Interview with Robert Pinsky

October 3, 2014, BYU English Reading Series Q&A

Robert Pinksy was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He graduated from Long Branch High School, as had his parents, and went on to college at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and then to graduate work at Stanford, where he held a Stegner Fellowship. His Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus,& Giroux) was published in 2011. His previous books of poetry include Gulf Music (2008). Jersey Rain (2000), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante (1994) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor’s Choice, and received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prise and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. His prose books include The Life of David (2005), The Situation fo Poetry (1976) and The Sounds of Poetry (1998).

AUDIENCE: How would you say somebody could best develop their talent as a writer and poet?

ROBERT PINSKY: The answer is to read the way an ambitious athlete watches excellent athletes, to read the way a cook eats, to read the way, if you’re ambitious to be a filmmaker, you would watch Kurosawa and Keaton and Scorsese, whomever you admired.

My recent book Singing School–I call it an anthology/manifesto hybrid– has a subtitle: “Learning to write poetry by studying with the masters.” Here is the most specific, practical thing I can suggest (besides buying my book!): create your own anthology. I mean actually. Type up or write out with your own hand the poems you love by, it might be, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, Constantine Cavafy. Whatever it is you love, style it up, and save it in a computer file called “anthology.”  You might cut and paste, rather than typing you more distinctly notice the lines of verse and their relation to the sentences.

In other words, if you’re serious young poet or writer, keep what people used to call a daybook. I’m making that daybook or anthology exercise the central requirement of “The Art of Poetry,” the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I am teaching right now. If you go to favoritepoem.org–which I recommend for the videos– a little red stripe or banner at the top of the home page sends you to the “Art of Poetry” MOOC. I’m asking all of the tens of thousands of people registered for the MOOC to do this anthology exercise. People have used the assignment with eighth graders; I used to require it of PhD students of Berkeley. The exercise combines autonomy–your taste and your choice, nursery rhymes, song lyrics, whatever you want, it’s your anthology–with the physical experience of typing the poem. Autonomy and corporeality. That’s my practical answer to your question about developing one’s talent.

AUDIENCE: When you translate, do you translate into modern language?

ROBERT PINSKY: In the passage you heard me read from the Inferno, I hope you heard an idiom that sounded plausible and clear: a kind of language that sounded like someone would say it: an idiom not quite your American English and mine, but not old fashioned or archaic, either. I hope the idiom of my Inferno of Dante conveys some idea that this was not written last month or last year, in the USA. I try to create a language that is familiar enough. A created but attractive language: It’s like painting a stage set, an attractive, serviceable language: It’s like painting a stage set, an attractive, serviceable illusion. To me it wouldn’t be interesting to create a slangy American version. That would be too easily ironic, and Dante is not ironic in that distancing or smirking way. The goal was to create an idiom that the reader won’t much otic, something relatively transparent: not especially of your same time and place, and not sounding antique. Something with the fluent, varying immediacy of Dante’s Italian.

AUDIENCE: When you write your own poems what is your workflow?

ROBERT PINKY: It’s important to answer all questions about process with a very important sentence: Everyone is different!

Whatever you personality or your way of working– whether to get up early and work all morning or to sleep all day and work late at night; to write spontaneously and never revise, or to revise carefully and extensively; to make an outline, or to hate outlines– someone has done great work with that procedure. That is no one recipe, so each of us must think about our own habits, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses and try to make them effective. I guess the goal is to understand your way of working and being, while being open to buy them.

I speak to your as someone who in the eighth grade was placed in the Dumb Class. I got very bad grades. I can’t make an outline. I can’t proceed methodically. I don’t do well with routines. I’d much rather improvise than be prepared. All that is neither good nor bad, I think– it is me, or a version of me on which I must try to play the best variations.

Everyone learns differently, everyone writes differently, everyone speaks differently, everyone creates differently, and in my case I love to make it up as I go along. I hate plans. If I’m interviewed, I need to tell the interviewer, “Please don’t tell me what you’re going to ask me.”

Everybody is different. And those of you who go on to be teachers, I hope you will understand that principle and try to use it in a generous, though stringent, way. It’s not a way to excuse people from working hard, from doing their job. But the job should be defined and presented in ways that encourage people to use their strengths, which vary amongst humanity. So with that said, here’s how I, personally, tend to work. I write–a better word might be “compose”– with my voice. I can “write,” in that sense of “compose,”” with my hands on the wheel while driving or while I’m taking a shower. Some of the composing is the way I’ll play with the consonants and the vowels, like somebody smooshing paint on a surface or manipulating clay or noodling on the piano. I’m not recommending that to anyone–just trying to answer the question!

