Category Archives: Interview
Talking with U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith invited her brother-in-law, who held a hulking double bass, up to the stage. At their annual Spring Benefit at the New York Botanical Garden, the Poetry Society of America honored Smith, our current U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of many prizes (including the Pulitzer). To celebrate, Smith read from her new collection of poems, Wade in the Water, with some family assistance: a two-piece jazz band. “Every least leaf / Shivers in the sun,” she read, bassline thrumming behind her, “while we sit, bothered, / Late, captive to this thing commanding / Wait for this man. Wait for him.” I spoke with Smith after the dinner, about her current work as Poet Laureate, her latest book, poetry’s role in the world today.
Your role as U.S. Poet Laureate is an apolitical one, yet you hold it at a time where everything feels intensely political. How do you negotiate it?
I think about it in terms of what possibilities language affords us: for thinking differently, more deeply and complexly; [for] admitting to more vulnerabilities than we are encouraged to in the fast-paced, highly adrenalized, combative stream that we live in. Issues are polarizing and you fall into a camp, [but] poetry doesn’t allow that to happen. You’re being pushed towards new ways of hearing and seeing. It’s exciting for me to celebrate the different things that language allows us to hear and ask and wish. You can do that everywhere, you can do that with anyone.
The poet on the power of naming, the freedom of writing, and when to carry and let go of grief.
An American poet, now living in Lexington, Kentucky, Ada Limón was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and the 2016 National Book Critics Circle awards for poetry with her fourth collection Bright Dead Things. It’s only fitting that some of the poems in her new collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions) is a series of correspondence between herself and fellow poet Natalie Diaz. With the knowing directness of a letter, Limón’s poems speak to the marrow of our everyday condition. She grapples with fertility, hard fought acceptance, and empathy all the while admitting, “I don’t know how to hold this truth,/ so I kill it, pin its terrible wings down/ in case, later, no one believes me.” The Carrying is a vital collection for a noisy, brutal time. The power of Limón’s unflinching examination of grief and loss is only surpassed by her love of beauty and compassion.
The PARIS REVIEW Issue no. 67 (Fall 1976)
“There is such a thing as carrying it too far. John Butler Yeats, the painter, the father of William Butler Yeats, would start out painting a springtime landscape in April but was so critical that summer would find him still working on it, which required changing it to a summer landscape, and eventually it would end up as a snow scene. He ruined his paintings by working over them too long. You can do the same with a poem. You’ve got to be the judge of when to stop.”
A Conversation with Amy Gall
One might not expect a collection of poetry with subject matter as diffuse as a lynching and the board game Clue to hang together. But Nicole Sealey’s second book, Ordinary Beast, manages to perfectly blend the heartbreaking and the hilarious — often in a single stanza. A timely and haunting meditation on love, gender, race, and the body, Ordinary Beast is already receiving high praise, landing on NPR’s most anticipated Poetry Books of 2017 list and Publishers Weekly‘s Top 10 Poetry Books of 2017.
When she is not writing, Sealey is the executive director of Cave Canem, an organization that cultivates and supports the work of black poets, with its fellows going on to win, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the NAACP Image Award. Sealey credits the poets she has worked with through Cave Canem with keeping her on her literary toes.
I spoke with Sealey during the harried days before her book launch about the importance of accessible language in poetry, self-care, and the many meanings of love. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Amy Gall
DAVID YAFFE ON TRYING TO KEEP UP WITH AN ICON
When I was 15, I had a high school girlfriend who was a couple of years older than me—dog years in those days. She had a piano and a stereo in her room, and very tolerant parents. We were both music students at an arts high school in Dallas; she sang, I played piano. We had a ritual of lying on her bed together in pitch-darkness, taking in what we were hearing with everything we had—the Velvet Underground, Miles Davis. One day, she played me Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Years later Joni would tell me that when she made that album she was totally without defenses, as vulnerable as “a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes,” as she once put it. When one is 15, everything is new and raw. I was falling in love with a girl and falling in love with this music. Neither came to you. You had to come to them. I held on tight in those tender, cellophane years.
In time, I would learn that while Joni was famous for being tender in public she also had to be tough in private. By the time Blue was released in 1971, she had survived polio and a bad first marriage, and recently fended off a marriage proposal from Graham Nash, whom she had loved. I didn’t know about these things yet. But my need to know about this woman I heard on the record eventually brought me closer and closer.
Over the years, I would turn to Joni’s music, sometimes when I needed to hear her tell me, as she does in “Trouble Child,” that I really am inconsolably on my own: “So what are you going to do about it / You can’t live life and you can’t leave it.” Ouch. And yet, in that voice, in those chords, there was nevertheless an implicit promise that life would go on, and would be full of surprises. And in her music, as again and again she sought someone who could understand her, who could offer a counterbalance to her ramblings and yearnings, she would tell us not to listen for her but to listen for ourselves. She wanted us to have some sort of transference. It was not a delusion to listen for yourself. It was an injunction.
