Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poetry, The Double Truth (2011), Night Mowing (2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (2003), and Asleep in the Fire (1990). He is the co-founder of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry and an associate professor of English at Providence College. His book of interviews with senior American poets, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, was published in the Falll of 2011 from Marick Press.
Interview with Chard deNiord, conducted by Katie Fagan, a Poetry International staff member, April 22. 2012
PI: Reading Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs was such a pleasure. I felt like a fly on the wall during these conversations. I remember reading the Ruth Stone interview before you had published it in the American Poetry Review. I’m curious what your motivation was for doing these interviews, for embarking on this project, which was such a lofty and important task to undertake.
CD: I didn’t start out with any clear intention of doing a book of interviews. When I was the program director at the New England College MFA program, I interviewed a few poets who were connected to the program. Jack Gilbert and Gerald Stern were my first two subjects. I viewed interviewing initially as valuable pedagogical practice within the context of the program’s curriculum, then branched out from there. I should say that Li-Young Lee was also present during Jack Gilbert’s interview and helped me formulate a few important questions.
PI: Yes, I think we talked to Li-Young Lee on the phone during our capstone poetry seminar at Providence College.
CD: We did. I think by the second interview, which was with Gerald Stern, I realized that this undertaking was not only fun but also important. I started thinking of other people in the area, Maxine Kumin, for instance, who also worked in the program. The more I started just talking to these folks, these senior poets who were in their 80s and 90s—all of whom had won major prizes at some point in their careers—the more I realized that they were talking about their lives and work in a distilled way they really hadn’t before, with hard-won economy, wisdom and concision. I then reached out beyond the New England College MFA senior faculty, and interviewed Galway Kinnell and Ruth Stone. And a colleague of mine had said, “You know, this is a wonderful project, but you also need to venture out a little more and interview other folks, diversify your subjects. Have you thought of interviewing Lucille Clifton?” I told him I hadn’t but would now consider this. So I interviewed Lucille Clifton, who I ended up dedicating the book to. She died two and a half weeks after I interviewed her. I am indebted to him for urging me to meet with Lucille.
PI: What main differences did you find between interviewing these seven senior poets and other younger poets?
CD: That’s a loaded question, at least for me. I think the senior poets I interviewed came up at a time when their sensibilities were developed more by their life experiences—World War II, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the Sixties—than academia and graduate writing programs. Of the seven poets I interviewed, only Robert Bly attended an MFA program, and he famously ended up regretting it. These seven poets spoke plainly about poetry and writing in general, unlike most poets born in the second half of the 20th century who often seem more interested in talking like professors and PhD students about poetry than letting their poetry speak for itself. There are notable exceptions of course, and I don’t mean to imply at all that many poets writing today from behind the walls of academia are writing weak poetry. I’ve noticed throughout my own career that the muse loves to surprise naysayers and rule-makers. But I found these senior poets much more refreshing conversationalists than poets of my and younger generations; they had no investment in trying to convince me how clever and erudite they were. Perhaps they once did when they were younger, but I have no evidence of that. They were simply candid, concise and engaging, speaking out of their poetry rather than about it. I find there is a dynamic dialectic between their lives and their work. I read a refreshing interview recently with Peter Gizzi on the Poetry Foundation website. Someone close to my age. I was so heartened to hear him elaborate poignantly about why he had returned to the lyric following the death of his brother, Michael, feeling suddenly emboldened by his grief to do so. I wish more young and middle-aged poets felt equally emboldened to follow their muse rather than artificially imposed theories and trends. Ruth Stone, who read no theory or criticism and very little contemporary poetry, stressed to me frequently the power of her muse as a voice that spoke to her from across the universe, what she called “the teasing corner of oblivion.”
PI: What do you think has caused this?
CD: Well, I think this is probably the result of the talk that goes on in the now hundreds of MFA programs that exist across the country. While I think MFA programs can provide essential apprenticeships for young writers, they do not substitute for life experience or the practicable link between writing and living.
PI: What else besides their work and careers did you feel it was important for your subjects to address?
CD: I also wanted them to elaborate on the enormous tent of American poetry today. To see if they had any strong opinions about the Internet, slam poetry, MFA programs, the AWP, etc. Also, who are they reading? I think, with a lot of younger poets today, the large question about whether or not anyone will ever read them seriously was not as prevalent or threatening in the last half of the 20th century as it is today. There’s so much poetry published every year now by established and not so established small presses, and a readership that is tenuous at best, with precious little reviewing going on. There are ambitious poets coming up who have greater anxiety about how seriously their work will be taken. Poets have always had to worry about reaching an audience, but not as much as now.
