Mark Pawlak grew up in Buffalo. He came to Boston to attend college and has never really left.
He attended MIT, where he majored in physics and studied poetry with Denise Levertov. He has taught poetry,
mathematics and science at the middle school, high school and college levels. For a period he was poet-in-residence
for Worcester public schools. He currently teaches mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where
he is the Director of Academic Support Programs. He has been the recipient of two Massachusetts Artist Fellowship awards.
He lives in Cambridge with his wife and his teenage son.
Pawlak is the author of five poetry collections, of which Official Versions is the latest (Spring 2006).
The other most recent titles being Special Handling: Newspaper Poems New and Selected and All the News.
His poetry and prose has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2006 (Billy Collins, ed.), New American Writing,
Mother Jones, The World and The Saint Ann's Review, among many other places. His work has been translated into German,
Polish, and Spanish. In addition, he is the editor of four anthologies, most recently, Present/Tense: Poets in the World,
an anthology of contemporary American political poetry; and Shooting the Rat: Outstanding Poems and Stories by
High School Writers, the third anthology drawn from the pages of the legendary high school section of Hanging Loose magazine
(http://hangingloosepress.com), where he has been an editor for over 26 years.
Describe the room you write in. Is there a special time of the day when you feel most creative?
I like to work in the early morning when my mind is as yet unencumbered with the day's tasks.
My favorite place, the one where I write most productively, is in the kitchen of a rented house on the coast of Maine.
For many years that was a cottage on the St. George peninsula overlooking Tenant's Harbor with a view of sailboats and
working lobster boats. The last couple of years it has been another rented house in Lubec at the Canadian border with
a picture window looking out on a salt marsh and beach fronting Passamaquoddy Bay, with a view of Quoddy Head and, in
the distance, Grand Manon Island. I rise at dawn and work undisturbed for hours at a stretch until my wife and son stir upstairs.
Unfortunately, this ideal writing situation lasts only for a brief couple of weeks each summer.
The rest of the time I write in snatches, wherever I happen to be. Poems frequently come to me while riding the
Red Line subway to work in the morning. I also do a lot of my writing in cafés. I can work productively when
surrounded by people as long as the conversations going on around me are not distracting and as long as the music
being played isn't to loud or jarring. I wrote my entire first book of poems in the French Patisserie in Harvard Square
back in the 70s. It was a dark, below-street-level cave that served strong black coffee and fresh baked croissants.
I taught at an alternative high school back then located just around the corner. I would sneak out between my classes
to work on poems at a table in a dimly lit back corner.
I share a tiny study in our cramped house with my wife, the writer Mary Bonina. We each have a desk in the room,
but both are piled high with papers and folders. There is a computer on "my" desk which we take turns using. The
room has floor to ceiling bookcases that are filled two rows deeps with books. The floor is cluttered with books
stacked dangerously high and with shoulder bags stuffed with works in progress (a unique filing system). I mostly
use the study and its computer to answer emails and to perform editorial work for Hanging Loose Press. Occasionally
a poem gets started in that room but more often it's where I type up the finished versions of poems that I have been
worrying over for a while.
Once the inspiration for a poem has started me scribbling, my preferred way of working is to keep at it until finished.
What I do is I carry it around and pull it out at every free moment throughout the day-while eating lunch in the cafeteria,
grabbing a cup of coffee between classes, etc. If the poem needs a final concentrated push then I will stop at a café in
Harvard Square at the end of the workday when I get off the Red Line and before catching the bus the rest of the way home.
But all too often, my teaching, administrative and editorial responsibilities take me away from the poems I'm working on
for long stretches of time, then it's a struggle to get back into the mindset of finishing up what I started. Sometimes a
poem benefits from such neglect, more often that just sinks it.
You have found material in many of your poems. How do you find this material? Any favorite sources of inspiration?
