As the Swedes say: There is no bad weather, just bad clothes.
Larry Bradley: John Ashbery, one of our most lauded poets, will be the first living poet to have his work published by The Library of America. According to David Orr in The New York Times Book Review, “American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.” There is an entire generation of superb poets which are on the brink of extinction. What is your take on this? Is it a cause for celebration, as modern poetry has now reached the same height as modern fiction. (I am thinking of Philip Roth, another writer recently embraced by The Library of America)? Was it only a matter of time for a living poet to be embraced by the Library, or is it simply one more for the John, so to speak?
David Kirby: I’m always amazed at how often poetry seems like an afterthought—not to be compared to the movies, say, or to lunch, but to fiction. There are always lists of great books we should read or notable books of the year and so on, and there are never any poetry books there. Now I agree with the English poet Adrian Mitchell who says that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people, but it’s not as though all fiction is fabulous or accessible or even worth reading. So, yeah, it’s a great thing for Ashbery to be recognized this way. I’m surprised they didn’t pick someone more reader-friendly like Billy Collins, but Ashbery has had a long and distinguished and extremely influential career. So good for you, Library of America. Now how about a few more poets?
LB: Speaking of Libraries, there lies within the mainframe of The Library of Congress the heralded post of Poet Laureate. It seems to me several of the Laureates in recent years have been duds, for lack of a better word. There has been very little push on their part to broaden the poetry audience (no names, I’ll just think of the guilty and whistle). Is the Poet Laureate position one which should eventually go the way of the troglodyte? Or is it still worth preserving in amber?
DK: I don’t think you could do away with the laureateship if you wanted to. People look at poets and poetry with a certain regard, even if they don’t read much of it. Why has there always been poetry? The novel is a fairly recent invention, but poetry’s been around since people started chanting around camp fires. There’s a Poetry Foundation but no fiction foundation, an Academy of American Poets but not an academy of fiction writers: why? There’s a National Poetry Month but nothing comparable in the other genres. Poetry is hard-wired into us, in a way. We use it at weddings, and we turn to it at times of grief; whenever there’s a memorial ceremony, someone always reads a poem. The Laureate is the King or Queen of Poetry, and we are his or her subjects.
LB: Some in the media have made much of the fact that in Barack Obama we have a literary president. Do you see the Commander-In-Chief’s literary bent and voracity for reading as an important step with regard to the Arts? Whenever our country gets back on the financial track, might this lead to a revamping of the National Endowment for the Arts, with more funding possible for writers and artists?
DK: Let’s begin with the fact that Obama’s predecessor was a dolt, which means Obama doesn’t have to try all that hard. He’d have a hell of a time if he were coming in on the coattails of Lincoln or FDR or John Kennedy, but George W. Bush would make a bonobo chimpanzee look like Einstein. It wasn’t so much that he was an idiot as that he was proud of it. I know a lot of people who aren’t all that bright, but they’re humble and want to better themselves and are willing to let smart people take the lead, whereas Bush was so insecure that he scoffed at intellectuals, smirked at ideas, treated scientists as though they were Satan worshippers, and made fun of anybody who spoke any language other than English, not to mention anyone who spoke English better than he did, which describes most Americans with at least an eighth-grade education. Bush was a coward. He feared change, which means he feared thought, because if you’re going to think, you’re going to change, and he was so afraid of the world and of his own worst instincts that he couldn’t bear that possibility.
What was the question? Oh, yeah, Obama as an example to people who think being smart is normal and even fun. Now he only has to balance the budget and deal with some unpopular wars and shape up the educational system and clean up the environment and provide health care for everyone, since Bush couldn’t be bothered with these things except to the extent that he let his fat-cat friends in on these schemes so they could line their own pockets. These fix-ups are almost impossible, given the size of the mess he inherited. And if he can’t fix most of them semi-decently, he’s going to lose all the political capital he has accumulated.
