We grieve the recent passing of Mark Strand, one of America’s great poets. Strand was published numerous times in The Antioch Review since the appearance of his first poem in 1961, just a few years following his graduation from Antioch College. Strand was an important and long standing member of The Antioch Review’s Advisory Board. His influence will be missed. According to Editor, Robert Fogarty, there are few among the poetry literati as dedicated to the art, as Strand. Fogarty recalls that even as a student he resisted the enforced regimen of Antioch College that required students to spend semesters in co-op programs away from the college. “Mark always wanted to stay at school and continue to work on his art and literature,” Fogarty reflects. “Yet, during one co-op term he worked at a hospital in Cleveland and was particularly affected in a positive way by having to care for children with polio.”
Following is a 2007 interview with Strand conducted by Lenny Emmanuel that appeared in The Antioch Review’s Winter, 2009 issue. We are publishing the interview in full as a small tribute to Strand’s long-term presence and influence.
Mark Strand And Lenny Emmanuel At The Trestle
(10th Avenue At 24th Street, New York City, Nov. 28, 2007)
BY LENNY EMMANUEL
Mark Strand walks into Don Justice’s class, and I think of Lord Byron, as Mark is strikingly handsome. He’s at least six feet tall, with dark brown hair that tends to be wavy, he has dark brown eyes, is well built with the body of a football player, perhaps of an offensive end with long, strong arms, shoulders, and with, as they say in football, “hands” that could hold onto the pigskin. He’s wearing a light blue-to-gray, short-sleeved shirt, jeans, and well-worn shoes. He says something privately to Don Justice and starts to leave the classroom. Someone in the class (I’m watching Mark) passes a poem forward called “Tree Surgeon” which he or she has dedicated to Mark. Mark reads the poem, passes the poem back without comment, and leaves the room. It’s the first time I’ve seen Mark Strand, but I’ve heard he is cryptic, aloof, and inaccessible. That afternoon I return to our apartment on North Dubuque Street and relate the episode to my wife Len, who innocently asks, “Who is Mark Strand?” I explain and say firmly, “I will definitely stay away from him. He would not be a friendly reader.” On two or three occasions during the next semester, Mark attempts to speak with me, but I am cryptic, aloof, and inaccessible. A year or so later, in 1965, Mark leaves for Rio de Janeiro with a Fulbright lectureship. Having been trained as a clinical chemist at the U. of Miami, I accept dual appointments in pathology and English at Indiana University’s Medical Center and in English at Indiana University in Indianapolis. My wife, children, and I leave Iowa City. About 20 years later, Mark reads in Indianapolis, and we meet for dinner, during which he makes a startling comment, “Lenny, I am no longer a poet.” I immediately reply, “No, Mark, you will always be a poet.” At that time he was at the University of Utah, and I don’t see Mark again until November 28, 2007.
During those 40 plus years, Mark has published about 30 books, 11 of his poetry, three of prose, three of translations, three art books, three for children, six anthologies of poets, and one of his manuscripts The Lives of the Poems (2005). He has taught at many universities and is currently at Columbia. He attended Antioch College as an undergraduate, received his B.F.A. from Yale, his M.A. from the University of Iowa. He was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, receiving his early education in the United States. He has been awarded numerous honors, the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, the Bollingen Prize, NEA and Rockefeller Foundation awards, and is a former Poet Laureate (1990) of the United States. He has taught at Iowa, the University of Utah, the University of Chicago, Princeton, and Harvard. He has moved a great deal over the years, and I gave up somewhere along in the 80s and 90s of keeping up with him, losing interest in his experimental work; but then, with the publication of Dark Harbor and Blizzard of One, I once again became one of his many readers, even if the most intriguing aspect of his poems is often what is not there:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
(Keeping Things Whole)
We begin our conversations at Mark’s elegant, London Terrace dwelling in Chelsea on 23rd Street in Lower Manhattan, walking distance from Greenwich Village, and end up at The Trestle for lunch just around the corner on 10th Avenue. We are sitting comfortably in his living room with huge windows allowing plenty of morning light and views of Manhattan. Mark is dressed casually in jeans, a light blue dress shirt, and is wearing an impressively expensive pair of shoes, tan and well-polished. His hair is almost totally gray, loosely groomed, and he has skipped his morning shave; but his eyes seem to have saddened somewhat over the years. He appears quite comfortable and relaxed, and though he moves and gestures rather slowly, he does so with a special grace, attentive eyes, and pleasant smile.
EMMANUEL: You’ve had a lot of literary influences, Mark, and I’d like to begin with those. I know you have been influenced by Whitman’s use of the anaphora, parallel structures, and I know Stevens has influenced you significantly, his views on the imagination, also Borges’ mirrors, and so on, including Wordsworth, Justice, Smart, Alberti, Tillich, Bloom, Paz; but how, I wonder, have these writers, which ones in particular, do you think influenced you the most, in their techniques, in their views, in their sensibilities?
