You have been published practically everywhere that matters to people who care about such matters, yet you haven't had your first collection of poems published. Why do you think this is? Isn't this quite unusual for a guy who has been in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, etc., for the past twenty years or so?
Some of this has to do with the way I started out writing poetry in the first place. I was a history major in college and more of a fellow traveler in the English Department, satisfied with getting Cs and Ds and even missing finals in Major British Writers III (where, for whatever reason, they bundled the aforementioned Yeats) because a girlfriend, who taught me everything about feminism and Fabianism and gave me my copy of The Fear of Women, was having some manic depressive episode, which I had to take very seriously since her sister was a suicide and her brother had a drawerful of Thorazine. That is to say, I was never really properly made as a poet, and I mean that in the sense that poetry is a kind of Cosa Nostra in this country. So, I did not fully adopt its folkways of submitting manuscripts to contests with the utter intensity that is needed—I would go off and work on my Kees, which was actually a form of anthropology or archeology more than anything and connects to my history background and my brief fling with psychohistory in the 1970s. All these appearances you mention were not exploited by me. I am just not the businessman when it comes to poetry. We have, of course, a businessman poet in charge of the NEA in Washington and he has to be admired for this kind of focus. I really wish I had it. It would make things easier. I would have a few slim books out. And yet one of the most sobering things is to see what happens to all this focus, all this poetry, all this jazz. I had this revelation in the basement of Acres of Books in Cincinnati—and you must realize that Cincinnati is a provincial grave in American culture. There were shelves and shelves of poetry in this cellar dark and smell, lit up by a few bare bulbs that you turned on by pulling a string overhead. Poetry that no one wanted or read anymore. Poetry that did not matter. Brodsky, my old teacher at Columbia, as the poet laureate, another one of those Washington poetry gigs, saw all that darkness and weak light, too. He imagined a Gideon’s bible of American poetry in every American hotel and motel. It was a good idea. It was better than poetry on buses and park benches. But the Gideon did put the bible salesmen out of work.
What is your focus, then?
Neglect. Neglect interests me and it unites everything that I do. I’ve already given it away. I was a regular customer down there in the basement of Acres of Books.
How did you choose the poems for your poetry manuscript, My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg and other poems? After so many years of publishing individual poems, was it difficult to choose which ones fit together in a way that pleased you? If you had your way, who would publish it?
For the longest time the core poems of this manuscript came from a book I wanted to call The Heldentenor. I was getting closer and closer into grandfathering out of the Yale Younger series competition since you can’t exactly grandfather in (although it seems that very often so many have). The title of that book, of course, I think scared editors and contest judges away. It was too, too Teutonic—and there was really no strains of Parsifal to it except what you might play on your thumb and forefinger, you know, the world’s smallest violin. I should have learned from the example of Kees about unlucky titles. He titled his last book A Breaking and a Death. The mild, neoliberal poetry editors of the early 1950s, who are much like the ones we have today, just could not spoil their postwar worldview with something like that as they kept betting on the wrong horse, Adlai Stevenson—who Kees bet on, too.
There isn’t a kind of feng shui for titling poetry books. But I have chosen a certain place in the Arlena Twigg manuscript: that window seat is a very interesting place to be—there is some risk there, some solace, some terror. These poems, most of them written in the last few years, have an affinity with the handful that I have kept from the early 90s. There was kind of a mannered, Byzantine Reidel style for the stuff that I wrote during the intervening years, from about 1993 to 1999. This roughly corresponds to the good economy, doesn’t it? Perhaps it was not so good to me. Who should publish it? Ms. Garrison, of course.
Berryman, Bill Knott—they would seem world’s apart, even on the subject of women. You have a little girl poem or two, like Yeats and Kees. Tell us about that.
