Fall 1992, Volume 9.3
In the Presence of America: A Conversation with Mark Strand
An Interview with Mark Strand by Katharine Coles
Katharine Coles (Ph.D., U of Utah) is a poet, freelance editor, fiction writer, and Assistant Professor of English at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She also serves on the Editorial Board of Weber Studies. Her poetry has appeared in The New Republic, North American Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, Raritone, Georgia Review, and Quarterly West. She has won awards in writing from the Utah Arts Council and the Academy of American Poets, and in 1990 she received an Individual Writer's Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her book of poems, The One Right Touch, will be published later this year. She has just completed a novel, Heart Failures.
Mark Strand recently finished a year as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress and United States Poet Laureate. He was also recipient of the Utah Governer's Award in 1992 for outstanding achievement in the "Artist" category. He was born in 1934 on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and began his career as a painter, earning a bachelor's degree in fine art from Yale University. Nevertheless, he went on to earn an MA in English from the University of Iowa, and his first book of poems, Sleeping With One Eye Open, was published in 1964. During the following dozen years, he published four more books of poems—Reasons for Moving (1968), Darker (1970), The Sergeantville Notebook (1973), and The Story of Our Lives (1973) as well as three books of translation—18 Poems from The Quechua (1971), The Owl's Insomnia (Rafael Alberti, 1973), and Souvenir of the Ancient World (Carlos Drummond de Andrade, 1976). During that time, he also edited three anthologies, The Contemporary American Poets (1969), New Poetry of Mexico (1973, with Octavio Paz), and Another Republic (1976, with Charles Simic). The Late Hour, a book of poems, and The Monument, a collection of prose poems, were published in 1978.
The 1980s saw the publication of two books on art, Art of the Real (1983) and William Bailey (1987), a first book of short stories, Mr. and Mrs. Baby (1985), and three books for children, The Planet of Lost Things (1982), The Night Book (1985), and Rembrandt Takes a Walk (1986), as well as a fourth book of translations, Travelling in the Family (Carlos Drummond de Andrade, with Thomas Colchie, 1986).
Mark Strand's numerous literary and other honors include a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy, the Edgar Allen Poe Award, grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, along with fellowships from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets. He received the MacArthur fellowship in 1987 and was appointed Poet Laureate in 1990. A book of poems, The Continuous Life, appeared the same year. His latest work is a book-length poem, soon to be published by Knopf.
This interview was taped on 16 August 1991 on the deck of my home near downtown Salt Lake City. Mark had seen a set of twenty questions in advance, though naturally other questions arose spontaneously during our conversation. The day of the interview was hot and dry; we were shaded by a cherry tree full of finches and sparrows, and there were birds in the elms and on the telephone wires overhead. Mark paused several times during the interview to stretch out in his chair, close his eyes, and listen. These pauses and the bird chatter were recorded on the tape, though I didn't transcribe them.
Read poetry by Mark Strand.
Coles: You've had a varied career. You began as a painter. And over the last decade or so, you've written more and more prose—a collection of short stories, and articles on painting, gardening, interior design, fashion. Do you think that this prose feeds your poetry in any way?
Strand: It relieves my poetry. Whether or not it ends up feeding it in any way is debatable. I know I can't write poetry all the time. I suppose thinking about other things is beneficial because I'm not allowed therefore to get bored with poetry. And I like to have other areas of expertise, even if I'm not an expert. Though the stories were very bad, they were something else to do.
Coles: What dissatisfied you in the stories?
Strand: Some of them are passable. Some of them just aren't good. I think I was pushing too hard. Midway during the writing of that book, I lost interest in writing fiction. I really had to force myself to finish it. I felt always that I was stealing time from poetry in order to write something I hadn't much faith in.
Coles: So you think there's a strain in some of the stories?
Strand: Yes. Some of them strain after effects that are not successfully carried out. I also think that part of the strain is that I was trying to be funny without knowing quite what the correct comic mode for me was. It's very hard to write humor. You're born with the gift. It's not enough to think you're funny. My problem was I thought I was funnier than I actually was.
Coles: You're pretty funny in some of your short prose pieces, especially in The Continuous Life.
Strand: I think I learned something from the failures of Mr. and Mrs. Baby. Maybe that's why the humor is more successful in The Continuous Life. Though the overwriting in Mr. and Mrs. Baby was deliberate, and I intended it to be humorous—that was part of the comic endeavor--people found it to be just overwriting. They didn't find it funny.
Coles: That could be a failure of the readers.
Strand: It might be, but I felt it was a rhetorical failure in myself. There are still three or four stories in there that I like a great deal. But the book shows that my heart wasn't in it. I had some good ideas for stories, and they mainly responded to prose writers whose work I like. Clearly a story in there called "More Life" comes out of my reading of Bruno Schultz. And I like the writing in a story called "True Love," but it really isn't a story. It's a sequence of near misses.
