A 16-Year-Old Interview With Robert Pinsky, by an 18-Year-Old

On Valentine’s Day for the past few years, former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has compiled for Slate.com a selection of poems related to love, which were the subject of this MetaFilter post.

For some reason, seeing that post compelled me to go and dig up an interview with Robert Pinsky that I conducted in high school. One of his daughters was a freshman at Concord Academy when I was a senior, and during that year I was the co-editor of the alternative newspaper. The paper got a fair amount of mileage out of the school’s semi-celebrity parents and alums (Laurence Tribe, Queen Noor—we didn’t manage to interview her, but we found her yearbook photo).

The founder of that newspaper, the Concord Grape (get it?), went on to create LibraryThing and the suspiciously voluminous Isidore of Seville. My fellow editor, on the other hand, went on to create Armed & Famous. (I hasten to add that he apparently did an excellent 9/11 documentary at some point along the way. Also Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.)

Anyway, now that I’ve somehow managed to lead this blog entry from Robert Pinsky to a gun-toting LaToya Jackson, let’s get back to Pinsky. So, I interviewed him in May of 1991. I have a vivid memory of setting up my family’s answering machine to record the phone interview. He was extremely friendly and gracious about doing this silly interview (unlike that diva Tribe with his “Get me another glass of Dr. Pepper!” this and his “Ooh! I argue before the Supreme Court! No questions about the Istanbul incident” that), and had some interesting things to say, as you’ll see if you read on.

How and why does the hard drive of my MacBook Pro contain the Microsoft Word 4 document with the text of this ancient interview in it? At some point a few years ago, before my father threw away the only remaining computer in the family that had some ancient relic called a “floppy drive,” I spent an afternoon using it to go through my hundreds of old diskettes and grab a copy of anything personal or interesting. (By the way, I’ve just discovered that Word 2004 has regained the ability to open files created with really old versions, for which some intervening versions required a plugin. Also, does anyone know of a way to run HyperCard stacks under Tiger without Classic?)

Anyway, what follows is an interview with Robert Pinsky, originally published in the Concord Grape in June, 1991. (The introductory paragraph, obviously, is from the old article. And yes, I’m aware that I did not know how to spell “Ashbery.” Or “nostalgic.”)

One of the leading figures in the world of contemporary American poetry, Robert Pinsky is the author of four volumes of poetry: Sadness and Happiness (1975), dubbed by the Times Literary Supplement “the best work by any younger poet within recent memory”; An Explanation of America (1979); History of My Heart (1984), for which the Poetry Society of America awarded Pinsky its prestigious William Carlos Williams Prize; and his latest, The Want Bone, published by Ecco last year. He has also published two important books of criticism and essays, The Situation of Poetry (1976) and Poetry and the World (1988). After stints at Wellesley and Berkeley, he now teaches at Boston University and resides in Newton. His youngest daughter, Biz, is a member of Concord Academy’s Class of 1994.

Concord Grape: What are your work habits like? Do you sit down to write poetry for a certain period every day?

Robert Pinsky: I’m not a person of very many routines. I never did well in schoolwork or any other situation where you have to perform regularly. That’s not to say that I’m not very devoted to writing. I usually will write something, or read something to do with writing, or wrestle with writing, every day, but I like not feeling that I always work in the morning or the afternoon or late at night, or always use a certain kind of material. Part of the pleasure of art, for me, has a lot to do with freedom. I probably have routines that I’m not even aware of—nobody can be without habits. But for me, part of the fun and allure of it is the feeling that it’s not homework. I like to feel that it’s almost cheating to be writing. If I have a lot of letters to write, a manuscript I have to read for a publisher or a friend or a student, and I can feel that in the middle of it I’m going to get seduced by an idea for a poem, that’s my favorite thing of all.

CG: Who are some of the poets you read and enjoy most often, and is that a different list from the poets who have had the greatest influence on your work?

RP: It’s a very interesting question whether it’s a different list. There are things I read that I’m almost ashamed of reading because they feel like such indulgences for me, like eating candy or salted peanuts. And it’s related to my answer to the first question—that if I can get a guilty pleasure out of it, feel like it’s so much fun that there’s got to be something wrong with it, I know I’m on the beam. Frank O’Hara is a writer like that. But they’re not all contemporary. I’m that way with Ulysses by Joyce. I just pick it up almost anywhere and start reading and start to feel confident and happy and start to fall back in love with writing again. Some of them are quite old writers: Ben Jonson, the 17th Century poet that a lot of people don’t read at all—he has a poem about what it feels like to be a real old, bald, fat guy and fall in love; he has a kind of gruff, funny, human side along with a very beautiful music, in a way that’s so far from the contemporary world that it’s another kind of pleasure for me. I read Yeats over and over again. And then there are fads, like translations of the Italian poet Montale that lately I’ve been reading a lot of. Poems in translation by writers like Neruda and Rilke, French writers like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, are always important to me. I’ve had this other thing where I sort of sneak away and read old English literature, George Herbert and Marvell, Ben Jonson, in sort of musical ways, having to do with the sounds of the language, because I very rarely write in rhyme myself. I start to understand why people write poems again.

