MARVIN BELL LIKES THE WORD “GEEZER.” As he told me, “It’s hard not to like a word that contains a ‘z.’ It has pizzazz. Doesn’t everyone want to go to Zanzibar? The word ‘geezer’ feels to me joyful and modest.” Indeed, for someone who’s published 24 books, appeared in innumerable anthologies, and mentored generations of poets, Bell is a surprisingly modest man. He calls poetry a “survival skill,” and it seems to have served him well. At 80, he remains active as both poet and teacher.
Bell was born in New York City and grew up in Center Moriches, a small town on the south shore of eastern Long Island. He went upstate to Alfred University for his BA, did one semester of graduate journalism studies at Syracuse University, moved briefly to Rochester, then moved to Chicago where he took an MA at the University of Chicago. In Chicago, he took a class with the poet John Logan, then joined Logan’s private “Poetry Seminar,” which met in the downtown offices of the Midwest Clipping Association. Logan suggested he go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where, for three years, Bell says, he was “a graduate student bum.” New Year’s Eve of 1964, he went into the Army, returning in the fall of 1965 to work 40 years for the Workshop, retiring in 2005 as Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters. He has also taught semesters at Goddard College, the Universities of Hawaii and Washington, and Portland State University, and still teaches for the brief-residency MFA program in Oregon at Pacific University.
I interviewed Bell at his home on East College Street in Iowa City, about a mile from the center of downtown. The Bells bought the house in 1968. It was built in 1900 to be a farmhouse. The large backyard abuts a larger backyard from another street. The effect is a long view of grass, bushes, and trees. Only in winter can one spot another house. There is a large screened-in porch that looks over the greenery. Also in the backyard is a nine-feet-by-12-feet wooden house built by a prior owner to house Mormon missionaries. The Bells installed a buzzer so Dorothy could call Marvin to come take a phone call. It was one of the places where Bell wrote when their sons were little. He also has a study upstairs, in which he works on a large metal desk that belonged to his father.
In the living room where I interviewed Bell there are books piled on every available surface, including a coffee table and a table by a chair at the front window. A long lowboy set against a wall holds a row of large ceramic “alphabet blocks” made by an undergraduate student of Norman Dubie’s as “concrete poetry” and which eventually fell to Bell. There are stones, some quite large, mainly from the Northwest where the Bells spend their summers. There is a “sacred coconut” from the Indian wedding of their son, Jason. Tucked near an edge is a small white skeleton hanging from a bottle of Dead Guy Ale. There is a large postcard of the Einstein statue in the side yard of the National Academy of Sciences. There is a singing bowl, a catalpa tree pod, a small percussion instrument, and more. Among a spread of unusual things, the fireplace mantel holds Berber animal carvings from Morocco. In the fireplace and elsewhere are old-time jugs and crocks. A tall plant stands in an eight-gallon crock. A 10-gallon crock holds paper to be recycled. A bay window is filled with plants, including a Norfolk Pine trying to poke its way through the high ceiling. On an interior wall is a mirror with hooks from which 10 caps hang. By the fireplace is a 15-gallon crock filled with more caps. There is a large straw basket overflowing with magazines. Bell says there are more crocks in the little house out back from the time when he liked to attend farm auctions in Amish country.
On the walls are oil paintings of great delicacy by Carole Worthington and ceramic pieces by both Carole and her husband, Frank DiGangi — childhood friends for whose marriage Marvin served as best man. There is a large red fan which Writers’ Workshop administrator Connie Brothers sent with a note reading, “from your biggest fan.” There is also a primitive mask given to the Bells by poet Suji Kwock Kim, one of the many students who have lived in their Iowa house while they were elsewhere. The walls feature a monoprint by Marvin, who also made the monoprint for the cover of A Marvin Bell Reader, and a couple of sizable broadsides of his poems. Over the fireplace is the large print by Galen Garwood that became the cover image for The Book of the Dead Man. Bell notes that, while their sons were growing up at home, he kept his books and posters out of sight.
By one side of a loveseat in the living room stands a five-gallon crock and on the other side an old, wooden butter churn on top of which is a pillow from Eastern Europe configured as a man and woman holding hands.
It’s a house they like too much, they say, to ever remodel, though after 30 years they did add central air and a shower. Others have told them the house has good vibes, and they agree. Bell and I sat across from one another at the dining table toward the back of the living room, which takes up the front of the house.
On the table were some of his books and his Mac laptop. That, and our cups of coffee. Bell says he prefers to work at the dining room table rather than in his study.
The Book of the Dead Man (#23)
- About the Dead Man and His Masks
- More About the Dead Man and His Masks
LOREN GLASS: Let’s start with the “Dead Man” poems, which you’ve been working on now for about 20 years. Did you have antecedents or models? As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of modern epics starting from, say, Leaves of Grass or The Cantos. And I wonder if you see them along those lines as a coherent epic, or as Pound said, a poem including history.
MARVIN BELL: Yes, but I don’t want to claim too much.
You needn’t be humble here.
There was a reviewer of the first book of “Dead Man” poems who referred to the book as “The Undersong of the Self.”
That’s nice. I saw one comparison to The Dream Songs. Whitman is mentioned a number of times.
Whitman is an influence on everybody. The long lines, the long sentences, the music. The poetry of Williams and Stevens were early favorites. Williams for his mix of mind and detail, and of course his going against the grain. Stevens for his style and metaphysics. Berryman for good theater. Pound, for all the instruments in his one-man band, his ambition and ear.
Berryman’s Dream Songs, not a strong influence, though there is some high-stepping in the diction of early “Dead Man” poems, and one “Dead Man” poem of verbal hijinks à la The Dream Songs.
Do you see yourself in the Lowell/Berryman line?
Not especially. My literary influences are a mix of too many to be listed. I shopped in all the stores. More than uncovering antecedents, it’s just a narrative about how the form and vision of the “Dead Man” poems hooked me. I wrote the first one in the winter of ’86–’87. I was in Port Townsend, Washington, when I wrote a poem that was noticeably different from my other poems and from anyone else’s. I can’t tell you why it happened, except that I was between books and waiting for a new form to find me. There were elements of its formatting that were a kind of fist in the face of expectation. [Laughs.] The two-part structure, the overlapping section titles, the line redefined as an elastic sentence, parallels of phrasing and thought, a non-linear, or perhaps quasi-linear, kaleidoscopic everything-at-once vision, and so forth. It wasn’t anything like other poems I’d written and felt for a moment as if it had come from a book lost to antiquity, or one of those “wisdom books,” or perhaps, if you will, a pre-posthumous guidebook such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead or The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Or even the Old Testament. Even the Bible, though again, I don’t want to claim too much. And I put it aside. Well, it’s great good luck when a writer stumbles on a form that opens a window to another part of his imagination and, moreover, can contain anything. In the universe of a dead man poem, everything connects.
I called it “From: The Book of the Dead Man,” and put it into a book called Iris of Creation. I didn’t intend to write anything called The Book of the Dead Man. And I didn’t write another “Dead Man” poem for four years. Dorothy told me I should write more poems like it, but I never take good advice right away.
I’ll tell you how I came to write a second one. It’s a story about finally realizing that a new form had found me. Three years after I wrote the first one, the children’s book writer Jane Yolen was teaching along with me for the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. She told me she was putting together a book of “adult fantasy,” and she asked me to send a poem. It had to be unpublished, and she mentioned that the “Dead Man” poem would have fit but no, it had to be a new poem. Well, I forgot about it. And the next year, when I saw her again, she said, “You never sent me poems,” and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry; I forgot.” “Well,” she said, “I’m making a second anthology of adult fantasy.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. [Laughs.] And again she said, “Send me some poems.” And so I went home and I dug out poems I thought might fit and sent them to her, and she sent them back and said, “Some of these are good, but they don’t fit. That ‘Dead Man’ poem would have fit.” And I thought, “Okay. You want another ‘Dead Man’ poem? I’ll write one.” In writing the second one, I replicated the form of the first one. I just baldly imitated it. But then what happened is, I got hooked by the possibilities of the form.
Is that how the dyadic structure came to be?
I suppose so. I used the first “Dead Man” poem as a matrix. I was drawn to the idea that you could approach anything a second time. That a poem could seem to be finished but then start up again, and that any line might connect to any other line — again, a kaleidoscopic structure. There is a lot of routine advice for how to write poetry, such as “don’t repeat.” And the free verse poets — that’s long been the style of the age — are keen to make pretty or clever enjambments. So I turned the poetic line into an elastic sentence, repeated at will, and went headlong into metaphorical narrative and circumstances that could carry philosophic thought.
There was a particular kind of philosophic line in the early “Dead Man” poems — a line that went like this: “When there is no more (A) or (B), no more (X) or (Y), no more this, no more that, no more this or that, then there’s no need to …” What that was doing was promoting an abandonment of distinctions. Now I can link that to a couple of reports. One is when the Getty commissioned me to write a poem on their theme for the year — it’s in the book Rampant, a 10-part poem titled “Journal of the Posthumous Present.” I thought of the 10th section of the poem as a coda and titled it, “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps (Abandonment of Distinctions).” It goes on for three pages. The first line, from the very first of the “Dead Man” poems, is “When there is no good or bad, no useful or useless, no up, no down, no right way, no perfection, then okay it’s not necessary that there be direction: up is down.”
The next line is from the second “Dead Man” poem: “When there is no pain, no welcoming, no hospitality, no disdain, there’s no need to be Stoical, the opportunity itself becomes disingenuous, emotion embodied in all things including gases.”
And it goes on like that, a compendium of almost all the examples of that sort of line that existed in the “Dead Man” poems up to that time. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever read it, and likely never will. I try to suggest to readers of the “Dead Man” poems that they read only one, two at most, at a sitting. In the case of the Getty coda, I think maybe a few lines at once is plenty. It’s in context, but it’s a brain-breaker. It could make for a terrific semi-Dada performance piece: music to the max.
The abandonment of distinctions: Do you see that as a philosophical principle?
Yes. I suppose it’s a Zen concept. But I like to be careful about using the word “Zen.” There are poets who have studied and practiced Zen and know more than I do, as well as poets who live off a kind of “goody-two-shoes” Zen. The word “mindfulness” is close to becoming a self-help piece of jargon.
Well, you do have a Zen epigraph to the “Dead Man” poems.
I do. The Zen admonition to live as if you were already dead. In other words, be present but have a long view too. The Dead Man is alive and dead at once and sees both ahead and back over his shoulder. Here’s the other report to which I referred. I’m sitting on a stage in New York City at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Before the event begins, we’re going to have our photo taken by a fellow with a portrait camera in the balcony. The audience has been seated, and they have to sit quietly while the photographer takes a series of shots. The Academy has filled in the aisles for the photo. I’m seated between John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur. Behind me is Allen Ginsberg. So here we go. The audience has been told to sit still. And I hear Ginsberg chanting, “Om ah rah sah bah-ah-nah, dee dee dee dee.” I happen to know that one, and I chant it too, quietly. Ginsberg asks me, “How do you know that?” I say, “I don’t know. I just know it.” And he says, “Do you know what it means?” I say no. And he makes a vertical chopping gesture with his hand and says, “Breaking down of distinctions.” Isn’t that good?
