Interview with Ed Ochester, Conducted by Chard deNiord on 6/22/2011
At Bennington College
C: Throughout your career you have often assumed a self-effacing speaker in your poems who has testified to human folly. Your candor and compassion for the underdog resonate a rich mixture of erudition, plain speaking and Martial-like wit for what you have called “American dumb fuckism.” Could you talk about your discovery of this voice? Did you find it in a breakthrough poem or perhaps group of poems that spoke back to you as you?
Ed: I don’t think there is a specific breakthrough poem. What I can tell you, my understanding of it, is that when I was very young—I just graduated from college—I ran across by happy accident the poems of Ed Field. Ed had just published Stand Up, Friend, With Me. I decided then, that Ed Field is probably, arguably, the first widely published post modern poet in America. And what I loved about his work was the colloquial diction, the simple diction, the use of pop-cultural materials, which seemed to me obviously a worthwhile thing, the clear desire not to mystify the material, or the composition process. Also, one of the things I really admired about Ed, was that he was one of the first widely published poets to talk openly and freely and unashamedly about his gayness, and all of those things combined, it seemed to me were remarkable. And before that I’d seen the poems of Frank O’Hara which knocked me out for many of the same reasons, the wittiness, the quickness, the ability to talk out of the present and most of all, what I call “the O’Hara,” the ongoing present, in which he starts at one point and works through time in the course of the poem from morning until night, and its all in the present. These elements really amazed me, and later in the mid-60s, a friend of mine introduced me to James Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River and The Branch Will Not Break. The impulses that I had from Field and O’Hara were reinforced by the kind of thing that Wright was doing and the kind of concern about the “common man” in eastern Ohio who had been screwed by the bosses and worked in the coal mines and factories. And finally, a little bit after that, I met Jerry Stern. He was, before he published Lucky Life, among other things the director of Poets in the Schools in Pennsylvania. So we got together on a regular basis in Harrisburg to talk about stuff. He had been publishing for a long time and he was in his mid-50s I think when Lucky Life was published. He had a meteoric rise of fame in as far as a poet can be famous. And what I loved about him—and he was, I think, my oldest continuous friend in poetry and my mentor for that matter too—the omnivorous quality of Stern, being able to write, think about almost anything and more particularly, to be able to indicate the thought processes, the way he leaps, in Bly’s word, was just remarkable to me. So all of those, I think, came together, and gave me things, gave me tools to work with. My work, for the most part, doesn’t look anything like those writers, but there are elements that are drawn from them all. Gradually, I would like to think my work has been getting a little bit more sure, a little bit more speedy in the application.
C: I notice that in a lot of your poems, you create catalogues that zip down the page. They are not so Stern-like as your own original litanies, but you do share a similar style of verbal drive and poetic reasoning that builds to memorable fugues.
Ed: Stern is interested in doing things that I’m not particularly interested in doing, and he has, as you know, a kind of Talmudic temperament. His mind goes around and around and around the subject until he gets to the essence of it and then wop! he makes a statement at the end of the page which often is a leap to something that wasn’t there before. And I love that, but on the other hand I’ve never been inclined to go around and around quite as much. I always have had a sense in my own poems of going in maybe unexpected directions as they start out but of moving “in one way” and doing it fairly quickly.
C: In your poem, “Packing Lunch,” you move from image to image and at one point say, “O love, I’m going on/ because the first images are clearer. “
Ed: And that’s one poem that’s actually written in one sentence with a semicolon in the middle, and that was the intent of it, to simply get on but not be boring and give a sense of excitement in talking all at once. And I think that, in some ways that’s Sternian, but it’s also not as circular; it’s trying to choose individual elements that are pertinent and interesting but it’s not going around and around as much.
C: Not at all. I’m interested in your idea of audience, since by now you’ve created a kind of myth of self as Ed Ochester in a way that is not dissimilar from Stern’s ecstatic, elegiac personas, except in the ways that you’ve just described. You envision the “poor dumb fuck heads filled with shit muttering to themselves” as you describe the common American in your poem, “Butterfly Affect.” Do you think of the “poor dumb fucks” as your primary audience, or other poets?
Ed: Well my immediate audience is a handful of friends and my wife. Past that, I don’t know. You know I’m surprised from time to time that someone will come up to me at a reading or I’ll meet someone at a college who will say they love my poem x, y or z, but how they ever got to it or how they ever saw it, I don’t know. What I know is that if you stay in one place for a while, and if you’re at a place like Bennington where once a year you do a reading, you do tend to get lost inside the exterior of your poems, and I think that people think of me in a way different at this place [Bennington] from the way that I think of myself because they assume that what’s there in the poems is me. On the other hand, what I’d like to think is that there is never actual contempt for “the poor dumb fucks” since in the poems we all are dumb fucks at least one moment or another and it is written out of sympathy, out of compassion and—I don’t want to say despair—but frustration.
C: You exercise a delicate balance between compassion and satire repeating what seems to be a credo in your translation “Beltrolt Brecht: On the Infanticide, Marie Farrar. “So I beg you, don’t be angry at her./Each creature needs the help of the other.” And in your poem “My First Brassiere,” you conclude “that sex has taught me two things:// don’t judge/ but if you must judge,/ forgive.” Do you ever feel the line between your compassion for the common folk you call “dumb fucks”—people the speaker of many of your poems seems to identify with—and odious historical characters blurs to the point of invisibility?
Ed: I think that it is invisible. I think that one has to speak out against stupidity. I think that’s a long-standing tradition for many poets and many poets I admire and so come the comic and the satiric poems. But I think that we also are people living with other people. Human beings are, despite Ayn Rand, social animals, and we need compassion for one another. The Brecht poem is a translation of the early Brecht. He can’t deny what is terrible, what is out there, but you can have, at least, compassion for the subjects of that suffering. That’s Whitman after all. ”Stand up for the stupid and the crazy,” he said. And I think if there is one moral teaching I can remember, I think it was when I was about 13 or 14, I got on my bike and to the horror of my parents rode out to Whitman’s birthplace on Long Island and the nice lady who was in charge gave me some pamphlets on Whitman and that was the phrase that stuck with me: “Stand up for the stupid and the crazy.”
C: Which is from Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Ed: Yeah, and I loved it. In school, I was the butt of jokes and picked on, but not so much that I wasn’t able to rescue some people who were much lower in the pecking order than I. That’s my idea of religion, I guess.
C: You certainly don’t excuse religion from criticism in your poems.
Ed: Organized religion has created so much misery for so many people, so many deaths, so many massacres, so many cruelties, but I think that there is and it’s observable in ordinary people and not just in our own age, but going back as far as written records, a kind of sympathy for human beings, the wish to help other human beings. It’s a kind of natural, inbred Sermon on the Mount, “do unto others.” And that’s what I see, you know, rather than original sin.
C: I’m interested in that impulse in you because it seems to be there from the start of your career. You grew up in Brooklyn in the forties.
Ed: I was born in Brooklyn, but grew up in Queens.
C: Your father was an insurance man and did your mother also work?
