Rae Armantrout

Q&A with Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California, in 1947, and raised in San Diego. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Berkeley and a master’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. While attending Berkeley she studied with Denise Levertov and made friends with Ron Silliman and others who would eventually be connected with the San Francisco group of Language Poets of the late 1980s.

She is the author of a dozen books of poetry including Money Shot (2011); Versed (2009), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award; Next Life (2007), a New York Times Most Notable Book of 2007; Up to Speed (2004), a PEN USA Award Finalist; and Veil: New and Selected Poems (2001), also a PEN USA Award Finalist; all published by Wesleyan University Press. She is the author of a prose memoir, True, which was published by Atelos in 1998. 

Armantrout is a professor of writing in the literature department at the University of California, San Diego. Some of her papers before 1990 are held by the Stanford University Archives; all papers since then, and some early juvenilia, are held by the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego.

She participated in Poets Q&A (September 7, 2011).

Hello Rae,

I write really awful poems. Is this normal to begin with; how do you tell if you have no talent or your still learning. Did you ever write bad poems, I find it hard to imagine. My poetry is very different to yours, not just because it’s bad but in many other ways also. I would like to write poetry which utilizes language in a less transparent way, like yours, but when I do it just ends up sounding like a Christmas cracker joke, any tips? Keep up the good work please!

Alexander Lopez — London

Hi, Alexander. Actually, I don’t know what a Christmas cracker joke is! And I don’t know whether I would think your poems were “awful” or not – but let’s set that aside. Here’s an idea. You might start by writing deliberately awful poems. If you think your poems deal in clichés, try exaggerating and exploring (exploding) those clichés. That will loosen you up. If you think your poems are too direct, try making them more direct. Make them so direct they scare you.  Don’t write about what you think, or what you think you know, write about what puzzles you. It’s always worthwhile to ask a real question, in whatever form.

That photograph of you was taken awhile ago. Can you describe how your views of poetry have changed during that time? For example, when you began writing, most of the New American Poets were still alive, and you knew several, such as Bob Creeley and Denise Levertov. Now you’re at a point where the “older” generation is much slimmer than it used to be, and there now exist multiple generations of younger poets who look to you as a touchstone and influence. Does it change your writing to have gone from being an outsider to the consummate insider? Does it impact the construction of your books, or the ways in which you talk about writing with students and others?

Ron — Tredyffrin Township, PA

I don’t feel like a consummate insider at all. I feel like I have now seen the “inside.” I’ve been treated to a dinner or two on the “inside,” if you will. Whatever recognition I’ve received has come in the last ten years. I’m pleased to think that more people are reading my poems now, though, when it comes right down to it, we’re talking about a few thousand readers maybe. As you well know, we don’t go into poetry for the money or the glory. We become poets because we’ve been seduced by language and we keep returning to the scene of the crime. I’ve noticed that I have a different perspective on this than do people who, say, grew up in NYC or Boston (or maybe even the Bay Area.) near the source of whatever cultural capital remains. I grew up in a San Diego version of Levittown. I hadn’t even heard of most of the poetry prizes until someone I knew won one. And then I won a couple myself! But for decades I really didn’t know about them so it wasn’t like every October or May (or whenever) I was disappointed and bitter because the phone didn’t ring. I just didn’t think about it. And I don’t think a whole lot about lineage either. Maybe it’s because I come from a small family with not much history. Or maybe it’s because this obsession with forebears is primarily a male thing. Women don’t generally see themselves as heirs. Yes, poems by Williams and Dickinson and Creeley showed me new things that poetry could do. When I moved to the Bay Area, of course, I took a class with Levertov and met other young poets. The peer relations were what really mattered to me.  They gave me a context for the first time. I had read Duncan and Oppen by then and their books had certainly influenced me. I met them in the flesh on a few occasions and they were gracious. But I didn’t really know how to have a personal relation to my elders. I’m still surprised, after all this time, by the way you refer to Creeley as “Bob.” Eventually I received a letter or two from him. He signed himself Bob. I kept replying “Dear Robert Creeley.”  I had no expectations. I was a slow learner in some regards.