Coles: I like that one too. I'd always read it as a story, maybe because I was told it was one.
Strand: Maybe that's enough. I just don't feel that I exhibited the authority in my prose that I do in my poetry. On the other hand, I feel that the prose I bring to bear in my essays is quite good. That prose is better than the prose in Mr. and Mrs. Baby. It is probably the best prose I can write. I'm thinking of an essay called "Fantasia: on the Relationship Between Poetry and Photography." Or this new essay I've just written on Edward Hopper. I think the prose is pretty good in that.
Coles: During the time you were writing the book of stories, Mr. and Mrs. Baby, then, you weren't writing poetry, or seemed not to write poetry, for a long time—between, say, 1980 when Selected Poems came out and whenever you began The Continuous Life, which you finished in 1990—
Strand: For about five years, I was pretty far away from it.
Coles: When you came back to poetry, your work had changed considerably. It was more formal, more firmly rooted in a literary tradition and history, both western, in the large and local senses, and American. What happened?
Strand: I wanted it to be different. That's one of the things that happened. I didn't like what I was writing at the end of Selected Poems. I never felt that poems about my childhood and my family were my poems or poems I really wanted to write. They were poems that were generated by the atmosphere of American poetry at the time. Lots of poets I admired were writing about their childhoods. So I wanted to be a member of the childhood club. But I discovered I didn't have much of a gift for it. Nor could I sustain an interest in it. I think memories of childhood, at least of my childhood, are best served when dealt with in prose, that childhood becomes tedious in poetry. It has become tedious in the poems of my friends. Perhaps when they read this, they'll no longer be my friends.
Coles: Do you think childhood as a subject for poetry has become tedious partly because it's become so commonplace?
Strand: I think that's partially the case. But one's experience is much more differentiated as one gets older. In childhood, the formative stages of our lives, so many things tend to be duplicated. Also, we tend in retrospect to interfere in the same many ways, from the vantage of the perspective of adulthood. We tend to romanticize our childhoods or to make them uglier or harsher—whatever serves the adult purpose that urges us to revisit childhood.
Coles: Maybe in our particular age, we've made harshness a kind of sentimentality anyway?
Strand: You read so many stories in the paper. People don't want to be left out, even if it means revealing abuse, having been abused. All I know is, it was a mistake for me to embark on the project of childhood poems. Perhaps not a mistake—I don't dislike the poems I wrote, but those are all the poems of that sort I wanted to write. My strengths lie elsewhere. There's a certain order of confessionalizing that's made easier when you investigate something that "actually happened."
Coles: Do you mean that there's a sense in which childhood, as it's described in poems, doesn't actually happen?
Strand: I think childhood does happen. These experiences are located in childhood. That means in some ways they're already shaped, maybe not narratively shaped, as they will be when one finishes the poem, but shaped in that they actually occurred, and they have an already present emotional component that is being used or investigated.
Coles: Perhaps the emotion that's built into the experience limits or overburdens the poem instead of giving it more possibilities?
Strand: I think so. Because you're always limited by the truth factor. There's a certain point, when you're writing autobiographical stuff, where you don't want to misrepresent yourself. It would be dishonest. And at least in poetry you should feel free to lie. That is, not to lie, but to imagine what you want, to follow the direction of the poem. If you're writing autobiographically, there's something dictating the shape of the poem other than the imagination. You lose the freedom to investigate. There are other imperatives involved, and they're not necessarily formal. They are the shapes of the experiences you've already had.
Coles: So at this point in our literary history, confessional poetry has become impoverished or worn out. Do you think that it added something to American poetry during its time, even if we may need to get away from it now? Do you think it will have a permanent or positive impact on the shape of American poetry?
Strand: I would say that American poetry has always been a poetry of personal testimony. More so than other poetries. So the idea of "the confessional" was misguided from the beginning. The word is a mistake, because in order to confess you have to have committed a crime or have something that you have been withholding for a long time to come out with. And what Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton were writing weren't confessions. There wasn't an examiner or an arbiter or a judge to use the materials to determine guilt or innocence. There was never an ecclesiastical or legal component to what they were doing.
Coles: In fact they resisted the nomer.
Strand: Yes. There was very little social componency. They seem rather mild. Next to Sharon Olds, Ann Sexton is a mere tyro. In comparison, Sexton is rather superficial in what she's able to proffer up in the way of personal experience. And Robert Lowell, of course—in his poems, we're not located in his actual life. We're located more in the externals, in the journalistic facts of his life. There's an awful lot of naming, of labeling, in Lowell's Life Studies, but there's very little psychoanalysis, very little sense of an unconscious life determining this event or that. In early so-called "confessional poetry" there's a desire to find the terms by which personal experience can be authenticated poetically.
