By Stephen Reichert
STEPHEN REICHERT: First off, thank you for agreeing to do this interview despite the busyness of your semester. I’d like to begin with your origins and influences. What was it about your upbringing that led to your life as a poet?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I can think of two ways to answer this question. The first would be to reel off some autobiographical facts that might account for a love of language and literature. My father was a professor of American literature, my mother a librarian, so I grew up in a verbal household, one in which both talking and reading (or at first being read to) occupied a large share of my time. But these autobiographical facts only help to explain literacy; they don’t explain why someone who grew up in such a household would choose writing in addition to reading, and they don’t explain why such a person would choose to write verse rather than prose.
To account for those developments is much harder. I know that I began to write poems in high school, and I suspect that I wrote them for much the same reason other people in high school write poems. Lots of changes, lots of new experiences, lots of big feelings about those changes and experiences. One of the big projects for most high schoolers, I’m pretty sure, is to try to find ways of managing those changes, experiences, and feelings. I experimented with a number of strategies for such management, some of them more effective than others, and writing poems turned out to be something that helped me along during those years. Subsequently, most of the people I knew who wrote poems in high school, or later in college or later still in graduate school, stopped writing them. But I didn’t.
Why? Here I think we get to the unknowns of any self. My sense is that writing poems helped me and continues to help me live my life for some reasons that probably reach down through biography and emotions to things like neurobiology or neurophysiology or cognitive psychology, things I don’t know anything about and invoke because they sound magisterially authoritative. There must be something about my genetic coding, later reinforced by my upbringing, that caused me not only to take pleasure in memorable arrangements of rhythmic language but also to use those arrangements to find my way around the world.
STEPHEN REICHERT: At the risk of sounding simplistic or insensitive to the complexity of why it is that writing poems help you live your life, I’m wondering what element of writing poems seems most essential to your life? For example, is it something in the actual process of writing or something in the completed poem that is read aloud to others?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: Both those elements and probably more. Certainly the discipline of sitting oneself down for a certain number of hours a day or a week, and not paying bills or doing the laundry or reading a newspaper or driving a car, immediately makes a difference in the way I feel, just as any other discipline-yoga, meditation, swimming, running-would. It helps me stop and focus in ways that temporarily stave off those debilitating sensations of being jangled and distracted.
Then during the early stages of composition there’s the element of sifting through possibilities, through various images or sensations or sounds or phrases or rhythmic shapes, and waiting to see what starts to stick to what. This aspect of writing gives me deep pleasure, as the heart and mind and body start to hum with stimulation, and the whole self goes on a kind of high-alert, which makes everything seem possible and radiant.
But usually the first day on a new poem is tough going, at least for me. After four hours I may have precious little that looks or sounds like something I want to keep. For this reason in many ways I prefer the second, third, and later days on a poem, the days when I’m sitting down to a draft. Here I think it’s the sense of being a craftsman that takes over, the sense of making careful decisions about seemingly minute things. This element helps me by honing my attention, making me more aware of choices and consequences.
Other elements of writing poems that feel essential would certainly include the public sharing of poems with other people, whether in print or at readings. I’ve never felt that I just write for myself, and I often have very specific readers in mind for particular poems. Making connections with them I might not otherwise be able to make is a crucial aspect of writing for me.
And finally there’s the element of simple recording. When I asked my paternal grandfather what he wished he’d done differently in his life, he answered without hesitation, “I wish I’d written it down.” I don’t think he meant that he wished he’d been particularly creative in that writing down; he meant simply that he wished he’d kept a record of things he couldn’t remember later. For me-and I know I’m not at all alone in thinking this way-this element of writing poetry, its function as a transcript of an inner life, is invaluable.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Is there anything you regret about your life, anything that now looks like a big mistake?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: : I have a poem, which I’ve never published, called “My Biggest Regret.” It starts out ticking off an inventory of minor regrets-that I never took biology, that I quit studying Latin although I was pretty good at it, that I never went to Spain and studied Spanish-and then moves on to the biggest regret: that I gave away an incredible collection of baseball cards from the 1960s, which I thought I had outgrown, a regret my older son made me feel acutely when he began collecting baseball cards. Admittedly, the examples are a little tongue-in-cheek, but the poem does meditate on regret, as well as on the illusion that we really ever outgrow anything-or that I’ve really ever outgrown anything.
