Outspoken yet reclusive, lyrical but political, simultaneously tragic and comic, Bill Knott seems to specialize in self-denial. Despite his status as a kind of outsider, he has remained vital, attracting the early support of Robert Bly and James Wright (who wrote an essay about visiting a young Knott in Chicago), and influencing later generations, including poets such as Tom Lux, Mary Karr, Stephen Dobyns, Denise Duhamel, and Denis Johnson. Knott is the author of ten books of poetry, including his landmark first collection The Naomi Poems (Follett, 1968), Outremer, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 1988, and most recently The Unsubscriber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003.
Our conversation took place via email in the weeks shortly after he started posting his entire catalog of poems to a blog, citing dissatisfaction with the print world. He has since vowed never to publish a print book again.
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I’d like to start with the idea of the blog itself, which you liken to vanity publishing. But it seems more complex than that from an outsider’s view. You seem to be, in part, exposing hypocrisy in the poetry establishment, which lauds a certain kind of poem and squelches another. What is it about these particular poems that benefit from the immediacy of a blog?
I started my blog to vanity-publish my poems, and to offer downloads of the vanity-book files, which heretofore I’ve been printing and distributing myself. But I’m tired of the costs of doing that. Nothing about hypocrisy or poetry establishment….
My failure as a poet is mine alone, I blame no one else.
But how do you define failure? Don’t awards like your recent Guggenheim offset that sensation?
Get real: Guggenheim doesn’t mean anything comparatively; go look at the list of nobodies they’ve given Guggies to since the first year I applied, 1968. (Think about that: it took me thirty-five years to get it. How many years did it take Stanley Plumly, two, three?) I would bet that many of those recipients still alive probably aren’t even writing anymore…. Define failure? How about: not one of the Best American Poetry anthologies has included me, no current anthology of contemporary poetry includes me, my books have never won a prize of any type…. How about the fact that every second-rate poet my age is invited to judge book contests? Have you ever seen my name as the judge of any book contest? I received tenure when I was fifty-five years old, fifteen or twenty years after the successful poets of my generation received theirs….
Other criteria by which one could identify (certify) the successful contemporary USA poet: She/he must have a publisher who stands behind and supports them: most of my publishers dumped me after one book (Farrar Straus has already rejected a follow-up book). His/her work must be in print and remain in print: I have only one book still in print. Daniel Halpern will ask the successful poet to judge a book in his National Poetry Series: he’s never asked me. Her/his work will appear in the annual Best American Poetry anthols: mine hasn’t. (And parenthetically, when periodicals started taking my poems back in 1963, there was the “Borestone Mountain” annual anthol, presenting the year’s best poetry from journals—then later, there was the “Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry”; then the “Pushcart”; and now, for the last twelve years, “The Best American Poetry.” None of these ever reprinted my poems from mags.) These criteria are not matters of opinion, points of critical debate; they are factual data. Add them up and they measure failure. Listen: the important poets of my generation have been singled out and recognized and honored, and obviously I’m not among them. I can’t believe you’re serious in questioning that. If you are serious, then you’re either being obtuse or cruel.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is the difference between career and art. I think it feels for many poets like the former often overshadows the latter. What about the poems themselves? It’s clear that your poems take many shapes—love poems, comic poems, tribute poems, political poems, etc.—unlike some other poets who seem to keep writing variations on the same poem over and over. Why are you inclined to organize these different shapes of poems, which have been written over many years, into their own manuscripts? How do we benefit as readers, and how do you benefit as a poet seeing your poems in that new context?
When computers and printers became available to the general public around the late 1980s, I began to put together my vanity books. At first I did them in editions of five or at the most twenty copies. I’ve done dozens of books in editions of twenty copies. (No, I didn’t keep a list of them. What’s the point of amassing bibliographical data on such fugitive matter?)
In retrospect, it seems to me that I was always frustrated by how nebulous the process of writing poem after poem was, how intangible; typescripts in a clamp-binder were just loose sheets of paper with nothing in common. They just flapped around in my consciousness…. What made them a book? Where was the continuity?