Coles: Or mythologized.
Strand: Yes, naturally, mythologized. Of course, Lowell had that taken care of because of his name.
Coles: A very American one, and a literary one. In your Library of Congress lecture, you focus on the American poetic tradition.
Strand: I've changed it a bit. I stole a paragraph from it for another essay.
Coles: Is it published? Available?
Strand: In the Gettysburg Review. And the paragraph I stole from it will be in the New York Times Book Review, in an essay ["Slow Down for Poetry" 15 September 1991]. It's the Introduction to the Best American Poetry of 1991, which I just edited last year.
Coles: Can you briefly characterize what you think makes up the "best American poetry" right now?
Strand: It's all in the book, isn't it? I think the best American poetry is the poetry that utilizes the resources of poetry rather than exploits the defects or triumphs of the poet's personality. Poetry is, first and last, language—the rest is filler.
Coles: So again, in editing the book you were most interested in poetry that interests itself in language instead of autobiography—
Strand: A life is not sufficiently elevated for poetry, unless, of course, the life has been made into an art. Usually a life turned into a poem is misrepresented. On the other hand, someone like Jorie Graham, who has plenty of personality, gives herself over to the exploration of language. Her concerns are with the life of poetry. Her poems become stronger each time you read them. They create a world that is half invented, half inherited, a world that never really belongs to history. They reinforce many of the things poetry has always been, but they also behave in ways entirely new. When you read Jorie, you feel that she is extending the bounds of American poetry. And you feel that, for her, change is a moral imperative. She's a remarkable, powerful talent as a poet. I'd say that she's the great hope of American poetry right now.
There are other poets I admire. I admire John Ashbery, James Merrill—among the older poets, I'd say they were the geniuses. I think American poetry is fine. And for people who don't like ideas and who don't like language, why, there are all those people who write about what it's like to be them.
Coles: In your Library of Congress talk, you mention a number of times the essential "marginality" and loneliness of the poet in general and of the American poet, perhaps, in a particular extreme. Would you locate the reason for this in the nature of poetry, in our culture, in both, or somewhere else?
Strand: I certainly can't speak for all cultures or all societies, but it's clear that in America, poetry serves a very marginal purpose. It's not part of the cultural mainstream. It's not even reviewed in the New York Times but what?—half-a-dozen times a year? And it's really never reviewed in Time or Newsweek. It would take an act of God to have that happen. Poetry is something that happens in universities, in creative writing programs or in English departments. And even so, these days English departments seem so given over to theory and cultural history that if the professors read imaginative works of literature at all it's bound, almost certainly, to be novels.
Coles: Why do cultural history and theory lend themselves to the study of novels and not of poetry?
Strand: Poetry tends to be about itself, and novels tend to be about the world. Novels draw on certain basic common denominators that we experience all the time, and they are represented as such. Poetry is a much subtler, more highly nuanced and trickier affair. It does draw on our experience, but through various filtered and altered shapes, to create an object. Pain is filtered in a poem so that it becomes finally, in the end, pleasure. That never happens in a novel. That never happens in life. Only in poetry.
Coles: Maybe in painting.
Strand: Maybe in painting.
Coles: Of course, the nuances of poetry wouldn't lend themselves to cultural history, but they might lend themselves to some theory, that which focuses on language, very well, if the theoreticians were smart enough.
Strand: They have latched onto fiction. I don't think the current crop of academics knows how to read very well.
Coles: Are they reading for the wrong things, or can they just not read at all?
Strand: I don't think they really enjoy literature. I think they work at it. They build careers around aspects of it. But they're not passionate about it. They don't love it.
Coles: It's a nine-to-five job.
Strand: It's a nine-to-five job. If they loved literature you would get an inkling of it in their writing. But they write so poorly. These are people who, when you read their writing, you feel they must hate literature.
Coles: Why should they love poetry? What function, if any, do you think poetry does serve in American life? What does it offer?
Strand: It's the most profound reading experience anyone is likely to have. It offers more than prose, if you're willing to give it its due. I don't think we are a very patient culture, and we're very much interested in the "quick fix" or in instant gratification. We can't wait around for something to happen. We won't. We think if it doesn't happen on the first reading, chances are it's not going to happen on the tenth. We're a people who say, "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" Or, "If that's what you meant, why didn't you say it that way at the beginning?" You see, everything is reduced to what you meant, whereas there's no patience for someone who wishes to figure in means of saying something as essential to what is to be said. That the means and the content, or the form and the content, are the same. And it takes a long time to get them together, the form and the content, and to figure how they work together to make the poem.
