“Of all the H’wood people I’ve met, my favorite is R.Downey Jr., a shining psychedelic optimist. I saw Samuel Beckett on the street once in Edinburgh wearing a long navy blue wool coat. It was like seeing a great British sailed frigate from the Empire days come knifing up a little river, that shocking, that beautiful. I also met, unexpectedly, Jorge Luis Borges once, long after I thought he was dead. It was 1985. It was like meeting Kafka. He recited a speech from King Lear (in English) and then explained how it might be improved.”—Walter Kirn’s Permanent Morning
“We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain.”
Cheryl Strayed on Adrienne Rich's 'The Dream of a Common Language'
I’d read The Dream of a Common Language so often that I’d practically memorized it. In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn’t regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion.
I opened it up and read the first poem out loud, my voice rising above the sound of the wind battering the walls of my tent. I read it again and again and again.
It was a poem called ‘Power.’
—An excerpt from Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Do you have readers who come up to you and say, “You’ve changed my life?”
AdrienneRich: Yes, I do, and I usually say to them—which I also believe to be true—“You were changing your life and you read my book or you read that poem at a point where you could use it, and I’m really glad, but you were changing your life.” Somehow when we are in the process of making some kind of self-transformation—pushing ourselves out there further, maybe taking some risk that we never believed we would take before—sometimes a poem will come to us by some sort of magnetic attraction.
“I just reread James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country—a great New York novel set in the fifties. Baldwin sees the possibilities offered, the cruel defeats inflicted, the social and racial transgressions that sometimes make for survival. I recognize that city. And that’s not nostalgia.”—Adrienne Rich, from the March 2011 Paris Review interview
How untouchable the girls arm-locked strutting up the main hall of Central High unopposed for decades looked. I flattened myself against the wall, unnerved by their cloudsea of élan, which pounced upon any timid girl regrettably in their way, their high-wattage lifting slow motion like curls of light strands of honey. The swagger behind their blue-tinted sunglasses and low-rider jeans hurt boys like me, so vast the worlds between us, even the slightest whiff of recognition, an accidental side glance, an unintended tongue-piercing display of Juicy Fruit chew, was intoxicating and could wildly cast a chess-playing geek into a week-long surmise of inner doubts, likelihoods, and depressions. You might say my whole life led to celebrating youth and how it snubs and rebuffs. Back then I learned to avoid what I feared and to place my third-string hopes on a game-winning basketball shot, sure it would slow them to a stop, pan their lip-glossed smiles, blessing me with their cool.
That said, it’s important to keep the audience in mind, because communication is the object, and communication is a two-way street. It’s also important to keep tone in mind–some words just make us seem formal, prissy, uppity. Words should always be considered for how they contribute to tone.
Words that are abstract, colorless, or hijacked unnecessarily from another category of speech are the worst culprit: “impact” as a verb for example, or all those silly -ize verbs, including “utilize,” or just examples of someone trying to be hypercorrect (“myself” is a good example; another is “whom” when “who” is correct).
“The stigmatization of poor white families more than a century ago should provide a warning: behaviors that seem to have begun in the 1960s belong to a much longer and more complex history than ideologically driven writers like Mr. Murray would have us believe.”—Nell Irvin Painter, When Poverty Was White
“Every great love affair begins with a scream. At birth, the brain starts blazing new neural pathways based on its odyssey in an alien world. An infant is steeped in bright, buzzing, bristling sensations, raw emotions and the curious feelings they unleash, weird objects, a flux of faces, shadowy images and dreams — but most of all a powerfully magnetic primary caregiver whose wizardry astounds.”—Diane Ackerman, The Brain on Love
Do you believe that a reader has to labor and earn the fruits of a poem?
April Bernard: Recently I’ve been trying to explain to students why poems are sometimes so difficult and about the aesthetic of difficulty. My best explanation involves the premise that a poem is capturing a moment of absolute intense emotion. In the throes of an intense emotion, you can’t possibly write; your back is flat on the floor. So by the time you get to writing the poem, you’re trying to capture that emotion and put it in a usable form.
I think the difficult, elaborated aspects of a poem are like the wrapping on a present. It becomes a means of conveyance to hand the poem to somebody else because you can’t just hurl the emotion at them. You have to give it to them in a form that is stable and that won’t explode. It’s like putting dynamite in a nice box and then you hand the box, which is the poem, to the other person and the other person has to unpack it. If you’re lucky, they will enjoy the unwrapping. Part of the purposeful difficulty of the poem is meant to prolong the unwrapping process and to prolong the expectation.
At the age of 20 or so, you bought a one-way ticket to Paris...
