Two Contemporary Poets
an interview by Carmine Giordano
How does a poem begin for you: a phrase, a whole line, an image? Some other expression?
Something starts haunting me: that's how a poem begins. It can be a story I've heard or read, something that happened recently or long ago, a dream, seeing a wild animal, unusual weather. It can be a striking phrase. If something doesn't want to let go of my psyche, I know that I have to write it down. That's the only exorcism. The result is not necessarily a poem. I have lots of fragments that perhaps one day will complete themselves, or perhaps not.
Then there are those mystical-sounding coincidences. One time I was in a public library, and a book literally fell off the shelf. When I picked it up, it opened itself precisely to the story that gave rise to one of my poems. I could relate a few other instances of this sort. They've taught me to pay attention to the various "beckonings" out there.
I agree with Cecilia Woloch's statement that we don't choose what we write about. I don't choose what I'm haunted by. But I'm open to it. I make myself open to it - there is a significant element of choice here. Interestingly, I've discovered that I can choose not to write, to drown out the haunting. I can become very busy with something intellectually demanding, something that takes all my energy and free time - then poetry dries up. And I have done it: not so long ago, I deliberately plunged into a different and demanding field for five years because I felt overdosed on poetry, intellectually starved, and wild to experience again the kind of life that's not centered on poetry. And poetry dried up about 99%. If I don't have enough solitude, the same will happen. But that's painful, when not writing is not by choice, but due to circumstances. I enjoy being haunted.
Between the idea and the finished piece, how is a poem processed by you? (Scraps of paper, notebook, word-processor, reading aloud, multiple revisions?)
I start by scribbling on whatever scrap of paper is at hand. When enough text has accumulated, I type it on the computer. Then come revisions: the first flurry of revisions, just to make the piece be recognizable as a poem. Then comes the crucial part: the second phase of revisions, long after the first draft. Sometimes it takes me years of revisions before the poem gets to the point that when I change the slightest thing, even a line break, it gets worse. That's how I know that it's ready. Some of my poems have taken me 10-15 years or over a hundred rewrites.
But the best poems, the really "inspired" ones, are a magnificent gift from one's creative-cognitive unconscious. A poem like that gets emailed into my consciousness fully born and needs very few revisions. If that happens once a year, I feel very lucky. But one could argue that such an "effortless" poem was being processed by the creative-cognitive unconscious for twenty years, maybe - or rather, your whole life had to be a certain way for that poem to be born in a flash. The whole universe had to be a certain way.
So it's a definite, thousand-fold yes on multiple revisions. No on reading aloud. I read aloud only when there's a problem with rhythm that I want to resolve. It's a torture - I don't like reading aloud to myself. To others, yes - I love to give readings. It's a rare treat for me. And sometimes, during a reading, I catch a line that's slightly off. I'm somehow amazingly divided into the self that's totally in flow, "on," having a fantastic time giving a reading, the ham actress that I am - and then, there's that simultaneous other self, what I call the Observer, that's not carried away by the euphoria and hears every glitch in rhythm, every syllable that's even a little off. Music is extremely important to me; after the reading, I immediately set to correct that glitch. So in the end, reading aloud - at a reading -- is also part of the process.
What occasions, events or experiences commonly generate poetry for you?
Too many to enumerate. It can be anything. As I've already said, something starts haunting me. It can be a striking passage in a book, but it can be something overheard in a supermarket. Stories people tell me. A horse at full gallop, that unexpected magnificence. Or something that reminds me of something in my childhood. I have a poem that unfolded from a single word in German.
I'm a spiritual ruminant. I'll find myself thinking about something a lot, and suddenly know: it's a poem. But what results is often only a fragment. I can rush to a closure just to have the high of a new poem, but I know better. A forced ending will be a product of the conscious mind coming up with something obvious and facile; it will not be real poetry. A fragment may take years to complete itself. It usually takes a "second haunting."