This is from the writer's point-of-view. From the reader's view, a poem is more demanding than prose. Every word carries weight that it doesn't have in other disciplines or other genres. There's a lot to think about in a poem. It's a very dense medium. Of course, a lot of people don't have time for this. But it's also that we're not educated any more to tolerate the kind of slowness or puzzle-solving or pleasure-giving offered by poetry. We're very impatient people. We're interested in speed. How fast people run. To me, when I go to the races, the longer the race, the more interesting. Long races are much more interesting to watch because of the tactics—laying back, using a rabbit. But people are much more interested now in dashes. Dashes are over in an instant.
Coles: Are you following the Tour de France [a two week-long bicycle race held every summer in France]?
Strand: Yes, I am. That's more of a European idea, that kind of distance. You have to go 2000 miles over all kinds of terrain. It requires strategy.
It's still a possibility here. They used to have 6-day bicycle races in this country, in the early part of the century, then biking lost popularity. Cycling became a European thing because here other activities took over.
Coles: Faster ones.
Strand: Roller derbies, things like that. Violent sports. Also, it's not that poetry reveals more about the world—it doesn't—but it reveals more about our interactions with the world than our other modes of expression. And it doesn't reveal more about ourselves alone in isolation, but rather it reveals that mix of self and other, self and surrounding, where the world ends and we begin, where we end and the world begins. That's the terrain of poetry, and I think that if we experience the world through our senses, or what we recall of the world in memory, or of our experience in memory, poetry has more to say about that than anything else.
Coles: You may already have answered this question, but maybe you can address it directly. Do you think poetry's marginality serves it in any way?
Strand: Yes and no. It gives you a great deal more privacy, to think that nobody is reading you. Although I don't think any poet is so severe that he thinks that no one reads him. That would be hopeless, then. The fact that there's no money in it, that nobody gets rich from it, means that our ambitions are not for money, and not even for fame, because fame for a poet is not even ordinary fame. It's very small. Fame for a novelist is more like real fame. John Ashbery can walk through the streets of any American city and not be recognized, except maybe in Greenwich Village by one or two people. Here or there. But I guess the anonymity takes the pressure off. It's not that whatever you say will not have repercussions, but since whatever you say will not change the world, why not just go ahead and say it? You'll never be held accountable. Because, finally, there's no accountability.
Coles: Even, say, Pound was held accountable on such a small level and with so much apology?
Strand: Well, there are degrees of accountability. Everyone's accountable for his actions. And everyone pays in some way. But there's not that much at stake when your words have a small readership of five or ten or even twenty thousand.
Coles: So there is a readership, after all?
Strand: If you're lucky, it's over five thousand.
Coles: Probably more people read your poetry this year than in any other year since you've been publishing.
Strand: Yes, than ever before. But it still wasn't that many. More read it, or heard it, than ever before. Selected Poems, with the Knopf edition added in, has sold, I guess, twenty thousand some-odd copies. It sold somewhere between fifteen thousand and seventeen thousand during the decade when it was an Atheneum book. Another six thousand in the last year at Knopf. The other new book, The Continuous Life, has sold over five thousand in hardcover. It will sell more in paper.
Coles: That's a lot of sales for a hard-cover book of poems.
Strand: Yes, but it's nothing compared to what a book of prose can do. It's good for poetry.
Coles: So, as America's most visible living poet, can you imagine that poets might eventually carve out a place for poetry in daily American life? Do you think it's possible in our culture?
Strand: I do think it is possible. I think something will have to happen to our culture first.
Coles: You mean, to our culture but not to poetry?
Strand: The educational system is going to have to change. People are going to have to care about their children being educated. Right now we live in a nation of marginal literacy. Can high-school kids read Hart Crane, do you think?
Coles: Even if he were continuously in-print in this country.
Strand: He's not?
Coles: Sometimes you can get the books, sometimes not.
Strand: Or Wallace Stevens. Even college professors write badly, and students in college do, too. Even people who run writing programs. Even here at the University of Utah. They can't write. They have no idea about how to write. They write just flat, workmanlike prose. It's not a prose that can be published, unless by textbook publishers.
Coles: In fact, many professors want to teach a flat, workmanlike prose. It's what they set out to teach.
Strand: For what? To bore the reader?
Coles: They claim they want writing to be a tool only.
Strand: A tool that does nothing?
Coles: Yes, that does nothing. They want their students to be able to imagine that writing is somehow only practical. If it is, writing becomes easier. But if it's only practical, maybe it isn't functional.
Strand: Does that mean you can't express yourself? Is it impractical to express yourself? But what determines practicality in writing? To communicate with someone else? What do you communicate if you leave yourself out? What information do you care about? How do you make it sound as if it's important to you? You need to know how to do that, to make what you write sound like it matters. That's not flat, workmanlike prose. That's prose that says, "I care about what I'm saying. I want you to care about it too."
