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OWNING YOURSELF: An interview with Jack Gilbert.

After many years, Gander recently rediscovered the original cassette tapes of this interview, which took place at his home with CD Wright in Rhode Island, June 11, 1995

FORREST GANDER You've lived all over the world and there are abundant references in your work to foreign geographies and names and towns. I wonder what you learned as a poet from living in Paris, Denmark, and Greece? Are there different things that you picked up in different places that became useful to you as a poet?

JACK GILBERT I don't think it's so much the places as what happened to me in the places.

FG One of the places that's come up in the recent book that I know the least about is Denmark. When was that? There's an affair you have with a Danish woman who's nursing ...

JG Oh, that's in Copenhagen.

FG Yes.

JG You know, for me, the poem is about infidelity. I'm not trying to suggest it. I'm not against it. But what interests me is that we have so little vocabulary about love. I don't just mean words. I mean concepts, models. What I like about the poem is: I think it's about love, but it has a special texture to it that I wanted to capture. I'm not interested in morality, whether it's to be praised or not to be praised.

You know, I don't like traveling.

FG No?

JG No! It's a lot of work and I really don't go places for joy. I don't want to sit in the kafeneios in Greece or dance in the tavernas packed with women from the American suburbs. I hope they have a great deal of fun, but that's not why I go. I go to use places.

FG That's what I was hoping you would tell me about. How did certain places become useful to you as a poet? You've lived in a lot of different places and I wonder.

JG The problem is--the problem in poetry-- if you keep mentioning places it sounds ... it's kind of annoying when people start dropping names, dropping countries. When I was in Kathmandu ... All my life I was afraid of death. Not so much the death of being extinguished, but I was always terrified that I would die before I did the things that were important to me. I used to pray, I know you will kill me, eventually, even soon, but let me fall in love first. The second wish was, Don't let me die a virgin.


FG I imagine that one got resolved very quickly.

JG You know, I was so afraid of death, I guess since the time I was twelve or fourteen, something like that, I used to make up lists of what I wanted to do before it was too late. As a matter of fact, by the time I finished coming around the world in 1976, I'd fulfilled every childhood dream I ever had. I spent two years sitting in a little tower--you know how when you're nine years old, you want to live in a tower? Well, I lived in a tower in the Haight-Ashbury, a huge house which somebody I know had kind of salvaged during the Haight-Ashbury days. It was so crazy there that the owner, a Swedish guy, just abandoned hope and left, went back to Sweden. It must have had 32 rooms or something like that [chuckles]. It was a double apartment house, and at the top there was a little turret, which was part of my room. I had another room for my study, and I sat up in the turret for two years trying to figure out what there was to want for an adult, because I wasn't much interested in having a lot of fun. I'd had a lot of fun in my life. But if there's something you don't do now, you may not have a chance to do it later. It's like photographers say, Take the picture now. If you can make a better picture when the sun's in a different place, do it when you come down the hill, but take this picture now.

I wanted to find out what there was for me-- not what other people wanted. There were really important things for me to do that I hadn't done. Because I'd done a lot of things, not necessarily colorful things, but all the things that I'd wanted to do up until then, big and small. And I couldn't think of any more! I spent two years up in that turret trying to figure out what were the things I still needed to do. My list was mostly like when you're a kid and you dream of being a poet in Paris--broke, the cuffs of your jacket fraying--and your heart goes boom boom boom boom inside and you get short of breath thinking about it. But what are the dreams for adults that make your heart do that? I guess a lot of people want money or power or something. Power's never been interesting to me. And I've been a little famous.

When I was fourteen years old in Pittsburgh, growing up, I remember I once sent in a question for the Quiz Kids [a radio and TV series in the 1940s and 50s] and they read my name on the air, and I threw myself out of bed! I liked that stuff, I like being famous, I like being stopped on the street. It's really nice, it's fun. Because everybody's had the dream of walking through Greenwich Village some night, everyone else has gone home, there's soft rain falling, it's June, and there's a misty quality to everything like in a cheap novel. And a beautiful woman comes along and she stops, looks at you, and she says, "You're Jack Gilbert, aren't you?" And you say shyly--breathlessly--"Yes." And she says, "Can I have your autograph?" That's lovely. Everybody should have that. When my book was first published, I used to sleep with it.

