Hamline News

MFAC Faculty Ron Koertge Featured Interview with the Los Angeles Review

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MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge has been interviewed by Abel DeBritto for the Los Angeles Review.

The author of more than a dozen books, Koertge discusses his creative life, including how his writing has influenced his work as a teacher. He says, “Writing is a gift that needs encouragement. I know writers more gifted than I who got discouraged and went on to different things. [...] I encourage my Hamline students to write badly, just write something, because they’ll email me and say, “Oh, you know, I’m so stuck, I have writer’s block,” and I tell them, “There is no writer’s block. It doesn’t exist, not if you’re putting words down on paper.””

Prior to teaching in the MFAC program, Koertge taught at the City College in Pasadena, California for 35 years. Although he enjoyed teaching broadly, he says that “what I really liked was remedial writing, basic college English. I liked older students who had screwed up their lives and who were coming back to school right out jail, out of the Army, out of bad marriages, and they hated and feared writing. If they’d cooperate even a little, I could teach them to put together a coherent sentence, a reasonable paragraph, and they could move on. [...] They were smart enough, but their interests were in other places, and I would tell them, “I don’t want you to like to read and write like I do, I don’t want you to go to the racetrack and meet me out there. Live your own lives! But here’s a skill.””

Writing both prose and poetry can be a daunting task, but Koertge has a clever process for balancing the genres. “I put poems aside if I’m writing prose. If I’m writing prose, I do the old Hemingway trick: I write by hand and I stop for the day in the middle of the scene, so the next morning when I get up, I tend to type what I’ve written out—put into the computer what I’ve written out by hand—and then the momentum will carry me on to the next few hours. I’ll do four pages a day, every day, seven days a week.

When I go back to poetry, I have to take the muse out to dinner because she’s mad that I left her behind for a while to hang out with that fat bastard Prose.”

He also adds, “I used to, though, write a lot of short poems, at their best like flashes of lightning. When I started to write fiction for teenagers, the lightning flashes were replaced by regular weather with its hot and cold spells, its rain and sunshine. When I’m writing prose, I don’t (or can’t) write much poetry, but I know that because of poetry I’m a better prose writer.”

In addition to writing in multiple genres, Koertge also writes for a diverse range of ages. His novels for young adults and his books of poetry have been acclaimed for their freshness, wit, and wisdom. When asked about his preferences for poems, he says, “Some folks tend to handle poetry with kid gloves where poems that I love can only be handled with oven mittens. I’ll take a poem that’s indecorous or even oafish over something hushed and reverent every time.

Billy Collins can be irreverent. Sharon Olds. Dorianne Laux. Kim Adonizzio. David Kirby. There’s irreverence all over the place, but like in a color wheel there are different hues of irreverence.”

Yet in addition to the beauty of irreverence, Koertge’s philosophy about his life as a poet is a reminder of how the writer becomes a conduit for marvels: “My job as a poet is to be available: here’s the infinite, here I am, and the wind blows through me and plays that mythological lyre.”

Our thanks to Ron Koertge, Abel DeBritto, and the Los Angeles Review for this wonderful feature!