most recent poetry collections are Sonnet 56
(Les Figues Press, 2009), consisting of 56 formal versions of Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number, Edge and Fold
(Apogee Press, 2006), and Poems in Spanish
(Omnidawn, 2005). A new book consisting of two poems, Desolation : Souvenir
, will be published by Omnidawn in early 2012. His volume of literary essays, Fables of Representation
, was published by University of Michigan Press in 2004. With Maxine Chernoff, he edited and translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin
(Omnidawn, 2008), winner of the PEN-USA Translation Award. The two also edit the literary magazine, New American Writing
. With Nguyen Do, he edited and translated the anthology, Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry
(Milkweed Editions, 2008) and Beyond the Court Gate: Poems of Nguyen Trai
(1380-1442), published by Counterpath Press in 2010. He has won the Frederick Bock Award for poems that appeared in the June, 2010, issue of Poetry
and, with Sharon Olds, the Jerome J. Shestack Award for the best poems to appear in American Poetry Review
in 2002. Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, he edited the widely adopted anthology, Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1994) and currently curates the poetry reading series at the deYoung Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Letter to Einstein Beginning Dear Albert
, was published in 1979, and it changed my life to a small degree. I was 33 at the time, and my students had been asking me, “When are you going to publish a book?” So they were relieved, and I’m sure I was, too. The book had a generous blurb by John Ashbery and was “thick” in language, in the sense that Péret is thicker than Desnos and Breton or Bruce Andrews is thicker than Lyn Hejinian. The last couple of poems in the book, including “Nature Poem,” turned toward a more casual, everyday phrasing I would use later on, in balance with the “thick.” Irony has long been a feature of my writing, but in recent years I have varied my idiom, from the lyrical tone of Poems in Spanish
, Edge and Fold
, and the Desolation : Souvenir
(Omnidawn, 2012) to the proceduralist Sonnet 56
and “Gravity’s Children,” a book-length series of poems based on the Books of the Old Testament.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first real engagement with poetry began when, as a senior at Manchester College in Indiana, I took the Modern Poetry class taught by James Hollis, who went on to become a noted Jungian therapist and author. My term paper for the course was on William Carlos Williams, a useful choice as it turned out. I hadn’t written any poetry yet and didn’t trust poetry as a mode of writing. I had been writing short stories under the influence of Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson. I didn’t begin to write poems until I was 25 and working as middle manager at a Chicago hospital. Based on the ten or so poems I’d produced, I was accepted by Paul Carroll to the fledging Program for Writers at University of Illinois Chicago. Two key moments in those years were James Hollis asking me to get a PhD and return to Manchester to teach with him, and Paul Carroll telling me, beneath an umbrella in a spring sun-shower, that I was a “true poet” and he wanted to include me in the second edition of his anthology, The Young American Poets
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?
I keep notebooks, but only occasionally make use of them. The major instance was in writing a series of five book-length poems, each in a single 24-hour day. Only two have been published, “The Reading,” which appears in Edge and Fold
, and “At the Sound,” published by Beard of Bees as an electronic chapbook. I became more conscious of the structure of my books when I started writing long poems. The book Poems in Spanish
was built around a concept: poems written as if in Spanish. In “Edge and Fold,” my first attempt at the serial poem, I decided with the first poem on a specific “look” to the page: no caps, no punctuation, each page consisting of hesitation, application, swerving, and silence. Once I’m engaged in a project, I’m persistent and work every day on it. As a result, I seem to work quickly.
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?
A phrase or concept is enough to begin, if I’m open to writing that day. It also helps enormously if I’m working on a series. In my last three books, I had the concept from the start. With “Gravity’s Children,” I knew would begin with Genesis and end with Malachi, one poem for each book of the Old Testament. But I had no idea of the tone of the book and had not read the Bible to any degree before starting. In a serial poem like “Edge and Fold,” each page is made to cohere by a lash or knot of language that also sits well with neighboring pages. All the relatedness comes in the moment of making, not in advance, by intuition rather than a map.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy giving readings and believe that the best test of a poem is to read it in front of an audience. But there can be a great difference in audiences, and some poems aren’t designed for a general audience. Charles Bernstein
has a lot of fun with this theme in his recent book, Attack of the Difficult Poems
. The rule is generally: the more avant-garde your work, the less a general audience can understand you. I prefer to feel a perfect absorption of the poem by the audience, which can literally be heard as a silence from the place you are speaking. It’s this exchange of attentions that probably led Robert Creeley
to define a poem as “an act of attention.” Difficulty can receive such attention, too, as long as the poet reads her work in its true cadence and intention—that is, from the inside, with an active interest—as Gertrude Stein does in her recording of “Would He Like It if I Told Him: A Portrait of Picasso.”
When the poet places her feelings outside the poem, attention immediately wavers, and the audience sends back signals of unease and impatience.