The way you phrase your question is interesting, though. You ask if I have any regrets about my life, and I certainly do, but then you ask if I’ve done anything that looks like a big mistake. The assumption is that I regret my mistakes, whereas the things I regret most-that my mother’s father was killed in World War II, that my first sister died the day after she was born, that my father nearly died when I was young, that my mother had cancer when I was a teenager, that the list of people I love but see no more is steadily lengthening-are things I’m not responsible for. The things I have been responsible for, and have handled badly, I’ve managed to live long enough not to regret but to see as moments of enlargement, moments that confirm me as human and vulnerable.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Have you had any of these moments of enlargement as it relates to your writing? Are there any of these moments that stand out among the others?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: The first big mistake that comes to mind with respect to writing poetry was a very early one. When I was sixteen and in high school, I decided that if I were going to be a poet, I needed to finish high school immediately (as I could because I had enough credits) and take a year off from all formal schooling to do nothing but write poems. So I petitioned to graduate early and did and then spent a year out of school before going to college. That year was, and still is, deeply important to me in many ways. I worked at menial jobs, I hitchhiked and backpacked across North America, I read lots of big books. But as a year of writing it was a total failure and a total mistake.
What I learned in that year, and what I later had confirmed by Jon Stallworthy, a wonderful poet and man I was fortunate to study with at Cornell, is that a poet’s got to have a life to write about. Or as Stallworthy put it, A poet’s got to be a person first. In retrospect it sounds so embarrassingly simple, but at the time I think I was laboring under a fairly typical adolescent misconception that the wear-and-tear of our everydayness is completely antithetical to deep creativity. What I discovered from that mistake is that although the pressures of everydayness can definitely impinge on creativity, creativity-or least mine, such as it is-cannot do without that wear-and-tear. For one thing, it’s a constant source of words and phrases, as well as images and experiences. For another, it balances the excesses of self-absorption, which can be just as destructive as the excesses of worldly busyness.
I say an adolescent misconception, but it’s still one I fight against, and so I was very encouraged not long ago when I read a book by a monk who reminds us that usually it’s lay people with very busy, worldly lives who have religious visions, not cloistered ascetics.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Going back for a moment to the regret you felt over discarding your baseball card collection; I understand your son’s pain! My father didn’t save his baseball cards either. So, did you have a favorite baseball team in the 1960’s?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I did indeed. I was passionately committed to following the two great California teams in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers team that included Sandy Koufax and the San Francisco Giants team that included Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, and Willie McCovey. My family spent the summer of 1965 near Pasadena, and I saw both those teams play.
Subsequently I’ve transferred my loyalties to the American League, following the Boston Red Sox because of my New England background and the Baltimore Orioles because I now live in the mid-Atlantic region.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : I’m sorry, I won’t ask you any questions about the Orioles starting pitching, or about what’s happened-or not happened-since 1918. But how about this: I find that many of us read the work of numerous dead poets before we discover our first living poet. When did you start reading contemporary poets and with what poet did you first take a liking.
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: : I started reading contemporary poets as a freshman in college. An older student I met there introduced me to W. S. Merwin and in particular to his 1967 volume The Lice. That book blew me away, and I thought if I could write like that I would be somebody special. I read more and more and more Merwin, and when I came home for Christmas that freshman year, I sat down and wrote a poem every day. All those poems were little attempts at sounding cryptic and gnomic like Merwin.
A year or two later I started reading A. R. Ammons, who was a teacher at Cornell when I was there. For a long time I tried to write and sound like him. Unfortunately, I think I succeeded a little too well for a while, and it took a concerted effort later on for me to develop a strong sense of the ways in which I’m much different from him. But I definitely identify with Ammons an early sense of election, that in him and his work I recognized my vocation.
STEPHEN REICHERT: In what poetic ways did you find yourself replicating A. R. Ammons and how do you now perceive the difference between your writings and his?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: This question has a new resonance for me now, since Ammons died two months ago. One thing I remember his saying in his Snow Poems is that you can’t imitate anyone exactly and that difference is originality enough. When I was younger, I was particularly smitten with his wonderful idiom and vernacular usage, as well as with the way he can slide up and down the tonal scale from breezy chattiness to dense, Latinate abstraction. I also got bitten by the enjambment bug and compulsively enjambed everything, thinking at the time that enjambment, along with alliteration, was a sufficient condition for verse.
