Winter 2008, Volume 24.2
N. Colwell Snell
On Politics, Poetry and Mentoring: A Conversation with Carolyn Forché
N. Colwell Snell graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in English. He is the immediate past president of the Utah State Poetry Society and chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, where he serves as chair of the College/University Poetry Competition. He edited the 2005 Utah Sings Volume VIII, an anthology of contemporary verse by Utah poets. He was named Utah Poet of the Year for his manuscript, Hand Me My Shadow, which also won the 2007 Pearle M. Olsen book award. His poetry has appeared in several anthologies and magazines, including ByLine Magazine, California Quarterly, Bay Area Poets’ Coalition, and Weber Studies.
Although Carolyn Forché is often described as a political poet, she prefers the designation of "poet of witness" since it does not limit her to a specific political position. Her aesthetic is more one of rendered experience and at times mysticism than of ideology or agitprop. She is particularly interested in the effect of political trauma on the poet’s use of language. The anthology Against Forgetting (Norton, 1993) was intended to collect the work of twentieth-century poets who had experienced political upheavals including atrocity, rather than poets belonging to any one ideological persuasion. At the same time, Forché believes the sharing of painful experience to be radicalizing, returning the poet to an emphasis on the community rather than the individual ego.
Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1950. She is the author of four books of poetry. In 1976, her first collection, Gathering the Tribes won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In 1977, she traveled to Spain to translate the work of exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria, and upon her return received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which enabled her to travel to El Salvador, where she worked as a human rights advocate.
Her second book, The Country Between Us (1982), received the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and was also the Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets. "The country between us," she notes, "is perhaps the distance between one human being and another, how long it takes one human voice to reach another human voice. It’s probably also a reference to El Salvador, which was the country that came into my heart when I was just becoming an adult, and the country which probably shaped my moral imagination. But perhaps it is the United States too, because for me the United States is very complex. It was the people of the United States who all through that war were very concerned and who cared about human rights and responded very favorably to all appeals while at the same time the United States was a government that didn’t seem to know how to listen to any of that. So I have two countries in my mind: the country of my people and country of the government that I knew as I was growing into adulthood" (inteview with Bill Moyers).
Her translation of Alegria’s work, Flowers From the Volcano, was published by the University Pittsburgh Press in 1983, and that same year Writers and Readers Cooperative published El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, for which she wrote the text. In 1991, Ecco Press published her translations of The Selected Poetry of Robert Desnos (with William Kulik). Her third book of poetry, The Angel of History (1994), was chosen for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In 1998 in Stockholm, she was given the Edita And Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award, in recognition of her work on behalf of human rights and the preservation of memory and culture. Her fourth book of poems, Blue Hour, was published 2003.
Her articles and reviews have appeared The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Esquire, Mother Jones, and elsewhere. She has held three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1992 received a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. She teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. In her statement on teaching, she says: "My pedagogy demands dedication to teaching as a ‘question of justice’ rather than a ‘search for truth.’ I am dedicated to holding the classroom open as a space for critical and creative thought. The students in my classes are expected to develop their critical faculties, not only for their own benefit, but for their classmates. In my practice, the classroom functions as a community."
Read a poem by Carolyn Forché in Weber.
Carolyn, how did you get involved in El Salvador. Who were your contacts there, and at what point in your life did that occur?
I was teaching at San Diego State University. That was my first teaching position. I knew a woman who was actually married to a colleague, and the woman’s name was Maya Flakoll Gross, and we became close friends. I knew that her mother was a poet, but it wasn’t for some time that I discovered that her mother was a very serious and interesting poet.
One day we were in Maya’s kitchen and it was raining, and we were having coffee and she asked me what languages I read, so I told her I could read English and Spanish, some Spanish. She brought out many books written by her mother, translated into various languages, except English; they had never been translated into English. Her mother was Claribel Alegria, who was born in Nicaragua and grew up in El Salvador and went into exile as a young woman—voluntary exile.
