Have you ever done a self-interview before?
Isn’t that what writing is?
Are you going to answer every question with another question?
Is that a problem?
Do you write every day?
I read more than I write.
What are you reading right now?
I’m in the middle of Charles Martin’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Education of Henry Adams.
What have you just finished reading?
Two American plays that take on the shape & force of Greek tragedy: Fences by August Wilson and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. And Rilke’s youthful, Romantic, and naive bestseller, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell. I read them all on the plane to and from the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend, where I was in attendance at the Tikkun conference.
What were you doing there?
I’m the poetry editor of the magazine, and I went to read poems by Yehuda Amichai as part of the proceedings.
What kind of role does poetry play in social movements or political organizing?
Well, there are two reasons why Amichai was a good choice to read at the conference, which was held in order to bring people together to think about how to resist Trump, protest, and move a progressive platform forward. Amichai received the Tikkun Award in 1991 in Jerusalem, and so giving him voice, it you will, at this year’s conference made sense. More importantly, Amichai, perhaps more successfully than any other poet in recent memory other than Seamus Heaney, responded to current situations from a position fully informed by a humane vision, capable of looking at things from several points of view at once. He was beholden to no ideology. His own form of dialectical thinking was purely eccentric, purely an expression of the poet who cares about life. This kind of intelligence is important to include in movements and organizing; it keeps us flexible, humane, sympathetic, and open-minded. There’s no other way forward.
What do you want to read next?
The Emperor’s Tomb, by Joseph Roth; Chinese Rhyme-Prose, translated by Burton Watson; Falling Awake, by Alice Oswald; Thoreau’s journals.
What have you been working on since your last book of poems?
I just published a book of prose about the refugee crisis in Germany, called Berlin Notebook (Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016). And I’ve been translating from the German of Goethe, Rilke, and Ernst Jandl, in addition to some contemporary poets, such as Jan Wagner. And I’m trying my hand at a volume by Nelly Sachs. Otherwise, my line is out and my rod tip up, waiting for a vibration.
You teach at the University of Maryland; is teaching difficult?
Yes, it’s hard. Just being a person is hard sometimes; relating to people is also not always so easy. And teaching is a big responsibility.
Why do you do it?
It keeps me in touch with something I care about–poetry and its practice, its history and its possible futures–while paying some bills. And because I can do it, and it feels good to do something that calls for your abilities, and also challenges you. I like to share what I care about, and how I care about it. I like the students, and I like my colleagues, some of whom are friends (and after a time, some students become friends, too). The stability of the situation, having a job I care about and that provides support, is helpful to me in writing.
Does teaching get in the way of writing?
Yes, but that’s life. There’s no poetry without it.
Everything’s tangled up together. The key, and it’s a difficult key to strike, is balance, so that one thing informs the other. I was never going to be a poet who strikes hot, blazes, and then burns up; I’m not made of that element. I had to figure out a way, like the snail in Thom Gunn’s poem, “Considering the Snail,” to make my deliberate progress.
Did you have teachers who were important to you when you started writing?
Oh, yeah. I started writing poetry in college, and I had three important teachers there, all poets, who I learned a lot from–Mary Kinzie, Reginald Gibbons, and Alan Shapiro. Then I went out to Berkeley because Thom Gunn taught there; he was one of my poet-heroes, and I had the great good fortune of working with him closely for the time I was there, about 10 years, one of the most important friendships of my life. I also worked closely with the Berkeley “Roberts,” Pinsky and Hass.
What did you learn from them all?
It’s difficult to say, exactly. I got a kind of classical education in Anglo-American poetry in college that served as a definite foundation; but afterward, I wanted to experiment and get beyond that. Probably not so unusual a feeling. Someone whose work I studied closely, the radical American poet, Thomas McGrath, was important to me in showing how formal poetic actions also originate in political values that are not defined as much by aesthetics as by other allegiances in the world. Or, to put it another way, what and how you care about the world is one way that your aesthetic as a poet becomes defined, over time, with practice–that may be obvious, but it wasn’t to me in my early twenties.
Another poet I spent many years thinking about and studying closely, Mina Loy, showed me something a little different, about the strength that comes from working with your own inherent strangeness and sense of marginality. Thom Gunn’s poetry means more to me than any other written in the second half of the last century, for its formal range, definition, density, and intensity. It also contains an ethics about other people, as well as one’s self, that has been, for me, foundational, and not just as a poet, but simply as a person living in the world, in relationships. But one of the things that’s so important about finding good teachers who are sympathetic to you is that you learn from them, almost unconsciously, what it means to devote yourself to a lifetime of making art. It’s serious business that can only be realized through the kind of effort that comes with play. You can’t really get that from a book, or a MOOC; it’s something that’s transmitted in real space/time through the transactions that take place between a teacher and a student, or between two people who share a love of something. It has nothing to do with information or practical skill.