So when I got a computer and printer, I started putting together my poems in little booklets as a method of organizing the material, as a way of seeing the poems put together in some kind of cohesive (forced, in many instances) manner.
From 1990 to the present, the booklets have been my routine. They’ve kept me going. If I had had to rely on real publishers to present my work, I might very well have stopped writing altogether. Take the book “Plaza de Loco,” which I wrote from 1994 to 1999: it was eventually rejected by twenty or thirty places, and it never was published. I can’t call my vanity edition of it a publication. Vanity books can’t be classified as publications.
I haven’t answered your question about the categories of selections I’ve vanitied (is that the right verb for doing this?) over the years…. If I have enough love poems piled up from decades of writing, why not put them together? And the political poems. Some poems fit into more than one category. The long poem about Shakespeare seems right to be included in a book of homages, but it also fits into the acting poems book…maybe I shouldn’t put a poem into more than one selection, but I don’t care about such limitations: they’re my books, I can do whatever I want, no editor can censor me, which of course is one of the chief pleasures of vanitying.
And one of the chief dangers. Vanity publishing is costly not just in terms of money. Its profligate habits can lead to the loss of judgment and value. It can mislead: it can cause me to be satisfied with work which is less than my best. I become self-indulgent, lazy; my standards are lowered. An outside editor would not accept what I’ve let pass.
Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus published my last theoretically real book, The Unsubscriber, in October 2004, and then last year as a follow-up he asked me to put together a “240-page selected poems,” which I tried to do, but I couldn’t. I can’t see it. I can’t see the point of doing another print book for him or any other publisher.
The reviews for “Unsub” crushed me. The few reviews it got were condescending and dismissive and minimal. (Yes, it got three or four pages in Poetry, but the reviewer chose to fill her space with ridiculous gossip about me, anecdotal rumors. The poems themselves were barely mentioned.) The sales figures for “Unsub” were/are dismal. Ten years’ work down the drain.
I have a choice: I can say the reception my book got is appropriate, that my work is simply not worth attention. Or I can say it’s because I have no PoBiz power—no one who reviews a Robert Pinsky book is going to ignore his poetry and instead use the review to spread gossip about his personal life, because the reviewer knows that the next book contest to which he or she sends their poetry manuscript might be judged by Pinsky. Or Pinsky will be on the panel, the jury, the board of the next place they apply to for a fellowship or position or some other plum. (Am I a failure in PoBiz because I’m a failure as a poet, or the other way around? In either case it’s my fault, no one to blame but myself.) What’s the point of me doing a selected for Farrar Straus (or any other publisher)? I just can’t see the point of going through that humiliation and heartbreak again.
Incidentally, there is another print book of my poems scheduled to be put out this fall, but it came about as a mistake; I signed a contract to do one book but ended up being forced to do another…it’s really too complicated to go into. The whole affair has left me disgusted with publishers in general. In any case, I hope it will be the last so-called real book I find myself bound to do. I intend to vanity-publish all my work on my blog, eventually, and to offer there my self-pub books in PDF files free to anyone who wants them. The “print” alternative has become impossible for me. In short, it’s my failure as a print poet that has led me to the Web. I wouldn’t be blog-publishing (vanity-publishing, PDF-publishing) if I had been successful as a print poet.
Regarding the vanity book selections: I assume that they might appeal to different audiences. Someone interested in reading the love poems might not care to go through the quatorzains, so I feel no compunction about putting the quatorzains in the love book into the collected quatorzains also. I do think it makes a difference to read the same poem in an altered context. The love quatorzains can be read alongside the other love poems as love poems, and among the other quatorzains as something else….
On the other hand maybe I’m just trying to fill up pages.
Are you ever surprised by the way a poem changes when put next to others? For example, your poem “Death” appears most recently in Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems. I’d never before considered it comic. Or perhaps it’s a kind of comedy that contains both sadness and beauty.
The tragicomic seems my natural mode, but is it natural or just an attitude I’ve acquired from writers I’ve admired over the years? It’s hard to tell where I start and they leave off, if I could be said to start….
