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Kathryn & Ross Petras On Assembling a ‘Modern’ Poetry Collection

Happy National Poetry Month! All throughout April, we interviewed poets about working in the digital age. To end the month, we spoke with brother-sister writing team Kathryn & Ross Petras.

Many have come to know the Petras siblings for the The Stupidest Things website and companion books. They recently edited a collection of modern poetry culled from politicians, reality TV stars and music recording artists.

Workman Publishing released The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry: Timeless ‘Poems’ By Snooki, John Boehner, Kanye West and Other Well-Versed Celebrities earlier this month. Follow this link to access their blog and read pieces from Twilight Saga actor Robert Pattinson, former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and pop star Ke$ha.

Check out the highlights from our interview below…

K = Kathryn Petras

R = Ross Petras

Q: How did you conceive of the idea for this collection?
R: It was a joint process – we’d been talking with our editor at Workman, Bruce Tracey, whom we’ve known for years. He edits our ‘Stupidest Things Ever Said’ calendar, and we all thought it’d be fun to get longer quotes that couldn’t fit on a calendar page and do something with them. We’d long ago done a book ‘Very Bad Poetry’ – with selections from some of the worst (real) poets and poetry from the past– including some real gems – (like ‘APindaresque on the Grunting of a Hog’ and ‘Ode to a Mammoth Cheese’) – so we thought we’d go modern and off the beaten track with this. It’s been fun.

Q: How did you land your book deal for this work?
R: We worked up some samples, Bruce looked at them, and they went onto an editorial committee, who decided yes. Then the normal routine: he called our agent, Andrea Somberg, and with offers on price, deadlines, etc. Naturally Andrea, as she always does, immediately asked for quite a bit more, along with far better terms, even more naturally Bruce came back offering a only a little bit more, and then we all met in the happy middle. We already had gone to work; we loved the idea and were ready to go at almost any price.

Q: Can you talk about the process for putting this collection together? How did you select these poems?
R: Unconscious poetry is out there – particularly with politicians and celebrities. It’s not necessarily their fault they sound oddly, funnily, discordantly poetic – they’re speaking all the time and the recorders are almost always on. And in the case of the book – we were there too. (Figuratively, we should add. I would never want to be anywhere near Snooki.) So, like deep-sea fishermen (and women) we trolled the internet, finding transcripts of particularly egregious speeches and interviews. We also had friends and readers looking for appropriate passages. We listened to speeches and interviews also, writing down the best bits. Then we winnowed down, played with putting the passages into poetic forms – and picked the ones we thought looked and sounded best. Some people were just naturally good with words – or maybe ‘interesting with words’ is a better way of putting it. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Jets coach Rex Ryan absolutely fascinated us.

Q: Any advice for reading poetry out loud?
K: Breathe! Relax! Think about what you’re reading! Don’t mumble! (Oh no, I’m beginning to channel Ethel Merman in Gypsy telling Natalie Wood to ‘Sing out, Louise!’).

Q: What is the definition of ‘modern poetry’?
R: In terms of this book, we chose words that came from living people; hence modern poetry would be defined as ‘living poetry’ in all forms. In terms of literary theory – well, that’s a tough one. Our book in fact uses old forms of poetry as well as modern free verse – haiku, sonnets, quatrains, etc. But as they’re all by modern, living people, we still call it modern. And sometimes they play off the old with new forms – such as the Sporadic meter of business pundit Jim Cramer. Besides, modern poetry is really more of an ‘any form goes’ – from free verse on. And, of course, one advantage of being a writer or compiler of a book is that you get to make definitions, at least before the editor’s corrections. So modern poetry is poetry written or spoken by living people. Especially when included in this book.

Q: How do Jersey Shore star Snooki, Vice President Joe Biden and rapper P. Diddy qualify as ‘modern poets’?
K: Actually, I think the better term for them would be ‘modern ‘poets’ since they’re more ‘poets’ than poets. As to how they qualify? Hmm…it’s our contention that anyone can be a modern ‘poet,’ if their words, their thoughts, and their lyricism come together in a certain alchemic way. And, of course, if we find it. It’s like pornography I guess–you know it when you see it.

Q: What’s next for you two?
K: More stupidity, of course–it’s a never-ending task…And we’re working on a book with the working title of Wretched Writing, which is an A to Z look at the absolute worst (dare I say ‘wrotten’?) writing ever, with examples, from asinine analogies to overused euphemisms in sex scene to new (and bad) word creation. Needless to say, it has been a riot to work on.

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