She lived all over Europe, South America, and she lived in the United States for a time. When I met Maya, Claribel Alegria was living in Mallorca, Spain, in the village of Deya. I was quite taken with Claribel’s poetry, and I wondered why it hadn’t been translated into English, since it had been translated into so many other languages. Maya said that she simply didn’t know. No one’s ever taken an interest in translating it. I was having a difficult time with my work at that moment. After Gathering the Tribes, as with all of my books, I went through a bit of a dry spell, a time that I couldn’t write or at least not anything that I wished to preserve.
Does it take away your energy to finish a book like that to where you feel that you have to restore yourself again?
Or you’ve done it, and you have to begin again, newly, with new poems that you are encountering again in the beginning phases of the work. It’s difficult to make the transition from several years of intense revision to writing something new. I thought that it might be useful to translate, that that might be an adventure, so I bought the thickest Spanish/English dictionary I could find and thought that this would be simply a matter of looking up words I didn’t know and making translations, but I learned quickly that my command of the language wasn’t going to be the problem, but rather my failure to understand the context in which the poems were written. Claribel wrote of conditions of extremity in her country, that had been under military dictatorship for half a century. She wrote of torture, disappearance, and a failed revolution in 1932. I didn’t really know anything about Latin America, military dictatorships, or this kind of suffering: poverty, political turmoil, and repression.
So, the daughter said, "Why don’t you come with me for the summer? I’m going to stay with my mother in Spain. Come with me, and then you can work on the translations there and if you have questions, you can ask her. She’ll talk to you."
I had never been to Europe. I was twenty-seven years old. It was 1977, the year after Gathering the Tribes was published, so I went to Mallorca, and there I translated every morning and every afternoon.
A kind of literary salon gathered in the afternoons on Claribel’s terrace, which overlooked the Teix mountain. Robert Graves was often visited there at the end of his life, but so were many exiles from all over Latin America. If they were coming from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and so on, would come to stay with Claribel Alegria for a time, so I was listening to their conversations every afternoon and working with her on the translations, and becoming educated in the political realities of Central and South America.
Did that intellectual milieu, then, and your translation work on Claribel’s poetry lead to your involvement in El Salvador?
When I returned to my teaching at San Diego State, I was feeling uneasy because I had completed Flowers from the Volcano, the book of translations, but I wanted to do something more than I was doing. I was particularly disturbed by what I had learned of American complicity with dictatorial regimes, so I joined Amnesty International and began working for their urgent action network while teaching at San Diego State.
Maya apparently had told Claribel’s family in El Salvador that I had translated the poetry and had even sent some of them Gathering the Tribes and had talked about me. One day a white Hiaci van came into my driveway. I wasn’t expecting anyone, no one was home but me. A man got out of the van with two little girls and a bundle of papers and books and things. The van had El Salvador license plates, so I was a little nervous, given what I had just learned about Claribel’s native land. I didn’t know who he was or what he was doing at my house, so I opened the door with the chain on. He said, "I am Leonel Gomez Vides and you are Carolyn Forché." And I thought, I’ve heard this name before, Leonel Gomez Vides. I went upstairs and got the photographs I had taken of Claribel in the summer in Deya and said, "If you are Leonel, you are a relative of Claribel Alegria, so I want you to point to Claribel in this picture." I wanted him to prove, at least, who he was, and he did. So I took the chain off and I said, "Come in." And the little girls came in, too.
He had taken a journey from El Salvador to California to give them kind of a camping trip, but he also wanted to come and see me, and he had come to invite me to spend time in El Salvador. He knew I had received a Guggenheim fellowship, and his idea was that I would come and learn as much as he could teach me—see as much as he could show me, might be a better way to put it—because he knew the war was coming, and he knew that the position that the United States took was going to be decisive for that war.