Mostly I’m the sum of them. A man made out of quotes.
Aren’t we all amalgams of our influences, to an extent? You’ve said you were strongly influenced by [Pablo] Neruda as a young poet, for example, although you wouldn’t necessarily cite him today.
Some poets I admired greatly in my youth, for example Neruda and [Paul] Celan and [Federico García] Lorca, don’t mean much of anything to me now.
I remember reading when I was in my early twenties an essay by Kenneth Rexroth about poetic influence. Thousands of young poets, he wrote, are now imitating Robert Creeley, but no one can imitate [Giacomo] Leopardi…. The point of his essay was, as I understood it then and now, that since young poets inevitably have to imitate their predecessors, they would be better off imitating foreign poets. If you imitated Creeley (as I had done for a period, so Rexroth’s example struck home to me), you took on his style, his language, as well as his content. But with Leopardi, you could only copy his content. You couldn’t adopt his voice and stylistic rhythms, you would be forced to concoct your own. This made so much sense to me at the time that I quickly began reading more poets in translation, consciously seeking my models in them. Willis Barnstone’s 1968 anthology, “Modern European Poetry,” became my bible.
This habit gradually changed as I grew older, until now a mental list of my favorite poets would include mostly poets in English. Foreign poets have for the most part receded in my pantheon.
I remember the incident where I realized this: it was in the late 1980s, I ran into James Tate somewhere, and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that Robert Bly was going around in his overbearing manner commanding everyone to reread Lorca, or commanding Tate to reread Lorca, and I replied with something like, “Well, ‘It’s Not the Heat So Much as the Humidity’ is better than Lorca!” Foolishly I repeated that this poem, one of my favorites from Tate’s early work, meant more to me than Lorca. Foolishly not because I was wrong, but because it made Tate angry. He thought I was putting him on. He thought I was being sarcastic. We had been facetiously bantering in the en passant style of path-cross poet encounters. The tone of our brief exchange had been less than serious. And so for me to suddenly burst out with the assertion that, for me, Tate was better than Lorca, was just out of place, out of sync, inappropriate to the mood and situation. It was a transgression. But the thing that astonished me as I said it, and maybe I did start saying it with the intent to inflict something in a comic overweening wit-wile; maybe my motive as I began was to overpraise Tate with such extravagance and hyperbolic unbelievability that in effect it would have been a litotes, an ironic overstatement meaning just the opposite, a sardonic insult in fact, but what surprised me as I said it, or quickly thereafter, was: It’s true! However I said it, whatever my motives, I spoke the truth. In reality, Tate’s poetry was alive for me in a way that Lorca’s could never be. Tate meant more to me than Lorca ever could. For me, Tate was indeed “better than Lorca”! (But of course I couldn’t persuade Tate of my sudden sincerity: he skulked away believing I had insulted him.)
You and Tate used to collaborate a good amount, if I’m not mistaken. How did that come about, and what was the process of the poems? I’ve noticed at least a couple lines from Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy??? reappear in recent poems of yours. Do you often go back and mine past work for material, or is there something about those collaborations that warrant different consideration?
I have no problem with reusing lines and concepts from any of my past work.
I once dreamed of writing a line that I could put into every poem. A line that would fit into every poem I wrote, that would not be out of place no matter what the poem was.
(My collaborations with Tate were an unhappy event, one I don’t care to rehash.)
What, to borrow James Wright’s phrase, is the “occasion of a poem” for you? Do you have different modes of working for different kinds of poems? For instance, the poem I’m thinking of begins with the incredible image of trees being the tentacles for an octopus residing in the earth’s “ink-ore core.” Did that image stay with you for thirty years, or is it something you rediscovered and reshaped for this later poem?
It’s difficult for me to be conscious of the genesis of any particular poem. I can point to poems from a period of my life and say “I was reading a lot of [Nicanor] Parra at that point.” When [John] Ashbery merged one of [W.H.] Auden’s modes with the typical [Wallace] Stevens style to create his own characteristic voice, was he aware of doing it? He’s a great poet, so certainly he was able to understand his lineage in a way a noncedunce like me never could. I must say that mostly I’m not cognizant of my sources and influences. Bloom’s Anxiety Theory: Oedipus cannot recognize his real father.