Sherod Santos: My going to Paris was prompted by a number of things, some related to writing, some not. It was an unhappy period, and I felt like leaving everything behind and starting all over again — the kind of thing, I fear, my background made all too easy to do. Looking back on it now, I realize how foolhardy a move it was. I arrived with only about $300 in my pocket and no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go. To make things worse, I didn’t have a green card and didn’t have enough money to survive until I got one. So I pretty much drifted from place to place asking about work. Finally, the concierge at this small, dilapidated hotel near the Place d’Odeon — the Hotel Racine, on Rue Racine — offered me about fifty cents an hour plus an attic room to take up coffee and croissants to guests in the morning. The concierge could get away with paying me so little because I didn’t have a green card, but it seemed about enough to scrape by on. I’d work from five in the morning until noon, then I’d make my way to the American Library, where I’d staked out a comfortable spot for reading and writing, which I’d do until nightfall. And then there was Paris waiting outside with all its various adventures. I rarely broke that routine, and I think that’s the point at which I began to fall in love with the enormous difficulty of making poems. Before that, I think the difficulty had frightened, perhaps even embarrassed me a little; after that, I began to crave the hard labor of it, and to feel a bit vague and half-hearted when I wasn’t engaged in that labor. Had I not crossed that threshold, I suspect I’d eventually have given up writing, or that writing would’ve eventually given up me. Was that the secret I’d gone there to find? Things are never that simple, but I do know that when I returned to the States there was no longer any doubt about what I was going to do with my life.
“Musicians, I have always felt, have better access to their emotions than writers, because they have the ability to express them two ways at once. Writers taught me how to think, by and large, but musicians taught me how to feel.”—Pam Houston at The Nervous Breakdown
“I’m frightened of people who believe in just one story. The advantage of studying literature is that you learn many stories, philosophy, history, etc. You learn that we have commonalities of strangeness and secrets with our fellow humans. Because of many stories, we are that much more open to otherness.”—A conversation with Stephen Dunn
“What reading poetry has taught me, I think, is that when meaning gets made associatively, rather than logically or chronologically, we feel it in a different part of our bodies, and, I would argue, we feel it more strongly, like a punch. One of the things Contents is about is memory, the way a killer whale might make you think of a strand of white-heart trade beads, which might make you think of a drink your father used to order called a Negroni. Also, when you are raised by alcoholics, there is almost no such thing as chronology, no such thing as one thing logically following another; and everything that is told is always told slant.”—Pam Houston interviews herself at The Nervous Breakdown
“Cocoa-buttered girls were stretched out on the public beach in apparently random alignments, but maybe if a weather satellite zoomed in on one of those bodies and then zoomed back out, the photos would show the curving beach itself was another woman, a fractal image made up of the particulate sunbathers. All the beaches pressed together might form female landmasses, female continents, female planets and galaxies. No wonder men felt tense.”—Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage
In spring, the sweet young spring, decked out with little green, braceleted with the song of idiotic birds, spurious and sweet and tawdry as a shopgirl in her cheap finery, like an idiot with money and no taste; they were little and young and trusting, you could kill them sometimes. But now, as August like a langourous replete bird winged slowly through the pale summer toward the moon of decay and death, they were bigger, vicious; ubiquitous as undertakers, cunning as pawnbrokers, confident and unavoidable as politicians. They came cityward lustful as country boys, as passionately integral as a college football squad; pervading and monstrous but without majesty: a biblical plague seen through the wrong end of a binocular: the majesty of Fate become contemptuous through ubiquity and sheer repetition.
We all have known Good critics, who have stamped out poet’s hopes; Good patriots, who, for a theory, risked a cause; Good kings, who disembowelled for a tax; Good Popes, who brought all good to jeopardy; Good Christians, who sat still in easy-chairs; And damned the general world for standing up.— Now, may the good God pardon all good men!
"The name Psmith is a comic invention of genius, perfect for the character. The absurdly contrived plot was one of PGW’s best (and he was a master of such things); in moments of gloom I think back to Psmith, masquerading as a sensitive poet, inspecting the line ‘across the pale parabola of joy’ and hoping he will not be asked to explain it. How many times have I read it? 10? 15? 20? Surely not more than 20? But if not only because I devoured as many other PGWs as I could get my hand on, because otherwise even Psmith might grow stale."
When they taught me that what mattered most was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping over the page but the variations in that line and the tension produced on the ear by the surprise of difference, I understood yet didn’t understand exactly, until just now, years later in spring, with the trees already lacy and camellias blowsy with middle age, I looked out and saw what a cold front had done to the garden, sweeping in like common language, unexpected in the sensuous extravagance of a Maryland spring. There was a dark edge around each flower as if it had been outlined in ink instead of frost, and the tension I felt between the expected and actual was like that time I came to you, ready to say goodbye for good, for you had been a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in you laughed and lifted me up in your arms as if I too were lacy with spring instead of middle aged like the camellias, and I thought: so this is Poetry!