He also knew that the American people didn’t know where El Salvador was at this time. He was hopeful and had already invited an historian, Thomas Anderson, to come. He had his own little project of educating Americans. He called it his reverse Peace Corps. He said, "You can work with a rural woman doctor I know, in her clinic, and I know another woman who’s a social worker in the city. You can work with her, and I’ll put you in all these situations." I said, "But what do you want?"
He said, "Well, we’ll see what happens. But when the war begins, you could go back home and explain it all to the Americans."
"Don’t you want a journalist?," I asked, "an aspiring Barbara Walters?"
He said, "No. I want a poet."
"Poets aren’t taken all that seriously in the United States," I continued, "Or if they are, they’re taken seriously for their suicides or mental illness and strange living in the back woods. We’re not considered credible sources of information on foreign affairs."
So he said, "Oh really? Because in Latin America, we take our poets very seriously. We either put them in jail or send them as ambassadors to other countries." I told him that wasn’t the case in the United States, and he told me that I should change that.
I realized that he was very intelligent and compassionate and that he was serious about his offer and about the door he was opening for me. I had always wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer and had never done it, so I thought, well, this is my chance. I have a Guggenheim Fellowship, I can spend my year sitting somewhere writing in a study. But this is my chance, I thought, to know something about how people live, how most people live in the world and maybe do some small thing. I also thought I could improve my Spanish, find other poets to translate, and that would be my life; it would be culturally enriching.
My first arrival was January 4th, 1978, and it coincided with the first human rights investigation that was undertaken at that time by then congressman, John Drinan, S.J., of Massachusetts. He was a Jesuit priest, and I followed the Drinan investigation. (Father Drinan died this past year.) The country that I had arrived in was a country in turmoil. Forty nuns had been expelled, three hundred farm workers had been murdered, three priests had been killed by that time, and so the morgues were full, people were disappearing, the military government was tightening repression. Leonel Gomez Vides, who was Claribel Alegria’s cousin, began to educate me, taking me by Jeep all over the country.
He showed me impoverished villages, nightmarish prisons. He took me everywhere, and he was educating an American, that’s what he was doing. What I was doing was seeing the world in a certain way for the first time. I wrote a long detailed letter to the secretary of Amnesty International in London and got a reply asking if I could continue to report to them and if I could verify reports of disappearances of certain individuals and verify certain facts that they had under review. I agreed to do this and worked for other human rights organizations as well as Amnesty. I gave reports to a number of them, so this became my life as a Guggenheim fellow.
Did you think yourself in jeopardy for taking that position? Physical harm for your life, I mean?
I was in no more danger than anyone else there. The situation was dire for everyone, but I wasn’t singled out until the spring of 1980. And I had to leave the country very quickly at the behest of Monsignor Romero, who was the archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated a week after I left the country. At the time, I was working very closely with a woman who was one of the voices of his radio station, and she worked closely with his human rights office. Things had become very difficult, and I had been writing the whole time. I wrote news articles, analyses for The Nation several times, but I knew I wasn’t a journalist, and I didn’t want to be a journalist. I was just witness to some things.
It’s amazing that you ended up there through these circumstances as a poet.
That’s right. I was invited there because I was a poet. I went there because I was a poet, and the country that I traveled to see was a country of peace. It hadn’t been in the newspapers in the United States at all. And it was a violent country, and an impoverished country, where people lived under a brutal dictatorship, but it wasn’t yet at war. I didn’t travel to a war.
The war began to build while I was there, and I became "absorbed" in the work. I made friends there, and I couldn’t leave them. I was dedicated to getting the word out and to documenting human rights abuses; also, eventually, the work of talking to the U. S. Congress. I talked to many congressmen and senators about the situation in El Salvador. I was writing poems at the same time, but I wasn’t thinking about being a poet. I had won the Yale Prize, and I think I was escaping from being a poet. I had another life. It was very difficult to have a book published at age twenty-six. I don’t think I was ready. It was a lovely experience in many ways, but it was also frightening, and I wasn’t prepared to be a public poet. I wasn’t old enough.
