Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Audacity of Richard Hoffman

The Cambridge local sounds off on writing, Paul Simon, the MBTA, and kids these days (with some Latin etymology thrown in for good measure).  Hoffman is the author of the memoir Half the House, the short story collection Interference and Other Stories, and the poetry collections Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, and Emblem.  He teaches at Emerson College and is currently on the Board of PEN New England, having just finished a term as Chair. 

It’s nine A.M. and over steaming mugs of coffee I ask Hoffman whether I can record his interview on my iphone.  “You know, it’s amazing how far we’ve come with technology,” he says, “Except Siri’s useless.  Honestly, I can’t get her to do anything I can’t do faster myself with Google.  So then I swear at her and she says, ‘I’d prefer if you didn’t speak to me that way.’ ”  He cracks a smile, “But really, she won’t even give you the right T schedule.”

I heard somewhere that the subway is old enough to need maintenance every single night.  Apparently that’s why there are no trains after 1 A.M.?

That’s preposterous, in the 21st century, in a major city.  But I believe it.  Still, I mean, then you’ve gotta put money into it.  For example, the escalators in Porter Square—that’s the deepest station in the whole system—they’re always fixing one escalator or another.  I mean, for years, when I was taking the train downtown to work, I would see them fixing the escalators.  And I finally said to one of the repair guys, “Is this like somebody’s cousin’s business, or something?  What kind of boondoggle is going on here?” And he said, “Well, all these escalators were built by different companies, and they’re all out of business, so there’s no way to get any parts.”  So whenever something’s not working, they have to take it apart and painstakingly figure out which part is broken or worn out, and then go and study it and make one.  And then come back and put it in.  And I said, “Oh my God.” 

Speaking of which, I was so excited when Porter Square Books opened up that I pulled all of my course books out of the Emerson book store and told my students that they should hop on the red line because I really wanted to support the store. 

A lot of writers end up working in higher education.  How do you feel like writing and teaching interact for you?

First of all, I didn’t teach for most of my adult life.  I taught in prep schools when I was in my twenties, and then I had kids and I couldn’t afford to teach at prep schools anymore, so I had to do all sorts of other things: healthcare journalism, marketing for hospitals, various odd jobs.  So, uh, I was writing in my car.  I had this marketing job where I was driving all over New England, you know, taking this person to lunch and meeting this person in the afternoon, et cetera.  And I would just pull my car over and write for an hour or two, or find the public library and go in there and write.  So it’s a weird thing, teaching, because I love it and I always felt like I was in exile from the classroom and waiting to get back.  And until I started publishing books, there wasn’t that opportunity.

Sometimes I’m not sure if I continue to write, and publish, so that I can teach… or if I continue to teach so that I can write, because I love both of them.  And I have chunks of time now to do my work that I never had outside the academy.  But I don’t feel like an academic.  I’m a writer who teaches under
perhaps inside ofthat tent.  But I’m heading up to the Vermont Studio Center in a couple of days and that will kick off the summer’s writing projects.  I hope to be able to keep the momentum going until September.  And I can do a certain amount of writing while I’m teaching, too.  Some people complain about how hard it is, and I think that’s silly.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Vermont Studio Center?

It’s an artists’ community.  People go there for residencies of two weeks or a month.  And what I like about it is that it’s not just writers
there are painters and sculptors and plenty of other artists there.  All these people are constantly making things around you, and that’s really exciting.

And you’re on your own, too.  You can work all day and all night if you want.  You have your own studio, you have a bedroom elsewhere, and if you want to hang out and be sociable you can do that; if you want to stay by yourself you can do that.  Everybody understands.  The work comes first.  And in the evenings often there are presentations.  Visiting artists will come through and do a slideshow on their work and talk about their process, and I find that fascinating.  And what a privilege it is just to stop in on somebody when they’re working, because unlike writers, sculptors and painters don’t care if you interrupt them.  Because they can carry on a conversation and do their work, which is of course impossible for a writer.  They’ll say, “No, no, come in!  Come in!” and they’re working on this big canvas, talking to you while they do it!  As a writer, I always think, “How can you do that?”  It’s a different type of concentration, so they can use the language part of their heads while they’re working.

You can see I have Emblem here, that’s your latest book of poetry.  I was interested in what drew you to Alciati.

