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|Interviewer: John Amen|
JA: It is a pleasure to be featuring you in The Pedestal Magazine. I have enjoyed reading your work for many years, since I was a teenager in the 1980s. Let me begin by asking you about your writing habits. Do you write every day? In waves or phases? Do you have a writing schedule? How does this work for you?
RM: Since I´ve spent the last four or five months moving away from California and into an apartment in Washington DC, I haven´t had much of a schedule for anything, and I haven´t finished a poem since early last summer. I´d certainly choose to work every day, and I do when I can. During the ten or twelve years I spent translating Borges´ meter poems with Dick Barnes, I worked several hours every day and often several hours into the night--sometimes all day and all night, when I was obsessed and working on a poem I was in love with. That was the longest and happiest period in all my writing life. One summer when I was in my twenties, I spent a summer getting up at 7 a.m. and working till noon, every day, and I did that for about three months, and I ended up with three pretty good poems, but I hadn´t enjoyed myself and I never repeated the experience. When the poems are flowing, when I feel the presence of “the goddess," I´ll go on working all day and part of the night, as long as I can stay awake; otherwise I can go a year or two and write nothing, or nothing but notes and fragments.
JA: I was wondering if you could comment, from your perspective, on your own development as a poet? I mean, what are some major breakthroughs you have had as a poet in terms of claiming your own voice? Finding a style or styles? Being able to express abstract states of being through accessible language? And, on the other hand, what are some things you still struggle with? Are there areas of poetic composition or expression that still pose difficulties for you?
RM: This is a very difficult question. I´ve never sat down and asked myself about my development as a poet, or thought about it much. But I can certainly give a brief sketch of my literary life and how it unrolled. I was mad for poetry and already writing when I started high school at 12, but I hadn´t thought about college--no one in my family had ever gone to college, or finished high school for that matter--but a far-sighted counselor lent me a book of Ransom´s poetry and made me apply for a scholarship there, and that was perhaps the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I had no real belief in myself as a poet until Ransom made it clear that he did, and I doubt anyone has ever been in better classes than those at Kenyon, with professors like Ransom and Denham Sutcliffe and Charles Monroe Coffin and Peter Taylor, among others, and classmates like James Wright (he was only the most famous of many brilliant and gifted young men that I studied with or alongside of). Then I was very lucky again in spending five years or more in Iowa City, in the 50s, during what many think of as its golden age. I didn´t much like the workshops and, as I recall, attended very sporadically, but I spent a great deal of time with the older poets who befriended me there--I was still an undergraduate, doing Classics, as it happened, and they were almost all of them working for their doctorates in English, but we were close friends nevertheless, and they were also my teachers, and I couldn´t have asked for better-- Donald Justice, Henri Coulette, Peter Everwine, and perhaps half a dozen others. As for “major breakthroughs," I´m not sure I´ve ever had any. I started writing in the meters, like everyone else in those days--another piece of luck--and although I don´t think of it as a breakthrough, I began writing “free" verse in the mid-60s, after a few years working in syllabics, which could be thought of as a kind of free verse, and maybe it was partly that, not to mention swallowing many too many hallucinogens, and recovering to some extent the religious feelings I had lost in my teens, that brought me closer to myself, to my own soul, if I may say that. And though I don´t care for most of what I wrote in the late 60s and early 70s, I think it was important for me to make those poems, and some of them do hold up. Was it a breakthrough? What seems to me more a “breakthrough" was my return to writing metrical verse in the mid-70s; I felt more in command of the sound of the lines than I ever did in my youth, possibly as a result of having taken that long detour through free verse. I have, like all poets, profound doubts about the quality of my work and sometimes wonder if I´m not a lot worse than my kinder friends and readers think I am, but I have a great and serene confidence in my ear. Which is the one gift, I am convinced, that is the sine qua non of a poet, if there is one-- not enough in itself, but that from which everything else flows. Without that, “the goddess" will not give you the time of day. You ask about my finding a style. I´m not conscious of ever really having looked for one. I started out at 12 and 13 imitating the poets I adored, Housmann and Swinburne, Keats and Yeats, and from time to time I have felt restless and tried to write different things--not for the sake of being “original," but of not getting bored or into a rut--so that I think that I don´t have a style so much as several styles; but that´s something others can judge better than I. As for what I still struggle with, well, everything. All aspects of poetic composition pose difficulties, although as I said, I don´t worry about not getting the meters to dance for me. A new poem, especially in the first draft or so, seems as resistant and mysterious, even dangerous, as it did fifty years ago. And I feel about as ignorant. I don´t think it ever gets easier.
