You’re a busy man. You have a good job, a family, you live in a great city. There must be other ways you could spend your time. Why bother writing poetry in a time when most people have lost faith in literature and when poetry seems so far removed from what people care about?
I was in an English class at a place called the Englewood School for Boys. We were reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with our teacher, Malcolm Duffy, and I was struck down by what Brutus said to Cassius before they parted ways toward the end, on the plains of Philippi: “O that a man might know / the end of this day’s business ‘ere it come! / But it sufficeth that the day will end, / and then the end is known.” I’d look around at my friends and classmates in the hallways of that school and think to myself, “Well, you’re quite handsome, or you’re a fine athlete, or you come from a rich family, but I never heard YOU say anything like that. You probably never will. But I am going to try.” Those lines are still with me now. There is so much wisdom and expressive precision in that iambic arrangement of words. They gave me my first insight into the power of language. Even back then I had a sense—confirmed now—that there isn’t much we actually own, since most of the things we have can be taken away from us, but we do have language. Maybe “have” is not the right word. We partake of language, and no one can rob us of that. Paul Celan knew that too. Through language we have access to power. I don’t mean political or physical power. I mean expressive power, artistic power, the means to drill down to something true and express it perfectly. That’s why I write poetry. To try to wield that power accessible to anyone who cares about language and thought and putting the right words in the right order. Poetry does this much better than prose.
Can you explain?
Even when Shakespeare was writing plays, he usually wrote with the prosodic toolbox of the poet. In the lines spoken by Brutus, the prosodic element that helps impart a balanced, clear-eyed wisdom to the expression is the steadying iambic beat of his mainly pentameter lines. What Brutus is saying is very practical. He’s not using fancy words. The language is in no way florid. And yet it is profoundly beautiful. Part of that beauty is in the dramatic element, and part of it is in the metrical control of the language. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets important to me early on was “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” The language in that sonnet, too, is hard and clear, muscular. It’s not an effusion. It is driven by tight, economical thinking, not rheumy rumination. And the sonnet form, that most beloved structure, gives it compression and force. If language is the only parameter in our lives over which we have full control, then writing formal poetry is the highest exercise of that control. It’s deeply satisfying. That’s why I mainly write formal verse. Free verse is fine, and I have written many free verse poems, but free verse is too susceptible to cheap tricks. For Frost, it was tennis without a net. I’d say it’s like going to the beach without swimming in the sea. What I mean is, you’re kind of there, but you’re not partaking at the fundamental level. Of course, some people have never learned to swim, so all they can do is sit in the sand. You can think about it this way, too. Would you rather buy a car built by a man with a rubber mallet and a crowbar or a car built by an engineer who used all the right tools? I have grown very tired of the war between free verse and formal poetry. Both done well are worthy; little of both is done well. We may have lots more people writing poetry now, so there are greater quantities of it everywhere, like pizza, but now as in most periods of history, the majority of it is not great and won’t last. Genius is not democratic. It doesn’t care about you or your rights under the law. Vicious idea!
What poets have been important to you?
Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and certainly Philip Larkin. What I have admired in each of them, and what I’ve learned from each, is too long to go into here. That’s a separate essay.
What books have been important to you that are not books of poetry?
If I were teaching in an MFA program, I would make these books mandatory reading for my students: Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, and the novel New Grub Street (1891), by George Gissing. Also, One Art, the Selected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop. Rilke demonstrates what it means to be serious and have high-minded aspirations, and he gives good advice to young people. He says some very good things about what a poet ought to be able to do, even in inauspicious circumstances. Van Gogh demonstrates dedication to the end. He is literally a martyr for his art. No posing or faking in his sad, beautiful life. Gissing’s novel is a cautionary tale. He shows the tension between commerce and art in the literary world. It may have been the literary world of London in the 1880s, but by God you read that book and tell me if things have changed! Hey, one of those guys could be you. Can you handle that? If so, proceed. As for dear Elizabeth Bishop, she was a wonderful, smart, troubled poet who lived far away from the po-biz machine yet produced some of the mid-twentieth century’s most beautiful poems. Her prose style is as engaging as her poetry. She had an inheritance from her father, which freed her up for most of her life and kept her away from Grub Street. But she was the real deal. She declined to be categorized as a female poet or a lesbian poet. She just wanted to be known as a poet.