Ed: She worked as a secretary.
C: Her name was, Viola, right?
C: And your grandmother worked boiling diapers.
Ed: Well, that was one grandmother.
C: One grandmother.
Ed: My grandmother Ochester. The grandmother who lived with us was a person with not quite an elementary school education.
Ed: Her father had owned a delicatessen for a while and she worked in that, making salads and stuff, and for much of her life, after her husband died at an early age, she lived with her children. We had a house in Queens, which was bought at the beginning of the Depression with the last money that the family had, a family house. My mother’s brother lived upstairs with his wife and daughter and we lived downstairs. And my grandmother and her maiden sister also lived in the house, and she spent the rest of her life living in the house, you know, talking to local tradesmen, who were friends, meeting with friends from her past life, always in our house, never went anywhere. She was earning her keep, she felt, by doing laundry. She was the cook for great occasions and ordinary days, and also had a great influence on me, I think, because she was—what would you say?—a kind of natural Christian. She never cared about going to church.
C: Like you were just describing a minute ago.
Ed: Yeah, but she had a sort of natural kindness, a gift for easing pain for people, friends of hers, the kids in the family, her own children. She was a remarkable human being.
C: So she must have had a huge influence.
Ed: She was the one who raised me really because my mother went to work. She was there every day when I came home from school. For a long time, because I had asthma as a kid—my parents had bought a little place in upstate New York outside of Newburgh—and every summer to improve my health, also to simply improve their lives, my grandmother and I were dropped off in that place, and my parents would come back once a week to bring groceries, but I lived with her for three months at a time, and we had many conversations and we got along amicably. She never disciplined me in any way at all, so I had a great relationship with her.
C: You were like a son to her.
Ed: Very much, yeah.
C: It sounds like you grew up very close to the street.
Ed: The area where I lived was mixed, was basically German, Italian, some middle-Eastern and German Jews lived in the area, a few Irishmen. It was one of those places in Queens, which like now was just a mixture of striving families. And on Woodhaven Boulevard which was eight lanes—eight traffic lanes wide at that time—in Queens there were distinct German neighborhoods, Jewish neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, various other ethnic neighborhoods, which usually were distinct, but at the same time kids from those communities were all drawn into the high school I went to, Richmond Hill High School, and what that meant is that you met a lot of different sensibilities, and that was very good. One of my very close friends who was Jewish had a mother who loved poetry and was the only mother I ever knew growing up who loved poetry. Another friend of mine, who was Italian, was one of the kids who had a great love for opera, and her father was a metal worker, a craftsman who, among other things, made the iron gates at the Bloomingdales store in Manhattan. But to have that diversity of population, that diversity of interests and skills was wonderful because it rubbed off on you.
C: There must have been a lot of storytelling.
Ed: Talking about the old country.
C: Your background in primarily Polish.
Ed: It’s Polish and German.
C: And so this was not a neighborhood where there were a lot of Germans but not a lot Polish.
C: Your original family name was not Ochester but…
C: Which your father or your grandfather changed to Ochester?
Ed: My grandfather.
C: Which sounds Irish, but not really.
Ed: Well, this was when my father was very young, as I mention in my poem, “Changing the Name to Ochester,” but the family had moved to an Irish neighborhood around Chauncey Street in Brooklyn, and apparently, so far as anybody could tell, he changed his name to Ochester because to him it sounded Irish. And of course, no Irishman has ever thought for a second that was an Irish name…since there is no county Chester, at least not in Ireland. It’s one of those idiotic things that happen all the time, but make a difference in the lives of people.
CD: Do you feel this name change ever affected your identity or sense of yourself as a poet or ancestral image of yourself?
E: See, I never knew this, because my father was so ashamed of his father and what had happened. He was so outraged because his father had left the family, had left my grandmother Ochester. My father, or one of his brothers, would get in touch with their father to tell him about deaths or major changes in the family, but they never spoke about him to the people in my generation. I didn’t know any of this until after my father died when I was going through his papers. And when I said to my mother, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” she said “your father wouldn’t let me.”
CD: In your poem “Dreaming About My Father,” you imagine a posthumous conversation with your father that’s heartfelt, archetypal, and painfully remorseful. “’I’m sorry he says,’ as we roll a load of stones/ toward the wall he’s building toward the big maple, “that I didn’t talk to you more—what can I say?/ I was tired and angry—and that I called you/ good for nothing.’” But there’s a repproachement in the poem. The poem ends with these lines, “I know,” he says, “but it doesn’t matter/ now that we’re here/ and we’re talking, now that we don’t even have to talk.” Your speaker—you—appears to feel a clear sense of forgiveness, freedom and filial catharsis by the end of this imagined conversation.
E: Yes, all those things. The strange thing about that poem is that I’ve read it a number of times. I’ve read it at Bennington several times in the past and almost every time, someone or some people will come up after and say, “That’s just like my father.” For whatever reason—is it universal? I don’t know—but it is certainly common in America for sons to not get along with their fathers or do so at a very elementary level and so I think that that poem is so specific it talks to everybody.
CD: Yes, and then in your poem, For My Son, Ned, you write, “I want to say 30 some years after/ the momentous event of your birth, ‘hello?’/ and ‘I’m trying to redress the balance’/ and, “welcome to the world’.” Maybe things that your father couldn’t say to you?
E: Sure, and I was very conscious at the time of composition that those two poems were going together, that they spoke to one another. I certainly have a much warmer and closer relationship with my son, I think, than I did with my father. But I can tell there’s all kinds of strain there.
CD: In a recent interview I conducted with Robert Bly, he quoted his poem ”Words a Dreamer Spoke to My Father in Maine,” the ending of which captures this paternal/filial wound. “My dead father stood beside me,/ But his eyes remained on my chest./ I say to him for the first time, ‘Oh look at me when we talk.’” Your poems about your father and son address both the remorse Bly mentions in his poem and the promise of still saying what we need to say to our children while we still can.
E: So much of what we thought about was trivial. So much of our criticism of other people is utterly trivial. A student of mine the other day was using Donald Hall’s wonderful line from his poem “One Day,” which is a this-is-a-what-you shall-do kind of line: “Work, love, build a house, die.” And that’s a kind of simplicity that covers the major things. And the other stuff isn’t necessary, but you don’t know it at the time.
CD: Hall informed me that that saying is a Swabian aphorism. It reminds me also of the Zen saying, “Cut wood, carry water.” You found a language in poetry that wasn’t happening in your family, especially between you and your father, that came obviously a little later than your childhood years. You went to high school, then Cornell, then Harvard, which you liked and disliked, before you finished your graduate education at the University if Wisconsin. Did you begin writing poetry seriously during your PhD studies at Wisconsin?
