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Fall 2008, Volume 25.1

Conversation

 

Adam Johnston

Brick by BrickóA Conversation with Billy Collins

Photo of Billy Collins.Billy Collins is a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003), who is well known, well regarded, and sometimes well critiqued for his flavor of poetry that is welcoming to all readers, even those not generally drawn to verse. Collins is acclaimed for his use of humor and accessible style, drawing in crowds ranging from the 900 locals who bought tickets to his reading at an Ogden School Foundation benefit in November 2007, to the many listeners who have heard him performing on National Public Radioís Prairie Home Companion, to the millions who have purchased his numerous collections of poetry, setting and breaking records for poetry book sales. While Poet Laureate, Collins created the Poetry 180 project, which promoted the reading of contemporary poetry in schools across the country. Collins edited two collections of work for this project, and the Library of Congress continues to host a webpage (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/) with a poem for each day of the school year. In addition to numerous collections of his own work, Collinsí most recent book, Ballistics, was published in September 2008. Billy Collins resides in New York, where he has been teaching at Lehman College for four decades.

As I write this introduction to my meeting with Collins, Iím tempted to repeat the phrasing that Collins himself uses in his poem, "Taking Off Emily Dickinsonís Clothes":

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.1

My meeting with Mr. Collins was much different, of course. Yet, you will want to know that his entrance was announced not by his physical presence, but by the clearing of his throat I heard first. When listening to a Collins reading, whether on tape or in person, this simple audible preparation is to me as characteristic of my favorite poet as standing by an open window would be characteristic of Dickinson. We would sit by an open window where the natural light provided a palette for Karynís photos, Collins comfortably in a sweater and me in a typical buttoned shirtóI restrained myself from rolling up the sleeves for once, since, after all, this was an interview with a former U.S. Poet Laureate.

So there he was, standing before me, relaxed and comfortable as we arranged chairs in the hotel lobby. "So, youíre in physics?" he asked me. Perhaps he thought I was a gimmick, a ruse, and he followed with, "What is Ďsurface tensioní?" Here I had been preparing to switch myself from physics teacher or education researcher to a literary role, and now I was thrown back to explaining forces between molecules and their arrangements in a fluid. Satisfied and, it seemed, amused, Collins exclaimed, "You really are in physics, arenít you?"

This dissonance, a science teacher interviewing a poet, seemed to be a theme that others asked me after having heard me introduce Collins at the Fall Author Event for the Ogden School Foundation later that evening. "How does someone in physics become interested in poetry?" they pondered. Thereís a long story, but each time I try to explain this I quickly realize that there really isnít an explanation, at least not a very linear and logical one. And, I want to proclaim, there doesnít need to be. Iím not particularly well read, but I like to read and I like verse. Why should the poets be the only ones reading poetry?

Billy Collinsí work speaks quite clearly to this. He writes, I suppose, to first please himself and his senses, but also to a very local reader. One gets the sense while either reading or listening to his work that the words are not being written for any particular group, but for an individualóeven a physics teacherósitting next to Collins or perhaps looking over his shoulder as he scratches out lines, in his own words, "brick by brick" on his notepad. The title and first lines of his poems open a welcome door and offer an easy hors díoeuvre, but the conversation and flavors become more complex once inside.

My meeting with Billy Collins was delightful and incomparable to anything else I do. While I started with my first question on my prepared list, Collins was able to allow the conversation to flow easily. After opening with "What is poetry?," I let him steer the conversation wherever it needed to be. So, we ventured from physics to poetry to education, and when he wondered out loud where else we could possibly go, I tossed into the ring "global warming." And he quite willingly tackled this as well, just as aptly as he was able to switch over to jazz and Thelonious Monk.

I want to thank the Ogden School Foundation for arranging Billy Collinsí visit and for making this conversation possible.

Read poetry by Billy Collins published in this issue of Weber.

Photo of Adam Johnston.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics at Weber State University where he teaches courses in general physics and science education. His research interests are in the learning of science concepts and processes, leading to publications in American Education Research Journal and Science Education. His most recent work has led him to organize a national conference in science education reform, Science Education at the Crossroads, which has brought together teachers and scholars and developed a tradition of hosting a poet for its keynote address each year. When not interviewing poets, he enjoys being outdoors in anything from hiking boots to cross country skis. He lives in Ogden, UT, with his two daughters and his wife, Karyn.

Can you explain for us what poetry is, especially since you seem to scoff at traditional forms and do your own thing? It confuses us.