[Forrest laughs]

JG I'd wake up with it in my arms. And I think if every writer doesn't sometime along the way have his first book and feel the 14-year-old still in him who had all those dreams, it's a pity. At that time, though, in the tower, I couldn't. And I was mad because I think I'm very intelligent and imaginative and creative, but in two years I couldn't think what there was to have, or really to want. I had no responsibilities. I'd begun a relationship with Michiko, but she didn't want to get married. She ran a language school, so I didn't have to take care of her. I didn't have a parent to take care of. I didn't have medical problems, I didn't have any money. But I could choose to have anything I wanted. I thought I could even go back to being famous, a little bit anyhow. Though I didn't really want that. I finally figured out why I couldn't think of it.

There were no models! Nobody used to live long enough to dream for adults. Everybody died. Life expectancy was 26 in Shakespeare's time, 35 in the Victorian age. Dreams were--if you lasted, you became a kind of wise man living in a manor in black clothes. Or a woman in black clothes, her hair in a bun on her neck, shuffling around. Even to this day we have very few models ... We don't know anything about adult love. I mean passionate, romantic love.

But somebody is going to have a vision of how to live as adults. And I think that's one of the things I'd like to do with poetry. And novels. I'd like to write about what's really important emotionally for real adults. Not adults trying to stay young and all that stuff.

FG Well, that connects to the fact that you've managed to live on very little money for long periods of time. I wonder what the merits and demerits of working for money were for you. Which jobs, if any, were satisfying, and what did you gain and lose by giving up the traditional paradigm of job and family?

JG Well, first of all, my dream as a kid. I didn't really dream of being rich or powerful or safe. Or of cars or ships, or stuff like that--owning stuff. I don't know, maybe it's natural to want those things, but I remember way, way back, I wanted to own myself. If I could just be allowed to have my days for myself, to do what I wanted with them--that's what I wanted. In order to do that, you can't have children. You can't have expensive habits like wanting an Infiniti--whatever those cars are. You can't want to do drugs, you can't afford it. You can't want comfort.

FG And what do you gain by owning yourself?

JG Owning yourself! You have your days. You don't have to barter them, you don't have to trade them in to get the money to live like--what? You know, if you don't have responsibilities, if you don't have parents to take care of, you don't have to pay the mortgage ... I could teach for two semesters, even teach for one semester, and retire for five years. I did that for decades. But you have to have very simple desires. And it's not enough just to want to. It's like dieting. Dieting, as far as I can gather, doesn't work if it's hard to do, if all the time you're just desperately hungry and wanting food. You have to learn a different kind of diet. The same thing with living. If you feel that you're really, you know, just fighting all the time, and you want all this stuff that you're denying yourself, I don't think it works. I don't really mind that I don't have much money, as long as I don't have to ask anybody for anything.

FG And family? Do you feel a loss about that?

JG No. I never really wanted children, because I was romantic.

FG Uh-huh.

JG If I had children, I'd turn into just a terrible, bourgeois person. I'd worry if my kid had shoes as good as his playmate's shoes, and it's like--it's a terrible way to put it, but it's like having a pet. I can't afford to have pets. I'd just fall in love with them.

FG Mmhhm.

JG So it's not really hard. I was walking through North Beach a while back, way after the Beat thing, and I ran into Herbert Gold, the novelist, who I don't know well, but whom I'd known a little for a long time--and it was a nice summer night, and he came over and he said hello. And I said hello, and I introduced Linda [Gregg]. And he said, "I just came over because I wanted to tell you how much I admire the poems you have in this issue of the APR, the ones about living in Greece." And I said, "Thank you." And he said, "It's so impressive that you have that courage, that you'd put yourself through that, that you have that kind of drive that you're willing to live that way." And I was kind of confused until I realized what he was saying, and I said, "But, Herb, you don't understand!" He said, "No, I understand that--without electricity, no electric lights, no running water, no real toilet, walking miles and miles to get a loaf of bread. I think that's really heroic almost." And I said, "But, Herb, those are poems of happiness! They're not poems of sort of pride in the fact that I could live a monkey's life. I love it out there!"