By the time I got some sense of the literary rewards system I was, shall we say, mature enough to realize that, although getting an award is very nice, it isn’t a real guarantee of your value or your place in history. There are no guarantees. Whenever I interact with people, especially people whom I already knew, my students or my colleagues for instance, and they seem to have more respect for me because I won a famous prize, it makes me feel very strange. I mean I’m no better or worse than I was the day before I was given that award.   I don’t think whatever recognition I’ve received has changed my writing.  It may be that having a publisher who is actually eager to publish my books has made me write more and put books together more quickly. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s true, so that is a change!

When did you stop listening to other poets with good intentions telling you how to revise a poem or how to write like your suppose to, with the subject thread in the first verse sewn through to the last line and what if that’s not what you write like and feel the presure to write like you had a thread in the first place?

Irene Koronas — USA

There is no one correct way to write poems! I think you sense that but you can’t quite let yourself believe it. You have to follow your own impulses. That said, I think it’s important, especially when you’re starting out, to find friends who are good readers of your poems. If they are poets, exchange poems with them. Most poets do that at one time or another. When it’s done in school, it’s called “workshopping.” But it doesn’t have to be a classroom situation. It is helpful to feel that your poems are in dialogue with someone or something outside yourself. That person (or people) shouldn’t have the power to tell you what you can and can’t do. But you might want to listen to them when they tell you what they see (or don’t see) in your work.

I would like to know which poets (and/or poems) have influenced your work.

Nancy Dimsdale — San Diego, CA

When I was a child, my mother read poetry to me, mostly from an odd anthology for kids. It included Lewis Carroll, of course, but also some poems by Emily Dickinson. When I was a teenager, I discovered William Carlos Williams for myself. I took to him immediately. It took me a bit longer to see Dickinson’s greatness – but when it hit me it bowled me over. It meant that women could be geniuses. For me, there’s still no one who matches her. But I was also influenced by Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and by living poets such as Ron Silliman, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian and the fiction writer Lydia Davis.

Do you ever experience writer’s block, and if so, do you wait until it passes or do you actively try to overcome it? How do you deal with, what seems to me, the contradiction and pressure of making art while under a deadline?

William — Traveling

When I finish a poem, I allow myself a bit of time to recuperate, as it were. For a week or two, I have a casual attitude about writing. If an idea hits me, of course, I’ll pursue it. If not, fine. Then, after about two weeks, if no writing has surfaced, I start to feel nervous. Then I go looking for it. I do that really by just maintaining a certain state of alertness. I’ll read things that might get me going. I like to read science articles or books on science to experience the strangeness and sheer scale of the very large or the very small. And I’ll sit outside somewhere with a notebook too, either in my garden or in a public place like an outdoor cafe, and make notes on the things I see. The notes may be pretty pedestrian, no pun intended, but, I find that, if I keep at it long enough, something will emerge. Knock wood.

Hi Rae,

The varying compositional strategies you employ in your poems have long interested me as a reader because they seem designed to challenge and interact with certain readerly strategies. This is, of course, a part of the literary culture you’ve been associated with (Language poetry, postmodern poetry, etc.), but I think you have established a distinct concern among your peers with violence and its manifestations in contemporary culture. What do you feel these so-called “difficult” writing strategies confer to your subject matter? Certainly we have seen efforts in recent decades to control the violence of language (e.g, the codification of hate speech and political correctness), but I feel, without being able to articulate it exactly, that you are pointing towards something else with your work. Where do you understand the intersection of violence and your poetry to occur, and do you think there are other possibilities? Thanks!

