“One craves what can never be returned to.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Parts of this interview discuss Bidart's masterful new long poem, "In the Fourth Hour of the Night," which appears in the most recent issue of Poetry. You can read the poem here.
I’d love to talk about "The Fourth Hour of the Night."
What did you think of it?
It’s very strange, very eerie. Distinctly yours—it’s got that pattern of couplets followed by single lines which you’ve been working with, and in the middle of the poem there’s the long bulleted section like in "Writing ‘Ellen West,’" so it’s formally tethered to what you’ve been doing recently.
Tonally, it seems more connected with some of your earlier dramatic monologue poems.
What was it about Genghis Khan that struck your fancy, that made you want to write this piece?
First of all, I read a book by Rene Grousset called Conqueror of the World. I was tremendously struck. It’s a life I didn’t know. Of course I’d heard of Genghis Khan, but I had no idea of his life. It just seemed to me to be extraordinary material. It’s the kind of narrative that Shakespeare has in his plays about the English kings. I didn’t know of any aesthetic treatment of this material. Obviously, I didn’t just write the poem because it hadn’t been done—but that was part of it.
I wanted a poem about that aspect of the world that is brutal, that evaluates things in terms of armies and weapons. In a way it’s about contending with that part of life that’s utterly resistant to what one ordinarily thinks of as aesthetics or psychological subtlety. In which, as the poem says, “betrayal and slavery are the great teachers.” Forms of slavery that are not as literal as American slavery. But literal slavery too! He was a slave for a period, and then he made slaves. The poem becomes an arena for thinking about the relationship between slave and master.
I’m writing a sequence of poems about the “hours of the night,” and I thought at least one of the hours should have to do with war, coercion—where the great teachers are betrayal and slavery. I wanted to think about what that does to you, what you become. These are not typical poetic themes.
No, not at all.
But insofar as this group of poems embodies the arenas of life one must contend with, it seemed to me these issues had to be a part of it.
That’s fascinating. The poem is sparse in terms of the rhetorical flourishes we might expect to see, but there are these images that repeat. The wagon wheel around the neck…
Yes, absolutely. The wheel around his neck becomes the embodiment of his own slavery, but even when he is freed from it, it haunts him. As he becomes a master, it’s not as if he escapes from it. He is that thing made from his experience as a slave. The master is very much colored by his experience as a slave. “Because you could not master whatever / enmeshed you, // you became its slave— // You learned this bitterly, early. / In order not to become its slave // you had to become its master. // You became / its master. // Even as master, of course, you remain its slave.” He is caught in the dynamic of having been made by this process. Though he is now at, in some sense, the top of the process, he’s still a creature of the process. That seems to me a crucial human experience. You finally achieve mastery of that thing that had oppressed you, and yet what you are is the person whose energy had been directed at that thing that has been your oppressor. That seems to me a bitter moment, when you realize you remain a slave to that which you believed you’d overcome.
He’s a character who moves from killing his half-brother, to having all of these strange relationships with women, to, at the end of the poem, talking about his burial and saying any travelers encountering the funeral cortege were to be executed. That is such an intense thought in terms of his ability to live with himself, with what got him to where he is. And then, the poem is framed by Ch’ang-ch’un, it begins with him showing his admiration for the monk, both of them bonded by the wagon wheel idea, and it ends with him being unable to have people look upon him, even in death.
Can you talk about just the decision to open the poem by framing those two characters against each other?
Right. Obviously it was a very big decision to place at the beginning, to make the second section refer to Ch’ang-ch’un. In fact, for a very long time the penultimate section was the end of the encounter with Ch’ang-ch’un—then I added the section about the grandson. The encounter frames the whole poem. On the one hand Temujin founded the largest empire the world has ever known. He was in his own lifetime thought of as fantastically successful—and yet even he must turn to the monk and say, “Now teach me how not to die.” And the monk of course is partly terrified because he knows it's only in myths that Taoist masters have some elixir that can save one from death. That's the fable. But he's afraid that, in saying it, he's going to incur the Great Khan’s fury. So in a way they are both trapped by who they are expected to be and who they are.