PI: Yeah, that’s something we talk about a lot in our program—who is reading poetry today and how are they reading it.
CD: There was a certain way people were reading Allen Ginsberg in 1955, or Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell and James Wright in 1962. When we look back on those days and realize that, even though there were still quite a few poets that nobody reads much anymore—someone like William Bronk, for instance—there was still a larger readership and a much smaller, intimate literary world. In many ways, it wasn’t as exciting—no Internet and only a few MFA programs. But a new book by Kinnell or Levine or Wright or Bly or Rich or Sexton or Ginsberg, like a new Dylan or Beatles album, was a big event, at least in the poetry world.
PI: Which is why I think this collection of interviews is so important. It’s great to have all of these “emotional opinions” as Ruth Stone would say, collected in one book.
CD: Well, I’ve left many out. No W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, John Haines, Hayden Carruth (he was still alive when I started the book), Louis Simpson, Carolyn Kaiser, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, and several others. But with regard to those poets I was lucky enough to arrange interviews with, I recognized a paradoxical similarity between them all. As distinct as they are, they nonetheless share the common American background of growing up in the 30s, becoming adults in the forties, and then developing their signature styles in the late fifties and early sixties. They also shared an indomitable spirit, believing that they could perform the impossible, a spirit they needed, I think, to follow the Modernists with a new American poetry of their own. Donald Hall wrote famously about this spirit in his essay “Poetry and Ambition” in the early 80s. So, I guess that’s what I discovered—that as distinct as these poets were and are, they found their own “aboriginal strength,” as Emerson would say, in the third, fourth and fifth decade of the 20th century.
PI: I find this so interesting; despite these poets’ similar backgrounds and time period, they each found such different strategies and attitudes towards writing. Just how did these poets accomplish such success? What exactly were their strategies?
CD: They fought for it. Success, or I should say, success as poetic innovators, didn’t come easily for them. They all started out as formal poets in late 40s and 50s before turning in the early 60s to free verse in exciting, unprecedented ways. This was particularly bold of them since they had received initial recognition as formal poets. But formal poetry didn’t agree with them, although Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall never abandoned it completely. A lot of their success stems from their willingness to break away from traditional English prosody and pursue what James Wright called the “new imagination.” They were more receptive than any American poets in history—and this was largely due to Bly’s influence, what he likes to call his trouble-making— to the influence of foreign poetry, particularly European modernists and South American poets, such poets as Neruda, Trakl, Vallejo, Himinez, Rilke, and others. They took Walt Whitman’s notion of “multitudes” to a new level, beyond the norms of English prosody and traditional American content and themes.
PI: Back to Bly for a moment and his emphasis on international poetry—what was it like talking to him about what he likes to call his “trouble-making” days in the early sixties when he founded the journal The Sixties and was so openly disdainful of academic, formal poetry?
CD: I was especially moved by his constant references to James Wright and his nostalgic feelings for him, even his lingering grief for him. It was a moving experience to be more of a listener than an interviewer when Bly was on this topic. With regard to Bly’s trouble making, he, like Ginsberg, felt that American poetry and America in general, needed to be woken up. He was a natural born rebel who felt that poets needed to forge new forms beyond blank verse—to become more unconscious than conscious in their writing. To tap into the surreal and oneiric wellsprings of their imagination for the purpose of making a new kind of “leaping” sense that emanated from the psyche’s wilderness rather than what he felt were the over-controlling, form-ridden centers of the conscious mind. If there was one thing he felt that American poets and critics had ignored egregiously in the 20th century, it was the liberating influence of poetry beyond their borders. In the interview, he says, “Neruda let the wolves in, fed them from his own plate.”
PI: Yes, Bly also asks the question in the interview, “Didn’t we used to have more dogs around here—images are so fantastic aren’t they? You just put them down and they run off on their own somewhere.”
CD: I feel very ambivalent about—about the amount of poetry that’s getting published today. For poetry to affect the culture and to not just affect it, but also define it, people have to read it over and over and live with it, and review it.
PI: I thought back to your interview with Maxine Kumin when I was at the AWP conference this year and the question you asked her about the sheer number of poets publishing today—the unprecedented difficulty that this number of poets in today’s market presents to editors in sorting out the strong work from the enormous number of submissions most established journals now receive.
CD: Maxine commented that it will all “get sorted out in the end.” Which was maybe her way of saying, “I fortunately don’t really have to worry about this” [laughing].
