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Student discovers 1888 Walt Whitman interview

TRENTON, N.J. -- Walt Whitman is considered one of America's greatest poets, but he had some advice for two aspiring scribes: Don't become traditional poets.

The advice is one of the tidbits Whitman left for posterity in an 1888 interview with The Signal, the student newspaper at the New Jersey State Normal School, now called the College of New Jersey.

The interview was recently discovered by Nicole Kukawski, 21, a junior who sifted through old copies of The Signal while working on a paper about Whitman's thoughts on education reform. ''It was really painstaking," Kukawski said, ''but it also turned out to be worth it."

According to the article in the February 1888 edition of the paper, two young men visit Whitman at his Mickle Street house in Camden, where the elderly writer discusses the education of a writer.

He tells them to practice their craft and to break conventional models instead of writing traditional poetry.

''First, don't write poetry; second ditto; third ditto," Whitman was quoted. ''You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped."

Whitman advised them to carry a pencil and piece of paper to jot down daily events. He even suggested they get their hands dirty in the mechanics of printing.

''Whack away at everything pertaining to literary life -- mechanical part as well as the rest. Learn to set type, learn to work at the 'case,' learn to be a practical printer, and whatever you do learn condensation," Whitman was quoted.

Kukawski said she combed through the newspapers' dusty pages to try to learn about what students at the time thought about education and the famous writer, but she didn't expect to find words from Whitman there. Then she saw the interview.

The discovery surprised her teacher, David Blake, an associate professor of English. ''From the perspective of Whitman studies, it's a small discovery, vs. an undiscovered poem or book," Blake said. ''But thinking this is a junior at the college who found this in her research, this is really exciting."

The paper Kukawski wrote about the interview will be part of a symposium the college is holding this fall to mark the 150th anniversary of Whitman's famous ''Leaves of Grass" and the college.

New interviews with Whitman are unearthed about once a year, said Ed Folsom, a professor of English at the University of Iowa and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Folsom was not surprised that The Signal interview includes the advice to avoid traditional poetry, saying Whitman equated accepted poetry with conventional form and style. But he said the call to learn printing was especially interesting. People who write unconventional material, he said, might have to publish it themselves.

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