There are frequent references to music (nocturne, polyphonic, virtuoso solo, baroque concerto) in your poetry. What previous musical training, study or experiences enter your writing? Do any musical forms shape your poetry? What other interests (art, history) motivate / influence your writing?
Classical music has been a part of my life since childhood. It's likely that my love of melody, of music, has something to do with my need to create verbal music in my poems. I like musical poems best; otherwise, an essential element of poetry is missing. Music has great emotional power.
I also love the tango, with its primal erotic energy. How interesting that the tango was created by lonely Argentinian immigrants. Sometimes I listen to the slow soulful songs by Elvis Presley. I think I'd probably like mellow jazz, if I took the time to become familiar with it.
I have some poems based on paintings, though history has been a much greater influence. There's no escaping the fact that I had history for breakfast. It was dramatic enough to be growing up under a Communist dictatorship; on top of it, I heard many stories of World War II. There was no getting away from history. I got to see the ruins of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw - and I don't mean in a photograph or a movie. I never sought out history; it was the stuff of nightmares I continued to have long into adulthood. When Charles Simic asked at a reading, "In what kind of place is it proper to read a book as obscene as World History?" I knew instantly what he meant. That was before 9/11; I thought I was perhaps the only person in the audience who understood Simic on a visceral level.
Mythology and religion have always fascinated me. I especially like the Jungian approach to myth, religion, and literature - there's a convergence here, if you look at the dominant motifs. The search for meaning and the search for beauty - these have dominated my life. I see poetry as the marriage of meaning (or call it several possible meanings) and beauty.
Speaking of beauty, I must mention nature as an inexhaustible source of inspiration. There can be no lyricism without nature images; cityscape is a special category that can also yield lyricism, especially what I call the noir lyric.
Is the "I," of your poetry always you? When you assume a persona, is it deliberate or discovered after the fact?
The "I" of my poetry is the "I" that I discover in the process of writing. It's a larger self, with access to collective wisdom; sometimes even a cosmic self, a kind of self that feels a great sense of union with the universe. That self says things that I as a person would be hesitant to say, afraid to sound pretentious, afraid that if I make a big statement, I'm likely to be wrong. In a poem, one has a license to say anything that feels genuine, no matter how strange. It's going to be a kind of truth anyway, a partial truth, but a truth of the heart that can touch other hearts.
When I write in the voice of someone else, for instance as Freud's mother, that's never an accident. No, it's totally deliberate. Typically, I've done a lot of reading first, and something in the biography stirred me and began to haunt me. That part - being haunted - is not what I have any choice about. Again, I don't consciously choose what I write about.
What happens in terms of the "I" of the persona is quite interesting -- I start with a historical person, but to some extent it's me speaking. It's a fusion. Perhaps one exception is my Lenin poem -- but even there, when I end with the fox, "so beautiful I couldn't kill it" -- that's me. I'm not sure that Lenin would hesitate, but I would like to think so. He wasn't the monster that Stalin was. The poem shows his ruthless fanaticism and intolerance, but at the same time his capacity for love.
In one case, I had a dream, a nightmare, actually. I wrote it down, but it didn't lead it anywhere until I decided that it was Rosa Luxemburg's dream. So I read more about this revolutionary figure vaguely familiar to me since childhood - streets named after her everywhere - and began a poem. While I was working on it, I had another dream, and it fit right in. The amazing thing is that it all fits with Rosa's idea of what the revolution should be about - ordinary human happiness, and the right to beauty for everyone.
From what heritage and historic sources do you assume personae? Do you know why?
When I first encountered Browning's "dramatic monologues," I fell in love with them. They were much more interesting to me than a typical Victorian poem. Tennyson's Ulysses and Tithonus, also persona poems, are also among my beloved examples.
