Idra Novey interview, with John Hoppenthaler
So I had NPR on in the car the other day, as usual, and All Things Considered was on, and suddenly you were talking to host, Robert Siegel, in your capacity as Newspoet of the day! Each month, ATC brings in a poet to spend time in the newsroom, and at the end of the day, the poet composes a poem reflecting on the day's stories. Your poem, “The President Rehired,” had to absorb a number of topics, from Hurricane Sandy gas rationing to an interview with Daniel Day-Lewis about his role in the new Abraham Lincoln film. What can you tell us of the experience? How hard was it to write the poem, and are you happy with how it came out? Did the experience give you pause to consider the public role of a poet in today’s world?
The producers of the NewsPoet segment, Ellen Silva and Justine Kenin, are incredibly smart, visionary people. I wish more general audience programs would invite poets to participate, through poetry, in conversations about what is happening in the world. I sat in on the morning news meetings for digital media and All Things Considered and got to hear updates on the stories for the day and also the pitches for stories for the following week. It was extremely difficult to write a poem on demand, especially one that responded in a thoughtful way to the day’s news. The pressure gave me a useful adrenalin rush, though, and everyone at NPR was so supportive about sending along scripts of what I’d heard in the meetings, which helped tremendously.
You do a great deal of translating. Can you say how translation—the tools of that art—inform (or don’t) the writing of your own poetry?
Every poem I’ve translated has shaped my own writing in some way. To translate a poem a poet has to imagine her way into the poetry-making impulses of another person. That imaginative challenge leads to all sorts of new sounds and uses of syntax in one’s own poems.
I’ve found translation is good for the senses, too, or at least for coming up with strange, unexpected sensorial imagery. When I’m recreating the smells and sounds of another country in American English, I start to hear and see things more intensely. Poetry translation can be a little like acid but without the after effects.
You’ll be on a panel at next year’s Association of Writers & Writing Program’s annual conference called The Freedom to Write: Writers, Politics, and Propaganda. Do you consider yourself a political poet and, if so, in what specific way(s)? It’s no secret that the hardest part of writing a good political poem is to keep it from the realm of propaganda; how does one negotiate this tricky tightrope walk? “Census for a New Century” seems to me a political poem.
I don’t consider myself a political poet. I never begin a poem with a political idea or agenda in mind. But I would like to be a poet who is always aware of and engaged with realties beyond my own apartment and neighborhood. I started writing “Census for a New Century” after reading an article about how questions are posed in the U.S. Census and how that influences the answers people give in response. I thought the poem was going to be a playful exploration of semantics and census language. But, as it often happens, the poem led to places I hadn’t expected to go.
I love “In the Happiest Countries.” What I love most about it is that guitar player, his persistence and sense of immutable purpose, how his art and his sanity and his dignity are inextricably intertwined. Can you tell us a bit about this poem? How did it come to be? Is that guitar player based on someone in particular?
I play guitar for my sons when it’s too rainy or cold to take them to the park in the afternoon. For now, they are too young to know how badly their mother sings and plays the guitar. On one extremely long and stormy afternoon, I broke a string while tuning the guitar to play with them and our elevator was broken and also the toilet and it was raining relentlessly and there was much crying from my offspring and the line about the guitar player just came to me.
You have taught in the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that creates, according to the web site, “the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences.” It sounds like an amazing program. Can you tell us about your experiences with the program?
Many state-run degree-granting programs in American prisons lost their funding during the Clinton administration. The Bard Prison Initiative is one of very few privately funded programs that offer people in prison the chance to study for a college diploma. I taught in the BPI program at a women’s prison in Chelsea where a group of inmates had contacted Bard and asked if it would be possible to set up a program for them. They were an extremely dedicated, passionate group of students. Some of the most memorable discussions of poetry I’ve ever had happened while teaching with BPI.
What projects are you working on now?
I find it hard to write poems when I have a new book out so I’ve been doing much more reading than writing this year. A few poems have come tumbling into existence this fall. I’m not sure what will come of them.