American Poets “Three Questions” Interview

What do you find exciting about American poetry at the moment?

The explosive diversity, both culturally and stylistically, has helped to make American poetry both lasting and breath-taking. I’ve always felt American poetry is strongest when it acknowledges and champions a plurality of voices. At this moment in our poetry we are—I hope—moving toward a critical mass of diverse poetic voices that may help us to resist the inhumane doctrines we all continue to face in this country.

I also feel that the more we’re able to absorb the work of many of the great poets we have in translation, the more we will be able to understand the historical crossroads we’re now at, as a culture. I still believe that art, especially poetry, can help us to get through difficult, even impossible times. Of all of the arts, poetry is the one traditionally gathered from the voices at the margins as well as the voices at a culture’s heart. Even with our exceptional soloists, a culture’s poetry finds its greatest power as a choir.

Which recent books of poetry have you found impactful and would recommend to our readers?

I like to read everything recent; I’m pretty much of a poetry blender, so I keep my eye out for all kinds of new books. Still, when I lose faith in things around me— I mean the world, not poetry—I read Galway Kinnell, especially The Book of Nightmares; Adrienne Rich, especially Diving into the Wreck; Phil Levine, lately the new posthumous book, The Last Shift, gathered together by Edward Hirsh, which is a wonder; Charles Wright, really anything, but this past year, Bye-and-Bye and Caribou. Also, last year, I found it exciting and instructive to see how Jorie Graham selected and re-contextualized her work in From the New World. It’s probably time I went back and reread an old favorite, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, for the window she opens onto familiar tyrants. Oh, and I love Jane Mead’s new book-length elegy for her mother, World of Made and Unmade. Two of my favorite books of recent years are by poets who are writing in what appears to be prose: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Of course, their lines, even when not lineated, ripple with a poetic, lyrical sinew.

Is there a poem you find yourself continually returning to and rereading for guidance or solace?
Well, like many poets, I find myself returning again to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” I can’t help it. The single best reading of any poem I have ever heard was of this poem being read by James Merrill at the dedication of Bishop’s papers to the library at Vassar. His reading not only conveyed Bishop’s delicacy and formal reserve but also Merrill’s own deep, resonant sense of loss at the death of Bishop, who of course had been his dear friend. Also, there are two poems that I first heard Philip Levine read aloud when I was eighteen and his student—both are translations of Post-War Polish poetry and they have remained touchstones for me ever since. The first is “In the Middle of Life,” by Tadeusz Różewicz and the second is “At the Gate of the Valley” by Zbigniew Herbert. In Milosz’s translations, these both became essential poems not only for me but for many other American poets as well.