Q&A with Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. The author of nineteen books, his most recent are Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town (prose, Chicago, 2009) and Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). In 2002 he guest-starred in an episode of The Simpsons TV show, and in 2010, he premiered his libretto for Death and the Powers, an opera by composer Tod Machover. His Poets Q&A appears at smartishpace.com, and his poetry in Smartish Pace, Issue 20. [updated 2013]
I have not had much luck getting my poetry published. I have read a variety of journals and publications trying to find those where my poems might fit. However, after reading many of the publications, I am often left wondering if I am missing something and I think: “My poems are not like this, so does this mean my poems are not any good?” So my question is: To submit or not submit? How does one know if what they are writing is just crap or if it has some merit?
James — Cincinnati, Ohio
It’s wise of you to read the poems in a magazine before submitting your work to it; if you don’t find anything attractive in the work the editors publish, they are not likely to want what you are writing. If you find some poetry that you do like in a magazine, the editors may be interested in your work.
This is true if you are experienced, too: I like what the magazines Salmagundi and Threepenny Review publish, for example, so I send my poems to the editors there.
The truth is that magazine publication is very difficult–and sometimes achieving it is an anticlimax: if you had a poem in The New Yorker next week, there would be a pleasant interval when your friends and neighbors see it, and when you can think about people you don’t know getting some emotion from it. But the next week, another issue of the magazine comes out, and for many weeks after that, and you still have all the same large and small problems, including the problem of ambition and frustration, that you ever had.
The form of publication that is perhaps most sustaining, most valuable, to a poet is being able to show your work to a small group of peers who share your values in art, and whose work you respect. Two or three or four fellow-poets, all of you reading one another’s work: that can be immensely useful and gratifying–not only until you publish, but after. My close poet-friends and their opinions remain the most valued and meaningful audience for me.
As to judging your own work–read, read, read, read–read great poetry, and read it the way a cook eats or a filmmaker watches movies. Think about what you have read when you write, and when you read your own work.
Where do like sit when you write poems? Do you have a favorite place and if so, for how long have you been writing from this location?
Jennifer — Tampa, Florida
Everybody is different. I’ve always been an unsystematic, rather disorganized person. I did quite poorly in junior high school and terribly well in high school, partly because I don’t like habits, routines, homework, etc. I prefer pop quizzes to being prepared. So the idea of one favorite place or time panics me: it’s like being onstage, in the glare of expectation.
I compose poems in my head while I’m driving, or sitting in an airplane. I scribble things in the airplane, or between phone calls. I get up in the middle of the night, or suddenly need to cancel an appointment. I feel most free and capable when I can have at least the illusion that there are no routines, that I’m in the times between times.
But everybody is different: whatever habits or customs or predilections or personality type you name, some one of that kind has created great work.
Do you care about winning poetry prizes? Does it change the way you think about your work, or others, after a prize has been placed on it?
Trent — Los Angeles
Prizes are like getting “A” in school: everybody knows that it can mean nothing or quite a lot, depending upon many different circumstances. Recognition is not the same as accomplishment: sometimes what it recognizes is genuine accomplishments. When I win a prize I’m aware that mediocrities have won prizes; so, too, have great poets.
The way you think about your own work goes deeper than recognition; but recognition can be encouraging.
In a way, the genuine laurel is the appreciation of a fellow-artist whose work you admire. In another way, the genuine laurel is when someone outside the art gets something you wrote by heart, or recites it to others. Prizes are symbols of those genuine laurels.
From where do your sources of inspiration most often come? And when they come, is your first draft very rough (just to get the ideas), or do the words flow and resemble your finished poem?
Paul — Cincinnati, OH
The great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, asked “Where do you get your inspiration?” replied “Lester Young. Billie Holiday. The Ellington band. The music that thrilled me when I was young still inspires me. I remember the feeling that music gave me and I want to give it to other people.”