You’re married to another writer, aren’t you?
Yes, the novelist, Sarah Blake. (There’s also a porn star named Sarah Blake, and a poet named Sarah Blake, and probably other notable Sarah Blakes; I’m married to the novelist).
What’s that like?
For two writers or two artists to live together is like creating a life with someone who is also creating a life somewhere else (in the mind) that’s simultaneously very close to you and very far away. At the end of the day you have to return from another world to the world where your family is, but it’s different from the usual other worlds of work or professional activity, because it comes entirely from inside of you, it’s not determined in the moment by other social relationships in real time.
Have you ever written fiction, have you ever wanted to?
When I was much younger, before I started writing poetry, I thought maybe I could be a fiction writer, or what I thought of simply as “a writer.” I read fiction voraciously (I still do, I’m a fiction junky), and even as a teenager I had started to develop something called “taste” or a “standard.” And I knew what I was trying to write in that fiction vein was awful, just terrible. When I started to write poetry, I didn’t know much about it, so even though what I was writing totally sucked, I thought it was great; my ignorance allowed me to continue. Then as I read more and learned more, I realized that in order to get good, I had to allow myself to start somewhere, even if it was bad, inept, seemingly hopeless. And the desire to do it well was more powerful than the discouragement that comes with knowing that you’ve failed. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” That’s Beckett, writing prose so good it comes at you like verse.
Yeah, but what was it about poetry, per se, that attracted you more than prose fiction, which was something you were drawn to as a reader from a young age?
Well, but I did like poetry first, I think. I loved listening to my mom read aloud from Dr. Seuss, who really is a genius, and A.A. Milne’s poetry. The first book I ever memorized without trying was Where the Wild Things Are, which is a story, and in spare prose that moves like a poem. For Sendak, the two are really one and the same. And of course all great fiction has something like poetry in it somewhere, and many great poems tell something like story. But when I started writing poetry, what I loved were two qualities that seem opposed–formal definition and formal freedom, in the sense that jazz is both shaped and open improvisation, open-ended even on the final note. Also, I enjoyed early on in the writing of poems the feeling of intense, exquisite attention to every syllable, and the feeling of making good sounds with the language. Fiction has other prerogatives that must be met. In poetry, I felt like I could just fuck around with the language, and figure stuff out.
What do you think a young poet needs?
Exposure to a lot of the great poetry of the past. Friendship with poets of her own generation. Curiosity. Interest in what’s happening in other art forms and mediums right now. A point of view. Vision. Concern for the future. Willingness. Most of all, a young poet is someone who has something best called “a knack”. A particular feeling for words. Sounds, meanings, histories, customary uses, innovations.
You’re actually not being very personal in this self-interview, how come?
Why do readers want the interview as much or even more than the poem? Is it because the interview sounds direct and candid, while the poem moves sideways and can’t be trusted? Is that why people are attracted to the sound of sincerity in poems, even if it is a sincerity constructed out of artifice? Old problems! (See Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil & Stella”!) But the interview, too, is built out of artifice.
I’m doing the best I can.
What do you think poetry has to offer people in a dark time such as the one we’ve entered after the election?
Courage to renew our efforts in the world by speaking to and from a very intimate source of human being that helps us connect to others. Something to share. A way of concentrating with special intensity on what’s important, which is not always so obvious. The satisfaction of making something out of language adequate to its occasion.
Should poetry be uplifting, then?
No shoulds or oughts. Good poetry always has lift, even at the level of rhythm.
What poet do you wish you could write like?
Shakespeare. George Herbert. Wallace Stevens. Elizabeth Bishop. Basil Bunting.
Have you learned much from musicians?
Thelonious Monk. Art Pepper. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell. Fugazi. John Lee Hooker.
Can you be more specific?
Monk: timing & attack. Pepper: lyricism that cracks. Springsteen: story-telling in song. Dylan: tension between defined structure and irrational association. Mitchell: heartbreak as journey. Fugazi: directness & ferocity. Hooker: “don’t mean nothin’ if you ain’t got that beat; throw them fancy chords away”.
Are there visual artists that you’re thinking about right now?
Anselm Kiefer. I’m transfixed by his painting, “The Renowned Orders of the Night”.
The 1938 Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, & Olivia de Havilland. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. Herzog’s Aguirre.
What has been the one thing you keep hoping to experience in the writing of poetry?