Some other books that have been important to me? Reading the John D. Sinclair translation of Dante’s Inferno was seminal. Moby Dick changed my life. Huckleberry Finn I reread every few years. I read it in its entirety to my son and daughter when they were very young. And I’ve always loved Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke. Right now, a book that I always keep at hand is The Greek Poets, an anthology of poems in English translation from Homer to the present. The editors include Rachel Hadas and Edmund Keeley. Hadas, a poet in her own right, is someone I have grown to admire greatly, and Keeley’s translations of C. P. Cavafy are among my favorite poems. I wish I could read them in Greek! I turn to his Cavafy translations when I need to be reminded of how to say something utterly beautiful and seemingly without artifice.
Let me ask you the standard Paris Review questions. What implement do you write with? When? Where?
I write anywhere, anytime, and with anything. I long ago stopped wasting time wishing I didn’t have to work at a job. I do have to work. I love my family and I want to support them and live in Manhattan. I have a great job that I’m dedicated to and that treats me well. I’m an editor in the financial services industry. I’m working directly with language all day long, albeit language in the service of numbers. It’s not inconducive to my own writing. I compose in my head on the subway, I type ideas and lines and poems into a computer at home before dawn or after midnight, or whenever, and sometimes during quiet moments at work. When I’m away from a computer, I usually write in a schoolboy’s composition book, with a pencil (and an eraser!), and then transcribe the work to a computer at the next convenient moment. Whenever I travel, I always bring with me a composition book and pencils. I compose while walking, while sitting at a computer, while sitting on the couch or outside by a soccer field or walking in the woods. My method: do what you have to do to get the poem done. One thing I’ve found helpful is something very simple that the poet Alfred Corn told me many years ago. If you can devote 45 minutes per day to the cause, then you’re doing well. Back then (I was doing my MFA at Columbia in the early 1990s), I didn’t think that was a lot of time. Now I do. If you can do that consistently, at a minimum, and if you’re a disciplined worker, you can achieve a lot.
Why aren’t you teaching?
I would love to teach, but I can’t afford to do it. It doesn’t pay a living wage, especially if you don’t have a PhD. I don’t have a PhD. I am a Master of Fine Arts.
Would your recommend an MFA for aspiring poets?
Yes, despite everything said against them, it is where you meet serious, like-minded writers, both teachers and fellow students. Down the road, you help each other. I went to Columbia in the early 1990s. I studied with Henri Cole, William Matthews, Lucie Brock Broido and Alfred Corn. The fellow students I met there were as important to me the teachers. It was there that I became friends with David Yezzi and Ben Downing. We have remained friends ever since, and they are among the contemporary poets I most admire.
What are your thoughts on publishing?
Publishing is hard. Most young poets—people who think they want to be poets—drop away through attrition. They can’t take it. As Flannery O’Connor might have said, it’s probably better that way. What these people really want is to see their names in magazines and be thought of as poets. But that’s not the same as being a poet. A poet writes poetry. Good poetry. My advice is write the best poems you can and submit them relentlessly to people you know and to people you don’t know. Eventually, the good poems will find homes. Just keep writing. Do you have a choice? If the answer is no, then you are probably a poet. If the answer is yes, then I’d advise you to spend your money on an MBA or a psychiatrist. To publish, it helps to live in a community of writers whom you admire and whose aesthetic you share. If you don’t do an MFA, it’s important to go to readings and meet other writers through whatever channels you can. Like much else in life, success depends on being with people. We are social animals.
What are your thoughts on poetry readings?
Poets should go to poetry readings to see how to read, and how not to read. There are good poets who are horrible readers, and horrible poets who are wonderful readers. Two examples of excellent poets who are (or were) excellent readers are James Merrill and C. K. Williams. Donald Justice was also a great reader: strong poetry that spoke for itself, and his delivery was uncontrived and without literary pretensions. I wish I could have heard Elizabeth Bishop read, though I think I may have been disappointed. Back in the day (at NYU, in the early 1990s) I read on stage with the famous Allen Ginsberg, who was an amusing but shuffling and unanimated windbag. I loved his poetry when I was in my twenties.
What do you think about the Poetics of Identity?
Everyone has an identity. People celebrate their identities. That’s what makes this country the great, vibrant, multivalent place that it is. But a person’s identity doesn’t really matter. It’s what the poet does as a poet to make his or her story live in language that matters. Just another way of saying it’s the poetry, not the identity, that counts. That seems self-evident to me as an artistic principle, but there are police out there waiting to cut my balls off with a butter knife for saying such a thing. I think people should revel in their identity, celebrate it, take it to the bank. But the road of poetry is hard. It has no mercy. Do what you can do.
