Stephen Burt interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Stephen Burt interview, with John Hoppenthaler
In an interview with Joan Houlihan, you respond to a question about whether being a poet is helpful in your work as a critic. Answering in the affirmative, you note William Carlos Williams’ definition of a poem as an “emotional machine made of words” and say that, in order to be a good critic “it helps to have built, or tried to build, a few machines oneself.” Let me flip the question around and ask, in the too often snarky world of poetry, is it a help or hindrance, as a poet, to be as notable a critic as you’ve become? I mean, I think I’d be terribly apprehensive about putting my own poems out there were I in your situation. I’d feel a tempting target.
Fair enough, but I’d rather feel like a target than feel overlooked. I like getting attacked, because I like attention, unless they’re ad hominem attacks; if I really hated it when people disagreed with me I wouldn’t write as much criticism as I write—though I don’t much like to pick fights either: I’d much rather have people say “hey, you opened my eyes to Lorine Niedecker!” than say “No way.” But I do want them to say something.
I think that my criticism affects my poems in some ways I’m not even able to understand (for reasons of perspective; I might be the last to know). But I don’t feel discouraged by the interactions; if anything it’s the reverse.
It seems to me that today’s poetry universe is as large, various, and democratic as it’s ever been, in terms of sheer volume, in terms of the variety of voices available to us as readers, in terms of aesthetic influences enhancing and clashing. It’s difficult to point to any particular period style that overshadows all others, and poetry seems pretty much at home both within and without the academy. There are more places to publish one’s poetry now—especially since the advent of the online journal—than ever before. Is this your impression as well? If you were given the task of presenting poetry’s state of the union address, what would you say about the times in which we’re writing and critiquing?
Yes it is my impression as well. I have to finish a long piece of academic writing that is more or less a “state of the union” circa ten years ago—looking back on the recent past is hard, because we think we know so much. What’s changed since ten years ago, in American poetry (other poetries have perhaps changed more)? More journals, more internet journals; a really very healthy and exciting (if not always careful nor historically meticulous) set of debates about poetics online; the rise of Jack Spicer as model and influence; a new cohort of poets working in pre-modern forms, some of whom came back to those forms after neo-modernist beginnings (Devin Johnston); new presses with clear identities (Flood, Ugly Duckling); more book-length poems, especially ones that include journalistic or reportorial projects, making poems out of great heaps of real information, so that the poem is nonfiction too (C. D. Wright, Mark Nowak, Juliana Spahr); also poems made out of borrowed or re-shaped found texts (overlaps with the documentarians, but also includes the various tricksters and authors who treat poetry as conceptual art). But, ugh, here I am writing about movements and historical currents again, because that’s what happens when you ask for a portrait of a time. I prefer portraits of people, and portraits of poets: Peterson, Kasischke, Armantrout…
I find that your poems, for the most part, tend to make use of lines that exhibit the sort of individual integrity I tend to admire. That is to say, your lines—as individual units—cohere. Let me ask you this: what do you look for in a line of poetry? Are you troubled by the fact that so many contemporary poems are composed of sentences (or fragments) that seem arbitrarily broken into “lines” or by poems in which the majority of lines seem to begin with prepositional phrases, articles, and conjunctions? Is this shoddy craft, or can these practices be justified?
Lots of great lines begin with prepositional phrases, articles or conjunctions. For example:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe/
With loss of Eden…
And chiefly O Thou Spirit, who dost prefer
Before all temples an upright heart and pure,
Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd
The Mother of Mankind.
I’ll stop quoting there. I’m very glad you like my lines. I do think that individual lines must make sense as lines, in the ear, or you don’t have a poem (or anyway not a good one). But there are all sorts of ways that a line can make aural sense. Some lines (Kasischke’s, for example) make enjambment the norm, so that end-stops become a shock. She’s also got several kinds of enjambment—you could make a scale for it—and several kinds of line length, which is one reason her lines don’t collapse into prose. I agree that many bad poems have lines that do collapse into prose, or seem arbitrary. But I don’t lose sleep over it. Most poems from any period aren’t very good; why should our period be an exception?
I’m assuming that the new poems featured here are part of your next book with Graywolf, Belmont, scheduled for publication in 2013. Is that right? These poems seem to issue from the mind of an adult with real world responsibilities, a speaker who is a little worn down by the world but approaches it with hopefulness, a wry sense of humor, and even a hint of the romantic impulse in, say, the lyric closure of “Turning Forty in Oistins.” I love your use of apostrophe and how you subtly manipulate tone in “Taxi Dawn, Storrow Drive,” where you address the iconic Citgo sign looming above Fenway Park in Boston and express the mixed emotions one who is thoughtful may well have when musing upon such an artifact, one that is tied together with oil business and sports business and economic/social integrity. Its imperfect color suggests to me the imperfection of everything we make, and the scrutiny you apply to it suggests to me the same close reading we must bring to a poem, or to our own lives. I’m also struck by how the end of the poem feels to me a little like O’Hara’s Lana Turner poem in its mildly mocking tone. In what ways do you feel that your poetry has changed over the years? What, specifically, seems different to you about your latest work?