STRAND: Well, a combination of things. You know, when you read a poem, very often it’s not so much what is said but the way the poet is saying it. I … I would say my influence has to do mainly with the way things are said by Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop. It’s different when I read prose, it is more about content. I think the biggest influence on my work, among the prose writers, has been Kafka. His dark humor, the immensity of his imagination, the way fantasy and realism become inextricable. With Stevens whom I consider a major influence, it’s primarily the beauty of the language. With Elizabeth Bishop, it’s the air of precision, the intense evocation of place. My interest in Elizabeth Bishop began because we share the same Nova Scotia background. I felt I had a grasp of what she was writing about, and I was of course charmed by her writing.
EMMANUEL: Were you reading Elizabeth Bishop at Iowa?
STRAND: Before Iowa…. I was reading Bishop and Lowell while at Antioch, along with Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. I don’t know what I was reading at Iowa. I think maybe Kafka, Borges certainly, and I was doing some translations of Alberti at Iowa. When one talks about influence, of course, it’s in retrospect, you know… some of it is wishful thinking.
EMMANUEL: I recall that you once said you were “terrified of language” during the early stages of your literary career. I wonder did you feel intimidated by the structures of the English language? Did you, as many writers have done, imitate the sentence structures of certain prose writers?
STRAND: I think I did a little of that. When I say I was “terrified,” I think I was overstating it. But I believed I was not a very good writer. I grew up in a very literary household. My father kept saying language is a tool. He’d correct my grammar, so I just felt on the defense. That’s why early in my writing career my sentence is the declarative sentence, where I thought I had control. After Kafka, my sentences became more elaborate. I no longer have the same fear of making a mistake or seeming awkward as I once did. When I’m writing prose, I like writing. I try to write as clearly and succinctly as possible.
EMMANUEL: But to make it clear and succinct … simple I guess is another term … linear structures, don’t you have to cut away a lot?
EMMANUEL: I read somewhere that you consider the sentence to be the unit of measure. I see that you are very sensitive to the sentence, but as I’m reading Dark Harbor, which is among my favorite poems, along with “Violent Storm” and “The Tunnel,” I notice while reading Dark Harbor that there is no regular count of syllables, accents, or pauses. There are more or less about four, five, or six stresses to the line, and more often than not two pauses within each line, sometimes three, sometimes just one, sometimes close to the caesura. I see phrasal and clausal metrics as the units in Dark Harbor. I see the line as the overall unit because it’s poetry, but when I’m reading that poem I am very aware of the phrasal and clausal units or metrics. I haven’t found an awkward “foot” in that poem, no trochs followed by anapests, things like that. Am I imagining your being conscious of certain aspects of meter and rhythm, while you were primarily thinking about the line, phrases, clauses, and/or the sentence?
STRAND: I think you’re correct… in what you say. When I’m writing poetry, I think of the line as the unit. You know, writing poetry is really accommodating lines to sentences and sentences to lines. My line has become a variation of blank verse.
EMMANUEL: It doesn’t bother you that at times a line will stick out or run out like a peninsula? I was reading one of Don Justice’s essays in which he describes visiting you one day, and you were sitting at the typewriter. He asked you what you were doing, and you answered something to the effect that you were trying to get a poem to look right on the page. Sometimes, as I’m reading one of your long lines going a bit far out or one pulling inward, I try to imagine you at that typewriter when Justice visited you, and I can’t get all of that together.
STRAND: When I’m writing, I’m not aware of its going over.
EMMANUEL: Oh, that’s right. I forgot. You write at first with pencil, then go to the typewriter toward the finishing of the poem.
STRAND: I write with ballpoint pen on lined paper. I try to keep a visual contract as well as a rhythmical one. I mean when you’re writing along, and you have twenty or so lines of a certain length, and one of the lines is twice as long or two-thirds longer or shorter, then you have to do something about it.
EMMANUEL: I sense that especially in “Violent Storm” and “The Tunnel” the objects around which you work are the storm and the tunnel, perhaps to some extent a continuation, for example, of the so-called moderns, Eliot, Pound, Tate, Ransom, and so on. In Dark Harbor, I appreciate the journey motif; but what really interests me is that the object ultimately is the mind of the poet or speaker of that poem. What seems to me to be extraordinary is that you’ve managed to make it work, back and forth, to and from the object, with that poem predominantly being a thinking-process poem. Can you comment on this?
STRAND: Well, writing Dark Harbor was different from any experience I had had previously. I wrote it very quickly. I wrote it in three months… or four months. I threw away about 30 sections. Because I was writing so quickly, it doesn’t surprise me that I put a lot in … well, that I might have left out, had I been writing more slowly.
EMMANUEL: I called Justice after Dark Harbor, wondering if he thought it was as great as I did; and then later, after you had won the Pulitzer, I called him again and said I thought you should have won that award sooner. He replied, “I think so too.”
STRAND: Well, one doesn’t think in terms of prizes. It’s nice, though, to have won it … to get it out of the way.
EMMANUEL: Yes, I recall your saying somewhere that the nice feeling of winning an award lasts about ten minutes. But that reminds me, about you and Don Justice. You two seemed to have been close friends and then to have drifted in separate directions along the way. Naturally, I think of Byron and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge, among others. Do you mind my asking what happened?