It’s wonderful. And it reminds me that you’ve said you were influenced by the Beats. That is not evident to me in the poetry.
Yes. It’s true. The reason it’s true is because I grew up in a small town where poetry wasn’t a part of our experience. Indeed, books weren’t a big part of our experience. At home, we had a few Reader’s Digest condensed novels and an encyclopedia to make the kids smarter. That was it. The local library was a little house a volunteer opened three or four nights a week, and I’d go there and take out books and return them late.
Then I went to college. Generally, people in my town didn’t go to college. But my father, an immigrant from Ukraine with little schooling, thought I should go, so I picked a college in upstate New York that I thought was close to home: Alfred University, which the students used to call Albert, and which had a funny last line in its school song: “Alfred, the mother of men.” [Laughs.] I think they’ve changed it. I got into my car and started driving — I assumed it was just on the other side of the Hudson River. Turned out it was 400 miles away. I kept driving Route 17. I’d go into bars and say, “Excuse me. Can you tell me where Alfred is?” And they’d say, “Get out of here, kid.” They thought I was a wiseguy. Alfred was a long way off. College was exotic to me. I took extra courses each semester and joined everything. I didn’t write poetry then except for one poem, and you may not respect me in the morning when I tell you the story, but here goes, for fun. I was interested in journalism, but not poetry, though I took literature courses. One day I saw on a bulletin board that a little magazine called Presidio was paying for poems. I suppose it was a new magazine. And I thought, “They’re paying for poems. Wow.” And so I went into the newspaper office — I had a key — and wrote a poem. It was 14 lines.
Was it a sonnet, or just 14 lines?
I’d have to find it to see if it rhymed. I know it was pentameter. I didn’t want them to know it was my first poem, so I called it “Ontology, Part 2.”
So you were already thinking dyadically.
[Laughs.] It’s true. That was probably it. And I sent it off to the editors. It was obscure and horrible. They bought it, a nickel a line. Don’t forget, this was probably 1958. When it appeared in print, it had lots of typos. No matter. It didn’t change the meaning. The poem was terrible. I didn’t write poems. After Alfred, I went to Syracuse to graduate journalism school but stayed only one semester.
While I was at Syracuse, a new friend, Al Sampson, the woman who would become my first wife, Mickey Mammosser, and I would go to a restaurant called the Italian Villa where we’d eat salad in the afternoon and pizza at night and read the Beats. We’d read Ginsberg and Corso and Kerouac and Ferlinghetti to each other. To a kid who grew up in a town where poetry wasn’t a part of our world, and before cable TV and before the internet, don’t forget, it was all wonderfully new to us.
Was there a paperback bookstore where you got these, or were you reading the Evergreen Review? Do you remember where you got the poetry?
I had the Evergreen Review, and we probably had the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, which was a great format because you really could put it in your back pocket. We would read these works, and of course in the ’50s anything could shock people. For the times, Howl was way over the edge.
It’s still a little shocking. I teach it, and my students raise an eyebrow. It still has a power. You still can’t read it on the radio.
That’s right. I used to go on the radio at the University of Iowa to announce poetry readings. There was a fellow from England who hosted a program at noon on WSUI, and when we had a poet coming to read, I would go over, sometimes with George Starbuck, and we’d announce it and read something by the poet. Well, one time I quoted something Ginsberg said about critics, and the engineer, who was from Utah, threatened to quit if I ever did it again.
He could have brought the FCC down on you.
The next time, I was talking about John Logan coming to read. Logan has a wonderful poem about faith and change called “Three Moves.” “Three moves in sixth months and I remain / the same. / Two homes made two friends. / The third leaves me with myself again.”
He’s living on a houseboat in Seattle. And at one point he says, “Poor sons-a-bitching ducks. You’re all fucked up.” So I said to the radio audience, “I understand there are some words I’m not allowed to use, so I’ll make substitutions.” And I said, instead, “Poor S’s-O-Being ducks. You’re all hyperbolied up.” I think the engineer left anyway.
So it sounds to me like Ginsberg and the Beats inspired you to be a poet, but not so much to write poems like them.
They were an early part of it because I was a rank beginner. From Syracuse, I moved to Rochester, to stay only a short while. I had good friends there, and we started a magazine called statements, titled with a small “s.” We published poetry and visual art. It was a quarterly. Over five years, we managed six issues, which was typical.
Do any still exist? Has it been archived?
I have copies. I don’t think they’re anywhere else. They looked good because the photographer Nathan Lyons’s wife, Joan Lyons, who is a graphic designer, did the design. It changed format each issue. We published some poets and artists who became well known. So then I’ve got statements, and I’m writing obscure wordplay that I think might be poetry, as are my friends. From Rochester, I move to Chicago. In Chicago I’m doing a slow MA and working for the law library, which had a stellar faculty. I had a master key, and I’d go into their offices at night and read their books. I worked a lot at night.
Was it an MA in English?
An MA in English. I was on probation when I arrived because Chicago didn’t like transfer students, and they didn’t particularly like MA students either, but Al, who had transferred from Syracuse University ahead of me, and unlike me was a very good student, convinced them to let me in.
Did you have a child yet?
Our first child was born in Chicago. That’s Nathan, born to my first wife. My father had died suddenly. He had a weak heart that he tried to hide from the family and died when I was still a young man, and my wife decided I needed a son. When we divorced, I kept my boy.
You became a father right when you lost your father.
Shortly thereafter. I was a very young father. At one point I’m working at the law library, going to school, and trying to write, and I have a son to take care of. In the daytime, when I was in class or at work, he was cared for by a woman named Mrs. Porter. Bless Mrs. Porter.
Then Dorothy and I got together. At a certain point, I’d taken all the required courses for the MA — including Henry James with Napier Wilt, Aristotle with Elder Olson, and James Joyce with Richard Ellmann. To take the MA exam, I had to be enrolled. I chose a poetry writing course, in the downtown center of the University of Chicago, taught by John Logan, who commuted on the bus from South Bend, Indiana, where he was a professor at Notre Dame. I had no idea that Logan was a published poet with a book. All I knew was that it was a course I could fit into my schedule. Dorothy and I both enrolled. Logan was a wonderful teacher for a young poet because he was a terrific reader of poetry aloud, so that when he read our terrible poems they sounded great.
Did you adopt that as a teaching method? Is that a good way to teach poetry?
It has its uses, but hearing poems read aloud and reading them on the page in your head are different experiences. It can be good for a student to hear how his poem sounds when read well aloud. People have different ideas about how to do it — I prefer understatement and honoring the identity of the lines. Logan was an extraordinary reader aloud of poetry.
The second thing is that he took the content of our sophomoric poems seriously. No matter how juvenile it might be, he took each poem seriously. Dennis Schmitz was in that group, and Logan asked Dennis and me to be part of what he called the Poetry Seminar, which was not a class but a group that met with Logan in the downtown offices of the Midwest Clipping Association.
The Seminar was hosted by Jordan Miller, the owner of the business and one of the poets in the group. At different times the members of the Poetry Seminar included Charles Simic, Bill Knott, Naomi Lazard, and Bill Hunt, among others who went on to publish books. The poet Jessie Kachmar, who wore big black hats, liked to hold my free verse poems on their sides. They had elastic lines, and she’d say, “It looks like the skyline of Chicago.”
The Book of the Dead Man (Water)
- About the Dead Man and Water
- More About the Dead Man and Water
Were you writing free verse? A lot of people were very formalistic in the ’50s and ’60s.
The ’50s were formalistic, absolutely. Logan wrote beautifully in both received forms and free verse, but I don’t recall how many of the seminar poets wrote in received forms. I think their free verse lines may have been less elastic and thus less like the Chicago skyline than mine. [Laughs.]
Logan was influential to me in another way as well. Once I was no longer a student, I would have to go into the Army. I wanted to delay that while I found out more about poetry and tested my commitment to it. I asked Logan what to do, and he said, “Well, there’s the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, and I know the poet who teaches there, Donald Justice. I’ll write him a note, and you can go be interviewed.” Of course I had to pretend to be a PhD student. The Army didn’t recognize the MFA. I took the bus to Iowa City. I stayed at an old hotel downtown called the Berkeley and met Don the next day. We talked for a few minutes and then the printer Kim Merker came along and we went bowling. It’s true that the poetry world was still mainly characterized by formalism, even though the students in the workshop weren’t all formalists. But the times were formalist. The poets we read were generally formalists. The influential anthology at the time was The New Poets of England and America, which was formalist — edited by Hall, Pack, and Simpson, the first edition.
Do you remember the Donald Allen anthology?
The New American Poetry 1945–1960. That appeared a little later, in opposition to The New Poets of England and America.
Yes. Charles Olson’s influential essay on projective verse was in it. I was the student who would be called on to report on these poets in seminars. I was that guy. However, to be respected you needed be able to talk the lingo of the metricians. I remember Don sometimes saying of a poem of mine on the worksheet, “This poem appears to have been written in free verse.” And I would say, “No, no, it’s written in sprung accentuals with variant lines.” A joke for the times.
Are you comfortable with the free verse label? Does that describe what you do? I was fascinated (to circle back to the “Dead Man” poems) with your speculation about the tension between the poetic line and the prose sentence. Does that tension go all the way back through your poetry?
The free verse line has to discover its identity as it goes. As Williams put it, “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention.” Once the line takes on an identity, the writer needs to pledge loyalty to it or to an elastic version of it. Without that commitment, the crucial element in poetry that is writerly discovery goes out the window. The thing is, free verse used to mean more, because it was immediately interesting in contradistinction to formalist verse. Well, it’s long since become the poetry of the age. I tell students that every writer of free verse needs to reinvent free verse for himself or herself. I think few people can do it, but ideally that’s how it should be. As for the line and the sentence, the secret to free verse is syntax, which, among other things, determines the identity of the line. When the line becomes a complete sentence, as it does in the “Dead Man” poems, it does away with the fussiness of enjambments, it introduces a more elastic music, it enlarges the vessel — it’s a different poetic. Free verse can be so committed to a mix of end-stops and skillful enjambments that it reads like chopped prose. In the “Dead Man” poems, an elastic sentence determines the lines. Any runovers are simply “wraps” caused by the width of the column. By the way, there are rare cases in early “Dead Man” poems in which a second sentence starts mid-line or a stanza break occurs within a section. It happened, and it felt right.
