Interviewed by Michael Shea
Robert Pinsky is one of the most recognized contemporary poets. He has done more for poetry than possibly any other American in the last 20 years, and his cultural impact cannot be underestimated, ranging from his appointment as Poet Laureate (1997-2000) to his appearances on The Simpsons and The Colbert Report. Currently, Pinsky teaches in Boston University’s graduate writing program and is the editor of the online publication Slate. His most recent collection of poetry is Essential Pleasures.
This Tuesday, November 10, Robert Pinsky will be the guest speaker at the Florida State University English department’s annual Writers Harvest benefit.
Q: You’re regarded as perhaps one of the most active Poet Laureates in the history of the position, specifically because of your Favorite Poem Project, which attempted to dispel the notion that poetry is a dying art form. Now, twelve years after the inception of the project, how successful do you think it was?
A: The videos and other materials at www.favoritepoem.org continue to get many hits. Norton continues to sell the anthologies An Invitation to Poetry (with DVD of videos) and Americans’ Favorite Poems, now in its twentieth printing. Every July, the FPP conducts a Poetry Institute for K-12 Educators, which attracts teachers from all over the country.
I saw two purposes for the project: to demonstrate that poetry is a vocal (not necessarily performative) art—poems happen in the reader’s voice; second, to demonstrate that many Americans love particular poems. The two purposes are related because the first involves the intimate, human scale of the art and the second involves an essential democratic concept: the dignity of the individual.
Q: What is your favorite poem, and who are the five poets whose work has influenced you the most?
A: My favorite poem varies from day to day, hour to hour. Sometimes it is John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” sometimes it is W.C. Williams’s “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper,” sometimes it is Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” sometimes it is William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Influence? Hard to say. Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Homer, Ben Jonson, Wallace Stevens might be on the list. Do we count Homer?
Q: Which was a bigger honor for you, being appointed to a nearly unprecedented third term as Poet Laureate, or being featured as a character in an episode of The Simpsons? What was The Simpsons experience like?
A: Well, The Simpsons is very much a writer’s show, compared to the kind of live-actor sitcom it is based on, parodies, [and] is descended from voice actors who don’t have as much power as live ones, and they don’t age nearly as quickly. So the brilliant writers of the show have a lot of freedom, and I think they use it well. Being on TV is nice, having titles and winning prizes is nice—but those are not the main concerns of an artist, they don’t have much to do with the main work of trying to write the best poems you can.
As to “honor”—that would be having someone choose and read one of your poems, the way the readers at favoritepoem.org choose the poems they recite and discuss.
Q: You’re well known for your translations of Dante and Czesław Miłosz. What about those two poets spoke to you? What is your philosophy of translation?
A: It’s interesting that both the 14th-century Italian and the 20th-century Pole were exiles: Dante unjustly banished from Florence and my friend Czeslaw for much of his life a forbidden figure in Poland. In both cases the imagination is eclectic, syncretic, cosmopolitan, though deeply rooted in one place, one language. Both make one realize that translation, in the root sense of carrying-across, is impossible as an absolute, literal process. On the other hand, both poets carried many things across, between and among different cultures.
Q: What contemporary writers are you currently jealous of? Is there anyone currently writing who you feel is truly groundbreaking, whose work you can point to and say “That’s the future of American poetry.”
A: I can think of some contemporaries who have written things I feel inspired by, in that way envious of: James McMichael, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, C. K. Williams would be among them.
Q: There seems to be an idea that even if poetry itself is alive and well, contemporary poetry is relegated to near obscurity, and that argument draws its weight simply from a visit to the local Barnes and Noble, where the poetry section is miniscule and more or less entirely composed of dead writers. How would you respond to this idea, and what can contemporary poets do to enhance the status of America’s still-living poets?
A: The dead writers are great. They have passed the test of time. They represent centuries to choose from, not a few decades like us living writers. So it makes sense that the more excellent the shelves, the more books by dead writers on them. Viva the dead! Let the living “enhance their status” by trying to write well.
Q: How has the emergence of creative writing programs changed the landscape of American poetry?