 

Well, I donít necessarily scoff atóI mean, I make fun at a lot of things in poetry, not just traditional forms. I take the poetry very seriously, but at the same time I realize there are people who take it too seriously and themselves too seriously. And so, I like to kind of shoot up the saloon occasionally and write parodies and take a kind of irreverent attitude toward the whole enterprise. I mean, writing poetry is the most egotistical of any art because itís the lyricóthe lyric poem is all about the "I." Itís all about the self and thereís a presumptuousness there. And the presumption is that someone else is interested in your private life or your internal, interior lifeóyour interiority, as they call it today. Well, we know from real life that no one is interested in your internal life except maybe your wife in a good moodÖ

 

Öon a good day.

 

Ö and a few friends on a good day. So why should strangers be interested in your internal life? So thatís one kind of presumption that I tend to try to counter in my poetry. Well, but to get back to your questionóI guess I could put it this way: itís like saying, "what is religion?" or "what is physics?" This is not my first camping trip, but most of the questions that you get in an interview, I could sit in a room for five hundred years and they would never occur to me. It would never occur to me to ask these questions about myself. And I donít think about the future of American poetry, I donít think about "what is poetry?" I do as a teacher, you know, because you have to get up and talk about it. But hereís one answer. Itís all provisional, these answers, but one answer would be that poetry is what occurs, or what comes into play, when the limits of prose have been exhausted. So prose continues to a certain point and has certain expressive capabilities, right? But if you imagine a point at which you have said everything you can in prose and there is still something else to say that canít be expressed in prose, at that point poetry comes into existence; this is another demonstration of its superiority to prose. That point Iíll be making frequently during the interview.

 

(Laughter) I see. So where does music fit in? Does that trump poetry, or are we just in a whole different ballpark?

 

Yeah, music trumps everything. I mean, all art aspires to the condition of musicóaccording to Walter Pater, I think. Well, the overlap between poetry and music is that most poets write with their ear as well as their mind, and they also write with their sense of rhythm, too. So, Iím always writing with my ear. Iím trying to keep a beat, make sounds come together in an agreeable way, and make sense. And itís a matter of doing some things at the same time. Itís similar to driving a car when youíre doing three or four things at the same time. Youíre not thinking of them as individual acts; theyíre orchestrated into some behavior pattern. Music, for me, is in my poetry; I think I try to make my poetry musical. And I think thereís probably more form in my poetry than youíre suggesting. I mean, I make fun of traditional forms like the sonnetóplayfulóand Iíve invented this form called the "paradelle," which is sort of a parody on formal poetry.2 But as soon as I begin a poem, I am thinking about form. Iím thinking, first of all, about stanzas. You know, I started a poem on the airplane today and it wanted to be in three line stanzas, it seems. So thatís the way it is now. That might change. It might tell me later that itís not happy being that way. But it started out with a three line stanza, and from that point on I put on this little formal jacket and I assign myself the task of now writing a series of three line stanzas that are not just this thing chopped into three lines. Each stanza has a kind of integrity, or each stanzaís a unit. So youíre thinking in terms of the lineómaking a good line. You know, "No line must sleep," Charles Olsen says. Every line should be a little aware of itself. Youíre then aware of making these boxesóthese things they make boxesóand youíre aware, at least Iím aware, of having a kind of conceptual run of the poemówhere itís going somewhere. But I donít move forward until I write a good lineóuntil I can stand on that line. And until Iím sure a reader can take that line in well, and then I go on to the next line. Very much brick by brick.

 

So, I wanted to ask you about the writing process itself. Using that line-by-line, brick-by-brick method, do you get to the end and feel finished? You donít have to try out the piece somewhere?

 

Not anymore, because Iíve learned how to do it. You know, Iíve been doing it for a long time. So, I mean, this is the poem here (showing the poem on a notepad)óit starts there, and it ends here and itís in three line stanzas. And these little things will changeóright, these little words, here (pointing at words) or this might change, but the overall structure isnít going to change. It goes from here to here and thatís not going to change. So that means the conceptual run of the poemódot, dot to dot, you know, and step, step, step, the endóthat doesnít change. Thatís done in the first sitting always because thatís the movement of the thing.

So, youíll never get to a poem a month or a year or five years down the road and tweak it?