It’s hard to know.  I think growing up Catholic gave me this taste for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and that moment in time when European culture shifted.  Which is really odd—one of the best things I took away from being in a blue collar Catholic Pennsylvania town and going to Parochial school was that I sortof got Europe, I got all this European culture that can come through the church.  And so at some point I came upon some of these emblems online on somebody’s blog and then just went after the idea.  It just captured my imagination.  And the idea of looking for some sort of proverbial or allegorical summation of ethical principles seems really important right about now.

Because there isn’t a prescribed place to find them in a secular world?

Right.  There was something that lasted for centuries and then collapsed.  It’s not a question of wanting to go back, but sometimes in order to go forward, you have to go back to gather up what might be worthwhile and bring it along.  That’s what the Renaissance was.  I mean, everyone thinks about it as this great explosion of originality, but it was first a rediscovery of the classics after the Middle Ages.  And that’s what Alciati did—he was imitating those guys and now I am imitating him.  (In the Renaissance sense of imitation, which is to engage with the work of another writer and then see what it prompts in you, which is not a translation and not an “imitation” in the narrow sense that we usually use it.)  So that’s what I was trying to do.  He did 212 emblems and I wrote about twelve of them.  That’s about it for me.

There’s a lot of very modern subject matter in your emblems.  I noticed quite a bit of neuroscience, for example (and strangely a lot of fish, not that fish are modern). Even so, is it difficult to keep your work fresh when you’re working on something like this, where you’re obviously looking at the same text for a while and probably a lot of the same images and themes are coming up for you?

There are a couple ways to answer that.  This book is a real departure from the last one.  The last one was much more focused on an historical moment of going to war and all that that might mean, and looking at how Americans had really been at war all along.  It was about how there’s no generation in our history that doesn’t have their war, and about what the consequences of that are.  So that was the tighter thematic focus of a whole book, with a few poems that were outliers.  But while there are a few poems like that in Emblem, I wanted to do something entirely different.  The nice thing about finishing a book is that you just think, “Wow, now I can do anything!  What’s next?"  And you don’t know, so it feels like you can do anything!  So I was writing a lot of different kinds of poems.  There are some very experimental poems in there, some poems that are for the reader alone in a room with the book, and other poems that I might read aloud—but you can’t get away from what your core concerns are.  One of mine is grief, because I think grief is the key to my understanding of what makes us human beings.  Not so much “Oh I’m going to die” but “Oh my god, people I love are going to die, and have, and will.  How do I deal with that?”  And if we all understood that that’s our common situation and stopped running away from it, denying it in a hundred different ways, then—then we’d be in a better place.  So that to me is key.  Everything in my work is rooted in the experience of grief, not necessarily as a bad thing, just as reality.

I heard you read at the Villanelles event here, and you’re a very strong reader. You’ve definitely thought about your reading—how does that inform what you write?

It’s interesting because even my prose (I have two books of prose) is written for the ear.  I really think that storytelling is still storytelling, and that there’s a voice telling you every story in your ear.  And if you’re a good reader, you’re sensitive to it; you’re not just sight-reading.  And for me that’s the most important tool I use in writing poems, because in sound you have the added turn of the line—this is what makes it verse, that’s what the word verse means.  It means a row in a field.  When you’re ploughing a field, in Latin, that was a “verse,” and that’s why, when you turn, you “re-verse.” Isn’t that cool?  But you have that turn working against the syntax of a sentence so that if you write the kind of poems I write, you’re writing sentences, things that are still syntactically coherent but they have this added dimension, this turn, a tension between the syntax and the lines.  That’s what I hope holds the energy of the poem.  When I’m reading, I want the reader to hear both of those things.  I want them to hear how the sentence is a sentence, and what is modifying what, and what’s working with and for and against what in the sentence, and then I want them to hear musically the tension of the enjambments, or the end-stops, or the speeding up and slowing down.  So it is a little bit of a performance, but you don’t want to be histrionic about it either.  So you just want to speak right to the ear.  My work is written to be read aloud.  Yeah, that would’ve been the short answer.

I sometimes think if I had come along twenty or twenty-five years later, I would have caught the spoken word wave.  I might have been into slam.  I think I might actually draw indirectly from the work of those people who’ve made the poem an oral medium again and not just something that happens on the page.  I mean, I really believe that the poem is performed, whether it’s performed by the reader for him or herself in a quiet room, or by the poet or some other reader in a public setting—that performance is the poem.  In the same way that, say, Bach’s solo cello sonatas are not music until Yo Yo Ma plays them.  Before that, it’s just notation for the music.  And that’s how I choose to see poems.  I mean, there are poems I read that I can’t do that with, and that doesn’t mean that they are any less poems, but it’s not my aesthetic.