I often recommend to my students that they take their two favorite poets and try to combine them as an exercise. To do a quantitative line-by-line analysis of a template poem by poet X, and the same with poet Y. (All successful poets have a template poem.) How many verbs per line? Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, etc. Count them up. Take the number-totals from the two models and add them together, and then divide those in half. And then use that final amount to write your own poem. Split the difference. Combine the quantitative habits of your two faves to create your own constant. (What the successful poet knows that you don’t, I tell the students, is how to quantitatively distribute the elements of language (verbs, nouns, etc.) down the page in an effective and commensurate ratio.)
The occasion of a poem? It makes me think of that quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Doubt seems to be my normal state which the poem or its origin suddenly and briefly overcomes. I know I can’t write a poem. I have no right to write a poem. Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale; he lives on the yacht of his youth. Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no “educational opportunities.” No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems. After his Ivy League education, C. K. Williams lived in Paris on a trust fund for ten years while he wrote his first book; me, after high school and two years in the army I worked as a hospital orderly while I wrote my first book. Lower-class scum, menials like me have no right to write poetry. The occasion of a poem? You wanna know the fucking occasion? There is none for me. Strand and Williams and Pinsky et al. have “occasion.” I have no occasion.
Yet you continue to write?
Who says I’m continuing? I write less and less as the years progress, and can foresee a time when I quit altogether. People who repeatedly fail at something, usually do give it up finally, don’t they?
Are you still interested in plays and/or dramatic poems?
I did two comedic dialogues and then started two mostly serious plays, one in verse, one in prose, which I haven’t made much progress on.
Where does your interest in drama originate, and how does it inform the poetry? What other art forms interest you? You do drawings and paintings as well, if I’m not mistaken.
I’ve never had enough money to attend the theater, but I’ve read plays all my adult life.
I occasionally do drawings and gouaches on a small scale (usually on 9-by-12 paper) which I then sew into one-of-a-kind books, most of which I’ve given away to friends or poets I admire. I haven’t kept track, but I’ve probably done 40 or 50 such books over the past decade or so…such a small output hardly qualifies me as a “book artist.” I sometimes use a scanner to save a digital file of the artworks, but what do I do with the damn things then? I can print out digital copies but their quality is always disappointing.
I don’t have much confidence in my ability as a visual artist, so I don’t do it on a regular basis. I do it when I need a break from writing, which is not often.
You once described your work as neither pure nor impure. This was in the context of hermetic poetry. Do you feel the assessment is still accurate, or does one mode hold more sway now, in your current work?
But don’t you understand that that inability to commit to an esthetic is the root of my failure as a poet? It’s my lack of courage, really. I’ve been such a coward. Look at [Charles] Simic and Tate and compare them to me. Their courage and persistence, as opposed to my fear and wavering. Their lifelong devotion to a style. My cowardly abandonment, my desertion of every possibility. Jack of all modes, master of none, that’s me.
Isn’t that more a failing of the American mode of poetry, that we expect the same kind of poem from a particular poet? It seems uniquely American, and a recent trend at that.
“The same kind of poem from a particular poet” is what defines a strong poet, the opposite of a dilettante like me. Philip Levine is a great poet because he has had the courage and the strength to maintain his voice and his stylistic convictions through a lifetime of effort. Ditto Simic, Tate, [Sharon] Olds and others.
This “expectation” is hardly “American,” when you consider the signature styles of Jean Follain and dozens of other world-over poets.
Nor is it recent, though I don’t know what you mean by recent: think of [e.e.] cummings, [Emily] Dickinson, [Marianne] Moore, W.C. Williams et al.
The point is that my work lacks the kind of consistency the major poets mentioned above evinced throughout their careers.
Surely there are great poets who demonstrate range in their style and subject matter. You’ve mentioned [Philip] Larkin as an example elsewhere. And it doesn’t seem uncommon for an artist to have different modes at play in their work, as you seem to. What is it that draws you to such a diversity of topics?