A: Creative writing programs have made American poetry more regionally and socially diverse: once, most American poets came from a few east coast colleges. Imagine, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall, all at Harvard at the same time—we could add Kinnell and Merwin at Princeton, Ginsberg at Columbia. Now, the poets, my generation and younger, seem more likely to come from state universities, small colleges, various parts of the country. For years, a lot of them attended the MFA program at Iowa, Montana, Irvine, etc.—the social and geographical center is no longer local, no longer on a certain social model. Creative writing programs are part of a cultural change that includes the GI Bill, the rise of state universities, maybe the decline of English departments. Looking back at my previous answer, McMichael, Gluck, Strand, Williams—not an Ivy League alum in the group, I think. That reflects the change I mean—but on the other hand, I think not one of them attended an MFA program, either!
Q: You’ve written before about “difficult” poetry and how we shouldn’t accept a “dumbing-down” of poems. What specific value does an intentionally obtuse poem have for you? Is there a point when a poem becomes too difficult to understand to be valued? How does this issue reflect the larger issue of American anti-intellectualism?
A: I think that if an audience for any art is having a good time, they are willing to suspend the need for comprehension for a while—that’s part of the pleasure. So if the poem by Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore sounds great, is amusing or engaging or spooky in a way that we like … then like the devotee of opera or rap music or rock music, we are happy to understand only gradually, over many listenings. And if it doesn’t sound good, it is boring even if we understand it. That’s the trouble with a lot of boring art: you understand the stupid cop show, or the tedious sitcom gag, too soon and too completely. Same for the stupid middlebrow poem.
Q: As a young writer, when I go through periods of inactivity I get a feeling that I’m not a writer anymore and won’t be until I produce something again. Is that something you still deal with or is there a sense that by now you are intrinsically a writer, and if so when did that happen? How do you deal with a lack of inspiration? As someone who’s been writing for over 40 years, where do you still find inspiration?
A: The only resource, ultimately, is great works of art. The music or poetry or building or movie you love. Or will love. Art inspires art.
Q: There’s been a recent push for digital publishing with the rise of products such as the Amazon Kindle. Do you see electronic publication as the future of the written word, or will there always be a place for physical publishing?
A: I use my Kindle when I have to, for convenience, but I haven’t bonded with it. It’s kind of klunky (sic) and limited as a technology. I’m sure that such things will get much better. As with radio—in the fifties people thought it was finished—the uses of technologies may change or evolve. I don’t know.
Q: You’ve stated before that poetry is meant to be read out loud. You’ll be reading here in Tallahassee in a few weeks with a jazz accompaniment; how does a performance like this differ from a standard poetry reading for you? What sort of interaction do you have with the jazz players—do they have a hand in pairing the poems with music or are you more in control? How does this blur the lines between poetry and music?
A: Poetry and music have ancient ties. Apollo was sort of in charge of both, right? For me, the most essential life of a poem is in each reader’s individual voice, actual or imagined. Working with the musicians is fun—it’s all based on me listening to them, and them listening to me. It’s not as much at the center of my art as the process the Favorite Poem videos show … . but it is something else, interesting and worthwhile, of its own.
Q: What kind of child were you?
A: When very small, talkative and bright. In those early years, a bit of a momma’s boy and a little professor. My first grade teacher described me as “Always polite, but constantly dreaming instead of paying attention to the task at hand.” Then, in the 8th grade, a troublemaker, in the Dumb Class. In adolescence, wrapped up in music.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Jim Powell’s wonderful new book, Substrate
Q: What was your relationship with rejection like? Do any publications reject a former Poet Laureate?
A: The goal with rejection, as with most things, is to use it, somehow learn from it. I have experienced plenty of it. There are forms rejection takes when people associate you with a title: not a rejection slip, maybe, but something else?
Q: What are your writing habits?
A: I mutter to myself.
Q: What book did you suffer for the most, and why?
A: An Explanation of America stalled partway through—the booklength poem gave me a lot of sympathy for what novelists must endure.
Q: What writerly habit would you most like to break?
Q: What did you have for lunch today?