Steve Gathers — Baltimore, MD

Dear Steve,

I find your question intriguing because I have never thought of my work as being especially attuned to violence. I’d be very curious to know more precisely what you’re seeing, because you may well be seeing something accurate that I just haven’t noticed.  I mean we live in a violent country. And the media exposes us to violent images from around the world. Homeopathic doses, perhaps. All contemporary poets deal with this in one way or another. I’m interested in (should I say horrified by) the way anything can be normalized. For instance, twelve years ago, I don’t think we could have imagined listening to discussions about how much torture the Unites States should practice on its “detainees.” Bit by bit, that became a normal topic, just another thing about which one could express an opinion. Everyone talks about some form of apocalypse now – take your pick which kind. I hear it everywhere. It’s the new normal. It’s as if we’re “getting ready” for extinction. But, of course, no one can ever be ready for that. There’s an impassable chasm between discourse and event. But I’m moving away from addressing your question about poetry and violence. Maybe (to use another metaphor) I spin myself around violently in the hopes that, if I disorient myself, I can see things from a new angle, catch a glimpse of what Lacan called “the Real.”

Is there anything you’re currently reading that you’re particularly excited about?

Judy Jensen — Austin, TX

I just read Ben Lerner’s new novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, with quite a bit of excitement. It’s good! And I was quite taken by Anselm Berrigan’s new book of poetry, Notes from Irrelevance.

Dear Rae,

Thank you so much for taking questions at Smartish Pace. I have just three.

Many of your recent poems are divided into three sections. Is there a particular reason for that style that you are able to articulate?

Do you usually write all of the sections of a single poem at once, or do you ever find yourself composing separate sections at different times and then going back and recognizing connections and other reasons that they seem to fit together?

Can you describe your writing method?

Darwin — Cedar Rapids, IA

That’s a good question. Sometimes I wonder myself why I end up with so many three section poems! In fact, I almost never write a poem in one sitting. If I do, it isn’t divided into parts. That happened with “Soft Money,” a longish, undivided poem in Money Shot.  Much more commonly, however, I take notes in my journal not knowing whether those notes will end up in a poem or not. The notes will be jotted down on different days in different places. At some point, I’ll notice that several of these notes have an affinity for one another. They seem to establish a kind of dialogue. So I’ll put them together and edit. If the poem still doesn’t feel finished, I will wait for more material to appear. By then, I have at least a vague idea of what I’m looking for – still, I won’t recognize it until I see it. Things have to come to me from elsewhere. That still doesn’t explain why the finished product so often has three sections. I mean, sometimes it’s two, sometimes four, but often it’s three. I hope this doesn’t reveal a subconscious fixation on the Trinity or the Dialectic!

Do you, or have you, played any sports or musical instruments? Are there pursuits outside of poetry that captivate you, things that you spend time working on that don’t directly relate to poetry? Something you haven’t talked much about that we’d be surprised to learn?

M.B. — West Orange, NJ

I really enjoy music but I never learned to play an instrument. It might surprise you to learn that I listen to contemporary rock and pop when I’m driving – which is pretty often. I recently bought the Decemberists’ new album – which I love! Once in awhile I’ll steal a line from a song for one of my poems. Usually I steal from songs I don’t like. What else? It might or not surprise you that I’ve spent way too much time this summer playing “Words with Friends,” a Scrabble-like game on my iPhone. Please don’t invite me to play though. I’m playing with three people now and I want to cut back. What else? My husband and I watch True Blood every Sunday night. Probably none of this is the least bit surprising. I wish I could say that I was an expert sushi chef or something like that. But no.

In his Smartish Pace Poets Q&A in 2003 (it’s hard to believe I’ve been looking at these that long), Robert Creeley wrote the following in response to a question about the accessibility (or lack-of) of his work. What are your thoughts about his comment as it pertains to your own poetry?

“In my case, as Charles Olson put it, ‘explanation is prior to composition,’  i.e., I have had to get that nature of thinking done before I set out. The thing is, or so I feel, one’s following a lead, a line, a tune, a possibility—and once that act begins, there’s no chance to stop and consider who is or is not going to get it.” –Robert Creeley, Smartish Pace Poets Q&A

David Rivers — Athens, GA

When I first started teaching, about 30 years ago, and I showed Creeley’s poems to naive undergraduates, they were very resistant. It jarred them and they didn’t like it.  Now I find that the same naive undergraduates tend to take to Creeley like ducks to water. I wonder what the difference is. They seem to find his layers of heightened self-consciousness and intense but blocked emotion immediately understandable. I just mention that because I find the difference interesting.