AUDIENCE: Given modern technology, what direction do you see poetry going?

ROBERT PINSKY: I sometimes think that the interest in art, including poetry, has been enhanced by improved technology, partly because the availability of great performances on a mass scale. If I decide to watch a great movie like Kurosawa’s High and Low, or if I want to watch Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior tonight, I can. If I want to see Sandy Koufax’s pitching, I can–whatever I want–and it’s on a mass scale. It’s very available and it’s due to performance.

A poem is on a individual scale. It’s one voice; it’s very intimate. And technology makes the voice available in an intimate, immediate way. Not as a performance art, but as a vocal art. That’s why I love the videos at favoritepoem.org.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a two line poem written in the nineteenth century: “On love, on grief, on every human thing, /Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” Hearing that as I say it gives me an experience of the poem that is quite different from looking at a screen, or hearing audio of an actor or poet read the poem. My mouth, my breath, my ears, become the medium for the art of someone who lived two hundred years ago. “On love, on grief, on ever. . .” those six words were composed long ago by Walter Savage Landor, an upper class Englishman and Latinist; I am not an upper class English Latinist; I’m a lower middle-class Jew from New Jersey–but my upper teeth went over my lower lip three times at the beginning. “On love, on grief, on every human thing.” And three times at the end of the poem I pursed my lips: “. . . Lethe’s water with his wing.” That is an ancient technology at the center of the evolution of human intelligence. Singing, dancing, poetry, are not at the fringe; they are at the core of who we are. We use them to survive, to pass knowledge through the generations, It’s an ancient technology. Oddly enough, now technology makes that more available.

I urge you all–I beg you–to go to favoritepoem.org. At that Favorite Poem Project web site you will see the FPP videos. You will see a construction worker reading aloud, and discussing, lines by Walt Whitman. You will see a young woman in California, whose parents were immigrants from Cambodia, read a Langston Hughes poem and relate a Langston Hughes poem to her family’s horrible experience during the Pol Pot regime.

Thanks to technology, those videos make available to you examples of this experience I am trying to describe: having a poem in one’s voice, on a very individual level. I believe that experience involves the dignity of the individual. It is widely available on the web.

AUDIENCE: Do you prefer to have your poems read silently or aloud?

ROBERT PINSKY: In the literal or imagined voice of each reader. I’m not interested in making a hit as a reader or poetry. I write with my voice, as I–and for your voice. I want you to imagine saying my words. Ideally you say them aloud, but the moment of poetry for me is the moment when you see the printed words “On love, on grief, on every human thing,/Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” Instead of using your silent reading habits, mutter it to yourself. That somatic moment, that moment at the border of your mind and your body, when you imagine saying those words: that’s what interests me. The medium for a poem is each reader’s body. It’s your breath, not me giving a poetry reading. It’s you, on your scale, saying the words.

AUDIENCE: What theory of criticism do you prescribe to, and how has theory impacted you?

ROBERT PINSKY: The word theory is based on the Greek word theoria, which is to behold, to see something. So a theory is a system for seeing and understanding. And the most influential theory on me is the theory of action in Francis Ferguson’s book The Idea of a Theatre: a quite practical book, as well as profound theoretically. Based on Aristotle, the theory has to do with the idea of imitation: that a work of imitates an action. Action in the sense of a movement of the soul.

The literary theory currently of the academic world, in my own life? At about the same point in my life that I stopped eating McDonald’s and Burger King I decided I was going to read only things I really enjoyed. Things that felt urgent, or beautifully composed, preferably both. As a result, I haven’t read much literary theory; because often, when trying to read it, I’m not having a good time. This is a self-indulgence I have allowed myself. I don’t mean to be superior to a body of writing, but I only like to read things that give my pleasure. At the age I am now, it to force myself would feel wasteful. I am aware of how very finite is the time I have left. I’m much nearer to the end than the beginning, and I am no longer in junior high school I’m just going to read things that make me feel good. Recently, with a grandchild, I went back and experimented in having some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I didn’t like it. I thought “this may be good,” and I knew I didn’t think so. The grandchild didn’t seem impressed, either.