CG: In what direction do you see your poetry as moving, and how has it changed or evolved over the years?

RP: Poetry to me is a very far-out form compared to something like, say, being a journalist. It has a very large element of the unexpected—you’re always pushing at borders, there’s a lot of surprise in it. It’s like being a jazz musician, an art that’s very much based on surprise and improvisation and doing something that people couldn’t have predicted but that sounds right when they hear it. And for that reason, whenever I think about “what next,” I think that this will be something that will amaze even me. I can see swings in my work when I look back on it. My second book, An Explanation of America, was an explanation. It was incredibly direct and clear and discursive, and it was material that people would expect to see written about in prose, and the poem sort of speaks—it’s like a series of letters, or things that you actually might say to someone. And I think that was a reaction to one thing, but then in reaction to that I swung back in another direction, and it’s now gone rather far in the direction of writing poems where—I hope people enjoy them, but I also don’t expect anybody to be able to say right away that they have a clarity like the clarity of a newspaper—it’s more of an emotional clarity. So that’s an example of one way that your work will swing around. And I think it’s part of art, but particularly the art of poetry—as I say, it is like jazz in that way—it may particularly involve doing something unexpected.

CG: Would you say that you’ve become more consciously identified with Judaism in your recent work?

RP: I don’t like the word “identified,” because it means “the same.” I’m not a practicing Jew, I haven’t been since I was about 13 years old, and I wouldn’t pretend to be identified with it. The American Jewish immigrant culture, and the history of having been raised in a Jewish Orthodox household, have been very important to the last two books [History of My Heart and The Want Bone], and the last book in particular—the contradictions and opportunities involved in being devoted to George Herbert and the people I named to you, who were all Christian poets hundreds of years ago, and writing in this language when my ancestors had no notion of this language that you and I are speaking to one another. Those facts have become very interesting to me.

CG: In your essay “Responsibilities of the Poet,” you write that “even a gifted, hard-working writer... may write badly if the sense of an obligation to answer... is lacking.” Do you ever find that you have to actively strive to maintain that sense of responsibility?

RP: I think for me, the answer is yes. I wouldn’t make a prescription for all writers. I like to think, “what is going on in the world that I haven’t dealt with?” And I would say recently, it hasn’t been so much Judaism as cultural mixing in America, and my own cultural mix as an example of it. And for some reason, in the couple of years that I spent writing this last book, it seemed very important to me to—I won’t say answer, but to respond, I did feel something like an obligation to respond to the very bizarre, quite exotic cultural mix that makes me someone who knows a lot about English poetry, who grew up in a lower-middle-class, mostly Catholic neighborhood, who wasn’t allowed to mix meat and milk. And all these things, in a way, do and don’t add up. I became interested in them as a variation on a story, and I think particularly an American story. And I did feel that it was partly a sort of conscious meditation that led me to that. So, yes, it was a little bit like the way I described it in that essay. Though I don’t want to say what anybody else ought to do.

CG: An article in a recent issue of the Atlantic [“Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia, May 1991] dealt with the diminished role of the poet in contemporary American society. Having written extensively about what a poet’s role can and should be, how do you respond to the author’s contention that poetry is no longer a part of American public culture?

RP: I disagree with the assumptions of the article very, very much. The author of the article is someone who went to Harvard as an undergraduate, and who is now a lawyer and an executive in a corporation. A big part of his lament is that the creative-writing programs are what we have instead of a mass audience for poetry in this country, and I think he knows very little about those programs. And I think that without meaning to, he may be nostalgaic for a time before state universities all over America began to have creative-writing programs. There’s a book called the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler. At one time you could fill that book only with people who had been to Harvard. That is, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and even in recent generations, we’ve had poets as different as Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly—I think that Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbury were all at Harvard at the same time. So that poetry in this country, which unlike European countries does not have one strong, indigenous folk tradition or a really strong central high culture, was in some ways a product of the elite, and I think that without knowing it, the author of the article may be nostalgaic for those days, and he may be a little shocked not so much by a diminished role for poetry as by a diminished role for that rather fragile elite. And now the Universities of Montana and Alabama and Texas and Arizona all have creative-writing programs. And probably some of the writing that happens in some of those programs is mediocre, but I welcome it. And certainly when I teach in summer writing conferences, and I read applications to the B.U. writing program, I see a tremendous interest in poetry. It’s very characteristically American; it’s not as unified around a center, it’s not as coherent and it’s not as fixed as it might be in a country like France or Italy. But on the whole, I prefer our crazy, mixed, fluid way of doing things.

