George Held Interview, with Nicelle Davis
Your poems, through narrative, deal with the taboo subject of racism. What do you think a poem’s obligation is to bring about social awareness? Do you think poetry has the power to evoke political change?
I think we shouldn’t put too much of a burden on poetry to achieve anything practical. Auden famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and even the most passionate political poems, like Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” fail to offer more than reinforcement of already held opinions or solace for those who read or quote them. Poems can help to enlighten readers who are struck by their insights, but they probably don’t get citizens to the polls or the barricades.
As for the first part of your question, I do think poets should be bold about treating taboos in their verse, though they must avoid stale ideas, moralism, and, above all, propaganda.
“Alienated” is how I would describe the personae in these three poems. How does poetry help people deal with feelings of estrangement? Does poetry create connections that otherwise would not exist? If yes, how is it that poetry creates a sense of home for the internally homeless?
I prefer “critical” to “alienated.” Alienation is often disabling, and a poet needs to write with freedom from such a negative feeling. At the open mic, alienation often negates the poetry. On the other hand, poets need to be critical of the status quo and open to radical ideas and approaches to their work. Both Whitman and Dickinson, for example, criticized their society at the same time they found unique verse techniques for their work. Both seemed estranged from mid-19th-century America, yet we think of them as authentic Americans. For them, as for other great poets, their poetry maybe came less from feeling “internally homeless” than from an existential struggle to be at home in their own idiosyncratic skin. I would say that might describe the speaker in “Alien” and “Typed,” while the one in “At the Marina” is more impersonal and political.
In the poem “Typed” you end with the rhyming couplet “Type a boy based on his looks, / Label him, and close the books.” This is a delightful ending for a poem and matches the subject of the poem beautifully. For the new student of poetry, please explain how rhyme can strengthen a poem.
I’m very pleased you noticed the rhymed couplet, and I agree that one can provide a fitting ending to even a free-verse poem. Other editors might reject a poem for such a rhyme, by the way. My love of rhyme began when my parents read nursery rhymes and other children’s verse to me; rhyme was a major attraction of poetry, as was meter. On the other hand, I share our time’s aversion to too neatly formal poetry. To new students of poetry, I’d say, learn every technique you can that might help you write something unique. It’s like learning to draw before you do abstract expressionism. The free-verse poet Dorianne Laux recently put up on her Facebook wall Thomas Hardy’s great formal poem “A Darkling Thrush,” in which Hardy beautifully subsumes his architecture (octaves in alternating rhyme) to his depiction of a gloomy end-of-century day and the partially saving note of the bird. In “Typed,” I also rhyme the taboo words “Mick” and “Kike” on either side of a stanza break. As in the ending couplet, the rhyme underscores the kinship between thematically important words. So if young poets want to strengthen a poem this way, they might try experimenting with occasional, rather than strictly patterned, rhyme.
What new poetry projects are you currently working on?
I am looking forward to the publication of my selected sonnets, After Shakespeare, from Červená Barva Press in 2011, and I’m discussing with another publisher the publication of my selected nature poems. I recently started a blog firstname.lastname@example.org on which I often write about poetry and include poems.
Who would you name as the most "important" contemporary poet, and why?
I shy away from hierarchies for artists. Poetry today is so various and plentiful that few readers are in a position to make a judgment about “the most important.” I can say that I admire the recent work of, among others, Nicole Cooley, Ange Mlinko, John Pursley III, Maria Terrone, and Brian Turner, whose gritty yet learned book about his Army service in Iraq, Here, Bullet, is a contemporary classic. All these poets are deeply engaged in their projects while skilled at their craft, they have a complex take on their subjects and, above all, they each have an authentic voice.
My father-in-law never took to me.
I was poor and lived, like a cliché,
On the other side of the tracks.
Worse, playing bridge at the country club,
He heard from Mrs. Brand I was “a Jew,”
Though Mom, a Christian, had had me baptized,
Then confirmed. “A Kike,” my father said,
“is the Jewish gentleman who just left the room.”
In Flatbush one day, when Dad was five,
He and his best friend, Danny McGuire,
Were horsing around on St. Brigid’s
Asphalt playground when Father Regan
Approached and called out, “Danny,
What’re ya’ doin’ wit’ dat little Sheeny?” –
The one who would make me half a Heeb,
While my mom made me sort of a Mick,
But I made myself agnostic,
Suspicious of and suspect to all sects.
Though their Protestant rectitude made my
In-laws see me as alien, on her deathbed
My mother-in-law phoned me to say,
“You’ve been good for my daughter,
And I thank you.” I thanked her
In reply and said, “Shalom.”
At the Marina
Sun glinting off white hull,
The sleek boat anchored
At the Sag Harbor marina
Seems the locus of languor
And latent excitement.
Its proprietor, barefoot in deck chair,
Relishes a cigar.
Gold letters on the stern emblazon
The boat’s name: “Homeless,
Grandma never smiled at me,
That bundle of freckles and red hair.
She’d never seen such a goyish boy
In any litter of her kind –
Olive Austro-Hungarian Jews.
Why did my sons marry only Gentiles?
She lamented, frowning down at me,
The look-alike of my fair, blonde mom.
I grew so stippled and pale that guys
Called me “Red” or “Mick”
Or, if they knew my dad, “Kike.”
The human way, don’t you know? –
Type a boy based on his looks,
Label him, and close the books.