How did you do it? How did you reinvent free verse for yourself?
I’m an outsider by nature. I’ve always been that way. I just go against the grain. Because I taught for Iowa, an interviewer once called me “an insider who thinks like an outsider.” I don’t think of free verse as a form, or as an absence of meter, but as a method for finding new forms. I think of prose poetry as a form of free verse. Regardless, it seems to me that a poet ought to be an experimentalist. I remember an older student in the Iowa workshop coming up to me after a class and saying, “I’m always impressed by the way you can break the rules.” It may have been because it was “A Poem for Arms Manufacturers” and contained a well-placed obscenity. [Laughs.] In any case, I do generally write with a memory of meters. Ear work is crucial in poetry, and determinant, perhaps the more so in free verse.
You must have worked as a good counterweight to Donald Justice in that way, right?
Actually, we tended to agree about student poems. After all, it was Don who asked me to return to teach. Don had a way of appreciating every poem for what it was. He had a wonderfully tricky way of teaching. I don’t know if the students ever caught on. Don would put himself in the position of lightly defending each poem against wrongheaded criticism. Which made the students think that he liked the poems more than he did. He would defend them on their own terms, which I think is a wise and helpful approach, not to mention being the decent thing to do.
Sort of anti-Socratic or pseudo-Socratic —
Yes, he was very good at it. And he was a different kind of teacher than John Logan. Justice’s mind was unusually precise. You could not argue with Don and win, because he would define the terms. In that way, he would box you in so that, unless you were willing to break through the frame, you had to concede.
So it was he and Paul Engle who were the poets here when you came, right?
They were the poets, Paul having created the program. Paul was still teaching. There was one section each of poetry and fiction, and most of us older than the students now. We met in an old army barracks. Paul would come and go. He’d go into the small back room that served as the office and make phone calls about fellowships. I remember him coming back to the classroom to announce that he had just secured the Iowa Natural Gas Fellowship.
Paul had many pockets. Later, he paid for me to travel to the first meeting of what would become The Society for Photographic Education. I was still photographing at the time and knew a number of the important creative photographers. Henry Holmes Smith, who taught at the Indiana University, decided there should be archives for these photographers. And he called a meeting in Bloomington that led to the creation of the SPE. As I recall that gathering, the group included Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Nathan Lyons, Jerry Uelsmann, Art Sinsabaugh, and others, possibly Ansel Adams. Mainly, we showed our pictures, watched two Maya Deren films at once on a big wall, and drank beer. Later, it became a more academic organization, and we who were there at the start dropped out.
So just to fill out your first impressions of the Workshop and your time here, you want to talk a little bit about who the other students were? It was just Engle and Justice who were the teachers? What did you think of Iowa City and the workshop? This is ’61/’62?
January ’61 to January ’64.
And did you get an MFA?
Oh yes. First, I got an MA from Chicago, then the MFA from Iowa. I was supposed to be a PhD candidate, so I dutifully enrolled in what would be a second language for me, German. I had French, such as it was. I went to Iowa Book and Supply to buy the textbook. And I was lucky. I got a used copy. It was written by an Iowa professor, Doctor Fehling. Then I found myself in a room of foreign students studying to be engineers, and the teacher would say, “Wie geht es dir, sagte Hans Fritz?” and the students would respond, but I couldn’t read the textbook. It was in that old German script. I couldn’t read it, let alone answer the question. Finally, after maybe three sessions, I leaned way over and looked at my neighbor’s textbook. It was a new edition in modern type. I took it as a sign, stood up, said, “Excuse me” to the teacher, and walked out the door. [Laughs.]
Who directed your thesis? Was it Justice?
It must have been Don. Paul didn’t do that.
Who else was in your class?
Let’s see how many I can think of. Lawson Inada, Michael Harper, Vern Rutsala, Mark Strand, Dori Katz, Catherine B. Davis, Annette Basalyga, Tod Perry, James Crenner, William Brady, Alfred M. Lee, Nicholas Crome, Charles Wright, Wm Brown with his abbreviated first name, Stephen Parker, Vincent Stuart, George Keithley, Alex Kuo … At one time, readers would have recognized most of these names. When we first gathered for one of the semesters, everyone was looking around trying to see who Catherine B. Davis was because she had published in the Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology. Although we rarely talked about publication, we were impressed. That was a big deal.
Nightworks: Is it called that because you write late at night?
Yes, partly. I used to start writing at one in the morning and write until five or six. When my brain had been stamped out, I would quit. I’ve always liked staying up late. I used to be a musician and liked staying up late after gigs. When I was a ham radio operator, well, certain radio signals — the frequencies of the 20- and 40-meter bands, for example, which are good for long-distance contacts — go farther late at night. Also, I had a child young. I had to make a living. And be practical. I’ve always had a good amount of responsibility. So, after midnight those tight connections one needs for a civic life loosen a little. The imagination’s more free.
So is there a relationship between death and night? Did the “Dead Man” poems emerge out of darkness or nighttime?
I didn’t think about the conceit of death and sleep. Frank O’Hara, asked to explain how he wrote, said: “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’” There’s a lot of that in my method. I turn up the heat and go on my nerve. I prefer to write when the pot boils over. Of course, I have learned over the years how to turn up the heat. I write a lot and abandon a lot. I didn’t always do it this way, and I can still write on commission, I can rhyme if they want me to, I can write meter if they want me to. First off, I’m partial to the electro-chemistry of the mind, to what you might think of as the life-force of language. Sounds fancy, I know, but it’s just a way of confirming that writing is a metabolic activity.
Do you type or do you write?
I’ve typed since my older sister Ruby gave me her typewriter when she graduated high school. I have to type; my handwriting is illegible. Many people say that about their handwriting, but mine actually is. Even my printing.
Are you a two-finger typer?
Yes, two fingers. One summer, a friend and I borrowed textbooks from the high school typing teacher with which to teach ourselves to type. I tried typing “F-D-S-A-J-K-L-semicolon,” but it was laborious, and I gave up. My friend kept on and learned to type. I took the book back to Mrs. Havens and said, “I can’t.” I could type fast with two fingers; I didn’t have the patience to learn to do it with 10. And she said, “My father types with two fingers, and he types faster than I do.” Well, that was the end of that.
Did you feel a difference being Jewish? I was going to ask you this, because the Holocaust figures in your poetry, as does the fact of your Jewish identity. I presume you don’t think of yourself as a Jewish poet, but for Nightworks it seemed to me that you deliberately chose a series of “Dead Man” poems that come out of both being Jewish and the Holocaust.
Well, you can be a lapsed Jew, a non-practicing Jew, an isolate Jew, but you can’t not be aware of the cultural narrative of the Jews and the likelihood that the Jews are always going to be a target. The thing I like most about Judaism is that in Judaism, study is equivalent to prayer. The “Dead Man” poems that write of being Jewish and of the Holocaust — yes, they are mainly in the series called “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps” which begins Nightworks.
My father came from Ukraine as a teen. My mother’s family also came from Ukraine. Three days a week, my father picked me up after junior high school let out and drove me to the Jewish center in Patchogue, about 15 miles away, where I went to Hebrew school. I would take a basketball and shoot baskets in the gym until the rabbi came to get me. And I was bar mitzvahed. I’m up front reading Hebrew aloud, but of course I can’t translate it. I also attended Friday night services and Holy Day observances, and for a while Sunday school. Then I pretty much, I suppose you’d say, “lapsed.” I didn’t think about it. I feel fairly easy in any church. I’ve been to a Quaker meeting, I’ve given a couple of Unitarian sermons — they called my talks “sermons.” I played a trumpet duet with a friend in a fundamentalist church in upstate New York. I used to go to Catholic mass with a girlfriend. And I generally feel pretty comfortable, even though I don’t believe in what the literal-minded or fervent believe in.
Is poetry religious in any way that communicates with that?
Speaking for myself, I’d say that poetry is of the human spirit, of the inner life, of the life-force, and of the reach of the philosophical, but religious in the sense of the churchly or an afterlife? No. I do believe that the notion of spirit overlaps the philosophic, but again, I don’t make a plan to express it. To do so would be like consciously deciding to write sociopolitical poems: you have to be careful that it doesn’t sound as if you’re trying to take credit for being against evil. So, I came to think more about being Jewish when I thought of it as a cultural designation. The Jewish people have been a target forever, and likely always will be. I think it’s important to preserve the phrase “The Holocaust” for what in fact was a planned and precisely recorded Nazi event. People sometimes use it for mass killings — by Pol Pot and so forth. But it’s not quite the right term for that. One understands the metaphorical use of it, but still … The Holocaust was different. When they start measuring your noses and making lampshades of your skin, somehow it redefines mass killings.
That all makes sense, and when I was reading through both the “Dead Man” poems as a whole, but also the ones that you chose to put at the beginning of Nightworks, I got the sense that you were in some ways matching your identity as a Jew to the beginning of the postwar era as marked by Holocaust and atrocity. There’s a lot of political and historical engagements that work in and out of your poetry.
It’s true. Such events circulate in my head most of the time. But here again, the reason I wrote the “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps” poems in the form in which they appear — well, I’ll tell you a story. How a form finds me has little to do with where I go with it.
So you don’t plan “I’m going to write a poem about this or that.”
Only on commission. I’ll tell you the story of the “Sounds” poems. I had written two books’ worth of “Dead Man” poems and didn’t plan to continue. I told the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar that I had written my last “Dead Man” poem and added, “Goodbye to the man of my dreams.” The next morning, I received a message from Laure-Anne, who told me of a dream. In her dream, I was sitting in a cafe in Brussels. I had a pile of paper in front of me and was drinking something red. She greeted me, even though it looked as if I needed to be alone. When I looked up at her, I seemed troubled, and handed her a pile of pages and explained, “I wrote all these poems titled ‘The Sound of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps,’ and I can’t put them in my book because I wrote the last poem last week.” She said that, when she had woken up, it took her a while to figure out that it had been a dream. Somehow, Laure-Anne’s dream spoke permission to continue, which is when I started writing the poems titled “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps.”
And so are they done, or do you feel you’re going to just keep going?
I don’t intend to go back, but I can’t promise not to. I think some may be both complex and complicated. Complex is good, complicated can be iffy. When I choose a couple to read in public, I usually read the Hamlet poem and the Tibet poem. There’s too much in most of these for a public reading. I like them, I respect them, but they should be read in print. The “Dead Man” poems sound very good to my ear, but they, like the “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps” poems, should also be read on the page. However, I have been asked to record all the “Dead Man” poems and hope to get around to it. When Richard Howard was to read in public, he would ask, “Am I reading to the masses, or am I reading to the 17 faithful?” Something like that. He much preferred reading to the 17 faithful, of course.
That leads to a sort of obvious question, which is: Are these legacy poems? Are they about your own mortality? They certainly feel like a late-career engagement.