FG It wasn't about deprivation.

JG No! When Michiko and I were together, and she was coming to spend a summer in Greece, I rented a villa! It was an old beat-up villa, it didn't cost much, I think it was $800 for six months or something like that. It had electricity. And it had running water, which made me a little sad! Because I used to love pulling up the water, you know, just before the sun came up. For me living that way up in the fields or out in the mountains, it gives me the feeling that I could almost touch reality. Like the absolute is just an eighth of an inch beyond my fingertips. I love that feeling. These are not symbols, they're not metaphors. The walks get hot, the clouds are white in the sky. It's what I wanted--for me. I wouldn't have advised anybody else to live like that. I think other people might be miserable, but I yearn for that plain life.

I travel to these other places because I can find what I want. I go to Greece because, it's embarrassing to say these things, but I feel in Greece, in a certain sense, there are gods in the earth. I don't believe in "The Goddess" business--those Joseph Campbell ideas of myth--but in something else. I like the earth. I like being out there and kind of listening for it, walking around in the middle of night, in the moonlight. I shouldn't say it that way because it sounds too colorful, but that's how my life is. I'm not playing a part, I'm not being colorful. I do what I do because I like it! And if it weren't colorful, if it were stupid and boring--which most people would find my life--that's fine with me, because this is the life I want. I'm not going to live my life for anybody else. I don't ask them. I would never suggest they try to live that life. But I'm going to live that way.

FG Readers have remarked that your poems are often constructed from a simple vocabulary, which makes use of morally coded words such as "hard," "important," "dark," "love," "failure," "clarity," "naked," "ordinary." But such readings don't account for the linguistic skew, the very strangeness that's equally apparent in the syntax and vocabulary of your poems. In The Great Fires, for instance, there are anomalous and even exotic words such as "keelhaul" ("the devil is commissioned to harm, to keelhaul us with loss"), "parses" ("his strictness parses us"), "alembic" ("love's alembic"), and "vigorish" ("Death is God's vigorish") which always neatly fit into the given context. And in "Adulterated," you invert the normative syntax and write, "Therefore does the wind keep blowing...." Can you comment on the way that you think about poetic lexicon and syntax?

JG Well, I think, that's where you're right. You make the language alive. I like the simpler vocabulary because I believe it. You know I don't trust the Mediterranean, Latinate, French kind of thing by which you can make almost anything look great with sentences like "Honor is where infinity meets death." I can't deal with those things. Those words I don't trust. I really have a very strong love of the plain language, the Anglo-Saxon language, a language that doesn't preen. On the other hand, I'm in love with language. I'm in love with making the language show up.


And the words you mentioned: I don't want to load the page with wonderful, obtuse words or with tap-dancing kinds of flourishes. I really want the poems to mean. For me, poetry is saying something to someone about something that matters, and in a way that they don't just take in logically. I'm interested in poetry communicating felt knowledge, so that the reader experiences what I'm talking about. After they've experienced the subject or the emotion or whatever, then they can say, "Well, yeah, but no thanks." But I want them to experience. That's what the arts are about. We have essays for lectures.

I love language. My earliest influences probably were the ancient Chinese, and still, when I read them, I'm fascinated with the idea of making something out of nothing. When I was a kid I loved books like Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson or those books where you come to a bare island and the guy can just make a world there, make a life there. It's the same thing with poetry. I like to take that simple language--and change a person's life. Not by lecturing and telling them to be good or not good or to have sex or not have sex. I'm interested in the things after you get past the beginning. It's like with chess: I'm no good at teaching how the chess pieces move. It's good that some people can teach that.

I'm interested in poetry dealing with things on a graduate level, on a far-after-graduate-school level. All these standard things about love and death and loneliness and all those things. We don't know much about them, and I would like to write about them, and I would like to make models for them and I would like to bear witness to what I've known. When people tell me romantic love is an adolescent illusion, I know two things. I know they don't have a record, they haven't been there. Oh, they've had crushes on girls in high school and they think that's what I'm talking about. I can say it's true because I have known Gianna [Gelmetti] or Linda [Gregg] or Michiko [Nogami], How dare they, with their small emotional lives, sitting always in some kind of university, trying for full professorship, how dare they tell me about love? Or how dare the therapists, the psychiatrists tell me about love? They've been married since they were in graduate school! They had an affair with one woman before they met their wife. They had two affairs since, early in their practice. What do they know? Are they going to tell me about love? What are their credentials? You could talk to them, and they're kind of scared of the whole subject. They say love is repairing the marriage so they can go on and take care of their kids or love is being reasonable.