JA: How have readers changed over the years? More generally, how has the relationship between poet and reader evolved; and how do you sense that your own relationship with your readers has evolved? How conscious are you of "audience" during the actual process of writing a poem?
RM: To put it bluntly, younger readers haven´t read nearly as much, so you can´t count on them to pick up on every subtlety, and since they´ve grown up on free verse and rarely have read much in the tradition, you have to wonder if they know how your lines are supposed to sound. Not all their fault, by a long shot; they´ve been taught badly. And of course they are surrounded with a vast lot of very crude, even wretched stuff, like hip hop and bad rock lyric, and that takes a toll. There´s also good stuff out there, like the best of the country-and-western songs, but they don´t seem to listen much to that kind of thing. I don´t know much, if anything, about “how the relationship between poet and reader has evolved," except that it probably it isn´t, in most case, as intimate and easy as it once was. My poems are full of little echoes, allusions to this or that, literary jokes and so on, that many readers don´t seem to recognize, and I´m concerned to make the lines clear enough and give them enough juice so that readers can miss the subtler or more private gestures and still understand and enjoy the poem. But that comes up during revision. When I´m in the act of composition, I´m not actually aware of any audience--the only reader I´m thinking of is me, and I´m not easy to please. If I ever think of any other readers, it would be only the friends to whom I show almost everything I do--Justice and Everwine and a few friends in the art in Claremont, and for many years, until they died, Dick Barnes and Henri Coulette. They are the readers whose approval I most want.
JA: You and Stephen Berg co-edited Naked Poetry, which was first published, I believe, in 1969. I remember reading the book in the 1980s and being very impacted. I think a number of people still refer to the book as a landmark anthology. We recently discussed your mixed feelings regarding the book and your involvement in its creation. Could you speak a little about some of the regrets you have? And, also, some of the things you are glad about? I mean, what are some defeats and successes that came out of that project, both personally and culturally?
RM: I´m a little uneasy talking about Naked Poetry. As you know, I don´t much care for it and wish I´d never had anything to do with it. That doesn´t mean that it didn´t have its virtues--I believe it was only the second anthology ever to have included Weldon Kees, a marvelous and still neglected poet, and it did offer substantial selections of a number of excellent poets, some of whom were not at the time all that well known. And it did offer the trivial ornament of the poets´ photos and comments by them, not a common thing back then but imitated often since. But it also included poets I can no longer read with much pleasure, like Ginsburg and Creeley, and--well, one reason I feel uneasy and can´t go into detail is that I don´t have the book, haven´t owned a copy for a long time and haven´t looked at it for even longer. Many people have come up after readings over the years to tell me how much that book meant to them, how, for most, it was the first introduction to contemporary poetry, and it always leaves me tongue-tied. I can´t knock a book that has brought someone into the world of poetry, and yet, when I look at the condition of the art in these years and realize what a disaster the popularity of free verse has been, I cannot but feel some guilt in having contributed to all that I now most dislike and oppose. Also, it was a youthful and arrogant production, selecting only 15 or 20 poets, and without really meaning to, I made many enemies, some of whom were good poets and were no doubt justified in being pissed off. I regret that, and I regret the harm it very likely did to my career, a minor matter but not altogether trivial. The only sense in which the book was a success is that it made its editors a fair amount of money, several thousand dollars, and that does seem altogether trivial. I have atoned, I think, at least to some extent, with my editions of Hardy and Robinson and with my recent anthology, Poems of the American West.
JA: You have taught writing for many years. Have you enjoyed that, working with writers, discussing writing, being around writers? Has teaching writing somehow influenced your own writing? Or have you experienced writing and teaching writing as two very different things?
RM: It´s true that I´ve taught writing classes, or what are sometimes called poetry workshops, but only when I felt obliged to, for one reason or another. I´ve mostly taught courses in poetry--Enjoyment of Poetry, American Poetry, Modern Poetry, seminars in Frost or Hardy, and so on. When I did teach a writing class, what I taught was mainly the craft of verse, helping my students to learn how to write in the commonest meters. (I don´t even like the word workshop--I believe it was Kingsley Amis who said that much of what has gone wrong in the 20th century could be summed up in the word workshop.) I´ve always enjoyed being around writers, serious and knowledgeable ones, whether my students or friends, and enjoyed talking about the art--that´s one of the pleasures of literary life, and it has been for thousands of years. One of the best things about living in Claremont was being part of a community of poets, people like Virginia Adair and Olivia Simpson Ellis and Pete Fairchild and Mike Creagan and Nancy Ware and Paul Mann and others, and, most of all, Dick Barnes, who was probably the best of us. I´m not sure that teaching is a good job for a poet, and I sometimes wish I had done something else for a living--pointless as such regrets are. You can waste an awful lot of the energy that should be going into poems in talking and lecturing about it.