E: Well actually, I would say starting around the time I was in my last couple years at Cornell, undergraduate college. I was writing poems from the time I was in high school, but not doing anything close in spirit or in appearance to what I’ve done for most of my life until the last year or two of college. I think the first poem I really liked was taken when I was a senior in college, by the Beloit Poetry Journal. And there was one little poem which was pretty crappy but which had echoes of later stuff that was published when I was in high school right next to a poem by Bukowski, in a magazine called Epos. But I didn’t have a strong sense of how to put it together, I don’t think, until I wound up in Wisconsin and things came together there for me—friends, my reading, the politics at the time; it all came together and I started to see some ways out.
C: Did you receive your MFA there too?
Ed: No, I was on the PhD track. I never finished the dissertation, although I finished all the other requirements. At the time you could do that and move on and get a job.
C: You then got your first teaching job at the University of Florida?
Ed: I did, but I didn’t like it too much. I then went to the University of Pittsburgh. In the first couple of years, I decided I was not going to finish the dissertation and I went to the then chair of the department—this was the early 70’s—and said, “Well I’m going to write poems, I’m not going to finish my dissertation.” Of course if you did this now, you’d be out on your ass inside of a week. And his response, Lord bless him, was to say, “Well there are many ways to the chosen land, just work on…”(laughing).
C: What was your dissertation on?
Ed: It was a very long one, the reason it never got done, on James Shirley, the Caroline and Jacobean dramatist who wrote more plays than anyone else from the period except for Shakespeare. And I decided I was going to deal with them all!
C: Very ambitious.
Ed: Well it was stupidity, I think. I had a polymath as a mentor who didn’t tell me that that wasn’t wise. He just let me go, so it was not to be, but that was one of the great pieces of luck of my life—that I happened to come out of graduate school at a time I didn’t have to lock myself in and still managed to get through.
C: I’d like to return to a question about the arc and conceit of your poetry. You write in your poem “The March of the Penguins” that we are “the first country to pass from barbarism to decadence without an interlude.” Do you feel as a poet that you are also an American witness preserving some sanctuary of civilization in this country with your demotic, often ironic voice? I guess this also raises the question of whether Auden was right when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Ed: I made a parodic comment on Auden in which I’m at a cabin at the McDowell Colony in the great cold and I take a book of poetry down from the shelf to start a fire and say, “At last poetry makes something happen.”
C: That’s good.
Ed: But the answer to it is that my sense has always been that it’s in the arts, and poetry certainly, but also in fiction, non-fiction and the other arts that things happen in the sense of recognition of what’s out there and recognition of possible responses. The terrible thing about popular culture, as much as I love it, is that it increasingly tends to be an instrument of salesmanship, and it’s false for many reasons, but it’s particularly false for that reason. You know, we’re all free, free to buy merchandise. It’s in poetry and fiction and maybe some movies, maybe in the spirit of some music that we get outside of those views or that insistence. And so, in that way, poetry makes something happen. It allows people to be free in a dimension of their mind. And once upon a time, maybe once again in the future, Brecht and Neruda actually did make things happen in a way, in the sense of encouraging people, awakening people.
C: You write sort of paradoxically at the end of, “Ballerina,” “America, close your eyes and you will see me dancing.” This line of course sounds like it could be right out of Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” but you are saying that only when America closes its eyes can it see what it’s distracted from seeing.
Ed: That’s a very early poem, and I wrote that, I think, as more of a joke…in a joking way more than anything else. It was meant to be a taunt, I think, rather than anything else. But what the poem is saying is that you can imagine yourself as whatever you want to be, even if there are pressures against you for doing that. And the call at the end is to imagine how that’s possible I guess, or what it might look like.
C: I’m curious about your inclination to make bold leaps in your poetry, as many poets of your and your preceding generation have also done, conjuring expression that is both humorous and tragic. We see it in Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, John Berryman, Ruth Stone, James Tate, John Ashbery, Thomas Lux, Bill Knott and many others. I’m wondering why you think, just from a historical or aesthetic standpoint, why this flowering of leaping poetry that was so prevalent in many European and South American Modernists took so long in this country?
Ed: It’s still a minority position in many ways, and I think there are all sorts of reasons why this might be the case, but one is that the poetry that the large majority of people may know, if they know any poetry at all, is poetry that they don’t like, which is very serious, which was given to them by teachers in elementary and secondary schools who didn’t like poetry either. And consequently, even though you don’t ready poetry, you know that poetry is a highly serious form of art and so it’s disturbing to see people in the present being satirical, being humorous in poems. The second thing, I think, and there are surely other reasons, but the second thing is the high icons, the major icons of the Modernist Movement of poetry in English were, although they had their humorous moments, all highly serious people, so…capitals on all of these words.
C: So what happened?
Ed: Well, that’s what I’m taking as one of the swings, why half of the people didn’t write humorous poems before, but in American literature, once you began to get those elements of what I’m calling Post Modernism, for want of a better phrase, once you started to get people like Ed Field, or Frank O’Hara with some of the poems that were giddy or funny at the same time, those were elements that you saw and wanted to emulate. You wanted to do something of the same. And so yeah, I think it’s grown and I think that in recent years, publication of anthologies like Stand Up Poetry has impelled it further. The only thing I would say about this is that a lot of people, including myself, get tired of poetry readings which are basically joke sessions…it’s just too monolithic, but that doesn’t mean that all the poems or the good poems which have humorous elements, comic or satiric, are joke-telling, you know? They are employing humor in different ways, not just the most reductive of stand-up performances.
C: I’d like to turn to the theme of loneliness that occurs in a lot of your poems. You write in “Goodbye, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen Poem,” “May we only be lonely/ by choice.” Has loneliness, as opposed to isolation or privacy, been instrumental in your work as a conceit and a condition?
Ed: Well, I mean, not to sound too pretentious… it is the human condition. Britt and I live by choice in a county not too far from Pittsburgh, but we don’t have any neighbors close, and so in a number of the poems that I’ve written, reflecting where I live, it’s very quiet at night. There are not people dancing by in the street. And so there is that. But there’s also behind that…”you can only be lonely by choice”…people need to be by themselves. They can’t be and shouldn’t be tweeting all the time, you know and holding hands all the time. That’s what I mean, lonely by choice, being alone when you need to be alone and when it’s useful to be alone. In the country, you set the terms for that. You can go back to the city if you want. You can be with friends if that’s what you wish, but you don’t have to be, and you can have a mixture, which, to me at least, is very pleasant. You know, when I want to bay at the moon, I can be there and I’m happy to be alone, but I’d go nuts if I were in that condition all the time.
C: Right, right. You’ve gone to some writers retreats throughout your life like McDowell.
Ed: I’ve been to McDowell and Yaddo. I’ve never done a lot of that because we live in the country and it’s so conducive to work. I wanted to go, I think, just to be at Yaddo and see, and to be at McDowell and see and I liked both of them. The people I met there were great, but I didn’t get arguably more work done there than I do at home when I go to a quiet place. We have two houses on the property. When I go into the old house, down below us, I’ve got a private room inside and a private porch and I can get a hell of a lot of work done.
C: We talked about this earlier in regard to “Packing Lunch,” the idea of the clear image. Do you feel too much thought or elaboration tends to obscure or ruin poetic expression as opposed to…
Ed: You mean a revision?