This seems to me profoundly true. Great art inspires art. Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Fulke Greville, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, George Herbert, William Carlos Williams have inspired me. I remember the thrill I get from, say, Frank O’Hara’s poem about talking to the sun, which is inspired by a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky. I would love to give that thrill to someone else.
Have you ever gotten in trouble for writing something personally revealing (about someone else) in a poem? If not, how do you manage to steer away from that sort of stuff in your writing.
Brian Geller — D.C. area
I have gotten in trouble of that kind. To my own surprise I have been rather ruthless about it: if it can make a good work of art, I don’t care. If the person can be identified, you must not fabricate or varnish–otherwise, I go ahead and write. I’m not necessarily advocating this, I’m not giving advice. It’s just how I have found myself operating.
Of all the forums available to you why would you choose this rather obscure and new poetry journal?
Cecil Burgis — Cooperstown, NY
Young poets are an important audience, to me. The art, and particular works in the art, are in the caretaking of the young poets. No anthologist or critic or prize committee or laureateship is as important as the young poets.
And this is easy for me to do–talking to you. I just type the things I think. It’s like conversation– not as difficult or constricting as writing, say, a book review or essay.
Do you see some poems as the product of a certain moment in your experience and thinking that really can only belong to that moment?
Clare — Greenbelt, MD
Unlike some people, I tend not to write about things as I experience them–tend more to reach back a bit. But every poem is the product of the moment you are writing it, it comes from a certain moment in a lifelong climb: the goal is to reach forward and back for grapple-holds.
What do you think of your early work? By this I mean your first book or two.
Clare — Greenbelt, MD
Thank God, I’d be willing to read anything in the first two books aloud at a poetry reading. Fortunately for me, I didn’t publish a book in my twenties; so the early false starts are not in the book. My second book, “An Explanation of America” is strange and weird, a book-length poem experimental beyond anything I’ve dared try since– but I’m very proud of it, would have no problem reading from it to you. Once in a while I speak to a class of students who are reading it.
When do you begin to feel like you aren’t writing young poems anymore?
Clare — Greenbelt, MD
The word “young” may be slightly pejorative for you–you may be wishing your poems were “mature.” But at my point in life and art the word “young” is full of appeal strength, so I hope that in some ways my poems are still young. The searching, even somewhat clumsy, daring, willing-to-look-bad quality is something I value in poetry.
The “immature” feeling, the frustration of feeling gawky or overdone, does fade somewhat as one masters technical problems–how to stretch a long sentence effectively over lines, how to break a line violently or gently, how to write a description without adjectives.
But the feeling of starting over anew, with no guides, is precious as well as painful.
Do all your poems bring you enjoyment (I’m speaking of the writing process, not the subject matter), or are there some that were painful to write? Can you name a poem (if there are any) that was painful to write and explain why?
David Given — Erlanger, Kentucky
This is a hard question, because writing is usually both exhilarating and painful for me–like straining in an athletic event, thinking hard about a chess problem, playing a difficult piece in music. You’re sweating and panting on the tennis court, it’s break point, your knee hurts, you are practically fainting, you are a slave to the competition, it’s uncomfortable and painful and you may not be able to do it, you just may not have a serve left in you, but trying is a tremendous joy.
The little poem “ABC” in Jersey Rain developed over months–the first four words came at once, the part around “X” took forever. It seemed impossible. But coming back to it, pressing against the sore-muscle exertion of it, was a deep pleasure.
The poem “Tennis” felt that way, too. The sentences about hitting crosscourt back to him, etc.– a delicious difficulty.
Do you feel pressure to be writing “good” or “important” poetry all the time? If so, how strong is the pressure, and does it ever get the best of you?
Sharon Miller — Chicago, Illinois
I am never free of the desire to write a good poem. It is a curse and a blessing, and certainly appears to be a life sentence. Sometimes it feels defeating or burdensome, but I live for it.