Turning to Ch’ang-ch’un is an emblem of the limits of his ability to resolve things by military means, by the arrow. That is the way that he has dealt with the intolerable from the beginning. There are the lines, “How each child finds that it must deal with / the intolerable // becomes its fate.” The way he deals with the intolerable is, first, by killing his half brother. That becomes an emblem of how he dominates throughout his life. That becomes, for him, conquest. I think every child inevitably has to deal with the intolerable—and every individual finds a unique way to do that. That seems to me in some ways to unify a lot of the dramatic monologues I have written. How Herbert White deals with the intolerable is different from Ellen West, which is different from Myrrha in the “Second Hour of the Night”—but they are all dealing with what seems intolerable to them. We live in a culture that tries to imagine its children do not have to deal with the intolerable. It’s just not true.
There’s that moment where the poem says the world is good at telling itself this is a lie.
Often times children are the people who sort of have to bear the greatest burden of the intolerable.
Sometimes it results in transcendence. I’m thinking of the moment in the poem where he kills his half brother after he stole the bird and—
And there is a kind of stoicism in the brother.
“Before the arrow / was released // his half-brother did not beg to live. // His half brother’s / gaze was filled with // everything that would happen would happen.” I love that syntax—the repetition.
That speaks to me. If you like martial arts films, which I do—that sense of life is very often communicated in combat, or somehow somewhere in the films. There is acceptance that everything that would happen would happen. And that doesn’t mean you don’t fight and you don’t resist but at a certain level you accept limits, conditions, parameters—there are not that many different alternatives to what could happen.
I like that. The minions don’t go out to fight Bruce Lee thinking they’re going to single-handedly defeat him.
Absolutely. Just as with Bruce Lee in “Enter The Dragon”—when he kills the person who caused the death of his sister, in a way he knows he is condemning himself. He is not following the Buddhist ideal. He is not being the person his father would want him to be and yet he feels he must do this and there is a kind of acceptance of the tragedy of doing something terrible as well as necessary. The tragic look on Bruce Lee’s face as he kills his sister’s killer is the greatest moment in “Enter the Dragon.”
One of my favorite moments in the piece is when you write that “young want the opposite of this earth // then settle / for more of it.” That seems to me a center for this poem.
It is. First of all, I think it’s true. It’s very often the case that people start out by wanting something that is the opposite of the earth and they can’t find it. They can’t reach it, so they settle for more of it. They settle for becoming rich or famous or in some way bolstering the self by acquisition. I feel I’ve seen that so often in life. I wanted to crystalize that process. I am attributing to Temujin a disillusion I can’t prove that he felt. Except he did things near the end of his life that suggests he was not just at peace with what he had acquired. On the contrary, there was something unappeased in Genghis Khan. Some rage that no success could answer or satisfy.
You can draw a comparison with someone like Charles Foster Kane, something like that.
That sense of settling for what the earth has to offer, but then feeling this deep fundamental unfulfillment, is maybe the most striking feature of the character of Genghis Khan as you write him.
In the poem the final thing he does, before he decides how he wants to be buried, is to demand that his own son, the father of his dead grandson, even at the moment the father learns the son is dead, not only must not show grief—he demands that he must not feel grief. Which is impossible. You cannot demand that. You cannot demand that as an act of loyalty, but he’s driven to demand it. And it’s insane.
In Metaphysical Dog you talk about the great addictions being love, fame, God, power, and art.
It seems to me there are elements of each of those things in this poem. Was that deliberate?
Well, I wasn’t thinking necessarily of embodying that passage, but that passage is something I’ve brooded about a lot. What are the addictions that we feel? Power is an element in all the narratives I’ve written. Power is an element in the “Second Hour of the Night,” “Herbert White,” “Ellen West.” But it’s mostly not political power, not the power of economics—and I wanted to find a way to make a poem with those things in it too. But as you say, this poem is not only about power—it’s also about love, fame, God, and art, even.
