“My big mouth really does get me into lots of trouble.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
If it’s safe to call Lucky Life your breakout book—
Right, it was.
Then, I was wondering if you might talk about your life prior to that book coming out?
I was writing books at fourteen and fifteen. Most poets in my generation like Phil Levine and Robert Bly, they published their first books and had nine readers. Then their second book came out and they had twenty-nine readers, and the third book was their breakout book. I was a severe critic of my own work and I buried myself in the attic, so to speak.
I did publish one book before Lucky Life called Rejoicings. I called myself a poet and I was a poet but I was somewhat lost. I got stuck in various projects and then life itself and work and such. I spent my twenties as a kind of a bum, wandering, living in New York, wandering between New York and Europe on the Dutch freighters and such. I wrote a few good poems but I was never part of a group.
I didn’t make a kind of connection I could have made, should have made, might have made until I was in my late thirties. Lucky Life came out when I was probably fifty or something. I had friends who were poets. In Pittsburgh where I grew up I was connected with two other people, Jack Gilbert and Richard Hasley, who was a good poet too. He had all the makings, traditionally and conventionally as a poet, he knew nature. He was more at home in nature, knew more about it than anybody I ever saw. He could recite thousands of poems by heart. He was in theater groups and so on but he didn’t have the will. I think that to become an artist, it’s thirty percent skill, twenty percent luck, and fifty percent will.
Yeah, that sounds exactly right.
I was living in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Indiana State College, Indiana near Pittsburgh, and I was working on some crazy long poems and I was stuck in them and I noticed I was writing lines in the margins. Where my hand was, where my pen was, without any connection to my brain and I started to collect those things and those were the poems that would appear in Rejoicings.
Really? That’s wonderful.
So that’s sort of where I was at. Then with Lucky Life, I was really lucky and I had a huge acceptance of it. Dozens of reviews and all that stuff. At that time I was teaching in a community college in New Jersey and I was head of the union and head of the state union and stuff like that, and then I was publishing in magazines like the New Yorker and Poetry and American Poetry Review and then the book came out. That’s sort of the general background. It’s nothing very special, and it’s not like I was a soldier or lawyer or something and then started to write poetry. I always identified as a poet.
It’s interesting to hear about someone who broke out in their forties or fifties.
Yeah, I never got an MFA, although I spent a lifetime teaching. Iowa, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, NYU, and so on. I never was really a student in a workshop. We used to meet in Pittsburgh, the three of us, almost every night to go to a little restaurant. There were no cafes then so we would each order something—one of us would order tea and one potato salad and we sat there all night. We didn’t show each other poems. Instead, we recited poems that we had read that day or that week, you know? When I went to college, I don’t think I'd ever seen a poet. I mean, I knew about the poets and I read them. I knew about Auden, Dylan Thomas, and so on, but it wasn’t until a few years later when I permanently settled in New York and I started to go to readings that I saw these people. As an undergraduate, I never encountered a real live poet. We didn’t have bulletin boards with, “spend the summer in Ireland,” and “get an MFA in Brazil,” and all that stuff. I didn’t know anything about that.
So that’s sort of a background.
I love Jack Gilbert and I love your work and you have a poem in which you talk about walking around with him through Pittsburgh and through Paris. You say, “How strange / his great fame was, my obscurity.” Obviously you’ve come to your own fame since then, but yours is a friendship that’s always intrigued me.
We had a deep interconnection though we were both in a certain way private. Jack was very private and took a lot of things with him when he died. I knew about all these secrets. He died in November two years ago, and the day he died, my assistant Stephanie was in my house and I wandered into the kitchen and leaned on a chair and fell down on my back. Stephanie came down and said, “You fell because Jack died today.” And then she called Anne Marie, my partner, and Anne Marie said, “He pushed you down.”
Jack and I were close. We talked a lot on the phone, we met each other, we gave readings together. But I’ve thought about this a lot—is there really a common ground in our writing? And I’m not sure I can answer that question. When I first met Jack he wasn’t writing poetry, he was writing short stories. I was going off to France on the GI Bill and then Jack decided to go to France. He put “Poet” in his passport though he’d never written a poem.
Hah! That’s great.
I have a lot of love for him, but it’s complicated. There was a very deep connection there.
Gilbert has that poem where he says, “Joy has been a habit / Now / Suddenly / This Rain.” That idea of joy being a habit is strong in your work too, that comprehensive joy for life.
