“Complex and Wrought”: Five Questions with Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey was born in 1959, in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Pankey grew up with two hard-working parents, both accountants. He was successful in school and went on to attend the University of Missouri at Columbia and the University of Iowa. Through his hard work he received a BA and an MFA respectively. At 25, Pankey released his first collection of poems which went on to win the 1984 Walt Whitman Award. This started Pankey’s professional career as a teacher as he quickly got the job of Director of the Creative Writing program at Washington University at St. Louis. Pankey now is a professor of English at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife, who is also a successful poet, and his beloved daughter.

Other than the Walt Whitman Award, Pankey has received numerous awards for his variety of works. Pankey does not focus solely on poetry, as many of his essays and other works of writings have been honored. One of his most well known essays, “Meditative Spaces,” was decided on to be put in Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry. Pankey’s collection of poems have earned him the bulk of his honors and awards. The poems Apocrypha and Heartwood had been reissued by the likes of Orchises Press. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.

Not only is Pankey able to write various types of writings, but he has been an editor and co-editor since 1992. Pankey gets involved in every type of english opportunity he can get his hands on. This is why I chose Eric Pankey as my poet of interest. He has an obvious love for English and his passion is what inspired me to get to know him.

Jack Joyce: Are there common literary and poetic devices that you use in the vast majority of your poems?

Eric Pankey: When I am drafting poems, I am usually counting something– stresses per line, syllables per line, lines per stanza and so on. Many of these things are often edited out as one revision after another occurs or sometimes they get focused on and refine. I am interested in rhyme in all its variety, but rarely settle on end rhyme. I like the sounds of my lines to be complex and wrought– that is, for them to call attention to themselves as not ordinary speech, but a made and measured medium. Reviewers have often praised my use of the image and I do find it is a primary device in all my work.

JJ: How has being married to another poet influenced your poetic career?

EP: I am married to Jennifer Atkinson, the author of five collections of poetry, most recently THE THINKING EYE.  We met in graduate school at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the early 1980s and have been together since. One of the many blessings in being married to a poet is that she understands the time, space, and attention writing requires and how little money all that effort brings in. As well, we are both first readers for one another, showing each other the earliest drafts of poems. We have had the good fortune to teach at the same university– for 9 years at Washington University in St Louis and for 21 year now at George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia where we teach in the BFA and MFA programs in creative writing.

JJ: Do any of your poems revolve around your hometown of Missouri? Has your hometown influenced the way in which you write today?

EP: The first poem I every published in a national literary journal was called “I’ve Always Lived in Raytown” (a poem complaining of the suburban life) when I was sixteen. Raytown was the suburb of Kansas City, Missouri where I grew up. In my twelfth book, Augury, just out this week, I have a poem called “Kansas City, 1969” about a ten-year old me going into a bar to fetch my drunken father home. So your question is a good one. That midwestern landscape returns frequently in the poems even now when I have lived so long in the east.

JJ: How did your poetic career lead to your involvement at George Mason University?

EP: After graduate school, I taught high school in Iowa for three years, teaching Creative Writing, Contemporary Literature, and Humanities. It was then I published my first book. I quit that when I received a fellowship that allowed me to take a year off to finish my second book. I interviewed for many college level jobs, and landed a gig teaching in and directing the MFA program at Washington University. After nine years there, the position at George Mason came open and it did not require the kind of administrative work I was doing at Washington University. I teach two classes a semester and am encouraged to be a productive poet.

JJ: Did you look up to any particular poet when you were younger, if so, do you emulate their style in your poetry?

EP: I started reading poetry seriously (meaning primarily over fiction and nonfiction) in about 7th grade. I read widely and with little understanding or judgment. I just liked the play of language in the work. Poets who attracted me early on and who I continue to read and be influenced by include T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manly Hopkins. Whatever was in the public library I checked out and would attempt to read. The first book of poetry I remember buying was by Philip Levine, a poet I have continued to read to this day. One learns to make art by studying the art that came before. That early reading gave me, I think, a firm foundation, to beginning my apprenticeship in the art of poetry. I am still reading poems by others daily and learn through imitating and emulating their style, forms, and contents.

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