STRAND: Don and I were very close. We wrote letters to each other all the time. We had things to say about each other’s poetry. But I think… Don became more conservative as he got older, his poems became … I don’t want to say formal because all good poetry is formal, but he became less experimental. And I went the other way. He always thought I should write more in rhyme and meter, and when I wrote those villanelles in Blizzard of One, he said that was what I should be doing, whereas early on he encouraged me to experiment, to be different.
EMMANUEL: Anyway, you and Don went separate ways for a period?
STRAND: Yes. You know, it’s interesting. Don and Bob Mezey became close friends because Mezey who did that anthology Naked Poetry, espousing a kind of free verse, came back to writing very tight, formal, rhymed poems. He and Justice became very close again, while Charles Wright and I who were his students went our own way. I still admire Justice. I don’t think he ever wrote a bad poem. Just like Elizabeth Bishop. Their standards are so high. I’m not sure we have a choice, but a lot of people write far too much. And they end up writing just as many good poems as the people who write very little.
EMMANUEL: I think of Dante, that he wrote a lot of … less admirable stuff before The Divine Comedy. My friend Andrew Frisardi reminded me of that during my recent visit with him in Italy. But could we go back to poetry and form for a moment?
EMMANUEL: When we were talking in Indianapolis, at the La Tour restaurant, after I had complained about the restrictions of rhyme, views by the way which I have changed, you suggested that I read Bloom. You made a comment that has haunted me for over 20 years. You said, “Bloom knows.” Afterwards, I read Bloom, and I understand his views on the poet’s anxieties of not repeating himself and his mentors; but Bloom never seems to be interested in technique. He’s forever in the realm of philosophical thought and/or literary history. What did you mean when you said “Bloom knows”? You also suggested that I read Paz, and I did. I understand Paz, at least his comment about poetry being non-definable in the same sense as the spirit is non-definable. That makes sense to me.
STRAND: Yes, that makes sense to me too. I have no idea what I meant when I said “Bloom knows.” I say a lot of things. I have said a lot of things. Most of them I don’t remember having said; and when reminded of some of those things, I have no idea what I intended by them. I’m not sure I make any sense at all sometimes. I do remember quite a bit of Bloom. I’m very fond of him. As I recall, I was moved by what he said about the anxiety of influence. I thought, yes, he put his finger on something, that is, a way of describing who we are and how we respond to our precursors.
EMMANUEL: That if you identify too closely, you don’t find yourself?
STRAND: But I think the most important idea is that of belatedness, that poets have, at least in the 20th century, of coming on the scene of poetry rather late and are overwhelmed by the great poetry of the past. One has to find a way of getting out from under the dark shadows of those huge figures and feel that what you’re doing is worth something. Otherwise, why do it? How to value your own poems seriously, when you have Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Wordsworth. Pound and Eliot are huge figures, but they’re not as huge as some of the others.
EMMANUEL: You’ve mentioned in some of your previous interviews the importance for the would-be poet to read. I’ve listed a few other crucial activities. Perhaps you could comment on them? They are: 1) Study the mss of poets, 2) Do translations, 3) Attend workshops, 4) Conduct interviews, 5) Study individually with a successful poet, and 6) Read through the literature of the ages.
STRAND: You can be a poet without any…without doing any of those. Or, by doing one, any, or all of those. It all depends upon one’s temperament. I mean, finally, what you’re stuck with is yourself. You’re going to be writing your own poems, and you’re going to be alone writing them, and no amount of interviews, no amount of studying the manuscripts of other poets is going to help you make the choices you have to make to create your own poems. I think reading is the most important thing. The studying of manuscripts, the choices that a poet makes when he gets rid of this word and chooses that word, are good. But you don’t know why. You can see that he’s done it, but the reasons why… I mean the reasons could be so deeply imbedded in the psyche of the poet that even he or she doesn’t know why. All we see are the results. I… you know … I think finally it’s the way you read other poets that will influence the way you write your own poems. And eventually you begin to read other poets looking for ways to write your own poems. You find clues in other poems. But you have to have a sense of what you want. I tell students one of the most important things about writing poems is rewriting. The poem you write right off the bat is not necessarily going to hold up. You have to have a direction in mind because rewriting doesn’t mean anything unless you have some vague idea of where you want the poem to go.
EMMANUEL: You’ve mentioned to me before this conversation, not only that you wrote Dark Harbor rapidly, but that you wrote sections, you just placed them on the shelf and continued writing.
STRAND: I just shelved them. I didn’t look at them. I can’t do that anymore. I don’t get as many ideas as I did then.
EMMANUEL: Well, I sort of believe that when you’re writing a poem, you’re using creative neurons, and then when you go back to a poem later, you’re using critical neurons. Maybe they’re the same neurons, I don’t know, but they’re being used differently. Is that right?
STRAND: Absolutely. You’re using both. It’s a transaction between oneself as a creator and oneself as an editor. One without the other isn’t going to work.