Except that I started in — when was the first one?
In ’87? That’s a while ago. You were still a young man.
First one was that winter. The ’86/’87 winter. I was in Port Townsend. It was raining and dreary, and I was putting together the New and Selected Poems that would come out from Athenaeum.
Yes, they did beautiful books. The cover is a photo of the door handle on a Lutheran church visible from our Port Townsend house. It doesn’t look to the naked eye like the red of the door, or the blue of the handle, on the book cover. A friend’s camera somehow picked up those tinges, and I asked to use the picture.
So do you feel like you’re writing for the 17 faithful, or do you feel like more a poet of the masses or a common poet, or a vernacular poet? What’s your appeal or your audience?
That’s a good question. [Laughs.] I don’t know what sort of an audience I have by now.
You’ve got an audience, but it’s hard to characterize. I’ve been thinking about postwar poetry and its various splits. “The raw and the cooked” is one of the thumbnails. But you’re in some ways harder to place.
I hope it’s true, and thank you. I want always to be a beginner. When Athenaeum folded, I left New York for an independent press in the Northwest, Copper Canyon.
Which is a top-of-the-line press.
I would like to publish an updated Selected Poems and a Selected Dead Man or, even better, The Complete Dead Man Poems, which may require an even more independent press. I knew I would fall off the radar if I left New York publishing. When I told a friend, she said, “You’ll be green again.” Exactly. Well, a few people have said interesting things about the “Dead Man” poems. The critic Judith Kitchen said that they “change the game,” and that every 20th-century anthology of poetry should end with the “Dead Man” poems, and every 21st-century anthology of poetry begin with them. Well, I wouldn’t expect anyone in the literary centers of New York to have read them. There’s no reason they would. They have their own world.
But wouldn’t you agree that to a certain degree, New York is not the literary power broker it used to be? I hear a lot of people dismiss The New York Times in particular. The New Yorker, I guess, is still the place to publish your poetry.
When I was a graduate student poet, some of my fellow students were sure that The New Yorker was the place. And so I decided, “Okay, I’m going to write a poem to sell to The New Yorker.” They had a good poetry editor at the time named Howard Moss. So I took a look at poems in The New Yorker, and I noticed that much of the poetry at that time was linked to water — if not set on the water, situations proximate to water or water-going animals. They were written in, forgive me, a fluid style. And they were imaginative, but safely so. They weren’t going to poke anybody in the ribs. So I wrote a poem to sell to The New Yorker called “The Hole in the Sea.”
That’s a lovely poem.
Well, that’s the thing: it may have come out better than intended. And it appeared in The New Yorker. [Laughs.] As to the “Dead Man” poems, a recent poetry editor did publish one, but “Dead Man” poems are not New Yorker material. Of course, I used to write poems that were more acceptable to anthologists. Not now. Well, given how things work, I suppose that, if a poet is focused on a career and public notice, he or she might still benefit from being in New York or Boston. Would it be good for their writing? That’s a separate question.
You think that’s still so, even now?
I don’t know. Perhaps one could go to Los Angeles or elsewhere. The East Coast is still where most of the big publishers are and the business of literary opinion.
I want to slip back a second because you mentioned playing music, being a photographer. When did you decide that it was going to be poetry and not cornet or camera?
I knew early that I would eventually put away my horn. That is, I went on playing with all kinds of groups in college, and even took a master class with a fellow named Dan Clayton, a music teacher who had gone back to school to become a dentist. I remember us performing Purcell’s “Voluntary” in robes in a church at Easter. Purcell takes the credit, but it was actually written by Jeremiah Clarke. [Hums music.]
So you played classical as well as jazz?
I played everything. You name it, I played it. Played with a trumpet trio, played with quartets, quintets, sextets, orchestras, bands, summer bands, marching bands, a dance combo. [Laughs.]
But you were going to stop.
Yeah, I knew I was going to stop, for two reasons. One is that I wanted to play jazz but didn’t know how to learn to. It’s a small town, no cable, no internet, naïve personalities. All of us were naïve. We were going to be hardware clerks, insurance salesmen, teachers, and nurses. And it was fine. We weren’t Truman Capote. We weren’t anxious to get out of town. It may be hard to believe now, but I didn’t know how to learn to be better at jazz. When I took a solo, I was playing notes I saw in my head. You can’t play that way. I was pretty good, but — and even though I used to go into New York City with my friend Roger, a virtuoso trumpet player from another high school, and hit the jazz clubs … I can remember — who was I there to see that night? It might have been Don Elliott. I go outside to smoke a cigarette, and here comes Miles Davis. The jazz musicians used to come hear each other. Another night, I was sitting in a club, I think it was to hear Count Basie’s band, and J. J. Johnson sits down next to me. And of course I’m not going to say anything to him. You could go to those clubs and they didn’t card you. I think the beer came in paper cups so you couldn’t fight with bottles. Even though I went to hear live music, and listened to jazz on records and the radio, I had no idea how one would ever become good at it. And that’s all I wanted to play.
I didn’t want to go on playing concert solos, or band and orchestra music, or dance music. For that, I needed little rehearsal, which suited me. I’m walking out of school one day — high school, I’m a senior — and my music teacher, a professional trumpet player who had come off the road to raise a family, and who wrote serious children’s books based on history, and was also a historian and a composer — unusual in our town — called after me. “Marvin,” he said, “What are you going to play in the competition this year?” The New York State competition. I told him, and he said, “Well, you know, you have to play it for me first. I have to hear it.” We go to the music room, and he picks the hardest part of it, the last movement in which the soloist does crazy things. I rip through it and he says to me, “Marvin, think how good you’d be if you practiced.” [Laughs.] He didn’t want me to give up music. He felt that was my way out. He didn’t say it that way to me, but I realized afterward he thought that was my way to get away. He wanted me, if I didn’t go to college, to join the Coast Guard band. But I went to college, and later he said to my mother that, because of my writing it had come out all right.
But I hadn’t yet stopped playing when I came to the Iowa Workshop. The novelist Vance Bourjaily was a self-taught trumpet player. He had had a one-room schoolhouse moved onto his property at Red Bird Farm. He would use it to have a bunch of us come out to jam. I could still play then. Now, I pull out my Bach cornet about once a year, play a song Dorothy likes and put it away. Can you say “no embouchure?” I keep threatening to bring it to a Pacific MFA residency and, when they introduce me at a reading, play from the wings the fanfare the Goldman Band trumpeters used to play each time Edwin Franko Goldman took the stage to lead the Central Park summer concerts in New York City. [Sings fanfare.]
You have collaborated with musicians though.
Yes, with musicians and composers, even with dancers, and of course with other poets. The composer David Gompper and I taught graduate courses in which Iowa Workshop poets and Center for New Music composers collaborated. We’d stage an annual concert of the best works. Collaborating with musicians probably began with a noontime reading at Hood Canal Community College in Portland. Long ago. Glen Moore on standup bass and Mark Daterman on electric guitar played while people took their seats. I read for a bit and then I said, “Listen, why don’t you guys come back up here?” They came back up, and we started working. After that, other readers in the series started doing it too. When the Pacific University low-res MFA program began, for as long as the schedule had room for it, I’d have Glen come for a day to collaborate with students. You never knew what Glen was going to do. He makes sounds from his instrument that you have never heard before. He has a 300-year-old bass about which he likes to say, “This is a great bass; it knows all the tunes.”
It sounds like you admire improvisation. Do you feel you have a spontaneous improvisatory approach to your own art?
Yes, absolutely. Not always, but often. That’s just me. I’m not saying it’s the right way or the best way. That’s my DNA; that’s my genetic makeup. I’m keen for the rush of discovery. Also — this sounds a little much to say, but I really do live in the present. A lot of people say they do. I really do. It’s just my makeup. I’m one of those people who would cram for an exam and, when I walked out the door after the test, wash the useless material away. That’s just me. If I need something I washed away, I’ll look it up.
The Book of the Dead Man (Memory)
- About the Dead Man and Memory
- More About the Dead Man and Memory
Do you forget your poems in that same way? Are you good at memorization?
I can still recite from memory poems from the days when I wrote a more expected form of free verse. I can probably recite “The Hole in the Sea,” which was written when I was a graduate student, as well as some more recent poems, but I can’t recite from memory the “Dead Man” poems.
Is poetry a way of living in the present? Not just in terms of spontaneous, but in terms of enriching or deepening the present?
Yes, depending how you write. Of course, when I go back to a poem, to revise it or to look for what is worth keeping or worth publishing or fit for reading to an audience, that’s a different matter.
How much revision do you do?
Less and less. Years ago I carried my poems around on sheets of paper. I would scribble all over them and, when they were almost unreadable, I’d type them up again and keep going. But when I went computer — I held out for years, wouldn’t get a word processor — when I finally bought one, it stayed in boxes for some time. Eventually, I unwrapped it. I decided then not to keep drafts. I hadn’t been conscientious about keeping them anyway, but I decided then that I wouldn’t keep any. When I make a change, it’s made.
Do you think it changed your style or form in any way?
I don’t know. There’s a Jewish proverb that sounds like Zen. It says, “If you can’t get up, get down. If you can’t get across, get across.” If it’s a long poem, I may keep an earlier version for a while. Otherwise, I make a change and that’s it. If a change was better the other way, I’ll be able to think of it again. And if I don’t, maybe it wasn’t better the other way.
Although most of your poems are relatively short, I don’t know that we’d consider them lyrics.
If Aristotle gets to say, they’re all lyrics. There are some long ones. There is a long poem in Iris of Creation titled “Initial Conditions,” that begins in a coffee shop in Port Townsend. It consists of 20 stanzas of 18 lines apiece. There’s the “Journal of the Posthumous Present,” the 10-part poem commissioned by the Getty Research Institute in 2002, that appears in Rampant. The Escape Into You is a book-length sequence. The book Residue of Song contains a sequence of 13 poems about my father. I suppose many of the “Dead Man” poems might be considered longish, given that they come at you in two sections and an elastic line that is generally long.
It does create an interesting question — how do you know when a poem is over? That’s a matter of considerable academic tension.
It’s a common question: “How do you know when a poem’s finished?” I usually say, “When everything in it has been used up.” Could you add something more and use that up? Yes, you could. There’s also a way in which lyric poetry — I don’t know if it applies to the “Dead Man” poems, even though you’d probably have to call them “lyric” — but the best lyric poetry leans toward the tautological. The head bites the tail, the tail wags the head. It both uses up and connects everything in it.
On the other hand, I also like the poem that is like a backpack, from which something’s sticking out, pushing against the overall shape. I like that. But again, that’s me. I like a certain raggedness. I like a certain rawness. I’m not saying that either raggedness or rawness are characteristic of the “Dead Man” poems. I think they’re generally musical and tight. But I like that effect too. I like it in my students. A shoe can be too highly polished.