I think, too, it’s not just having a book published, but the prize that you won was prestigious, very highly regarded, so that gave it even that much more pressure, like: Now that you’ve done this, what are you going to do next?
I had this book of translations completed, but I couldn’t find a publisher for it because it’s very difficult to get poetry in translation published by poets who aren’t yet known. Even now, we publish very little work in translation from anywhere in the world. So much was this the case that when Gabriela Mistral won the Nobel Prize, she wasn’t available in English. Wislawa Szymborska, when she won the Nobel Prize, was not known in the United States.
I had been waiting, and I had inadvertently finished another book of poems. I wasn’t thinking in terms of writing a book, but a book had accumulated. Seven of the poems in the book were about experiences in El Salvador, and the rest were related to other friendships and interests, and some poetry arising from my childhood. So I put this manuscript together and sent it to a friend who was a publisher, not so that he would publish it, but so that he would tell me what he thought, and he said that I shouldn’t publish this book. He said I should put it away.
All of a sudden, you start questioning why someone would say something like that.
I asked him why. He wanted to be very gentle with me, and he said it’s not because these poems aren’t intense; they are intense, that’s fine, and it’s not that they’re not good, they are. Then finally he said it: the problem that you’re going to have is that this book is going to be regarded as political, and that you do not want. He suggested that I put the manuscript away, and so I did, believing, I think, that the manuscript was ready.
I’m prone to worrying about my work and to wondering whether it’s worth someone else reading it, so it’s easy to convince me to put something in a drawer. That would be my inclination.
I’m surprised to hear that.
When I published Gathering the Tribes, Yale University press was upset because I hadn’t published the poems in magazines yet, and they made me hurry up and send them out.
So that you’d have…
So that I’d have a list of magazines. You know, I’d only had a handful published. I don’t often send work to magazines, even today.
Even so, I would definitely call it success with your poetry, the way it’s been received. That should send some kind of message, shouldn’t it?
I guess I have difficulty with making the decision that it’s time to send poems out and try to get them published. I’ve always written for the sake of writing, and I sent my manuscript to the Yale Prize because my college professor told me to do so.
So this next one went into the drawer and I did nothing. Then I was invited to Portland to read at the Portland Poetry Festival. I was reading with Margaret Atwood, which terrified me, as I held her in such high regard—I didn’t know how that would go. I admired her very much, but I didn’t know. So, I read with her, and Mt. St. Helens erupted.
So that’s what caused it.
It had erupted once before we got there, and then it happened a second time. The sky was all red, and there was silicate in the air. It was really very abrasive. People had scarves over their faces at the reading. They went on with the reading anyway, but there were all these people with masks on. You couldn’t breathe, and the airports, train stations, and bus stations all closed down because of this dust. Margaret Atwood wanted to go home. I read my poems, I read my El Salvador poems, and she said, let’s get out of here; she wanted to go home, back to Toronto. She persuaded a man to rent us a car at the Hertz counter and we drove all night to the nearest airport in San Francisco. To keep awake, she talked to me as I drove, and then toward dawn, she asked, what are you going to do with those poems?
I told her I was advised not to publish them because they’re political. And she hit the roof of the car, quite literally. She said, are you out of your mind? You can’t put the poems in a drawer because someone told you to put them in a drawer. She was horrified, and she gave me a talking to, a pretty fierce one, and then said, I want you to send these poems to a friend of mine in New York when you get home.
The friend was a literary agent, and she sent them to publishers, and that book was out within six months, eight months, because, miraculously—having been in a drawer for two years—they came out at a time when El Salvador was very much in the headlines in the United States, and the publisher had moved the El Salvador poems to a prominent place in the book.