Before moving on to differences between my writing and his, I want to acknowledge that I still love and value sliding up and down a tonal scale. My range isn’t as extensive as Ammons’s, since he goes to extremes of both the vernacular and the abstract I tend to avoid, but I would say that tonal range is one feature of his work I take pleasure in holding before me as an ideal.
As for differences, I’d have to say right off that I’m more interested in rhyme and meter than Ammons was. He used to say that he began by writing garden-club verse and later abandoned metrical prosody for free verse (although he didn’t put it exactly that way). I write a lot of poems that look like free verse compared to the work of, say, the no longer new New Formalists. But there’s usually some metrical shape not too far away, and every once in a while I enjoy working in a strict metrical or rhyming pattern, as you’ll see in the new book, Cussing Lesson.
The other large difference between us is that I tend to talk more in poems about actual people than Ammons does. When he does talk about his relationship to another person, the results are often unbearably great, as in the case of the little poem “Love Song,” which ends, “the total night in / myself raves / for the light along your lips.” One doesn’t need to-maybe can’t-write too many poems like that one in a life. But in general Ammons works toward a level of abstraction from human connection that’s beyond me right now. I’m still caught up in trying to talk to and about the people around me.
STEPHEN REICHERT: In your book Blue Pajamas you refer, on a few occasions, to the Civil War. You have published a book of non-fiction titled, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (Virginia, 1999). What is your attraction to the Civil War and when did it begin?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: My attraction to the Civil War began at a very young age. I turned five in 1961, which was also the first year of the Civil War centennial, the occasion for the publication of so many important books, among them the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War with the great text by Bruce Catton. When I had my tonsils removed sometime in 1962 or 1963, my parents bought me this book at my request, and it changed my life. I spent hours and hours poring over its maps and photographs and other images. Since I grew up in the northeast, my view of the war was naively northern, but I moved to Virginia in 1982, and suddenly my interest in and feeling for the war expanded greatly. Suddenly I was living in that warscape, and it all felt very haunted to me. And much more complicated.
But I think the more compelling fantasy driving my obsession has to do with my own family history. My mother’s father was killed in Italy near Anzio during World War II, and my sense is that I’ve always been frightened by the fragility of families, by the specter of a father suddenly being killed. As it turns out, my mother was about six years old when she last saw her father, so as I became aware of the Civil War at about the same age, I must have opened Catton’s book with some unconscious sense that I was encountering the huge forces that could suddenly render a six-year-old fatherless.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Throughout Blue Pajamas a number of topics reappear: far ranging topics such as religion, animals (particularly those that fly), your children and a mother losing an eye. Why do we find you revisiting these topics?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: One of the things Ammons says somewhere in his long poem Sphere is you have your identity not when you find what you can keep your mind on, but when you find what you can’t keep your mind off. The poems in Blue Pajamas emerged over many years. Although the book was published in 1998, the earliest poem in it dates from 1983. Over this long a stretch, one has a good opportunity to watch large patterns emerge and to discover what the mind won’t stay away from. When it came time to select poems for the book, I suppose I found that the ones I felt best about happened to be ones that kept returning to particular subjects: history, religion, travel, the natural world, family. I wrote about many other things during that long period, but I see now that the best poems arose out of few recurring concerns. Things change, however. I’ve just sent my second book of poems to press, and I see that, for example, I have many more poems about urban experience in this book (I’ve been teaching in London for the last several summers) and not nearly so many about the natural world. In “Self-Reliance” Emerson explains, “let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not.” I try to follow his lead and let the symmetries surprise me.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Aside from the urban themes, what are some of these symmetries that we can expect to find in Cussing Lesson and consequently will we find you working in different forms? Is there a correlation between the content of your poems and the form you choose?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: In many ways Blue Pajamas seems to me to be a book about beginnings: of self-consciousness, of religious sensibility, of historical awareness, of attention to the nonhuman world, of a sense of vocation, of marriage, of parenthood. By contrast, I finding, Cussing Lesson is more about middles or continuations of many of these same things. In working through the manuscript again, I hear a greater range of tones than in Blue Pajamas. Although many of the poems still tend toward the celebratory, many of them also sound other notes, as the title of the volume suggests. The widening of tonal range corresponds to a widening of formal range, I hope. On the one hand, some poems stick to rhyming stanzaic patterns; on the other, some looser poems experiment more with typography. In this second book I’ve also tried to set very short, minimalist poems against longer, more fully elaborated narrative or meditative ones.