Anyway, I’m familiar with that Olson/Creeley quote, of course. I’ve never quite understood what was meant by “explanation being prior to composition.”  How can you be “following a lead” to find out where it goes if you’ve already “explained” the poem that will result to yourself before you began? But, anyway, if I set that part aside, then yes – this is exactly how I work. I often start with something that puzzles me. Sometimes something I see or hear bothers me or gives me a feeling and I don’t quite know why or even what the feeling really was. I write the poem to pursue it and explore it further. And I also understand what he means about following a tune – or sometimes it’s a tone – in your head. I will often hear a certain utterance, either in the outside world or in my own thoughts, and I’ll want to say more in that voice or tune. I’ll wonder where that voice came from and where it could go. Does that make sense? As to whether people will get it, you can’t think about things like that while you’re writing. It would be too inhibiting.

Is there a poet that you admire that I’ve probably never read? Perhaps someone with a book from a small publisher or someone with poems in magazines who has yet to be widely read?

Rochelle — Oceanside, CA

Hmm. I don’t know what magazines you read so it’s hard to say! All the poets I’m about to mention have published books on small presses: Ben Lerner, Graham Foust, Monica Youn, Catherine Wagner, Joseph Massey, Ben Doller, Sandra Doller, G.C. Waldrep, Jonathan Gallaher, Anselm Berrigan. If you aren’t familiar with those writers, give them a try. I don’t know whether you are familiar with Claudia Rankine, Juliana Spahr, Rachel Loden, and the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. If not, happy reading!

Do you consider yourself a Language Poet? What does it mean to be a Language Poet, or what is Language Poetry to you? Who is the quintessential Language Poet? I’m a young reader and wondering if new poets are still considering themselves Language Poets or if that is an old term, and an old style of writing or school.

F. Boxer — Elgin, IL

I get asked this question, or some version of it, pretty often so I’ve been thinking about the issues you raise. I doubt that young poets today refer to themselves as “Language Poets.” The moniker seems retro.  (The Language Poets never gave themselves that name, by the way). But there are still a goodly number of younger poets whose writing has been influenced, whether they’re aware of it or not, by the writing and thinking of the Language Writers. Do I consider myself a Language Writer? Well, that’s not how I introduce myself at get-togethers – but, yes, I am certainly part of that history and my work has some things in common with other writers associated with this group. We’re a rather diverse bunch though, really, like most poets who are put into “schools.”  Think about the New York School poets. Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest are very different in many ways. But, if you pull back far enough, they do have some things in common. The Language Poets share a tendency to construct their poems out of potentially autonomous elements, whether those elements are sentences or stanzas. This has been described as “parataxis.”  Many Language Poets have (or at least had) some interest in Marxism. But the compositional strategy I just described, the joining of possibly autonomous parts within a problematic whole, sounds more like anarchism (as a political philosophy) than socialism, I suppose. One thing Language Poets do share with Marxists, however, is a belief that language is not a neutral medium. It is used by those in power to “frame,” as they say now, the “debate.” Anything that will make us all stop and do a double take on what we hear (and see) instead of accepting it as natural is a positive exercise. I think that is one goal of Language Poetry and I share it.

Dear Rae, What do you think of e-books and e-poetry? Could you imagine writing poems differently for an electronic medium? Would you be interested in writing hypertext poems? Will print poetry magazines like Smartish Pace survive much longer?

Fran Olson — Miami, FL

With the rise of electronic poetry and digital books—I read Amazon now sells more e-books than print books—what do you see for the future of poetry? Are you involved in digital poetry, or plan to be, or want to be?