PI: Lucky for her!
CD: The AWP is a vibrant and heady event. There are thousands of journals, 9,000 people, and three or four ballrooms full of books that nobody could possibly read. But at the same time, there’s an interesting statistic that literary readership is not going up in this country but down, if we can believe the statistics from the NEA. So, you know, poetry is still a marginal art as far as the general readerships is concerned. The general pubic in this country has never read a lot of poetry, and they still don’t, but someone might get a very different impression at the AWP where huge crowds of writers gather in one place.
PI: You mentioned you are ambivalent about the amount of poetry being published in the U.S. today. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
CD: Well, I have to say I’m surprised that people are reading as much as they are. I notice online—on Facebook and blogs and so forth—that there is a fairly healthy small readership and that critics are reviewing both seriously and casually. So that’s encouraging and heartening. But—let’s see, how can I put this? —people read poems online and then maybe never come back to them. I am concerned about the loss of the book and the future of the book, and I think that living with poetry involves carrying books around and living with the volume in that way. So this is all a part of my ambivalence about the vast dissemination of poetry today and its small readership. Last spring Kjell Espmark, who is a member of the Nobel Literature Committee, visited this country, and I was fortunate enough to serve as his host him while he was in New England. I asked him specifically why the Nobel Committee had ignored American writers for the last 22 or 23 years—I think Toni Morrison was the last in 1992—and he responded that the Nobel Literature Committee harbored no bias against American writers, but that they did feel there were too few publishers in this country translating international fiction and poetry. Only 7 percent of all literature published in the U.S. each year is international. We’re not viewed as a very internationally minded culture at all.
PI: Yes, I can definitely see that. It’s amazing how real this insularity is.
CD: I think the public still views poets as anomalous citizens, even exiles in their own country, which I guess they are since their imaginations, by nature, are subversive and the larger figurative country to which they belong. I think folks who come here from another country immediately discern America’s insularity, or American exceptionalism, as conservative politicians like to call it. It’s shameful. There are American poets and writers—such folks as Daniel Halpern, Sven Birkerts, Richard Jackson, Brian Henry, Martin Espada, Forrest Gander, Peter Campion, Clayton Eshleman, Sam Hamill, Ed Hirsch, A.E. Stallings, Robert Hass, Christian Wiman, and many others—working quietly in their studies, often heroically, to change this, just as Bly did.
PI: There’s a moment you were talking to Lucille Clifton about “what a poem wants.” What is that you feel poetry wants?
CD: In relation to my own work or in general?
PI: Both or however you want to answer this.
CD: She’s right. The poem takes on a life of its own when you’re writing it and you become, at least I feel this way, more of the builder, the mechanic, the carpenter, the plumber. Lucille uses the word carpenter: “I think I’m a pretty good carpenter.” You really don’t always know what the structure of the building is going to look like. If I can “be in uncertainty while writing,” as Keats said, then I find I am in touch with another presence that is not myself. I feel “a separateness,” as Ruth Stone said about the act of writing. I feel writing must take over in order for me to succeed at discovering something I didn’t I know I knew. I know this sounds a little mystical, but writing is a mysterious process and impossible to define ultimately. It really does boil down to what Lucille says, I think, as far as following the poem and trying to figure out what the hell it wants and of course not always knowing but sticking with it and being enormously attentive and patient, even if it means writing something that’s completely antithetical to the way you felt about something initially. The older I get, the more I feel like I know where to stop. Having said this, I should confess that I’m still working on a poem I started twenty-five years ago about a group of boys and a swinging rope.
PI: The essay in this book that you wrote about Philip Levine’s “The Simple Truth” and “Call it Music,” titled “Silence Amongst the Crowd” causes me to wonder if there’s a connection between Levine’s “simple truth” and your title poem “The Double Truth.”
CD: Poems you love remain in your unconscious. But, you know, truth is used so often–in so many different contexts, by so many poets. I can’t keep them straight.
PI: Of course.
CD: Levine’s “The Simple Truth” is a tricky poem, it starts out as a narrative and ends up as a lyrical reminiscence. It’s a poem about the truth you can tell and the truth you can’t tell. As a poet I think it’s important to know which is which and to respect the silence, or the unsayable, and to figure out how to get the unsayable between the lines in a way that it still speaks somehow. I talk about it as stones I’ve learned to talk around in my mouth in my poem “The Double Truth.”
PI: Yeah, I love that line.
CD: And so I guess that’s the dialectic that becomes more and more keen for me. How to speak the truth, the truth that you can tell, while at the same time leaving the truth alone that you can’t tell but only point toward in silence.