Yes, there’s certainly a correlation between form and content for me, although I’m not comfortable with Robert Creeley’s dictum that form is never more than extension of content. I think interesting things can also happen when we reverse the terms of this formulation. In other words, for example, choosing to write a haiku often means that one is choosing to focus on a condensed bit of perception represented in an understated way that makes significant use of natural phenomena assigned the burden of figurative meaning. It seems odd and wrong to me to affirm that the haiku form follows an essential haikuness of experience. I don’t, by the way, have any haikus in Cussing Lesson, although there are some short poems that tend in that direction.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : John Ashbery has said that poets shouldn’t talk about the meaning behind their poems because this talk leads us to nothing more than an unhelpful paraphrase of the poem. Do you think it’s helpful for poets to talk about the meaning of their poems? Do you ever find yourself explaining your poems?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I’ve actually written about this question in my book Fictions of Form in American Poetry (1993). I don’t think I quite agree with Ashbery, although I think I have a sense of why he might say what he says. I’d say instead that it’s fine for poets to talk about the meanings behind their poems or about the formal features of their poems, as long as they and we keep in mind that when poets talk about their own poems, they tend to create new poems. That is, they tend to extend the figurative dimensions of their work in much the same way that a patient in therapy produces more material to be interpreted in the process of talking about a dream he or she has had. I don’t know if I really explain my poems, but I love to be asked what a particular poem means to me and what kinds of patterns I see in it. When I introduce a poem I’m reading aloud in public, I try to say just enough to help people think about the poem the way I do. I don’t mean I’m trying to control their interpretations or supervise their experiences; I just mean that I try to offer a frame for those interpretations or experiences that’s like the frame I see. Of course, they’re free to reject it.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Give me some living poets who you believe are exceptions to the idea that most poets don’t write poetry that is deeply philosophical in nature, but if it’s philosophical at all it’s mostly just on or about philosophy rather than the poem being philosophical in and of itself? I understand that this question has various meanings depending upon your perception and understanding of the word “philosophy,” but maybe you’d care to comment on that as well.
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: Of course I would say Ammons is a philosophical poet in any sense in which you want to define philosophy. I would also say that my colleague Charles Wright is a deeply philosophical poet. Both these poets favor meditation and contemplation over narrative. Then again, “philosophy” at its simplest means love of wisdom, and I can think of other poets who make me feel that they love wisdom. I think of the late Jane Kenyon, for example. She also makes me feel that a love of wisdom informs and animates so many of her poems.
STEPHEN REICHERT: I ask this question because if someone where to ask me today for an example of someone writing with strong philosophical currents running through their poems, you come to mind. Some others that come to mind today-probably because I was reading them recently- include poets like Frank Bidart, John Hollander, and yes, Ammons. Do you see yourself in this way, or am I off the mark here?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I’m very gratified that you would think of me that way. I don’t know for sure whether you’re on or off the mark because the truth is that I haven’t had much experience thinking of myself as a philosophical poet. If I look to the etymology of “philosophy” for some sort of help here, yes, certainly I like to think of myself as a wisdom lover, but I have to admit quickly that I often love wisdom in the sense of longing for it, of desiring something I want but don’t have. Another reason I’m a little surprised, and a little delighted, by your question is that I don’t think of myself as a poet of big ideas in the way I think of, say, Ammons or before him Stevens. For me the biggest idea in getting a poem down is the idea of playing around with words until they take memorable shapes that arouse strong feeling. Then again, perhaps by “philosophical currents” you’re pointing toward something like religious or spiritual susceptibilities, and I would admit the presence of those in both me and the poems that come out of me. Again, however, I can’t claim that I’ve got a marvelously coherent vision of things unseen; I’ve just got a hunger for contact with them.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : Yes, I find philosophical currents in “Communion,” “In Him There Is No Darkness at All,” “Imposition of Ashes,” and “Heartmeadow Farm, Allegany, New York” [from Blue Pajamas] (which happens to be my favorite poem of yours). Would you mind discussing one or more of these poems, or if you see these poems as similar would mind discussing any relationship between them?