I disagree with the general thrust of what you say.
“Range,” “different modes,” and “diversity” to me are terms that signify failure.
Or they are such generalities that I find it hard to delimit them enough to use in any specific case. They could describe any poet of note. Stevens, for example.
One must create an established coherent poetic personality to be successful. And one must stick to that chosen persona or edifice. I don’t see Larkin ever deviating from his. As you read his Collected [Poems] you never suddenly find him trying to write something like [Ted] Hughes’ “Crow.” But turn my pages and you’ll find me trying to be [Karl] Krolow on one and Parra on the next. That’s why I’m a failure, and why I have come to the elephants’ graveyard of failure, the Web, to publish my poems. I’m posting all my poetry to my blog because ipso facto I have failed as a print poet. Facts are facts. I can’t console myself with spurious theories that will “demonstrate” anything I want them to.
And it’s not just poetry. Surely the most successful practitioners in all the arts are those whose work is coherent and unique? The term “Pinteresque” is not a symbol of failure.
What brought you to poetry in the beginning?
That’s a difficult question. Where does my tragedy begin? Where did I take the fatal Wrong Turn? What was the first bad choice that led to all the other worse choices? Doesn’t the Downfall always begin with hubris of some sort?
I’d like to backtrack a little and ask you about humor. What role does the comic play in your poems?
One reason I’d rather have been a British poet than a USAer is that they are allowed to write comic poems as well as serious. Carol Ann Duffy is an obvious example.
Many USA poets are afraid to write comic verse. They would shudder at the suggestion. Poetry is so disesteemed and undervalued in this country that lots of poets compensate by assuming self-defensive repressive stances that internalize the hatred and scorn directed towards them. Poetry is disdained as trivial and sordid by society at large, by Puritanical political traditions. And poets respond often by considering these criticisms as valid, and try desperately to answer them and refute them by the high seriousness of their work. Their answer to being scoffed at by those above is to create a similar hierarchy in the sub-realm of poetry, in which its lower elements (the proletarian comic modes) are rejected and despised.
Think of Charles Wright or Jorie Graham or Louise Glück for example. None of them would stoop to an epigram, much less a pun. And surely much of their success is based on their uncompromising, unrelenting earnestness? They present themselves so solemnly and ponderously that readers and critics are intimidated into doing likewise. “If this deep young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, why, what a singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!”
The comic mode as I see it is an essential aspect of verse written in English. As a USA poet I am ergo distant geographically and perhaps historically from that tradition. Writing in the comic mode is my attempt to bridge that gulf, to refute the “American” poetic tradition and to return to the English. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the comic mode is a way for USA poets to try to free ourselves from the sanctimony and tendentiousness, the stale pomposity of “American” poetry, and to regain some link with the vital English heritage.
(“American” poetry is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. It never existed. “American” poets who write in English are Colonials, Diasporics, Offshoots, Sub-branches.)
Is that a generational distinction? It seems like there’s a younger group of American poets who use the comic, or at least the ironic, to some success. I’m thinking in particular of Denise Duhamel, who was your student at one point.
Duhamel’s generation is just starting to be sorted out, isn’t it? Franz Wright and Gloria Emerson are both about her age, right? They’re the ones winning the Pulitzers, not Duhamel. They’re both serious poets in comparison to Duhamel. And I would bet that most future winners of such prizes will be closer to their esthetic than hers. I’ll be dead, so I won’t know, but you can see whether my prediction is right. I doubt if Duhamel will ever attain such awards. (P.S.: She attended Emerson College, but graduated before I began teaching there.)
(You’re young, Robert, so you have to believe that change is possible…but don’t Wright and Emerson and similar prize winners of Duhamel’s generation (Jane Hirshfield is another example) tell you that comic poets like Duhamel will always be underrated?)
My generation is of course sorted out. The winners and losers, the successes and the failures are clearly delineated. And I’m irrefutably in the latter group.
