Alan Yan hosts and produces Poetry to the Brim, a podcast where we explore the fullness of things through poetry. His episodes consistently introduce me to new poems, as well as talk through them thoughtfully. I highly recommend Episode 5, on William Stafford’s "At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border.” That inspired me to rethink my “take” on the poem, which you can read here.
Please do visit Poetry to the Brim and support his work. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into poetry? My origin story: I thought that reading poetry would make eloquence an instinct. Like, if I read enough, I'd have quippy one-liners ready at any given time.
A: I read Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke on a sunny December day in 2020 on my apartment balcony in Medford, MA; and soon after that, a few of Li-Young Lee's collections (Rose and Book of My Nights). I was totally seduced by those works and thought I want to be on the other side of that: to be able to offer work that it could move another being into that same helpless, wordless state.
Q: Oh wow. That's an intense experience. Other works of art don't have the same effect for you? It does feel like, now that you mention it, the experience of good poetry is distinct from a lot of other things.
I suppose they do—namely listening to music, but yes there are obvious differences. Poetry must have music, but music might not have poetry. I’d say both poetry and music share the quality of being able to stir something preverbal (affections) in one’s being. The key difference between the two is that poetry uses language to do that, while music, sound more broadly instead.
Q: Is there poetry you feel that is especially musical?
A: Honestly, I'm quite a novice at hearing sounds in poetry. I recently took a Blank Verse workshop with Jason Koo, and I'd say that was my first serious exposure to it. Have now taken that workshop, I feel like I can appreciate Frost, Wordsworth, etc.: there's a sort of comfort that arises when you can notice the meter the poem follows, as it allows you to appreciate the music/rhythm of the poem more as you read it, aloud or in your head. Regarding poems I've covered on the podcast so far, I love the way sound and form work together in "The Danger Moments" by Denise Levertov and "Fill and Fall" by Li-Young Lee.
Q: Have you memorized a few poems? One of the things I did when I first read poetry was memorize "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The drowsy mystery of "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" put me in a mood where I wanted to be able to set up the scene for myself.
A: I used to memorize poems I enjoyed when I started, but recently I've been spending time just reading poems. Perhaps memorizing a poem allows you to recall it anywhere and lets you "sit" with the lines even without the page in front of you, and that seems salutary in many regards.
Q: Let's talk a bit about the podcast. Are you a big fan of other podcasts? Any that have inspired you? And that raises the question of what inspired Poetry to the Brim.
A: I do listen to podcasts from time to time. Specific to poetry though, I listen to the Basement Poetry Podcast, hosted by a fellow poet-friend Wayne Benson, certainly inspired me early on to start my own. I've also enjoyed a number of episodes of Poetry Unbound and Poetry Off the Shelf. Poetry to the Brim started as a way not only for me to engage poems more deeply but also share the joy I feel about a poem and the art at large with others. I suppose it's a space to show what abundance poetry and thus a keen attention can offer us: hence the "to the Brim" in the name of the podcast.
Q: How are you feeling about your own poetry, how do you believe you've evolved as a writer? To illustrate these questions a bit: I don't write poetry myself, but blogging over the years has made me more attentive to properly introducing things to the audience. When I started, I thought I admired writers for their insights, but it turns out they were really great at communicating the significance of a topic as well as offering insight. I know I have to learn this, still. And I have to work on lingering on what is significant. I tend to say things once and only once, believing I've made my point. Those are my lessons from writing prose in this genre.
A: I'm definitely still trying to find my voice as a poet, but I believe I've put together a handful of decent poems in the last year. Having read poems almost exclusively over the past year, I feel I'm able to see the "goal posts," if you will, of a good poem more clearly. I think I know what kinds of poems resonate with me and why, and I suppose I'm trying to emulate and/or get to those places myself in my own writing. I find myself helplessly returning to the same subjects in my own writing as a poet, each time finding a new way to say things I suppose. Right now, I'm struggling with balancing the feeling that I need to be writing or reading something all the time (lest I don't improve) with the sense of just being in the world, paying attention to experience, and letting words reveal themselves to me. But I guess this is the perennial struggle: West vs. East, grasping vs. being grasped, and so on.
Q: Thank you so much for being willing to be interviewed. Was curious to hear about what we can look forward to from you, what you're looking forward to doing. Forthcoming projects, things you're reading, poems you're considering making a podcast about, themes you'd like to address.
A: Of course, and thank you for giving me a chance to self-reflect on my poetry journey. Recently, I've been reading a lot of Denise Levertov and Jack Gilbert, hence those two podcast episodes. No new projects really on the horizon, just writing poems and trying to keep up with the podcast episodes. I've also submitted a handful of my poems recently, so perhaps one day those will be available to the public, or maybe not. :)