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: The poems you single out all have to do with religious experience, which certainly includes the philosophical. If I remember the order of composition correctly, “Heartmeadow Farm” comes first and dates from 1985 or 1986. We were visiting friends in Allegany, New York, and they took us to see this heart-shaped meadow on the side of a hill, a place where Thomas Merton used to meditate early in his career. My fascination in this poem is with the questions, “Is this the monk’s tremendous mystery? / How to tell the holy tingle / from bad nerves and vacations long overdue.” In other words, how do our own moments of extraordinary sensation correspond to the sensations of religious revelation? The other three poems were written sometime after 1991, when I began to attend the Episcopal church regularly. “Communion” and “Imposition of Ashes” are about important, sacramental rituals in the church, and “In Him There is No Darkness at All” is about a great and unexpected moment in church when the organ suddenly quit playing, and the congregation had to finish the hymn without its accompaniment. But what I see about all four poems is that they sidle up to thinking about religious experience by asking questions, airing doubts, and acknowledging skepticism, and it may be this approach that feels philosophical to you.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Robert Creeley has said, “the last thing poets need is encouragement! They’ll do it [write] come hell or high water.” Is this true with you?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: Creeley’s hyperbole makes an important point. The lack of encouragement poets receive helps to winnow out those who are serious from those who aren’t. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with not being serious, and being serious doesn’t guarantee being good. But whenever I pick up a new book of poems by a poet I don’t know, I can’t help but respect and admire the simple persistence, even stubbornness, that have to go into writing a book. I know that this person’s poems have been tempered and strengthened by indifference and even, probably, discouragement.
In my own case, I think the lack of encouragement has been crucial. When I took an academic job teaching literature at Virginia, I asked if writing poems would count towards promotion. No, I was told, emphatically and unequivocally. So I went ahead and wrote and published other things, and I continued to write poems simply because I felt better if I did. As a result, professional survival and writing poetry haven’t overlapped for me. I’m not trying to say anything as off-putting as I think my art is pure and uncontaminated by worldly concerns. In fact, it’s loaded with worldly concerns. I’m just saying that I like the independence of not feeling beholden to an institution or a foundation for the poems I’ve written. I should add, however, that I received encouragement all along from a few people close to me.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : On a personal level, which poets have been most encouraging of your writing?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I take great pleasure in answering this question, since I’m very grateful to these people. As an undergraduate at Cornell, the person who helped me most was Ammons, and I stayed in touch with him from 1978, when I graduated, until the September before he died, when I spoke to him last. At graduate school it was John Hollander, with whom I took a course on poetic form and with whom I’m still in touch. And here at Virginia I’ve been blessed with wonderfully encouraging colleagues in George Garrett, Greg Orr, Lisa Russ Spaar, and Charles Wright.
STEPHEN REICHERT: If only one of your poems would survive well beyond our days on earth, which one would it be and why?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: You ask for one, and two come to mind. But since they come to mind for the same reason, I’ll name them both. In Blue Pajamas I’d choose the poem “Rapunzel,” and in the new book, Cussing Lesson, I’d go with “Make the Bed.” What I like about these poems is that they’re both carefully built-“Rapunzel” braids the same three rhymes all the way through and “Make the Bed” uses apocopated rhyme-but the form isn’t obtrusive and the emotional force of both poems (each is about marriage) is what most people respond to. In fact, when people tell me that they value one of these poems but also say they never noticed the formal structure, I feel most gratified. I feel as though I’ve passed the Elizabeth Bishop test, a test I associate with her poem “Sestina,” which manages this elaborate, ornate form so casually. If it weren’t for Bishop’s title, most of my students wouldn’t realize how premeditated the structure is.
In choosing these two poems of mine, however, I don’t want to suggest that I always aim to write highly formalized verse in which the form remains invisible or feels weightless. I also write lots of verse in which I’m more nonchalant about form, as well as lots of verse in which form calls attention to itself for various reasons. It’s just that I happen to admire the balance I struck in these two particular poems.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Do you feel most comfortable writing in a particular form?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: When I started to assemble the poems of Cussing Lesson, I noticed that many of the poems use a four-stress accentual line, which sometimes tightens into iambic tetrameter. I also noticed that I often use triple-meter lines for variation. I have to admit, though, that when I saw how many poems fell into this category, I immediately began casting around for poems in different forms (two-stress, three-stress, nonmetrical) to substitute in and vary the book more. There are certainly forms I don’t feel particularly comfortable in, but I hope I don’t narrow down to just one favorite.
