Friday, August 17, 2007

The Art of the Interview

Hello Penny Dreadful Readers,

Greetings from my blog AreYouOutsidetheLines! I’m Christopher Hennessy, a poet, book reviewer, interviewer. I’m pleased to be today’s guest blogger.

One of my passions as a reader and a writer is the art of the interview (check out some great links below). I authored a book of twelve interviews with some of today’s foremost poets, and in the process I learned a great deal about contemporary poetry, my own aesthetic and literary inquiry itself. As I told my students in the Grub Street Forms of Poetry course I’m currently teaching, “If you ever want to learn a lot about writing, lock yourself in a room with an author for a few hours with a tape recorder on.” Of course, it’s not that simple, but nevertheless, I do believe in the power of the interview as a vehicle for learning.

The art of the interview (hmm…sounds like a possible Grub Street course, no?) is one that, like any writing form, takes practice, study, a certain level of skill and hard work. My interview questions are drawn up by a close and thorough examination of an author’s work, as I believe is proper, and considerations of context, the author’s ‘project’, and how he or she has been influenced and influences others.

The worst question you can ask is the question that has been asked before. And the best question is the question that will elicit from the author the statement, “I’ve never thought about my writing in the light before, but I’m glad you asked” or something similar. Interviews should be neither fault-finding nor praise-giving. They should be investigations, shared journeys between the interviewer and his subject and following the map provided by the subject’s work.

Last year in the Guardian Review, Pico Iyer complained about decline of the literary interview because interviewers, he explained, had given their research over to Google rather that immersing themselves in their subject’s work. The article is certainly worth reading (and taking to heart), but I also enjoyed how he views the interview. He writes:

Interviews used to be one of the (occasional) perks of the writing life. A keen, or at least hard-working reader would approach you, after you'd written a book, and tell you things about yourself you didn't know.

At least in theory, and at least sometimes, interviews could prove a heightened form of conversation; as soon as the tape recorder's little red light came on, people paid attention, rose to the more eloquent side of themselves and talked with a care and intensity they would seldom muster in life. Text and interview circled round one another, and the latter served as a handy postscript (or complement at least) to the extended enquiry of the former.

My thoughts exactly!

A good question is always better than an answer.

Interview Links

The Paris Review interviews are often seen as the gold standard of interviews.

Check out the BBC’s many audio interviews. has a healthy repository of interviews.

The Academy of American Poets only have seven interviews, but they are with some of the most well-known contemporary poets. Their site,, also contains amazing resources, from bios to essays and of course lots of poems.

I just discovered this wonderful site, Identity Theory, which includes many interviews. I think this is my new favorite site.

Philly’s Kelly Writer House has archived a bunch of their interviews.

The PEN American Center is full of links, some of author discussions.

The Library of Congress offers up some audio programs.

Writers on Writing is a weekly radio program hosted by journalist and author Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

I can’t vouch for these poetry-centered podcasts (they are A LOT of them), but some of them indicate they have interviews.

Need a laugh. Check out this tongue-in-cheek interview from the Poetry Foundation’s dispatches.