(I forgot before, in my list of objective criteria that denote success, to mention writers’ conferences. It’s spring, Poets and Writers and the AWP journal are filled with ads for writers’ conferences. Look at them, Robert. Go back and look at the last thirty years of ads for such conferences. Guess what name you’ll never see listed in the faculties of those conferences? I never, not once in my life, got offered a job to teach at a writers’ conference.)
(You have to look at the objective criteria, Robert, to judge success and failure. Look at the facts. You can’t rely on your subjective impressions.)
And by the way, I don’t consider myself a comic poet in the way that Duhamel is. I rarely write in that O’Hara-esque mode.
Who do you see as your comic forebear?
Forebear? I’ve been influenced over the years by some poets who use humor in effective ways, from Parra to [Jacques] Prévert to Tanikawa [Shuntaro]. I admire the British poet Roger McGough.
I don’t like the word “forebear,” which implies that I’m in a line with these and others…the line doesn’t include me.
What do you imagine your poetic influence will be?
You gotta be kidding. The answer is none, no one in their right mind will read my work. I’ll be forgotten and gone.
You talk a lot about the distinction between the individual and the collective in poetry. Or the spiritual versus the intellectual. How do these dichotomies play out in your own poems?
I’m sorry, but the question is too abstract for me to get a handle on. Obviously every poem needs a conflict of some sort.
I don’t know if I made it clear why I had to drop from Farrar Straus and Giroux.
I’m like the poor cousin invited once a year at Christmas up to the mansion of his rich relatives, and who doesn’t know which fork to use, and who is overcome with shame, chagrin, and embarrassment.
Look at the roster of poets at FSG and you see nobility (not to mention the Nobel laureate). Empress Glück and Prince [Frank] Bidart can’t be on the same list as peasant Knott.
You use class as a metaphor a lot, it seems, and much has been made of your background—from the orphanage to your time in the army and then afterward as a poor hospital orderly. That time in your life seems almost mythological at this point, with Charles Simic and James Wright both writing anecdotes about it. How much does class, and your background specifically, figure into your identity as a poet?
My identity as a poet doesn’t exist, due to the class background you speak of. Every child at the orphanage knew they were on an assembly line that would shoot them out into the bondage of lower-class robot-slots; army, factory, the meniality of a desperate dead-end life….
Extra added attraction: When I was 15 years old, the orphanage sent me to the state insane asylum at Elgin, Illinois, where I was incarcerated for a year. This was 1955, and the situation there at the nut house (as we inmates always called it) was not exactly constitutive of safety or security. To be a fifteen-year-old, warehoused in an enormous dorm, surrounded by older men in disparate and often dangerous stages of mental distress, is not a fate I would wish on anyone. Psychopharmacology barely existed, or it was in a rudimentary period back then in 1955. Many “patients,” as the minimal staff of “caretakers” and semi-illiterate overseers (prison guards, really) termed us when they weren’t shouting “Hey, you, asshole, scrub that fucking floor,” most of us were not medicated and some were subjected to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, “shock treatment”). How I survived that hell I’ll never know, and in fact most of my time there I have blanked out of my mind. (Need I mention there was no schooling facility, no educational activities provided to me and the other teenagers there. Nor were we segregated or separated or safeguarded in any way from the general adult population, some of whom were psychotically harmful both to themselves and others. Yes, I can recall being beaten and pushed around and abused in the usual manner of such places.)
So what fucking “identity as a poet”? I don’t have an identity as a human being, much less a poet.
But what the hell, on the other hand, maybe the state insane asylum (I don’t think they use that term anymore now, but that’s what it was called in 1955, as I recall it) at Elgin, Illinois—maybe the state’s incarceration warehouse for nut jobs, where I spent my fifteenth year being abused and beaten and degraded every day, maybe that shit-hole wasn’t any worse really than Exeter or whatever prep-school in which Pinsky and Strand and Bidart and Charles Wright and C.K. Williams and William fucking Matthews were also suffering the traumas of their teen-angst years at the same time as me, back there in 1955….
I mean, it’s all relative, ain’t it?