You do draw, at least here, from quite a few Classical sources.  The Homeric, particularly.  (And Homer was probably a slammer, in my opinion.)

Yeah, I mean, speaking of performers, the word “lyric” comes from the lyre.  I’m on the Board of Pen New England and back in February we gave awards to Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry at the JFK Library.  All these rockers showed up for it, you know, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, Paul Simon.  And I had to introduce the event, so what I said was that we were giving the award because for most of human history, literature was sung.  And next to the printed page, it still is.  Most people get their poetry by turning on the radio.  Poems are song, too, but the music is in the language of the poem.  It’s not a separate sound track accompanying the words.  With poems it’s in the movement of the language.  The sound track is in there already.

Do you have any favorite songwriters?

Yeah.  Um, let’s see… Paul Simon, John Hiatt, Joni Mitchell… I’m dating myself, but so be it. Paul Simon is one of those artists who has just continued to grow.  He doesn’t do the same thing from album to album. Throughout his whole career you can see this continual expansion of possibilities—that’s an inspiration.  Some people do pretty much the same thing on every album.  Some poets do that, too.  You can take a poem from one book and stick it in one of their other books and it would do fine there.  And that’s alright, but I like the idea of starting something new, taking another angle.  There’s something about starting over again, something magical about being a beginner again.

In one of your previous interviews, I think it was with Lifeboat Magazine, you spoke about a concern with truth in your nonfiction, a kind of contract between reader and writer.  Do you think such a contract exists in poetry?  In Emblem’s “A Fish Story” you mention that you might have added the detail of the Dogwood tree.

Well, I would say in poetry, as opposed to something that declares itself nonfiction (in which I think you damn well better be honoring the facts) I’m much more interested in the reader’s relationship with the poem than I am with the poet’s relationship to the subject of the poem.  Whether or not something happened to some poet who’s written about it isn’t as interesting as what’s happening to me when I’m reading.  So I think it’s closer to fiction than nonfiction, even though the pronoun “I” in my poems pretty much stands for me, unless it’s clearly a persona poem.

And that’s something I’m playing with.  I think even in nonfiction if you say to a reader, “I may be misremembering this,” or “this is the best I can come up with,” that’s a kind of honesty.  It’s not an obfuscation or a deception, it’s the opposite.  “I don’t remember this as clearly as I’d like to, but here it goes.”

While an undergrad I was introduced to the growing field of trauma studies through Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder.  In it, Nelson does a lot of imagining and fictionalizing of the events surrounding this historical murder, but it’s very clearly marked as elaboration.  This is perhaps a big question, but I was wondering what relationship you think poetry has with trauma or with conveying difficult matter—specifically how it might perform differently than nonfiction or memoir.  You have written a memoir.  What’s different about the two vehicles, if I can put it that way?  What use does poetry have for exposing our most difficult experiences?

Well, I think exposure is actually a good term because one of the things that poems can do that it’s harder to do in prose is to simply cry out.  A short poem can just be a poem of anger or grief or mourning, or outrage.  Because that’s the nature of the lyric, it can just be this short burst of emotion that is somehow conveyed so that the reader feels the emotion contained therein, they’re not being told about it.  And so it can exist outside of both expository demands and any specific narration.  So I think that liberates people.  Especially in wrestling with trauma, to begin with you can say, “I’m just telling you how I feel today, because the trauma’s right here.  It’s not back in the past somewhere.  It’s right here, and this is how it felt this morning.”  A lyric can do that really powerfully.

A narrative on the other hand is a remembering of what’s been dismembered.  The lyric can be those pieces, the shattered parts of the self after trauma, and in writing those pieces you begin to articulate just this little chunk and that little chunk.  But a narrative is eventually a remembering.  A putting of a whole body back together: the fingers go on the hands, the hands go on the wrists, and the whole self gets put back together as best you can and it’s never the original.  It’s now a representation, a story of what happened.  And the person who did that most stunningly in my opinion is Gregory Orr.  Many of Orr’s books are lyric poems, sometimes surrealist lyrics, all around the trauma of having killed his little brother in a hunting accident.  He was just a twelve year old kid and his brother was maybe seven, and he had the shotgun on his shoulder and accidentally pressed the trigger while his brother was behind him.  And all his life, in all of his books of poems, he’s trying to come to terms with this.  So for 25 years he worked in very short lyrics.  And then he wrote a book called The Blessing, which is a memoir.  And it’s just one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read.  And it really puts the whole story back together, describing his attempt to grow up as a sane and contributing human being after that trauma.  And the interesting thing is, on the other end of the memoir, his poems change.  They become these incredibly beautiful and spiritually hopeful pieces.  I actually wrote to him to say that it seemed like he had reached all the way into the dark and pulled it all out like an inverted sleeve.  They read like Rumi or Milarepa or one of these spiritual masters.  He also has a book of essays called Poetry and Survival that speaks a lot to the issue of poems and trauma.