 

Oh, no. Well, maybe, occasionally youíll read one of your poems out loud, and youíll need maybe an extra syllable or some tiny thing. But almost never, no. Well, and you also, you know, have to learn not to send poems out before theyíre cooked. I mean, if you send out hastily, "marry in haste, regret at leisure," especially in terms of a book. I mean, my publisher has to tear a manuscript from my hands because I donít want to let go of it because Iím not sure if itís right, you know. Eventually, I get tired of pulling and he wins the tug of war.

 

(Laughs) Let me ask you a bit about you as a teacher and your view of education. The Poetry 180 Project probably has an explicit view of what poetry is for in society and what maybe education is for? What do you see either for the role of education itself or for the role of poetry within that educational setting?

 

Well, again sitting in this imaginary room for five hundred years, I canít imagine saying (laughs), "Hmm, what about the role of education in America?" However, to answer your question: Poetry 180 was meant as a supplement to the teaching of poetry. These are poems that are not, should not be taught. These are poems that have, I feel, a transparency or an invitational quality to them that does not require rereading or study. That doesnít mean you canít get some extra pleasure through rereading, but ideally, I was telling high school teachers to not quiz their students on these poems. Just read them and shut up and let them hear the poem. It was meant as a supplement, a complement to the classroom teaching poetry. It was also meant to bring students up to date in terms of contemporary poetry.

 

Youíve made a similar comment about William Carlos Williamsí "The Red Wheelbarrow" as being viewed as contemporary, when really itís quite old.

 

Yeah! And thatís sold as a modernist poem, but itís as old as your granny. And you know, textbooks and teachers are always lagging behind. I mean, high school teachersóI donít see how they have time to breathe, let alone keep up with poetry. So Iím certainly not blaming them. I mean, itís a task in itself and not necessarily a pleasant one to read a lot of contemporary poetry. I was there, you know, so I spent hours, hundreds of hours, just going through poetry books and anthologies to pick out the best that would give a good sampling of what teachers probably donít have time to keep up with or find, and what students, therefore, are missing because theyíre not going to go out and find. Unless theyíre exceptionally curious, theyíre not going to go out and look for whatís going on in the world of contemporary poetry. And, you know, the Poetry Project was put into place as a kind of declaration that interpretation is one of the pleasuresóan intellectual pleasure, putting your mind against a difficult poem. It was kind of saying that there are poems that you can ingest without the interpretation of a teacher. What are we going to do when we get out of school? Does that mean, since thereís no more teacher, thereís no more poetry? The teacher does not necessarily have to stand like the minister or the priest between you and God. I mean, there can be a direct link there. So thatís the idea of Poetry 180óbeing a slight corrective, offering more of a balance. In other words, itís not competing with classroom teaching. I mean, I got a PhD in English Literature. So, if I didnít like explication, I really shouldnít have been taking that major.

 

So, for you, yourself as a teacher, whatís your view of yourself? Whatís your role within a classroom when youíre in your own classroom?

 

Well, in teaching literature or in teaching creative writing? Or either?

 

If thereís a difference that would be interesting to hear, too.

 

Well, the difference is, if youíre teaching literature, youíre teaching the poems of actual poets, whereas, if youíre teaching creative writing, then youíre teaching the work of poets who happen to be in your classroom. So, thereís a clear difference thereÖ (laughter) between the sophomore and William Wordsworth.

 

Right, so for the sophomore, where do you start?

 

Well, with exercises. I try to tell them that literature is derivative, that you canít just go off and try to be original. Thatís a very adolescent idea, you know, that "Iím not going to read anything because it will compromise my genius." The only way to learn how to write is to read, and you do that. And so, I have them try to do exercises based on other poems. So, weíll take a poem by William Carlos Williams or a poem by Thomas Hardy, and weíll do a kind of a version of it. You know, weíll say there are four or five guidelines to follow. Letís say this poem is called "November." You have to use a month in your title and you know it has to be in four-lined stanzas or something. So, I put them into formally restrictive situations and ask them to perform within those boundaries. The other function in creative writing is to try to act as sort of a dating service so that you can match up students with the right poets to read. So, I would read your work and I would say, "Have you read Kenneth Koch?" or "Have you read John Ashbery?" And, if you said yes, I would say, "Oh, so thatís how you sound like that!" (Laughter)

But, if you said no, then I would say, "Well, then, you need to read these poets right away because youíre drifting into their lane and, you know, you should probably get furtherónot steer away from themóbut get further influenced by them." So, itís kind of matchmaking. And sometimes it doesnít work. Sometimes youíll say, "You should read Thomas Hardy." And the student comes back and just says, "Hardy stinks," or, "He leaves me cold." And thatís okay, I was a bad matchmaker then. It just means I need to get a better client list of poets so I can hook them up.