PI: So can you say you were directly influenced by “The Simple Truth” in writing “The Double Truth”?
CD: I think it was in the back of my mind, but I put the muse in the poem—someone who wants to paint my tongue, which Levine doesn’t do.
PI: The muse with a scarlet finger?
CD: Yes, the muse touches my tongue with blood.
PI: ”I tasted you from time to time/ you painted my tongue with your scarlet finger”
CD: Right. I’m sure I was also thinking of the passage in Isaiah 6 about the angel who places a red coal on Isaiah’s tongue to prepare him for prophecy, to purge his mouth with sacred heat. So there’s this biblical echo in the poem of Isaiah’s prophetic initiation, but I replace the angel with the muse. At the same time I’m aware we can only tell so much truth, even prophets. We can’t tell the whole truth, we’re too fractured as human beings.
PI: And as far as “The Double Truth” also being the title of your new collection, did you think of the title first and then compile the poems or was it the poem itself that inspired the title?
CD: I’m terrible with titles—not for the poems but for books. I put a book together, I assemble the poems, and I come up with three or four possibilities and then I’m just a wreck because I can’t decide which one to pick. So that’s when I send it to my editor Ed Ochester at Pittsburgh and ask him what he thinks and he’s been great. He’s advised me each time what he thinks is best. And with Night Mowing, the book before this, and with The Double Truth and he just said, “This whole book is about the double truth.” So I need that outside perspective sometimes to see what the main idea of the book is or what some of the central scenes are that point towards a particular, single title. The next book I’m going to try to come up with my own.
PI: When will your next book be ready?
CD: Well, I’m working on it, and I’m happy with this title.
CD: It’s called Interstate.
PI: Oh! Lovely.
CD: I’m going to try to just stick with that for now unless my editor tells me it’s no good.
PI: And I noticed in your poems, as we’ve already discussed with the Isaiah reference in “The Double Truth,” that there are many biblical references. I was wondering if—I mean, I know you studded religion for some time…what degree was it?
CD: A Masters in Divinity degree.
PI: Right, yes. And on top of teaching at a Catholic college do you find that these references just appear naturally as a result of being immersed in religious topics or is it something you try to do more consciously?
CD: Well, I’ve wrestled with that question for years, decades. I had a wonderful homiletics professor named William Muehl who pulled me aside one day and said “You know, Chard, if you don’t mind me telling you, your sermons are a little too poetic and your poems a little too preachy.”
PI: I also had a question about the two quotes in the beginning of the book. I was wondering if you could talk about your reasons for choosing these two?
CD: The Mark Strand?
PI: Yes, and Bob Dylan.
CD: Right. How does Mark Strand go again? Do you have it there?
PI: Yes. “Why did you always lie to me? / I thought I always told the truth? Why did you like to me? / Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.”
CD: Isn’t that great? [Laughs] There’s the quixotic nature of truth and the double truth as both lie and are plain speaking. But, you know, for any writer, poet or fiction writer, lying is essential for telling the truth. Being able to make up stories that are true or make up conceits that are true, or metaphors that are true but involve actual facts or scenarios or narratives that aren’t true at all. The other epigraph is from Bob Dylan “I’ve got a bird that whistles, I’ve got a bird that sings.” I actually have a pet grouse named Randy who lives on our property in Putney, Vermont.
PI: I like that. How’s Randy doing?
CD: He’s great. I just spent some time with him yesterday in the meadow. He loves to sing to me.
PI: I love that you’ve befriended a grouse! Now, back for a moment to telling the truth in fiction.
CD: It’s not easy. Facts have a way of imposing a false moral imperative on us as writers; we feel that truth is facts or what actually happened, without realizing that memorable truth lies beyond facts in what we write that is most compelling and memorable about our subjects. Tim O’Brien does a nice job of explaining this in “How to Tell a True War Story.”
PI: There are moments like that in your collection. In your poem “Dear George” the language is so light and flirty, but at the same time two-toned. Something more serious is going on than mere flattery.
CD: Yeah, tone has everything to do it. That poem is a Philippic to George Bush in the sarcastic voice of a former girlfriend.
PI: I was also curious if you could maybe pick out your favorite poem? Whether it was the process or the final product?