Two syndicated columnists, Nicholas von Hoffman and Pete Hamill, wrote about this book. They wanted to write about El Salvador, and so wrote about why we are learning about El Salvador from a poet. We should be getting news about El Salvador from journalists.
So, there I was, and there began the whole conflict, the turmoil, the cyclic debate in the United States regarding the relationship between poetry and politics, the poet and the state, and I found myself on many, many panels, because in the United States, that’s what we tend to do. When we have issues, we have panels. I traveled all over the country.
Monsignor Romero, before I left El Salvador, said, now you must go and you must talk in the United States. You must make clear what is going on here. I said, how am I going to do that? I’m not a newspaper reporter. And he said, you will find a way. You will see, there will be a way. I said, I don’t know, I’m scared. I’m scared I won’t be able to do this. And he said, no, it’s going to be fine. He died in March, 1980. The book came out in 1982, in March, and all of a sudden, I was before audiences everywhere, universities, colleges, synagogues, even Rotary Clubs. I talked to thousands and thousands of Americans, and I kept hearing his voice say, there will be a way. You will see. And if the auditorium was very large, I would whisper, Monsignor, what am I supposed to say? How should I open this evening? It was very interesting. The book, The Country Between Us, was received well by many readers, but it was also attacked, verbally and in print, by some poets.
That surprises me. What was the reason, do you suppose?
I’m not sure. There were probably many reasons. Most of the attacks were not literary, but rather personal, and there was speculation about my motives for going to El Salvador and so on.
It seems so petty.
Well, at the time, it was petty.
Do you think it was an ego thing with the poets?
I don’t know. I didn’t have adequate defenses, but it had a very positive effect, this wounding, because it led me to make the anthology Against Forgetting. No, it’s not unusual to write about warfare, exile, internment, imprisonment, torture, all of this, it’s not unusual. Poets of the 20th century outside the English speaking world have almost all endured these things.
It took thirteen years to assemble that book, and during that time, I wrote a long meditation on the 20th century, "The Angel of History." By then I was a mother. I had been in other countries. My husband worked as a war photographer for Time, so we went together, and I would always find some human rights work to do while he was taking photographs. We were in Lebanon, I went to Gaza and the West Bank by myself, and northern Ireland. Then we were together in South Africa at the end of apartheid before Nelson Mandela was out of prison. Then I had my son, and I stopped going into zones of conflict, as they say.
I did still do human rights work, mostly in eastern and central Europe. And the most interesting part of that work was in Belarus. I was very interested in the people living in the exclusion zones. Some of them were people who had taken refuge there from the Chechen war. I went to the exclusion zones in 1996. I’ve always been interested in nuclear contamination, maybe because the Fermi reactor was dangerously on the verge of melting down when I was seventeen years old in Detroit, and also because my father had been sent to Nagasaki following the bombing there.
Otherwise, I have lived a fairly quiet life since then and have raised my son and taught. The story of going to El Salvador really is a personal one. I did not know what was going to happen when I went there. I didn’t go there in order to do human rights work. I didn’t know anything about human rights work, really, outside of writing letters, so all of that happened once I was there. It’s not something one can plan, and having those experiences that I wrote about in The Country Between Us is not something one would choose.
Was there a time, and when would that time have been, when you knew you were going to be a poet?
I wrote my first poem when I was nine. It wasn’t very good. I thought it was good at the time. It didn’t matter what I wrote about, I could write about anything. I loved language and the music of language, and I loved imagery and precise description, to see how detailed, how precise I could be, verbally, on the page. It was something that I loved to do. I didn’t care what the poem was about. My first one was about snow. There was nothing profound there, but for me it was enchanting. I was just in love with it, so I wrote all the time. First, I wrote formally, I didn’t know about free verse; I didn’t have any role models, I didn’t know any living poets, I didn’t even know about any living poets.
