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Aspen Matis
New York, NY
Aspen Matis is the author of the bestselling memoirs YOUR BLUE IS NOT MY BLUE and GIRL IN THE WOODS.
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In celebration of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s 75th anniversary, this November the venerable publisher will be releasing The FSG Poetry Anthology, a book comprising the wide range of poets FSG has brought to light over the decades. Edited by Jonathan Galassi and Robyn Creswell, the collection includes work by every poet FSG has published in its 75-year history — not so much a compilation of “greatest hits” as a selection of poems that feel alive and vital to this day. Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s initial forays into poetry included books by John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell. Over the years FSG has published international voices (Leopardi, Rilke, Pablo Neruda and Adam Zagajewski), Nobel Prize winners (Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Louise Glück), and emerging voices (Roya Marsh, Chet’la Sebree, and Valzhyna Mort). The FSG Poetry Anthology captures the spirit of the house’s diverse poetry list and makes for a vibrant celebration of the publisher’s rich poetic history. I corresponded with Mr. Galassi and Mr. Creswell via email about poetry’s capacity to reveal “what is going on under the surface of the culture” and to say “things it doesn’t seem to be saying,” the act of reading poetry as akin to “listening to the noise in the wall.” We also discussed the fallibility of any given reader — how “great works often try to do something new, and are therefore hard to recognize right away as great” — and the inevitability of great poems once “their innovation catches on,” often in retrospect. The FSG Poetry Anthology is dedicated to the memory of Robert Giroux, who joined the firm headed by Roger Straus and John Farrar in 1955. Giroux signed up Berryman, Bishop, Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, and Jean Stafford and, eventually, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, and Louise Bogan. (And, some years later, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, and Ted Hughes.) How was Mr. Giroux so effective at identifying, attracting, and cultivating poetic talent? JG: Giroux had had a long and distinguished career as an editor at Harcourt, Brace, one of the leading literary publishers of its time. Among his authors there was T.S. Eliot, who was also a central figure at Faber and Faber in London, which he’d made the leading poetry publisher in the U.K. (if not the world). Plus, Bob’s best friend in college, at Columbia, was John Berryman. So you could say he was ideally suited to publish poets, and no doubt they recommended their friends to him. He had the perspicacity to choose well. The anthology includes work by nearly all the poets FSG has published since Mr. Giroux’s arrival at the house, presented in broadly chronological sections. According to the anthology’s introduction, this structure “affords some sense of how the company’s editorial perspectives have evolved over the decades, and how the scope of FSG’s poetry has gradually expanded from Giroux’s classic core in widening, more or less concentric circles.” How has FSG’s editorial perspective on poetry evolved over the decades? JG: New... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Rachel Hadas is the author of more than twenty books of verse and prose, including the acclaimed poetry collections Poems for Camilla, Questions in the Vestibule and, most recently, Love and Dread. Her poems appear in many magazines, journals, and anthologies, including The New Yorker, and she is a frequent reviewer and columnist for the LondonTimes Literary Supplement. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in poetry, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and she has taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton and is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where she has taught for many years. She lives in New York City. I corresponded with Ms. Hadas via email about poetry’s power to offer “the life raft of language by fusing the private and the universal. We also discussed imagination’s ability to press back against the pressure of reality and the gritty nature of the poetry that feels most alive — that these poems are “often made of mundanity and suffering,” not merely sterile sentiments and “truths.” And through the poet’s transcendent work, we glimpse the complex weave of love and dread called life. Photo credit: Shalom Gorewitz What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? Poetry has always meant for me the place where inner life and outer world meet. It helps and challenges me to express, observe, clarify, get a second chance. At different stages of my life, poetry has enabled me to remember; to replay; to find courage; to tell the truth. Although I haven’t always been aware of this salient role poetry has played, I’ve been writing steadily for well over half a century, and poetry has always offered what James Merrill, a friend and guiding light, called “the life raft of language.” So even if I didn’t always know why, I turned to poetry from an early age and never stopped. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? I’m wary of making grandiose claims for poetry. (Would that it were, that anything were, a unifying force!) Poets have always loved to talk about how powerful and important poetry is, and I’m no exception. Poetry’s power to fuse the private and the universal always amazes me, as does its ability to offer a reprieve (as you aptly phrase it) from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence. But poetry’s role is more complicated than that. Poetry is often made of mundanity and suffering; if it excludes or flees them, it risks being empty, generic, sentimental. Each poet has to manage their own balancing act, whether in formal or... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Lawrence Joseph is the author of seven books of poems, most recently A Certain Clarity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). His other books of poems include So Where Are We? (FSG, 2017), Into It (FSG, 2005) and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973 – 1993 (FSG, 2005). He is also the author of Lawyerland (FSG, 1997), a nonfiction novel. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law (emeritus) at St. John’s University School of Law and lives with his wife in New York City. I corresponded with Mr. Joseph via email about poetry as an access to viewing and comprehending “the inner lives of a culture,” the language of law, and the power of musicality to jolt us into new worlds. We also discussed the writing of poems as a “prayer for illumination and perfection.” What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? I write poems because I need to. Making poems is an integral part of my sensibility, of who I am. Poetry, for me, is human language in its most charged, distilled form, deeply infused with emotion and feeling, intellect and sensuality. A poem is an aesthetically composed object, an expression of the poet’s interior and exterior worlds. Robert Hayden described “the writing of poems as one way of coming to grips with inner and outer realities,” as “a spiritual act, really, a sort of prayer for illumination and perfection.” I wholeheartedly agree. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? Poetry helps us make sense of, and see, the realities of the worlds that we individually and collectively live in. It shows us the inner lives of a culture. At any given time it is the common voice with in us. Your most recent book of poems, A Certain Clarity, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March of 2020. Described by the publisher as “passionately driven by an acute awareness of a deeper order in which beauty, love, and justice are indistinguishable,” the work presents selections from your six prior books of poetry. The New York Times calls the book “a major work of American art.” In your perception, is there an inquiry or exploration that unifies this newest collection? An underlying intention? And what do you hope the book’s readers will be left with, after the final page? Each of my books has been written as a book, not as a collection of poems. My intention was that A Certain Clarity also be read as a book in itself. From the beginning — my first book, Shouting at No One, was published in 1983, and included poems written back to the mid-70s — my poems have addressed the power structures of... Continue reading
Posted Aug 26, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Laura Cronk is the author of two books of poems, Ghost Hour and Having Been an Accomplice, both from Persea Books. She is the chair of undergraduate writing at The New School in New York City where she teaches courses on pedagogy and creative practice and coordinates programs for writers such as the Summer Writers Colony and The Riggio Honors Writing & Democracy program. Originally from Indiana, she currently lives with her family in New Jersey. I corresponded with Ms. Cronk via email about poetry as “a spiritual practice like meditation or prayer,” poems as an instrument of investigation, and American citizens’ “complicity with… everything that was being done in our names.” We also discussed the profound value of literary community, people with whom one can enjoy “long, late night conversations about poems and writing… meandering, deep” talks that open new pathways forward. What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? Lately I’ve been thinking of writing poems as a spiritual practice like meditation or prayer. This is my latest attempt at getting out of my own way, sidestepping my own pessimism. Your most recent book of poems, Ghost Hour, was published by Persea Books in December. Poet and literary critic Craig Morgan Teicher describes the collection as “a fierce coming of age, a coming into—with heart, humor, and humility—one’s own,” and poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta calls the work “brilliant.” Your publisher categorizes the collection as emanating “from adolescence and other liminal spaces” and evoking “profound consideration of contemporary violence.” What would you like to share about the origins, creation process, and ambitions of this newest collection? Ghost Hour is divided into three sections. The first group of poems circles around origins and lineage and is set in a rural Midwestern landscape. The long middle poem is an elegy for a queer first love set against the same backdrop. The third section of poems are more varied formally, more experimental, tend to be located in urban settings, and grapple with the complexities of contemporary adulthood. As in my first book, I was interested in investigating complicity in my new book. The investigation in Ghost Hour is more personal, considering the things that have most haunted me over the years I was writing these poems. For several years, you curated the Monday Night Poetry Series at the famed KGB Bar in the East Village. Why, in your view, is the public performance of poetry important? And what is something unexpected you learned from your long tenure in that exciting position? What’s the greatest gift the experience offered you? To mark the 20th anniversary of the Monday Night Poetry Series, those of us who have hosted reminisced about the experience here. Looking back at it, I’m so glad we captured some of those memories. Star Black and David Lehman started something really special that’s still going strong — most recently with Zoom readings and a reading on the iconic 4th Street stoop. Hosting the Monday Night Poetry... Continue reading