JA: I wonder if we could speak a little about the relationship between art (specifically poetry, I suppose) and culture. I think it is probably a given that cultural conditions influence art (and vice versa). I mean, modernism came (at least partly) out of a need to rebuild a sense of civilization; perhaps some of the 50s and 60s work came out of a drive for liberation (from existent forms, approaches). What, in your opinion, are some of the unique characteristics of the current time and how do you see these things influencing or manifesting in contemporary work?
RM: I don´t think I´m very good at thinking about or articulating such large matters, and if I did get started, I´d probably run on much too long. I´ve already touched on some of it, I think. Is there anyone who would seriously dissent from the assertion that our culture has been devastated by television and movies (I mean, what movies have become); by the easy acceptability of obscenity and sacrilege; by academic attacks on the canon, on the very idea of quality, on the “elitism" of the serious writers of the past and present, on Western civilization itself; by attempts to break down the distinction between life and art, to transgress on all limits, to propose that the only thing that makes something a painting or a poem is calling it a painting or a poem; by the politicizing of poetry and painting by “artists" who have no real interest in their arts except as means of persuasion, instruments at the service of their usually simpleminded politics; by the invasion of the arts by hordes of…well, I told you I´d run on, and I´m really tired of all this ranting. It´s a culture that trivializes everything, brings everything down to the lowest and commonest denominator, and I don´t know what you can do but try to ignore it all, block it out, for a few hours and do your work.
JA: This is a very general question, but I'll ask it: How do you feel about the corpus of work you have produced (up to this point), in terms of creating a legacy? I mean, when you look at the vast amount of work you have created, do you feel that you have (again, up to this point) indeed been able to somehow document life as you have known it, experienced it? Let me ask it this way, Do you have a sense of being well-spoken, well-voiced (again, so far) when it comes to describing, documenting, concretizing this thing called life?
RM: I don´t know how I feel about the work I´ve done so far. There are times that I put my head in my hands and wonder how I had the temerity, the chutzpah, to publish such dreck. And there are times that I come across one or another of my poems and think, hey, that isn´t half bad. (And even times, though these are rare, when I think that a fair number of my poems are the real thing and why haven´t I gotten more attention, etc, etc.) I don´t know why you speak of “the vast amount of work"--I´m not really a very prolific writer. Not counting the collected Borges (and I guess you could call that a vast amount of work), it comes to a volume of modest size. I´m not sure what you mean by a sense of being well-spoken; I think I write well much of the time, both in verse and in prose. What it finally amounts to, I just don´t know. Frost said, “the utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of." I hope I have written one or two that will last a while.
JA: What are some things you are working on now? Are there particular themes or root experiences that are important to you now, themes which may not have been relevant to your life, or at least your poetry, at another time?
RM: Sad to say, I'm not working on much of anything now. What time and energy I have goes into putting some order in my papers and affairs, and learning how to live in this city. There are several projects that I'm eager to get back to. I'm editing a fairly substantial volume of my late friend Dick Barnes' poems, to be published later this year by Other Press, under the Handsel imprint--Dick was, in my estimation (and in that of Miller Williams, David Ferry, Donald Justice and other poets), one of the best poets of the last three decades, and certainly among the least known. I'm also gathering up my various essays and other prose writings about poetry, miscellaneous things, including a short treatise on prosody, for a book, Selected Prose or whatever, also to be brought out by Handsel. I want to get back to my translations of various poems by Unamuno, a wonderful poet of that generation that included the Machado brothers and Juan Ramon Jimenez. And perhaps the goddess will grace my life by visiting and giving me a few lines, to get me started. I don't know what the themes will be until I write the poems, but I imagine they will be pretty much what they've always been, love and the loss of love and the permanence of love, death--my own and the death of friends, more and more frequent in these years, and whatever else comes my way and demands to be expressed. I think often nowadays of that marvelous little poem of Yeats, which I'm quoting from memory and might contain some tiny error:
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age.
They were not such a plague when I was young---
What else have I to spur me into song?