Ed: One of the things that I do find in revision is that when I’m making a mistake in revision, I’ll overcomplicate a poem. I’ll start to try to refine the sentiment of the speaker and sometimes, essentially, will just drive it into the sand. I think that often a poem is generated by a conflict of impulses, a conflict of ideas, that haven’t been resolved. And the reason the poem begins is that you’ve got these warring impulses at work. And I try not to investigate those too closely. I like to see what they do once I’m writing, and then maybe once the poem is done, if it is, I have a clear idea where it comes from, and I can generalize and say, oh I was doing that. But that’s, I think, when you murder to dissect. When you’re trying to put a poem on the page, you don’t want to be too fine in thinking it out.
C: Right. This leads me to the question about form and your idea of form in your work. Gerald Stern on the back of Unreconstructed says in the last sentence of his blurb, “He has turned into one of our very best poets. His poems are gorgeous, brilliant, heartbreaking and formally wise.” He uses the phrase “formally wise” there.
Ed: Well that’s really very generous of Gerry.
C: Well its true. But in your poem, “Unreconstructed” you attack the formalist head on, and say that anyone who uses form should not be trusted. So I’m interested in what form you found for yourself outside the kind of conventional form you attack in “Unreconstructed.”
Ed: That particular poem was written at a time when there were new formalist anthologies coming out all over the place, and as you know, there may very well be some excellent poems in any individual anthology, but much of it is just cookbook crap, and the danger for American writers right now, and at that time, is that for people who aren’t too smart, the sense is, if you just fulfill the obligations of a particular arbitrary form that that’s going to be poem. That’s as idiotic to me as saying if you use end rhyme it’s got to be a poem. That’s what my poem was written against. I’ve published a number of people in the Pitt Poetry Series who are very skillful with such forms as the sestina, sonnet, pantoum, villanelle, so on and so on, and I admire that. I use elements of conventional prosody in my own poems, but I’m also one of those people who grew up at a time when organic form made a great deal of sense to me and still does. I do think that, ideally, every content will suggest its own form.
C: When you say organic form, could you just elaborate a little on that?
Ed: Well basically, this is what Creeley was talking about; this is what Levertov was talking about. The assumption or belief is that in every subject, in every content, there is a kind of germ, as there may be in a seed, that will develop according to the suggestion or the necessity of the subject.
C: Right, it’s very similar to what Bly said in his journals The Fifties about the dangers of being governed by the conscious mind.
E: Yes. Bly, when it comes to talking about poetry, talking about the look of poetry, is a very wise man, and when Creeley, Olsen, Levertov and so on were talking about it way back then, they attempted to define the free verse poem as that verse poem which isn’t free, but which discovers its own form. And even Frost for that matter said that the poem is “like an ice cube on a hot stove. It finds its way by its own melting.” All of these are metaphors for what actually happens in the composition of a poem, and even if you are writing a dandy sonnet you still are going to have some of those things happen. Take Frost’s sonnet—“The Silken Tent,” which I always say is one of the most perfect poems in American English—it isn’t just that the sonnet form is handled so skillfully but that he’s found the right way to introduce and to elaborate on the metaphor of the woman as the silken tent, and it’s just absolutely gorgeous because the content and its variation fit so beautifully with the demands of conventional form. I will say also that some of the poems of Bukowski, for example, and there are many poems like this, are such that just the really good representation of an interesting spoken voice is enough to carry it. Or the prose poem if you like, may work as a poem because the conversation that’s captured, or the voice, is so interesting. It really depends on the forward thrust of speech.
C: Well, there’s a strong, unabashed voice in a lot of your poems. I’m thinking, for instance, of your poem “Snow White,” that relies almost fully on a candid, ribald voice, as opposed to some of your narrative poems. In this poem, “Dopey says, “Finally got me a blow job from them faggots over in Uncle Remus.” “Oh, says Doc, how wuz it?” “Well, didn’t taste too bad.” What sort of mode do you shift into when writing a poem with so much voice as this from your more often narrative style?
Ed: It’s just fun. Another slap at Disney. There are many jokes, as you probably know, based on the seven dwarfs. A friend told me that joke about Dopey’s blow job, so I stole it and stuck it in the poem.
C: It’s a poem you probably couldn’t send out to a conventional journal.
Ed: It will never appear, in all likelihood, in the Georgia Review.
C: Or in the Kenyan Review.
Ed: Or the Kenyon Review.
C: So you’ve published a lot of bawdy poems in journals like the Chiron Review and One Trick Pony and Nerve Cowboy.
C: I was wondering if you could talk about your long history of publishing subversive poems in such journals as Nerve Cowboy and One Trick Pony.
Ed: I’ve just done it for a long, long time and it’s not a mark of a split personality. I think it’s a mark of an integrated personality. But the fact is that some of the better-known, better-established and larger magazines that publish poetry are not necessarily hostile to a comic poem or a satiric poem, but it can’t be too simple a line. There has to be a more highly textured artifact. Whereas magazines like the ones you mentioned, if the thing has…if the poem has a strong motion, a strong reaction on the part of the reader, they’re quite willing to do it, at the same time as those magazines don’t want to deal with what they would imagine, I guess, to be the fussier poems, the more complicated poems, the more mystifying poems. And that’s just the way it is. I have nothing to say about that. Ideally, magazines will be able to publish a range. But as you know at the present time, it is very difficult for a gay writer to discuss his/her sexuality in a poem, in a major university magazine without “texturizing.” I don’t want to name names, but it just hasn’t appeared. And it’s very difficult, or at least used to be difficult for blacks and minorities to publish in good sound literary magazines because obviously they weren’t really doing the good stuff. I’m not sure what to say about it except one responds to publishing possibilities. But what I can tell you is that when I’m doing readings I try to have a mix of the more easily apprehended comic poems, the emotionally complex poems, and I never find in an audience, at least no one who’d talk to me about it, I’ve never found in an audience rejection of one kind or the other. If it’s a successful reading, and people were enthused they’ll come up and say, I loved that one, or I loved “Snow White”, or “Pocahontas,” and someone else will come up and say again, that poem about your father who died, just wonderful. That’s the way it ought to be. But it just isn’t that way in magazines. And that’s not my fault, that’s their fault.
C: That’s interesting because you’re saying your audiences are responding equally…
Ed: In my experience, I’m not just talking about college audiences, but townspeople, local bars, are much more open-minded or omnivorous, whatever is the right word, than many editors.
C: That’s fascinating. You and Judith Vollmer are publishing a lot of poems at 5 AM like “Snow White.”
Ed: Well we bring them together. That was really, in my mind. Everybody involved with the magazine in the beginning had the same sense that it would be wonderful to have a magazine that would be—this is borrowing a phrase from Paul Zimmer— “a republic of many voices” and would really reflect the people out there in the United States. So that’s what we’ve tried to do. And it’s one of the reasons we’ve kept it up for so many years, because we think it’s important to do.
C: Isn’t it ironic how many American poems that were considered taboo by the mainstream literary journals of their day have not only made it into the mainstream but become classics. “Song of Myself,” “Howl,” and even “This Be The Verse” come immediately to mind.
