Rattle Interview with Alan Fox

Conversation Between David St. John and Alan Fox, on October 20, 2004

First Published in Rattle

Alan Fox: David, why do you write poetry?

David St. John: Well, it’s the art form that’s always seemed to me, in the end, the most engaging. The one I most enjoy. I’ve tried lots of different things. When I was a teenager I played in really bad rock and roll bands and loved that. But by the time I was eighteen, I met the poet Larry Levis and Larry introduced me to Philip Levine, and so I started writing poems with Levine. And right at that time I had a chance to be in what was actually a really good band. I had to make a decision which way I was going to go. I chose to keep writing poems because I had found something in language that was rich and exciting in a way that I’d never really felt before. I suppose that’s still what excites me most, still what keeps me writing. And I write basically to discover what it is I’m going to write. If I knew what I was going to write, I’d just stop that very instant.

Alan Fox: And how have you found that poetry is so well suited to that objective?

David St. John: Well, poetry is a way to talk to oneself in a very complicated and psychologically complex way. Whether one’s poems are written in the first person or in the third person, whether there’s a strong sort of quasi-Romantic “I” at the center of the poem, or whether someone writes a very pure language poetry from which the self has been drained as much as possible, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still, as Stevens said, the act of the mind, the engagement with one’s experience and the materials of one’s surroundings. Depending upon the poet, he or she chooses to write about the surroundings of their physical and material lives, which includes their past and memory, or the materials of language. It’s a matter of temperament and taste. The thing that poetry can do, I think, perhaps better than anything else, is to touch memory. I think that poetry is able to recover and recuperate memory in a way that almost nothing we have is able to do. It’s that sense of recuperation of the past, in making an event present again in language, that seems to me the alchemy of poetry. Bringing to bear a complex emotional and/or psychological event or concern in a poem allows a reader to experience something that, perhaps, they’ve never experienced before.

Alan Fox: When we talk about the intellect, what is the interplay for you between intellect and emotion, the mind and the heart?

David St. John: Well, for me, poetry is all about verbal music. I write poems and not essays. Poems shouldn’t try to persuade a reader by their “argument,” I believe. Other people feel differently. I believe that poems are not meant to be essays. So, for me, poems persuade invisibly. They enter through the mind and the experience of reading. But it’s really about the music of intelligence. It’s really the pulse and the rhythms of language that are enacting whatever the poet’s concerns happen to be. For me, poems persuade through the texture and the rhythms and the movement of the speaker’s perceptions. But not by argument. Only a bad poem tries to convince somebody of something. Only a didactic poem tries to convince somebody that A or B is “ right “. What a good poem does, always, is to provide the reader with a particular experience. A poem itself is an experience. It’s not an object. And so, in the enactment of the language, what the poet does is to give the reader or the listener the experience of a certain sequence of perceptions that are built and enacted in language. From that the reader responds however he or she responds. And I think that a good writer is able to provide the experience of the poem in such a way that the reader most often does respond approximately how he or she wishes.

Alan Fox: So, one should have a point of view, shake things up?

David St. John: Always. I mean, every poet has his or her catalog of grievances, both public and private. Poets have varying agendas according to whether or not they feel their work has a public presence and/or, at times, a political presence. Or maybe they feel their work has a more, uh, insidious psychological presence. If you decide—not every poet does decide this—but if you decide you would like to provide in your poetry the experience of something about one’s life and other lives that seems undervalued or not considered thoroughly enough in our culture, then you decide how overtly to make that point, and whether you want to do it in a way that’s situated in a more local and domestic circumstance. So, whether you choose a broad stage or an intimate stage, it depends on poetic impulse and purpose; I mean, there are poets I love who do both. And I think it’s a matter of temperament. I think that people often experience the most dramatic changes at a deeply intimate level.

Alan Fox: Yes.

David St. John: I think what poems can remind them is that this is their right. What poems can do is provide a kind of license for people to seize their interior lives and values again in a way that those values have been implicitly, by our culture, mocked. It takes a lot of courage, especially for young people, to feel that, for example, basic humane values have a place in the world in which we live. What poetry of every period can remind them– and I hope this of contemporary poetry also– is that, quite urgently, each human life has value. And that what men and women do with and to each other has a lasting impact.

Alan Fox: You talk about a catalog of grievances, public and private. Could you talk about some of your, as a poet, some of your public and/or private grievances?