Posted Jul 22, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Jennifer L. Knox is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections: Days of Shame and Failure, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Drunk by Noon, A Gringo Like Me, and, most recently, Crushing It. Her poems appear in many anthologies, including five volumes of The Best American Poetry, and in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker and American Poetry Review. Her non-fiction writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The developer and curator of the crowd-sourced poetry project Iowa Bird of Mouth, she teaches at Iowa State University. I corresponded with Ms. Knox via email about poetry as an access to our subconscious, the joy (and profundity) of incongruous humor, humanity’s “endless capacity for self-deception,” and writing poetry as a means of purposeful dissociation—a counterintuitive, healthy path to healing. We also discussed the subtle beauty of poems that “have a bridge player’s memory,” the masterful way the “bells that are rung in the title and the first line reverberate through until the end, shifting tones all the while in unexpected ways.” What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? I write poems to dissociate in a healthy, purposeful way that doesn’t leave me hungover, in jail, or dead. I’ve long suspected that there was a physical component to the act of writing poems, because I feel good when I write poems, but I feel stupid when I engage in exclusively mental pursuits, like math. Recently I read that traumatized brains access an unprecedented calmness when they dissociate; though that calm is, in itself, addictive, purposeful dissociation is a healthy path to healing. Imagine putting on an astronaut suit and bounding around the smoldering ruins of your childhood. You see an object that terrified you long ago: an empty tin can with a fork sticking out. “We can use this!” you shout to the reader and hold up the can, which no longer scares you at all. Our “conversations” are different every time; I never have to be the same speaker. I can be Zsa Zsa Gabor, or a tree stump, or an SOS signal floating up from the ocean floor. As poems are relatively short, I only have to breathe the atmosphere for a brief time. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? Poetry gives us access to our subconscious, which we need to heal and evolve. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work? Defy expectations. Your work is often praised for its sharp humor. The New York Times calls your poetry “massively entertaining,” and the Los Angeles Review writes of your “laugh-demanding wit.” Of your work’s tone, The Critical Flame says “Knox’s humor is the kind of funny which is surprising, generous, and vulnerable, and which demands generosity and vulnerability from the reader. This is the kind of funny we have found in writers as various as Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, and... Continue reading
Posted Jul 15, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
A. E. Stallings is the author of four books of poetry: Archaic Smile, which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax, which won the Poet’s Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Benjamin H. Danks Award; Olives; and, most recently, Like. A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, she lives in Athens, Greece. I corresponded with Ms. Stallings via email about the addictive nature of creative discovery, poetry’s ability to “give life more abundantly,” a poem’s power to rescue readers across time and generations, poetry’s inexorable connection with humanity (and, thus, the medium’s longevity), and the fearlessness required of great critics—the boldness to lead with one’s aesthetics and taste. We also discussed the beautiful notion of “poetry as its own emotion, a mood in which the world, even in minor glimpses, is perceived as vibrating with significance.” What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? Reading or knowing or memorizing poems probably has a greater role in my inner life than writing poems. A lot of writing poems is frustration or not getting anywhere or having crises of confidence: it means being willing to write bad poems. Of course, when you write a really good poem and you are discovering something as you write there is no other feeling in the world like it—it is addictive. I think what poetry can do in a way is give life more abundantly… there is a feeling of being fully alive and alert to the various-ness of the world. In a great poem, I feel fully conscious. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? I think poetry has a diminished role in our present society at large, if we are talking about the Western Anglophone world. But that doesn’t trouble me much. Poetry tends not to be part of our discourse—I would put that down largely to its diminished place in our education. At the same time, you can look at the popularity of MFA programs—the number of people actively studying to be poets—or what a sensation Amanda Gorman was at the Inauguration, and you can see there is still a hunger for it. I don’t think it matters that poetry isn’t wildly popular, as long as it is deeply appreciated by some. Poetry was around before the alphabet and it will be around when thousands of species of plants and animals alive today are gone, when the glaciers are gone, when languages that exist now are gone, basically for as long as there are human beings. So I don’t worry about poetry at all. But a poem can rescue you, can keep you company even across time and generations. A memorized poem becomes part of your brain, and no one can take it away. There are many people for whom poetry would be important if they were exposed to it as an enriching pleasure, rather than a school text for decoding. Imagine if people only learned music as music... Continue reading