Then, unfortunately, I think I was about fourteen when I saw e. e. cummings’ work in a library. I think that was the most recent poetry book the library had in Farmington, and this was my first free verse, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand what was governing the poem, how this is a poem, because everything that I knew about poetry had to do with meters and rhyme schemes. So, I read it and read William Carlos Williams and I thought, well, one can put the language on the page in any scattered sort of way and it’s a poem. So I started writing these really awful imitations of e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. Then I got a little older and read William Carlos Williams again and realized that I had just not understood free verse before, and I was mortified. I never went back to formal verse except for exercises.
When I was twenty-one years old, as an undergrad, I studied with Linda Wagner Martin. She was very encouraging of me. She wrote a biography of Sylvia Plath. She’d written on Denise Levertov and other poets and writers. After college, I got a job doing research for a medical foundation in Washington, D.C., and one of my jobs was to go to the Library of Congress every day and gather material, information on this particular medical disorder. I found that I could finish the work really quickly in the library, that I didn’t have to be back at my office, and I would go up to the stacks—you could still access the stacks then. I had a pass, and I found the poetry stacks there, and I would sit up there and read poetry and take piles of books down with me to this little coffee shop within the library.
One day, a woman came up to me in the coffee shop and asked if I were writing a dissertation on poetry. I said, no I’m not. I felt like I was someone caught out, I was supposed to be doing something else. I said, actually, I’m a poet. And she said, are you? How interesting, you’re a poet. I should like to see your poetry. I was delighted because no one had asked to see my poetry since I graduated from college and it had just become a secret, private thing again. So, I brought her my poems the next day and shoved a whole sheaf of poems toward her. She turned out to be doing her dissertation on Irish literature, but she wouldn’t tell me her last name. Her name was Jean.
The next day, she came back and sat with me and left my poems on the table and didn’t say anything, so I was looking at the poems and trying to turn the conversation around to them, and finally she said, oh yes, your poems, here they are. Thank you for letting me read them. I was waiting for the kind of praise I would receive in high school and college, but she only said, well, you’ve a lot of technical facility, but your poems are awfully boring.
I asked what she meant by this, and she answered that I didn’t seem to be really engaged in what I was writing about. They’re very remote. I don’t feel you in this line. I don’t see why you’re choosing to write about this crane tearing down this house. I really like your language, but the poems aren’t really there. Why don’t you go home tonight and try sitting down and locating something within yourself that you have a passion about, something you feel very deeply about, and then write. And in the next few days, you can bring me what you do, and I’ll take a look.
That night, I thought of my grandmother, Anna,who had died during my freshman year in college and I missed her; I missed the life that died with her, the life of growing up in a sort of small Czechoslovakia transplanted to Michigan. So, I sat down and started writing, and then it was dawn and I had pages and pages. I called it my "kitchen sink" poem. Everything was in there, the Vietnam war, and my grandmother in an episodic lyric narrative, and I gave it to Jean. I rushed it to her. It was—I don’t know how many pages— twenty or thirty.
She took it home and came back and said, this is more like it, but now you have to go back and apply everything that you know, because this is a mess. She said, now go and do your chiseling revision and your tightening and polishing and the crafting that you know how to do. This began a mentorship that lasted about eight months. I wrote, I showed her what I did, she gave me advice, she gave me suggestions for reading. I read everything she told me to read and then we would discuss it in that little coffee shop, then she would send me out to read other work.
One day the circumstances of my life were such that I was going to leave Washington, D.C., and my job there, and I went to say goodbye to her. I said, please can I have your address so we can stay in touch and I can write to you. She said, no, there’s no necessity for that. I asked her what she meant. She said, I think I’ve given you what I could give you, and I think you’re going to do very well, and when you get your first book published, I will come to your reading.
That was 1973. In 1976, the kitchen sink poem finally was chiseled down. That was part of Gathering the Tribes. It was published, and I believe in late 1976, I gave a poetry reading in Arlington, Virginia, at the Arlington public library, not far from Washington, I had given up ever seeing Jean again.