CG: So, do you think at all that the role of poetry has diminished in a way that needs to be answered or spoken to?

RP: I don’t think it has diminished. I think that it has changed in ways that may, from some perspectives, look like a diminution. But when I taught at Berkeley, I had the pleasure of having students whose parents were Asian or Hispanic fall in love with William Carlos Williams and Ben Jonson the way I did when I was in school. What I’m talking about is the unpredictability and fluidity and pluralism of American culture, and the fact that we have such a powerful popular culture or mass culture that it’s possible to get confused. You know, even somebody who has a jazz hit doesn’t sell as many records as a pop group. But what I do is more like making some very excellent goat cheese than it is like making Velveeta, and it doesn’t mean that either is a product that has no place in the world.

CG: Having lived and taught on both coasts, what differences would you identify between the poetry world in the Northeast and that in California?

RP: I don’t know if they’re very different at base. Certainly there are different poets that they read. I was struck, when I went to California, by the fact that Robert Lowell was considered a somewhat quaint and marginal figure, and Robert Duncan, for people in Berkeley—where Duncan had gone to school and lived for a long time—seemed a very central figure, and the reverse was true in Boston. But that sort of thing is really pretty superficial. I think that on a deeper level, it isn’t so different, and what’s striking is this polyglot, very complicated, American, fragmented, unsystematic creation of a tradition.

CG: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of poetry and literature?

RP: Well, a couple of years ago I might have said “I have none,” or “I have three children.” But this year—I have alluded to jazz a couple of times in talking to you. I was ambitious to be a musician when I was a teenager and in college, and then didn’t play for 20 years, and just this last couple of months I’ve been playing the saxophone again and enjoying it very much.

CG: Is there one all-important lesson or fact you try to impart to your students?

RP: Yes, and it’s going to sound like a joke, but it’s very important to read poems aloud, and when you get to the end of the line, if the grammar doesn’t stop, don’t let your voice stop, but keep reading, and the line’ll take care of itself. It may seem funny to wind up with a technical point as the one thing I’d like to say, but if you don’t read ‘em aloud, you might as well not read ‘em. It’s like reading sheet music in that sense—if it’s not literally aloud, you have to at least imagine the sound.

CG: Of all the poems you’ve written, which ones are you particularly fond or proud of?

RP: The title poem of my third book, “History of My Heart,” and the part at the very end of that poem when I describe playing the saxophone, I think, are some of the best lines I ever wrote. There’s a poem in that book called “The Figured Wheel” that I like very much, and there’s one in my new book called “Shirt” that I like. In the right mood I can get very proud of almost any of them. But those are some of the ones I find I go back to and read again.

CG: What words of advice would you give to aspiring young poets?

RP: Find something you’ve read that you love. Memorize it, type it up on a piece of paper with your own hands, and put it on the wall above your toaster, and say it to yourself in the shower. Find things that you really love, not because the teacher said they were good but because you love them, and try to acquire as many things like that as possible—things that you know so well you feel as if you had written them.


Such a good interview.

Some might find this limiting, but the poems I read need to: a) rhyme; b) be short and c) be understandable on the first reading. Such is the case with the very underrated limmerick. I don’t like them to be about death or lost loves. Or Walden Pond. Or be written by Louise Gluck. I have no poetry gene, save for a.a. milne.

Enter Robert Pinsky. I have a signed copy of “An Invitation to Poetry” (thanks to New Words auction a few years back) that I treasure. And it is thanks to him that I have ventured out of my poetry box ever so slightly. I found myself doing just what he said to you in this interview, to read the poem out loud. I got a much deeper appreciation for the genre having read this book. He really is to be credited for exposing poetry for people like me. He does this with his Slate column as well.

(Having said that, if anybody actually understands the poem “The Figured Wheel” kudos to you. Way beyond me.)

I loved this. How fun that you got to meet and interview him. Thanks for sharing.

You might be interested in interviewing or featuring artist author Jerry wennstrom. He has a unique and interesting story.

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