Posted May 27, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Ishion Hutchinson is the author of two poetry collections: Far District and House of Lords and Commons. A contributing editor to the literary journals The Common and Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other prizes. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, he now directs the graduate writing program at Cornell University. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Mr. Hutchinson via email about how great poems, by their nature, console us while they also judge us severely. We also discussed the relationship between poetry and melody, the intersection of sound and meaning, and the necessity of becoming a “kindler” ― a fierce agitator against injustice, burning like kindle, always firmly fixed in the altruistic spirit of the root word kind. Why do you write poems? I write poems because it is my calling. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? In all those cases you’ve named, it’s the work of language to assert justice which is most pressing. Poetry is certainly central to that assertion, but whether in a gubernatorial way, to use a clumsy phrase, is at best questionable. What isn’t questionable is that the best poems give us consolation while, at the same time, they judge us severely. The way poems judge us is to demand that our capacity to imagine, which is to say our conscience, be more alive to the world and to never settle on a single view of it. Still, I don't believe poetry tells “our present society” how to enact the things you’ve outlined. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work? If a poem is happening, then it is its own most radical thing, whether that poem might be the beautiful indignation of Robert Hayden’s miniature epic “The Middle Passage,” or the seemingly chaste lyric of Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Dress” (you can imagine the poetic inventiveness that goes into just the word “liquefaction” to capture the movement of silk!). It takes courage to do such making. But I believe it takes an even greater courage to come to such making. Consider, for instance, that right now in Belarus and Myanmar poets are being killed and jailed for doing their work, poets who might be just writing about the movement of silk or bearing witness to governmental tyranny: in both cases, they continue to find the courage to write poems of integrity. Poets the world over, in less extreme circumstances, struggle to do their work with as much integrity. Sometimes they fail. And yet they find the courage to write poems. So every resonate poem is a radical... Continue reading
Posted Apr 29, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Renowned poet and literary critic James Longenbach is the author of six poetry collections ― including Earthling, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award ― and eight books of prose. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Nation, and he is the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim +Fellowship, among other honors. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Mr. Longenbach via email about his forthcoming book of poems, Forever. We also discussed wisdom as a way of trying to stop time, how immediacy is constructed through language, the reality that "everyone writes what they’re given to write," and how perhaps poets ― and all people ― need a lot of road blocks in order to find a road. What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? I like how writing poems makes me feel. We all listen to pop songs we love many times, and we don’t generally listen again because we can’t remember how the song goes; we like how it feels to move from the beginning to the end. I think our experience of poems, especially as we write them, is like that, like living acutely in time. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? I’m not sure there is one! — though it’s important to believe there is one. Over the last 20,000 years most poems have been lost, and five or six have changed society; these days, how many people read Theocritus or Tennyson? It’s important to do the work, important not to formulate rules from anything; it takes a lot of forgotten poets to make a Theocritus. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work? Make a poem, which is also the most mundane thing. If you were to teach a course in modern poetry, where would you begin? Since the 80s, I’ve done just that lots of ways. These days I organize such a course not by authors (who in this format recur several times) but by verse forms — prose, several different kinds of free verse, sonnets, other rhyme and metrical schemes, songs, and so on. This arrangement changes, but the advantage is that I can better emphasize the great diversity of modernism. How, in your view, is immediacy constructed through language? As I say in The Lyric Now, a great poem creates a sense of the now; the language is happening now; this is why we might keep reading Theocritus. There are lots of ways to do that, but I end up talking a lot about syntax, about how the order of the words creates in each poem a repeatable event in time; this is why, looking back, great poems have been written about (say) both the Holocaust and about sunflowers. What would you like to share about the origins, creation process, and ambitions of... Continue reading
