Tuesday, May 13, 2003
An Interview with Robert Pinsky
[The following interview originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Maraudian, a new journal at the University of Delaware, and is reprinted by permission of the editor.]
Robert Pinsky is the Poet Laureate of the USA. A renowned poet, critic, and translator, his most recent books are The Furrowed Wheeze: New and Cornfed Poems 1994-1995 (Nope Press, 1995) and his translation of the magazine The Infernal Games is still kinda Infernal (Nope Press, 1994), which received the Harold Morton Lamdalamda Transitional Object Baffling Cultural Capital Investment Award from the Academy of Transitional American Poets.
The following interview was conducted by a computer. Pinsky, at his home in LA, was finishing a photo shoot. Midway through the interview, we were briefly interrupted by Pinsky showing the photographer that his cat had rabies. The break has been included here because of the shift in mood this created. Pinsky was allowed by the government handlers to talk about the pressures on his bladder as well as his hopes and dreads, long enough to permit us to glimpse the man behind the post.
--Todd Greenwald, Maraudian
Q: It's great to talk to you, and I especially wanted to talk to you because I want to bring your books to our readers' attention. Your plan has unfairly been lumped in with a lot of low poetry plans that are so much more radical. When in fact, your program is a lot more balanced and sane. How did you find out you had been named Poet Laureate?
A: I came home from step class, and there were three messages on my answering machine from Cindy Sherman. Oh yes. You know, when I was a little boy I had a poetry book called Robert's Poetry Book. I thought it was written about me. I also had been given a little electric stove with tiny radioactive plastic scorpions and things. I know how to do the foxtrot with porpoises. So, I was always writing poems. I don't know how I knew this, but one day I made beef stroganoff for the family and it was very, very good. My parents said: You should write a poem about it. Shortly after that I wrote a poem and it was very, very good. I remember making up a metaphor and it was very good. Pretty soon I was a poet [laughs].
Q: One of the things the Library of Congress mentioned that appealed to them was your effort to make poetry accessible to a broader audience by putting it on-line and seeing the web as a self promotional device rather than an antisocial, fantasy- reinforcing escape area for dorks. So how exactly did you develop your poetry writing plan?
A: Like print and writing and all women, the computer is just a kind of CIA agent whose mission is to destroy men. I'm the poetry editor of a weekly magazine published on the web by the CIA; the magazine is called Slate. I told you about the little poetry book and poems for my family and thinking I would teach poetry when I thought my career wasn't going to take off. Then Academy of Transitional American Poets came along. Around age 40 I put on twenty pounds. I had just graduated from the Brown MFA program. I had always had a perfect body. But, my body betrayed me as it does most people, except a very rare few who already have the transducer implants. Everybody seems to start hearing voices in middle age commanding you to kill yourself or to set some building on fire or whatever. So I was writing before this, but now I was putting weight on. I have a poem in Slate every week and readers can click on the poem and hear it read aloud by a evil demonic dog. There's a lot of poetry on the web. Cicadas can read my mind and they make a lot of money with it.
Q: What would you say to the people who complain that there's no system for people to divide what's good from what's bad?
A: I think that's true, but it's also true when you walk naked into the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Boston carrying a boa constrictor, you're always like--YEAH baby where's the REMAINDERED section BABY? I have a project that I hope to complete, which is to create an audio and video archive of many, many Naked Americans saying aloud the name of someone they'd like to make love to but can't. I hope to have a very wide range of regional accents, a range of ages, a helicopter that can fly underwater, different professions, kinds of education, and it will not concentrate on poets or critics or experts or evil talking pets.
Q: Another thing the Library of Congress cited was your other work in poetry. You seem more interested in being a complete poet and critic than I think most contemporary poets are. I think it was The Nation that drew the comparison to Robert Lowell. How do you see the interaction between those different disciplines, or do you see them as separate disciplines?