Mark — Boston, MA

I’m going to try to answer Fran and Mark’s questions together since they are quite similar. This is not something that I have thought deeply about. I do own a Kindle. I got it because I travel a lot and it’s easier to carry a Kindle than, say, five books. Now I buy most of my novels and a lot of my nonfiction as ebooks. I don’t think I’d want to read poetry that way though. And I think it’s really too bad to see bookstores go out of business. Bookstores were already struggling in the wake of Amazon and the availability of books electronically may be the death blow. I think that’s a bigger loss than we might realize. It’s not a problem for someone who’s already “hooked in” somehow and is going to hear about the new books in his or her field. But what about the person who isn’t connected in that way? A good bookstore is a place to browse and discover things you didn’t know you liked. I remember buying an anthology of what was then contemporary poetry in a bookstore when I was about nineteen. I had read probably a fifth of it by the time I walked up to the register. That isn’t likely to happen now.

I’m only involved in digital poetry to the extent that I publish some of my poems in online journals. There are good ones of course: Jacket and Shampoo come to mind right away. And, if I hear about a poet and want to see a few of her poems, I can put her name into Google and there they are – which is great. But that may not be what you mean by digital poetry. Of course, there are writers like the Flarfists who use the digital world as part of their compositional process. As I’m sure you know, they collect and somehow collage language culled from Google (or other) computer searches generally using loaded search terms. Often their material comes from chat rooms and fan sites. The effect is often deliberately creepy. I think it’s interesting. But not interesting enough for me to want to try it, I guess.  Then there’s another kind of digital poetry that actually involves some computer programming.  The few digital poems of this sort that I’ve seen usually have words dropping off the screen before you can quite read them and, perhaps, new words appearing in their place. These poems give us (or me anyway) a visceral sense of the ephemerality of meaning – and that is a poignant effect. But it’s one effect. So far digital poetry seems to be a kind of one trick pony. But I think it’s still in its childhood.

Dear Rae,

I have really enjoyed following the trajectory of your career. I know many of your contemporaries have frequently had recourse to a wide variety forms and structures over their lives, but it seems to me that from as early as “The Invention of Hunger,” your style was more or less fully developed with the short, terse lines still evident in your recent work. I don’t know that you count Olson among your poetic forefathers, but how would you respond to his claim (which I suppose was really Creeley’s) that form is an extension of content? And, specifically, how is or is not that maxim operative in your own work? Cheers!

Bradshaw Stanley — Chicago, IL

Thank you for your continued interest, Bradshaw! People have said this about the continuity of my style before and, yes, there’s a lot of truth to it. I think my style has developed or changed a bit over the years or at least gone through phases, but the changes may be pretty subtle. When I was writing the poems in my first book, Extremities, I had a tendency to write very short poems, probably influenced by Basho or various Zen koans I had read. By short I mean 3-6 lines. I deliberately challenged myself to go longer. By most people’s standards my poems are still very short I know – but with effort I did manage to go onto a second page pretty often and once in a long while even onto a third. I did that by building the longer poems out of shorter units. Most often my poems are composed of discrete moments of attention. If the poem works, these moments hang together on some fragile thread. That’s one way to think of it. I started to develop this method in the late 70s and probably got it “down” in the early 80’s. I think my poems went through a middle phase in, say the late 80s and 90s when they were maybe slightly shaggier, slightly more apt to seem surreal (largely due to the inclusion of dream material). I would say that period extends through NecromanceMade to SeemThe Pretext, and the new poems in my selected, Veil. Starting maybe with Up to Speed or at least Next Life, the poems seem to be getting a bit more streamlined. I know the changes I see may not be obvious to others. And I don’t know whether the change I just referred to is a good thing or not. I just sent a new manuscript off to Wesleyan so I find myself in that position of starting over. I am once again trying to allow myself or push myself to try some different things. I was recently asked to participate in a project that involves somehow rewriting a Shakespearean sonnet. My first response, was “Fools rush in where…” But then I decided to give it a try. And it was fun.

Dear Rae
Why the short lines and when did it start for you and can you imagine writing long narrative poems without being sick to your stomach?

M. Barrett — Baltimore, MD

This is a very interesting, if somewhat loaded, question. It interests me because I don’t really know the answer.