 

So, do students ever read that which you find to be similar to their own writing and decide they need a different style, or they donít want to be that particular poet?

 

No, not as frequently as youíd want. I think the reason is that influence is so slow in the course of a semester. There are certain poets Iíve read and right away I wanted to write like them or incorporate, you know, that into my style. But I think in the usual case itís much more creative and gradual. And they might come back to those poets. You know, teaching is very mysterious because you donít know what students are writing down, or you donít know if theyíre text messaging or taking notes. At the end of the class, itís like the end of a telethon; if everyone was to write down what they think they thought you taught, well, youíd have a lot of different versions.

 

I once asked students to write down the question they had at the end of each class and incorporated this in a study. And it turned out the questions they were thinking about and the things that I wanted themÖ well, it was a terrifying study. I should never do that again.

 

No, and it kind of reminds you that maybe the only real, true teaching strategy that works is repetitionóthat people need to hear things more than once before it makes sense. And when students really learn something, they learn it whenóby some accidentósomething youíve said is corroborated in the real world or by another teacher or by a friend or a parent or something. Theyíll say, "Yeah, I just heardóyou were just talking about this and someone else just mentioned that." Well, why did you need this other person to validate me? It shows that students are either inattentive or skeptical about whatís being said in the classroom (laughs). You know, like, "I heard on the radio that thing you were talking about, or that poet you mentioned was on television." And thatís okay. It just means that repetition actually works. The mind loves repetition; it loves repetition more than anything. Thatís why weíre such slow learners, because the mind really doesnít like new information. I think of the mind as fairly lazy, and new information is disturbing to the mind.

 

It fights with the stuff thatís already in there.

 

Yeah, it resists at new information. What it wants is a confirmation of what it already knows; it wants constant reassurance that what it knows is not only true but sufficient. So, you come along with some new idea about surface tension or something crazy (laughs) and they resist. Thatís why teaching is hardóthatís why learning is hard. Thatís why it takes us so long to get out of college and graduate school. Thatís the invention of night school.

 

(Laughter) Iíve been teaching this science education course this year and weíve been addressing exactly these issues, and Iíve been using, especially, your piece "Introduction to Poetry."3 They are undergraduates who are going to teach science. So this very thing that youíre describing actually comes upóthe resistance of the mind to take on something new because itís either lazy, or so well built up with all its ideas.

 

Yeah, it just wants repetition. You see people on photographs or films of people on assembly lines and people with these repetitive jobs assembling something, and thereís always kind of this instant sympathy for these peopleóthat they have this arduous and repetitive and boring job, and probably it is. There is a mind numbing and mind grinding aspect to it, but I think for a lot of people it is really sort of liberating, that your mind is totally free. Most of them, I think, are in a state of daydreaming. And it probably includes some English teachers (laughs) who are teaching, you know, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" for the fifty-fifth time. Their mindís going to wander too while teaching. You know, that thing about the English teacher who dreamed he was teaching a class and woke up to find that he was? (Laughter)

Yeah, thatís the guy weíre talking about. Okay weíve covered poetry, education, science, what now?

 

Weíll just solve global warming.

 

Well, hereís what Thomas Friedman said about global warming. The reason weíre not solving it and weíre not going to solve it without policyóradical policyóis that thereís two things: the enemy is invisibleóyou canít see pollution. You can see smog and what not, but you canít see it. And where all these cars are driving around, itís not all smoky or anything. So, you canít see it. Second, the reason we would change our entire lifestyles is for people who have not yet been bornóbecause weíre fine! I mean, weíre going to get along fine in our lifetimes, more or less, but itís for our grandchildrenófor the unborn. So, if ever there was an equation that resulted in apathy, thatís one of them. I mean, an invisible enemy that poses no immediate threat and weíre supposed to change our whole lives for people who will be born in 2070?

 

Itís a difficult sell.

 

Itís a really difficult sell, a really difficult sell. And he said, "This is not a green revolution." He said, "In a revolution, people get hurt." This is a green brunch, or something, a green bridal showeróitís not a revolution. You go out and buy a Prius and buy a low intensity light bulbÖ

 

Thereís no bloodshed.

 

Youíll feel good about yourself, but essentially itís not doing anything. You need government. Stern revolutionary government policy, you know, forty miles a gallon or whatever. Anyway, so that takes care of global warming.

 

Sure, well, we can check that off the list.

 

How about modern photography? Do you want my views on that?