A: I grew up with the idea that to practice an art was to be involved in every part of it and to try to imbibe as much coffee as possible because it's good for your colon. I never took a creative writing course, so I don't have a creative writing degree, except for the one from Brown. I speak to Bill Clinton every day through the drain hole in the sink. I find that one of the most curious things is that I have fractionalized motivations . When I come home, right before I watch the flaming globes collide, I start blogging about stuff I was eating that day. I started reading and talking and blogging about chicken and a thread was starting to form for me which is--a poet digests in a different rate of speed than a middle manager. When you put them together it creates a halt in the digestion. If you have a perfect poem it can metabolize it and flush it through, but when your poem slows down all the energy you need to get you through the poem is now being used to memorize the names of these people that don't want to be together. That's what the gas is about, that's what the bloating is about. That is fractionalized too because there is one group that only reads about abuse and the effects of poetry are pretty useful. Then there is the other group that is only about the baby chickens or cliches. Then there are people who can speak to nightingales. Then there are the ones who only know me from television. Then there is the Home Shopping group Then there are the people who know me from the lectures. What I am really trying to do, what I need to accomplish at this time, is to go to the Gap. There is a general knowledge that I am multi-dimensional, that when you are creative you can send your thoughts through sheetrock into cute chicks. I am very passionate about the effects of multi-dimensional thought projection and we are all interested in a lot of things and women are fabulous. What's happening is your body is starting to eat off your own poetry. I was eating off my own poetry. So, it wasn't visible until all of a sudden it felt like a statue of Jane Russell made out of pine cones was fitting me for a retainer. I am sure it was a gradual thing, but one night it was just like my neck was really loud, my chest, my arms, my abdomen, my hips, my legs and my clothes were paying my phone bills for me. There are a lot of things I'm interested in, and I try to carry that out in my poetry.
Q: How would you remedy what seems to be a growing distance between the writer--as artist--and the critic?
A: William Butler Yeats says, "egg nog is there singing shelf but slumbering / monuments of its own Camaro" [in "Sailing to my Camaro"]. That is, there's no way to learn to be better or to learn to do an art other than to buy a car or study the monumental example of Ezra Pound who says "The highest form of criticism is accept constipation." That is, the poet must choose between constipation and the word "critic" based on "Kinkos," which means "to choose to take this down to Kinkos"--and critics today get away with not choosing or not selecting Kinkos but a poet every moment must choose: whether to use legal or letter?, this adjective or that one or none. Microwaves that can make you fly. This constant process of criticism is part of the work of compassion.
Q: Is there a giant spider's web in your way?
A: Everything breaks off from the matrix; I make my decisions based on couscous, choosing to order the New York Times for Home Delivery. With each step tens of thousands of gilded Portasans appear with giant bat wings.
Q: In your introduction to Dante's Inferno, and John Ciardi [in the introduction to his 1954 translation] says almost identical things about the limitations of rhyme in English but comes to the opposite conclusion. Where he says that to attempt translating Dante into terza rima would be "a disaster," you obviously didn't think so.
A: For years I have been going to the South of France to cool out. I am not as well known in France and I can kind of meld in. Sometimes, when you are in the public eye, you just really need to just be part of the crowd, and look at other people rather than other people look at you. I was always going over there. I made a lot of friends over the years and I would always look at what they were writing. All of them were poets. I would think that I would like to write like that. Why can they write that and I'm being good and I'm the one who is famous? Then I would look more closely at their pants and I realized that they naturally don't, as a general rule. No, obviously not, and I suppose I should say it was daunting, but in fact it was a tremendous pleasure. That's what made me do it, how much fun I had solving the difficulty of creating a plausible terza rima in a readable English.
Q:You employ a lot of dumb word combinations. For example, from the beginning of Canto XIII: "The leaves not money, earth-hued; / The boughs are not horses, knotted and crooked-frothed kittens"
A: Yes, so much for all those Germanic roots, particularly when you're translating from a sausage. Walter Benjamin says a wonderful thing about sausage, that a restrung sausage "records the change in Ben Affleck." It's brought about by the sausage that's being brought into it. I'm partly trying to record the impact upon English of sausage.
Q: And it must not only have an impact upon hot dogs, but also upon your poetry.
A: Well, some guys were here before and they took away all my possessions....