EMMANUEL: But you don’t just read poetry. What exactly do you read? I used to ask some of my professors what they read, and they would quite often be reading Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes. Once I asked Professor Emery at the University of Miami what should I read over the summer, and he replied “Sherlock Holmes.” Well, I thought he was crazy. I read Byron’s Don Juan that summer and didn’t understand most of it. Later, I read Sherlock Holmes and saw the connection. In poetry and in Doyle’s mysteries, all the parts must fit. But, what do you read, Mark?
STRAND: I tend to read The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. I read novels occasionally if they’re sent to me, I read poems sent to me. It depends on what’s sent to me. Sometimes there’s a book I want to read. I had my publisher send me the long Picasso biography. I’d like to read that, but I don’t know if I’ll get to it before Christmas. (Mark is now glancing over the books on the side table near the sofa). Here’s a mystery I’d like to read. Nicholas Christopher sent me. I will be seeing him soon, but I don’t want to see him until I’ve read his book. (We’re laughing, noticing all the books on the side table) Here’s another. Deborah Eisenberg wrote the introduction. I’d like to read that. There’s a lot of stuff sent to me, and I try to keep up with it. (Mark pauses, revealing a certain amount of exasperation) You know….
EMMANUEL: There must be twenty or more books there, on that table. You can’t keep up with all that can you?
STRAND: I really can’t. And I am responsible for what is sent to me, for saying something about what is sent to me. If I didn’t feel so responsible… I mean I have a lot of friends who are writers, and I’d like to be able to say something nice about their works. I certainly don’t wish to say, “This is your worst piece of work I’ve seen.”
EMMANUEL: I know. That’s no doubt why I dislike reading and grading the work of my students. But about translating, you mention a lot of aspects of translating in Continuous Life… one stuck out, in effect something about the elimination of the translator’s self so as to translate someone. Can you comment on all that?
STRAND: That’s all lighthearted… that piece I mean. I was trying to be funny. You have to erase yourself. Whatever you feel is right or wrong is not important. You have to be loyal to the text. If you think the author should have said this or that, if you think there’s a mistake here or a silly thing there, you can’t change that. You just have to go along with the text. You can’t ever feel that you’re better than the author of the original.
EMMANUEL: When you mentioned your early writing in other interviews, you’ve referred to them as part of your apprenticeship.
STRAND: Well, that’s the way I’ve described it, but when I was writing the earlier poems I wasn’t thinking of myself as an apprentice. I had to believe in myself.
EMMANUEL: You know, when we were at Iowa, we thought of you as being aloof, cryptic, and inaccessible.
STRAND: Well, I was just shy. I might have been all of those, but it wasn’t intentional. I felt that I was just shy.
EMMANUEL: Many things and people were there in our world from which to shy away. I read somewhere that you avoid politics. I applaud that, as I think it did a lot of damage to Marvell, Dryden, Pope, and to a lesser extent perhaps to Swift. How did you avoid that?
STRAND: I wrote some political poems during the Viet Nam War. I wrote a bunch of anti-war poems, which I’ve never republished. I think many political poems don’t outlive the events that inspired them. If you’re Marvell and you write about Cromwell and Ireland, then you write a great poem. What was a violent feeling about an event, a political event, over time becomes much less violent, much less a feeling that one can tap into. The political poem is neutralized by time. It becomes less and less relevant, not only politically, but emotionally and literally. There’s also an element of preaching to it. You’re preaching to the converted.
EMMANUEL: My wife was asked once, while we were attending a cocktail party, what it was like being married to a writer. She answered, “It’s like living on a rollercoaster.” Are you like that?
STRAND: I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t really know. Some days I feel better than other days, but I wouldn’t say my mood swings are rollercoaster like. I live alone, so the effect I have on other people on a daily basis is not possible for me to gage. I think that’s the sort of thing, the mood swings, you need to live with somebody to know whether that’s true or not.
EMMANUEL: I read Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp years ago and was so fascinated that I decided to stay away from mirrors. But you have made them work, as far as I can see without becoming a victim of Narcissism. How did you do that? Orpheus? How did you maintain balance, from dipping over into the I.My.Mine.Me of self-indulgence?
STRAND: I don’t really know. I make up a lot of things. I never feel as though I’m writing just about myself… when I use “I”. I’m not reporting on anything that I do. I draw on events and feelings that I’ve lived through; but I don’t feel that I am being autobiographical. The “I” is a convention. Mirrors do occur in my poetry. And most recently in a poem I wrote a lighthearted, satirical poem called “Old Man Leaves Party,” in which a mirror suddenly appears in the woods, and the old man, an aged Narcissus, still has a beautiful body even though he’s over eighty. He’s rediscovering life, you know. And feels he has a lot to live for. He wants to be alone with his body in the wilderness. I’m a very self-conscious writer in the sense that I rewrite and rewrite. I have an idea of what I want the poem to sound like… and be in the end, but very often I am following vague formal imperatives that don’t have very much to do with the meaning of the poem. Or, the meaning that the reader might derive from the poem. Very often that meaning doesn’t concern me at all when I’m writing. I just assume the meaning is there, because when you use language meaning is unavoidable, since every word means something.