Carl Phillips has this new book out with Graywolf in their craft series called The Art of Daring and there is this moment where he says “without the constant abandoning of one hunger for a new one, how can a writer ever grow?” That sentiment seems very tailor-made for what you have done.
When you quote it, I instinctively say to myself Yes.
Your bibliography reads like a catalogue of hungers, Golden State to Book of the Body to Desire. Each one deals with a kind of hunger.
Golden State was very much about my family. I grew up really obsessed with my family and I had to make my first book revolve around that. But, I mean, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing poems about my family or Bakersfield or California—it was just a place for me to begin. In fact I have continued to write about my mother and father but I think the sense of the issues involved and the theater involved has gotten bigger. And I wanted them to get bigger.
You know, you want to write about everything. You want to write about all the essential things. What are the essential things in human life? You have to try to figure them out. You can’t just say, “Yeats will tell me” or “Lowell will tell me.” You have to recognize a larger number of things in those writers than you were taught in school because at any given moment academia tends to emphasize the existence of certain traits and issues and not others.
I wanted to be able to see the other things that were not in what had been given to me in the poems I grew up loving. Or what was in them but I had not been able to see or focus upon—because other things had been emphasized. All the great things are in the important essential works of literature, but we don’t always see them when we first experience the works. That’s one reason to read works like War and Peace, because Tolstoy really very openly and explicitly deals with all the big things. They’re big not because they’re famous, but because they’re utterly essential to human life. Recently I was looking again at “Seven Samurai,” the Kurosawa film. In the interviews with Kurosawa in the supplements to the Criterion Blu-ray, he says he reread War and Peace every three years throughout his life. In some ways, his whole sense of what art could be was enlarged and formed by that experience.
Wow. I didn’t know that, but it totally makes sense.
This past summer I watched his Shakespeare adaptations. You get the sense of Kurosawa being someone who just knows a lot about the way that humans are and always will be.
And it’s so amazing that those films work, and you really do feel they are about what the Shakespeare plays are about—and at the same time, he does not use Shakespeare’s language. So many people somehow think that Shakespeare is the same thing as his language—as the verse. Whereas Kurosawa reveals how much that’s not the case.
Those stories have been retold and retold and retold but seldom do they resonate at that same frequency without using the actual language.
True. Yet that Kurosawa was able to do that in a different medium, in a different language—and it’s not as if the dialogue is even a translation of the play! It’s not.
There’s this famous anecdote about you writing “Herbert White” while you were in Robert Lowell’s class?
Yes. I was going to his office hours every week, and to his workshop.
Is it true he told you “there are some things that should be in poems and some things that shouldn’t be in poems”?
No. I mean I told the anecdote so I do know—when I took the poem into office hours there was one undergraduate in the room and there was Lowell. And I passed out the poem to both of them and they read it and it was the undergraduate who said, “You know, I think there’re certain things that you cannot write a poem about.” And Lowell said that he thought you could put anything in a poem if you placed it properly. And so in my mind, Lowell is the hero of that exchange because he’s not the one that was restrictive, but rather emphasized that you have to find a way to get it made, to get it into art. There is nothing that can’t be gotten into art. Which I think is true and certainly that is the premise of that poem and, in a way, of this poem.
That poem is truly unique—I don’t know that many famous works of art that deal with necrophilia.
I think you’re right.
It manages to work as a really strange and subversive piece.
What was the reception like when you first started writing openly about being gay in Book of the Body in the late-70’s?