But if Obama can finesse all of these structural problems in one way or another, I’m confident he’s going to be a friend to the arts as well. Smart people are, you know. People who think, people who love change instead of fear it, are great friends of the arts. And the trickle-down potential is enormous; when you have a smart president, it makes you want to be smart, too.
LB: Should the day ever come in which Oprah Winfrey chooses a book of poetry as her reading group selection, there would be those who perceived her choice as a confirmation of what poets already know, or presume to know, about the necessity for poetry; others would inevitably see it as a way of demonizing the art form, allowing room for the masses in such an insular world. Other than the fact that we would have a very wealthy poet, do you think poets should rejoice or recoil? Or does it really matter?
DK: Good question. There are so many different aesthetics out there: language poetry, formal poetry, narrative, lyric, light verse, long poems, short poems, concrete ones, open-field poetry, and that’s just a start. I know there are different types of fiction and drama, but the variety in poetry is daunting. So if Oprah picks one poet, well, stand back; it won’t be pretty.
I think Oprah’s best bet would be an anthology of some kind, something like Charles Harper Webb’s Stand Up Poetry, for example, or one of Garrison Keillor’s collections, or maybe the Best American Poetry for a given year. All those Best American collections are really good, and most of them contain poems that mostly appeal to a wide audience.
LB: Every writer has his or her own idiosyncrasies when it comes to making the words work: Hemingway stood when he wrote, Eliot spoke in iambs from the drawing room, and Berryman barstooled his way through the language. Sometimes it is a prop, other times a crutch. I use an old Royal when the laptop glows suspiciously like HAL. What is your environment? What works the words best? And how do you and your wife Barbara fuse, or defuse your work schedules?
DK: Well, we’re both magpies, to begin with. We both pick up shiny objects in our beaks and then fly home and add them to our shiny object collections. Then we make very different kinds of poems out of our finds.
I’m not sure how much science Barbara puts into her work, but I’ll give away my secret here. Here’s my formula for writing poetry:
b + T = P
Now “b” stands for “beginning,” and it’s a small letter, because all beginnings are small: great poems start with something trivial, and over time, that tiny thing becomes a great one. That’s why “T,” which stands for “time,” is a capital letter, because you need lots of time. And “P” or “poem” is a capital, too, because if the poem’s not big, hell, go back and make it big.
That’s the introductory lesson. Here’s the advanced one:
b + T² = P²
In other words, beginning + lots of time = great poem.
Here’s something else I like to throw around, which is that art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental. You start out deliberately, in other words, and then unexpected things happen, and the next thing you know, you’re working on something completely different. You have to work systematically, and you have to stay open to the accidents as well.
I haven’t asked her, but I’m betting it’s the same for Barbara. I’m betting it’s the same for all artists, as far as that goes.
LB: Are we in the age of the McPoem, where poets are churning out work with the “get-em-in-get-em-out” fastidiousness of a fast food chain? Do you find this a positive thing in the sense that it keeps the poetry moving? Could it be a reflection of the poet writing at the peak of his or her powers? Or could it be that the hurriedness stems from haste without waste, that the work is knee-jerk now rather than a bit more cross-legged?
DK: Yeah, you sure can write a poem quickly, can’t you? I mean, it might take you six or seven years to write a bad novel, but I bet most people could write a bad poem in a half hour or so. I guess I’m in favor of people, you know, hanging in there. It’s better than forgetting about poetry or being indifferent to it.
But my own eleventh commandment is Thou Shalt Never, Never, Ever Write a Bad Poem. A poem is a self-presentation, so I’m not going to hand you something that says, “The guy who wrote this is an idiot.”
LB: You frequently write reviews for The New York Times Book Review, and for the most part they are positive. Have you ever had a writer take your words out of context from a less than flattering review? For example, you might write “This is well done, if you like your steak that way, which I do not. It tends to be dry, flavorless and lacking any muscle,” or “this poet has a genius for consistently writing the blandest sort of poetry,” only to find “well done” and “genius” tagged to your name as a blurb for that writer’s book. Or is it merely the nature of the beast, in that room is left for the writer to make use of whatever they can from a review -- once words are in print, it is damn near impossible to retract them – or do you decide not to review books which would be somewhat difficult to praise?
