Poet to Poet Practice: A Conversation with Erica Jong
By Kim DowerDecember 19, 2018
Erica and I met in my early “professional” life as a literary publicist promoting a book I asked her to blurb. We knew each other for years before I felt safe enough to confide and divulge my “secret” — that I, too, was a poet, though I’d stopped writing poetry and was aching to get back into that miraculous zone. She was delighted to know this — encouraged me, and asked for a poem. Over the next 10 years we’d email one another brand-new, vulnerable, half-baked poems — not for “critique,” but for encouragement, support, and as a way to jump-start one another to continue writing. We did this not to “workshop” but rather to say: “tag, you’re it…” Here’s a prompt, and wait for that poem to appear. In late September 2018, Erica and I spoke over the phone about the process and sensation of writing, and how our poetry exchange has electrified and inspired each other’s work.
KIM DOWER: I’ve admired your work since I was in high school, and what has always shone through for me in all of your collections is how in love with poetry you are.
ERICA JONG: Right. But what does poetry have that other writing does not?
It goes directly into the unconscious mind. For example, when Keats says in his letters, “Load every rift with ore,” what he means is that poetry becomes the most precious form of writing. Why is it the most precious form of writing? Because it’s totally transparent. Other writing plays games, but poetry must be totally transparent to the life of the emotions.
Yes. There’s a poem, one of my favorites, from Ordinary Miracles called “What You Need to Be a Writer.” I introduce every class that I teach with this poem to illustrate how a fun and quirky poem can take that delicious turn and deliver the gut punch that leaves us stunned — the last line we think about forever.
The courage to live like a wound that never heals …
I remember that. It’s very typical of me and my poetry because I want to make the reader laugh — and cry. I want to make the reader go into the unconscious and then show how joyous poetry is, but then you have to live like a wound that never heals in order to write it.
Do you live like a wound that never heals?
I wish I didn’t, and I can’t necessarily change that. We can’t ever forget that however delicious life is, there’s a gallows at the end or a Hitler at the end who’s going to obliterate us. It’s such a Jewish poetry. [Laughs.]
Well, yeah, I guess! [Laughs.] Baudelaire said that there’s no beauty without melancholy.
Yeah, that’s true. But a wound that never heals is rather stronger than that.
Don’t you think we write to save ourselves, but we know if we ever get to that place where things are finally okay we’d have nothing more to say?
Perfect, Kim. That is perfect, and I hope you share that with your students because that is very much in your poetry as well, and I think one of the links between us is that we see life as joyous and tragic. In our different ways with our different metaphors, but we both see that ambivalence in life. I don’t think you can understand human nature without acknowledging ambivalence. We are not creatures of constancy.
I keep a poem by Wallace Stevens on my desk: “After the final no there comes a yes / and on that yes the future world depends.”
Oh, that’s beautiful.
Your new book is called The World Began With Yes.
So, you have The World Began With Yes, and Stevens talks about the yes that the future world depends on …
It’s interesting because people are now talking about the #MeToo movement and how can you say “yes” when you’re looking at such a black view between men and women? What we need to be able to do is to have the “no” but not let it absolutely bury the “yes.”
We have over many years sparked one another — how’d we do that?
I’m not entirely sure. I know that in our daily lives poetry vanishes sometimes because it’s too painful to live like a wound that never heals. Because there are many other things you have to do — in my case, I write novels for a living. In your case, you have another profession. And how do you stay in the place of poetry? Well, if you have a friend who sends you a new poem in the morning, you say, “Oh yes — I’ve got to go back to that place.” And that’s the value in it — to remind yourself that there is that green garden in a green shade which poetry is and that you can go there when you need it. Nature takes us there, yes, but a friend can take us there by reminding us that there is that still, small place that the average world doesn’t give a shit about unless they’re dying or having a baby or getting married. And that’s very important.
And there’s an intimacy when two poets share poems — an intimacy you can’t find elsewhere. You’re showing someone a raw part of yourself and saying, “This is what was in my head this morning,” while at the same time asking for something in return. Your poem gives another poet her own prompt.
That’s absolutely true. When I lived in Germany in the ’60s, I had a very precious copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath. She was one of the poets that permitted us to be angry. One of the female poets that permitted us to express anger. And I would thumb through the book in the morning to put me back in that place, in the place of poetry. Our daily lives sort of fight against us finding that place, and if you have a friend who sends you a poem, you say, “Okay! That place is not lost. I can find it.”
I think that’s what we’ve done for one another. Also, it’s the nudge I need — waking that part of me that gets lazy.
Lazy or disbelieving. Sometimes in the daily coil you forget there’s a place for poetry.
In Ordinary Miracles — you’d already written three novels at this point — you say in the foreword: “I keep on writing poems because poetry is the wellspring of all my other work and also because there is no more ecstatic experience than receiving a first line and spinning it, weaving it, draining it into a poem.”
Well, that’s very, very true, and sometimes you know the first line leads you to a poem and sometimes you get an amazing image and you follow it. Sometimes the poem doesn’t work and sometimes it does. [Laughs.] And to be reminded that the process is available to you. That’s why I would sit in my study and read whatever new book of poems I had: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, yours … I would look at these books and be reminded that poetry lives.
Right — and it’s that first line. That first miraculous line! I think often with us we’d use each other’s first lines to help ignite our own poems. Sort of like a crown of sonnets where you start the new sonnet with the last line of the last one. We were having a correspondence through first and last lines.
That really is amazing.
As a novelist too, you’ve talked about how often you have to choose: do you write novels or are you a poet — and you’ve never had to choose. You write both and also say, “Novel writing is like mining salt, poem writing is like flying.” Do you still believe that?