EMMANUEL: Therein, then, is the art. Because if you aren’t careful, language will run away with you.
STRAND: That’s true. One hopes it runs away with you. You draw it back in, and then it runs away again. You always hope you’re making more sense than you know you’re making. If what I understood in my poems was all I wanted to say, I don’t think my poems would be as interesting. I think that sometimes I have the illusion I am saying more than I intended, and I’m not quite sure what it is I’m saying, but it seems right in a way.
EMMANUEL: I read somewhere that you did not think of yourself as a good student. I find that difficult to believe, because you seem so aware and you’re thinking constantly.
STRAND: But being aware and thinking constantly as a student is not the same thing as performing. You’re expected in the academic world to perform. I wasn’t a bad student. I made a decent portion of A’s. I shouldn’t downgrade my student days. I didn’t do that well at Antioch. I made B’s and some A’s, but I don’t think it mattered to me that much. My head was in the clouds. I’m not very competitive… in that regard. I shouldn’t have been in college. I was just eighteen. I would probably have done better had I gone into military service first, and I was drafted, but I was turned down because of a congenital heart murmur. I really wanted to go to art school, but my parents said no to art school, that I had to go to college. Well, my feeling is that I should have gone to art school, then to college. Or, I should have gone to art school and tried to be a painter. By the time I did go to art school after college, it was too late.
EMMANUEL: But I’ve been telling my students for years that one goes to college to find out what they want to do.
STRAND: I agree. I did find out in college… well, I did much better at Yale. Robert Penn Warren encouraged me and was very good to me. He took me seriously. Elizabeth Bishop did a little later. Then, Don Justice did. I owe a great deal to those people.
EMMANUEL: Yes, you’ve certainly been influenced by a lot of good people, good writers. Many of their names are rushing through my mind. It is so strange to me that you don’t especially consider yourself a spiritual writer, and I can very well see the associations with Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, etc. They were spiritual in their own peculiar ways. Perhaps much of it is disguise? I’m not sure, and I recall your saying somewhere that a writer cannot be seen with a disguise and cannot write successfully without one. Do I have that right, about disguises, about the spirituals, or am I totally confused?
STRAND: I say “The self we shall say can never be seen with a disguise/ and never be seen without one.”
EMMANUEL: When I think of disguises I think of the persona, as with Browning and Eliot, as with E. A. Robinson when he steps back and writes about Mr. Flood and his party, or even as Robinson Jeffers with his anger, disguising aspects, of their innermost selves.
STRAND: Yes, that’s right. But when I mentioned disguise, I was thinking of the future…of how we will be recognized. I wasn’t thinking in that particular poem of poetry per se. But I think… you know… we need to disclose ourselves in recognizable ways in order to be known. There is something invisible within us that has no shape. You can hear its breathing, you can sense its presence, but it doesn’t have a shape that you can carry with you.
EMMANUEL: You often refer spiritually to aspects of your life, and yet you persist in believing in only those two huge darks.
STRAND: Yes, the one before you are born and the one after you die.
EMMANUEL: I’ve been an agnostic for most of my life. I was trained as a chemist and then as diagnostic bacteriologist, then with my graduate studies in physical chemistry and biochemistry, with a dab of nuclear physics, but the more advanced my studies got, though I was making very good grades, the more confused I became. I could not disprove God, some Supreme Being, or Higher Power. I could not explain how those tiny leptons and quarks got together ultimately to form life. And now I’ve been informed that we have over 100 billion galaxies out there! As I often peered down through the microscope to see the small micro-organisms, I could not help but think there was perhaps someone or something up there peering down on us. Nor could I ever find an explanation for that first spark of light or life. How do you deal with all that?
STRAND: I don’t. It’s not my job. I don’t deal with it. It gives me vertigo. It’s all too vast for my imagination. I can’t make any assumptions about order, disorder, God or no God. I live my life assuming that I was born an accident, that the whole history of this planet is a happy accident. When people talk about God, I don’t know what they’re talking about. And I can’t look too deeply within. The mind thinking about the mind becomes an extremely upsetting activity. I don’t know anything about outer space. I don’t know anything about the origin of the universe. I look at the night sky and the reality of those distances is lost to me. I don’t have an imagination that can encompass that. Just as I can’t look so far within that I realize the drama that must be taking place between my unconscious and conscious mind to produce, you know, attitudes and actions, to say nothing of poems.
EMMANUEL: I can’t think of any rationale for not believing in some Superior Intelligence, Higher Power, Supreme Being … or bring myself to a willingness not to believe ….
STRAND: I can’t think of a rationale of why one should believe in an All-Powerful Intellect, Force, either. I don’t know why. It may be a human attribute. It could be genetic… a gene that some people have that wants them to believe in something like a huge Father in the sky. I would bet that we just disintegrate. We as flesh disappear, our bones turn to dust. There’s no evidence to the contrary. But I won’t deny that there is a spiritual component to my makeup. I’m not quite sure what it is, except that it encompasses … or maybe it’s generated by simply my lack of understanding what goes on.
