“The prayer is always that the words might help someone.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You're in Vermont, at a writing retreat?
Yes, I'm at a writing studio in Johnson, Vermont.
How did that come about?
Oh, it came about just from the mercy of the Vermont Studio people because I've got a very bad leak in my apartment in New York. My daughter was here as a fellow, and I've been up here a couple times. We got talking and I said I was having a hard time in my apartment and they said they had a space. They told me I had to come up here for a while. Very kind.
So your daughter is a writer as well?
Yes she is.
What does she write?
Let me give her an advertisement—she writes fiction and her name is Rebecca Chace.
What is it like having that sort of writing relationship between you two? Do you ever look at each other’s work before it goes out?
No, not like that. We read each other’s work when it comes out and admire each other, but we don't work together.
That might be for the best.
(Laughing) It works out very well.
Can you talk about what you're working on right now?
When you called, I was just making a list of acknowledgements; you know the thing that goes in front of the book before for where you’ve had something published? I'm making that list for Copper Canyon, who are going to bring out a book of mine in 2015 some time.
Yes, I’m pleased. So, that book is sent off. I'm working on some new poems but I can't really tell what I've got yet, you know?
Sure. Can you talk about the new poems and the new Copper Canyon collection, what kind of space they inhabit in your internal cartography, how they relate to your previous collections?
Well, I'm the last person to know that kind of thing. I think I've done more sequences of poems in this book than I think I've had before. I didn't know that as I was writing them, but they turned out a couple of sequences where I'd write these poems and then they just to go together.
On multiple occasions, I've heard or read your poetry compared to footprints, insinuating a path more than paving them. Writing short poems as sequences fits into that metaphor pretty well. Could you speak to that at all, your poems as footprints?
I think I could see it, if you're looking at footprints, you’re following from one to the next to see where they'll go. It isn’t like one is complete in itself, so I can see that, especially when you're putting real things together to make a sequence. Anybody’s writing could probably be seen as footprints, some body going through time. That makes sense to me. It’s a nice image.
Shifting gears a bit, after winning the Yale prize so many years ago, poetry has sort of always been the business of your life, the teaching and writing of it. Do you ever fantasize about an alternate reality where you had a different career?
I don't think about that very much. I tried writing fiction when I was very young and that didn't seem to be a natural thing for me to do. I feel very fortunate to have had this life as a teacher and as a poet. I suppose you can daydream about any kind of thing, but I've really been so blessed with this life. I don't think I have an answer to that question that would be interesting, no.
That sense of you specifically being a born poet makes sense to me. What role has being a teacher and an instructor of young poets played in your own poetry, in the generation of your own poetry?
Oh none, that's easy to answer, no role at all. I think teaching has been an absolutely wonderful thing for me, but as far as my poetry goes I've had no cross-fertilization whatsoever. I've had the joy of teaching and it's been a wonderful way to make a living, but no, I don't think it’s influenced my work at all. Not that I know of.
That's very interesting—the idea of having a cognitive partition between the two worlds, between the teaching world and the writing world.
Yes, yes, you must.
A couple years ago you published that book of translations with Ilya Kaminsky of, I'm going to say her name wrong so help me out, Marina...
Yeah—could you tell me how Dark Elderberry came to be? I really love those poems and hadn’t known Tsvetaeva at all before.
Good! I'm glad you like them. I do too! I can tell you the story of how that happened. We went to AWP in New York and I had, of course, heard of Ilya. I had read his first book in English and we were both in the same panel, a panel about fairy tales. We happened to sit next to each other and we started writing notes (although we shouldn’t have, because someone else was speaking). It was good to write notes because he's deaf. It was a good way for us to start talking. We said first that we liked each other’s work and then I said, “Are you translating Mandelstam?” And he wrote back, “No, but I give you word by word.” I thought that was just amazing, and I told him so. I said that would be wonderful and he wrote back, "You got yourself a deal." (Laughing)
So we were going to do Mandelstam, but then I went to some poet friends and one of them said, “Well, you should do Tsvetaeva, you shouldn't do Mandelstam.” I asked why, and she said Tsvetaeva hadn’t been done very well, and she thought Mandelstam had been done very well by Merwin, which was true. So, I went back to Ilya with Tsvetaeva and he said, “Fine, we do what you want,” so that was how we started working. It was a wonderful experience.