So, I gave the reading and I was getting ready to go. I had signed the books and was all finished and the library was closing up, when I walked down the aisle, and in the back row I saw Jean sitting there, smiling. She said, very good! I was so excited to see her and then I signed a book for her and I asked again for her address and phone number. And again she said, no, no. I’ll see you when your next book comes out—I didn’t see her again, ever. Or hear from her again. I don’t know what happened.
And you don’t know her last name?
No. I don’t know her last name.
But what a fortunate happening.
The Library of Congress was a magical place in those days because there was the old reading room and also the cafeteria. If you were working on a dissertation, you could go to the cafeteria, and it was like Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, that whole building. There were people who’d been writing dissertations for twenty years and never finished them. There were people who were specializing in arcana that no one else in the world knew about or cared about; there were a cast of characters and eccentrics there that were just fascinating; and you could have a carrel up there in the stacks, and you could be in the stacks in the Library of Congress. It’s not allowed anymore partly because of the security of the books, the deterioration of the books, then also homeland security and everything else. It doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not possible.
Have you read at the Library of Congress?
I read there years and years ago. George Starbuck invited me when I was a young poet to read there. And when Robert Pinsky was poet laureate, I was asked to read there with a group of poets from the Washington area. There were five of us, and he took care of us that night.
A critic once noted that, "Forché is still concerned that a poet needs the right connections to be published." How do you respond to an observation like that?
That has never been my view. That is an example of speculation uninformed by knowledge. Actually, I hold the opposite view. Most young or unpublished poets today are compelled to enter contests, and only the winners are published,. And it’s almost the only way that first books come out.
It’s because poetry doesn’t sell, per se. It’s not something you put out on the market, like a novel, where people are going to flock to it.
Well, it doesn’t sell in an economy of scale. In other words, it does sell, but it doesn’t sell in large print runs. My house is filled with poetry books that I definitely had to buy, so I’m one of those who flock to such books.
But you’re a poet.
I buy poetry, yes. But there are thousands of poets.
That’s what I’m saying. The books sell among poets, but not so much beyond that.
You know, I’ve heard that, but I get letters all the time from people who aren’t poets about my work, and they invariably begin, "I’m not a poet, but…." Now, because the National Endowment for the Arts has been politicized and attacked, the literary culture that it was able to nurture for quite some years has been denuded. It’s been cut off, deprived of that the infrastructure, to use a bureaucratic word—meaning, the life blood of the literary art forms: the readings, the publications, the magazines, the journals, the various things that the NEA had been supporting. Thomas Paine, by the way, believed that for literature to thrive, it would have to be supported with public money, as would the other arts, and he also believed that without literature, democracy would be in peril.
Because of that, it’s become harder and harder for people to publish. It’s much harder today than when I was younger. There’s a great and thriving new community of people founding magazines and founding ‘zines, and other internet publishing, and slam and poetry and spoken word and performing arts and all kinds of things. I’m not saying it’s not thriving, but I think for a serious book of poems to be published in print form, and to come to the attention of the readership such as it is, has become really challenging. And I don’t think it’s who you know. I think it’s challenging for everyone. I have really tried to help the work of younger poets into print. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not.
Do you have a regular writing routine?
I have what I tell my students to do. Then I have what I actually do. And what I tell my students to do is much better. I have a method that I teach that really gets people writing, and had I followed it, I would have been much more prolific. I have a terror of the blank page. I write all the time, but the more public I became as a poet, the more difficult it became to enter that beautiful state of writing that was what it was about for me in the past, to try to think coherently.
Success has taken that from you.
Well, it has in part, by making me self-conscious. I think the best thing that I can say is, under the best circumstances, that I sit down early in the morning every day and I see what’s there by putting my hands on the page; it can be a pen, it can be the keyboard, it can be anything, and I just write for a little while and see what happens. Sometimes it takes off and goes somewhere. Sometimes I get a line and I know it’s going to build into a poem and I stay with it. Sometimes I have nothing at all, very often nothing, and I get up really discouraged, and I go do the dishes and everything else that you have to do in your day. If I avoid that, if I avoid the experience of seeing that there’s nothing, then there really is nothing.