Ed: Well there certainly was a lot of resistance to “Howl.”
C: Yes, but just how those poems got into the main stream of
American poetry in the first place is an ironic, telling story.
Ed: Well, on the other hand, “This Be the Verse” was written by Philip Larkin, an Englishman, and Englishmen can do a lot of things that American poets can’t do in America. I know, it’s nutty but that’s how it is.
C: There is a curious and often unpredictable sense of propriety in American publishing.
Ed: There is.
C: Particularly with regard to proprietary boundaries. What constitutes going too far, or conversely not far enough? Whitman resorted to publishing his own poems in the mid 19th century, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson passed on both Whitman’s and Dickinson’s poems at The Atlantic.
Ed: I think that much poetry that really is interesting and really works but is relatively fresh…does not follow old models, has always tended to come out in the small press, has always tended to come out in special magazines. You think of Frank O’Hara who now, in many circles, is regarded as a master, and I think he is. Who couldn’t publish in most magazines at the time. I think for that matter of Stevens, who initially could publish, that’s true, but at the same time Stevens’ first couple of books did not sell very well. They were not in front of readers all the time. He was too different I think, and that probably is true not only about poetry but fiction as well. It doesn’t mean if I don’t like it, it’s got to be good. It doesn’t mean that if I don’t understand it, it’s got to be good. But it does mean that, I think, people who have been editing the standard magazines, over the years, over the generations, tend to be narrower in judgment than they should be because they have an interest in continuing the past, and fear introducing elements that may appear to be in bad taste, which is to say the new. And I don’t know, I think it’s necessary if you are an editor, or you are looking at poems…there is such a thing as bad taste and I think one needs to develop a sense of what that means, but bad taste doesn’t mean it’s new or has a dirty word in it, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know? For all of the years that I’ve been editor of the Pitt Poetry Series I’ve tried to be as eclectic as possible, to recognize different kinds of excellence. I’m not the super reader. I don’t want to say I have no faults in that way, but I certainly have tried to bring people together from different parts of the poetry universe of the United States, and I think it’s important to do that.
Ed: And I think particularly in New England…and this is one of the things about Bennington College. I love the place, but many of our New England students only go with the most serious of the New England poets. And there’s nothing wrong with the New England poets, necessarily, but there is something the matter with readers who can’t branch out or won’t branch out, or don’t know those other things.
C: Right. Well, I’ve got to ask you next about how you have been able to sustain your own voice, your own idea…maybe it’s easier than I might imagine, while at the same time spending so much time reading for the Pitt Poetry Series.
Ed: There’s an easy answer that I have for that, and that is that I’ve always found teaching with classes I like, with students I like, to really be energizing rather than enervating, and I feel the same thing about editing. And I think that Gertrude Stein and Hemingway—I’m just rereading A Moveable Feast now, the new edition— both agreed that they would like to collect Picasso’s. I can’t collect Picasso’s and neither could Hemmingway, at least originally, but at least the notion of collecting poets in the series I edit has always been extremely interesting to me…for all sorts of reasons, just because I like the idea of helping to publish and promulgate work that I think is moving in one of many ways. I like the notion of helping other poets get into print, and staying in print. I’m not taking myself too seriously here—but when I look over the list, it’s like a bunch of trophies I’ve won because I got these people in here. I’m proud of that list and of the poems. One of the new books that’s coming out next spring, from an author that’s new to us, is a book by Martha Collins called White Papers, which I think is fantastic. It’s basically a history of American racism, in poetry. That may sound impossible or bleak, but she brings it off…it’s amazingly readable, it’s extraordinarily moving, and to be able to have that book in the series makes me very proud. I hope we get it around. And I’m thinking too, one of my friends here at Bennington, Major Jackson, has said in a couple of lectures that white people never write about race relations, and I don’t think that it is absolutely, uniformly true, but it’s generally true. Martha also knows Major, and I suspect that they’ve spoken about it, but this, in a way, is an answer to that neglect in the past, and it’s marvelous, and it’s powerful.
C: I think you used the word “electric” once…that there has to be an electric quality.
Ed: Yeah. I’ve published books by devout Christians whose religion is the subject of their poems. I’ve certainly published poems by devout atheists. I’ve published books by Jews who support Israel. I’ve published books, and I will be publishing a book, by an Arab-American who is on the other side of that fence, and it’s not a sense of even-handedness that I want, but a sense of getting powerful statements, powerful collections from different sensibilities, different voices, different minds. And also, I would say, right from the beginning, different identities. I had a conscious notion when we were starting, when I was starting at the Poetry Series, that the percentage of women poets from university press and trade houses was much smaller than the percentage of women poets writing really good poems that I knew were out there. So, one of the things that I wanted to do in the series was to make it evenly balanced between male and female writers. And it has been that for many years, it’s the first one to ever be like that, and I suspect if you actually added it up, it might still be the first and only one. I felt the same way about minority writers from different areas, and the list of minority writers in the Poetry Series, has grown, not because I seek out manuscripts and I want to say, ok, look, we’ve got minority A, minority B, minority C, but the quality of manuscripts coming across the desk, from members of various groups, has been both extremely good and larger and larger. It reflects the whole poetry community in the United States, and I’m very pleased with this fact, and again that the “republic of many voices” notion is there.
C: So it’s often an embarrassment of riches that you have on your desk, but the burden of having to choose so selectively from them, it must be…
Ed: The strange thing is that I never had that much of a difficulty. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but there are manuscripts that I hate to turn away because I like the writers, and in some cases our authors, but if I feel that the manuscript isn’t ready to go yet, or it just isn’t working, I try to explain that as carefully and encouragingly as possible. But when it finally comes down to what I want to do, there usually isn’t a great struggle. The books declare themselves. And recently, by the way, we moved up to twelve books a year, starting this year.
C: You took over as editor of the Pitt Poetry Series in 1978. Is that correct?
Ed: That’s right. It was another year until books that I chose came out. The Series has grown in terms of sales. It used to be, when I came on board, that if we sold 1,000 copies of a book that was very unusual and absolutely wonderful. And of course, now we sell, not huge numbers of copies of all the books we do, but we also do have books that have gone off the charts, and often will sell quite well, and that support the other books. And that’s also the kind of balance I wanted. I mean, I never wanted this to be a collection of books by writers who no one is interested to read, but it seems to me that we have an obligation to support younger writers who aren’t likely to sell all that much. For example, Reginald Shephard, who I think was a genius. I loved the work and I wanted to support him, despite the fact that his books never sold strongly.
C: You wrote the following in your introduction to the Pitt Poetry Series anthology, American Poetry Now, which came out in 2007: “Some readers have liked poetry in general because they want to read only the great poems. To my mind, that’s akin in its intelligence to such thoughts as, ‘I only eat great meals,’ ‘I only play great games of tennis’, ‘I only go to great movies’, and ‘I only have great sex.’ Translated such a sentiment usually means I was forced to take a course about the great poems in the English language and I didn’t like it much, but in any event, I’ve done it and haven’t had to read poems again in years. A related question is, Where are the great poets of today? The proper answer is, we don’t know yet. Even Shakespeare was not the acknowledged master of the English language in his lifetime.” You go on to emphasize the importance of not purposely looking for “the great poem” in the editorial process. Could you elaborate on this?