Let me say first off that I do occasionally write prose poems or poems with longish lines such as “Scumble” from Versed or “The Deal” from Money Shot. And I published a prose memoir called True in 1999. You’re right, though, that I can’t see myself writing long narrative poems – at least not poems with one continuous narrative – any time soon. I am too interested in edges, angles, intersections, and even collisions.  I want the poem to be open to whatever occurs next, to be able to swerve to accommodate it – or meet it anyway. And the breaks between lines and stanzas can be opportunities for such swerves.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy good fiction. But in the fiction I like best, say Proust or Melville, the story unfolds so slowly that the narrative is attenuated.  There’s all the time in world for a chapter called, for instance, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” The narrative burden is suspended in chapters like that and language moves more quickly and unpredictably as a result.

Remember how Archimedes, when speaking of the power of leverage, said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the earth.” I imagine the fiction writer using such a lever.  The problem, of course, is finding a place to stand in outer space (or outside time) from which to wield such a device.  I guess I’m saying that, since I can’t find a place outside time to stand, I don’t feel comfortable writing narrative. But that’s just me.

Anyway, to come back down to earth, I can say a few things about how my short line developed. My mother read me poetry when I was a kid. In fact, she read me long, narrative poems like  “Hiawatha,” by Thomas Eakins, as well as children’s verse. In sixth grade I wrote a book report in the meter of “Hiawatha.” When I was in my teens, I discovered William Carlos Williams. I was very taken by Williams. (Why him? I couldn’t say.)  I was beginning to write then and I wanted to jettison the heavy handed meters I had learned as a child so I deliberately started to use a shorter, Williamsesque line. (I realize now, of course, that not all metric poetry is so heavy-handed!)  As I worked with this short line, I got increasingly interested in the effects line breaks could produce – suspense, double-meaning, etc.

In the interest of full disclosure, I might add that I write in a lined notebook and I have really big sloppy handwriting. That may also have something to do with what I see as a line. (?)

Do you see yourself as a poetry outsider? If you don’t now, did you ever?

R. Derby — Greensboro, NC

I answered this question pretty thoroughly in response to question 2 (from Ron). In my youth, my friends and I in the Bay Area made an inside of the outside, if you know what I mean. For most of my life, perhaps because I’ve always lived on the west coast and perhaps because I came from the working class (as we used to say back when there were jobs), I knew there was a “poetry establishment” somewhere but I didn’t know much about it and I really didn’t care. More recently, people have been suggesting to me that I am, in fact, part of that establishment. So – that’s weird.

Do you watch the news? From where do you get your information on current events and politics and do they have an influence on your writing? Thanks Smartish Pace for another awesome poet and thanks Rae for answering our questions.

Mary Louis — Columbia, MO

Yes, Mary, I’m a bit of a news junky. I watch more of it than is good for me. Like most people I know, I watch the Rachel Maddow show. I think she’s great. It’s gotten to the point, though, that when I get together with friends, we just swap bits of information we picked up on her program. That feels weird and kind of wrong. Anyway, I also watch the PBS news hour, despite the fact that it’s a tad vacuous. And I’ll top that off with some John Stewart and Stephen Colbert for perspective. Nothing unusual there. I don’t claim to be especially well informed. I do read books on current politics from time to time. I would recommend Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Another good book is A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey. Right now I’m reading around in Zizek’s Living in the End Times. I’m influenced by the Marxian idea that ideology is everywhere, unavoidable. What I try to do as a poet is to pick at the edges of ideology like picking at a scab (metaphorically speaking) and see how much I can peel back. It’s interesting to look at popular entertainment as an ideology delivery machine. In my book Versed there’s a prose poem called “Previews” which looks just slightly askew at the plots of recent movies. And there’s a poem called “Treatment” in my forthcoming book which retells the plot of the movie “Dinner with Schmucks.” You don’t need to be a news junky to do that.

What is the risk in being a poet? What should I be concerned about before further attempting such a life? Will you have new poems in Smartish Pace or anywhere else in the future?

Sophia Walters — Madison, WI

I’ll take the easy question first. I have two poems coming out in the next issue of Smartish Pace.