Coles: What about the sciences? Scientists are taught to absent themselves from what they write.
Strand: But isn't this when they communicate information to each other? It's information they're communicating. That's something else. If we're communicating how we feel about the world and what we think about something we've read, then that doesn't have to be done in a separate language. It shouldn't be.
Coles: I think many students are taught not to communicate how they feel about the world.
Strand: Why do you think that is? Then there's no hope for poetry. Poetry is about how you feel about the world.
Coles: Still, there seems to be a hunger for that communication. As with you, now, the sales of your books. Even though the marginality and solitude of the American poet would seem to preclude celebrity for him or her, in the American sense, which is based on popular, not high, culture, your books are selling. The Poet Laureate even achieves, maybe in spite of himself, a certain celebrity.
Strand: Well, I think winning the Nobel prize offers much more celebrity. It's international. People in other countries care a great deal about it. If you win the Nobel Prize, you need a full-time secretary.
Coles: If you win the Nobel Prize, maybe you can afford a full-time secretary. Has the increased celebrity—interviews not only in literary journals but in People Magazine, dinners at the White House—
Strand: I haven't eaten at the White House. I never expected to. I think an awful lot of people have to eat at the White House. Lists and lists of Republican contributors to campaigns. Lots of high functionaries in the government. Poet Laureate, although high in the world of poetry, is after all rather low-down in the official world of watches.
Coles: You ate with the Queen of Denmark?
Strand: A lunch given by James Baker. I was invited I think because the Queen of Denmark is a translator and a painter and they wanted a certain number of cultural types to be there. Apparently they figured the Poet Laureate was a sufficiently cultural type, so we were asked. And I was amazed by the high quality of the wine served. It was a good lunch. Very good. In the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department. It's a very pretty room, and there were at least a hundred-and-fifty people there. It was a big lunch.
Coles: And there was probably a higher level of conversation than you might have had with the functionaries at the White House, since there were cultural-types there?
Strand: I don't think so. They spread us out in such a way that we couldn't converse with each other. Although I did actually have quite an interesting conversation with a woman who travels with Baker everywhere and at the same time manages to maintain a marriage to an Australian. They meet at odd places around the globe. She goes everywhere with Baker.
Coles: Did you find that your level of celebrity, whatever it was, was enough to create any sort of tension in you about your work or about—
Strand: I just didn't work. I just forgot about it. There was no way I could get into it. Partially because I didn't have a great work space in Washington. The house I was living in wasn't really conducive to work. I couldn't really shut myself off. The desk was small, and the seating wasn't that comfortable. But we treated it as a vacation. I thought about poetry from time-to-time, but I didn't really miss it. The Continuous Life had just come out. If I hadn't published a book in ten years and I was in Washington and I wasn't writing, I might have gotten antsy, a little tense about not working, but no, I didn't think much of it. I wrote a couple of poems, reviews, and various stuff.
Coles: Then, when you got back, you turned out a book-length poem in less than a year. It's due out in February (of 1993). What is the title of the new book?
Strand: I haven't got a title yet.
Coles: Can you describe the poem?
Strand: It's a long poem in forty-some sections. I'm still in the process of weeding out the weakest sections, though it was originally eighty-eight, when I wrote it. I wrote it all in four months, so a lot of it was bound to be discarded. I'm in the process of slight rewriting, rearranging, and finding which poems don't fit, but I don't have a title. All I know is I've got to have one in a few months. And I'm just beginning to send sections of the poem out to magazines.
Coles: A book-length poem is a real shift for you.
Strand: It was the happiest writing period of my life. The poem seemed to have its own energy, and gave shape to everything else that I did. I'd just get up in the morning and work on another section. Sometimes I would finish two or three in a day. I would feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and the next day the same thing would happen, and on and on. I had never written that way. I'd usually spent many weeks laboring over a few lines of a poem and then would move on. With this poem, I didn't type anything up. I just let the sections pile up. I didn't look at them. I didn't really even know what I had until the end when I began looking through out of curiosity, just to make sure I wasn't repeating myself. But it's different. Of course, it's not a narrative. It's many variations, themes and variations. Many threads run through it and echo and recapitulate, so it's both a long poem and a collection of short poems.
Coles: Did something make you set out to write a book-length poem, or did it just happen that way?
Strand: It just happened. I just started writing that way. I had an awful lot of energy saved up from Washington. As soon as I got back, I wrote three or four shorter poems. And then I embarked on this adventure, and it took over. I really wasn't able to do anything but write a couple of lectures while I was doing it. I really submitted myself to it entirely. We'll see how people like it. Maybe it's not my mode.