DK: I did have a press run an ad in which they claimed I said a certain book was “superb” when I hadn’t said that at all. For the most part, though, writers are pretty smart people, and they know that being spanked in The New York Times Book Review is better than being praised in some obscure venue. And actually, I’ve been scolded more for positive reviews than negative ones, as in “You praised me, but you don’t understand me.” Well, that’s not the way poetry works, amigo; there’s all kinds of ways to write the stuff, and if it’s well-written, then there’s a bunch of different ways to read it, too.
LB: One-hundred and forty-three years ago when I applied to graduate school for an MFA, I was told, sadly, I was not accepted: “When you have the chance to take the best, you’ll take the best. As difficult as that might seem, Mr. Bradley, you will get over it.” I was left with a very long distance dial-tone, they went on to become Poet Laureate. I never pursued an MFA again. Has this helped or hindered my work, time will tell. Do you think an MFA is something a writer should pursue? Tough question to ask a teacher, I realize. Guess I am curious as to what I might have missed. Other than the obvious advantage of honing one’s technique and skills, is an MFA necessary in an age when “everyone wants to be a writer”? Or is it one terrific way to network and keep an eye on what the other mammals are up to?
DK: I don’t have an MFA. Williams James said the first psychology lecture he ever heard was the first one he gave at Harvard, and my case is similar. I took a regular egghead PhD and wrote a dissertation on Henry James that I’ll send you if you need help in going to sleep. I don’t really encourage people to get an MFA or go to law school or join a cult or turn vegan or whatever; I just try to find out what they’re passionate about and then do what I can to point them in the right direction. Most people know what they want, and their eyes brighten and they begin to windmill their arms and spit when they’re talking about what turns them on. The problem cases are the people who don’t really have passions or are trying to hedge their bets in some way. But if you love poetry so much that it makes your teeth hurt, you’ll find some way to write it. And a demanding MFA program at a selective school will throw you in with people who are at the top of their game, who’ll bring out the best in you—if that’s what you want.
LB: In reading your poems, one finds (or re-finds) the same line often repeated. You “sample” work the way a musician would a riff or two of another musician. Yet you remain wholly inside your own work. If you can’t sample yourself, who can you sample, right? In your “Ha-Ha” poems, you keep the sheep and cows at bay which, looked at another way, is a way of maintaining order. Are these “samples” a kind of order you place upon an otherwise loose, narrative form?
DK: Order? Ha, ha! It is to laugh, my friend. No, the samples are just part of the world in front of me right now. I’m looking at a Shelley poem and a half-eaten sandwich, but I’m thinking of a Sam Cooke song, too, and outside it sounds as though somebody who ran the stop sign on my corner is about to get into a punch-up with somebody else. That and 20 other things are running around in my head, which isn’t poetry—yet. But it will be poetry when I put those whirling objects in a sequence and take some of them out and put others in and find some kind of emotional circuit to light them all up with. The ordering part is a lot of blacksmith work: bang, bang! And remember, sometimes you have to strike until the iron is hot.
LB: When the FOETRY website careened into the internet, there was much hand-wringing and outcry: is there a conspiracy in the poetry business, or is this merely the brainchild of a disgruntled writer? With regard to many of the book contests, they now feature caveats of reassurance that the judge and poet remain anonymous to one another. In that sense, the website worked – in getting the university-sponsored presses to recognize the contestant’s concerns and the symbiotic relationship between said contestants and revenue generated from reading fees. One will always say there are ways around everything. It’s like that guy in college who pours cheap vodka into an empty Absolut bottle: he knows everyone will reach for the Absolut, so he keeps the good stuff in a cheap bottle by his side. But has a negative awareness hurt the poetry world? Do we run the risk of missing out on some remarkable poetry due to a reservation or skepticism on the poet’s part?