A lot of it comes from newspapers, which I read voraciously, at least two each day, starting with the New York Times,
then the Boston Globe, often finishing up with the Boston Herald or Metro. You may remember the theater piece I performed
in with the October Poetry Theater back in the 80s called News from Crazy Horse? It included a monologue describing my
habits as a news junkie, something I freely admit to being. Books I'm reading, commercial signs and advertisements,
overheard conversations, restaurant placemats, and various lists such as The Best 100 Movies of all Time, and Billboard's
List of the Best Rock 'n' Roll Songs of the 60s have served as sources for material I have incorporated in poems.
This may give the impression that I stalk poems while reading but in fact it happens more like a chance encounter with
a delectable mushroom while walking in the woods (mycology is one of my hobbies).
What is the strangest thing you've done to find writing material?
Like any creative person, I have dry spells and then I have tried to prod my muse by means of formal
exercises such as "write a sestina" to see if my natural resistance to such strictures will spark something,
that leads to a genuine poem. I'm fond of the Experimental Writing Exercises that Bernadette Mayer used with
her students at the Poetry Project many years ago, such as "Systematically derange the language: write a work
consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing work"
(available at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/experiments.html).
But the strangest thing I ever did occurred
during a conceptual art phase when I was constructing poems in the form of the matching pedagogical exercises I had
to do in grade school. You know, the kind in which you were given two columns, one of say the names of the states,
the other of capitol cities and you had to draw lines connecting the state from column A to its capitol in column B.
Each poem was a categorical list that I had chosen, such as classic American authors. I set myself the challenge of
using only actual businesses found in the Yellow Pages. It lead to some wonderful surreal juxtapositions of the kind
that Lautréamont had in mind: "the fortuitous meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella;"
for example, Bret Harte Mini Storage and Lowell's Cut Above. After I had exhausted the Boston Yellow Pages, I moved
on to the Manhattan Yellow Pages, then it occurred to me that I could use Internet search engines to find businesses
in any city in the U.S.A. that fit each category. I made an entire book of these, matchings, including their "solutions"
with telephone numbers of the businesses (as yet unpublished) so you could call each one to get such responses as:
"Hello. Bret Harte Mini Storage. What can I do for you?"
Your wife, Mary Bonina, is also a writer. Do you ever bounce your writing off of each other?
Certainly, but Mary is much more inclined to share her work in progress than I am. She has been heard to quip that
the only time she sees a new poem of mine is when it is in print. That's an exaggeration but it points to a difference
in the way we each work. She likes to get feedback at every stage of the writing process and since she is often working
on long prose pieces-for several years a book length memoir; presently a novel-that makes a lot of sense. When I'm writing prose,
which I occasionally do-essays, memoir, but never fiction, as I'm incapable-I'll ask her to listen and give me feedback on a
draft in progress. But with poems, I'm very private until they are finished. I prefer to let a new poem sit and cool before
offering it to be savored by Mary or anyone else.
In my experience writers need the fellowship of other writers to sustain their work over the long haul and Mary and
I have sought that support independently of one another. Mary has been in several writing groups over the years, while
I have had the camaraderie of my coeditors at Hanging Loose, and indirectly the community of poets in New York and elsewhere
who have been long associated with our magazine and press. Until the death in 2004 of Ron Schreiber, he and Dick Lourie,
my other Boston area co-editor were the ones I showed my new poems. For a time, we even met together on a bi-weekly basis
just to discuss each other's poems. The rule was no Hanging Loose business. Since Ron's death, Dick and I carry this on irregularly.
We are still the first to see one another's poems and to pronounce them either finished or still in need of work.
Talk about your experiences being one of the editors of Hanging Loose Press and the type of work you look for.
The press is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Please talk about this. (also speak about other editors)
Hanging Loose sprang to life in 1966 during the political, cultural, and artistic ferment of the 60s Greenwich Village scene.
