Robert Pinsky was born on October 20, 1940, in Long Branch, New Jersey. Even as a child, Pinsky was conscious of his love for the arts. His father, Milford Simon, was an optician. Sylvia, his mother, wanted her son to become an optician, too. Instead, Robert became the first person in his family to go to college. While attending Rutgers University, Pinsky copied his favorite poem—William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”—by hand, and taped it to his wall for inspiration. In 1961 Robert married Ellen Jane Bailey, a clinical psychologist. Over the course of the next ten years, the Pinsky family would add three daughters—Nicole, Caroline Rose, and Elizabeth. Upon graduation in 1962, Pinsky enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University in California. After receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford, he returned to the East Coast to teach at Wellesley College from 1968 to 1980. In 1980 he trekked back to California to join the English Department at The University of California at Berkeley.
Pinsky’s first volume of poetry, Sadness and Happiness, published in 1975, further intrigued him to examine literary compositions. In an attempt to explain his unique approach to writing poetry, Robert Pinsky published extensive volumes of literary criticism, including The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry in Its Traditions, Poetry and the World, and The Sounds of Poetry. Published in 1976, The Situation of Poetry articulates Pinsky’s need to “find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.” Pinsky’s approach to poetry incorporates psychological insight, historical accounts, and even comedic relief.
Pinsky’s love of knowledge and desire to create led him to publish his most famous poem in 1994, The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. This book enthralled Pinsky who said, “I literally could not stop working on it.” He worked obsessively, writing until the point of sleep. “We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night.” Inferno ended up on the best-sellers list. New Yorker contributor Edward Hirsch said, “The primary strength of this translation is the way it maintains the original’s episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character. It is no small achievement to reproduce Dante’s rhyme scheme and at the same time sound fresh and natural in English, and Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante’s vernacular music where many others have failed.” Inferno received both The Los Angeles Times Book Review Award and the Howard Morton Landon Prize for Translation in 1995. Pinsky’s masterpiece furthered his successful career in writing, and earned him his next job: Poet Laureate of the United States.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington appointed Robert Pinsky to be the ninth Poet Laureate and the country’s 39th Consultant in Poetry in 1997. The position of Poet Laureate requires recipients to complete an annual lecture on their poetry as well as introduce poets in the Library’s annual poetry series (among the oldest in the country). In addition, the Laureate is expected to raise public awareness of poetry through programs and country-wide projects. The energetic Pinsky was elated to receive the title of Poet Laureate for three consecutive terms; “American poetry has been one of our national achievements. Along with the honor of following the American poets who have held this post, I have an opportunity to continue our appreciation of that treasure. I am very pleased.”
In 1997, Pinsky also started “The Favorite Poem Program.” Now compiled on an internet database, the program initially invited 100 average Americans to read their favorite poetry and have it recorded for the official archives of the Library of Congress. The program was a huge success, receiving over 18,000 submissions and attracting people from all walks of life. During his final year as Poet Laureate of the United States, Pinsky served as the celebrity judge for the selection of the Poet Laureate for Montgomery County. Founded in 1999 by Joanne Leva, a resident of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, each year the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program selects a local poet to write and read poems for county events in the coming year. Three other poets, including the celebrity judge, select the winner by identifying and ranking the top 25 poems submitted by all the applicants.
Robert Pinsky, a self-proclaimed email addict, currently serves as poetry editor for Slate, an online weekly Internet magazine. Unable to quell his love of the east coast, Robert left Berkley in 1988 to take a position at Boston University in the English department. He now teaches a poetry workshop for graduate students. During the baseball season, he can be spotted at Fenway Park cheering on the Boston Red Sox. Mr. Pinsky and his wife Ellen reside in Newton Corner, Massachusetts.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In my early thirties, I still had not published a book; that made me feel extremely old. Then Sadness And Happiness was accepted—won three contests at once, so I had to choose; and then the same publisher took The Situation of Poetry. Within a short span I went from being an aging failure to a boy wonder. I hope the experience taught me to ignore these silly, temporary categories: in oneself, and in the world. Internal, and external.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started out as a musician, and I guess poetry is the closest form of writing to that. Briefly, I tried to write plays, influenced by my great teacher Francis Fergusson author of The Idea of a Theater. I kept getting involved in little matters of cadence, and all the characters sounded like me. So . . .
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Everybody is different. I generate language quickly, then can spend weeks or months polishing or re-structuring the work of a few minutes. I almost never take or make notes; if it stays in my head, good. If not, goodbye.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I get something like a tune in my head.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading with great jazz musicians: Bobby Bradford, Ben Allison, Vijay Iyer, Rakalam Bob Moses, Marc Seales, Stan Strickland. I love it.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The only theoretical concerns I think about much, if they are theoretical concerns are: what are the important subjects? How do the lines and sentences sound.
I don’t think about “current questions”—prefer the past and the future to the present.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
See above re “current.” My role is to make things someone else might want to say, as in the videos at www.favoritepoem.org Seph Rodney wants to say that poem by Plath or Pov Chen wants to say the Langston Hughes. The videos embody my idea of poetry.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t like routines. Probably I have habits but I guess I cultivate the illusion that I have none. Often, I waste clear days. Often, I’ll compose in the airport departure lounge, or while driving. I have the work habits of an unsuccessful student: erratic spurts and jags and lassitudes. No method, no rules.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Great works of art.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Read my poems with Don Byron improvising behind me.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wanted to be a musician, tried for a while. I think I could have made a decent dancer, if I had started early. Possibly, if I didn’t go a bad way (I was a very bad student in adolescence, kicked out of school, dumb class, etc.) I might have become something or the other in some kind of show business.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
One thing I’ve excelled at is playing with the sounds of words. So I followed that—“writing” may not even be the best word for it. I compose in lines and sentences.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
A play, adapted from Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy, about the Thirty Year War. I’m making one play out of three, using Coleridge’s translation as a trot. Actors have done a table-read of it, and guided by them and the director Michael Kahn I am trying to make it quick and to the point.
And also, with my Selected Poems out this month, new poems for the next book.
Robert Pinsky reads in Ottawa at the ottawa international writers festival on May 2, 2011, as well as conducting a master class;