Yes, when I think about it, I’m sure that when the fifteen-year-old William Matthews was blindfolded and had his hand shoved into a plate of cold spaghetti while being told it was worms, in his hazing initiation for some fraternity at his prep school back in 1955, well, don’t you think—
Heck, maybe that was as shame-inducing and traumatically stressful and soul-destroying as the daily brutalization I underwent around the same time in 1955, every day of the year I spent incarcerated in the state insane asylum at Elgin, Illinois?
Ask C.K. Williams and Charles Wright and Pinsky et al. what they were doing at age fifteen.
Where did you go after the asylum?
From one hell to another. I went finally after a year at the nut house which I had to stay in so long because the orphanage wouldn’t take me back, and my two uncles fought for months over who would get stuck with the looney-tunes teen…. So I ended up with the poor uncle, the one who didn’t own the farm he worked; he worked it for a share of the profit; he was, believe it or not, a sharecropper in the middle of Michigan. So I spent two years milking cows and shoveling manure and feeding the pigs and mowing the lawn and cleaning the house and washing the dishes and all the other chores on his crummy little farm, which was so poor it didn’t even have an indoor bathroom; we (he and his childless unhappy wife and me) went to the outhouse (which I had to clean of course). This was 1956-8, during which I took the school bus to town (Carson City, Michigan) and finished high school with a pitifully bad grade average (psychologically I was a wreck after the orphanage and the devastating year in the asylum; I could barely function)…with nowhere else to go and with no educational or vocational choices, and with my uncle wanting me to leave. Within a month of my graduation I was in basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
I think I spent my twenties in a fugue state of depression and misery (while working as a bedpan jockey and writing my first book) and hopelessness…it was probably a kind of what they now would label Post-Traumatic Stress [Disorder]. You can see a revealing word portrait of me as I was at that time, in a poem by James Tate, where, with his typical lack of empathy for the suffering of others, and in his characteristic cruel and condescending manner, he sneeringly calls me “a paralytic little gosling.” His idea of being funny, I guess.
How did you get exposed to poetry amidst that chaos and trauma?
I can’t remember, but I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I could go back and change it. I regret everything I had to do with poetry in my life. My involvement with it has brought nothing but unhappiness and bitterness.
You’ve said before that you don’t write from personal experience. Is that because it’s too painful an experience to write from? I can imagine a writer trying to use that background as fuel, yet you seem instead to channel those emotions into the poems less directly.
When I met Philip Levine in 1969, after my first book had been published, he was a tenured professor at Fresno State; I had spent the previous ten years earning a living as a menial hospital orderly/ bedpan jockey. Levine’s written 9,000 poems about the what, the one or two summers he worked as a manual laborer or factory hand, but I’ve never written a single line about my orderly decade. Nothing, no poem, no fragment of a poem about when I was fifteen years old incarcerated in the Elgin, Illinois, state insane asylum for a year, barracked with older, unmedicated, under-supervised inmates, given no treatment or safety, brutalized and raped and humiliated. No poems from that. No poems from the two years I kowtowed and cowered my way through the army at Fort Knox. From the orphanage decade maybe two or three poems have slipped out in thirty years. Out of my “experiences,” barely nothing has emerged. Why? The answer is very simple: Levine is a great poet, and I’m not. He’s had the strength and the courage to remain open to and to retain his humanity, which I was not able to do. I’ve failed in every way to live up to that task.
I wonder if my internment as a poet has been much different from those earlier incarcerations, the orphanage, state insane asylum, army, the hospital where I worked ten years as an orderly…has my “experience” in poetry really been any different from my “experience” in them? I don’t think so—it seems to me that the authorities of poetry, the overseers, the supervisors of poetry, have treated me with the same disdain and contempt and indifference as did the authorities of those other institutions. Maybe that’s why I became a poet, to ensure that I would continue to receive the brutality and neglect I had become accustomed to in my youth.
Are you thankful to have survived those experiences?
Maybe I could be thankful to have survived the unhappiness of the past if the unhappiness of the present wasn’t overwhelming me.
I’d be happy to pay the price of the experience if the resulting poems were worth it, but they aren’t.