I like that metaphor of the backpack, and it makes me wonder: Despite the bulges in the backpack, are there forms in terms of stanzas or lines that you prefer? When I was going through your earlier poems, I noticed a good number of poems that were 18 lines, three sestets. You rarely rhyme, but it does seem to me that there are forms or structures that possibly you favor, either of your own invention or —
Again, I don’t plan the structures. They find me. There comes a point in the writing when the writing itself gives the line its identity and a few lines may propose a stanza. When that happens, I pledge loyalty to it. Because in free verse, you don’t have the advantage of rhyme and meter, a kind of matrix within which you can make revisions. You don’t have that help. So you have to create the electricity yourself. Stanzas don’t usually make for a lot of electricity, but they are something. The identity of the line is a bigger deal. For me, the line identifies itself as it comes into being. It may be a line I want to maintain, or I may decide, “No, no, this poem should be noticeably elastic,” so then I compose a longer or shorter line. Of course, syntax and line hold hands. You can’t discuss the line without discussing syntax. Because syntax provides all the opportunities — for enjambments and end-stops, for changes in timbre, tone of voice, pace, pitch … Syntax is the secret to a strong voice in free verse.
Yeah, the “Dead Man” poems seem deeply syntactical to me, and indeed you do a lot of inversions of syntax, particularly in the opening lines of the very first ones. And I wondered about syntactical inversion or reversal — a lot of the “Dead Man” poems begin with two sentences which are inversions of each other.
I did that for a while. It was partly for emphasis and partly to revise expectations.
But was that somehow at the center of some sort of compositional structure, or even philosophical idea about reversal or opposition?
In retrospect, I would say yes. Not that I thought at length about it, but intuitively I recognized that you can come from either side. I refer to the “Dead Man” as being pre-posthumous. Of course, we’re all pre-posthumous. We’re all dead men and dead women in waiting. Hence, the Zen admonition to live as if you were already dead. That is, be fully present, but have a long view too.
For some folks — and I wasn’t going to ask you this because it seemed contrary to your own sensibility. Mark Twain became very interested in death late in his life, because he knew he would have a posthumous existence. And then there was the mistaken obituary that prompted the famous line: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” He even once proposed a contest for people to write obituaries for him. I don’t want to get too morbid but I wondered: Is there a way in which you’re writing your own obituary or you’re aware that you’re going to survive yourself?
I intend to leave a small footprint. A few years ago, I took 40 years of letters to a shredder. To my mind, a rage for literary immortality is delusional and corrosive. I think of a complete “Dead Man Poems” as a lifetime book — not of my lifetime but of everyone’s. I never feared death. I believe in entropy. I don’t believe in time, but I believe in entropy.
Your father’s death appears repeatedly in your poetry.
Yes. I remember how my stomach fell out at the time. I knew he had a weak heart because I was driving home one day and saw him holding onto a thin tree, trying to pretend that he was just pausing for a moment. He hid it pretty well from the kids. He had a weak heart to begin with, from the Old World — from the diet they had, and they were poor and so forth. He had a local doctor where we lived, but he went to a heart doctor in New York City so that people in town wouldn’t know about it.
And in those days, what did doctors know for certain? Well, the New York doctor said, “You should take a drink every day. It’s good for circulation.” So every day, at his five-and-10, in the afternoon, he would pick out a customer and say, “It’s my birthday. Come have a drink with me.” And they’d go to the back room and he’d pour them a schnapps. Every day: “It’s my birthday. Come have a drink with me.” When he died, I was in Chicago with my first wife, no son yet. Probably my prospects were dim, but we didn’t worry much about that then because you could always get a job, and routine health care didn’t cost much. I regret that he didn’t live long enough to know me later and to meet Dorothy and our two terrific sons. My father was quite a guy. When a few years ago I visited the older sister of my best friend in childhood, she began our talk by saying, “You know, your father did a lot of nice things for people no one ever knew about.”
Do you think you are like him?
I hope so.
The Book of the Dead Man (Your Hands)
- About the Dead Man and Your Hands
- More About the Dead Man and Your Hands
You were in the Army, but you did not go to Vietnam. Still, Vietnam starts to figure in the your poems. So let’s talk a little about the later ’60s — both your own experience in the Army and also the way in which the war and the turbulence of the ’60s affected both your poetry but also how you taught, what was going on, on campus.
I was in the Army ’64 and most of ’65. I took an “early out” for three months to go back to Iowa to teach. I had been an infantry officer before I went on active duty, but two weeks before I was due at Fort Benning, Georgia, for infantry school, I was transferred to the Adjutant General’s Corps. The AG Corps is not the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Those are the lawyers. The AG Corps handles personnel matters and a whole lot more. Soon, I’m living in Fortville, Indiana, for the AG School at Fort Benjamin Harrison. I’m scheduled to report next to the Army Information School, which at that time was at Fort Slocum, on David’s Island off Manhattan.
Well, there was a party one night, and someone tells me that a Major Eppley wants to see me. He’s at the bar. He buys me a drink and asks me to come to his office the next day. He is the officer, just below the Commandant, who effectively runs the school. He wants me to stay there and not go to Fort Slocum. He wants me to become the Foreign Military Training Officer. I ask to think about it. I call Fort Slocum to ask what my job’s going to be. It’s an hour later in New York, and everyone’s gone but the duty sergeant. He tells me that I’m scheduled to be the assistant to the Director of Instruction. And I think, “Uh-oh, an assistant to the DOI.” I saw myself buried under paper. The other job involved a wide range of unusual duties, not all of it behind a desk. I told the major, “I’ll take the job.” Well, the Adjutant General’s Corps can get anything done. They run the Army. But it turns out that a two-star general had handpicked me for the Information School. So now they have to find a three-star general to change my orders. In the meantime, I tell the major, “I’m a writer.” I didn’t say “poet.” I said, “I’m a writer, and it would be hard to write if I lived on the post.” And the housing officer gives me permission to live off post. At first, I had three main jobs. I was the school’s information officer and the assistant security officer, as well as Foreign Military Officer. I was even the company commander for a short while, but my main job, and eventually my only job, was Foreign Military Training Officer, running a program apparently thought up by Robert Kennedy when he was Attorney General. The idea was to bring over bright young officers from other countries and show them the United States.
Sounds like Paul Engle’s idea for the International Writing Program.
[Laughs.] Yes! It brought people from 70, 80, 90 countries for courses of two weeks to nine months. When they were at Fort Harrison for the Adjutant General’s or Finance Schools, I ran a liberal arts program for them. I took them to art galleries and factories. I brought 90 foreign officers to the 1964 World’s Fair. I had a language lab and a lounge. I set up a lecture series so they could talk about their countries to the Americans and, by the way, they always talked about the art in their countries. When Major Yoshikatsu Yatsunami from Japan took his turn, the curtains were closed, and when the curtains opened there was Major Yoshikatsu Yatsunami in a kabuki outfit.
I had other jobs too. I planned itineraries for the foreign brass on tour and the American officers who came for briefings. I had to attend almost weekly receptions, wearing dress blues. The first time I picked up the babysitter, Letitia, in my dress blues, she said, “Oh, are you playing tonight?” There was always a reception line: “I’m Lieutenant Bell; this is my wife, Dorothy.” However, when the reception was for a Latin American officer, the women lined up and the officer moved down the line kissing each one’s hand. I had the wherewithal to get things done and quickly. I had foreign officers who had medical conditions that hadn’t received the right treatment. I’d get their orders changed and send them to Walter Reed. I was able to run a blood drive for the Indiana hemophilia organization. Still, given the chance to stay in, I chose discharge.
So Vietnam was just looming in the background here?
What were called MAAGs, Military Assistance Advisory Groups, became Extended MAAGs, which meant more people with more weapons. Vietnam was rapidly heating up. Our own military was saying, “We don’t belong here and, even if we did, we can’t win.” At the same time, people around me would volunteer. My friends would get orders on Friday and be gone on Monday. They couldn’t send me because my job had a political dimension. The military is terrified of politicians. They needed a junior officer like me to take care of anything vaguely political. One of the reasons I was able to get a three-month “seasonal employment” early out, just when Secretary of Defense McNamara had gone to Saigon and the word was that junior officers would soon be frozen for the duration, was that I had had to be able to do things without going through every channel. Because of that, I had good relations with the NCOs, who sped up my application.
There’s a funny aspect to my getting an “early out.” When Donald Justice and Paul Engle invited me to return to teach, I asked to think about it for a bit because I had my heart set on going to a place I had never seen: the Northwest. But Dorothy and I liked Iowa City, and it was one of the best jobs in the country for a young poet. So I said okay. Well, then Paul had to send me a letter officially offering the job. It was some letter: “Dear Lieutenant Bell, we want you to come back,” et cetera. “Your experience as Foreign Military Training Officer would be very helpful to us. We have more and more foreign writers coming to the Workshop. The other day, when I was dining at the White House with President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara was seated next to me and Attorney General Kennedy across from me, and they both expressed great interest in our program.” Paul Engle all the way. [Laughs.]
Did the Vietnam wartime experience inform your later career, either your poetry or the way you taught?
Only in individual poems. I have always written poems of political content alongside others.
The book Mars Being Red, on the other hand, is an overall wartime book. Published in 2007, during the Iraq War. It also mentions Vietnam.
But by the time you got back, Paul must have been gone.
Not yet. Fall ’65.
Oh, so you were there for the battle between the hut and the hill, or whatever.
Ah, that happened while I was away.
Because then it was Eugene Garber.
Gene had a split appointment in English and the Workshop and became the interim Workshop Director.
And then Starbuck.
And then Starbuck, right. That blowup was brutal. Was I in the Army at the time? I don’t recall the timeline.
There was a hire, or a promotion.
Yes, a novelist filling in for one of the permanent Workshop faculty members received an offer from another school. In those days, if you had such an offer, and the Chairman learned of it, he was likely to match it. So that’s what the English Chair did, figuring the Workshop faculty would approve. Don Justice was in San Francisco on a Ford Fellowship. Vance Bourjaily was away too.
Engle was probably in DC or New York.
And they went crazy. The Workshop faculty reserved such decisions for itself. As I recall it, everyone flew back, and people said things to each other that could never be taken back. In the meantime, Verlin Cassill decided this was the moment to demand that the Workshop pay him more. He leads a torchlight parade of his followers on Old Capitol, threatening to burn it down. Oh yes, it was insane. When the visiting novelist saw what was happening, he accepted the other job.
My sense is that the very fate of the workshop seemed to be hanging there, right? It wasn’t clear that they were going to be able to continue.
