recent interview with Jee Leong Koh, author of poetry books Payday Loans and Equal to the Earth.
CYM My composition writing students are always asking how much the poet intends for the reader to add in his or her own interpretation. What would you say to them? How closely linked do you expect your reading and intentions for the poem to be to the words on the page or do they spin in a number of directions depending on something like spokes on a wheel? For example, you make fairly dense historical references to the American reader in the opening poem to Equal to the Earth . Are you writing for a reader who has the appropriate knowledge, one who will look up what is necessary and/or one who can make assumptions about the meaning based on the context?
JLK The latitude for interpretation can be visualized as a circle, outside of which fall obvious misinterpretations. Some poems are big circles and allow for many different points of view. Other poems are small circles and allow for few. I teach my students to think of a poem as a point, with one interpretation, which they must formulate for themselves based on close analysis of the poem. This approach encourages rigorous reading. They should be aware, however, that their interpretation is a point among many other points. In fact, my students do not need to be told about the relativity of points of view; the wider culture already does a good job of indoctrinating them. What they need to learn is to evaluate different interpretations for their persuasiveness.
As a poet, I write to make my own intentions for a poem fully visible to myself. I spend time and thought to make the poem the embodiment of my meaning. So I appreciate readers who try to understand what I mean. The process of reading is complex and subjective, but it should be undertaken with the good faith that the writer wishes to be understood. As for dense historical references, I don't use them a lot in my poetry. When I do, I write the poems in such a way that a reader not familiar with the references will still get much out of the poem. A reader who knows the references will obviously get more. But I do see it as my job to entice the reader to do the research.
I encourage you to visit Jee Leong Koh’s blog.