It's coeval with such other lasting institutions as the Poetry Project and Teachers & Writers Collaborative, plus countless
little magazines that have since come and gone. Hanging Loose magazine was a product of the mimeograph "revolution" of that time;
something roughly analogous to the computer "revolution" that is responsible for the proliferation of print Zines and
Internet Zines today. It allowed anyone with access to a mimeo machine to put out a magazine. The first issues of HL were
produced that way, consisting of poems printed on individual sheets of paper stuffed inside an envelope with graphic art on the cover,
hence the name. It wasn't until issue #28 that HL magazine was printed offset and saddle-stitched, chapbook fashion.
Later came perfect binding. Hanging Loose #89, our 40th anniversary issue, has just appeared. It runs 168 pages, perfect bound,
with a four-color cover and a portfolio inside featuring the art of Rackstraw Downes. It also includes a facsimile of issue #1.
We threw a big party in New York in celebration last spring. Now were having an anniversary reading in Harvard Square on
October 17th by the editors and guest HL author Ha Jin.
Denise Levertov was a catalyst in the creation of HL and is indirectly responsible for my involvement
(she is also responsible for introducing Mary and me.) Two of the founding editors, Dick Lourie and Emmett Jarrett met in
New York as members of the very first poetry workshop that Levertov ever taught. Bob Hershon and Ron Schreiber joined
them in launching HL in 1966, with Levertov as a contributing editor. One thing Denise did in this capacity was to edit
special self-contained supplements inserted in the magazine from time to time. For these she selected the work of her
students and protégés. My first publication ever appeared in HL #12 as part of a supplement she edited of poems produced
by the students in her 1969-1970 MIT poetry writing class.
In subsequent years, Denise lived in the Boson area, for the longest stretch in Davis Square, Somerville.
She became my confidant and mentor. It was through her that I got to know Ron Schreiber who by then had relocated here
to teach at UMass Boston. He lived in Somerville for a long time before settling in North Cambridge. I also met Dick Lourie
at Denise's Davis Square home when he was passing through town. Later he also relocated to Somerville where he continues to
live (in Union Square). In 1980, when Emmett Jarrett stepped down as an editor to enter the Episcopal priesthood, I was
invited to join the editorial board as his replacement. Previous to that I had been working with John Crawford at West End Press
as an associate editor. I have been an HL editor for 26 years, the "kid" editor as the others tease.
The short answer to what kind of poems we favor at HL is that our taste is very eclectic. Our aesthetic has its sources in
the New American poetries of the post war generation and the kinds of poetry that have subsequently evolved on that side of
the fence. We have published many writers associated with the Poetry Project and Naropa, including successive generations of
New York Schoolers, but also a wide variety of others across the country plus a few expatriates living in Paris. Many new
writers and older writers who we feel deserve wider recognition appear regularly in our pages, including high school age writers,
at one extreme, and the other extreme, octogenarian phenoms Harvey Shapiro and Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel. We're also proud to have
published first books by the likes of Sherman Alexie, Hettie Jones, Kimiko Hahn, D. Nurkse, Joanna Fuhrman, Maggie Nelson, and
Cathy Park Hong, among many others.
For the sake of space, rather than talk at greater length about the kinds of poems we are eager to find in our mail drop,
I refer readers to a lengthy essay I wrote on this subject that is available on-line in the archives of Gulfstreaming magazine,
where it first appeared (http://w3.fiu.edu/gulfstrm/Pawlak.htm).
You teach mathematics, write, and work as an editor. How do you balance your time?
I thought you were going to ask me how I manage teaching mathematics and writing poetry without short-circuiting my
brain's two hemispheres, which is a question I'm frequently asked. Balance time? It's a mystery to me; I suppose it helps
that I can get along on little sleep. I like to think that I work efficiently at the various things I do and that I'm well
organized (although Mary might dispute the well-organized part). In my 28 years of teaching at UMass Boston, I have learned
to adapt my writing to the academic calendar. It's difficult to start new work when teaching because the cream of my creative
juices gets skimmed off to my students, so I make the best use of semester breaks. In addition to a teacher, I'm also a
department administrator, so I don't have the entire summer off as faculty does; nevertheless, my summer workload is much lighter.