David St. John: Yeah, I think that, um, emphasis very much follows on what I was just saying. I think we live in a culture that is very weak at providing a connection to the world of art, the world of human sensibility. I don’t mean to object to mass culture, to pop culture, which is filled with great, delightful things. I’m someone who reads Rolling Stone religiously and, you know, I always ask my daughter what she’s listening to. But I think that I’ve found, increasingly, that literature, music, whether it’s classical or jazz, the visual arts, ballet, it’s all relegated to the category of highbrow exclusivity.

Alan Fox: Hm.

David St. John: And one of the things that does in a culture is to stratify and to isolate. This is exactly contrary to what we should and must do in terms of allowing everything from cinema to music to poetry to be available and accessible to everyone. I think that I’m a real pluralist also. I mean, I don’t have any hierarchy in terms of poetic style. I’m just as happy listening to the White Stripes as I am to Schumann. I’m just a real slut in this way. And I’ve also had a lot of involvement with visual arts over the years– with sculptors and printmakers and painters, conceptual artists, etc.–and I believe that every art participates with every other art. I believe in trying to teach poetry. I try to teach it in concert with all the other arts, too. I can’t separate them; I think they all have to be thought of together.

Alan Fox: Do you think the writing of poetry can be taught?

David St. John: Craft can be taught and inspiration can’t be taught, and that’s probably a good thing. There are certainly elements of craft and ways of paying attention to how language functions that certainly can be taught. I think that the danger is when a particular teacher believes that poetry is only one thing. I think, especially with young writers, what you’re doing is allowing them to understand that the languages in which they live, the languages that they’ve inherited in their culture, and from the TV and their parents and their teachers, are languages of suppression and repression and reduciton. And those are languages designed to control them and keep them in control. So, what I try to do is show them through poetry how to seize the language that belongs to them, that they can make a language that can speak for them. And that this is not just a great gift to be able to do this, but it’s also a kind of moral responsibility.

Alan Fox: And where should the young poet look for inspiration?

David St. John: Oh, I think he or she can look anywhere. I’ve had young writers who look to their favorite Pearl Jam album. I’ve had young writers who look to painters who’ve been dead for two hundred years. I think that if you can allow a student a sense of real license to look into themselves and be candid about what moves them, a lot of things are possible. Often they’re inspired by some incident in their family life, something that is really, deeply painful. But what I try to do in my classes is create an atmosphere of tremendous safety, so that they can bring materials into the poems that often even their closest friends in the class would have never heard. Suddenly if someone is able to connect, they reveal something about themselves that even their best friends did not know. It’s really quite dazzling to see that kind of courage.

Alan Fox: Absolutely. Do you censor what you write out of fear of offending people?

David St. John: No, I just change the names. (Fox laughs.) I change the names and the locales.

Alan Fox: And how do you create the environment of safety when teaching?

David St. John: Well, one of the things I do is I have them read poems that are often very sophisticated poems. Whether it’s C. K. Williams, let’s see, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Robert Hayden, uh, Mike Harper. I use Mike Harper a lot. I like to use a lot of minority writers in working with my young poets, not just because they’re examples for the students I have who might happen to be minority writers, but also because they’re examples of having, of poets having had to seize the language that really they’ve been disenfranchised from and make it their own.

Alan Fox: Yes.

David St. John: And the students get that if these men and women could do it, if Mike Harper could do it, or if Evelyn Lau can do it, then they can do it, too. But I also work really hard—yeah, it’s somewhere between a talk show and a T-group—I work really hard so that a sense of community develops within the workshop. So, that by the third or fourth week they feel like it’s a safe place. I also joke a lot. I tease them. I try to get them to laugh; I try to make it a kind of family, a little bit like family they’ve never had and could never imagine.

Alan Fox: That’s good. Can you say more about the relation between poetry and music?

David St. John: Yeah. I truly believe this is how poetry persuades us, through verbal music and its rhythms. Although, at different times, I’ve written strictly formal things, that’s really not what I do. Most of the strictly formal poems I’ve written were really to teach myself prosody along the way. And prosody is not that complicated a thing, if you have a reasonably good ear; it’s intricate in that there are a lot of wonderful variations possible, and to write as beautifully as Richard Wilbur or James Merrill, of course, takes a lifetime. But I like to encourage students to work in traditional forms simply as a way of tuning their ears to the language and the speech of the world around them. I don’t ask my students to write in poetic forms until they’re really pretty advanced, because it’s just beyond them. And they’d just feel frustrated.

Alan Fox: Yes.

