’s this vastly dif­ferent person, and there’s this com­mon­ality of expe­rience. That, to me, is such a gift.

What advice do you have for those looking to develop their writing style? Do we all have to go through 50 or 60 drafts of each poem, like you do?

A lot of people begin writing poetry because they feel the need to express some­thing. There’s some­thing they feel, or have thought, or has hap­pened to them, and they want to give it lan­guage and record it. And that’s per­fectly noble. That’s a fine way to start. But that makes it an expressive art the same way a dancer per­forming in a ballet chore­o­graphed by somebody else is.

Cre­ative art is to make it: the pianist who no longer wants to just play Bach but is starting to write the music. That’s the place at which, it seems to me, every­thing is focused on gath­ering the tools you need and enlarging the soul suf­fi­ciently to increas­ingly be able to accom­modate more and more of the world into your poems.