So poetry accommodates a certain fragmentation, while prose works against it.

That’s why I love writing both.  Because sometimes what I need is to come to the understanding of how things fit together, which is often the story of “How did I get here” or even, “Oh my God how did I end up here?”  And other times the need is to just speak out of a moment.  Which isn’t to say that poems can’t be narrative or that they are always lyric.  There’s a place for both the lyric and the bardic.  I think of my previous book, Gold Star Road, as much more bardic, as speaking to the community about a situation that we are in culturally, spiritually.  And it’s of course hugely presumptive to do that, but if nobody did it we wouldn’t have most of literature.  I do it by virtue of audacity.

Have you been made to feel audacious, or is it an identity that you have simply taken on?

I think it’s hard to be any kind of artist in this environment.  I don’t even want to call it a culture, because, honestly, most of what passes for culture is the byproduct of profit-seeking—it’s not coming from the people so much as from groups that think they can make money if they just market movies and music and everything else in the right way.  So I think that it’s hard unless you just say, “I’m just going to be audacious, and I don’t care what people think.”

When I was in Latin America, I was impressed by the fact that in El Salvador, an incredibly poor country where the people have nothing, you’d go into any little neighborhood restaurant and find a guitar in the corner.  And people would just pick it up and say, “Yo quiero cantar” and everyone would stop, and they’d play a song.  Then everybody would clap and go back to eating.  Here, if you did that, people would say, “Who the hell do you think you are?”  We have this attitude that you need some sort of credential or approval before you are allowed to speak to or on behalf of the community.  Poets are never going to get that.  And from whom would you get it?  Would you become an official government poet?  You know, like the Soviets’ Union of Socialist Writers, and if you didn’t belong to it, you didn’t have a voice?  So you just do it.  On the basis of audacity.

So what advice would you give to someone who is just beginning to find that voice, who is perhaps a younger writer, or someone who wants to write?

The Bennington Writing Program has a great motto.  It’s “Read one hundred books, write one.”  And I think that’s great.

Also, teach yourself sentences.  Find the writers you love—for me, the two I go back to again and again are the essayists Baldwin and Orwell—and model their sentences, figure out how they’re made and where their power comes from.  It’s not just the author’s passion, it’s how passion gets translated into the music of these sentences that can awaken passion in the reader.  You could set yourself about puzzling that out for years, and you’d be well advised to do that, because that’s how you learn to write.  All the earnestness in the world won’t help you learn to play the piano.  You still have 88 keys and have to figure out what to do with them.  There are 26 letters in the alphabet and so writing is still a technos.  You may have passion and yearning and grief and humor, but all you have to communicate them with are little black marks on a little white page.  Or keystrokes.  So how do you do that?  You go to the writers that really do it for you and study them.

How long have you been in Cambridge, by the way?

20 years.  And I was in Somerville for a while before that, just crossed over the line.  Right now I’m as far out in North Cambridge as you can get before you’re in Arlington, the last block of Cambridge, and I love it there.  It’s sort of quiet, it’s on the edge of the madness.

There are a ton of writers living in Cambridge right now.  Was there something about the neighborhood that really attracted you?

I was drawn here a long time ago.  And then I came back when I got married.  I was drawn, I think, by the fact that there were more bookstores than I had ever seen in one place, you know, it was unbelievable.  Those were the glory days of Cambridge bookstores.  Just in Harvard Square there were thirteen or fourteen of them.  There was an art bookstore, there was the Grolier, there was the Harvard Bookstore, there was the Coop, but then there was also this architectural bookstore, and, it was just, wonderful.  Reading International was there.  And I could just fall down the rabbit hole and spend a whole afternoon, or a day just being in bookstores.  That was truly why I wanted to come here.  Harvard Square has since changed, but thanks to Porter Square Books, it hasn’t changed radically in North Cambridge.

And when writers begin to congregate somewhere, more and more of them gravitate towards that area.  And where are you going to go now, anyway?  If you’re on the East Coast, it’s either Boston and Cambridge or Brooklyn.