David St. John: But there’s no mystery to it and I think that it’s not something that should be held as a kind of odd, peculiar, archaic getsure in literature. It’s just what it is, it’s just a heartbeat. You know, it’s just a variation on the heartbeat. So, the poetic music that concerns me is an elaborated music. Whether it’s the American music of William Carlos Williams and the speech that’s a more vernacular speech of his early poems, or if you look at late Williams and the extravagant, gorgeous music of those poems, or if it’s those poems of Philip Levine and Gerald Stern, which are deeply Romantic, a kind of American transcendental romanticism, or whether it’s the very stripped-down and bare diction of Adrienne Rich, or the really fabulous, bare-bones, mythic cool of W. S. Merwin– all of these dictions, all of these ways of speaking in the world as a poet should be available to young poets. I think that the more they know, the broader the palette of voice, the easier it will begin to be for them to recognize those voices that resemble their own or have their own voices begin to resemble particular voices.

Alan Fox: I see.

David St. John: I just encourage them to steal wildly from everyone (Fox laughs) as a way to try on all these different poetic masks and to see what feels comfortable.

Alan Fox: Do you feel that since you’ve been writing the American audience has changed in any significant way?

David St. John: Well there’s no question that it’s much larger than it was — the number of books published, the number of readings. What I like is that it’s the number of readings across the spectrum, whether it’s really accomplished poets, whether it’s poetry slams, whether it’s coffee houses or college auditoriums. It doesn’t particularly matter. It seems to me irrelevant. What matters to me is that people are finding a way to connect with language. And this is what helps create a culture and a society that doesn’t allow itself to be lied to. I think that poetry is able to give people a kind of armature of integrity in terms of hearing in their ear when they’re being lied to. I think it’s why in every disenfranchised people, poetry is the art form that is first seized in revolution. It’s literally the voice that’s taken hold of.

Alan Fox: Mm-hm.

David St. John: And I think that because of the immediacy and the urgency of poetic language, this is a kind of inevitability. It’s why poetry was the only art form that was able to respond initially to 9/11. That’s why the media turned to poetry, both print media and radio. It was quite stunning to me. I’d never seen anything like it in my lifetime. I think it was in March of that year [2002] there was an article in Newsweek. It was really fascinating that someone was talking about this, and what the article basically said was for these past six months (since 9/11), because of the failure of the official language and any public language, this country has turned to poetry. But now that we feel more at ease again, we’re going back to the movies, we’re going back to TV and to other things. And The Los Angeles Times reporter Lynell Smith wrote, two days after 9/11, about the immediate and total collapse of any official language, any remtely public way to deal with the grief that we all felt. And it was only poetry that could step into that breach.

Alan Fox: Why is there a hunger for poetry to deal with the events of 9/11?

David St. John: We live in a culture that has an impoverished vocabulary to deal with any emotion, not just grief. We live in a culture without a religious framework, unless we’re lucky and I think people who have some clear religious commitment feel or felt they had at hand someplace to turn, some language with which to talk about whatever it was that they were feeling. But I would say the great majority of us probably don’t, and that we don’t have the philosophical apparatus, since most of our philosophical systems have moved away from notions of faith and endurance. But there’s a body of language that does provide us with a vehicle towards complex and even contradictory states of being and emotion, and that’s poetry. In the world and realm of poetry, you’re able to experience conflict and despair, celebration, all of those things in a way that is simply not available to us in our daily lives. I also think, in times of distress, people don’t feel they have the psychological energy, say, to sit down and read a novel.

Alan Fox: Mm-hm.

David St. John: They don’t say, although they might, they don’t say, this is just the moment to reread Anna Karenina. Although it might be the single most consoling thing they could do; certainly, for me, it’s one of those great consoling books, but it’s not where people are psychologically at, it’s not what they’re able to do. But they are able to say, there’s this great moment in this poem they remember, say, from the time they were in high school or college, of a moment in Whitman, or maybe there’s a moment in Allen Ginsberg, or maybe there’s a moment in a Patti Smith song. You know? It doesn’t matter. It has to be, at those times, a more immediate connection. Movies, interestingly enough, don’t seem to work. Movies are too, uh, raw for people in states of distress, unless it’s the Marx Brothers.

Alan Fox: You mentioned contradiction. What is the role of contradiction in poetry?