 

(Laughter) I wanted to ask you about Thelonious Monk, and maybe music in general, but Iím also a fan of Monk. I like the imagery, and he shows up in a lot of your work.

 

Well, the first and most important thing about Thelonious Monk is to know how to spell his first name. Itís I-O-U-S, not U-S. How do you have it?

 

I forgot the "o" in this copy [as part of a set of interview questions I had, embarrassingly, sent previously], but have spelled it correctly in other places.

 

Thatís number one. Well, you leave out the "I-O" and he leaves out all these notes. It is notes and spaces. I mean, it is so spare and angular. Itís just amazing that hereís the piano and that someone can come along and get out of this piano an entirely new sound thatís unmistakable. You can hear two notes, or one chord, and you know itís him. And, one thing that gives me no pleasure is listening to Thelonious Monk covers because I just donít think anyone could cover him. They canít cover him. It just sounds like bad Thelonious Monk. Not just Thelonious Monk on a bad day, but just, you know, like really trying to be Thelonious Monk and obviously not being Thelonious Monk. I donít know how to, you knowÖ describing music is really difficult.

 

Youíre a poetóif anyoneís going to do it, it needs to be you.

 

Well, Iíve written about it, but the actual description of what the music is is difficult. Thereís this book called Coltrane by Ben Ratliff, whoís the New York Times jazz critic. Itís not a biography of Coltrane; itís subtitled The Story of Sound, and itís the story of how his sound developed.4 And Ratliff can, with very energetic prose, actually describe music; he can describe solos. And he is talking about solos I know. Heís saying "Coltraneís solo on ĎStraight, No Chaserí" and Iíve listened to that seven hundred times. Heís the best at it. I mean, I listen to a lot of jazz, but Monk is difficult to describe. Maybe I could make something up (laughs). Maybe itís the fact that heóand Miles Davis does this tooódoes leave out so much, and when he comes in, itís often at an unexpected place from a bizarre angle. And I think if there is an analogyóI donít know if Iím forcing it for the sake of the interviewó poetry is known for leaving a lot out, too. Poetry is a kind of clearing away of everything thatís irrelevant, whereas in prose, thereís more room to add things. One thing Iíve told my poetry students is that revision should always be taking away. Always be taking away. No, donít add a new stanza. Donít stuff a stanza in the middle, because you lose this organic flow. So knowing what to leave out is very important, and Monk obviously bases much of his music on those silent spots. What do you like about him? How would you describe him?

 

Iím trying to figure him out. I see the chord charts, and, I mean, itísóyou play the piano?

 

Some, not well. Do you play too?

 

Yeah, IímÖwell; Iím not Thelonious Monk, but Iím fascinated because I just canít comprehend what would be going through his head or his spirit to come up with what heís come up with. And, here, we were listening to Coltrane and Monkóthe recent Library of Congress findings and hearing them togetheróit seems so brilliant, but I canít understand how that comes out of something.

 

Well, I guess itís knowledge, too. Itís experiencingÖ what do they do when somethingís in orbit and they fly out of orbit?

 

Slingshot.

 

Itís just like a slingshot where you slip the bounds of gravity or something. But the orbiting, in this case, would be practicing.

 

The repetition.

 

Yeah, the repetition and practicing. There is a lot of scales involved in jazz. I took someone to a jazz club once, which was kind of a mistake. And he said, "itís just like scales." Well, it is. He [Monk] was very reticent. Someone asked him, how do you get that sound, and he said, "Put the sixth in the left hand." He used the left hand to hit the sixth note. Iíve tried that, but it didnít really work.

 

(Laughter) Youíll have to fall back on poetry, after all.

 

(Laughter) Itís a little too simple, yeah. But I also think of jazz as a kind of violence that it does to ordinary music, a kind of fracturing. I mean, thereís some sweet jazz. But edgy players like Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parkerótheyíre taking these standards, like "Satin Doll" and "The Way you Look Tonight," and using them as trampolines into this stratospheric kind of soloing. And in a way, itís doing some violence to the music, particularly in the case of Monk. I mean, the discordance. Weíve learned from Monk. Early on he sounded very discordant. Ornette Coleman sounded very jangly. I used to listen to "The Shape of Jazz to Come" in collegeóhis first album, I thinkóand everyone on the floor of the dormitory would be screaming to turn that stuff off.

Because of the dissonance?