The success of Flarf, conceptual poetry, and Newlipo is due in large part to their perfect accessibility. Such works carry with them a clear announcement of what they are and what they are not; that is, their concept and form speak in advance of their words. They declare: (1) I’m a 900-page transcript of an issue of the New York Times
; (2) a series of prose poems employing only the vowel “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u”; (3) a poem consisting entirely of language found online with search engines. Such works may seem easy, because you don’t have to read them very carefully to comprehend their value. However, virtuosity and craftsmanship still pertain in the case of Christian Bök’s Eunoia
or Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge
. Flarf craftsmanship lies in the sculpting of tone, conceptualism in the crafting of concept. When conceptualist Vanessa Place
reads her book-length work consisting of the letter “u,” she gives up after 60 seconds, realizing that she, too, is bored by it. Such conceptual works are never fulfilled by performance, but rather exhausted by it. This doesn’t mean they are any less as conceptual works. Better to hold the weighty book in your hand and muse silently on its material existence.
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?
I’m not after anything in my poems that I know how to name, theoretically or otherwise. Nor do I have questions for the poem. It raises its own questions. We seem to be at a moment when the materialist motive is gaining ground and subjectivity is at low ebb. Taking sides in that battle does tend to prepare the poem in advance by muting or enhancing irony and desire. I believe that poetry will always remain more or less expressive at base. Finally there comes a parking lot so dark you have to whistle your way across it.
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?
The rise to political influence of the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia following the death of his son would never have occurred in the United States. We say the right things privately, we give money to causes, but, intimidated by the Homeland Security act and the specter of disappearing into an offshore torture site, we fall silent. When Maria Baranda, Eduardo Hurtado, David Huerta, and a dozen other poets of Mexico City announced a march to bring peace in the war on drugs, 40,000 people showed up in the Zocalo on three days’ notice.
I do believe that writers and intellectuals should have political influence, as happened when Robert Lowell, Bertrand Russell, and Norman Mailer headed the march on the Pentagon. Perhaps the problem is that intellectuals have ceased being celebrities in the U.S. Our most effective political philosophers seem to be George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. And there’s no Dick Cavett or David Susskind in the mass media to remind us how important our intellectual lives are.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
There should be more editing rather than less. When a chapter of my novel was published in The New Yorker
, the editor changed nearly every sentence to suit the house style. But I changed much of it back for the novel publication. Rusty Morrison of Omnidawn
is a good line by line editor and improved several passages in Poems in Spanish
. Usually there isn’t much in the way of content editing in poetry; it’s easier to eliminate the entire poem.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You’re only as good as your last poem (Dean Faulwell
). Run straight to the heart of the battle as if already dead (The Book of the Samurai
). The greater the distance, the clearer the view (W. G. Sebald
). Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.
10 – How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve made several genre shifts from poetry: writing three plays one summer in the 1970s; writing a novel in the 1980s (Saigon, Illinois
, Vintage Contemporaries, 1988); writing critical prose in the 90s (Fables of Representation
, University of Michigan Press, 2004); and translating Hölderlin, Nguyen Trai, and San Juan de la Cruz. Each of the genre crossings was instructive to my poetry, but translation has had the greatest impact. Prose doesn’t have much appeal for me right now. I can’t imagine writing another novel, what a lot of work! The poetry genre is the fairest of them all, but you would never know it by reading critical prose. You have to stand in the mirror of a great poem.
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?
If I’m on a writing project, writing begins the first thing after breakfast and continues until I have to eat lunch. Then I work a little more, until around 2 p.m. I’m happiest when I’m writing every day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I listen to recordings of poets reading their work or open a volume of Stevens
. Lorine Niedecker
and Stevie Smith
are also very helpful.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Poison (Christian Dior).
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?
Films are inspiring to me, also gallery visits, especially photography. I rarely listen to music but love good classical music when I chance upon it.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
, Carlos Drummond de Andrade
, Fernando Pessoa
, Emily Dickinson
, Thomas Traherne
, and John Clare
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel to Italy.
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?
It would be nice to run a small movie theater, where I’d have a small windowless office near the concession stand. I enjoy physical tasks, so I might also have thrived as a welder or carpenter.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t think there was ever another option. In the eighth grade, I wanted to be a scientist because Mr. Blazer, our science teacher, was a very nice man, wore well-tailored suits, and ran successful experiments. My father used to speak of having a “calling” in the church. I don’t think one calls on poetry; it appears to you one day on the street, both arms laced to the shoulder with wristwatches, whispering something you have to lean close to understand.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m not sure it’s a great book, but I loved Toy Medium: Materialism and the Modern Lyric by Daniel Tiffany
. The most emotionally satisfying movie I’ve seen recently is the Japanese film, Departures
(2008), about an out of work cellist who takes a job ceremonially dressing dead bodies, as is the custom, in view of the family. My favorite movie of all time is The Last Picture Show
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m between projects, so I’m tinkering with two completed manuscripts, “Gravity’s Children,” which I’ve already described, and “The Windows,” which consists of proceduralist works. I’m supposed to be writing an introduction to my translation, with María Baranda, of the Poesías of San Juan de la Cruz
, but I’m getting a slow start due to other tasks like teaching, editing New American Writing
, judging poetry contexts, and writing a book of essays about the moral aspect of poetry.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;