David St. John: Well, the energy, the tension, the conflict in any work of art is what gives it its velocity, its momentum; for me, it’s also involved with some conception of integrity. I don’t believe that things are either all one way or another. I think that things are partly this and partly that. Tthe tensions and the conflicts in any work of art are what excite me. Donald Hall has this great line in which he says, “the happy poem sleeps in the sun.” (Fox laughs.) And it may be unfortunate, and there are great poems of ecstasy, and certainly in Asian poetry, there are these luminous moments of happiness. But I go for the conflict and the sense of…I like poems that kind of roil around in their circumstances and then deliver me somewhere I didn’t know I was going to be.

Alan Fox: So, if a poem surprises you, that…

David St. John: Oh, always, yeah, I mean, I want to be surprised. The problem in writing poems that you know…let me just stop and say, one gets to a point in one’s writing life where you can write a poem that looks like a poem, sounds like a poem, walks like a poem, and someone, you know, someone will call it a poem and tell you we’ll publish it as a poem, and it means nothing to you. So, unless you can surprise yourself … who is it who said, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”? Someone we all know and love. And I think it’s true. You know, I think that surprise is really essential and that’s why I go into a poem with a piece of language and a piece of verbal music and some vague pressure, some sort of interior concern, whether it’s a kind of psychological concern, whether it’s a context of some emotional situation, whatever it is, that pressure is there. But, I don’t want to know where the poem is going to go.

Alan Fox: Do you do many poetry readings?

David St. John: I did, and poetry readings are great fun for me. I’ve always loved doing poetry readings. And I think that, at different times, I’ve done a lot. When a book comes out, I tend to do quite a few in the first four or five months.

Alan Fox: Of course.

David St. John: And then it’ll taper off to something more reasonable. I like, increasingly, intimate venues. Occasionally I still read to big auditoriums and colleges. And, depending on the room, it can be just fine, depending on the sound system, depending on the space itself. But more and more I prefer reading in spaces that hold no more than a hundred people. It just seems, uh, I can punish the audience more happily in a smaller venue. (Fox laughs.) But I’m not always sure in the big auditoriums that I’m nailing those people in the back row.

Alan Fox: Does an audience response ever surprise you?

David St. John: Yeah. Yeah. I can tell now about three poems into it whether they’re afraid or not. And usually I read something that has a piece of wicked humor in it, and if they laugh, then I’ve got a pretty good sense that they’re right there and ready to be on this train. But if their eyes roll back into their heads, then I also know that I’m going to have to be a little gentler for a while, before I go on.

Alan Fox: So, how does your reader response, either at a reading or from what you’ve written, how does that affect you as a poet?

David St. John: Well, I try not to let it affect me at all. I see too many poets alter their writing to please their audiences when they give readings. They feel that they have to become more literal-minded. They feel they have to become more jokey. They begin to pander to their audience.

Alan Fox: O. K.

JOHN: And it’s a really natural, human thing to do. But I think, often, after those readings where I’ve had lots of people I care about make this move in their work, after those readings, what they don’t know is that people in the audience will say to you or to each other, well, that was really entertaining, but I miss those times when X did this or that. And that’s the side of it one doesn’t hear, so one has to be cautious about that. A nd as anyone who writes knows, the only thing worse would be writing in response to your reviews of your work. One has to read one’s reviews with tremendous gratitude and appreciation, because whether it’s good or bad, somebody’s taken the time to write that review. And then you just forget it as quickly as humanly possible.

Alan Fox: I’ll buy that.

David St. John: And, even if it’s extravagant praise, it is worthless to me as an artist.

Alan Fox: Do you find that the reaction is sometimes political? And I don’t mean Republican/Democrat political, I mean the “world of poetry” political.

David St. John: You know, something that I’ve always said to my students is to distrust poets who run in packs. Because those poets do so for the career, not for the sake of poetry. And I think that there are lots of poets who have their particular aesthetic corral that they try to herd all of their friends into as well, so they don’t feel quite so lonely. I find this is very different from those traditions of artistic movements and real artistic communities … aesthetic, propagandistic…whether it’s the Guerrilla Girls or the Surrealists. I’m a huge fan of that kind of extravagance. The thing that I object to, uh, is the preciousness, at any level, of a group of people deciding they know best about any particular art form. I think that there’s a kind of arrogance in that that’s unforgivable. I think that, as a poet, I’ve learned as much from Robert Creeley as I have from Richard Wilbur. I’ve learned as much from Patty Smith as I’ve learned from, let’s say, listening to Bach. And I want to draw my artistic energy from a really honeycombed well of really strong sources.

Alan Fox: Would you say then that an ideal poetic environment is anarchistic?