 

It was very, very discordant. He still sounds great today, but weíve gotten kind of used to it. I mean, Monkís discordance has become, and Monkís become, just his sound. Whitmore Sells was once talking about the difference between classical music and jazz, and he said jazz is based on improvisation and surprise, and the only time youíre surprised in classical music is when somebody screws up, when somebody makes a mistake. In jazz, on the other hand, if you make a mistake, you just repeat the mistake and the mistake becomes the new thing. So Iíve speculated that jazz arrived at that improvisation, really arose out of boredom. You know, earlier musicians essentially played dance music, played the same songs night after night and no one was listening, they were dancing. People were using the music as an accompaniment or a reason to dance. And having played the same songsóthe same American songbook year after year, night after night, out of boredomóthey started fooling around making little riffs, adding notes that werenít there, and the people stopped dancing and started listening. That was the moment in jazz when it goes from dance music to listening music.

 

Would it be too forced to make parallels between what you do as a poet and what Thelonious Monk does as a jazz musician?

 

Yeah, itís ludicrous. Because poetry (pointing to the poem on his notepad) is not improvisation, right? Thereís no eraser on a saxophone, no? Jazz is actual improvisation. This is not improvisation. You go back and you correct. Maybe the idea of all of this correction is to try to sound spontaneous. But itís a very artificial way of trying to make it sound spontaneous. Whereas in improvisation, it pretty much is composition on the spot. So, the difference is thereís no net in improvisation exactly.

 

Youíre not going to get out before us tonight and improv a poem.

 

No, Iím going to read some new poems. Iím going to read some poems Iíve read fifty times. Yeah, thatís the big difference. I think thereís this sense that, well, jazz is cool and poetry is cool, so thereís this kind of connection. The audiences for the twoóboth of them react to some degree. Whenever I see people making a kind of facile, self-congratulatory connection like that, I want to break it. I want to talk against the connection. Iím very against mixed media anyway. I donít like drawings with my poems. I donít like if you have a poem about a flower and you have a picture of a flower next to it. I mean, give me a break.

 

So what do you think of the set of animations on the Internet (http://www.bcactionpoet.org/) that go alongÖ

 

No thatís different (laughs), thatís really different. I donít knowóI really like those. That was done for the Sundance channel. They were using them as kind of filler actually between programs, and they commissioned J. Walter Thompson to find some animators to do this. I participated myself. I went in a studio and read the poems and they drew these animations, which I more or less approved. Yeah, I worked with them; I cooperated with them. That sort of contradicts what I just said, butÖ

I have it on tape now.

 

(Laughter) But I think itís good to get poetry in kind of unexpected places like that. Like on YouTube, or people talk about iPoetry. Maybe you just download it onto your iPod, or on the subway and stuff like that.

 

I did want to ask you maybe finallyósince you mentioned never being able to imagine the questions you get in an interviewówhat should we ask you? What questions would you like to answer?

 

I suppose it is questions about individual poems. I mean, thatís what Iím thinking about as a poet is writing individual poems. Iím not thinking about the history of American poetry or the future of American poetry or the difference between slam poetry and lyric poetryóthese things never enter my mind. It would never occur to me to have a thought about any of that stuff. So I suppose I like a question about, well, how did this poem get started and how does it get from one place to another, something like that. Thatís where I feel Iím, you know, most at home. Itís like some guy cutting fish in a fish market and you going up to him and asking what he thinks about the international fish market laws, and Japan, and dolphins. Heís just trying to clean the fish the best he can.

 

So, with "The Lanyard,"5 when you wrote that were you really "ricocheting slowly Ö off the walls" and finding the "L" in the dictionaryÖ?

 

I was, yeah. And I call that "backing up the poem." In other words, you start the poem with the back-story to the poem. And thatís another kind of anti-presumptuousness, or thatís another technique, I think, that puts a check on some of the presumptuousness of poetry. If you begin the poem by talking about the occasion for the poem, then it seems like the reader is brought into the beginnings of it and youíre not getting ahead of the reader right away. When you open up a dictionary, there are bold faced words at the top of the page. In fact, I flipped the dictionary and "lanyard" was the header word and thatís how it really caught my eye. And I just recognized that as having potential.

 

Thank you. With that, let me help you save your voice for the rest of the evening.

 

 

NOTES

 

1 Picnic, Lightning. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998, p. 74.

2 See "Paradelle for Susan" in Picnic, Lightning, p. 64.

3 The Apple That Astonished Paris. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1988, p. 58.

4 Ratliff, Ben. Coltrane: The Story of Sound. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

5 The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 2005, pp. 45-46.