The summer and winter semester breaks are when I get new things started, poems or personal essays that I can then polish during
the academic year during those moments I steal for myself. But, of course, those breaks are never long enough. I always feel
shortchanged. Having said this, I have to, nevertheless, admit that I thrive on these constraints. They force my mind to focus
and work efficiently in the snatches of time that I am allowed. I fear that given boundless time to just write, without
distractions of teaching and other work, my attention would become diffuse and my imaginative energies dissipate.
Your household is very artistic with you and Mary being writers. Your son, Gianni plays the saxophone.
He is very good by the way. Have you ever used his music to influence your writing in the way that John Cage wrote?
No, never to influence my writing, but I hope to collaborate with Gianni in the near future when performing my poems;
i.e. reciting them with saxophone accompaniment somewhat in the way that my colleague Dick Lourie, who is also a musician,
accompanies himself on his tenor sax.
One of your poems is being published in translation in the Polish American issue of Nowa Okolica Poetow.
Please talk about this and when the poem was first published.
Actually two pieces of mine have been translated into Polish for that journal. In addition to the poem is an essay titled,
"Poetry from an American Oral Tradition." It appeared in The Buffalo Sequence, my first poetry collection (Copper Canyon, 1978).
The poems in that book and the essay document my efforts to recover the memories of my childhood growing up in the working class,
Polish American community of Buffalo, NY and to rediscover the language and ethnic speech patterns that were educated out of me.
When the essay first appeared in the late 70s, it had a lot of resonance for other Sputnik Generation poets who grew up in working
class, ethnic enclaves in big industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. It continues to be cited in studies of ethnic
poetry and Polish American culture. The poems from the Buffalo Sequence have frequently been anthologized in the U.S. and
I would have thought one of them a more appropriate choice in a sampling of Polish-American writing to appear in Poland.
Instead the editors picked a poem about Treblinka that appeared in a later collection of my work (Special Handling:
Newspaper Poems New and Selected). It's one in a series of poems I wrote about the holocaust, inspired by
Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust, a sequence of found poems drawn from testimony from the Nuremberg Trials.
As someone of Polish heritage (my ancestors emigrated about1900), I needed to understand for myself the
anti-Semitism and the complicity in the extermination of European Jews that is attributed to the Poles.
My "investigation" of these questions resulted in a series of poems about the Holocaust. Several of these
have been included in English language anthologies of writing about the Holocaust, and now one of them is
available to Polish readers, which, I guess, makes a kind of sense.
What are you working on now?
I continue to explore the poetic journal, combining terse prose observations or speculations with short lyrics.
I call them haibun after the Japanese form. These haibun comprise a significant portion of my latest collection
Official Versions, but I feel that I haven't exhausted the possibilities as yet and so continue to feel around
that form. One of my recent efforts in this vein is about to appear in an anthology titled For the Time Being:
The Bootstrap Book of Poetic Journals, edited by Tyler Doherty and Tom Morgan (Bootstrap Press). It seems that
everywhere I turn lately I find another poet who is writing a poetic journal-it must be something catching.
Kimiko Hahn, for one; her work frequently appears in Hanging Loose. She has a new book just out from Norton
comprised entirely of poetic journals. It's title, The Narrow Road to the Interior, is a nod to the Japanese
poet Basho, one of the inventors of the form.
The past several summers I have been working on a book length prose memoir/personal essay about Denise Levertov,
beginning with my experience as her student at MIT in the late 60s. Right now I'm working on the 3rd chapter
about the years when she lived in Davis Square here in Somerville. I used to live just across Mass. Ave in North
Cambridge then and spent a lot of time in her company.
In addition to these two thrusts, I try to keep myself open to any chance visits from the muse while riding the subway to work.
You recently wrote FAQ's that you are asked about on so many interviews. Explain why you decided to do this.
These questions and answers will follow your answer to this question.