And New York is more expensive.

Well, I lived in Manhattan before I came here and I had a 2 bedroom apartment on West 16th Street for $300 a month.

What?!  Are you kidding?

Yeah, would you believe that?  That was back in the 70’s.  And you know, that’s the thing.  Not to sound like an old codger, but I used to be able to drive a cab a couple of nights a week or wait tables on the weekend and that was enough to pay my rent and do my laundry and eat.  And now, all the young people are scrambling and living with several roommates and all the rest of it.

And that’s not a terrible environment in a lot of ways, because it forces you toward some community.  But hearing people talk about what it was like when they were my age has certainly made me think a lot more about our current economy.

And that really speaks to the necessity to get involved politically.  This community changed drastically when rent control went.  The makeup of the schools changed.  The really wonderful demographic mix in the community disappeared.  We went from a wonderful kind of diversity to the city with the most million dollar houses in the country.  And as a homeowner, I wasn’t unhappy to see my property values skyrocket.  Of course, now they crashed anyway, and somebody else got that money, so not only did the poor get forced out, but when the bubble popped someone else took all that equity and all of those homes.  It all went to the banks.  And the reason I bring this up is that the history of that rent control battle is interesting.  Cambridge voted to keep it, and Brookline voted to keep it.  Those were the two largest communities that had rent control.  But the people who wanted it gone got the issue on a statewide ballot, so residents in all these little towns where they didn’t have rent control to begin with, and it didn’t matter to them, all got to vote on it.  And that made no sense to me, but the people who set it up knew exactly what they were doing.  It’s important to keep things like that in mind, because there will be other issues and you’ll think, “Wait, why are we doing a statewide initiative on something that only has to do with my neighborhood?” Or “Why am I voting on something that will have no impact on my own community?”   Lots of people who don’t care one way or the other can be easily swayed with a little bit of rhetoric because they don’t really have any skin in the game, as they say.

In the current situation, I could conceivably (but would never) rent out my house, move to the burbs and rent someplace there, and still be making thousands in profit every month.  And lots of people do that.  When you set up a game like that, it’s going to get played, and in a way, everyone new to the game, which means the young people, end up losing.  It’s like a Ponzi scheme.

Wow, we’ve really managed to talk about everything but poetry.  It’s all part of the work, though, really.

Where do you actually compose things?

Eventually things make it to the computer, but they all start by hand.  I write by hand and I keep lots and lots of notebooks.  I have stacks and stacks of notebooks just full of stuff.  Because I don’t often make poems of things until they’ve lived in the notebook for a long time.  When I have these chunks of time—summers, spring vacation, times when I’m really going to sit down and write—I go back through those notebooks and it’s like somebody else wrote all this stuff and I’m just pulling things out to see what I can do with them.  I feel like I’ve left little presents for myself in these notebooks that go back ten, fifteen, twenty years.

Do you ever just read them through and not do anything with them?

No.  Because there’s no story to carry me through.  They’re really just notes that I’ve taken on any given day.  But it’s amazing to me that I can go to a notebook that I’ve leafed through so many times and that I thought I already got everything out of, sort of squeezed all the juice out of, and then find something new.  Because you can read a sentence or a line on a given day and it’s just flat, it doesn’t mean anything to you.  But on another day you read it and because you’re in a different frame of mind, who knows why, it just jumps out at you and you see a possibility that this is the beginning of a poem, or the beginning of a story.

So is that how your day to day writing process usually starts, with picking up a notebook and finding something to work on?

Yeah, and these index cards are with me all the time.  So I’m always filling out index cards of things I’m noticing or a passing thought or a snatch of conversation I’ve overheard, and things like that.  I don’t always know why what I’ve recorded is interesting to me.  That can have interesting ramifications.  First of all, I lose notebooks.  I love those little moleskines, but the last one I had was just about full when it went through the wash.  And I have it, and it’s nothing but a blue cloud on every page!  The other thing is, when you write these discrete cards, then you end up with a big stack of them at some point with a rubber band around them.  And when you have time to start looking at them, you see maybe that those three go together, and these five over here, and these four, and you’re sort of playing solitaire.  And stories, essays, poems, come out of those arrangements.  Because they are all about the things that you’ve noticed, which would be different for somebody else.  It’s my way of tricking myself into some self-knowledge, a kind of personal tarot, discovering what I’ve really been thinking about by means of looking at what I’ve noticed when I’m out walking in the world.  So it starts with the notecards and goes to the notebook and then it goes to the computer.

Do you write every day?