Women as muses and girlchildren as shining figures of renewal and redress—that is pretty shopworn stuff at this late date and almost ridiculous in a postfeminist context. Knott may have been a virgin into his early 20s, so for him the afterglow of his communion sustained a very wonderful body of work, starting with the Nights of Naomi , Corpse and Beans, and so on. There was also this kind of masochism in these poems, too, and Thanatos, this wanting to be killed happy in his Amazon poem, with that killer line. “Thustlust from your quiver.” Such an extinction, of course, was not my subject matter. But I liked the language that Knott felt free to employ. (In this way he is like German poets, who can also make up new words.) Some of my early experiments had some of that. I also liked how he was a pagan poet, too. Ultimately, though, I really found the strange eye for things in Knott’s work a reason not to be inhibited in what I wanted to do or say—he is not someone I ever imitated. Now Berryman provides a very different paradigm. One of his dream songs has this wonderful aphorism, “It is a true error to marry with poets or to be by them,” and that is something that I wanted printed on the matchbooks Lori and I had made for our wedding! True bard that he is—in the old, Irish, Terence De Pres bardic sense of the word—Berryman is hurling curses on himself and warning those graduate students and faculty wives of the 1950s and ‘60s away from him. What I took from this and certainly from the rest of his work were bits and pieces of my own themes, which often fall to one side or the other as to whether someone can save you from yourself, either directly or as a girl saint held up—my term for this being. I thrive in this ambiguity. Kees, whose work also enters my picture, but not until much, much later, well after I started reading him, was not in the least fooled by some hope, false or not, in his idealized daughter. He disowns her and the dystopian world that she will bring and refutes Yeats’ prayer for his own little girl. And yet of all these poets, Kees probably would have wanted a daughter. He certainly liked to borrow them from his friends from time to time. He would have liked, I think, to live out his “For My Daughter” poem in some happier, desired ending. Maybe that is where I am going—in a morally healthy way, of course. Maybe they are my fairies. Yeats had a thing for fairies, didn’t he? I have Rachel Corrie. Are they not the same beings in a way?
I don't think it is absurd to write about any particular subject — but it matters how you treat it.
There are a number of poems by James Tate and though their immediate effect is far in my past, I can feel them to this day. I kind of ping and pong between the viper jazz Tate and the ape he was teaching to write poetry—and I am sure that I am that ape who “looks like a god sitting there”—and one of those sloops in the bay in that riven doggery Tate, the one’s “are talking in a little bottle/language.” I received my A. Breton via J. Tate and not straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, during the late 1930s, when the effect was far more disastrous on those poets, the contemporaries of Weldon Kees—and Kees himself—who had a tin ear for surrealism. So, I feel that it is a good thing that my received knowledge has been allowed to come up refined through the heartwood and branches into the canopy of delicate leaves where this ape sits and . . . receives. And somewhere in this I pick out what I want to write about. But it’s never really a subject matter per se. What is more interesting to me is the angle at which they are viewed. In this way, there is a natural kind of absurdity, a self-conscious one, in which you are confronting objects, say, an Osage orange in one of my recent poems, and you have to realize that what is an entity like myself doing hanging around these green and dumb (and deaf) and bocce ball-hard objects and saying the things that they are drawing from me? It may be from a lack of subject matter. Indeed, some of my poems are unlocking things for other poems, breaking through with their plastic flow. I know this one does because it just seems to go through a kind of concatenated database of shapes, mental toys, and desires (Thanatos being one, but the good kind, I think). The only thing missing in my architecture—for what I do has to have this symmetry—are those silver little clicking “kinetic” marbles that you could buy in Spencer’s Gifts.
The parent trees throw nothing but gutter balls
with their children
To the drive along French Creek
And as far as they roll toward their overwhelming
To be flatbreaded by cars into an even more sour
green or waxing black,
Gibbous and unmashed under a real orange Harvest
—eaten only by their rot.
They take my eyes off the road in late October,
In Ohio where some fall far from the branch.
I could just spin into their lumpen orreries,
Into their pallinoless game,
Their heads together.
(“Bowling for Osage Oranges”)
This is the kind of poem, I think, because it has that seasonal flair, that I could see in the New Yorker. That’s always been one of the criterions there, for many poems, that it fit into the spring numbers or the summer beach reading numbers, the Christmas issue, and so on. This poem, of course, could make the cut—when I’ve finished it, of course—for some autumn issue when Alice Quinn knows that the Osage oranges are rolling out of the old farm hedgerows and windbreaks into roads that have a little town & country to them left. But it might be a mistake for her to select it, as so many poems are a mistake because they seem just right from an editorial POV.
Can you elaborate on that? The New Yorker mistake thing?
There is this quality of, well, I know what I like. That this poem, well, looks right in this room. It’s like the drapes. It’s like a painting hanging over a hole in the wall. It just looks nice in that corner. Or it’s like a bowl of strawberries used to be, in season—which I have already sort of said. You feel like the poems are pieces of furniture that have been cleverly moved for you to read—or after you have so cleverly written them and the finishing touch, so to speak, is never really yours—it’s someone else’s. And this is a breathtakingly humbling experience. Going back to Tate’s ape (Australopithecus tatensis), you are not god, then. And one god is Taste. And the history of taste is making up for it in others—or in you when you have changed, moved on, evolved. And—not leaving this theme alone, see, to refuse to evolve away from it—apes, the writing kind, are very intimate with this evolution and its victimhood. My favorite one, of course, is in Hans Henze’s opera The junge Lord, by the way. I see that process in all kinds of magazines, of course, at publishing houses.