Coles: It sounds like it might be.
Strand: It might be.
Coles: What does the long form offer that a shorter form does not?
Strand: It offers you a tremendous amount of freedom, because you can include so much more. Parts of the poem deal with Orpheus, Euridice. Other parts of the poem deal with the contemporary scene in poetry. Sometimes it deals with politics, sometimes it deals with sex or love. The settings are very different—some are tropical, some are northern, some are western. Some of the poem reads allegorically, some of it reads somewhat realistically. My hope is—and this is the most delicate part of such an undertaking—that the voice is continuous. That the voice is identifiable, though it changes from section to section. There are bound to be shifts in tone, but I hope the voice itself, the character, the music as a voice is constant.
Coles: Do you think it might be true to say that this is a kind of a culmination of an increasing expansiveness of voice?
Strand: From those who have read it—I've showed it to a few people—yes. It's more of "Orpheus Alone." It's out of that poem that this poem has come, I think. That and a few other poems in The Continuous Life.
Coles: What is the relationship between the public persona, the public man, and the private poet? Can you articulate it?
Strand: People aren't in public what they are in private. I don't have a very clear grasp of who I am in either domain. I don't walk around with a mirror, nor am I scrutinizing myself at every turn. Others have a clearer sense, probably, of my public behavior. Jules [Strand's wife] could probably give you a better report on what my private behavior is than I could. She's the one to ask.
Coles: I was thinking of the internal life, I suppose, more than the private life.
Strand: I don't think there's that much difference. I've come to say in public pretty much what's on my mind. I don't censor myself publicly, at least to a certain extent. That is, when it comes to opinions on poetry or politics I don't censor myself. My feeling is, who cares? My best friends tend to agree with me, and my other friends, I guess, feel that they have so long a friendship that a few dumb opinions here or there won't reverse it or upset it or destroy it.
Coles: In your Library of Congress talk, you mention the paradox of poetic ambition—the desire to scale Parnassus as "too grandiose an aim" for a poet, especially as it is played out against the "humdrum character of reality." Do peculiarly American values complicate the nature and expression—or nonexpression—of the American poet's ambition?
Strand: I think a poet's ambition is necessarily a personal one. It's not public ambition. After all, poetry is the wrong vehicle for public advancement. But for a sense of personal well-being, it beats anything else. The sense of satisfaction one experiences upon completing a poem or getting an idea for a poem isn't really to be duplicated very often elsewhere. Maybe on completing a novel, something big like that.
Coles: In The Continuous Life, you seem to identify yourself much more strongly as an American poet than you ever have before. The poems often seem specifically located in American landscapes and in American concerns, sometimes even when they are concerned with classical or European themes.
Strand: I think that's true. I used to read a lot of poetry from elsewhere. South America, Eastern Europe. Much more than American poetry.
Coles: You're now more interested in what's happening here than you used to be.
Strand: That's true. Though I don't feel that I'm isolated from the poetry of the rest of the world. I still read it. There are certain poets I would read twenty years ago that I still read with interest—in translation, of course, since I don't read Polish, or Swedish, say.
Coles: Would you like to mention some names?
Strand: Oh, I was thinking of Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Szymborska, people like that. Even the younger Poles, Adam Zagajewski, you know. Tomas Transtromer, the Swede—I read him in translation. Gustavson, also Swedish.
I don't feel, in other words, that I'm cut off from European poetry. But increasingly, I see a relationship between myself and poets of the American continent, this continent, of the 19th Century. It's also coming to Utah, and being buried in America. Being alone in the middle of it, or lost in the middle of it. I feel a sense of American isolation.
This isolation—it's not something that one sees in the poetry of urban America. American poetry has never been an urban poetry. It's really been a rural poetry. But now rural America is disappearing. Utah, isn't exactly rural America, but it is far away from the urban centers of the east. And in its distance it bears some resemblance to what was rural America in the past.
Coles: It also remembers itself as rural.
Strand: Pioneer Days are coming up. You know, it didn't happen so long ago. A hundred and fifty years ago. The Days of Forty-Seven celebrations commemorate the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Even as American history goes, it hasn't been long. The whole thing began only about three hundred years ago, three hundred and fifty years ago. But already, lots was going on on the American continent before the pioneers came out here. There were thriving cities in the east.
Coles: This neighborhood [one of the older in Salt Lake City, about two miles from downtown] wasn't subdivided until 1929.
Coles: These were gentleman farm parcels of five acres, so the city has a pretty recent rural past.
Strand: On the outskirts of town there are still ranches, horses. It's still like the old west. Ramshackle.