Plato wrote that when poets write they are possessed, or close to insane, and that they are able to write things beyond that which they ordinarily say. Does this make sense to you? Do you ever look at one of your poems and think: “now how in the hell did I write that?!”? If so, would you kindly name the poem? I’m a big fan of your work; thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and thanks to this website allowing me to ask you.
Kevin Walker — Madison, Wisconsin
I look at “An Explanation of America”, or at “Impossible to Tell” –a fairly long elegy based on a couple of jokes– and part of me thinks I was insane when I undertook these peculiar things. The writing has certain qualities of speed and audacity that I don’t thnk I’m capable of outside of poetry. “The Green Piano” and “To Television” have a reckless impudence and assurance that my conversation or prose might approach, but nevery really attain.
Where, sir, do you stand regarding adjectives in poetry? Can a poem become too rich with adjectives–and is it a fair criticism to suggest that this happens because the author is lazy or not sharp enough to find one perfect word?
Trudi Hill — Phoenix, AZ
A basic way to make a passage more vivid is to try it with all the adjectives and adverbs taken out. It’s remarkable how much bolder and more physical the passage–especially if it’s descriptive– can become. And you can deaden something you like, as an experiment, by addings some adjectives. Fulke Greville begins his elegy for Philip Sidney: “Writing increaseth grief; silence augmenteth rage.” What if it were: “Mere writing eventually increaseth my severe grief; stony silence immediately augmenteth frantic rage.”?!
But sometimes an adjective or adverb is just right.
It All Depends.
There’s been a great deal of controversy on this campus, especially among the poets of course, about your successor, Billy Collins. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to express personally opinions, but is my argument that at least he’s viewed as egalitarian and accessible a good one? Or is there a better one?
Clarinda Harriss — Towson University
Prizes and titles are not all that important. Any prize or title you named has been awarded to great artists, and to mediocrities, and to every degree of distinction in between.
Mr. Pinsky, Is it hard for you to write about people or occasions that are really close to you? I find it difficult to be able to express myself when I write about people I really care about, or places and occasions that are meaningful. Those are the things that I really want to be able to write about and express but I don’t seem to be able to. Do you have any suggestions on how to do that?
Shirley Cole — Cincinnati
Find the models you admire or hate, and use them as navigational points. Do you want to write like Allen Ginsberg in “Kaddish” or like Frank Conroy in “Stop-Time” or like Sylvia Plath in “Daddy” or like Louise Gluck in “Meadowlands” or like Elizabeth Bishop in “Geography III” or like John Berryman in “The Dream Songs”: probably, the answer is not quite like any of the above, but they do offer hints and possibilities.
The things you care most about are always the most difficult to write about, and the only ones worth trying.
What are your thoughts about the latest fad, “prose poems”?–oxymoron? valid & exciting experiment? excuse for anything to qualify as poetry?
Ellen Dudis — Pocomoke City, MD
I admire many I’ve read –Robert Hass’s and Baudelaire’s come to mind– but I’ve never been able to do it. It’s just another approach. For me, the resistance and nature of lines is tremendous; times I’ve started trying to write a prose poem I’ve fallen in love with some rhythm and whoops, I’m hearing lines. Sometimes, reading Melville or Faulkner, I start mentally putting it into lines.
When do you start thinking about meter and form? Before you start writing the poem? After? Somewhere in the middle?
Toni — the Detroit area
It all happens at once. It’s like getting a tune in your head, or noodling at the piano. To change metaphors, it’s like shooting baskets, inventing a variation on something you’ve done or seen done. You aren’t thinking on two levels of form and content, or theme and variations: everything is happening at once. It’s less a question of “meter and form” than of what you hear or want to hear, which is knitted into what you want to say.
I picked-up History of My Heart after it was re-released in the paperback edition and it STOLE my love!-what a terrific book; how long did it take you to write?