We worked via email, which was good because he’s in California and I'm in New York. We worked over a period of a couple of years on the project, though it's a small book and we weren't working on it all the time. We worked when we had time from the rest of our lives. It was an exciting thing—he has a wonderful disposition and a wonderful mind. I had done one poem by Mandelstam before, with a Russian scholar. She and I had written letters because in those days I was in New Hampshire, she was in Maryland. We couldn't be on the phone all the time because it was before cellphones. Anyway, we wrote letters back and forth and it was tedious; we worked on one poem for probably a month, over a period of a month, we really worked hard on this one poem. That was exciting for me too, but she wasn’t Russian. With the new project, I was working with this person whose native language was Russian, who knew these poems from the cradle. That was very exciting to me, to say nothing of the fact he’s Ilya, he's absolutely brilliant and wonderful. It was very exciting.
It’s neat to hear how excited you get talking about Ilya. The book turned out so well.
We were lucky to get Alice James to do it; they were so wonderful to work with. The only thing I wish is that it was bilingual, but you can't have everything in this world.
Sure, and people can always look them up online now to find the originals.
That's true, you're absolutely right. It isn't like it used to be, is it? Now they can find them and read them whenever they want. That’s pretty nice.
I heard a recording of you reading the “The River at Wolf,” which is one of my favorite of your poems, and you say you wrote it in Montana at a place called Wolf Creek. In the recording you called it “another love poem.” Can you talk about the role that the physical space you inhabit while writing a poem plays on the final poem itself? That poem has one of my favourite lines of yours, "Blessed are they who remember that what they now have they once longed for.”
Oh yeah, that's a good line and it isn't mine. I just quoted it; I saw it on a bulletin some place. (Laughing) It was anonymous so I didn't feel I had to put a note.
Haha. So many of the best lines come like that.
Yeah, from the world anonymously. Anyway, that is a beautiful line, and many people love it and I love it too. As far as the landscape, when I'm lucky it comes in. You know, it’s a matter of luck. I don't fret about it. I happened to be out there when I wrote that, so everything was there except for that quote, all the physical things were there, all those animals in the river habitat. And, a lot was there that I couldn't get in, the way it is. I guess if I'm in New York, I'm asked if I write about the city and I don' t, really. It's my home but I don't seem to write about it much. When I travel and see landscape, I think I respond to that more. I think the city is there somehow, but I don't think I mention it too much.
It's definitely not an overt presence the way it is for lots of New York poets.
That's right, yeah.
On that note, you’ve expressed this anxiety about wanting to write with more political consciousness. Maybe it comes into your poems tonally, a general sense of subversiveness, but it was never as explicit in your work as it was in the political poetry of some of your contemporaries. Can you talk about that about the way you handle politics and your politics in poetry?
Well, I wish I could handle it, but that's just it, as you said. I suppose some people have one kind of gift somehow and some have another. I envy—no, envy isn't the word. I guess I really admire them very much, people who eventually bring politics into their writing, and I haven't been able to do that hardly at all. So yes, I long for it. I don't think I'm as anxious about it now, but that's probably because I'm older and I've sort of accepted the fact. But, you know, if it came along I'd be very glad. I just don’t think it's something you can will. I've seen things I've tried to will in that kind of way and it hasn't worked out very well.