That may be a commonality. I think there’s a commonality in the way of the language and I can’t put my finger on it exactly. It may be also in our influences. We both leaned on Pound. But, I got married, had children, started to teach at Temple University in Philadelphia when I was 29 or 30 at the same time Jack left Pittsburgh and went to California to become part of that movement. In a certain way I used to think that was a mistake I made, that I should have gone myself. You know, life is as it was or as it is. Non, je ne regrette rien.
You talk about teaching at Temple, how the second half of your life was spent teaching workshops, and one of my go-to poems of yours is “Writer’s Workshop” in Divine Nothingness. I love the ending with the “worms included.”
Right, right. It’s really about my apple trees in my backyard. I had an old house in Iowa City and I had these old broken down apple trees, three of them. One of them died and the other one, the apples were on the ground and I assumed they were useless until I tasted one one day and it was the sweetest golden delicious apple I ever tasted. (RECITES THE POEM). Of course the apple was always there, including the last two lines.
It’s got to do with this concept that’s dominated a lot of my poetry, particularly my early poetry, the sense that the ignored, the ignoble, the detested, the despised, the abandoned was truly worthy, be it people, be it nature. I always honor the unrecognized, the lost. This is an example of that.
I really love hearing you read. And yes, absolutely. I think that’s a great way to articulate what is definitely a dominant theme in your work, honoring the unrecognized. It seems to come from a place of deep empathy. You have this line, “fuck the exercises let her get smashed / by a Mack truck, then she’ll be ready to mourn.”
That’s from “Stern Country,” I think.
Yeah, which is one of your great poems.
Thank you, I love reading that one.
It’s a critical proposition you put forward, needing to get smashed into understanding mourning.
Let her have twenty-five years of experience, let her suffer a little bit, let her be hungry.
How does that suffering and that hunger inform your work? You’ve written some about the loss of your sister at an early age—how was that experience instructive?
Well, part of it is mythical. That’s not to say the myths are untrue. And in a way it is the narrative of the poet. It’s a little corny, a little sentimental, but I go along with it. At a certain point if you embrace or engage the sentimental and work through it to its true roots or to the other side, it has a life of its own. The poet as sufferer, when I say it that way, sounds a little ridiculous.
No, it’s definitely true to the experience of a lot of poets throughout history and true to the experience of why people often approach the writing of poetry.
I read a lot of Chinese poetry and translation and always there is this idea of the poet as a kind of divine sufferer. That stays throughout the history of Chinese poetry, including contemporary Chinese. I guess I just fed into that without thinking. I lived by my wits, I didn’t have any money when I was young. I've paid for my own way since I was sixteen. So in a certain sense, I’m writing about that.
There’s this quote I’ve always loved from Kierkegaard where he says, “Poets scream and cry in agony, but when they do it their lips are so formed that it comes out as beautiful music. When we say to the poets, 'Sing to us,' we’re saying, 'May new disasters befall you.'"
I’ve heard that. It reminds me of the story of a person in the form of an animal being forced into a cage, and as he’s screaming they set fire to it. As he’s screaming in pain out comes beautiful music through the nostrils and the mouth of the cow or whatever he’s become. It’s pretty relevant, whether it be Kierkegaard’s statement or the story of the burning animal—those are both fairly representative in a certain way of my idea of my own life. Or my idea of the life.
Right. In “Sylvia,” you say, “think of my own rapturous escape from / living only as dust and dirt, little sister.”
She was a year older than me, Sylvia. She died when she was nine and I was eight. Nobody in our family—there was my mother, my father, and myself—was allowed or permitted during my whole mother’s life, she died when she was 94, of even mentioning Sylvia or talking about her. There were no books of hers, there were no pictures of her, there was nothing. It was my mother’s grief; my father was not allowed to express it and I was not allowed to express it, at least publicly. And so partly for that reason and partly because she was very important to me, she became sort of my muse.
She died of meningitis, right?
Yeah. It was disguised as a common cold, which is very typical. I remember when my mother reached her eighties, she was living in Florida and I was visiting her, and I started to talk about Sylvia and she was shocked. Suddenly she broke down from grief. Obviously, she should have done that when she was thirty or forty. We know a lot more about grief now.
It’s interesting to think about us learning more about grief, scientifically, sociologically. I just think that specific phrase, “the rapturous escape from living,” as sort of being central to your work.