Coles: But it's interesting that you would characterize contemporary poetry, and especially your own latest work, as being a poetry about being "Alone in the middle of America." I went back and was reading your earlier poems and was comparing them with the poems in The Continuous Life. It seemed as if the earlier poetry was more a poetry of alienation or isolation, of solitude, while The Continuous Life seems to be much more about wholeness and community and continuity. Even in its title.
Strand: Yes. The continuity especially, since I feel more connected than I used to to an ongoingness, a political ongoingness, in this country, and since I finally found a place in which I like living, where I've lived for ten years. And I also don't feel isolated from the poetic community as I once did—that is, the poetic community in the present. I don't know why I once felt isolated. It could be just age, you know. I'm mellower or something. But I'm sure you're right that it's there.
Coles: It seems that at one time you were almost famous for a sense of poetic isolation. A distance.
Strand: Yes. Everybody still introduces me that way. Well, not everybody, because it's just not the case. I don't see it anymore. Of course, I don't have that guilelessness. In my work, there is always the sense of a voice speaking into the void, because we do speak into a sort of void as we compose. Maybe people think of me that way because I'm not chatty. If I wrote a lot and were a fast writer, I'd be chattier. But everything is weighed and considered for a length of time before I begin to write it down.
Coles: Do you envy chatty writers?
Strand: No. But I envy the amount that they're able to get written. I just don't come up with that many ideas. Every poem is terminal in a way. I get excited about individual poems, not about the sound of my own voice continuing through many poems.
Coles: You mentioned that you feel an increased sense of community with the rest of American poetry, past and present, and I think I've noticed that move in you just in the ten or so years I've known you. I think when we first met you didn't feel much connection with American poetry, at least with what was being written then, especially by poets younger than you, and now you do feel that connection. Do you know why that is, what made the change?
Strand: I don't think people have to write like me to be good poets. Charlie Simic or Charles Wright don't write like me, though I admire their poetry. In fact, many of my reasons for liking their poetry have to do with things that are impossible for me to do that they do very well. And I think I've just grown more tolerant of the possible variety that American poetry can sustain. Its variety doesn't mean that American poetry lacks quality. In its variousness, in its variety, it is rich. There are some poems, and some poets, I have a difficult time understanding, but I develop a clearer sense of them the more I read them and the more people explain them to me.
Coles: How would you characterize an American poetic sensibility as opposed to, say, a European one?
Strand: I'm not an expert in these matters. But I believe that American poetry is largely a poetry of place, or it has been—a poetry in which nature figures very large. But then this is true of all Romantic poetry; it's not necessarily American. It is true that American poetry does locate itself in certain places. Certain topoi come up again and again.
Coles: Like the hill?
Strand: Yes. But then these topoi are shared by Europeans as well. Maybe not quite to the same extent. One thing American poetry rarely is is an urban poetry, though we like it when it is. The poetry of Frank O'Hara, say. John Ashbery even. It always strikes us as refreshing when it's urban. Oddly natural. It seems somehow in keeping with our true nature.
Coles: So you're suggesting that this poetry almost treats cities as natural places, as natural topoi, as well?
Strand: Yes. I think the city's just another topos. Though it's not caught on yet. The poets of the city, like the New York school, they had a moment and then the moment waned. But the garrulousness of it, the chattiness, the constant amusement that it offered, the things that it noticed, its having a strong cultural location—it is very often about art, about working at art or music, or about mores. Things that we don't think about in the wilderness. We tend to think about survival more. Survival is a more elemental and more basic preoccupation than who's doing what to whom, but it's not as amusing. It's more uplifting, but not as amusing.
Coles: Though even your urban ballad,"The Couple" [from "Grotesques," in The Continuous Life], seems to be about survival. In the end, you say, "Two lovers died on the subway./Lovers die everywhere." Of course, that's amusing, funny, a kind of urban humor. But in a sense, the fact of the city, the technological fact of the city, is what does the lovers in.
Strand: Cities have reached a point where they find it very difficult to survive in. My theory about poetry is it must have a level of grandiosity. This idea will certainly mar my poetry for people who don't like grandiosity at all, who believe poetry should be what a telephone conversation is, that it should be as casual, as natural, as offhand. But I don't hear or experience poetry that way. I'm rather old-fashioned, I guess. I hear it as cadenced and measured. As having a kind of import or significance. It's not duplicating everyday speech but duplicating careful, considered, appropriate speech. Speech that you would like to be known for.
There is, I guess, an impulse to falsify what one is in this, to appear more measured, saner, on the one hand, than you are. But your books are around for awhile, and people tire of frivolity. It's not only that you have important things to say—I doubt that I have important things to say, even though I may be deluded into thinking they're important when I'm writing them. It's just that I say them in a particular way that demands attention. I would hope so. A poem is not something that's just for the moment charming or, for a reading, captivating. I don't expect my best poems even to be successes at readings. They weren't written for that. I'm not out to charm an audience. I would be out to sway an audience with the best writing I could muster, but not charm an audience with my sense of humor.