Ed: Whenever I hear anybody say—and students say this kind of thing because they don’t know any better—but whenever I hear anybody talk about projecting a great series of poems, before in fact they’ve written one, I imagine that they have some sort of garbled notion of writing, as though it’s according to a cookbook somehow. I think anyone who feels that or who thinks that isn’t necessarily a fool, but he or she is someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.
C: You see all sorts of poetry obviously that comes across your desk, so I’m particularly interested in what you think the state of contemporary narrative poetry is given the incredibly diverse and eclectic nature of the work you consider for publication every year.
Ed: It’s getting better. For a long time, the narrative poem was for some reason regarded as old hat, as inherently stupid, working against new discoveries of language, et cetera et cetera. It’s all nonsense you know. Narrative poetry has been one of the basic elements of any nation’s poetry for as long as we know. And in recent years, I’ve seen among students, among manuscripts that I get, many more narrative poems of all kinds than I did, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Somehow the universe has expanded, and I think that the notion of telling stories or having strong narrative elements in poems seems, as it should, normal once again.
C: For so many years, probably because of the stand up craze that poetry went through, and to some extent is still going through, there were a lot of glib and weaker narratives.
Ed: Yes. Well, that’s what I was talking about earlier too, the fact that if you just stand up, and you’re just telling jokes and the jokes are kind of narrow and glib, it does wear thin quickly I think But what isn’t narrative? How could you say that narrative is impossible when narrative is Homer and narrative is Chaucer, and narrative is just about any poet in the history of the art in the West that you want to name? And for that matter, in many other cultures. The question is: what kind of narrative do you want to develop? What kind of narrative do you want to do?
C: That’s interesting because you associate yourself with a kind of postmodern sensibility, the breaking down of any overarching principles for instance.
C: But the arc of that postmodern sensibility has culminated in a lot of theory which is not something that you subscribe to. In fact, there are three poems in Unreconstructed where you make open fun of Derrida.
Ed: Yes. Well the answer to that is, as I was suggesting earlier, no one has ever, to my mind, defined to the satisfaction of any listener or reader, what postmodernism in literature is. And the fact is, when people talk about post-modernism as the theory people have and do in English departments, they’re talking not just about a literature, but about other cultural developments. So it’s a tricky thing to nail down, but some of the excesses, it seemed to me a few years ago, would be otherwise intelligent people talking about the inability of language to seriously communicate. So, when you get to that stage you know something’s the matter. When we got to that stage in Pittsburgh, back in the early ‘90s, I couldn’t help it. We had a faculty member who was saying these things to his students and I couldn’t resist, because, you know, denotation was not a function of language anymore, he said. I put a note in his box that said, “Dear Paul, Fuck you. Sincerely, Ed” and he knew exactly what I meant, you know? And I’ve been telling that story ever since. But we seem to be exploding away from that narrowness.
C: I think in another one of your poems you say, “Mother fucker, deconstruct that.”
E: Well that’s a serious poem. A nasty person’s talking, threatening another, and how do you deal with that, that’s evil, and how do you talk that away? You can’t.
Ed: So the only thing that I would say is that I don’t think minds have been settled yet, about where we are now, where we’ve come from—it’s probably going to be a number of years before we are—but in poetry you can identify certain elements. Those are things that I was talking about in connection to Ed Field.
C: Who was an actor too by the way, right? He was one of the first to perform his poems, wasn’t he?
Ed: Well I’m not sure perform…
C: You acknowledge in your poem “A Letter to Edward Field” that the book for which he won the Lamont Prize was not received well by critics.
Ed: It got a damning review in Hudson Review. Again, Ed’s book did all of these things that seem strange, offensive, threatening, and so of course it got a bad review. And Hudson Review now, is an eminent, but quite conservative journal. And it would be inclined to pan it. But the guy who was doing the review was talking about all of these terrible elements and why it wasn’t poetry and quoting some, but they seemed so exciting to me at the time that I had to get a copy of the book.
C: You say in the poem it saved your life.
Ed: Well this is when I was in the middle of very tedious work I thought.
C: What year was this?
Ed: It was ’61 to ’62. And I was actually writing or researching a paper for a history of literature class, I forget who the professor was, on the Elizabethan Great Chain of Being. And it’s not that I wasn’t interested in the great chain of being, and it’s not that I’m still not, I am, it’s just that it felt tedious then and I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And when I went out to spend some time, get some water, pick up a magazine off a rack and it just happened to open to that review and Field was like real life.
C: You spent so much of your early life in academia before turning to poetry as both your vocation and avocation.
Ed. Yeah, I did. I never had, and I do not now have, any contempt for accurate scholarship. It’s always amazed me when I was working in graduate school and later about the positive results that can come from such things. But what I felt at that time was that academic life, if you were going to work as a scholar, was much more constricting than I would wish. People at that time would only succeed if they mined a very small area, and I just didn’t want to do that.
C: But you have scholarly acumen.
Ed: But that’s different than being in the English department.
C: That’s true, but your formidable knowledge of history permeates your work, particularly European and American history.
Ed: I find it very productive material. I’m just interested in history. But what I do find when I’m reading historical narratives and interpretations are interesting mirrors or distorting mirrors of our own time. And the Nero poem for example that I sent you, it’s playful and it’s meant to be, but its also talking about things that existed not only in Nero’s time but our own. So I don’t know, I mean history may not repeat itself, but it offers, or repeats, certain images and actions that are interesting and are reflections in some ways— comments, is a better word—on our own times.
C: In your poem for Judith Vollmer, “Ironies of History” you let history do the work itself. You know it, but it does its own work in the poem as it does at the end of the poem: “He died of yellow fever in Haiti so that Napoleon/ could marry her off to Prince Camillo Borghese,/ wealthiest man in Italy, one of whose many titles/ was Baron Crapalotri.” How could you beat that?
Ed: Talking of history, I brought with me to Bennington the history of Sultan Mehmed the Second, who conquered Constantinople. I finished it when I was here, but in the back pages of that book the historian mentions that a sultan had been executed by Janissaries about three hundred years after Mehmed, not by beheading, but by compression of the testicles. How could one not use that in a poem? And the historian added that this was a special form of execution reserved for the royal family.
C: That’s fatal? I guess it could be.
Ed: Well, I had the same question.
C: Can you die from that?
Ed: Well, I suspect that if they were unremitting, an enormous compression applied, you could.
C: I’m curious how you have time for your prodigious reading of history in addition to all the hundreds of submitted manuscripts that come across your desk.