EMMANUEL: But, where do you think all that talent you have came from? You’ve been able to reach the spiritual being of so many, the courage to go on in the face of so much loss and absence, which is, to my way of thinking, vitally spiritual. How do you think that happened?
STRAND: I think I have a propensity to verbalize. Some of it is genetic. Part of it is also cultural, environmental. My parents were verbal, also their parents. Some people are born with greater athletic ability than others, and some people have a great talent for music.
EMMANUEL: It all comes to a sort of dead-end, doesn’t it, without something spiritual totally beyond our comprehension? That’s where I hit a dead-end with one of your mentors, Stevens. His work is so beautiful, but hedonism goes only so far.
STRAND: I don’t think Stevens was really a hedonist. He may have begun that way, but later in life he became less so. He also had questions about his own abilities, had doubts about what he had really accomplished. And… you know, I don’t think anyone is just one thing or another. Stevens had doubts all along.
EMMANUEL: One of my favorites is “Esthétique du Mal.”
STRAND: Yes, very beautiful.
EMMANUEL: There’s a recent behavioral concept called “Loss Aversion.” Basically, the concept maintains that the pain of loss or failure is about twice as much as the joy of success. You’ve said that the excitement of receiving awards lasts about ten minutes or less. And you’ve had your share of loss, not to mention those haunting absences that run through your poems. As life can be so brutal, how do you find the courage to go on, the courage to be as well as the courage to fail?
STRAND: I’m not aware that it’s courage at all. You just keep going. I enjoy life. Writing can be a deep and sustaining pleasure. And I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m lucky I can get my poems published, and some people read them and actually like them. I consider… it’s not the reason I live, but I consider it one of the pleasures that life has afforded me. I just feel I’m lucky to be alive. I…I don’t even think of my poems as being very dark. I often think of them as rather humorous. It could be that I associate darkness with poetry… I feel … the beautiful with the dark … the dark with the inevitable …. All I know is that I am not quite the person I appear to be in my poems. I do think that a slightly different Mark Strand teaches, eats dinner, or goes to the theatre. My work has an identity, and I have an identity. They overlap. But I can’t explain all of my work, and my work can’t explain all of me.
EMMANUEL: That’s the art. That’s dealing with aesthetic truths, right?
STRAND: Yes. You try to create…yes, you could call that aesthetic truth. I don’t want to make such a big thing of technique, but over the years you do get a sense of what is satisfying. You try to exercise good judgment. You mentioned cognition earlier, before our conversation, and I did have intelligent parents. Some of that intelligence was transmitted to me, but I wouldn’t classify myself as the most intelligent. I am intelligent enough to write the poems I write, hopefully with good judgment.
EMMANUEL: When I read a poem like “Violent Storm” and hear all those sounds, those vowel chimes, I just know you had to be thinking intensively to connect all those sounds.
STRAND: I read that poem recently at a reading. I was very conscious of making all those sounds. I’m glad I did all that because now it happens more or less automatically. If you look at the poems in The Continuous Life, which I think is some of my best writing, the manipulation of sounds is very much at the forefront.
EMMANUEL: My favorites still are “Violent Storm,” “The Tunnel,” and just about every poem in Dark Harbor. Those are great poems.
STRAND: Thank you.
EMMANUEL: You’re welcome. You’ve mentioned elsewhere “the community of poets.” You certainly belong to a community of poets, writers and all that. But I wonder how you feel about the so-called “Language Poets”? I wonder what you think of say Jorie Graham?
STRAND: I don’t know the “Language Poets.” I don’t consider Jorie Graham a language poet.
EMMANUEL: I read about six pages of her, I think it may have been in Tri-Quarterly, I’m not sure where I saw one of her longer poems, I need to check where it was; but I thought it was utter non-sense.
STRAND: I think she’s a very powerful poet. I am swept away by her poems. I haven’t read many language poets because I don’t really understand what they’re saying. I think it runs counter to making any conventional sense at all.
EMMANUEL: My problem is the same. I think language poets and surrealistic poets face the same challenge and that is to be grounded, at least long enough in the poem so their readers know where they are or where the poem is taking place… for the sake of their readers, their audience.
STRAND: Language poetry, at least what I’ve read, makes no sense at all. But surrealism was a political and social movement as well as an artistic and literary movement. I think a large part of surrealism was to reach or to speak from a place that convention had no use for. That place is the very place that I’m trying to articulate in my poetry. It’s the place I expect reports from when I read other people’s poetry. I wouldn’t say it’s surrealism so much as fantastic literature, the element of fantasy or play which would place us in a new context or in a new situation where clichés don’t work, where expected responses or usual responses would seem inappropriate, where we have to respond differently. We’re put in situations that bring out the best in us. I mean you’re more likely to pay attention to a lion if he’s in your living room than you would if you saw a lion at the zoo. You expect to see lions at the zoo, and so your eyes glance over the lions and move on to the giraffes. But if that lion were in your living room, you would be paying attention. I think that’s what surrealistic literature does, and I think that’s what fantastic literature does.