Coles: But many of your poems, poems in The Continuous Life, are hilarious, even charming.
Strand: Well, I'm split on that. Even as I say it I realize that I am not exactly telling the truth. I am funny and I try to be funny sometimes. Most of the poems I think are funny I try to put into prose, to reserve the actual poems for more serious subjects. That a piece is in prose is a signal that perhaps it could be treated a little more lightly. That's my feeling about prose in general.
Coles: Although some of the funny pieces are at the same time very serious.
Strand: There are ideas in them. I treat those ideas very seriously, and I'm very serious about "Translation," although that's a funny piece. Or "Narrative Poetry." But the ideas come and go, and poetry is more than just ideas. It's ideas with a kind of urgency, or ideas that are elevated into a shady, shadowy place, where they are hard to isolate from the images of the world they inform.
Coles: Your Library talk seems to be a deliberate stepping into place—into line?—as an American poet, locating you as it does, if modestly and defensively ("miles and miles behind"), among five most distinguished American poets [Edward Arlington Robinson, Anthony Hecht, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Strand]. Something that seems to characterize the poems of all of you, at least the ones you used as examples, is an anxiety about the poet's relationship to what has come before, what has preceded the poet. It seems to be an anxiety you deal with in The Continuous Life quite often with humor. Can you discuss of the nature of the anxiety?
Strand: It's Bloomian. A sense of belatedness. I think American poets do have a sense of newness, but they want to make a virtue of necessity, so they keep wanting to "make it new." Newness is another aspect of American poetry. It keeps changing its shape, its look, its feel. It's validated by how far it has moved from the accepted norm for poetry previously. Newness is a very hard standard for validation, since you're about to be invalidated pretty soon yourself if you stick to it. The next generation will wipe you away. I'd rather find enduring things in poetry, and not break away. At the same time, I don't want to do the same old thing. I'd like to find some kind of middle ground. American poets are haunted by a previousness that they wish for the most part wasn't there. And yet they are the result of it. After all, Walt Whitman wasn't the first poet.
Coles: But he acted like he was.
Strand:That's part of his power and his charm. His fame in America. He acted like he was. We all wish we could act like the first poet. We all wish we were in at the beginning of something. Then anything we said would be invested with a certain vitality that, even if it didn't have it, it would seem like it had.
Coles: So you think that the anxiety, the kind you're talking about, has a peculiarly American twist?
Strand: We don't have a very long tradition, and we don't feel bound by a tradition. We feel we can do whatever we want with it. Our tradition is one of rebellion. Breaking up what went before. Picking and choosing. So in some ways we're free, but it's left us almost too much responsibility. Very few of us have the imagination or the verbal gift to utilize that freedom. To keep coming up with things to say.
Coles: Do you think one of the differences in your new book might be a turn away from this rebelliousness?
Strand: I don't know. I've never been self-consciously rebellious. I've never counted myself as one of the Beat poets or New York poets, and I never thought of myself as an academic poet. I always thought I was somewhere in the middle. I think I still am. I am more for continuity now because I find it more interesting than rebellion.
Coles: The new book seems almost familial in some sense, and not only because it's inhabited by a family of your own, in a way that the earlier books weren't. There was family in the other books, but maybe you were always the child.
Strand: Yes, right.
Coles: But The Continuous Life seems familial in the sense of its responsibility. Maybe that's one of the ways in which it's continuous.
Strand: I never thought of it that way but it's true. That seems to be part of it. I go back, you know, to the mythological connections in the book, and back to connections to other American poets. Poems about American places really. The poems are located. What American city I'm talking about can be construed in the poems. It will probably be even more so in this next book.
The danger is if you know too much about what you're doing you can become boring very fast. You work out of a program. I think if you just make it your business to write as well as you possibly can, and write poems that delight you, write poems that you would like to read, that's the best guide. And right now I feel a connection to American poets I never knew very much about before this last book. People like Bryant, Whittier, Longfellow. I like them. And I like Hart Crane more than I ever have. I like Frost more than I ever have. And I don't read other poets as much. I like Emily Dickinson more than I ever liked her before.
But I'm no longer mad about going and reading the latest translation from another Polish poet, wanting to know who the latest Chinese poet is, or whether there is another German I should be reading, or Hungarian. It doesn't interest me as much any more. Charlie Simic and I are doing an expanded edition of Another Republic, and I realized how out of touch I've become. There are poems, poets who we should add to the book, but I realize I don't know nearly as much as I once did about what you should read in other literatures. And that's in translation—I just don't read as many translations. I don't think about it that often. I know it's there, this increased awareness of America, of the American in my work and in myself.