Various historical and literary figures from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century are most likely to appear in my poems. But I do have a persona poem that goes back to the Seventeenth Century. Again, it's a matter of being haunted by a story, or the person's eccentricities. Sometimes I feel a lot of empathy for the speaker, sometimes not. Sometimes it's the power of the story. And yes, of course, there may be factors of which I am not aware. Again, we don't choose what we write about.
Which poets continue to influence your writing? In what way?
The encounter with Rilke changed my life. Rilke taught me seriousness. Dickinson taught me the importance of startling, wonderful lines, of not being content with a so-so line. Akhmatova taught me the power of conveying emotional drama through just an image or two. Bobrowski, a German poet few American readers are familiar with, further showed me the power of lyrical minimalism. I've been influenced by Stevens too, but I can't come up with a tidy reply as to how. His poems entered me, provided a certain stylistic matrix. Not all of his poems - some are too abstract.
I'm struck by the fact that many of the poets who have influenced me most might be called poets of solitude: Rilke, Dickinson, Stevens. The immense richness of their inner lives was enough.
There are poets I find excellent, and yet I don't enjoy reading them. It seems that it has to do with the struggle to enter the text rather than finding the text that has the power to enter me, to flow into me even against my will. Right now I'm reading Cecilia Woloch's latest book, and find myself deliciously drowning in it. Those poems are entering me. Her musicality and soulfulness probably have a lot to do with it.
I want to write poems that enter the reader. That flow. When I find poems by others that do that, I surrender. It's like falling in love. Again, I'm tempted to say that I don't choose what I read. I browse a lot, and eventually find something that starts entering me.
What repeated themes (personal or universal) occur in your writing?
The theme of the "lost name" is certainly there - it's part of the immigrant experience, but it goes beyond that. Who gets named, whose story gets told - I try to image what the story might be like from someone else's point of view.
Another theme is overcoming adversity, survival, going on. The theme of a woman's awakening to her own potential, after the Male Savior betrays her, abandons her. Having to be your own hero, rather than waiting for a hero to save you. The theme of infinite patience, or mule-like plodding, that one needs for those hundred revisions. The artist's journey, the discovery of one's vocation and the courage it takes to pursue it. Fate - the cards we've been dealt -versus Destiny (that which pulls us toward it).
And simply beauty, including the beauty of language. The transcendent importance of beauty. How beauty makes life a feast, in spite of mortality.
I'm sure there are many other themes as well, but the author is usually not the best judge of own themes. I can imagine a brilliant reader saying to me, "It's very simple. 90% of your poems are about loss." That may be correct, but it's not the whole story. I was very affected by Julia Stein's statement that poetry is "to life." The best poetry isn't just a lament over loss. There is an element of redemption in it, of transcendence. Simply connection with nature can be that element, even in a very bleak poem. Connection with the soul, and the soul isn't just personal. It's something larger, connected with everything in the world in more ways than we dare believe.
Among the sources for your poetry, would you share how Jungian influences and your feelings for the mystical and spiritual inspire and shape your writing?
When these influences appear, are they deliberate, conscious considerations on your part, or do you discover them in your writing after the fact?
The theme of fate versus destiny is one of my Jungian themes. I also respond deeply to the poetics of religion - the doctrines smack of nonsense, and that includes some Jungian ideas as well. I'm certainly drawn to the mystical - that's inseparable from my having learned that I don't choose what I write, or even what I read.
I love synchronicities. When I was revising St. Joan, I happened to get the message "Truth is a torch, but it makes a beautiful blaze" in a fortune cookie. And that poem was born from a dream - I had a dream that I describe in the first stanza. Again, it's like being haunted, the text entering through the most unexpected venues. No, there is nothing deliberate about that.
I forget who said, "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does, the better." Here I'd define "God" as those larger forces "out there." Once a poet I always thought pretty secular and non-mystical said, "No, I can't change that ending because it was given to me by God." I knew exactly what she meant. You have to let things enter, and trust your cognitive-creative unconscious to process it all, waiting patiently for that "email" that has the feel of inspiration.