I’m also thinking of a poem like “Grapefruit,” which is ostensibly a meditation on a very simple experience, eating a grapefruit, but really it is almost Whitmanian in the sense of singing the song of every mundane thing, you know? “Now I brood, I grimace, how quickly the day goes, / how full it is of sunshine and wind, how many / smells there are, how gorgeous is the distant sound of dogs and engines.” I think of the title of your old student Ross Gay’s new book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. This poem is like the prototype for that, you know? Just this catalog of gratitudes.
As I recall, it begins with a description of a garden on a windowsill of a friend’s house in Iowa City, a friend of mine’s a painter. I’m really glad you like that poem. I’m very fond of it too.
I did want to mention this to you—I have a volume, I’m writing a lot now, endlessly, full of ninety poems.
I’m trying to figure out a title and send it to my editor.
That’s great news.
There are several poems in this collection, this manuscript, about Larry Levis, who I love very much. I have several poems about him already in the book.
I look forward to those. Were you and Larry close in person?
Yeah, I knew him well. I knew him in Iowa. He came there to teach a lot and we became good friends. We were reading together in Boca Raton and he admitted that he’d never been to New Orleans. I said, “Forget the damn classes, let’s go to New Orleans!” Which we did; we spent three or four wonderful days there.
I saw him in Utah, Richmond, and so on. When he died, his students were in such shock they called me and asked me if I’d come down and mind his classes for the remainder of that semester, which I did. I tried to really help the students understand and find voices for their grief.
That’s great that you were able to be of service in that way.
Yeah, I was glad to help.
Have you been writing more prose? I loved Stealing History.
I have just finished a manuscript that I haven’t sent out yet. It’s about dying and death, including my own.
Does it have a title yet?
I’m still thinking about that.
Well, that sounds great. I think those books have been very well received because you have both interesting stories to tell and a compelling way of telling them.
Thank you, thank you.
I wanted to ask about the chapter in Stealing History that begins with, “My big mouth gets me into endless trouble...” Specifically, I wanted to ask about the story you allude to about biting the arm of fiction writer Mary Morris, which you also reference in “Stern Country.”
We were sitting at a table at a restaurant in Prague. I remember Edward Hirsch was at the table with Mary Morris. Anne Marie was in the bathroom at the time. I have Tourette’s Syndrome. I never had a name for it when I was a kid, but I had a tic and when I’m nervous sometimes it activates itself. Morris asked me about that and I explained it to her and I said, “There are various forms of Tourette’s. Sometimes I bite the shoulder of a woman,” and then I bit her shoulder! When Anne Marie came out, Eddie said, “Anne Marie, Gerry just bit Mary Morris’ arm!”
A few years later—do you know Poet’s House in New York?
They were moving to their new location and had a few of us each read a few poems. It was a stand up reading; read maybe three poems, I remember Phil Levine was there he read a couple of poems and so on. I’m just trying to remember the name of the actor—he started on Saturday Night Live—Bill Murray! He was living then in the Village, I think he still does—
He was in attendance at this reading?
Yeah, you know that story?
No, but I like Bill Murray.
He was standing there and I told this story about the origin of that poem, “Stern Country,” and then my big mouth got me in trouble. I said, “There’s Bill Murray!” He was in a movie about Punxsutawney and I proceeded to attack him for no reason whatsoever. I love the guy. I said he didn’t know anything about Punxsutawney, I know it real well, which did happen to be true. My cousins lived there near Indiana, PA, where I was teaching. Then I read the poem and afterward, Bill Murray came up to me and bit me on my shoulder. All the women there said, “Why couldn’t he have bitten my shoulder?”
This is an amazing story.
I just got carried away. I couldn’t help myself.
That’s incredible. Did he say anything?
We talked a little later. We all went out for drinks. He’s a very nice guy.
That’s hilarious. That's really, really wonderful. You are so full of all these amazing stories that seem to only be able to happen to you, given your unique—
Given my big mouth. It’s true, you know. My big mouth really has gotten me into lots of trouble.
Haha. We’ve been going for over an hour now, and I think that’s a perfect place to close. Do you have anything else you want to say?
Well, I could lecture and talk for three or four hours, but you’ve done a nice job. You have a very thorough knowledge of my work. It has been a great pleasure talking.
Interview Posted: July 13, 2015
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