Um, thanks. I don’t know whether “Turning Forty in Oistins” is going to get into Belmont, actually—it’s so recent it might just belong in the next book after that!—but yes, the rest come from that forthcoming book, and yes, it’s very often a book about real world adult responsibilities, feeling worn down and yet hopeful about all the matte, small-scale, non-gleaming, ground-level stuff you have to do in order to be a good person when you’re an adult with people depending on you (children, in my case, first of all, but also students, and other, beloved adults).
Some versions of the Belmont MS had an epigraph from Stevens, “The way through the world / Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it,” but I took that one out because it seemed like boasting. There are at least two epigraphs, one from Alison Gopnik and the other from Else Minarik’s Little Bear.
I think the poems have become a bit quieter, maybe less sexy, not that they were sexy to start with; they have changed as I have changed, since they have something to do with who I am.
The first two books had a lot of indie-rock and indie-pop music in them, and some genderqueer or genderbending or trans-something stances (not just persona poems, though those too): I think there’s less rock and roll in this MS and I’m trying to figure out whether it ought to be queerer or less queer than the books before it (can you tell that I’m still taking poems out and putting poems in?); I don’t want familiar themes to distract readers from the new quiet responsible adulthood that is the real thread running through the book. On the other hand I think I have more to say about gender—femininity, masculinity, dysphoria, drag and imaginary impersonation and mental masks.
I don’t think I have much more to say about New York, which is all over Parallel Play, much of which was written when I lived there or had recently moved away. I still love New York but I don’t write about it much any more, or not directly, because it’s been done, and because I want to write about places that other poems and poets haven’t already praised and praised and praised. Belmont, Massachusetts, for example.
On the other hand I have a lot to say now about children, because I have two! Nathan and Cooper absolutely control a lot of the second half of Belmont, though they are not in the poems you are publishing here. They are central.
You’re right about “Lana Turner has collapsed.” Thanks for noticing!
I always tried to give my books internal variety, not to repeat myself formally; I might have become better at doing that (expanded my range) with the new one (maybe too much so). We’ll see.
Stephen, if there’s a question you keep wishing someone would ask you but hasn’t, please ask it of yourself!
What works of art, in any genre, do you most often wish that you could have created, or feel that you could have created if you had (but you don’t) the skills?
“The Player Piano” by Randall Jarrell
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
The Big Shot Chronicles, by Game Theory
ZOT! by Scott McCloud
These answers have not changed in about 15 years, which is scary. I wonder if they’ll ever change.
Taxi, Dawn, Storrow Drive
Citgo sign, we love you,
though we do feel guilty about it
believing the city pays to keep you on.
All that neon, and the color off too,
not red; red-orange.
Big—I mean big: three stories!—or say expansive,
though they also look expensive, windows
too sadly square to look residential,
too glassy, too showy, to fit a factory.
Maybe they make the sun shine on all the ideas.
They hatch ideas from eggs,
round, pockmarked, translucent eggs,
each one the height of a four-year-old child.
Really, though, children are taller than ideas.
And nobody has ideas
the way you can have a baby: they just come to you
like rock doves who pace on a roof,
then settle, then fly away
becoming pigeons in ten thousand years,
then iridescing to beat the band.
O Greater Boston,
you fit me more than any other where.
Both of us seem to require minor repair.
O brass boathouse angel, O white on green arrows, looking
down on me from inner suburbs' signs...
Keep more water safe, river,
away from the rowers. It's OK if you want to freeze.
Exploring the Suburbs
It makes a certain sort of sense—
you don't have to like every flower you see, for example,
but you do have to give it a try;
clover blooms with their blanched
and tiniest petals, like architectural models,
trees that give the buildings scale,
or a child's diagram
in a world built only for children, who keep going wrong,
yanking the wrists of distracted caretakers, not knowing
the only real world is the one they have. It is shaped
more or less like an olive, round
but irregular nevertheless, and tangy inside.
They put in something extra for the parents,
vague, but worth advertising: its nickname is silence,
its value tallied only after the fact.
Inside, as in a snow globe,
we saw a cheerful row of wooden
pallets holding up stacked 2x4s,
good omens for an otherwise difficult day,
portending tax overrides, storms over school construction,
a fortune in confusion, wisdom's end.
Why, for example, do sports people
have numbers on their backs?
Where do the buses go
when they go home? The agile flag
in our park is happy to pick up the toddlers' questions
and store them in its ever-popular roots.
But they are us,
that's what they say.
Turning Forty in Oistins
There will be a last time you have sex,
a last time you bite down
and into a flying fish sandwich, or start a new car,
that is, if you belong
to the band of human beings
who have ever been able to do those things.
Alll the sweetheart deals,
all the special offers, all the favors
that trickle away, will trickle away,
get traded in for ineffectual medicine, then
come to a halt when you die.
Best not to think much about it.
Best not to go there.
How not to think much about it,
once you have thought about it?
And the taupe and grey ground doves,
pigeons, take care
as they pick crumbs from where we walked;
not nothing of death, but almost nothing,
cooing and raising their young in the rustling eaves,
where they, and we, can hear the sea.
photo credit: Jessica Bennett