How do you reconcile your working life with your life as a poet?
I don’t have a method, other than to stay close to my poetry. And I don’t have a choice. If I weren’t working, I’d have no money and I would live under a bridge. I work with smart, articulate Brazilians in the financial services industry, and it means something that I can speak Portuguese with them. Being in an environment where you have to speak another language is inspiring in itself. Prior to my current job, I worked for Bear Stearns, and at Bear no one gave a damn if I spoke Portuguese or ancient Greek or Persian. But Bear is gone, and I’m still here.
Is it true you lived in a garret for six years? In Paris?
I lived in an unheated, cold-water chambre de bonne (a maid’s room) at 48 Rue des Martyrs, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, from 1984 to March of 1990. I wrote of sequence of sonnets about those years. It’s called, unmysteriously, “Rue des Martyrs,” and it makes up section two of my first book, Techne’s Clearinghouse. It was a small room with a vista over Paris, and I was interested then in the idea of the sonnet as a small but well-organized room. A 14-line stanza! So I wrote a sequence to commemorate that time. I read more books in those years in Paris than I have in all the rest of my life. It was like a long, leisurely, post-graduate education, without the bullshit or the tuition. Just books, friends, bars, churches, relationships, museums, restaurants. Lots of restaurants. And lots of good wine. All in Paris. I was working as an assistant editor at the International Herald Tribune, which is based in Paris, and doing some light-weight free-lance journalism. I was also writing poetry. It was in Paris that I met the Brazilian woman who would become my partner and my wife and the mother of our kids. She changed my life.
Some people have suggested that people like you don’t look like poets. You don’t dress like a poet. How do you respond to that?
I write poetry.
What is your poetry about?
This is the dreaded question that people actually ask at parties when they learn that you are a poet. It’s a very honest question, so although it makes me sweat, I do my best to honor it. Depending on the situation and how much I’ve had to drink, I will say “oh, I write about people, places, things, and ideas.” Or I might say, “I write to help you better understand your deluded life,” or I could say, “I write about what it’s like to live in the world and to think and see and love and lose and survive. I write to try to understand the world better and to understand myself better.”
Do you sometimes wish you were a teacher?
I taught first-year composition courses at Columbia and Barnard. At Columbia, it was the infamous Logic & Rhetoric course mandatory for all hapless first-year students. At Barnard, it was a mandatory first-year composition course that included elements of ESL instruction. I loved teaching, and I was good at it. To teach composition is to teach young people how to think straight. Not easy. But it was an honor to be tasked with this valuable work in the trenches of academia. I was invited back. But I couldn’t accept because the available compensation would have bankrupted me within one year. I would love to teach poetry workshops, too, but I cannot see a way to do it that makes sense economically. It does seem like such a good gig.
Has fatherhood influenced your writing?
Yes. It has made me humbler. When my two children were very young, they didn’t care about my poetry and my dreams. They needed me as an animal. This is humbling. It is how the world works. A father can’t afford to make too many mistakes. Fatherhood humbled me and helped me set aside my ego. For a poet, it’s necessary to do that, to write from somewhere else, somewhere bigger. When you are writing, you want a direct line to the heavens, not a feedback loop to your self.
What are some recent accomplishments?
In July of 2009 I was in Brazil and saved two people from drowning. The first was a 13-year-old girl caught in a rip current off the beach at Leblon, in Rio. She was going into a panic. I swam out to her and dragged her out of it and swam her in. That same summer I was on another beach just north of Salvador, and I saved a Brazilian man who got swept off a sandbar in heavy surf and was flailing in the waves and going under, just like in a cartoon. I was the only one nearby who saw what was happening. The surf was loud, and no one else heard him screaming. I swam out to him and stabilized him until a surfer came over with his board. We dragged him back through fifty yards of breakers. I was glad to be put in a situation where I could do some real good. I’m not a lifeguard, but I love to swim.
Any final thoughts?
I’m still possessed by this idea, conceived when I was in my twenties, that the world would be a better, more coherent place if I could just say something that was beautiful and true and perfectly expressed. If I could just lay down the perfect line, I would be a better man, a better husband, a better father, a better brother, a better friend. I would balance all equations. That’s why I keep writing.