Two reasons: first, I have never been happy with the outcome of face-to-face interviews. I have always felt afterward
that I haven't represented my thoughts and ideas well; or I have felt that the interviewer misunderstood my responses or
misrepresented my intentions or simply missed the nuances. It has made me appreciate why Nabokov insisted on interviewers
submitting questions to him in writing and then having the last say on what got printed. The other reason is that over
the years my poems have raised questions in readers' minds that have become repetitious for me. These have literally become
"frequently asked questions." So the FAQ format seemed a good one to appropriate for this purpose.
These FAQs have provided me an opportunity to get said once and for all my answers to the repetitious inquiries.
FAQs by Mark Pawlak
Q: What accounts for the changes in style that your poetry has undergone? After the early lyricism of The Buffalo Sequence,
there was an abrupt shift to didactic Brechtian poems in All the News. Special Handling followed with an assortment of found poems,
documentary poems, and other kinds of appropriations. Now Official Versions represents a move in new directions, especially the
poetic journal that has a central place in your new collection.
A: Is this really so unusual? Didn't Rilke recreate himself as a poet with every new book? And what about Miles Davis,
who went from being a baroque bebop trumpeter to become the straight-ahead, minimalist cool jazz icon, and finally morphing
into an electric jazz/rock avant-guardist? An artist, whether poet or musician, is an explorer as well as an experimenter
in his medium. If I keep making poems the same way over and over, I bore myself along with my readers. Self-imitation is
something I try to avoid. Official Versions is both a cycling back to earlier modes as well as an advance in new directions.
"This new collection," one perceptive reader commented, " should shut up those who've complained about the lack of lyricism
in your poems since The Buffalo Sequence."
Q: Official Versions is a collection of poems written in several different styles. If these poems weren't between the
covers of the same book, someone reading them might think different poets wrote them. How do you explain this?
A: "I contain multitudes," said Whitman, meaning all of us. Ever since I first encountered Fernando Pessoa's poems 35
years ago in the British journal MPT (Modern Poetry in Translation) I have been at ease with the idea of multiple voices
as being natural and not a sign of schizophrenia. He wrote four distinctly different kinds of poems under different names,
as if there were actually different writers at work in his imagination. I don't go so far as to assume alter egos, each with
its own heteronym, but I am always reinventing my self, absorbing new influences, seeing where they lead me, finding new ways
of working, discovering how these excursions reveal new facets of myself, my imagination. The sensibility, however, that
underlies each kind of poem I write is one and the same. Multiplicity of styles in the same artist is not uncommon.
Think of Hayden Carruth's oeuvre. Among musicians, there's the example of Stravinsky, about whom Richard Taruskin wrote,
"Though the glittering surface of this famously cosmopolitan composer's music seemed to change with every passing cloud,
his 'morphology, his basic manner of self-expression, and something that goes far deeper than style," remained unchanged
and utterly Russian.
Q: But shouldn't a poet's voice be distinctive, singular, if not exactly the same in every poem at the very least
recognizable in each one that he writes; i.e. a quality akin to the artist's line; his "signature," recognizable
in every drawing he makes?
A: The MFA Boston recently mounted an exhibit of David Hockney portraits spanning his entire career.
Regardless he was drawing in pen and ink, etching, painting in oils or watercolor, the work is all unmistakably Hockney.
It's the same sensibility behind each portrait regardless of the medium. Hockney is a tremendous draughtsman, which even
his teenage work shows. But there is nothing of his singular line, his draftsmanship in his late Cubist inspired photo
collages; nevertheless, the subjects, their composition and the temperament binding them together tell you it is Hockney.
Even when one of my poems in made entirely of appropriated language, I think my signature is evident. It's the particular
language fragments that I chose to include, how I put them together, both the juxtapositions and the overall shape,
and the point of view framing the whole that make them recognizably mine. A poet who has been a close reader of my
work over the years made a comment about the "Hart's Neck Haibun" in my new book that I took as a compliment. He recognized
this journal sequence to be a departure from the kinds of poems I have done before. He also noted that it was stylistically
different from other poems in Official Versions. Nevertheless, he said, he felt that is was unmistakably by the same poet.