While we’re talking about trying to will your poems to be something they're not, I want to ask you about something you said a few years ago in an interview: "It would be fun to be popular! I was at a Stephen Dunn reading and everyone responded to his poems—laughing, sighing. People were very much with him in everything. In all his moves he is clear and open and communicating. That is not something I can do. So when I was sitting in the audience I felt a kind of pang: ‘Oh, I would love to do that.’ But I can't. It's like saying, ‘I would love to be tall and thin.’ It's just not possible.” You certainly have a large readership by poetry standards, but hearing your work is very different experience than hearing Steven Dunn’s. The way it’s appreciated is more unconscious maybe, it's a little bit more internal, more subcutaneous. Can you talk about what it's been like as a poet writing in that mode in terms of being able to relate with your readership, in terms of the sorts of responses you get?
Yes. I might say that remark that you quoted, I remember saying that right now, today, but in this moment it seems like a remark, a trivial. I do recognize the feeling, but I think I've gotten encouragement along the way and I think this started pretty young for me. Knowing the kind of poetry I write, even though it wasn't more direct or more clear, people did encourage me in it. I feel like I've been very lucky because I might have never had the kind of encouragement that I've had and I certainly might not have had it young. I got my first book when I was thirty. Looking back I think I had a very lucky life. I never had the sense of being read much, but I had the sense of one or two people who became extremely important to me who clearly got what I was doing, thought it was good and said so. That doesn't always happen, so I feel very very lucky and I think it's what enabled me to go on. That's one reason I like teaching—I like to encourage people.
That’s a major theme throughout your poems, that sense of encouraging someone or something past or through despair, through isolation. It makes me think of “Forces” where they're moving through the field of graves and the speaker says, “God break me out of this life I've made.” Those sorts of poems can be hugely important for people who are embattled in their way and they can be sort of therapeutic.
That's the prayer isn't it, when you write something, that it could be of use to somebody? It's also helpful to write something like that, of course, just to put it out into some kind of form on paper, but the prayer is always that the words might help someone.
I can testify that they have.
I'm so glad. We're all in this thing together
Towards that end, you've spoken about some of your personal battles and working a program of recovery—can you talk about what, what if any sort of effect that had on your writing life?
Well, I think anything that makes you healthier as a human makes your writing healthier. “Healthy” isn’t a word we typically use for writing, but I'd say it makes your writing healthier. I believe that, although I don't believe being ill would make your writing bad. I think it only works one way. (Laughing) I don't think ill people can't write, but I think if you're healthy, you could probably write better and write more, just because you're more free. That's been my experience, at least. I don't know if I’m writing better but I'm certainly writing more and I'm writing more happily.
I can definitely understand that. I think that in many of your newer poems, there’s a sense of childish vulnerability to some of them, a kind of openness and astonishment and wonder that maybe wasn't as detectable in your earlier collections.
You said childish?
Yeah. I don't mean childish as pejorative.
I understand what you mean, sort of child-like?
Yeah, I do think that’s true, and I think that comes from what we're talking about, becoming a little more happy, a little more open. It allows you to be freer, I think, and feel things like wonder, things like vulnerability more consciously. That’s my hope anyway.
I've read old essays in which you discuss how, as a very young poet, your female contemporaries who had families and were writing poetry tended to meet unfortunate demises. You were writing in the era of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. You had that anxiety that maybe to be a poet in that time might lead you down that same path—can you talk about how you overcame that particular anxiety or that fear?
Oh yes, they were going a little ahead of me, although Plath was my age. But, her work was out before mine was and she was very famous and recorded on the radio over in England. Sexton, she was maybe a bit older, but she was printing as well while I was still not printing. I was suffering depression and I worried about whether the poetry was making things worse, when I saw them going before me. I had two little kids. I had a wonderful therapist and I said, “Seeing these two suicides ahead of me and with two little children, maybe I’m on the wrong path of work.” He said, “No! Just the opposite, the poetry is for your health and they would've perhaps died sooner if they hadn't had the poetry. The poetry may have kept them alive for some time.” He took that anxiety away from me and I love to share that story in case anyone else has that fear. It meant a lot to me to hear that from him and it enabled me to go on.