I didn’t see that. I mean, who was going to stop Paul? The workshop didn’t depend on the English department. Paul started it. Paul raised funds for it. Paul recruited faculty and promoted it. I don’t believe anyone had ever given Paul permission to expand a writing course into what became the Writers’ Workshop. He was a force. And he had created a force to leave behind. What English Department Chair wants to face eight crazy writers with every decision?
No, but once he was ousted there was some question as to how it would survive.
I’m guessing that question may have been formulated by a few grumps who worried that scholarship would crumble beneath the weight of new poetry and fiction. As far as I could tell, Paul was not ousted. I think he just decided to do something else. He had married the Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh and, according to Paul, she had said, “Why don’t you do for writers from other countries what you have done for Americans?” So he just gradually moved over. In fact, I don’t believe he ever actually said, “I’m going.”
He was still in the English department, obviously. He was still a professor of English.
And a smart one, a quick study in classes. Starbuck had made up a chart whereby the poetry teachers moved around each week to create different pairs for each meeting. Paul was still on the list.
Did he teach creative writing classes too, in the late ’60s?
Just the workshop. He jumped in and out. If he was your partner for that week, you’d expect him to come and go.
But there was an actual search for a new director, right?
I don’t recall it, but there must have been. I may have been away.
They definitely did that, because I think you were offered the position at one point, or that your name was kicked around.
Well, I don’t know that I was directly offered it, but Paul came into my office and walked back and forth and said, “I’m going to need someone to take over.” And I said, “That’s not me, Paul.”
My take on it, which is maybe too sociological, is that there was a crisis of succession, because no one could really replace what Paul did. But somebody needed to run it. And Don Justice, I don’t think wanted to do it. Actually, he was maybe even gone at that point. You didn’t want to do it.
When I came back from the Army to Iowa City, I still owed the Army two weeks. I met one workshop and one seminar and told the students, “I’ll see you in three weeks.” I came back to the big blowup. Don had become upset too. He too felt he should be paid more. A year or two after I returned, he left for Syracuse University. Snodgrass was there. Phil Booth was there. I think George P. Elliott was there. So he left for Syracuse, at which point we started working to get him back, and he did come back.
I think it was in ’69 or ’70. I’m trying to double check. Let’s talk a little bit about what I like to think of as the Starbuck interregnum, or the Starbuck era. You’re welcome to talk about either the workshop in the late ’60s or just your career in the late ’60s. What was it like to be a poet with all the campus unrest, the Vietnam War? Did you feel like your poetry had to be politically engaged? In the movie, City of Literature, Paul Ingram says there was a perfect mesh between activism and creative writing. Did you feel that in your own career?
After I got out of the Army, I joined up with American Writers Against the Vietnam War, a loose group created by Robert Bly and David Ray. We gave readings. What did it accomplish? I suppose it became a small part of a growing unanimity that the war was a lost cause.
Back to what the campus was like during the Vietnam War. I didn’t take part in demonstrations on campus. The one I remember is the time antiwar demonstrators blocked the main student union door because — I think it was military recruiters — were either inside or wanted to go inside.
We had such turmoil every day that we thought this country would never go to war again.
Was Robert Coover involved in that? He was briefly here, I know.
I don’t think so. It was generally all poets. Well, there was a fiction writer in Chicago, I can’t remember his name, who took part in a reading. I think Starbuck was part of it at least once. James Wright was there at least once. [Robert] Creeley and [Galway] Kinnell took part. Bly, of course, emceed the readings.
Did Creeley teach here, or was he just visiting?
He visited a couple of times but no, he never taught here. The last time I saw him, and I hadn’t seen him for a few years, I asked, “What’s new?” and he must have told me just about everything that had happened to him since the last time I’d seen him. All the way through lunch. [Laughs.]
But Creeley was one of the great gentlemen. I remember a National Endowment for the Arts panel, on which he and I combined to rescue poets for fellowships who were too weird for the rest of the panel. I still remember the case of the most original of the manuscripts. The type went all the way across the page. Some phrases were in red, some in black, and above the line at various places were words in red, maybe in caps, and there was a note that explained, “The words above the line are words that appear on my forehead in blood.” The manuscript was wild in every respect. The panel discussed whether or not to give the writer a fellowship. We wondered if the writer was institutionalized. If so, how could he or she use it? In the end, we decided to grant the person a fellowship.
There was a big demonstration against Dow Chemical at one point, too. Some of this has been documented, and Robert Coover, who was here for a semester or so, made a movie called On a Confrontation in Iowa City.
Perhaps that’s the one. I was standing in the crowd with George, and some wrestlers arrived and started to rough up people who were on the steps, and a door got broken. As soon as the glass broke, the police, in riot gear, moved in to make arrests. At which point Starbuck said, “I’m going to go get arrested, because these kids don’t know what to expect in jail. You go see about bail money.”
And he was pretty fervently antiwar too. He was a politically active poet, if I —
I don’t know how politically active, but he wrote some terrific, timely poems. There was one about Stephen Smith, the University of Iowa sophomore who burned his draft card, and Norman Morrison, the Quaker who self-immolated, in which Secretary McNamara took it on the chin.
I teach that poem too. That’s a brilliant poem.
As you know, Starbuck’s name appears on a Supreme Court decision.
Yes, a historic Supreme Court decision for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.
He was a librarian at SUNY Buffalo at the time. George was a mensch.
Did it affect your poetry or your teaching, your creative or professional life?
I always wrote political poems rooted in whatever was going on around me, but not because I thought it was required or effective. Any truly effective actions were beyond my capacity. Two months ago, writing a craft talk for a Pacific University MFA residency, I started out trying to relate the sociopolitical present to the aesthetics of a poetry that could reach beyond the choir and ended up talking about prose poetry. On the one hand, poetry can enrich, maybe even save, a life. On the other hand, it’s just poetry.
Bagram, Afghanistan, 2002
The interrogation celebrated spikes and cuffs,
the inky blue that invades a blackened eye,
the eyeball that bulges like a radish,
that incarnadine only blood can create.
They asked the young taxi driver questions
he could not answer, and they beat his legs
until he could no longer kneel on their command.
They chained him by the wrists to the ceiling.
They may have admired the human form then,
stretched out, for the soldiers were also athletes
trained to shout in unison and be buddies.
By the time his legs had stiffened, a blood clot
was already tracing a vein into his heart.
They said he was dead when they cut him down,
but he was dead the day they arrested him.
Are they feeding the prisoners gravel now?
To make them skillful orators as they confess?
Here stands Demosthenes in the military court,
unable to form the words “my country.” What
shall we do, we who are at war but are asked
to pretend we are not? Do we need another
naive apologist to crown us with clichés
that would turn the grass brown above a grave?
They called the carcass Mr. Dilawar. They
believed he was innocent. Their orders were
to step on the necks of the prisoners, to
break their will, to make them say something
in a sleep-deprived delirium of fractures,
rising to the occasion, or, like Mr. Dilawar,
leaving his few possessions and his body.
I was always a little envious of my father because he learned literature back when you memorized poems, and he could memorize. He still has Shakespearean sonnets memorized. And I couldn’t memorize a poem for the life of me; I was never taught that way. And this is sort of a segue into a question about teaching. That was a method of teaching that actually injected poems into a lot of young Americans’ heads in ways that do not happen today. Do you ask your students to memorize poems?
I haven’t required students to memorize poems. I’m not against it. We just don’t have time for it. I think that, if you read a poem enough times with your ears open, you will probably come to know it by heart. I can recite from memory poems I wrote in the ’60s because I was doing so many public readings then. If I read a poem aloud over and over, I can probably recite it from memory. It depends, of course, on how it’s written. A “Dead Man” poem? Unlikely.
Do you have favorites for readings? Do you have ones that you return to that are popular? You mentioned that “To Dorothy” is the one that’s all over the web.
I try always to read “To Dorothy,” and I like to end readings with a poem titled “Poem after Carlos Drummond de Andrade” but which people who know it refer to as “The Life Poem.” I mainly choose the poems that used to appear in anthologies, poems that I know people will hear completely right off, or feel that they did. Then I throw in a few others. The poet Norman Dubie wanted me to read the whole of a book called The Escape Into You at readings. It’s an intense sequence with intense syntax, so I never did.
That’s like asking a band to perform their whole album. The institution of readings has become a popular mode of contacting an audience as well as a mode of career maintenance. You’ve done a lot of them. Do you have thoughts about them, a philosophy of them? Some people resent them, some people love them.
When I was first asked to give readings, readings were unusual on campus. Poets were from Mars. The audiences were large, even for someone not well known. The balconies would be filled.
It must have been a good feeling. Scary, I know.
Not only that, the faculty members would attend. It would be an occasion. I did a good number of readings in those days, including poetry circuits where the poet would be driven from college to college to do a reading a day.
Did you need an agent?
No. I never wanted an agent. Nowadays, there are poets who have agents and make big money from this sort of thing. Someone once asked to be my readings agent. He had a number of poets under his command. It didn’t go on for long before I withdrew, but I remember that he had me substitute one time for Allen Ginsberg. I don’t know why on earth he chose me. I may have been the only poet available.
A poetry reading was once an unusual event. Students didn’t do public readings then, but there was a time when Donald Justice put together a series of weekly readings in which two of us from the Writers’ Workshop would read. I was paired with Charles Wright. Generally, we students wouldn’t have thought of reading in public. We didn’t think that much about publishing either. There were always a couple of exceptions. I remember a student poet who published a poem in Harper’s but seemed to dismiss the congratulations. His fellow students were impressed, but he seemed to think nothing of it. Finally they said to the student, “Harold, you published a poem in Harper’s! Why aren’t you excited about it?” And he said, “Well, I’ve been sending a poem there every three months for seven years.” Something like that. [Laughs.]
Now it’s assumed you’ve published before you even come here.
I suppose so. I would never have been admitted into what the Workshop later became. Nor would the newer Workshop have hired me. I didn’t have a book out, nor any prospects for a book. I’d published a few poems in good magazines; that was it.
You’ve mentioned the difference between a way of life and a career. And I wonder, do you think that the hyper-anxiety about publishing is a sign of heightened careerism? My attitude tends to be, “Let a million flowers bloom.” If people want to write more poems or publish more poems, whatever. But other people feel that there’s too much of a sort of careerist attitude — everyone wants to publish as soon as they can, get in The New Yorker. Certainly to get into the good MFA programs now, you need to already have had something of a career.
That’s too bad. For most of the years I taught for it, the workshop was able to accept people who hadn’t gone to hotshot schools. They hadn’t published. Their poems were raw but interesting. They had brains and talent and personal voices rather than credits. They had not been made slick.
Eventually, that didn’t happen anymore. We had students filling the workshop who had been to hotshot schools, students who had studied with a published poet and learned some skills. Also, they were susceptible to precious theories. Most of the talented students of my student years would never have gotten into the later versions of the workshop. What had been excitedly amateur had become professional. I should note that the Iowa program was once the one sizable program of its kind. Years later, of course, a few became a great many. Careerism? Well, that’s the United States. Rampant capitalism and rampant careerism.