You know the world's not made like that. You have to grow up. You're talking about one of the two greatest things anyone will ever experience in a lifetime. I'm not talking about thrills, I'm not talking about, you know, you meet somebody on a vacation and you go to cloud-cuckooland for a while. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about things that harrow the heart. Those people don't have standing in my eyes. They have to know more before they're qualified to have an opinion. They can't make it up out of books. It's like making up what humor is out of books. You ever read one of those books?

FG Let me ask you a question about poems and technique. Some of your poems are written in terse, economical fragments. "Before Morning in Perugia," for instance. Others seem to be almost Byzantine in their sensuality and richness. There's the strange ending of "Burning and Fathering: Accounts of My Country" with its closing lines: "Pressure of that terrible intolerance / gets brandy in the welter. Such honey of that heavy rider." That incredible language. Or the strange images in "Pewter"--"Thrushes flying under the lake. Nightingales singing underground." And that "Yes, my king." What is the value of strangeness and how does clarity--a value that we've talked about in your work--how does it accommodate such strangeness?

JG Well, I know some people have a system for making a poem, and they get good at it, and they just change the label for the next poem. So, this is a poem about injustice in Botswana, or this is a poem about how beautiful the trees are this autumn, but they're using the same mechanism for making the poem. I mean they may go from a villanelle to a sestina, but it's still the same way for making the poem. That's a system. In traditional form or not. It's one of the things that sort of surprises me about recognition. You know, I have no complaints about that. I've gotten more rewards from my poetry than I've earned. And I've neglected my career, so I have nothing to complain about. I feel blessed with what's happened with my poetry and I want to continue to be allowed to write it on my terms. But I'm crazy about poetry and I'm crazy about the craft of poetry. I don't understand how people can be content with.... It's like when I was a kid and I didn't drive a car, but everybody else, the males, hung out in a garage, and they stood around talking while somebody fixed a carburetor or changed the points and they would talk about how "This car is better than that car because.... " So many poets, it seems to me, are like race car drivers who never look under the hood. I don't understand that. I love craft. I feel responsible to the poem and its content. I feel responsible towards poetry. But craft is for me!


I don't understand those people who are just counting syllables or getting the metrics right or making the thing efficient. It's strange to me, and I've always been surprised. I've had wonderful reviews and I'm very grateful for them, but almost never has anybody ever written anything about strategies. I really think my books are like museums of strategies. New inventions. I'm not objecting, I have nothing to object about, but I'm just puzzled why nobody notices.

FG There's a kind of strangeness that interests you, though.

JG I'm not interested in strangeness. I'm interested in effectiveness. I'm like Dr. Johnson in that I want what works. I don't like curtsying to the reader. That's not my aim in poetry. I want to do to the reader what I want to do, and I don't want to do it with a lot of arm motion, a big wind-up. I just want to throw the ball. Get the guy out.

But I don't want to depend on speed. I love when I have something I want to write about, something I know. I love looking for the appropriate invention. Selfishly. I love the word "vigorish" in that poem. The fact that nobody knows what it means, I don't care. I believe in communication. I never would sort of indulge myself, I don't think, in obscurity to make the poem seem big and impressive because it's almost incomprehensible. That doesn't attract me. There are ways of making language effective that implement what it is in the content. It effectuates in the reader. It detonates in the reader. And if you use just habitual language and make it pretty, make it shine, that's not going to do it. That just substitutes the enjoyment of surface for communication, what you want to make somebody feel, the way you want to change somebody. I'd like to change the world. If I can't do that, I'm going to try to change people's ideas.

