What got you started with poetry?
Well, there sure wasn’t anything literary going on in my early environment. But I was exposed to great music, especially the Latin music popular in the Fifties. My parents had met in Atlantic City in the late Forties, when Boardwalk hotels had Cuban bands playing in ballrooms with crowded dancefloors every night. So I wound up bouncing to Mambo records as a toddler. Along with this, I was living in a hotbed of immigrant anxiety hopping with explosive feuds—my father’s parents had it in for my mother, and she hated them right back. The shame endured by the Jews of Eastern Europe was spilling into family dynamics, spouting from the pores of these people so blindly anxious to belong, and I got drenched in the vitriol. I was myself of course anxious to belong, to be seen and known through the blaze of the arguments, through the constant crossfire of blame.
So I found myself developing my expressive faculties, with drawing, singing, and making up lyrics, offering my little creations as uplifts and salves to the tense preoccupied figures around me. And out on the street, by the time I was nine or ten, I had my friends practicing doo-wop harmonies to the songs I was inventing. Once, in grade school, I was called down to the principal’s office—thought I was in trouble. Mr. Brody sat me down, held out a poem I’d written in class, and asked if it was actually my work. It was something idealistic, about humanity being a lamp that never goes out. He liked it. I took in encouragements like this along the way, kept up the writing, and developed an identity as a person involved in the arts.
The force-field of family conflict also stirred my beginnings as a therapist. I wound up training in psychiatry and have cultivated a therapy practice as a livelihood. I’m quite sure my initial training was listening to my emotionally beleaguered mother who could not contain her chronic desperations and frustrations. This background of experience informs my empathic leanings. I’m strongly inclined to wonder what’s troubling the other who’s troubling me. In therapy and in poetry, I think I’m a student of human nature.
Poetry has prevailed with me, I believe, as it is a form of song, rendered in speech, offering the prospect of deep understandings of complex personal experience. It can be a bridge between psyches, between souls, across any distances whatever in time or geography. I am terminally enthralled with this notion. It has an unyielding hold on me. And it is strengthened every time anyone responds to something I’ve written with any kind of emotional resonance.
So, it seems you write poems for deeply personal reasons. Has your motivation broadened in response to troubles on the wider plane of social reality?
Through my undergrad years, I avidly studied poetry as an art. After turning to the pursuit of medicine and psychiatry, I kept reading and writing poems, but it was a relatively private interest, with the happy opportunity now and then to write something for a wedding, a birth, or a graduation. I’d put the occasional chapbook together for family and friends.
Then came the events of what we all call “9/11.” That day I saw my ten-year-old son in front of the TV watching people leap from the burning towers. Days later, I saw this openhearted kid of mine burst into tears for no immediate reason, and I knew the horror of what he’d seen was in him. I felt I had to write something, and the poem that came of it wound up being part of a program on NPR in those first few days of collective shock. I needed to express the spirit of blameless grief, of awareness of our part in creating the horror, and of empathic interest in the torment behind the terrorist acts. I needed to make a small memorial of the rubble with a poem.
That was how I discovered I had a role in the larger arena with poetry. I haven’t really let up since then. I’ve found in poetry a domain where the intimate and the universal meet. I know this is no big news, but to experience it intensely is different from knowing it cognitively.
So my work is an increasingly intentional practice of empathic intuition and imagination. I want the reader, the listener, to feel known, understood, less alone. I’ve found further encouragement in Donald Hall’s idea that poetry can be “the company of tears.” I stumbled upon that expression reading his 2005 essay, “The Third Thing,” in Poetry Magazine.
Then you do entertain a belief that poetry, or the arts generally, serve some essential purposes?
Yes. I believe it. I now take it to be self-evident! The more obvious purpose, or function, is on the level of the poet’s own struggle. To embody subjective intensities in words, to formulate overwhelming or mysterious or strange experiences coherently—to feel out, in language, the lived, the live, truth—is in itself steadying, sustaining, an affirmation of the self. I’m moved by much of what Gregory Orr has said on this front. But beyond that, to make something that crosses over not only to the imaginary other who “listens” as you write, but to the real other you may never meet, and for this thing you make, this poem, to steady and comfort that actual other—that’s a purpose worthy of any degree of dedication.
It may well be that through the arts we have our best hope for a significantly more peaceable culture. We can find out, again and again, through the experience of art, that we are deeply more similar in our nature than our manifest differences sometimes suggest. We can remember our oneness in our humanity through the arts as by no other means.
Does this orientation in itself suggest any aesthetic biases you might have?