What a gift he provided to the sphere of poetry in encouraging you to continue to write.
It was a wonderful gift to me, and I really do think he was right. I think art is a life force and the happenstance of their deaths was not because of it.
It’s a very wise thing, this notion of poetry keeping someone longer than they'd stay without it.
It was a beautiful thing for him to say and it left me very clear. I didn't have that worry any longer.
I’m kind of winding down, but I did want to ask—in the past year I read Donald Hall’s memoirs about Jane Kenyon and I spend a lot of time with Otherwise, the last collection she put together.
Such a beautiful collection.
Yeah, astonishingly so. I know that she was a friend of yours, and in lieu of my interviewing her for the site, I was hoping you could share an anecdote or a favorite memory or experience from Jane’s life, just because she's a particular fascination of mine at the moment?
Well, she should be. She’s such a beautiful poet. I didn't see her much, we wrote letters back and forth and when we would meet sometimes. My friendship with her, I felt, was very deep though. Sometimes we talked on the phone, sometimes we wrote notes, and she was very, very dear to me. Even though I didn't get to see her all that much, I did visit their house a few times. I didn't ever see her in New York. She was very loving. You can see that in her work, she was very loving, she was extremely—I want to use the right words, all these words are a little loaded—she was a spiritual poet, that's all I can say. That word might not be the best one for it, but I don't want to say “religious;” I think that increased as she went along and you can feel that in her poetry.
She told me how she worked. She would get up and Don would bring her coffee in bed—that always sounded so wonderful to me—and she would have her breakfast. She loved gardening and she loved walking the dog and she loved cooking and other those things, but she would do her writing first. She said “try and eat your vegetables before you have desert,” so she’d do her work every morning.
She was very plain. She was very down to earth and very plain and fun to talk to. She had a picture of Adrienne Rich over her desk, I remember being very struck by that. She had met her through Don in the earlier days, though I don’t think they were close friends. A lot of people those days had a picture Adrienne over their desk, a lot of women poets’ houses because Adrienne was such a symbol to us all. You could be a woman and write good poetry, and so in those days that wasn't completely unusual. Jane was going very deep in her poetry. She tried teaching, I don't think she was really that much at home in it and I think she felt like she wanted to give all her energy to the poetry writing and to her life there in New Hampshire. I guess you know she suffered from depression, I don't think that's a secret.
Right, she and Donald both wrote about it.
She was an amazing soul and I miss her very, very much. I miss her as much now as I did when she died. I just wish she was going along with us. She did that beautiful Akhmatova translation, and that encouraged me to do this with Ilya. I thought if we could have a book anything like her Akhmatova book, it would be wonderful.
That’s great! I just picked up her Akhmatova collection a few months ago and never consciously connected it with your and Ilya’s volume. Now I will. Very cool.
Yeah she was doing a lot going ahead of me, she really was, and I thought if she could do it, maybe I could too. She said the woman she was translating with was wonderful, a Russian speaker and scholar and teacher and everything. But, she said the translator used to get frustrated and shout, “It's impossible! It's impossible!” Jane would just go home and stay with it they would meet again. (Laughing) I suppose Ilya felt that too, but he didn't say it.
What a nice little account of the translation process. “It's impossible, it's impossible.”
It's impossible, it's impossible—and then we go home and do it.
We do it anyway. Can leave us with who are you reading today, who are you reading during your free time?
I'm reading James Baldwin, a book I read long ago called Nobody Knows My Name. I’m also reading a book by Jody Gladding, a friend of mine. It’s called Translations from Bark Beetle. It’s published by Milkweed Editions, it's just out and it's very beautiful. That was the combination of what I was reading last night.
An interesting combination! Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I just hope everybody will try writing poetry.
Interview Posted: October 27, 2014
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