Joel — Chicago
Thank you, Joel! The re-release of that book was very important to me. My books tend to be written in spurts over the course of about three years. That’s been a pretty consistent pace. In the case of History of My Heart, the title poem, at the core of the book, was composed and revised over a few weeks.
What made you think to do the Favorite Poem Project? Did the Library of Congress give you ideas for projects or any guidance?
Mary — Trenton, NY
The Favorite Poem Project was inspired by the simple idea that a poem lives in a reader’s voice. The videos at http://www.favoritepoem.org , the summer conference for poetry teachers, the readings around the country were done with some foundation support and a lot of help from Boston University and the National Endowment for the Arts. I urge you to look at the videos of Whitman read by John Doherty, Gwendolyn Brooks read by John Ulrich, Langston Hughes read by Pov Chin, Sylvia Plath read by Seph Rodney.
The first FPP anthology, _Americans’ Favorite Poems_ , from Norton, is now in its eighth printing, and a second anthology, aimed particularly at high school and college students–_Poems to Read_ is the title–comes out from Norton this spring.
I’ve had a few poems published in “smaller publications,” but I’m wondering if I should even bother submitting to them, it seems like there is too much poetry being published and not enough readers. What do you think? Does this country really need another new poetry magazine?
RC — Boston
RC, there is no such thing as too much true poetry– anymore than there could be too much wonderful music, or art, or dance . . . . In my opinion the country really needs poetry for its children and teenagers; without poetry’s vocal, physical sense of language, how can people learn to write and think well?
In my opinion, the serious study of music and poetry is essential to intellectual development. School boards waste money on obsolescent computer software and hardware when they should be investing in cellos and volumes of Dickinson and Whitman, or in the Favorite Poem videos.
The country needs a poetry magazine devoted to great poems and real readers.
What’s the best new book of poetry you’ve read?
Deb — Pittsburgh
I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure lately from _Poems Seven_ by Alan Dugan, _The Seven Ages_ by Louise Gluck, _The World’s Room by Joshua Weiner_, _They Can’t Take That Away from Me_ by Gail Mazur.
How much do you think about the audience when writing a poem?
Steve Crusher — Wisconsin
I think about someone like myself, only I didn’t write it. That is, I’m sort of reading the poem as I write it– like a cook tasting. That’s the audience, and I don’t exactly “think about” it, I _am it. Because I bore very easily, my poems tend to move around very quickly.
Do you remember your first poetry reading? Do you still enjoy giving readings?
T. Williams — Missouri
It may have been when Robert Frost came to Rutgers my freshman year. I enjoy the readings I give, try to surprise myself and hope the audience may surprise me. (Pleasantly!) I like pausing in the reading to chat with the audience.
I think DC has an excellent poetry scene. Which cities do you think are the best for poetry?
Calvin Drill — DC
Maybe everybody is a hometown booster, but Boston-Cambridge Mass. is pretty amazing– in the years I’ve lived here, local poets have included Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell–who taught a seminar at Boston University where the students included Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton & George Starbuck, Frank Bidart, Seamus Heaney, Philip Levine, Louise Gluck, Carl Phillips, David Gewanter, Geoffrey Hill, Bill Knott, Derek Walcott, Rosanna Warren, Tom Sleigh, Jorie Graham, Gail Mazur, David Ferry, Denise Levertov, David Rivard, Lloyd Schwartz– I know I’m forgetting important ones. When Adam Zagajewski was here he called it “Boston, the capital of poetry.”
What would you have become if not a poet?
Papa Daniels — San Jose, CA
By desire, a jazz musician. By realistic likelihood, a trial lawyer. By fantasy, an actor.
When will you next book appear? Do you have plans/hopes to write more books of poetry in the future? I some hope you do, thanks.
Bill Ryan — Denver-area
Thank you Bill–I am working on new poems, some of them forthcoming in magazines. And my Tanner Lectures, on the subject “Poetry and Democracy,” which I delivered at Princeton last year, will be coming out as a book from the Princeton University Press.