DK: Well, again, poetry’s the short form, right? Everybody writes it: no second grader ever wrote a novel or a three-act play, but they’ve all written poems. As compared to film making or clarinet tootling or pot throwing, writing is the most democratic of the arts—everybody’s got a pencil and a piece of paper—and a poem is the easiest thing to write. So with all those poets out there, you’re going to hear a lot of carping. As Poe said, the only way a little guy can make himself great is to tear down a big guy. (It’s better the way Poe says it, but that’s close enough.)
Happily, you’re going to hear a lot of celebrating, too. I love National Poetry Month. I love that Poetry Out Loud contest that has schoolkids all over the country just declaiming their little hearts out. I love it when my seatmate on a plane says, “What do you do?” and when I say, “Oh, I’m a poet,” they say “Oh!” and light up as though they’re sitting next to Homer and Milton.
It’s a noble calling. I’m getting better at it. And the more I do it, the more I get praised, the more I get attacked, too, which is a badge of honor of sorts. If I put my name in a blog search engine, I’ll find ten salutes and one upraised finger, which is fine, because 20 years ago, I wasn’t well-known enough to be despised. If it ever becomes ten fingers and one huzzah, though, I should probably hang up my toga and wreath and write that food book I’ve been thinking about lately.
LB: This interview is being conducted on the eve of your winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. What is the tenor right now in Sweden? Talk to me about what you plan to address in your acceptance speech, and why it is you think no American poet before you has won.
DK: My fellow Swedes, I’m so happy that you decided to give me this prize. Ever since I was a little boy and first heard of your fine country, I’ve wanted to win the Nobel prize. Where I grew up, firecrackers that are now illegal were, like smokeless tobacco products and bottled beer, available to anyone who could reach high enough to put his money on the counter, and it wasn’t long before older boys taught me how to stuff coffee cans with cherry bombs, turn a smoldering cigarette into a timed fuse, and master other skills that will not be revealed today for fear of starting the current generation of Swedish youth down the wrong path.
In the course of researching the science of explosives, I learned that your own Alfred Nobel felt so bad about inventing dynamite that he overcompensated by endowing his eponymous prizes. Rampant destruction on the one hand, heart-felt idealism on the other: what could be better? What could be more poetic?
And I call you my fellow Swedes not because I am anywhere near as Swedish-y as most of you are but because we are all children of our great American poet Walt Whitman, he who loved everyone and everything. Whitman liked armies because he liked looking at soldiers, and armies produce soldiers: no armies, no soldiers! He liked an old restaurateur because he knows how to pick champagne, liked nursemaids because they are trim and wholesome, and and he liked fashionable ladies because they are pretty and gay. Whitman liked money. He wasn’t some proto-hippie, folks. He liked business!
But he also just loved the bejeezus out of regular folk. Look what he says in “Song of Occupations.” He says even if “you are greasy or pimpled, or were once drunk, or a thief, / Or that you are diseas'd, or rheumatic, or a prostitute,” he says, still, “Do you give in that you are any less immortal?” You are mortal and immortal, in Whitman’s scheme, neither one nor the other but both. Everything works out for you: your wife hates you but she loves you, too. Your boss fired you and he just gave you a raise. Your children are diseased prostitutes and Nobel laureates, like me, at one and the same time—how’d that happen? It happened through the power of poetry, that’s how. Poetry’s powerful stuff; it’ll kill you or cure you, guaranteed.
(The Whitman description is a paraphrase of two stanzas from Kirby’s poem “Hey, Gerald,” which appeared in volume 60 of The Georgia Review, Spring 2006.)
Larry Bradley’s manuscript The Spirit of Gravity has been a finalist for the Yale Series, Walt Whitman Award, and The National Poetry Series. His work has appeared in The New Republic, The Paris Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and Southwest Review.