What poets do you admire the most?
In the lyrics of “Tower of Song,” the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen conjures the image of an infinitely tall tower inhabited by every person—living or dead—who has ever made the decision to devote his or her life to music. I imagine myself as a poor working-girl who rents an apartment on the ground floor of an analogous “Tower of Poetry.” The penthouse, hundreds of floors above me, belongs to a charming married couple: the ancient Greek poet Sappho and the anonymous author of the biblical Song of Songs. Other tenants, on lower floors, include the Indian princess-cum-mystic Mirabai, the bawdy Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the sharp-tongued Vietnamese courtesan Ho Xuan Huong, and the sour Russian Revolution survivor Marina Tsvetaeva. Sometimes, on balmy evenings, Edna St. Vincent Millay and I go out on the fire escape to gossip and drink diet Cokes together. (Just kidding: I only drink regular Coke.)
Why do so few Americans read poetry for pleasure?
My mother grew up in Vietnam, where poetry is regarded very differently than it is here. In grade school, she and her classmates were required to commit poems to memory: real, classic, heavyweight poems, buttressed by rhyme and meter. To this day, Mom is still able to recall bits and pieces of those poems, and can recite them fluidly. It’s rather like “muscle memory,” except that the muscle we’re talking about here
is the heart.
It’s actually a lie to say that the American public is uninterested in poetry, though. Every minute, a tween girl in the heartland is posting her favorite song lyrics on her Facebook profile for all her friends to see, and song lyrics are a form of poetry, aren’t they? If the art of poetry ever kicks the bucket, it’ll be because of society’s trend toward overspecialization and the imposition of artificial barriers between poetry and music, poetry and painting, poetry and mathematics, etc. To keep the art of poetry alive, we need to keep in mind that the creative arts are all interrelated and that they must intermingle frequently in order to maintain their vitality. As Ezra Pound said: “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.”
What goes through your mind when you hear someone say, “I just don’t understand poetry”?
The 1992 Teen Talk Barbie was programmed to say “Math class is tough!” This was not Teen Talk Barbie’s fault, of course; it was Mattel’s.
Can you answer the rest of these questions without being snarky?
But can you do it without being long-winded?
What do you want to tell potential readers about your new book, Six Rivers?
Rivers have always been a vital part of my life. The first boy I almost kissed used to take walks with me on the shores of the Mississippi. And, like every other Boston college student since time immemorial, I used to spend hours reclining on the banks of Charles River, vainly imagining that this measly bit of contact with the natural world would make me more “artistic.”
According to the back of the book, Six Rivers is “peopled by diverse characters from history.” What’s that all about?
Generally speaking, I’m fascinated by historical personages who lived at the intersection between art and science, and quite a few of my poems are written records of my attempts to summon such people from the dead. One ghost I’ve tried to conjure is Dr. Claribel Cone, the turn-of-the-century Baltimore art collector who was also one of the first American women ever to attend medical school. Ada Lovelace, the famous poet’s daughter who grew up to be the world’s first computer programmer, figures in one of my poems as well. Yet another of my poems revolves around Louise Bourgeois, the brilliant sculptor who studied mathematics at the Sorbonne before embarking on her art career.
Time for the lightning round! Quick—tell me a story.
Once upon a time, a poet was lying in bed with his wife, an investment banker. Offhand, he asked her if she had ever tried to write a poem. She replied, “I used to write poetry, back when I was a teenager. But it was just a phase I went through.” It was then that he realized that she would someday leave him.
That was depressing. Now tell me a joke.
The last time that someone commanded me to tell them a joke was at the tryouts for my high-school literary magazine. I was a pathologically shy kid who stammered and blushed tomato-red when I tried to tell a joke. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make the cut.
Are you still bitter about that?
Let’s not talk about it.