Ed: One of the things I’m blessed with is that both my wife and myself have very simple tastes. We do not spend a lot of time shopping. We do not spend a lot of time making the home better than it was before. We travel a bit, but not a lot. We don’t have a lot of things that we do that distract us from our main interests. And our main interests are reading, for both of us. For Britt, bird watching. She just found the 106th species on our property that she’s seen and recorded.
Ed: And gardening. And we both enjoy light and simple cooking. We try to make time to do the things that we care about most and we’re doing it more the older we get. So it’s just one of the uses of living in the country that the distractions are fewer.
C: Yeah. I know you also love classical music.
Ed: I try to listen, on days when everything is very well organized, to listen to music at least one hour a day.
C: Opera as well?
Ed: I’ve never been a great fan of opera. I like classical music, chamber music. I particularly like the Baroque composers. I enjoyed Opera when I was a kid. One of my friends took me to the MET when I was in high school, but it hasn’t grown on me on later years.
C: But you also like Neil Young.
Ed: I’ve always liked rock music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and both of those things have been very useful in writing. Years ago, I was able to write, establishing mood by having rock music playing very loudly in the background. I can’t do that…I don’t want to do that with any kind of music now. But often, if I’m listening to something, it does establish a mood or make a suggestion from the music, what might happen in the poem. So it’s useful in that way.
C: Four years ago at the AWP conference you had a pretty big scare in New York City. Would you mind talking about this.
Ed: I’ve had two big medical problems in the past years. Back in the ‘90s, I had a viral infection of the heart.
Ed: Well I don’t think it was that, technically, but it was some kind of invasion of the heart by a virus, which is very common. I just thought it was the flu, and I let it go, and I finally came down when I could barely breathe and luckily, my daughter and her boyfriend were visiting us and they called the local ambulance, which took me to the local hospital, which life-flighted me to Pittsburgh. And they stabilized the condition and then afterward they did the kind of operation where an electric wire is passed up through the groin to the heart, and it let them create new electrical passageways which repaired the damage that the virus had done.
C: Wow. The virus did damage?
Ed: Yeah. And what’s amazing is that it was just around that time that doctors discovered the heart could repair itself to some degree. So it’s been a long time since this happened but the heart has been getting stronger, and every time I see my cardiologist, on the standard visits twice a year, he’s been saying, oh it looks good, better than it was last time.
C: Oh good.
Ed: So that has gone well. The other thing was just a burst aorta, you know, that occurred when I was at AWP in New York. I was extremely lucky then in that there was an ambulance waiting in front of the hotel. The guys in the ambulance looked at me, spoke to the person who accompanied me, and they were able to make a pretty good guess what it was, and they took me to a hospital in New York that specialized in that type of repair. And not only that but there were two surgeons, this was a Saturday night…
C: You’re talking about a burst aneurism here.
Ed: Yes. And there were two surgeons ready to do some vascular work on someone who was not life threatened, and they were already dressed, so they took me in and here I am.
C: You really only had a matter of minutes.
Ed: Yes. I was extraordinarily fortunate. So, you know, it’s not that I’m thinking that I’m so lucky that I can’t be hit by a bus or anything else, but it was amazing.
C: Yeah. Well, its interesting, you haven’t written about these incidents, but they must, in some way, influence you.
Ed: I mention it in a few poems.
C: Did you?
Ed: I did in a poem. I remember in the first one, when I was in the ambulance, thinking to myself, if I ever get out of this, I’m really going to stop fucking around and get to work, and I remember in the second one…
C: You think you had been fucking around?
Ed: Well, I was trying to concentrate my mind. You know, in a different way…
C: On something else?
Ed: No, just more in what I wanted to do and something similar when I was in the ambulance the second time, going away from that hotel in New York. The strange thing about that is I’ve never viewed myself as the bravest of men, but on both of those occasions, I wasn’t frightened. The first thing I felt was, well if I die, this is really going to make it difficult for Britt, and you know, my friends, and the children. But it wasn’t fear, it was a concern that others would be unhappy or discomforted. And I don’t know if that kind of thing is normal, or not. But I think it’s interesting, that that was my response.
C: I’d like to read a few lines of yours that read like a credo. “Oh Proktos,” which means asshole, right?
C: “How many times must I tell you,/ whatever blossoms is rooted in the dark.” These lines remind me a lot of Theodore Roethke’s “The Root Cellar.”
Ed: I never thought of that. Yes, probably so.
C: But in so many ways, this phrase, which is from your poem, “The Muse,” captures so economically both sides of your poetry, the satire and the compassion, the austerity of your youth and the blossoming of your poetry later on, but your muse…you seem to hear the first utterance of your muse in the dark, before it becomes compassionate or funny, or historical.
Ed: I guess another way of saying it is paying attention to the subconscious,
listening to the prompts that you get. Comfrey roots, which grow very deep, seemed to me a very natural image for that. And I guess what I would say is that for most poems which are about interior matters of importance, that’s where they come from. Comic poems, satiric poems, they come from the head, from the rational faculties, but the other materials come from somewhere else. That’s why I like that cover of Unreconstructed, by the way, because it suggest the unconscious.
C: Yes. It’s the brain, but it’s also a bush.
Ed: It’s a bush, but it has that suggestion of underground elements.
C: Yes. There’s another poem you talk about the damned who sing…
Ed: It’s “The Whitehead Metals Stickball Team at Lunch Hour on W. Tenth St.” “There is so much pain, you’re a fool/ for not talking about it. But what’s amazing/ is how those in pain think it’s normal./ What’s wonderful is that it never changes:/ How the damned laugh and sing when they can./ How the years change everything to gold.”
Ed: Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that. That says it. I don’t think I thought of it at the time, but do you remember the original cover of Philip Levine The Names of the Lost, where the prisoners are being led along.
Ed: There’s a line, and there’s one guy…they’re not dancing, but there’s one guy who’s smiling at the cameras as if they’re going on vacation, and I assume this is why Levine chose it for the cover of the book “The Names of the Lost”. He doesn’t know he’s lost yet, or doesn’t want to believe it.
Ed: And that, it seemed to me, was very close to what I had in mind at the end of that poem.
C: The candid admission here, “There’s so much pain, you’re a fool for talking about it,” betrays your willingness to mention it, despite your knowledge of what it makes you, namely foolish. But then again, it’s balanced with humor and pathos.
Ed: Well a fool in the sense that it’s something that anyone with half a brain knows, why waste time talking about it, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Ed: And so we ignore it.
C: So if you do choose to talk about it, which you do, whether you’re talking about your parents, the labor force, an historical event, you do it in a way that emphasizes your inherent rapport with the human condition. You use words like “damned” and “asshole” instead of more glorious or proper terms that carry double-edged meanings, both derogatory and familiar, even affectionate.
Ed: Well, in a way it’s saying wake up, you know. It’s saying wake up to the speaker in the poem I think, very often too. But I think it’s, what much poetry in general does, it says wake up to what’s happening, wake up to your life, wake up to what it’s like.