Q: About the journal sequence, "Hart's Neck Haibun"- It's in five parts, each one concluding a different section of
Official Versions. You could say that it is the backbone of your new collection. But is it really a haibun, since
that traditional Japanese form uses prose and haiku together? Your poems in this poetic journal are often very short
but not strictly speaking, haiku. That is to say, they aren't made of three lines consisting
of 5, 7 and 5 syllables as we expect of haiku.
A: The editor of a journal which first published the Hart's Neck piece in its entirety wanted me to remove the
designation "haibun" from the title. She made much the same argument that it wasn't really a haibun because the poems
that interrupt the prose are, strictly speaking, not actual haikus. I had to strenuously disagree. It IS a haibun in a
postmodern American sense filtered through the aesthetics of New York School and Objectivist poetries in which I locate my work.
I'm not a Formalist, although formal concerns have an important place in my work. Rather I treat the haibun form imaginatively--
some might say, irreverently--much the way that Ted Berrigan treated the sonnet form in his Sonnets, and the way Jack Agüeros treated
the psalm in his book, Lord, Is This A Psalm? Strict adherence to traditional forms can too easily lead to poems lacking linguistic
vitality. The essence of haibun is what I'm after, and that, simply stated, is terse prose and prose narrative combined with keen
observation of nature (including people) put down on paper as minimalist poems or poetic epiphanies. The line is short and the line
count varies from one or two in some poems to many lines in others. I find it ironic that the three line haiku, as we know it in
English was an invention of translators. In the original Japanese, haiku consist of seventeen characters written in a single
horizontal line of verse.
Q: Many of your poems have dedications to artists in other genre's, for example, political cartoonists, Dan Wasserman,
Aaron MacGruder, and Gary Trudeau; innovative documentary filmmaker Errol Morris; conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, etc.
What's this about? What does it say about your poems, your intentions?
A: I take inspiration from artists, photographers, painters, draftsmen, and collagists. Poetry, compared with the
other arts is conservative -poetry in English anyway, in contrast to French poetry since Baudelaire, for example.
I'm inspired by visual artists much as William Carlos Williams was in the early decades of the 20th Century, as the
New York School poets were during the second half of that century, as many contemporary poets are, those, in particular
who I consider to belong to my tribe; i.e. poets associated with the Poetry Project and Naropa, among others. I want to
explore different ways of working with language (I hesitate to say experiment because "experimental poetry" is frequently a
pejorative term for undisciplined, formless writing). Language is both my medium and my subject: its uses and abuses, all the
ways that words refer to other words as well as the ways that words refer to things in the world.
Q: One reviewer of Official Versions observed that "[Pawlak] collects phrases, archaic songs, ephemera from the past, and
makes a strong poetic statement…." He called you a "lyrical junk man." Is it accurate to say that there is an affinity between
your poems made out of found language and the photo collages made by the late Robert Heineken, who used preexisting print images
that he borrowed from product packaging, television commercials, pornographic magazines, etc.?
A: Yes, this is what biologists call convergent evolution: similar structures evolved through different developmental pathways.
Following a different trajectory, using different material, and belonging to a different generation, I independently arrived at
a way of working with found texts that is analogous to what Heineken did with photographic images. We both recontextualize what
we have appropriated to construct works of art that are political and cultural critiques. I read in Heineken's recent obituary
that he criticized traditional photography for turning out "limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which
create an intrinsic world of their own." "There is," he said, "a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph."
That sounds very close to William Carlos Williams' famous statement about the poet as maker: "It's not what he says that counts
as a work of art, but what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to
verify its authenticity."
Q: Sampling, appropriation, collage are techniques you employ a lot. Are you influenced by French experimental poetries?