I've been thinking of writing a new Inferno. It'll be about happiness. Serious happiness. Not fun. The real happiness. Not pleasure and enjoyment. Language for me is a means to an end, but it's a joy in itself. Not because it's pretty, not because it shines well. Watching it do its work almost invisibly. And therefore the examples you used, those are different solutions to how to write a poem. It's been true for a long time. It's not just because you get past the age of being a lyric poet, and then you go into being a very serious, kind of philosophical elder statesman. That's not for me. It's always been a fascination for me to work with craft. I think Pound made a terrible mistake, or maybe he overlooked something when he said, "Make it new." "Make it new" is like how they have a new line of women's dresses every season. The fashion changes, the hemline changes. Who needs that? I guess people whose attention span is short or they need constantly to be stimulated by being startled with something novel. I think Pound should have said, and I like to believe he meant, "Make it significantly new." That's what I like to do. To use the means. Really, to make the poem do what it's doing. To use language in a way that keeps it fresh and alive. As when I open the old Greek anthology and I read one of the poems in it, and after 2000, 3000 years, it's alive! And you can't tell how it started ... though you can a little bit, if you care.

FG There's another poem I thought I'd mention in which there's a little technical thing you do that makes the poem very wonderful for me. There's a directness, generally, to the narrative elaboration in "The History of Men" except at one notable point which becomes for me the secret pleasure of the poem. You write,
... So everything ends.
Divorce gets them nowhere. They drift away from
the ruined women without noticing. See birds
high up and follow. "Out of earshot," they think,
puzzled by earshot.

That moment of self-reflexive, isolating consciousness! It happens also in your "Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell" when Don Giovanni becomes distracted from his lovemaking as he focuses on the countess's unusual toes. In both poems, characters withdraw from event into an inferiority that's all their own and in which their vision or language startles and mystifies them. Such moments are also funny, of course. I wonder in what way that self-reflexive consciousness also characterizes the writer of the poem and the poet? Whether for you, there come moments when you realize how much pleasure you're taking in the craft in the poem?

JG Well, I certainly rejoice and I delight and I smile when it happens. Part of it is that, in a way, what I'm doing is trying to make the reader conscious of the fact that, you know, we assume we're looking at the world, but the truth is--Oh, what I'm interested in is the nuance of being. The middle tones. I don't mean felicities and clever little finger work. I mean to sneak up on the reader and penetrate his habits. Like suddenly you think, "What does earshot mean?" You know the Japanese have this thing about waking up in the middle of your life. That's one of the things I'd like my poetry to do. I think what the arts do is to salvage the world. The world is constantly plundered from us by habit. What the writer does and the filmmaker, the painter does is not just to retrieve but to make things visible again.

Yes, language. We get so used to it. And I don't want to refresh it by using crazy ...

FG Like the Russian formalists, making the language new.

JG Yeah, but they mean it in a really crazy way. If I understand them they're saying the way you make it new is to defamiliarize it. I think that's nuts. It's like saying ... well, it's like Emerson and his wife. He wasn't very sexual, so they thought the solution was just to make love less and less, so the urge would accumulate. What it does, though, is kill your sexual drive. And I think it's the same thing with defamiliarization. You think you're going to discover the world by getting as far from the world as you can. I mean, try washing your feet on a real hot day. You've just climbed a mountain, you're washing in cold water. Then you'll know what the world is. You don't have to defamiliarize yourself. You have to be awake, you have to be conscious, you have to notice. You have to love. Why do some people have to wrestle in such peculiar ways just to arrive at the earth? All we have to do is bite into the apple.

FG Yes.

JG I can see these guys sitting at their desks writing about being in the real world.


FG With regard to influence, Jack, a poem such as "Music Is the Memory of What Never Happened"--with its short, declarative, noun-verbobject sentences, its Mediterranean situation, and the nostalgic male regret--calls Hemingway to mind. Other poems in The Great Fires seem to invoke Wallace Stevens. For instance, in "On Stone," your last line references "Athena's owl calling/into the barrenness, and nothing answering" and is reminiscent of Stevens' "listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." And it might be said that your poem "What Is There to Say," with its imagination of a heaven in which people would weary of "always / singing how green the/green trees are," shares a sensibility and vocabulary with Stevens' "Sunday Morning." Do you feel an affinity with either Stevens or Hemingway and on what terms?

