There is so much to love about this book (Spooky Action at a Distance). I particularly loved the title poem and “Postcards.” I don’t usually think of divorce poems as beautiful, but yours are. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of this book and/or of those poems.
First of all, thank you. My first book with CavanKerry, A Day This Lit, sort of balanced on the question, at least to my mind, if art and the imagination could be a solution, a satisfying and palpable solution, to isolation. And I think that this book comes from the recognition that it cannot, that the only thing that solves isolation is connection, human connection. A year after A Day This Lit came out was 9/11. I worked on the 105th floor of the South tower and I lost some people very close to me. While I was not there that day, much dissolved in my life, my long marriage, for one, and I came to realize the utter necessity of finding connection. If the divorce poems work at all, it is because confusion is as much a residue as pain, loss, anger, all the usual suspects, and I tried to imagine the many forms that the confusion can take.
In your poem, “#9, Again,” you wrote:
I write poems because life flopped, flops
and always will. It has vast empty spaces,
monumental plazas between limitless particulars
where we hope to discover, but never do,
harmony or justice, order
(all those place names for love)
and art believes it can fill those spaces with what
we have a surfeit of—yearning . . .
Does that sum up your feelings about why we write poems?
Yes and no. I think we can all imagine a better world, a world we want to live in, and so those of us lucky enough to feel and be creative, desire to make that world. So poetry can be an implicit criticism of life, but it is also an upwelling, a birdsong, an announcement of presence and another example of the shining of life just shining through.
In “The Back Channels,” you begin:
I love the scene that cannot be seen,
the dialogue that cannot be heard,
the dialogue always denied
and admitted only because it succeeded
or is published in some memoir.
I love that opening. I was wondering if you talk a little bit about that poem.
When one decides that he or she wants to change one’s life, there is a lot of negotiation that has to go on. The outside negotiations are relatively easy, it is the negotiations with oneself that are brutal. And those negotiations are always in secret; while you can sometimes tell your friends data, it is extremely difficult to tell them structure, how the various parts of the self are reacting to the change. So I was reading some article about something in the Middle East and the back channels of communication that have to go on and yet have to be denied and I thought how powerful back channels are in the world and in the architecture of the self.
Another poem I admire is “Three Wishes in Worcester, Mass.” I think this could have been written about many American cities including Youngstown, Ohio. Did you actually think of a Chinese poem when looking at Worcester, as the poem suggests?
I went to college in Worcester and, about 6 or 7 years ago, I gave a reading there in the evening. As I was driving out on a coal black night, I went through a particularly barren and burnt-out section. I had graduated from college about 40 years ago and I think I was feeling loss for all the years that were gone and the loss seemed to be embodied in that section of Worcester. And as I felt it, I also wanted it to go away a second later, that is, I wanted it to be evanescent. And one or two thoughts later, the briefness of Chinese and Japanese poetry came to me and the poem was off and running. Surprisingly, I did not miss the entrance to the Interstate that I was searching for.
I read in your bio that you have worked in museums. How have other art forms influenced your poetry?
Yes, I taught perception in museums in New York City and New York State, that is, how to see line, color, shape, all the visual elements in painting and sculpture, so I think I have been better trained than most in seeing what is in front of me rather than naming what is in front of me. So I would hope that the imagery in my work feels really seen to the reader, that I am not sloppy in my metaphors and similes. Interestingly, in my first book, music plays a vital role in the poems, especially Mozart.
Tell me a little bit about how your writing process? How you compose a poem? How you order a book of poems?
That is hard because I don’t really have one. I usually begin writing by reading poetry, I find I need that to begin to shift how I am thinking about language. And some days, a line or a series of lines will come to me. I write them down, and in writing them, I seem to see whether or not they have any real life to them. Mostly, they don’t, but if they do, I just keep going. I try not to censor anything until I have maybe half a page and then I start to see if I can make a poem. Most of the early stuff goes and new directions start to sprout. It takes, normally, for a rather short poem, about 3 or 4 months for me to have something that might survive.
How I order a book of poems? I ask friends, because I have almost no idea. For this book, my friend Baron Wormser helped me immeasurably.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet? What do you love and hate the most about being a poet?
The biggest challenge is silence, the willingness of the self, myself, to hide in the tundra. What I love and hate most is the same thing – the unbelievably hard work of doing this. I am jealous of friends that are painters and dancers, whose work makes them move. I sit in front of the white paper or the white screen of the computer (when revising), I sit in absolute silence since I am concentrating so much on the music of the line, and I try to pull stuff out of me. That is hard and hateful, but when I do get something, particularly an image that is utterly new, I am so at the top of the world.
What inspires you? Who are your primary literary influences?
I think, as you can tell from a number of poems with that location, I am really inspired by the beach. There is nothing that does not awe me at the beach and I think the beach puts me in touch with the forces in me that want to enlarge, that want to exult in the gift of life and particularly the gift of consciousness.
As a public school child in the 1950’s, my introductions to poetry were 19th century poems and I hated poetry. I couldn’t understand the grammatical inversions and felt that it had nothing to say to me. But when, in college, I got to read William Carlos Williams and then Frank O’Hara, poets who wanted to write as we spoke, I thought that poetry might become important to me. I don’t know that I have particular influences. I think there is nothing radical in my style and many American poets of the 50s that began to work out the poetics of the every day are my progenitors.
What is your writing process like? Do you have rituals? Are there certain times of day that you write?
Nope, no rituals. When I am really caught in a poem, I work on it almost continuously. On the subway on the way to work is one of my favorite times. I think the rhythm of the train helps me and you are never more in your own box when you are on a crowded subway.
I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
One of the poems I most enjoy in the book is “The Steam of Tea” because I feel that I found myself in a bit of a corner through the opening and into the middle of the poem and worked very hard to find the real poem that was inside.
The Steam of Tea
a pot of tea
that usual restaurant white ceramic
with the single restrained dark green equator
in the spread yellow sunlight
of the February morning
centers the table with its heat
as she remembers and tells him
of her father, a pilot,
taking her at twelve to Paris
how up on the Trocadero
in the plaza of the Musee De L’Homme
looking down on the Eiffel Tower
he suddenly took her wrists
twirled her so fast
that she became a straight line out
and she learned
what he wanted her to learn:
her complete freedom in the air
and how that brought her
to a sumptuous freedom on the ground.
Across the table, he listens to her
and looks behind her
out the window at the rusted
railroad bridge over the river
that drains, just here, into the bay.
This is the ramshackle part of town
old pilings, dilapidated docks,
the broken hulk of a ferry
that gives weight
to his falling in love in February.