A: You can't use found materials in your art, as I frequently do, without paying homage to Duchamp. But Duchamp aside, my
influences are more German than French. The razor sharp irony found in George Grosz's drawings of Weimar society is something
I aspire to in my satirical, political poetry. But in terms of techniques, Dada is more my inspiration. John Heartfield,
Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters… They cast aside traditional methods, what they called "playing the artist;"
in their place they substituted Dada art, utilizing montage and collage. I love the story of how Hausmann "discovered"
photomontage: He had supposedly noticed that typical German households displayed a lithograph of a grenadier standing in
front of his barracks. Some families had pasted over the face in the print with that of their own soldier, cut out from the
family photograph album. Noticing this, Hausmann said, he realized in a flash that one could make pictures entirely composed
of cutout photographs. The Nation's art critic Arthur Danto wrote something shortly after 9/11 that points to Dada's legacy for
artists today. He said "One of the things contemporary art has made available to artists is the freedom to appropriate to their
own artistic ends the very things with which ordinary, artistically untrained persons express themselves, so they can now bring
the powers of life into art. So much of contemporary art consists of selecting and arranging things that define ordinary life."
Q: There is a noticeable structural similarity in two of your long poems in Official Versions. There are several different narrative
strands in each one, which are fragmented and which then unfold in an alternating sequence. Is this narrative approach something you
invented? Where did it come from?
A: That's right, the long poems, "Credible Information" and "Aiming High," both employ the same formal structure while treating
very different subject matter. This device is one that I first used in a poem titled "Firsts," from my collection, Special Handling.
In that poem, stories are told about two different individuals who share a common ambition to be the first persons ever to accomplish
feats that most of us would think of as outlandish. I had cut up and alternated their stories to convey the similarity of their
ambitions. Shortly after writing that poem I saw "Gates of Heaven," my first documentary film by Errol Morris. It moves back and
forth between the stories of the owners of two different pet cemeteries. Morris employed this device in several other films, perhaps most
famously and most effectively in "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)." In it, he shows us four different eccentric characters,
a lion trainer, a topiary gardener who sculpts giant animals out of hedges, an expert in the study of African mole-rats, and an MIT
robotics scientist. By means of careful editing and by alternating each of their stories sequentially, he succeeds in showing how the
pursuits of these seemingly unrelated individual are linked. The result is in an illuminating essay on eccentricity and the human
imagination. My use of this same devise has evolved over the years in a succession of poems, the two included in Official Versions
being the latest examples. I dedicated "Aiming High" to Morris because it was after seeing "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" that I
was inspired to outdo my previous efforts to use this approach in treating a complex subject that is not ordinarily viewed as
appropriate for poetry.
Q: You have said that formal concerns in poetry are important to you when writing poems. Does that make you a Formalist?
What do you think about the New Formalism?
A: I have an acquaintance that collects antique autos. He lovingly restores them to vintage condition and drives them around on
weekends for his pleasure as well as for show. But come Monday morning, he leaves the roadster in the garage and drives his Lexus
to work. If I am a formalist at all, it is with a lower case "f". I'm a big fan of the list poem as anyone can see from reading
Official Versions. I'm less interested in traditional poetic forms than in forms appropriated from other mediums. One of the most
inventive poets I know and admire is Paul Violi. He's written poems in the form of a book index, another in the form of TV Guide
listings, to give just two examples. Also, there are poets for whom I have high regard who have used traditional forms to break
out of old habits and as a by-product have discovered unexpected felicities in the language. Jimmy Schuyler's sestinas and
Elinor Nauen's book length poem in ottava rima are two that come to mind. And then there is the irreverent use of traditional
forms, which I applaud. The sonnet has never been quite the same since Ted Berrigan took it on.
Q: There are many sharply ironic, political poems in Official Versions. How do you respond to the criticism that
political poetry is "of the moment" and not "for the ages;" that it is more often than not occasional in nature,
therefore a lesser brand of poetry?
A: What is more timeless than vainglorious leaders, governmental deceit, and the misrepresentation of the truth for
political ends? Injustice and oppression likewise are ever present. They are eternal aspects of the human condition.
