The Music and Energy of Poems.
Why is “Widening Income Inequality” the title of your new collection of poems, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and coming out in America now?
The title is used with some considerable irony. It is a very common phrase, used by politicians and economists, and this is considered an essential, crucial problem in American society. The distance between the very rich and the very poor is far greater than ever before and represents a danger to American society, never mind that it is a serious social unfairness.
What is the book about?
I have no idea. It is about poems in many different forms, mostly rhymed, often in regular meter, some not. Very often in poems where the meter is regular it is my pleasure to interrupt it. The point of poems is the music of the poems, not the so-called meanings. Music and energy are important, the sound and the thrust of the poems.
Is there a ‘fil rouge’ in your poems, a guiding thread made up of some recurring matters?
Much of the action of the poems takes place in New York, in the Upper West Side, Broadway. My poems are acquainted with cities, look at cities, talk about cities; and through the cities look at the world.
Are there feelings in the poems?
In some sense the poems are feelings. Poems are poems. That is what they want to be.
One of these poems is called “Polio Days”?
Polio is something that reminds of a tragic condition of the past. It disappeared with the advent of the vaccine, but that did not help the people who were stricken before the vaccine, trapped into their iron lungs.
How do you compose your poems?
Sometimes they come with the form of an idea, or sometimes on the form of a line already formed that gives life to the rest of the poem. But it is important to remember that, as interesting as the subject may be, the work of the thing is to be a poem. If you think of the poem as a work, something you create, it becomes something outside you. That is how it has to get through, as an object you created, separate from yourself.
Do you write and rewrite?
Endlessly. Changing words, a word, changing the shape of the stanza, a line break. It does happen, but it is rare that a line comes from the start the way it is going to end up being. Mostly when something appears fully formed in your head it is not going to last. You put it down on a page and it will soon be altered. There are gifts that come and stay as they are, but that is exceptional.
How do you work?
Many hours every day, and I require a very great deal of time to do the work in. I want gallons of time to do the work. It gives you the opportunity to hear it, to smell it over, to meditate, to listen to what you are writing. You work and you work, and then comes a moment when the poem abandons you, the poem is finished. What has not been sufficiently emphasized is how important the sound is, the sound the language is making.
Do you write one poem at a time?
Yes, but there may be poems on my desktop that I have tentatively finished that are sitting there. You return for further scrutiny.
Do you read poetry?
Yes, I read a great deal of poetry in my time. As you know I was very powerfully influenced by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who I got to know, and later by Robert Lowell. These are the masters I revered, but there have been many poets through the ages, writing in many languages, that have influenced my work. Eugenio Montale is an example of a poet in another language whose work delights me.
What is the role, the place of the poet in American society today?
I have no idea because I do not participate in the way other poets do. I don’t teach, I don’t give readings, I don’t belong to poetry societies. I do my work and send it out to be published.
You publish quite a lot, in The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books and The Paris Review?
Yes, before the poems are gathered into a book and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Your poems have a lot of politics in them. Are you following the just started Presidential campaign?
Eagerly, intensely, with horror, with amusement. I am passionate about politics, I enjoy it. So of course some of that gets into my poems.
You also have a passion for motorcycles and clothes. Motorcycles are often in your poems, for instance in the poem “Montauk”, but very rarely clothes?
I don’t consider clothes a futility. I admire the serious craft of making beautiful clothes. I salute craftsmanship of all kinds, and elegance. And the idea of elegance includes certain motorcycles, which have the additional attractiveness of going fast.
Why not cars, or planes?
I love aeroplanes and aerobatics, and I love very fast cars.
Why very fast?
I also like to fly low and slow in an aeroplane. But the sensation of speed is a lovely one, also in the poems.
You said that most of the poems locate themselves in New York, but you never forgot your hometown, St. Louis?
You could say the city I grew up in, St. Louis Missouri, does appear in the poems. But New York is my place. It is where I live and my mind lives.
Why do you love New York so much?
I love it because of its power, its vitality, its variety. Its non-stop vitality. Its colourful, non-stop vitality.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with your friends.