Although careers in poetry are a funny thing. I was actually struck by the number of undergrads we now have who want to be poets. And although careerism is an American quality, poetry is an odd choice. Part of me admires their impracticalness. Part of me wonders about it.
If we’re talking art, poetry should be something that happens to you. On the other hand, art and philosophy are survival skills. There are many branches, if you will, on the tree of poetry and you can’t expect them all to touch, but I wouldn’t lop any off. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level. Every poem is valid. Some poems are better than others.
As a survival skill then, can it be taught? I was trying to think of how to frame that question, the perennial question that all occupants of MFA programs get asked.
“Teaching” isn’t quite the right word, but there isn’t any other way to ask about it. And so the answer has to be yes. However, the teaching of poetry writing takes some jiu-jitsu. Especially if the student has notable talent. Now, if the student doesn’t have an extraordinary relationship to language, it’s easy to be practical and helpful. If the student has exceptional talent, then it takes jiu-jitsu. And you have to know how to get out of the way. Teachers should not teach students to write like their teachers do. And when the teaching turns to theory, it turns poets synthetic.
Any particular examples? You’ve worked with a lot of poets.
I have had the good luck of brilliant students, and still do. In the Iowa Workshop, and now teaching in a low-residency MFA program in Oregon, I have had a slew of extraordinarily talented writers. I should say that some who didn’t seek much publication afterward were as talented as those who became well known. You asked for examples: James Tate, Larry Levis, Rita Dove, Denis Johnson, Norman Dubie, David St. John, Laura Jensen, Thomas Lux, Tess Gallagher, Juan Felipe Herrera, Wong May, Albert Goldbarth, Marcos McPeek Villatoro, Michael Burkard, Joy Harjo, Patricia Hampl, Jane Miller, Deborah Digges, Robert Grenier, Barry Watten, Mary Swander, Jordan Smith, Marilyn Chin, Linda Gregerson, Suji Kwock Kim, James McKean, Brenda Hillman, Mark Irwin, James Cervantes, Leslie Adrienne Miller … Well that’s a healthy sample. It’s important to note that I was not their only teacher, that some did not begin to blossom until they had left the Workshop, and that in any case I do not take credit for their accomplishments. They did the work.
As for teaching the gifted, I can tell you a funny story. A few former students from years back got together and decided to have a little event at AWP in which they would each talk about me. I don’t think they planned it at all. But they each took a turn, and it got funnier and funnier, because they all told a version of the same story. Each of them had asked me some serious question about poetry, and I had said, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee.” We’d go to the River Room in the student union and talk for an hour. And a couple of days later, they would realize I had never answered the question. There’s a reason for that. The kinds of questions that are asked about poetry writing — if they’re answered, they make the poet smaller. They can be used as occasions for conversation, absolutely. But if they’re answered with any kind of authority, they make the poet smaller.
I’m always trying to get the poets to write with abandon, to be more of themselves. One of my “32 Statements about Writing Poetry,” which I like to say I wrote when I was too lazy to write an essay, is: “Try to write a poem at least one person in the room will hate.” Because that shows you’re pushing the envelope. As far as career goals, I think people started to want to publish more when they realized there were more and more MFA programs, and they hoped to land jobs — if not in a writing program, some other literary job.
Although it continues to expand, and I wonder whether the MFA is a bubble that may burst at some point, given the almost exponential expansion over the past decades.
It should. As you know, I grew up in a small town from which people rarely went to college, books and art were not a part of our lives, except for music, and I knew nothing of modern and contemporary poetry. I wouldn’t start writing poetry until after college. But dumb luck found me because I went to Alfred University. The high school principal thought I should go to college, and my father liked the idea, so I wound up at Alfred. Well, it turned out to be great good luck. The College of Ceramics, though a state school, is part of the private Alfred University. And within the College of Ceramics is a design department, meant to teach ceramic designers. Well, it turned out that the design teachers were highly accomplished and strikingly individual artists, and the classes came to be filled by wildly imaginative students.
From New York City, I assume.
Yes. The faculty included Dan Rhodes in ceramics, John Wood in design, and Kurt Ekdahl in woodworking. They were unusual teachers — Dan Rhodes had been at Black Mountain College, for example. Because it was a state college, there was little or no tuition at the time, so wonderfully individual art students would come to Alfred. I had never seen students like them. This was still the ’50s, when all we ever thought about was what others thought of us. And here were students who didn’t care what anybody thought of them. They didn’t join the fraternities or sororities, for the most part. They had work to do. And because they had work to do that completely absorbed them, they were very different from other students. I became friends with some of them, but mostly I just watched. And they showed me something: that you could be so absorbed by something like an art that you aren’t being used up by those around you.
Once when the moon was out about three-quarters
and the fireflies who are the stars
were out about three-quarters
and about three-fourths of all the lights
in the neighborhood
were on because people can be at home,
I took a not so innocent walk
out among the lawns,
navigating by the light of lights,
and there there were many hundreds of moons
on the lawns
where before there was only polite grass.
These were moons on long stems,
their long stems giving their greenness
to the center of each flower
and the light giving its whiteness to the tops
of the petals. I could say
it was light from stars
touched the tops of flowers and no doubt
something heavenly reaches what grows outdoors
and the heads of men who go hatless,
but I like to think we have a world
right here, and a life
that isn’t death. So I don’t say it’s better
to be right here. I say this is where
many hundreds of core-green moons
gigantic to my eye
rose because men and women had sown green grass,
and flowered to my eye in man-made light,
and to some would be as fire in the body
and to others a light in the mind
over all their property.
As a teacher, part of what you’re doing is modeling being an artist, right? You’re not exactly teaching specific skills or rules, but more a sort of attitude toward your art, it seems.
Absolutely, yes. I teach, if “teach” is the right word, how to be a poet and how to be a poet every day. If you can figure that out, everything else will take care of itself. The Iowa Workshop was once a kind of bohemian community. It wasn’t there to teach you to write. It was there to create a community of writers.
And that was Paul’s philosophy, in a lot of ways.
Exactly. The students were left to create sparks. It wasn’t about requirements and degrees. Sure, most people took a degree; why not? But that wasn’t the purpose. It was a way of being part of a community of like-minded, young writers, though our group was older than the students are now.
Right. And that was partly the GI Bill.
Whatever their ages, the students were highly individual because, back then, how would one have found out about the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa? Who would have known about it?
Paul was a promoter. He probably did some advertising and some phone calling.
Not in Alfred. [Laughs.] I should tell you that Alfred University is located in the Southern Tier of New York. You could almost throw an oil can into Pennsylvania. In any case, those of us who found out about the Workshop were probably unusual to begin with. We found our way to Iowa City by circuitous routes. Mine went through Syracuse, Rochester, and Chicago.
Both poets and novelists? You told me an anecdote that I still use in my classes, which is that if you go to a workshop party, the novelists are talking on the porch about agents and the poets are in the back dancing.
It was true.
As opposed to a poem or a series of poems, how do you make a book? How do you decide what’s in it? Do you consult with Dorothy? Is it a collaborative matter? When someone says, “We need a book from you,” do you know —
Well, they don’t do that anymore. [Laughs.] At some point, I ask Dorothy to get in on it. She’s a smart, no-nonsense reader and, like everyone in our family, has a first-rate bullshit meter.
But when they did. I remember reading an interview from the ’70s with Donald Justice and I was impressed at how well the interviewer knew Justice’s books, saying, “Well, you put this poem before that poem.” He had memorized the order of the poems. You don’t just throw them all in there. There has to be some sort of progression.
I don’t just throw them together randomly, but in truth you could. And you know why you could? Because the author sees the differences between his or her poems, but the reader sees the similarities. You could throw the poems down a stairway, pick them up randomly, put them in that order, and some reviewer would be sure to say, “This collection is marvelously organized as a book.” Of course, I do make decisions — I find links, I delay links, I hide links. I try to have my cake and eat it too: there is an order, but every poem is also a fresh start. Of course, the “Dead Man” books are a special case. For the first book, The Book of the Dead Man, I eliminated a few, and put the rest in chronological order since they represented the development of the vision and the form. For the second “Dead Man” book, Ardor, I pretty much did the same, but I made a few changes in the order where it seemed apt. In Vertigo, I put the poems in alphabetical order by title because by then it was a fully mature form with a consistent vision that could embed itself in any setting.
One of the things I frequently want to know if I’m really studying a poet, is when the poems were written — whether they follow on each other or whether there are years in between them or whether they chart a progression.
For Mars Being Red, and maybe Rampant, and probably Nightworks, I recaptured a few poems that had been written years before, that suddenly I saw to be good fits. But I think of a book differently from most poets. It has happened in the last decade or three that poets and critics have talked about a collection of poetry as being itself a sort of all-encompassing poem. If a book has 50 poems, the order is the 51st poem. Well, maybe. And people talk about the theme of a poetry book. That seems to me a disservice. When I get to be in charge, I’m banning the word “theme.” Themes are a way of categorizing and pigeonholing. They encourage a classroom approach to poetry. They inhale the unadorned top layer of the writing, and that’s the end of it. I like every page to be a fresh beginning.
Now, some poems simply don’t go next to others, and also I want to avoid overlaps. There is always some link that feels right to me. However you order the poems, there will be overlaps, there will be links. After all, one poet wrote the book. However, I think if you announce a theme, the reviewer picks up on it, and then you’ve precluded other ways of reading the book. There are many themes in a book. Broadcasting a theme can make each poem smaller.
I asked you whether you’re a poet of trees, and I find it interesting that someone else had asked that before. And maybe nature is too general a theme: “these are nature poems” or whatever. As you know, who’s not a nature poet? But maybe these are questions for teachers as opposed to poets. Or at least for the teacherly side of yourself.
I think I’m a better teacher now than I was for many years in the workshop. I was a good teacher then, or so my former students come out of the woodwork to tell me. But I’m better now. I teach how to be a poet every day, which means I teach genius, which is all about getting in touch with your individual wiring. If the student figures out how to be a poet for a lifetime, the rest takes care of itself.
It sounds like you’re liking the low-res. Can you talk about the difference between that and the regular workshop?
Originally, I thought it would be a disaster to start such a program. I was teaching at Goddard College, at that time the freakiest school in the United States, where we had a nude dorm, and where the guy who had been hired to teach math was teaching cello. I was there for a trimester. The poet Ellen Voigt was full-time. Goddard was living on income from what they called NRT — non-resident training — whereby grownups would show up for a week or two to take a course. Goddard had no endowment and prided itself on not taking government money, but eventually they realized they needed funds. So Ellen created out of the NRT concept a non-resident MFA program. It was the first of its kind. And it did very well.