What is different at different times is only the degree to which one or the other is at the forefront of our consciousness
on a daily basis. Poets who are inclined to write poems on contemporary themes and who take as a starting point current
events often feel the need to have something to push against. I certainly do. In times such as the present moment, when
the men who run our country are less than subtle about their agenda, having gone to school at the Ronald Reagan academy
of media manipulation where they learned to call catsup a vegetable and a weapon of mass destruction a "Peacekeeper," the
subjects that fuel the writing of political poems are staring everyone who wishes to see them right in the face.
Q: Would you offer the same defense for anti-war poetry, which seems to be popular once again after
being out of favor since the Vietnam War?
A: Brecht once said, "War is like love; it always finds a way." Was there ever a time when a war was not being waged
somewhere-frequently with the U.S.A. having a hand in instigating it? Wars are the inspiration for a lot of poems down
through the ages, some of them among our greatest poems, e.g. The Iliad. There were countless poetry readings against war
that took place across the entire country during the build up to the invasion on false premises of Iraq. I was struck, in
particular, by the relevance for that moment of the poems I heard read, many of which had been written years, even decades
before-some of my own included. It was as if a coin had been flipped from tails to heads. Poems, which were thought to be
"dated," quite suddenly were revealed to be timely, telling. It is no secret that those who aim to discredit political poetry
invariably support the established order. Remember what Orwell said: "The opinion that art should not be political is
itself a political opinion."
Q: One often thinks of political poetry as moralistic and preachy, but your poems surprisingly are neither of those
things; they're ironic and infused with humor.
A: Didactic poetry, i.e. poetry that instructs, is one of the most ancient of verse forms. It comes down to us from the
classical Greek and Roman poets. Horace, I think it was, said that poetry should instruct and entertain. That's a view
of poetry I embrace, but I don't think of these two functions as mutually exclusive. My ambition is to make poems that do
both those things simultaneously. One can be instructive without being pedantic or moralistic. I have a high opinion of
my readers' intellects. I believe that they can construct meaning for themselves from the words and images I put before
them-a light touch helps.
My day job, by which I support my poetry habit, is teaching mathematics to adult college students who never liked math
and never felt particularly adept at it. Math is supposed to be boring and one is supposed to feel guilty about not
liking it-in these respects it is similar to poetry. I pride myself in demonstrating to my students that math can be
a tool of critical intelligence, a means a figuring out what the real story is where numbers, graphs, and tables are
concerned. I try to make it both intellectually stimulating and enjoyable. My approach to poetry is much the same.
Q: You recently edited an anthology of contemporary American political poetry, entitled Present/Tense:
Poet's in the World. Do you think of yourself as a "poet in the world", and just what does that term mean to you?
A: "Poets in the World" borrows its name from and pays homage to a seminal collection of essays by Denise Levertov that
appeared in 1973 just as the Vietnam War was beginning to wind down (a war she was an outspoken opponent of and which
was the subject of many of her poems). Her collection of essays titled, A Poet in the World, seemed to sum up much of
what was vital in American poetry of the postwar years. I'm speaking of course of the "New American Poetry" defined by
the Donald Allen anthology of that name. Levertov, by choosing that title for her book, was pointedly taking sides in a
debate that had raged throughout the 60s, one that was variously characterized as the "raw" versus the "cooked,"
"poets of the streets" versus "ivory tower academics", poems with "dirt under the fingernails" as opposed to sanitary,
well-manicured verses. Levertov was part of a group of women poets who were feminist to the core, if she herself was
not always explicitly so, including such figures as Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. These women wrote about children
and sex, poverty in the inner cities, racism, and prison conditions. They opposed the war with their words and with their
bodies, frequently getting arrested at anti-war demonstrations. They wrote with eyes wide open. Perhaps one of the
distinguishing characteristics of such writers as these three is that they pricked the academic balloon of professed
objectivity that many male poets subscribed to. These women had a point of view and they were explicit about stated it
in their poems. So, a "poet in the world?" Yes, I'm proud to count myself in that tradition.