Pretty much.  There are a few weeks during the school year when I just give up because it would make me crazy.  It’s about a week in the middle of the term for midterms and two weeks at the end of each term for finals.  So that’s about six weeks out of the whole year that I have to just throw my hands up on writing and bear down on the teaching.  But otherwise I’ve been able to find a balance.  And like I said, I love both of them, which helps.  I’m never resentful of my students because they’re keeping me from my writing or vice versa, so it’s easy.  I just love doing both.  I have two kids, too, it’s the same kind of deal.  You just love both, and the balance works itself out.

So are you particular about your writing environment at all?  I get the impression not, since you were writing in cars.

I am now, though, like I said, probably because I’m old and crotchety.  I have my own room now, at home.  For a while I didn’t, when the kids were moving in and out with their families and when my son came home from college, so I went over to Somerville and rented a studio.  I thought it would be great to have my own workplace.  And it was ok.  But I’d get up and have an idea and have to take a shower, get dressed, get in the car, drive over there, go up six flights of stairs to my little room and it’d be gone by then.  But the neat thing about that place was that I was finishing a book of stories, writing poems, and writing nonfiction at the same time, and it was a triangular room, so I had a table on each wall and a chair on wheels, and if I got stuck on something I could just say screw it and swoosh over to the other side of the room and think about what was going on with some poem and tinker with that for awhile.

How did you find a triangular room?

It was just a happy accident, and frankly it was cheap because they couldn’t rent it to anybody else.  It only would have worked for a writer, really, because putting most things in it would have been awkward.  And it was in this artists’ building with a few painters and a piano repair place and it was an industrial building with a leftover space.  After they’d divided it all up, they realized there was this triangle on the end.  So they put a door on it and figured maybe they could rent it to somebody who didn’t know any better.  And that was me.  But it worked.

So now you have your own space in your house though.

Yeah it’s great.  Just great.  I don’t even have to get out of my pajamas.

Do you find yourself wandering around the house and doing things to procrastinate?

Uh, yes.  I do.  And that’s why I’m headed up to Vermont, as I mentioned earlier.  I’ll be there for a month.  That’s the magic of those colonies, because everyone around you is working and you don’t have to worry about whether you ran the dishwasher.  It’s really a luxury in that respect.  You walk over to the dining hall at noon and there’s this wonderful lunch, then you throw your plate in the bin and go back to work.
I try to stay off of Facebook and stuff while I’m there, too.  Because that’s another rabbit hole to go down.

Have you heard of Freedom?

Yeah, actually they have it to lend you while you’re up there.  If you want it, they’ll install it on  your machine.  But I’m not quite to that point yet, I can still just say no.  I can quit any time I want!

It’s interesting that the program is called “Freedom” and we experience it as freedom, and it’s a restriction.  I think that sort of thing is productive to think about.

Do you ever feel more productive when you have an artistic limitation?  Maybe some sort of task to accomplish, rather than writing about just anything?

Yeah, when you were talking about the poems
I’ve been trying to write about this in an essay.   I think that to keep the energy and the tension in the poem, you have to always locate the counter impulse to the main impulse of the poem.  And you’re working against that resistance.  When you think about a political poem, say, the impulse might be just to scream.  But the counter impulse to that might be more analytical, and cooler, so you want to get that passion in there to push the poem, and work against that other impulse, which is what really holds the poem and gives it some abiding energy or tension, so that a year from now or five years from now, the reader or the listener can still feel a pull there.  And I think that the requirements of form that you’re working in, even if it’s free verse, you’ve evolved the form by the time you’ve written the first few lines, and you have to work with what you’ve set up.  And that restraint is what gives you the freedom to find all the nuances and complications of what it is you’re trying to say, or that you don’t even know you’re trying to say when you start.  You may have the seed of something, but then you have to continue to attend to it.

Do you do a lot of drafts?

Yeah, but I don’t do a complete draft and then go back and do another and another.  I’ll write three words and erase one.  Even with prose, I feel like until I get a sentence or a paragraph right, I can’t go on.  And other people don’t write that way always, but coming from poetry, and that’s where I began, that’s just the way I do it—and I do it by hand in a notebook.  That’s just my way of working, it’s very—constrained.  Restrained.

Philip Roth said he didn’t know why anybody would want to be a writer because it just meant sitting in a room by yourself all day, being wrong.  But in a good way, I think. 
For more from Richard, check out his website and blog, Mnemosyne's Memes.

Kim Prosise

No comments:

Blog Archive