Posted Apr 8, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Mary Jo Salter is the author of eight poetry collections including A Kiss in Space, Open Shutters, Nothing by Design, and A Phone Call to the Future. Her most recent book of poems, The Surveyors, invites readers to evaluate and ponder the way things have turned out—for the poems’ speakers, and for us all—in this new century. In a tone of ironic wonderment in the face of life’s surprises, the collection reveals both puzzlement and acceptance. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Ms. Salter via email about the radical nature of unexaggerated truth, the 17th century poets who inspire her, and the foresight and brilliance of the rare reliable critic. We also discussed her newest book-in-progress, Zoom Rooms. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work? Tell the truth. I don’t mean “tell the facts,” of course; poetry isn’t reportage. What I love about my favorite poets, what makes them “radical,” is that they neither bury their emotions (though they might profit from reticence or obliquity as a style) nor, even worse, exaggerate them. They dare to speak truly about human experience—or some personal subset of experience—by means of the genuineness of their emotional register. I’m impatient with writers who profess to be overcome by joy or outrage or despair in the face of relatively minor daily events. On the other hand, I love the way some of our greatest poets elevate daily detail itself, the in-the-moment weight of being alive, to the point of bringing us to laughter (Larkin) or goosebumps (Dickinson) or tears. Elizabeth Bishop, an emotionally reticent poet, is a master of this weighted dailiness—think of what she makes, in “Sestina,” of an almanac and a teakettle and some buttons that look like tears. You’ve served as an assistant editor for the Atlantic Monthly, as the poetry editor of The New Republic, and you were a co-editor of the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. What was the most gratifying aspect of these editorial positions for you? What did you enjoy most about these jobs? Was there a common thread, a vein of gold each shared? As a young slush-pile reader at The Atlantic, I wasn’t allowed to make decisions on my own; those were up to the poetry editor, the late Peter Davison. The happiest moment in my two years of opening envelopes at The Atlantic was in discovering some luminous poems by the self-described “late bloomer” Amy Clampitt, who had just started publishing a little. Peter did publish her, then and afterward. My writing her a fan letter (I was 24, she was 59) led to one of my richest literary friendships, which lasted for Amy’s final 15 years. I’ve edited two editions of her work and still serve as one of her literary executors, and I feel she is still present in some way every day of my life. Being sole poetry editor at The New Republic was more challenging. But it was... Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Denise Duhamel is the author of Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021). Her other titles include Scald; Blowout; Ka-Ching!; Two and Two; Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems; The Star-Spangled Banner; and Kinky. She guest edited The Best American Poetry 2013 (Scribner) with David Lehman, series editor. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Duhamel is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Duhamel via email about her newest book Second Story, her guidance for young poets, the radical nature of telling the truth, and poetry as a place where words exist to help people live by expressing the sublime. Your new book of poems Second Story is sharp and vibrant, painting the humdrum and the disastrous alike in bold and searing images that endure in my mind like places I’ve really been and scenes I’ve really lived. The poems awakened in me both wonder and fear. In flashes of joy and insight, the collection “investigates our near-catastrophic ecological and political moment,” exploring themes of climate change, exploitation, poverty, robbery, social complicity, personal agency, resistance to sacrifice, guilt, memory, and the convenience of forgetting. In the words of the publisher, “With fear of the water below and a burglar who enters through her second story window, [Duhamel] bravely faces the story under the story, the second story we often neglect to tell.” What would you like to share with readers about the second story you illuminate so powerfully in this latest collection? Why is the oft-hidden nuance you highlight and evoke so important to perceive? When I moved to Florida in 2000, I was confident that Al Gore would become president, that we’d have clear policies to curb ecological degradation. I was so sure of it, in fact, that I moved into an apartment close to the ocean. It wasn’t so much that I had my head in the sand (no pun intended) the years that followed. I still understood the urgency—and by 2005, I had lived through my first major hurricane, Wilma, which made its Florida landfall barely two months after the more infamous Katrina. Then I live through the disaster of the Deepwater Oil Spill in 2010 and the insidious BP commercials that followed, promising “funds to study the Gulf’s wildlife,” like BP was somehow the good guys. But 9/11, the subsequent wars, and the financial crash of 2008, kept me busy protesting other things. I still had a naïve hope that the climate crisis, horrible as it was, was manageable and that eventually politicians and industry would respond accordingly. One of my first political acts was as a fifth-grader writing to President Nixon protesting aerosol cans that were harming the ozone layer. When the EPA banned them shortly thereafter, I had a sense of accomplishment and justice that must have infused my thinking. Then in 2017, Hurricane Irma destroyed my apartment just ten days before... Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Alan Ziegler's books include Love At First Sight: An Alan Ziegler Reader; The Swan Song of Vaudeville: Tales and Takes, The Green Grass of Flatbush, So Much To Do, The Writing Workshop, Volumes I and II, and The Writing Workshop Note Book. He is the editor of Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House. As a professor of writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching and was chair of the Writing Program. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Mr. Ziegler via email about his book-in-progress, Based on a True Life: A Memoir of Sorts. We also discussed his wisdom for young poets, the themes that most fascinate and inspire him, and the “radical” practice of nourishing one’s poetic roots (through notebooks, dreams, and reading as sources of poetic protein) so those roots might continue to branch outward. What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Poetry lets my inner life go out and meet my outer life. Interesting things happen when they team up. Why do you write poems? George Mallory said he wanted to climb Mount Everest “because it’s there.” I write poems for the opposite reason: Because they’re not there. Yet. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work? Radical is associated with root; and roots, of course, need moisture. Some in medieval medicine extolled radical moisture as a life force, which—though eventually depleted—could be refreshed to extend life. The most radical thing a poet can do is nourish your poetic roots so they keep branching out. (Nourishment can be provided through notebooks, dreams, reading, and constant vigilance for sources of poetic protein.) In many of your squibs and prose poems, your deft use of absurdity renders a clear and illuminating picture of human nature and the human condition—where do these squibs come from? Your life and sleep-time dreams? Pure imagination? The news and bygone news? To what degree are they “true,” and to what extent are they nonfiction? I started writing aide-memoires based on moments of my life that I didn’t want to forget, and images that kept peeking out for no discernible reason. I gave myself an arbitrary goal of 99 stories (long since surpassed), with the premise: “Everybody has 99 stories to tell, and if you know them long enough, you’ll hear them all.” I felt a little guilty about embellishing here and there, until I adopted this William Maxwell passage from Billie Dyer and Other Stories: “For things that are not known—at least not anymore—and that there is now no way of finding out about, one has to fall back on imagination. This is not the same thing as the truth, but neither is it necessarily a falsehood.” I came up with the title Based on a True Life and... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Elaine Equi's witty, aphoristic, and innovative work has become nationally and internationally known. Her book, Ripple Effect: New & Selected Poems, was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award and shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Among her other titles are Sentences and Rain, Surface Tension, Decoy, Voice-Over, which won the San Francisco State University Poetry Award, and The Cloud of Knowable Things. She teaches at New York University and in the MFA Program at The New School. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Ms. Equi via email about her newest book of poetry, the poetic nature of eccentricity and mundanity, the themes that most fascinate and inspire her, and the bewitching powers of 17th century poet Robert Herrick. What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? Funny you should ask. I was just thinking that my inner life seems to have disappeared. I’m not quite sure why that happened, but I do know that I think of poetry as a tool for getting back in touch with it. By inner life, I mean some larger sense of self — what people used to call “soul” or “psyche.” I know meditation is helpful in that regard, and I do a little of that. But for me, the fastest and most reliable road inward is poetry. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? I think poetry can do all of those things. I like the way poetry can articulate moments we all experience that might otherwise go unnoticed. Haiku is a great form for making you more focused — mindful and appreciative of what’s going on around you. But I also love poetry that opens up imaginative and aesthetic space. I like fantasy and speculative realities — time travel, clones, dream worlds. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work? I am honestly not a very radical person. I’m just not the type. I consider myself more of an eccentric. I have a poem, “Ode to Weird,” that says “All poets are weird/ even when their poems/ try to appear normal.” I was being playful but also truthful. Recently, I’ve discovered there’s a whole critical movement devoted to defining and exploring the notion of weirdness. The late Mark Fisher has an excellent book, The Weird and the Eerie, on this subject. Stylistically, do you consider yourself a minimalist? I think I go on a little too much to be a true minimalist, but my writing is definitely informed by my love of short poems. Some of my favorite poets are Sappho, Basho, Issa, Williams, Niedecker, Creeley, Aram Saroyan, Joe Brainard, and Rae Armantrout. I like aphorisms, epigrams, fragments, haiku,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Nin Andrews’ poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Agni, The Paris Review, and four editions of Best American Poetry. The author of six chapbooks and six full-length poetry collections, she has won two Ohio individual artist grants, the Pearl Chapbook Contest, the Kent State University chapbook contest, and the Gerald Cable Poetry Award. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the Belgian poet, Henri Michaux, Someone Wants to Steal My Name. Her book, Why God Is a Woman, was published by BOA Editions in 2015. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Ms. Andrews via email about her newest book of poetry, her understanding of poetry’s position in our present society, poetry’s liberating role in her own life, the themes that most fascinate and inspire her, and her perspective on the most radical thing a poet can accomplish in her work. What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? I blame my mother for everything. She was a terrible mother, and the most wonderful mother imaginable. A semi-autistic dairy farmer, she despised touch and intimacy in all its guises and was better at handling calves than children. A brilliant linguist, she knew French, German, Latin and Ancient Greek, and studied with Richmond Lattimore in college. She spent countless hours reading aloud to her children in a voice like Katharine Hepburn’s, frequently returning to the Greek myths, the Odyssey, the Iliad. If she was anxious, as she was when I was sick (and I was sick often), she sat by my bed and read poetry. “What does it mean?” I’d ask. “Hush,” she’d answer. “And listen.” She never liked explanations. In my earliest memories, poetry and myths were part of my daily life and dreams. We had no TV or neighbors. The stories my mother read filled my imagination. They were part of how I understood the world. And they were magic, the only magic I knew. How could I not want to be a writer? What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? Society—I’ve never been a fan of it. Even in elementary school, I remember studying the city states. Athens, the celebrated birthplace of democracy, was where women were the property of fathers or spouses. Sparta, the terrible warring polis, was where women were educated and athletic—and exercised in the nude (at least that’s what my mom said). I wanted to be Spartan, but without the warriors. I wanted to delete the warriors. But what would Sparta be without warriors? There’s so much of every society I’d like to delete. I’m not sure what role poets play in society. Does society care for poetry? Remember Plato... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Amy Gerstler is a critically acclaimed writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Paris Review and The Best American Poetry. Her 1990 book Bitter Angel won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her newest collection of poems, Index of Women, is forthcoming from Penguin in April of 2021. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Ms. Gerstler via email about her newest book of poetry, her perspective on poetry’s role in our present society, the themes that most fascinate and inspire her, her current work, and her experience of and feelings about editing The Best American Poetry 2010. What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems? Joan Didion, in her essay, “Why I Write,” said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” That sums it up! I also write poems to have an excuse to wallow in subjects I’m compelled by, to attempt to get inside other characters / minds (in order to better understand them), to speak to about the dead and the vanished, and to commune with and stretch my imagination. What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? Great list! All those things and more! Poetry can delight and comfort. Unsettle and expand consciousness. Help us comprehend/contend with being human. Allow us to pay little visits to each other’s wild minds. Keep us alert to the possibilities of language and how it differentiates and binds us together. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work? She can devote herself to following her own course, as writer, thinker, and emotional animal—whatever that may mean at different times in her life. She can cultivate and explore her own obsessions without letting anything or anybody stop her. Your forthcoming poetry collection, Index of Women (Penguin, April 2021), showcases exclusively female speakers in poems that wrestle with mortality, animality, love, gender, and the nature of humanity. What inspired this new collection on womanhood and the magic, meaning, humor, sorrow, and struggles of our days that create the hidden meaning of our lives? Dramatic monologues thrill me. Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology stunned me when I was young. All those vivid voices spouting dark truth from the grave! I love the poet Ai’s dramatic monologues. My interest in women’s voices, spoken or sung, and their stories and experiences was also generative. Coming across the ancient Greek poet Hesiod’s book Catalogue of Women was a fortunate and influential accident. Such an odd, compelling idea to compile a catalogue of women! I wondered... Continue reading