Totally. It’s very hard to write novels. With novels, you never know if it’s going to give you back anything. You’re trying to get the reader to turn the page. You don’t really worry about that with poetry because you know nobody reads it.
There’s a kind of freedom. When I became well known and continued to write novels I was always nervous when I was writing the novel, thinking: Will people resonate with this? I never worry about that with poetry because poetry is perfectly obscure. You know you’re not going to earn a penny, you know it’s out of the commercial world, which is a very important thing. The Japanese believe that when you are an amateur, you do something for love — you make a screen, you print something, you do calligraphy. You don’t think about it in a commercial way. And so the joy of poetry is that it cannot be commercial. And so it feeds the writer.
And yet poetry is being read by a larger audience than it has in a long time and people are reading it on the internet and on Instagram …
Because it feeds our hunger for spirituality and our society has become so corporate and so commercial. People are always trying to figure out, “What’s the new trend? And what will people read novels about?” Writing should never be in that category. But we do have publishers sitting there trying to figure out what will sell, and inevitably they can be wrong but we want to be out of that world. We want to be in a world where there is a purity of emotion, of expression, self-feeding, self-delight.
You once said that when you finish a poem you dance around the house. There’s more immediate joy from writing a poem. Why?
I think because you’ve nourished your soul. And there is always joy when you nourish your soul. It’s like when you’re depressed about your life and you read the St. Francis Prayer. He reminds you that you are a spiritual being encased in meat, not just a meat-being. Not just a decaying piece of flesh. This is what poetry reminds us in both reading it and writing it. I think the increase in reading poetry is the deep need we have in a corporate culture where everything is merchandised, the deep need we have to feed our own spirits and the spirits of others.
And poetry is also music and must be read aloud. The sounds of the words make us happy. You’ve said that when one reads a poem aloud that moment of existence comes back with as much intensity as it was lived.
Yes. Exactly. And we need that in our lives. The voice gives life to the poem, and it’s really important to hear poems as well as read them with the eye. Both are important, but more and more in our current age people need the voice. I think it may be because we have so much technology that excludes the individual voice that the individual voice is just bursting to come out.
A lot of people have talent, but not everyone has the desire or the courage to go to that dark place they fear they’ll find at the end of the poem.
I think that somewhere in my endless oeuvre, I said something about that, I think it was Fear of Flying, “Everybody has talent, very few people have the courage to go to the dark place where talent leads.” And it is true. You have to take a vow in a way to keep going to that dark place, whether in fiction or poetry.
Talk about the physical feelings of writing a poem, because there definitely are some …
What happens to me is I get a line and I don’t know if that line will lead anywhere useful, and so in my notebook I’ll scrawl that line. Sometimes I have several of them sitting in the notebook, and I haven’t done anything with them.
Here, this is a poem that didn’t ever get published. Maybe it isn’t finished yet:
The job of the poet is to argue with the gods
and defeat them with philosophy.
To speak of love and define it,
to bless the animals and wake the world.
Deaf to blessings
the world burns.
The poet fights fire with words
to save the world.
And then underneath I’ve scrawled, “Should I keep this?”
[Laughs.] Well, that’s always the thing under every poem I write, “Should I keep this?”
[Laughs.] You go through your notebook and find something. It may have a date on it or not, and you say, “Oh, this is not bad, I could make something of this…”
Exactly! My new book is called Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave, which is something I did when I moved to L.A. in the late ’70s. And I wrote the line in a notebook, and it resurfaced almost 40 years later!
You see — that’s the wonderful thing about poetry — it’s timeless. You came from the Upper West Side of Manhattan and settled in Los Angeles. Was it in Forest Lawn?
No, it was the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
In a way, similar to Forest Lawn. I could never believe that near Marilyn Monroe’s grave the bushes were singing. [Laughs.] “The bushes singing” could be the beginning of a poem also.
A lot of poems could be written in graveyards, there’s no question about that …
I have been suggesting to writers who question me that if they can’t find a sympathetic writers group, where people are encouraging and loving to one another (which I think is very important), that they should find a friend who they have a special relationship with and who admires their work and whose work they admire. Can you have your own mini writing group by sending work to each other with the understanding that you are never cruel but always honest?
A poetry correspondence or a poetry exchange with someone you admire and trust always ignites your own work and allows it to flourish.
What will we call that, Kim?
What do you mean?
We’ll call it poet to poet practice. [Laughs.]
How did our correspondence start?
I think way back you who said to me, “Send me a poem.” And I did. And you sent one back to me. Our poems literally spoke to each other. But I think the most emotional, meaningful exchange was when your mother was dying and you were with her. I believe you wrote me something about that because I wrote you back, and I think part of that poem is in this book. Your mother and colors and what she …
Oh, right! You inspired the poem about my mother at the end of her life at 101, responding to colors. That’s right.
Death is not black, or something like that …
That’s right. Also, I remember when you were at a certain age in your life you said to me, “I always wrote poetry. I studied with Thomas Lux. Am I too old to be a poet?” And I said, “Are you kidding? You’re just ready to be a poet with your whole life.” And I encouraged you. It was not difficult because it was clear you needed to go back to that self.
You needed it — and you needed somebody to give you permission. In the stupid way, we need permission given.
Especially as women. “Can I still be a poet — I’m 40?!” I mean, this is ridiculous but there it is. But I was so thrilled that you asked me. Because I had come to admire you in different ways as a friend, and in other ways, so when you asked me, “Can I write poetry?” I said, “Of course!”
I remember that.
I feel like a godmother.
A poetry mother.
To your poems. And I think everybody needs a friend like that.
Kim Dower has published three collections of poetry with Red Hen Press and teaches workshops at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Erica and Kim each have new collections coming out April 1st from Red Hen Press: The World Began with Yes (EJ) and Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave (KD)
Banner image by Ann.
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