When I was younger and my writing was more an exploration of the art form, I was gleefully experimental. I was actively supported in this by my teacher, the Language poet Robert Grenier, who’s gone on to do fascinating work that migrates beyond the use of words and becomes a graphic idiom that seems to speak visually about language. Well, in those days I didn’t mind the prospect of being enigmatic. I loved dancing on the edge of sense, and was intrigued by poets and other artists who did that, including John Ashbery. I applauded the spirit of defying the hunger for meaning.
Over time, and especially since I was broken open by 9/11, I’ve come to embrace meaning as a pivotal matter, even while still appreciating there are ways that absurdity, the surreal, the inscrutable, the untranslatable, and such can serve the resonances of meaning.
So my work has tended toward clarity, the comprehensible, the readily graspable by the reader/listener who comes hoping to be met by another real caring presence. I hope by this leaning not to offer simple soothing—not to drug the listener into docility, but to help make the unbearable more bearable, as empathic presence does, and thereby to encourage fuller aliveness.
I want to fluidly integrate any and all so-called devices that might actually help the poem sing, that can bring distant or disparate souls into the poem’s one moment. I don’t want to rely on any elements excessively. Rhyme has been relatively frowned-upon in our era, but it is one of the aspects of the music of language that I believe we are meant to work with. You can overdo it, be clunky about it, or you can feel your way toward its optimal use in the becoming of the poem.
I find myself still believing in the line as well. There’s a power there, a way the music and meanings are paced and pulsed by a consistent (if varied) line duration, with implied cadences that feel right for a poem or a passage within it, and I don’t want to forego this potential in my composing. The possibilities inherent in enjambment are also valuable to me—meanings can layer themselves like emotional harmonies, ironies, or paradoxes. But I don’t want to exploit this method either—don’t want it to be a contrivance. Sometimes it just seems to suggest itself.
Punctuation is another part of the written language I feel better working with than abandoning. Although I’m grateful for much beautiful work done without it—say, Merwin’s—I’m inclined to let punctuation help with the “scoring” that is the written poem. I imagine, with these markings, the poem can be “sung” somewhat more as I’ve heard it in its becoming.
But it remains important as well to not get locked into any of the formalities. I want to allow surprises to erupt through the process. I break all my own “rules” here and there. And I do not know what is meant to unfold when the poem begins getting written. It’s an inquiry, an exploration, a mapless venture—even, I hope, when I discover that for whatever reason I’m writing a sonnet.
In what other poets’ work have you found the most valued company?
I must go back to Robert Creeley, as he was the first poet I felt was speaking to me in a plain true voice. I thought of him as a bravely honest phenomenologist, who trusted that such earnest reporting of moments could embody and convey the beauty of the lived truth.
In keeping with this, farther along, I’ve greatly appreciated Philip Levine, Louise Glück, Robert Wrigley, Dorianne Laux, Stephen Dunn, Jim Harrison, Donald Hall, and quite a few others of course. While I often love the work of poets who exercise linguistic brilliance (like Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, or Heather McHugh), I do lean toward poetry that is in language somewhat closer to natural speech. I seek the experience of being humbly spoken to, or sung to. I also find this among translations of some ancient poetry. I think here especially of Sappho’s fragments and of Li Po.
Sometimes I need the company of the broken-hearted ironists, like Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, or Bob Hicok. Sometimes I need to spend time with the most deeply sincere, like Whitman, or Dickinson.
The intensely compassionate poets are terribly important to me. I think just now of Naomi Shihab Nye, Ellen Bass, Claudia Rankine, Eavan Boland, Ross Gay, Juan Felipe Herrera, and if I pondered longer I’d think of others. Really, all lastingly valuable poetry must be imbued with compassion, however implicit. Even the most inward poem is after all a trusting invitation—an offer of companionship at a corresponding interior depth in the reader.
You seem to be suggesting that the apparent subject matter of a poem might not be a very good indicator of its relational power.
True. Because writing out of the utmost solitude could be the most globally embracing expression! Or, let’s say, it doesn’t need to be obviously political to be socially powerful. Any personal lyric (to use the term favored by Gregory Orr) is perhaps a synecdoche representing any and all conscious mortals! I think of Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks.” The cosmos and all human struggle in it are contained in that poem. I do hope that our poems can stir a sense of alliance, a feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder in spirit with other wanderers, strugglers, seekers, survivors…whatever the “subject” in any instance seems to be.
Any final thoughts for the moment?
Yes. The sense of meaningful belonging, of the heart’s investment in the life of the world, of connectedness with others you will never meet—this is the mutual gift of poetry, I believe. Given and received in both the act of the writing and in the reading or listening. It’s the miracle that grows through a devoted cultivation of the art.