EMMANUEL: All I need is a lion in my living room! But still, the subject of the audience troubles me. When Louis Simpson visited Indiana University, I think it was after you had read there in Indianapolis, I mentioned the problem of audience to him. He turned as he was walking away and said, “But Lenny, remember your students are not your audience.” As a college teacher, though, it seems that students at a university are potentially an audience for poetry. And then, I think of your interview with Nolan Miller in which he felt the university had become a business and no longer a place for a literary, liberal education. I can recall when the academics at the University of Miami eliminated the foreign language requirement for an undergraduate degree, and I happen to be of the opinion that one way to learn English is to study a foreign language. And just recently, while teaching a junior level course in writing at the University of Southern Mississippi (Gulf Coast Campus), of 30 students with 16 seniors, only two of those seniors could define and give examples of clauses and phrases. Like Nolan Miller, I have come to the conclusion that our current universities are failing to teach basic skills and have in the process become businesses rather than places of higher learning. What do you think?
STRAND: I don’t know whether the university has become a business. But I absolutely agree with you about a foreign language being a way to learn English.
EMMANUEL: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you prefer teaching undergraduates because graduate students often think they are great writers about to arrive on the scene of great literature.
STRAND: Well, graduate students have careers in mind.
EMMANUEL: You’ve also mentioned in teaching undergraduates you don’t allow them to submit their own poems. You have them do particular exercises, presumably traditional forms?
STRAND: That’s what I do when I teach undergraduate workshops. I think it’s too difficult for them to come up with ideas… that are viable. I give them exercises that make them think in terms of language… of words, to focus on some particular word, what a line is. This is not rhyme and meter I’m talking about. For example, I’ll give them a very obscure… I’ll find a very obscure poem in translation and give them every other line, then have them figure out what might go between the given lines. So they are thinking about coherence in a different way than they have before. Or have them use six very unrelated words in a ten-line poem. They have to try to fit those words into a poem.
EMMANUEL: I found that definitions were necessary. I’ve used Louis Untermeyer’s The Forms of Poetry and Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms.
STRAND: No. I’ve never used anything like that.
EMMANUEL: Well, being a teacher is perhaps all too often being that person other than a poet. I’d like to focus again on you as a poet. As I’ve read you for years, I’ve always sensed the losses and absences about which you write, and I’ve often thought of Viktor Frankl in that connection, because Frankl believed we should be grateful for our suffering in that it offers us an opportunity to grow. Did you find that so?
STRAND: It can give you an opportunity to destroy yourself too. It all depends on who you are. I’d rather avoid suffering if I can….
EMMANUEL: We’ve known a lot of poets who have destroyed themselves. The one I’m always remembering is Catherine Davis.
STRAND: Catherine was terrific.
EMMANUEL: The past often offers opportunities for us to focus. Matthew Brennan in 1983, in a review of your poem “Her,” comments that the poem is an excellent example of taking a specific image from the past, “the friend who wasted her life,” which becomes associated with the village of the past, which then surfaces to be co-existent with “anywhere,” generalized and “emblematic.” Can you comment on that?
STRAND: Going back and trying to get it right, revisiting the past. I did that in the “Untelling” too. That was a Wordsworthian experiment. I haven’t read Brennan, what he said. I don’t read what is written about me very often. I’ve done so many interviews that now I wonder if I still have anything that is fresh, new, and worthwhile.
EMMANUEL: Oh, I think you still have a lot to say, and now I’d like to ask you about one or two of your contemporaries. I know you think highly of Charles Wright and Jorie Graham, and I also know you moved away from Confessionalism. But could you comment on post-modernism, or whatever has been happening after Pound, Eliot, Tate, Ransom, etc.? My friend Roland John in England believes Geoffrey Hill is one of the few, if not the only poet, to move successfully beyond the Moderns. What do you think?
STRAND: I think he’s a superb poet.
EMMANUEL: I have difficulty with him. Every line is so packed, one image after another. I keep trying. I read some of his poems in Poetry recently, and I was glad that he finally got properly represented by Poetry. My problem seems to be that I cannot remember one single line of his. All I can think of is the bombardment of images.
STRAND: Yes, he’s very dense. There’s a book coming out by Rosanna Warren next year. She has some essays in it on Hill. That will help. Not every poet is for everybody. You know, Hill has his readers, Ashbery has his readers.
EMMANUEL: But don’t you think poetry should have narrative? So readers can be grounded?
STRAND: A narrative base, yes.
EMMANUEL: Then, I would think also that it should make narrative sense, which brings me right back to the “Language Poets.” And for me, I can’t find the narrative in Hill. He seems to be playing a game with images as the “Language Poets” play games with words, which makes me think of crossword puzzles, not poetry.
STRAND: I don’t think narrative exists at all in the “language” poetry I’ve read. It’s just a matter of words. Not relating to anything as far as I can see.
EMMANUEL: Well, I like surprises, twists, and turns in poems, often the thinking poem, or like you did in the University of California presentation “Poetry in the World” (2000) where you end up doing exactly what you said you were not going to do. That was interesting.
STRAND: Thank you.