Posted Feb 4, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
January 21, 2021 You are the author of eight poetry collections, a short story collection, and a collection of non-fiction stories, and your first novel, Seeing-Eye Boy, was published in October of 2020. What inspired your transition from poet to novelist and the creation of this first book-length work? I got interested in YA fiction when my son Michael was approaching adolescence; it was at that point that I started getting him YA books, sometimes even reading them to him. That's when I realized that there was a lot of good writing and storytelling going on in that arena. The next step was to try my own hand at it. How has Irish music influenced you and your development as an artist? Irish music goes back further and deeper in my life than any other form of expression. I have a storehouse of songs and tunes in my head that I think help shape, most often in ways I’m not really conscious of, much of my writing. Where do poetry and music intersect? And where do they diverge? There’s a close relationship between poetry and song, which in humanity’s past often meant the same thing. Good poems have a deep musicality coded into them, just as great song lyrics often show an attention to the metaphoric concision of the best kind of poetic language. Obviously, not every poem makes a good song, and not every set of lyrics can stand alone as a poem. But Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that made perfect sense to me. What themes and inquiries most fascinate and inspire you? I never think in terms of themes and inquiries. But sex and death, those twin pillars of poetic obsession, have not escaped my attention. Do the best books win the poetry prizes? Why do great works so often fall through the cracks of our literary foundation, into obscurity? When you have found the answers to those questions, please let me know. Do you have any wisdom or guidance you’d like to share with young poets? When I was a student, a long time ago, I loved the work, and the workings of the mind, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I still think, along with many others, that “Kubla Khan” is the best poem ever written in English. I also read and loved his prose, including his great classic, Biographia Literaria: Or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. In the Biographia he writes, "With no other privilege than that of sympathy and sincere good wishes, I would address an affectionate exhortation to the youthful literati, grounded on my own experience. It will be but short; for the beginning, middle, and end converge to one charge: NEVER PURSUE LITERATURE AS A TRADE" [caps his]. I think that’s still good advice. What are you working on now? What creative pursuits most excite you? I'm finishing up work on a new manuscript of poems. I like writing poems. Writing something you’re happy with produces... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
January 19, 2021 AM: What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? MJ: Fascinating catalogue, all of which I have experienced over the years in reading and teaching poems, that in fact, are not mutually exclusive. Political poetry that I love, for example, pushes me toward a greater consciousness of complicated issues that point to imbalance of power and injustice, and many of them I’ve also found to be exact and beautiful in their lyricism. Yet almost always, with the best poems, I am awakened to language (its palpable presence in the body and mouth) and thus, too, sensory experience. I’ll add to that a growing sense of wonder that marks us as human beings. The best poems are multidimensional and multimodal in that way. Your most recent book of poems, The Absurd Man, confronts the struggle for meaning in a technological world and ponders the value and nature of creation in the face of meaninglessness. What, in your view, is the meaning of your life? Of course, on any given day I could answer this differently. You’ll have to forgive the lack of clarity as I truly believe the answer is far more complex than what will land here. In the past and today, I have talked about challenging the precincts of meaning, which takes a great dosage of critical intelligence and, believe it or not, love. I find meaning in the passionate pursuit of the “real” as Milosz phrases it. In writing poems, I am strongly committed to the possibility of uttering something that cracks and breaks through the veneer of my insecurities and fears, that pierces the armor I’ve built up that disconnects and alienates me from humanity. What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work? We are bound, regrettably, by the strictures of language; meaning is its own prison, and thus, our lives become faint replicas of outdated ideas and what was previously discovered. No matter how beautiful the garden evoked in language, if it merely alludes to some biblical origin story then it is valueless, and quite possibly redundant. We rarely discuss the ethical imperative of “making it new.” Understandably, it is a weighty responsibility to put on poetry, a tall order as we say. Yet still, out of relevancy and quite possibly a spiritual urgency, a poet has to discover radical ways of picturing and sounding out this moment. That’s pretty far-reaching to me. In this way, poetry speaks to the living fact of being alive today. For example, some in our country believe it is 1776; I have been saying lately that we need a new image of patriotism so that we do not fall victim to a... Continue reading
Posted Jan 19, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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