In no particular order, I look to see who had to have written poems in the past for this poet’s poems to be possible; I look to see how successfully this poet manages to distinguish or individuate himself or herself from the earlier poets he or she has learned from; I look for evidence of an awareness of form, especially with respect to the integrity of lines (does this person use enjambment compulsively and predictably? does this person vary between lines with caesurae and lines without? do this person’s lines suggest crafted wholes at the same time that they combine with other lines?); I listen for music in the verse, so that I have a sense of something important and memorable beyond what’s actually being said; and, finally, like Dickinson I look for those images, lines, stanzas, subjects, or-one hopes-entire poems that make me feel as though the top of my head has been taken off.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Is there a poet that you’ve recently read that has really blown you away? Someone that most of us haven’t yet discovered?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I recently reviewed Shuntaro Tanikawa’s Selected Poems (translated by William K. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura and published by Persea Books). Tanikawa is probably the most popular and prolific contemporary poet in Japan. I didn’t know anything about him before I read the book, but I became so taken with the range of tones, forms, and structures, as well as with his ability to combine the Asian commitment to precision, condensation, and understatement with an urbane sensibility open to western, particularly American, culture. Since Tanikawa’s work varies so wildly, I can’t say that any single reader will necessarily like everything he does, but I particular admired the poems from his 1968 volume, With Silence My Companion.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : What do you think of Stanley Kunitz being our Poet Laureate?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I’m very happy to see Kunitz receive that honor. I heard him read several years ago here at the University of Virginia, and subsequently I’ve read around in his poems, more carefully since he became Poet Laureate. My overall impression is that this is a poet with lots of integrity who has remained faithful to his art for most of a century. If those distinctions don’t qualify him for such recognition, I don’t know what does.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : It seems that most poets reach a stage in their lives where they don’t care much for their earlier published work. Have you reached that point with any of your work? How do you feel now about the poems in Blue Pajamas compared with what you thought about them when the book was published in 1998?
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: I still like the poems in Blue Pajamas a great deal. But don’t forget that LSU didn’t accept that book until I was in my fortieth year (1996), so I had lots and lots of time to sift out anything I might have come to regret. When I was coming down the homestretch on that manuscript, I became ruthless. If a poem wasn’t a definite, resounding Yes, then it became a No. Anything I felt iffy about, I dropped.
It’s true that I look at some of the poems in that book now and think to myself, If I had to do it over again, I might have broken this or that line differently. I also feel from time to time that a given poem, or a given place in a poem, is a little raw compared to what I might do now. But I like that rawness. I value it and, in some ways, miss it. I guess I’m also grateful that it took so long for me to publish a first book. My juvenilia remains hidden and doesn’t have to embarrass me.
STEPHEN REICHERT: I remember reading your poem “Sea Glass for a Second Son” when it appeared in Poetry magazine. I think that was early last year. I remember because that was some of the first poetry of yours that I had read and I was delighted to think that I had discovered another poet who’s “early” work was strong and deserving of attention; and of course I was hopeful you’d allow Smartish Pace to publish some of your new work. Since it was your first appearance in that highly regarded publication, I am curious to know how many attempts you made before being selected by them and whether you believe they selected the best work that you offered them.
STEPHEN CUSHMAN: All in all, I bet I submitted poems to Poetry half a dozen times before the people there took anything. And over many years. I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure my earliest rejection slips date from the early 1980s. Did the editor, Joseph Parisi, accept my best work? He certainly accepted a poem I still like a lot. But he also rejected, as did his predecessor, many poems I liked a lot. I remember him writing back on one rejection slip that he felt the poems I’d sent were too didactic at times. So the next time I sent him something I made sure to stay away from anything that sounded didactic. I like to think that what you call my best work can sound a number of tones. If Poetry, or its present editor, doesn’t like the didactic tone, I like to think I can offer another one to please his ear. And I’m glad I did please his ear eventually, although I’m also glad you thought the poem was strong and deserved attention. I appreciate your saying so.
STEPHEN REICHERT: : And I appreciate you taking the time to entertain my questions. You have been very generous to me and Smartish Pace; thanks again for allowing Smartish Pace to publish your new poems. I look forward to the release of Cussing Lesson and wish you and your writing nothing but the best.
Stephen Cushman is the author of Heart Island (WordTech, 2006). His fourth book of poems, Riffraff, is forthcoming from LSU in 2011. He is a professor of American literature and poetry at the University of Virginia. [bio updated 2011]