EMMANUEL: And yet, in that presentation you say “… those shimmerings of the soul that we associate with or even recognize as poetry – those responses that move us deeply and for which we seem to have no language” that make us “feel connected to something.” And then you say, “…it [the feeling of being connected to something] leads me again and again to the sense that it is holding something back, that it contains more than I can possibly grasp….”
To me, once again, that is very spiritual.
STRAND: Yes, it sounds spiritual to me too.
EMMANUEL: But not enough for a Heaven?
STRAND: Heaven’s another matter.
EMMANUEL: Well, I suppose Heaven will have to wait. You mention a lot of interesting things in that California presentation. One I especially thought interesting was, and I quote, “The event that would be recalled takes on a secondary role as if it were merely what called forth the poem, simply the occasion for the release of feelings that had always dwelled in us.”
So often I find that true. A poem may begin on that initial incident, but then it takes on its own life, as it were, and goes someplace else.
STRAND: Yes, exactly. It happens in life too. Somebody gets angry, and you don’t understand why, but they’re really acting out. Something trips something else. They take it out on something or someone else. Misplaced aggression.
EMMANUEL: My questions again and again seem to return to the poem, and you’ve said, I believe in connection with William Stafford and Adrienne Rich, that the poem should not be “instruction in morality” or a tirade on prejudice, or as we often hear, “a lecture in sociology,” a “confession for the Confession Booth,” and so forth.
STRAND: Well, you know, who am I to say? That Stafford shouldn’t have done what he did? I don’t know his poetry that well, but he had a strong moral vision, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have written as he did. He’s certainly an accomplished poet. I read Stafford 30 or 35 years ago. If I were to read him today, I might have an entirely different opinion. He wrote badly on some occasions, but extremely well on others. Sometimes poets have to do the bad in order to do the good stuff. You mentioned Dante earlier today.
EMMANUEL: When I think of Italy, I always think of Pound, especially his “make it new.” Did that influence you? Did you want to “make it new” or did you want to be different? I recall Justice’s comment to you, that if you kept writing as you were writing then you certainly would be different.
STRAND: Justice, as I’ve said, encouraged me to experiment, to be different. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be…I wanted to be part of the family of poets. I wanted to be myself, but I didn’t want to be isolated from what I thought of as poetry. I think what Justice meant was that there was something idiosyncratic in a poem like “The Tunnel” or “The Accident”…that there was something there entirely my own and that was what I should cultivate. That if I wanted to be… you know, just to continue writing in…the prevalent, discursive mode … poems in rhyme and meter, which was what I was doing by and large at the time, I would be one of the crowd. I decided I had rather be myself first, then maybe one of the crowd later on.
EMMANUEL: “The Tunnel” is certainly a unique poem. The interesting thing about that poem, besides its uniqueness, the surprises, the twists and turns, if you will, was something I never recall seeing before. What really got my attention was that you were not only the victim. You were also the victimizer.
STRAND: Yes, I think we are all both. Victims and victimizers.
EMMANUEL: I often think how we went separate ways. You went after fame, and I went after security and money. You ended up with both, fame and money.
STRAND: I didn’t go after fame. But I’d rather have the money! (We’re laughing again, enjoying the humor).
EMMANUEL: You know, I remember your living out of a suitcase for two years in New York. I recall my saying to you in Indianapolis that I could not have done that.
STRAND: I did do that. I had no choice. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a steady job. Those were difficult times.
EMMANUEL: Well, you’ve certainly done well, artistically and financially, in a world that doesn’t especially appreciate the poet and his art. You’ve said elsewhere, I recall, that “Poetry offers society what society does not really want.” Can you make a comment, perhaps as a final note to that?
STRAND: We’re a large country of 300,000,000 people. But if a book of poems sells an average of a couple of thousand copies, it’s considered having done very well. I have a feeling that the audience for poetry is mainly other poets. But I am quite surprised when I give readings that there are people there who simply read poetry and don’t write it. However, I think those people are very few. I don’t write to an audience because I don’t know who my audience is. As I say, I suspect they are other poets. But otherwise I have no idea who is picking up a book of mine in a bookstore or who will read a poem of mine in The New Yorker. Probably most readers of The New Yorker don’t pay any attention to the poetry there. Yet, I do feel that poetry will continue. Because as long as people want to articulate something about what’s locked up inside of them, there will be poetry. There is a curiosity about our inner lives, and most of us have inner lives that are not well defined or articulated or dramatized in ways that other people can know us. What poetry does is dramatize and articulate subjectivity. All people live internal lives. And very often they don’t have the language to describe what’s going on. And they depend on poetry to tell them what it’s like to feel something… deeply or what it’s like to know something on a visceral level. In that way, poetry might continue to have a life… as long as people continue behaving recognizably as people.
Lenny Emmanuel, internationally published poet and essayist, became a contributing and managing editor of The New Laurel Review in 1998. His books include, The Icecream Lady, 1997, Blue Rain, 2009, Goodbye America!, 2011, Elements of Prose, 2012, and Hearths, 2013. www.lennyemmanuel.com
© 2014 The Antioch Review