Sunday, October 28, 2007

Abbott Ikeler:The Poet Behind The Outpost

Abbott Ikeler is the author of the poetry collection “Outpost” ( Ibbetson Press 2007) Ikeler , a Harvard graduate, with a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, has taught literature and writing at Bowdoin College, the University of Muenster, and Rhode Island College before joining the corporate world. His academic credits include a Senior Fulbright Fellowship, a book on nineteenth-century aesthetics, and numerous articles on Victorian literature. He currently teaches Public Relations and Advertising at Emerson College in Boston, Mass. I spoke with Ikeler on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: In a book you penned some time ago: “Puritan Temper and Transcendental Faith” you dealt with the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle and his early lyrical style that was later tempered by religious thought. Do you think that fundamentalist religion or political polemic can undermine poetry or creative thought?

Abbott Ikeler: Carlyle was moved back to his father’s fundamentalist religion because of the guilt around his death. He was also by the death of Goethe who was his mentor. His father used to say you need to work with your hands and the only book you have to read is the bible.

When I think of poetry in the political sense I think of Auden who wrote that poetry makes nothing happen or Yeats who wrote that even as bombs fall around us the poet just smiles and goes on. The poet doesn’t get involved in politics. But of course Yeats contradicts himself later.

DH: What made you switch from an academic setting to public relations in a corporate setting?

AI: You want to know frankly? It was 1984, and I was making 20,000 a year. I was tenured and I had my PhD for fifteen years. A friend of mine, whose wife was a business secretary, told me that she was making a better salary than I was with a degree from Katherine Gibbs. I though there has to be a better way to make a living. A friend of mine who worked at WANG said if you come to us we will give you a position where you will travel all over the world. They put me in charge of Advertising and PR for their Asian subsidiary.

DH: Where you interested in PR writing?

AI: Yeah. One of the things about being an academic, particularly in Literature, is that you have to find romance in engineering. I read Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine,” that dealt with the romance of building the first 32 bit computer. The one problem with teaching is, if you stay in the same discipline, there is a repetitiveness to it. There is a tedium grading over twenty to thirty thousand papers during a lifetime. Most of the academics I know have left their positions for the money issue or because of the weight of repetition. But now I am back in the classroom and I am loving it. I teach graduate students so I don’t have the weight of repetition.

AI: The poet Wallace Stevens, who was an insurance executive, would never talk about his poetry life at the office. He felt once he did he would be viewed as a poet and not a businessman. How was it for a former academic in the corporate world?

DH: In the corporate world I kept my academic credentials and my literary ambitions pretty much under my hat. It is a world where the academic frame of mind is viewed as too abstract, and not likely for a company to make a profit from.

DH: How has your business experience helped or hindered your writing?

AI: It has helped me be much more succinct. My style has gotten much leaner.

DH: You titled your latest poetry collection “Outpost.” The poem looks at the world from the vantage point of a fort or an outpost.
Do you feel it is the poet’s job to look out from an outpost, on the expanse of life, and remind us all to live now for we all must die?

AI: To remind them certainly how precariously short our time is. Poets use ordinary moments and hopefully derives something sublime.

DH: It seems that you feel you are in a fight against encroaching age, infirmity.

AI: Yeah. It is a fight against the dark. A friend said if he described the overall mood of my poems it would be optimistic melancholy.

DH: Can you experience a “sublime” moment right here in Union Square Somerville?

AI Absolutely. Often we find happiness in the most mundane places. Often my poems look at that.


They happen on a subway platform
in the midst of mild debate,
hardly heated, on the merits of a film.
Or between courses at a restaurant
unrated by Michelin
over the indiscretions of a distant friend.
An old incompatibility
of taste or moral vision gathers
in an unremarkable moment in a quite prosaic spot
to a settled recognition on one side or the other
of a wall that can’t be climbed.
The rest—days or decades—is merest epilogue.

-- Abbott Ikeler

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