Now, what are the risks of becoming a poet? The first thing that comes to mind is that most people in America really see poetry as a joke or a sign of childish narcissism. And maybe they’re right! I am still reluctant to tell a stranger that I’m a poet. I can see that it makes them uncomfortable. So first you have to be willing to be ridiculous. Then, as I’m sure you know, you won’t make any money directly from poetry – or at least not much. You have to find some other sort of work – usually teaching. And you may tend to resent your day job because it takes up time that you could spend writing. So you risk being disrespected and feeling resentment. Is that scary enough?

I find much of your poetry difficult to read. It’s not that I can’t read the words it’s that I have a difficult time creating meaning from your poems. Is there something wrong with me? Can you help me get a idea of how to read your poems? I want to enjoy you! Thanks.

Dale Franklin — Cleveland, OH

Hmm. So many ways to go with this question. My first impulse is to say, “Enjoy Rae Armantrout now in cool mint flavor!”  Ok, seriously, one thing to keep in mind is that there may be a number of voices in my poems. These voices may or may not represent my beliefs. Consider the possibility that some of the voices may be unreliable or deliberately “wrong.” What does that do to your reading experience? I can’t tell from your question whether you’ve spent much time “trying to enjoy” my poems or not. If you have spent a good bit of time with the poems already and you still don’t get anything from them, I suggest you give up. You aren’t required to like everything! There are some widely admired poets (I won’t name them) whose work I don’t “get” or enjoy. I think that’s only natural. 

How do you think of John Ashbery’s poetry in relation to your work? Do you enjoy his work? Do you think you share a similar set of readers? Have you ever talked with him about his, and your, poetry?

P. Riddle — San Jose, CA

I really like your name, P. Riddle!  Anyway, I am awed by Ashbery’s poems. I enjoy them very much indeed. Somehow, like Proust, he is able to make time palpable – the pure experience of time. His poems (like time itself) are full of anxiety and distraction. The Big Revelation is always (already) just about to occur. (Or maybe it just did and we missed it.)  His poems are like a magic trick that somehow lasts forever. It’s a bit difficult to think about his work in relation to mine I think we use a very different set of techniques. Our poems look different. But I think, and perhaps I flatter myself here, that there is a kind of resonance between our sensibilities. I imagine he has many more readers than I do. Sadly, we have never corresponded. He did choose a poem of mine, though, for the edition of The Best American Poetry he edited back when I was a young poet. That was a thrill.

My question is one of age. As you find yourself at or around the “age of retirement” what do you find pushing into your thoughts most often that you are surprised to feel and think?

Paul McHale — Astoria, NY

I can’t tell how old you are from your question. The first thing you should understand, if you don’t already, is that people don’t feel old until they become frail or disabled. Suddenly – and this dates me! – I’m thinking of the lyrics of an old Eagles’ song. It goes, “Ain’t it funny how your new life didn’t change things/You’re still the same old girl you used to be.”  But, of course, other people, especially people who didn’t know you in your youth, don’t see the “old girl.” I remember being young and looking right past older people like they were invisible. Now I’m on the other side of the age curtain. As for new thoughts pushing in – it sometimes strikes me with surprise that I won’t live long enough to see how certain things turn out. Big things, small things. Will Lady Gaga be “the new Madonna?”  Will humanity make the transition to renewable fuels in time to avoid the collapse of civilization? I’ll probably never know! That last question is quite a cliff hanger.

Are you working on your next book and when will it appear and who will publish it and what is it about? Do you have a book deal for a certain number of books with a book publisher or is there a publisher that has first right of refusal, or how does that work?

Tanya — Vancouver, BC

I have a very good relationship with Wesleyan Press and especially with its editor, Suzanna Tamminen. She has just accepted a new book of poems to be published some time in 2013. It’s called Just Saying. Every so often she asks me if I have a new manuscript. There is no formal deal. But I will give all my subsequent manuscripts to them. As for what the new book is about, I always have trouble with that question. Like all my books, really, it’s about being (staying) conscious in 21st century America. I could make up something more and probably will – but that’s what it comes down to right there.

Smartish Pace
Smartish Pace