CD: Well, that’s a tough one. I have a lover’s quarrel with my work. I think I write something and then I read it the next day, or I read it out loud in a certain way, or someone else reads it back to me, and I say, like Prufrock, “That’s not what I meant at all.” So, you know, that’s a very fluid question. But in this book, The Double Truth, let’s see—to be honest with you, I try to forget the poems in order to write the new poems. So I really don’t try to dwell on them. I guess I like “What a Doll am I,” “The Double Truth,” “Curtains,” “The Mystery,” “This Ecstasy”…a few others.
PI: I was also wondering if you could talk a little bit about the poem “Pomegranate.”
PI: I think it’s the shortest one in the collection, short enough to quote here: “I didn’t send you the pomegranate to write about, / but to eat. / It is from this world where every seed /counts for a day of life.”
CD: Well, its about someone I knew who suffered from depression. Who was in fact suicidal. So, in a way, I often thought of this person as dead already—in the underworld at least, in a kind of hell realm. This poem, a brief apostrophe, beseeches this person not to eat the fruit of the underworld. In Persephone’s case, each seed of the pomegranate she eats—six in all—condemns her to remain in hell for half a year. So it’s about how to look at the pomegranate, which is the fruit of death in Persephone’s case, in a way that is different in this world, in the world above. How can you still eat from the pomegranate in this world and not feel condemned to depression?
PI: You say a lot in so few words.
CD: Well I tried [laughs]! You know, that’s what I’m always trying to do, to write more and more in simple language that’s also resonant and complex.
PI: I tend to like shorter poems, so I’ll say it’s a good thing!
CD: Okay, good.
PI: And this last question is sort of just a sum up of the book—why did you divide it into four sections?
CD: I felt it helps the reader. There’s a thematic consistency in each section. All four sections complement each other. I think it’s hard to read through a fairly long book of poems and read straight through, or even read a part of it without coming to a break.
PI: A breath?
CD: Yes, it’s a breath. Exactly. So that first section is about, let’s see, it has a kind of thematic quality of, sort of, self-examination. In the first section there are poems that explore the idea of sexual encounter and self-examination. The second section focuses on the philosopher Ockham’s attempt to dismantle Aquinas’ six proofs of God in a longer poem called “Ockham Takes His Razor to the Thought of Aquinas.” The third section concentrates on animals. The fourth section is comprised of love poems.
PI: It’s interesting how one’s work speaks to itself in ways you’re not always aware of at first.
CD: I think that’s what I strive for—those unconscious conversations (laughs). They’re not always conversations, mostly unconscious expressions. The building supplies arrive and then without really thinking about how I’m going to build this house or barn or shed, I begin building. Sometimes it’s a mansion, other times, a chicken coop.
PI: Yeah, that’s similar to what Ruth Stone said to you in her interview. “You know the funny thing about writing poetry is that you know what you’re saying and you don’t know what you’re saying.” That idea that you’re actively trying to write something down but what comes out, or what the final product is, isn’t necessarily a conscious expression at all.
CD: Yes, that’s that separateness she was taking about. You know, people say, “Oh you must have such a fun time writing a poem,” and it’s not really fun at all most of the item. It’s exciting when you feel that you’re building a beautiful dormer, or roof, or chimney, or something and you’ve got it down but at the same time there is this sense that in the end you’re not really the actual builder at all. Ruth felt her poems coming to like freight trains from across the universe.
PI: Yes. Wasn’t one of her books was titled something like “In the Next Universe”?
CD: “In the Next Galaxy.”
PI: Yes, that’s right. I thought her musings on how poetry is constructed were fascinating. When I sit down to write a poem I’m not really as invested in writing as when I have that spark that comes out of nowhere.
CD: Yes, and Frost described first inspiration wonderfully also, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” Some poets say it begins with just a twitch of the lip or the formation of a single word. So that really implies or testifies to some other power, you know, that possesses the poet. It’s you but some other you also, a charged you with a heightened awareness or life force that you’re suddenly in touch with. And if you can be unconscious about it at the same time… The unconscious is the portal.
PI: It’s like the unconscious speaking to the conscious and it’s that brief and fleeting moment where the two come together and actually have a conversation.
CD: That’s right. And the imagination.
PI: Any last thoughts?
CD: I guess I would like to say in closing that I did my book of interviews with senior poets for the generations of poets that have come up behind those born in the teens and twenties. I think that the senior poets I interviewed and wrote about in this book—Maxine Kumin, Robert Bly, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, James Wright, Robert Lowell, Philip Levine, Elizabeth Bishop—have an enormous amount to teach the five or six generations that follow them about their bold forays into free verse, their international influences, their subversive muses, surviving as a poet, witnessing political, racial and social injustices, and, finally, but not least, the unsayable.
PI: Thank you.