David St. John: I think it’s both pluralistic and anarchistic. I think that there has to be resources available for engagement if you’re an artist. And if you’re an artist you have to go in search of those things. They’re not going to come knocking at your door. One of the great things is that each individual needs to decide for him or herself what those sources and resources are going to be. It may be something as simple as memory. It may be the richness of childhood. It may be someone who loves to wander through museums. It may be somebody who lives in the world of the night, the underground world of the night, and lives in clubs, whether they’re jazz clubs or sex clubs. Maybe that’s where they find themselves most intimately. All I ask of the artists that I admire is that they continue to push themselves towards those encounters where they can find the most viscous and protean aspects of themselves, and to not back down.

Alan Fox: You mentioned your memory, and earlier you talked about touching memory. What is the value of that?

David St. John: It’s all about healing. The course of one’s experience is mapped by the course of disappointment, failure, dismissal, as much as any measure of accomplishment or success. Most of us remember far more vividly that moment in third grade where X or Y happens than we remember whatever birthday we had that year, or whatever sort of presumed moment of celebration and holiday. And that’s just a more fanciful example of what happens at a much deeper and often catastrophic level, whether it’s someone who’s been abused in childhood in whatever manner, whether it’s someone who’s lost a family member, at really any age, whether one has been displaced, whether one has had to move from their own country or from a house that they’d loved. Loss is something that inscribes itself, I think, really deeply into our imaginations. One of the things that poetry can do is to help us to go back and recover those times, recover those memories. And I mean recovery in its medical sense, too, the recovery involved in recuperating, just as recuperation has to do with healing. And bringing those elements of the past up into language of the present allows us a kind of reckoning that I think otherwise isn’t available to us. I think we all have wonderful therapists or have had wonderful therapists, but the act of writing is different than the act of therapy. The act of writing is the enactment in language of these materials of our lives. And that’s a different thing, a different stage than the therapeutic stage. It’s the stage in which one has not relinquished control. It’s the stage upon which one can then use language to decipher things that might have been otherwise puzzling. Or things that at that time we weren’t old enough or sophisticated enough or experienced enough to really give language to.

Alan Fox: Yes.

David St. John: And there’s this great moment in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet where he says to the, the guy writing him, Kappus, he says, look, even if you were thrown in jail tomorrow, you could still write, because you would always have your childhood.

Alan Fox: What is the role of your childhood in your writing?

David St. John: It still surfaces occasionally, though it’s really much more present in my earlier books. The strings that needed attending to found a way into poems in my first couple of books, especially in my first two books. And I’m pretty happy and satisfied with how those books sort of found their form and shape. Occasionally there are still things from my late teens and early twenties that autobiographically I could point to a passage in a poem and say, well, this has to do with this or this has to do with that. I mean, there are a couple of more overt moments in The Face, the premise of which has to do with a kind of positing of the speaker’s biography but in a very foliated kind of way. It both reaches back and reaches forward. For the most part, my teacher and friend Philip Levine is someone who continues to mine childhood and early adulthood, and for whom the act of memory is the mechanism and vehicle of his poetry.

Alan Fox: Well, when I spoke with Philip Levine, a few years ago now, he said something I found very interesting. He said he obviously taught at Fresno State mostly, and he’s been a visiting professor elsewhere, he mentioned Princeton, and he said he thought the students at Fresno State came from a more “real” place. The Princeton folks were writing about their ski vacations, etc.

David St. John: Right.

Alan Fox: What do you feel about that?

David St. John: Well, I think underneath every ski parka is a real human heart. I think that one’s job is to break those skis over somebody’s skull (Fox laughs) and help free them to find the voice that might belong to them. The frustration, obviously, is that—and Phil and I have talked about this kind of frustration—is that if you teach in an atmosphere of privilege, there can be a greater reluctance to be self-examining. I think that, were Phil to be teaching at a place like Princeton over a period or number of years, as I think other poets there have shown—or elsewhere, you can pick your Ivy League atrocity– I think that you can change those circumstances, even though you might feel that the students don’t need you in a very real way. Whereas at another school, the desire for an inner life might be much more palpable. I do think it has to do with those things we hate to talk about. It has to do with money and class and in this country this translates into power. And I think that one can’t pretend that there’s not a deeply ingrained power structure that involves Ivy League universities. I’ve seen it up close, I’ve been part of it. It’s stupid to pretend it doesn’t exist. Yet at the same time, we live in a country with a democratic ideal. The ideal exists not just in a political frame, but in an artistic frame. And one of the things that a teacher like Phil does—whether he’s at NYU or Princeton or Tufts, where he taught for many years as well, or in the place where he was my teacher, in the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno—what he brings is the ferocity of his integrity. And one, as a student, has a choice. Either react and appreciate and honor that, or you run in fear, because it might put before you a mirror that is just too disquieting.