So, I tell my students to try to give themselves at least a half an hour every morning just to see, and if something is there, to try to work on it for as long as they can possibly manage before they have to abandon it for their working day. A lot of poets I know get up earlier than they have to in order to have that time. You know, they’ll get up at 4:30 or 5:00 and then their families get up at 7:00. I do that. I get up sometimes at 3:30 because the house is quiet, and I can go over to the desk and I can enter that space. I love quiet, very peaceful quiet, where you can hear the faucet dripping upstairs, you know. And then to sit there, especially in the morning when it’s still dark, that’s when I can write.
So, it has to be bit by little bit. You write between worlds, between states of consciousness, and one of those states is the state between sleeping and being fully awake. That’s what I do. That’s what I tell my students to do. That’s what I make my students do when they’re studying with me. I want to see the pages of their everyday sitting.
You mention Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Early on, did they influence you quite a bit?
Yes. They were taught heavily when I was an undergraduate. We had a whole semester on Walt Whitman.
That was partly the reason why they were influential, because you studied them as an undergraduate?
Yes. They were so different from each other. But they were the first distinctly American poets who voiced an American sensibility, and I’m not a particularly American poet, but I’m fascinated with this notion of writing a people into being, which I think Walt Whitman did, more specifically. He was trying to imagine Americans when they weren’t yet imagining themselves. They were here from all over the world, freshly, trying to think in terms of prosperity and potential and their new life and their new hope for their material well-being. They weren’t yet imagining what they, themselves, might become, spiritually, in the world, as a force for humankind. That didn’t quite turn out to be the case, but that’s what Walt Whitman envisioned.
Who, if anyone, would you consider to be influences in your poetry now?
Paul Celan, whom I consider may be the most important European modernist poet. Anna Akhmatova in translations of Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. Yannis Ritsos, Odysseus Elytis, the Greek poet, Edmond Jabès, an Egyptian-born Jewish poet who wrote a beautiful, very interesting work called The Book of Questions. Poets from other traditions. I can read in French and Spanish, so I like to read those in the original. But I also read poetry in translation, heavily. And I read very eclectically, American and Canadian poets.
Are you sharing your work in study groups or critique groups anymore?
Yes, I have a circle of friends to whom I show poems. We don’t sit in a group together, but we exchange our work when it’s still in manuscript. I’ve shown my work to Frank Bidart, and to Honor Moore, and I’ve shown it to Louise Glück and the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson.
So, in a way, you get something back.
Yes. We tell each other things. Usually we notice small things, and we tell each other. I do a lot of teaching. I teach at Skidmore College, and I teach in an online mentoring program at the University of Minnesota called the Split Rock Arts program, and I’ve worked with poets all over the country online. Sometimes they have a full manuscript they want to work on, and sometimes they have individual poems. I have five of them right now. Every year, I teach at the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute in Saratoga Springs for the first two weeks in July. I have a two-week long workshop there, every July. Then, sometimes I go to different schools, like the University of Michigan, where I just spent a week, and I did workshops there with students.
Writing thirty years ago vs. writing now, how much change have you seen in your own personal writing?
I think I have changed a great deal, especially formally. There are shifts from book to book. I still recognize myself, in my four books. I’ve started working with a different kind of form, especially in The Angel of History, and then again in Blue Hour, and I think that the work probably became a deeper experience for me over time, and of course, I knew more, had traveled more, had read more. Because I started so young, I have my juvenalia in print, which many people don’t have, so there is a lifetime of work in print. There was Gathering the Tribes in my twenties. In the thirties, The Country Between Us, and in my forties The Angel of History. In my fifth decade, there is Blue Hour. And I have about half a book now.