Excerpted from David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter
Read the complete excerpt
David Yaffe was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1973. He is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University and a 2012 winner of the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. His writing has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, Slate, New York, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, and Bookforum. He is the author of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown and Fascinating Rhythm.
A selection of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics will be included in our study of “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26. Please bring your own favourite examples – whether on the original or expanded topic – and, preferably, post them first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.
See the SCHEDULE PAGE for submissions to-date.
Interviewed by Eamonn Grennan
The following conversation took place at Derek Mahon’s studio apartment in the West Village of New York City, not long after his Selected Poems (1991) had been published in America. Three more volumes of poetry have appeared since that conversation—The Hudson Letter (1995), The Yellow Book (1997), and his Collected Poems (1999)—as well as a volume of critical writing, Journalism (1996). The Hudson Letter takes homelessness as its theme: “I knew I had to take on the New York subject somehow, but couldn’t think how. Then someone said, You’ve just been homeless yourself, why don’t you write about the homeless?” I’d been teaching Whitman, Crane, Bishop, and Howl, among other things, all of which helped me set up my Hudson Letter topic, which turned out to be not just the homeless on the streets but the whole sexual-metaphysical homeless ache we live with as a species. I could see my boring little provincial home-fixation as, paradoxically, one of the big themes.” The Yellow Book, a more deliberately satirical book, takes up, notes Mahon, “where The Hudson Letter left off: back in Dublin, finding it changed, and reestablishing an Irish and European perspective. Both books are about the twentieth century really, the American century and the fin de siècle.”
The small white-walled space of Mahon’s New York apartment contained a long desk covered in neatly stacked books; a desk diary with its entries, day by day, heavily blacked out; the much revised handwritten pages of the poem Mahon was working on at that moment (its rhyming couplets crowded with local names); recent copies of the Irish Times and the TLS; and an electric typewriter. On the floor beside the desk were a couple of stacks of magazines. The bed—where the interviewer sat—was a futon resting on the floor. Mahon sat in the one armchair, and at intervals rose to make another pot of tea. White bookshelves contained a collection of Vintage paperbacks; a small television set was perched on a footlocker. On the white walls hung a few reproductions, picked up, I was told, at yardsales in Connecticut: a Monet over the bed, a Hopper lighthouse or two, a well-known photograph of Whitman, a Bonnard of an open window looking out on fields, a painting of a Nordic beach with two women walking near a wintry sea, and a print of the Irish artist William Leech’s Convent Garden, Brittany—nuns in sunlight, lots of flowers. Outside the window was a sunny street of brownstones and black railings; from the fenced-in patches of earth around still-leafless trees, dwarf crocuses were pushing up into one of the first truly warm spring days of the year. The impression indoors was of comfortable austerity—a room to work, relax, and sleep in. The conversations were punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter, which have been omitted from the printed version—this omission means that the quite lighthearted nature of the event is not as clear as it might be. In truth, while some demanding and painful areas were probed, the whole thing was, as they say at home, “great crack.”
Read the complete interview
Stratford veterans Colm Feore and Seana McKenna describe what Shakespeare demands of his actors; how his characters embody the essential qualities of humanity, and why Shakespeare in the 21st century is more relevant than ever.
Listen to this, from the CBC Radio show Sunday Edition: The timeless genius of William Shakespeare
Harold Bloom is 84 and a little under the weather. He is one of Yale’s more famous professors (where he’s been teaching for 60 years) and the author of dozens of books (including an anthology for “Extremely Intelligent Children”), many of them best sellers, many of them fascinating and enlightening, some of them infuriating or confusing (if you are not up on your Gnostic texts or the Kabbalah), and all of them written in his unmistakable voice — imperious, sympathetic, melancholy, intimate, playful, and brilliant in both depth and breadth. Long before we were friends, and in an academic pool in which I don’t so much as dip a toe, he was also a major pot-stirrer. I gather that the admiration he expresses for many women poets, for many gay poets (“Three out of four poets in America are gay or bisexual,” he says. “More than half of all the great poets are”), for James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (“A great friend, a magnificent writer, his Invisible Man is a novel as powerful as Magic Mountain”), for the poets Jay Wright and Thylias Moss, for writers as contemporary as Don DeLillo, Carl Phillips, and Henri Cole, didn’t count for much with the opposition when he wrote The Western Canon in 1994. He was seen as a forceful, unpleasantly old-fashioned defender of the Canon As Was. As he says, he was described as someone who partook of a cult of personality or self-obsession rather than of the “special vision” of critics focused on issues of gender, color, and power — and Lacanians and deconstructionists. He coined the catchy phrase “School of Resentment” (“I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor”), and he made a lot of people understandably angry, some of whom are angry still.