Alan Fox: Do you think that privilege and integrity are mutually exclusive?

David St. John: No, not at all. And I’m glad that you asked that, because I don’t feel that. In fact there was a period in my life where I knew a group of young people in their mid-to-late twenties who were the children of spectacular privilege, the children of name brand families in this country. And of course, unlike me, they had Ivy League educations, all of them—and I have never seen such a profound sense of service and social responsibility. They knew from whence they came and they took it quite seriously, I have to say to my great surprise.

Alan Fox: That’s good. When you look back at your own writing, is there anything that especially pleases or disappoints you?

David St. John: Well, what pleases me is that I’ve often been unsatisfied and restless, and with every book, I feel I tried to do something that I hadn’t done before. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve always done it exactly the way I’ve wanted to do it. But sometimes I have. I’m really happy with this most recent book, The Face. Stylistically, it’s radically different from my last few books. Internally it interweaves different aspects of tone, and different notions of tone, I think, with a greater sophistication and peculiarity than anything I’ve been able to do before. So, I’m happy about that. But at this point, for me, I just continue to try to surprise myself and to see if I can put myself artistically in harm’s way, to the extent that I might have to make movements I otherwise would not have to make. I don’t want to get too comfortable; I don’t want to get cozy, I don’t want to be one of those poets who writes the same poem for thirty years while they wait for somebody on a prize committee to notice. (Fox laughs.) And American poetry is filled with those poets, and they all petrify prematurely. They quit reading young poets and all they care about is doing American Express commercials. (Fox laughs.)

Alan Fox: Well, what advice do you have for young poets?

David St. John: Stay hungry. And read. You can’t write unless you read. And read everything. I mean, read Jeff Clark and read Robert Herrick. And read Sir Walter Raleigh and listen to X. I mean, I wrote one whole book listening to X and Elvis Costello. I mean, that was what kept me going. And I think you find what your sources are artistically. And then you go, you look to yourself, and you go where the heat is. You trust your instincts, you trust your friends, and you hang in there for the long haul.

Alan Fox: When you say trust your friends, do you show your work to people before you’ve had it published?

David St. John: I show it to fewer friends now. And I tend not to show it until I’m pretty satisfied with where it is. Then I listen to what they say.

Alan Fox: And how do you know when a poem is finished?

David St. John: Well, you know Valéry’s great phrase: a poem is never finished, just abandoned. And I think that, for me, a poem is finished when I feel I can no longer make it better.

Alan Fox: That makes sense.

David St. John: But I’m also an endless revisionist. I don’t mind revising and I don’t mind revising in a very particular, tiny way. That’s part of the pleasure of the process for me. So that doesn’t bother me. Some poets have different attitudes about revision. Some poets feel they need to get a poem down quickly. That somehow it’s, it’s some sense of cosmic, um, failure not to finish their poems immediately. But it’s that rare poem that comes full blown and happily to life.

Alan Fox: How often do you find that you write a poem and it doesn’t work, and you can’t make it work, and you just have to go on to something else?

David St. John: Easily half the time.

Alan Fox: So that shouldn’t be a disappointment then?

David St. John: Oh, no. I would say for every book I’ve published, for that number of pages, there are probably three times that number of poems that have not made it into the book.

Alan Fox: It seems to me like the heat for you in poetry is the process, rather than the awards or public response?

David St. John: Oh, yeah. I think if anyone really wrote to win a prize or be on the cover of APR, they’d stop writing. And they do, often, stop writing by the time they’re in their late twenties. And one of the things I love about poets is that they write, for the most part, because there’s nothing there. It’s really relatively recent that there’s been any money, unlike fiction writers who … there are fiction writers I knew when I was younger who were– more than half of them– writing because they wanted to sell something to the movies. Of course, they are the writers who disappeared long ago. And the writers who were writing because they love to write are the ones who emerged as the great writers, I mean, whether it’s Richard Ford or Ron Hansen, Ondaatje, they write because they have to write, and they love writing. So, I think that by one’s friends I mean those who are engaged in some kind of art in the way that you are. It doesn’t have to be poets. They can be filmmakers, they can play in string quartets, or jazz or rock bands. But it’s somebody who understands that artistic risk and solitude are part of the territory of one’s artistic life and therefore are understanding about what it is like.