That was in 1976. All my friends knew I was gay. I have no idea what people who didn’t know me thought, but it was not a revelation to my colleagues in school or my friends. I mean, much earlier when I was working with Lowell, he had invited—this was after he had began his relationship with Caroline Blackwood and they were living together in England—he invited me to come over and help him with revising his books and the sonnets. I was staying with Caroline and Lowell and after maybe a week or week and a half, the friendship had very much solidified and I liked both of them so much. I said to them one night after dinner, “Look, there is something I must bring up.” This was about 1971. “There is something I must tell you about and this is going to disturb you and in some ways limit our friendship and I will have to accept that, but I have to tell you…” And I told them I was gay. Their reaction was to sort of smile and say, “Well, we just assumed you were.” It was really not an issue with them.
Later, Lowell wanted to make it very explicit how he felt about this issue and he said to me, “I don’t assume that what I want to do in bed with a woman is inherently better than what you want to do in bed with a man.” He was very smart and very enlightened about this issue.
That’s so great. That’s such a wonderful anecdote. The friendship between you and Lowell is one of these famous instances of a master begetting a master who would go on to beget masters. It’s a famous and rich lineage tree. You edited his last few books for him, or helped him with that?
I was a sounding board. I wasn’t making final decisions in any way. Everything was decided by him of course and written by him but he wanted this sounding board and I liked doing that, being that. He took my responses seriously, but as I said, I was not editing those books.
What did that process look like? How did that work between you two?
Well, you know it depends on what stage it was. When he was writing his last book he would simply give me a copy of a poem, I’d read it, and we’d talk about it. During those years I was not living with them but we would spend a lot of time talking about new work. In the period when I was actually living with him, when he was revising the sonnets, we would—because the first version of many of the sonnets were in a book called Notebook—I would actually cut out a copy of the sonnet, tape it on the top of a large page. He would be across the room lying on his bed—not the bed in which he slept, it was a work bed. I would be sitting in a chair maybe ten feet away and he would dictate changes he wanted to make and then I would sit there and read the changes and we’d discuss them. Sometimes I liked them, sometimes I didn’t like them, sometimes we’d argue and sometimes not. But there was a process of discussion that happened that was very... Immediately in response to the discussion, he would dictate more revisions. And then those were later transcribed and then we would look at those and discuss those.
It felt incredible. I mean believe me, I felt unbelievably privileged. I felt that I was living on Parnassus. I mean it was very thrilling. It really was very thrilling. I loved Lowell. Lowell was very brilliant person but he was also very kind to me. I felt he was a profound artist, a great artist and I felt incredibly lucky to be—you know, that he liked talking about his new work with me. In a way it’s a privilege I’ve never recovered from. One craves what can never be returned to.
Switching gears a little bit. A couple of years ago you got to have a movie made of one of your poems which is a pretty cool—that’s not a thing that many poets get to boast. Can you talk about how that process came to be?
First of all I was very lucky. James Franco was in the Warren Wilson program and he heard a lecture by Gaby Calvocoressi—she gave a lecture which was at least partly about “Herbert White.” He was very struck by the poem. He was at that time in the NYU Film MFA program and in a directing course. He decided that he wanted to direct a short film based on "Herbert White"—it was a very gutsy thing for him to do, because the problems of making a film of it are obvious.
His mentor in the NYU program was a filmmaker named Jay Anania. Jay had been asked several years earlier by WGBH to make a thirty-minute film about me and my work—he made a wonderful film that’s really quite ambitious called “Frank Bidart: The Maker.”
Anyway, the point is that when James mentioned to him that he wanted to make a film based on Herbert White, Jay said, “Well I know Frank, let me call him.” He called me and I said, “Well yes, but I would like to talk to him.”
If one is going to let someone else make a new work of art based on one’s own work of art you have to give them freedom. You can’t say, no you can do this but you can’t do that, or it has to end up this way. I just don’t believe in that at all.