Ed: And I do think that is the core of most poetry. People’s actual freedom is limited. What seems to be free is you can have a large choice of consumer goods. You know, you can have a large choice of things as long as you don’t rock the boat very much, as long as you’re not causing difficulty for the people who own it all. I don’t have the belief that any individual poem or collection of poems is going to wake up millions of people to that fact. But it is a fact. And I think that the obligation of the writer, in so far as he or she can, is to point to those situations, those moments that are illustrative, and say basically wake up this is what it looks like, this is what it is. And I do feel a compulsion to do it. I try not to be preachy, but I go back to my grandmother, the one who raised me, and who would say on many occasions in public and private, “You talk so well you should be a minister.” And maybe in that sense I am.
C: Do you have any favorites among your own poems?
Ed: They are usually the most recent ones. When I’m doing a reading I try to do a mix that would appeal to the particular audience. When I’m reading at Bennington, I like to do some outrageous poems that are comic. They always go over well here as a kind of relief from all the excellence around them. And also try to choose some poems that are a little more challenging which seem to go over well.
C: You always seem to enjoy reciting “Monroeville, PA” at your readings.
Ed: Well that’s the one…I mean it’s absurd. It’s just a couple of lines long. Which is basically a little joke that I think has a point, and people seem to love that. And people who have heard me read two years ago will say, will you please read or recite “Monroeville, Pennsylvania.”
C: I’d like to read it to you. “One day a kid yelled,/ “Hey Asshole!”/ and everybody on the street/ turned around.”
Ed: And it is actually based on a thing that I heard and people did turn around. It took me I think ten seconds to write the poem but the way that things go that’s the one that keeps coming up and so that’s why I read it in lots of different situations.
C: What poets following you whose satirical voices double as voices of witness do you enjoy reading?
Ed: People I keep coming back to and reading include Tony Hoagland, who’s wonderfully courageous. At times he gets himself into deep water because he does seem to choose the wrong diction for a moment in the poem, out of enthusiasm for the subject. And I think that if I were his editor, which I would love to be by the way, I would suggest a few small changes here and there, but no one in American poetry now is doing more courageous work in confronting the culture than Tony. I think he’s absolutely marvelous. Let me mention a couple of poets we have coming up in the Series. One book that’s coming up is Glen Shaheen’s Predatory which won the Starrett Prize. He’s an Arab-American poet and former student of Tony’s who writes about life in America, life in Palestine. The poems are accurate, cutting, kind of outrageous, and very very sad, but so true it’s like a laser cutting through the crap in the news. The “political,” which has been taboo for so long in American poetry, is starting to come to life again. And I don’t mean propaganda, I mean poems about the public scene.
C: You think for the first time since the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Ed: Well, a lot of stuff in the ‘60s and ‘70s was not so good, it was a kind of propaganda. And what I’m seeing now are poems, which are not preachy interrogations of major aspects of American life. Political poems are starting to appear. There is, of course, never going to be an end to the lyric poem, or the poem that is focused inward, but there are other poems in the world that are possible.
C: Right. Well now maybe for a last question about the present age. There is such an enormous tent of American poetry now that’s both online and in hard copy. As an editor, teacher and poet who has played such a significant role over the last thirty years in discovering new voices, while nurturing the established careers of such poets as Alicia Ostriker, Reginald Shepherd, Peter Everwine, Denise Duhamel, and Lynn Emmanuel, to mention only a few, how do you see the current explosion of poetic venues, journals and events—i.e. online magazines, blogs, vanity presses, AWP conferences—affecting the future of poetry as far as either enhancing or compromising the vast array of contemporary poetic voices that only seem to be growing in number?
Ed: I think that poetry online and on electronic means is probably going to grow, for one thing because it’s more pleasant to read one page on the screen as opposed to a novel or something like that. And that is ideal, you know, for poems. I think what’s been the case up to the present is that many on-line magazines really, with some significant exceptions, have not been juried, have not been edited by people of very good sense or taste, so that I don’t go to online magazines very often because what I find is just a mish of a lot of stuff that doesn’t look to me very good. I think that once poetry magazines online become as focused as some of the political magazines online, that it will have more of an audience.
C: That’s beginning to happen.
Ed: Yes. I think it is. But if you don’t know where to find the stuff that you are likely to like or that is good, you don’t want to waste your time, and that’s what I think a lot of people feel about online magazines right now. And I know for a fact that most publishing poets in the United States, and probably the majority of younger ones, still think that what appears in print is much more prestigious than what appears online. I’ve had poems online in a number of places, but the only thing that I’ll put on there is something that’s already appeared in print.
C: I asked Maxine Kumin that same questions and she responded that it will “all get sorted out in the end.” But I think what she was really saying was that I really don’t have to worry about this at this point in my career.
C: But it must be, and for your students here, an intimidating prospect for a lot of them to think about publishing, Do you have any advice for young poets who are trying to get a first book published?
Ed: Yeah, lots of advice. First of all, don’t be too quick to send out a whole book manuscript if you have some poems that you like. My advice as you know, at MFA programs is to write a lot, revise a lot, write a lot, revise a lot, revise a lot, and read your peers and read the greats and read your peers. And not to do it too fast. And patience; Ezra Pound said a hundred years ago “pull down vanity,” and one kind of vanity is the notion that you have to send everything out that you write and that it will be published. I like the practice in most MFA programs of not emphasizing publication or not even talking about it until the student is about to go out into the world. The emphasis is on reading and absorbing it, writing and revising, and that’s what it should be. It’s got to be good because among other things the audience is limited compared to other art forms.
C: And apparently decreasing according to NEA statistics.
Ed: Well I’m not sure I trust the NEA statistics. At the same time the NEA said that poetry readership was declining, our sales were rising. It’s true that every other publisher I hear about— trade and university and small press—has sales that are declining. My business manager told me a week ago (June, 2011) that our sales for the last quarter are steady, they haven’t grown, but they haven’t gone down by a third as they have in other places. It’s always been a limited audience, but the audience for poetry is larger now than it was when I was a kid, for very good reasons. There are poetry readings everywhere and when there are poetry readings there are books available, because the authors have them. So there’s greater distribution for almost everybody than there was let’s say for Frank O’Hara when he was starting out, and for many others. And again, some people read poems online rather than read books. When people talk about the great audience for American poetry in the past they’re talking about the kind of narrative poetry, or the kind of lyric poetry, that has been replaced by greeting cards, by pop fiction, by romance novels, and so on. Even Longfellow or Whittier and other poets of the 19th century may have some absolutely marvelous work, but also large stretches of dull shit—it’s just television before television. Certainly what happened with the early modernists in terms of readership in the United States, things are better than that now, even though only a few New York houses are still carrying on with poetry publication. But at the same time it’s not that there’s nobody out there who cares. And it remains to be seen what happens to people in high school now. I’m a little alarmed by the gadgetry that everyone seems to be enslaved to, but at the same time I know ever since I was in high school the general word was that the generation of Americans coming up were total airheads, druggies, fools. You know it’s not true, but the word hasn’t changed. It’s a hatred of the young. Maybe that will be justified with the next generation, but you know, I’ll believe it when I see it.
C: Thank you, Ed.
Ed: Thank you so much.