Is this the ’70s?
It was 1972. I remember thinking, “This is a bad idea. It’s going to be like those artist schools to which you sent in a drawing because you saw an ad on a matchbook.” I thought it was a terrible idea. But I was wrong, although now maybe we need to have several more ideas about it. But I was wrong then. So Ellen got it going, and it was doing well, but the teachers weren’t being paid well. When Ellen asked Goddard to raise the pay, the college said no. So Ellen picked up the entire program and took it to Warren Wilson.
Yeah, that’s the most famous one now.
As I understand it, at that point a Goddard graduate accepted a whole new class to restart the Goddard MFA program. Which later became the Vermont College of Arts. Then Bennington started one, which meant that the first three low-residency programs began in Vermont.
So you changed your perspective on the low-res programs?
About a very few, yes. Ellen knew that she had to make that first low-res program respectable to academics. After that, we were free.
The program for which I teach is a creative hoot. I had promised two sets of friends that, if they started a low-res program, especially if they did it in the Northwest, I would teach for them. Years passed. It was never going to happen. Well, one set of friends, living in upstate New York, retired from their teaching jobs, moved to the Northwest and started a program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. On the same day, it would seem, a friend in Portland started a program that became the Pacific University MFA program in Forest Grove, Oregon. I had promised, so I taught for both schools for two years. Earlier, I had been asked to design and lead a 10-day workshop for teachers from America SCORES, an urban after-school poetry and soccer program. Since that met in Iowa in July, the two programs accommodated my schedule, one putting their summer residency in June and the other in August. After two years, I moved exclusively to the Pacific University program. Soon, low-res MFAs were proliferating. The best are special in important ways.
And by that you mean the students are great? Or the process?
Both. We have an exceptional faculty, and the faculty runs the program. We have a brilliant director, Shelley Washburn, who, with two assistants, does a ton of work. But when it’s a matter of a decision about, say, policy or process or requirements or hiring, she brings it to the faculty during one of the residencies. It’s a wonder we get anything done, because everybody in the room likes to laugh. The jokes are flying. But we talk turkey, too, and make smart, communal decisions. We do seem to attract some very gifted students, students already embedded in a creative sense of process. The program has a definitive spirit rooted in the true nature of a workshop, which means it’s all about the process and the work. It reminds me somewhat of the Iowa Workshop way back when.
Just fiction and poetry? Or is there nonfiction?
Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. And there’s a way of providing a teacher if someone wants to study playwriting or another genre. We meet twice a year for 10 days at a time, and the rest is done in other ways. Some teachers do it by postal mail. Some do it partly by phone. I do it by email. The summer residency is on campus. The winter residency takes place on the coast in Seaside, smack dab on the Pacific.
And do you find there’s a wider diversity of students? We had talked about how the workshop students, now, they’re all young —
Yes, that’s right. The Pacific University program has young, middle-aged, and older students — some are senior citizens. They bring their lives. And they also have jobs, which means they can afford the program without going into debt, which I think is crucial. Now, not all the students are eccentric and original and brilliant. Some are writing those family poems that could be diaries and so forth, and they have come to the program to learn to do it better. I like it that the more unusual students tend to ask for me. I have had the good luck of brilliant, truly original students.
And you’re still teaching there, right?
Fourteen years since the program began, and I’m still doing it. I enjoy it more than I thought I would. The students are still interesting to me. Again, they have lives and jobs. They have real world experience and have read books.
When I’ve worked at lower-reputation schools that have a wider variety of students and returning students, I always find the students more interesting than I do when it’s all just kids — 18, 19, 20. Sometimes they struggle more with the subject matter, but they also have more interesting things to say.
Yes, there’s a lot of therapeutic writing. Many low-res students want to tell their personal stories and, being older than undergraduates, many have lost a parent. But art’s cruel. The poetry isn’t in the fact that you suffered. The poetry isn’t in the fact that your parent died. The poetry is in the look of the bed sheets. The poetry is in the sound of the night nurse padding down the hall. It’s not in the fact that you’ve experienced the things we all do. Art is cruel in that way.
And certainly the confessional, the autobiographical, the memoir: these have all become very prominent genres and voices. We still talk about the lyric “I,” and although you specified, as I would have expected, that the dead man is not you, it is a projection, a lyric, a way of putting the poet in the poem, is it not?
Oh yes, lots of biography, most of which a reader won’t know is biography. It’s about more than me. I think of the dead man as an overarching sensibility, even an archetype. How could he be thought a persona in the world of time and no-time, mind and no-mind, that he inhabits? Is he me? No, but he knows a lot about me.
And like I said, we can see you get autobiographical fragments and reminiscences, both in the “Dead Man” poems and in your recent collaboration with Chris Merrill, After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts.
In the back-and-forth paragraphs written with Chris, it’s fitting because the speaker is clearly the poet. We used to say, in classes, that in discussing a poem we have to say “speaker,” not “poet.” For good reason. Even though we know, yes, the writer was hit in the eye playing softball, and it’s in his poem, we still refer to the voice as that of a speaker, not that of the poet. Ah well, the first-person obsession. The United States is a nation obsessed with money and celebrity, and that overlaps the natural inclination to say “I.” I remember a poet forbidding his students from writing in the first person. Sometimes that sort of limitation can help, I suppose. In the digital age, it’s a snap to change a pronoun. Years back, I wrote a simple poem titled “How I Grew Up.” Then I realized that that earlier version of me was not me but someone I used to know well. I retitled it “How He Grew Up.”
Constraint is good for learning, I think, as an exercise.
Not just as an exercise. One could argue that good art is all about constraints. You either inherit them or you invent them. As taught by the Charles Atlas method of “dynamic tension”: no muscles without resistance. One semester, I had a student at Pacific who had some dramatic personal stuff she wanted to write about. But her poems were still on the level of therapeutic expression. So I said, “Look, why don’t you just name this character X, and write these poems about X?” And it worked. She wrote about X with more imaginative abandon and, thus, more tellingly. The poems were better as poems. It was just a cheap trick. You can always change X back to your name.
Kerouac wanted to change all the names back at some point and have it all as it originally was.
The thing is, you never know the truth of what is presented as biography. There are poets who bleed all over themselves for applause. Then there are confessional poets who write skillfully, but in whose writing there’s a quality that suggests the details are apocryphal. A confessional poet wants credit for confessing. The point is, even if the poet says, “I am the man or woman. I was there,” we can’t know if he or she is telling the truth or knows the truth, we can’t know if imagination has skewed it, we can’t know how the art form has shaped it. We can never know. Only the poet knows.
And sometimes not even that, actually.
That’s right. That’s the big issue in the nonfiction world now. We laugh at Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” but the truth is that this disregard for facts has infiltrated nonfiction.
Absolutely — it’s at the core of its very name, right? Nonfiction. And I’ve learned not to ask my nonfiction colleagues about this, because they all hate the question, even though it’s embedded in the very term.
The elephant in the room.
The conventional story about the rise of creative nonfiction is that it grew out of the memoir boom and is connected to that. But I also wonder whether it grew partly out of a frustration with the poetry and fiction tracks, that rigid division. Hence John D’Agata and the idea of the lyric essay. And in fact we talked about your work with Chris as lyric nonfiction. Part of me wonders whether people wanted to write lyrical stuff that was also true, or prose that was also poetry, or somehow wanted a new genre because of the ossification of the others.
I would guess that some writers came to think so, but probably not at the start of the Iowa nonfiction program. I assume that came about to fill a conventional demand, the more so because there were already good nonfiction writers on the faculty. That’s where the action was at the time. That’s where the action was, and maybe still is.
It’s true that the paragraphs in After the Fact, my book with Chris Merrill, are not the usual thing. The commonest examples of the free verse line have long been conventional, which is why I went to elastic sentences for the “Dead Man” poems. As for the dialogue with Chris, yes, that’s genre-bending: Is it prose poetry? Lyrical nonfiction? Poetic memoir? Emotive journalism? We’re well into a second volume of paragraphs. The very form makes for new connections.
You edited a series of books for Lost Horse Press.
Lost Horse Press is in Idaho. I created a series called New Poets / Short Books: three poets in each of five volumes — one a year. No blurbs on the covers. Instead, a line or two from the author’s poems alongside a small picture of the writer. On the page before each collection of poems, a statement by the poet. I told them, “Don’t mention your job unless you sweep up after the elephants. Don’t mention your degrees, your awards, your publications. Not the usual stuff. Tell us why and when you began to write, that sort of thing.” These little biographies were always surprising and often charming. I ended the series because the press couldn’t build its distribution and had to become, at least for a while, a kind of cooperative that put pressure on the poets to sell books. I didn’t want them to feel that pressure, so after five years I called it a day. I would write a brief preface to each volume in which I would always say, “These are poets who are very much in the game but not in the network.”
What does it mean to be poet laureate? What did you do as Iowa poet laureate?
Nothing noteworthy. It was an honorary position without specific duties. I just tried to be available.
The Iowa poet laureate position came to be because someone called the governor’s office and asked, “Who’s our poet laureate?” And the person at the other end said, “We don’t have one.” The next thing you know, there’s a petition. Eventually, the Iowa legislature decided they would have a poet laureate on one condition: that it not cost any money. [Laughs.]
That sounds like our legislature.
That is how I became poet laureate for a year and then a second year. The poet Robert Dana succeeded me. I didn’t have a program as poet laureate. When asked about it — if a newspaper called, for example — I would say something like, “This appointment is a way of acknowledging that there are poets among us. It isn’t about me.”
The state is saying symbolically, “We support the arts,” but without any actual support. The Iowa poet laureate presumably represents Iowa, and the workshop and the writing program have created an Iowa literature written by people, like you, who are actually not from here. Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson have made Iowa into a region by their adoption of it, which is just as well I suppose. When you travel, where do you say you’re from? I actually stopped saying Iowa for a while just because nobody had heard of it. Last time I went abroad, the only way they’d heard of it is because it was where James T. Kirk was from in Star Trek, and the Star Trek movie had just come out. And that was the only thing they knew.
It’s Captain James T. Kirk who characterized my teaching. In the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew of the Enterprise comes back to San Francisco in the year 1986 to get a whale. They need a whale.
That’s the fourth one. It’s a great one.
They park in Golden Gate Park and, as they’re leaving, Kirk says, “Everybody remember where we parked.” Then there comes the moment when he’s got to win over the woman who helps take care of the whales at the aquarium. They’re sitting in a bar or bistro, having a bite, when he realizes he has to fess up. He can’t get her cooperation unless he tells her the truth. All of a sudden the camera shows her startled face as she says, “You mean you’re from outer space?” And Kirk says, “No. I’m from Iowa. I just work in outer space.” And that’s what I do. It’s also true that as a writer I work in inner space.