So when James called I said, “You can make whatever film you want to, but I would like to explain to you how I understand this material—because it’s material that could so obviously be misinterpreted, or in my eyes seen in ways that are just superficial or trashy or sloppy.” I asked him if we could have dinner, so I could explain how I understand Herbert White. He came to Cambridge and we had dinner and it was really one of the great dinners of my life. I picked him up at his hotel at about 5:30 PM and we literally ended up talking in the restaurant until about 2 in the morning.
He is very smart and it was great fun to talk to him. I really did want to explain to him how I understood this material, but of course, I also wanted to have dinner with James Franco. I had just seen “Pineapple Express,” in which he’s quite brilliant, and “Milk,” in which he is also wonderful—and I wanted to meet him. It was amazing to meet somebody from his world who was both so knowledgeable about and so interested in my world, in the poetry world. He wanted to hear stories that I knew about poets and I have always been a movie fan and love hearing stories about Hollywood—and so we could talk about Brando’s career or whatever, you know? James is somebody who really thinks about Hollywood and the history of Hollywood and the history of the art.
In fact I was so absorbed in the conversation at the restaurant I literally looked up at about 1:30 in the morning and realized we were the only people in it, except they had left one person at the bar to close up. So, we talked maybe eight hours, something like that. I like very much the film he made and it’s very much his own. It’s not as if it’s simply the poem, not at all. He cast Michael Shannon as Herbert White and he’s wonderful—it was a great privilege to have Michael Shannon in it because he’s such a good actor. I lucked out in a very big way.
Are you still in touch with James at all?
Yes, we have remained friends. I love to look at new work and love to be a sounding board and I have done that with his poetry and with other things he’s done. So that’s been the ground of our friendship that has continued.
I never read his collection with Graywolf.
Well you should read it! I think it’s very good, but I think his work since then is even better.
Yes. He writes a lot. He’s very serious. And really I think the work has just grown and grown.
I will say that a lot of the people who bemoan the fact that nobody is reading poetry in one breath turn around and criticize Franco for publishing a book that drew a ton of attention to one of the best indie publishers around, Graywolf. Did much of that criticism reach you as someone who was mentoring him?
Not really. I was aware of it and I look at what people say about him in the blogs sometimes. The level of small-minded back-biting is so unbelievable. I mean it’s really as if people are bewildered by anything that does not fit into what they have been taught is good. James refuses to fit in the categories of Hollywood actor or handsome young man or any of those categories you expect, what you expect of the actors you grew up liking. He just won’t fit into those and people are very bewildered and sometimes very upset and sometimes just mean in response.
I think it will be neat to release this talk when “Fourth Hour of the Night” appears in Poetry. You don’t see these kind of long poems appearing there very often. I guess Pinsky had that libretto a few years ago.
Yes—“Death and the Powers.” It’s a profound vision of an all-too-possible future. An amazing text.
But you don’t see that too often. You don’t see those sorts of long poems appearing in Poetry.
They published “The Third Hour of the Night” at the beginning of Chris Wiman’s tenure as editor, but it is very seldom you see a very long poem.
You and Pinsky taught together, right?
We’ve been close friends for many years.
You guys sort of have this monopoly on the Poetry long poem appearance!
Well I hope it’s not a monopoly. But we’ve both been interested in writing long poems, that’s very true.
I’m excited to read and hear people’s reaction to it.
It will be very interesting. I have to say that when “The Third Hour of the Night” appeared in Poetry, they printed a lot of letters in response and the vast majority of them were very negative. People were quite upset that the whole issue of the magazine was taken up by one poem, and they didn’t like the poem. So I’m not assuming that the reaction is going to be favorable to “Fourth Hour.” It’s a very different poem, I think, but I can never predict how people are going to react—ever.
I think poems of this sort of ambition, again sort of encompassing all of the great addictions, power, fame, art, God, love—you don’t get a lot of poems that are openly that ambitious. And you don’t get a lot of historical poems like this either.
It’s certainly been dominating a substantial portion of my consciousness since I first read it. And that’s what you want when you write a poem, right?
Interview Posted: May 4, 2015
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