JG Well, I'm reminded of Wallace Stevens' poem about the dump ["The Man on the Dump"]. The most immaculate dump in the world. And I think he struggled with it. He knew it. He couldn't get the dump. He could make a marvelous dump. But that's not the dump. Maybe you have to have a knack for being alive, I don't know. I don't think there's much connection between me and "Sunday Morning." "Sunday Morning" is a little bit of philosophy, whether it's about a sort of religious vision, or whether Stevens is trying to make the point that this woman with her silly peignoir has no chance at all. It's almost like the strategy in Eliot's "Sweeney among the Nightingales." Fine, it's a fine poem. I don't think I work that way. I try to get to the thing pretty directly. I try to find a way to make it available. And I try in all kinds of different ways. I'm not going to do it in a pedestrian, straight-ahead prose way, because that's not poetry. Poetry commits magic. I mean it's incredibly inefficient. It's like somebody watching somebody waltzing and saying, "What an inefficient way to get across the floor." It does something that's hard for prose to do. And so it may take odd ways.

FG And how about Hemingway?

JG I still love Hemingway. Even in his terrible books. And I don't care that he became pompous and strutted around, and I don't care that he was ... Well, maybe it's easy for me to say because I'm a male. But I feel the same way about Ezra Pound. I understand he was a racist. And he did radio broadcasts for which people call him "treasonous," though if you know something about Pound, you know he thought that he was really trying to save America. I talked to the man that interviewed him when Pound went to the Italian radio station and asked if he could do this during the war. And the man told me, "We didn't understand him at all." Pound walked in, he didn't ask for extra food because there was a scarcity of food, didn't want any special privileges, didn't want to be paid, but he wanted to make these statements because he thought America had gone wrong. And you say, "Well, it was idiocy." Okay, maybe I'm wrong and he was just evil. And certainly he was wrong about the anti-Semitism, and he's hopeless, as far as I'm concerned, as an economist and not a very good historian. But why not just say he was a third-rate economist? Say he's guilty, let's get it out in the open. He's guilty! And this is shameful, some of it. And then we can turn to poetry.

I mean he's one of the greatest poets that America ever produced. Nobody has done what he did. He wrote one of the only two epics we have in America. Why are the critics so willing to give that up? Because they have their speeches and they go to conferences and they say the same thing over again and over again. Or they come in and explain all the lines, what they mean. That's not what Pound was doing. He was doing something else. I think his poetry is terrific. And Wallace Stevens had difficulty getting to the world unmediated by his mind. In fact he went back and tried it again and again and again, couldn't do it. I think "The Snowman" is philosophically a wonderful poem. I don't get any feeling of winter from it. And as a matter of fact, his snowman is more like a wintery mind, and the wintery mind is very different from winter. The wintery mind, at best, is weeping. I'd like to think that my poetry has a lot of thought in it, some of it could be called philosophical, but I don't believe in poetry as a form for exposition--that's what prose is. As I say, if there's truth, if there's something worth communicating, I want it to occur in the reader. I want it to be known by the reader. Not through being led by the hand or convinced or argued into it. I want him to experience it suddenly. When I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, I say, "Yeah, you know, I felt it." That's what these things you ask me about are for me.

FG Mmhmm.

JG They're devices to make the thing work. You know, I like it, I'm delighted by some of the inventions, and I'd like the reader to be delighted. But basically the inventions are doing something. They're not going into business for themselves.

FG Right. Well, Henry James tells an anecdote about a wealthy woman who lingers in her loge after an opera, weeping over the performance. Meantime, her coachman freezes to death waiting for her outside in the snow. In your poem "Chastity" there's witness to an accident towards which the moral impulse is quite different. A boy chooses to continue reading War and Peace rather than help a man who has fallen down the stairs nearby. For the boy, art is more real at that moment than "real life." Of course, art is real life too. Some say that only those who haven't critically suffered from real life could blur the distinction between life and art. While you take responsibility for the choices in your life and while you describe your life as one that has afforded you a great deal of serious happiness, your life has been harsh relative to that of many North American poets. What insights has your perspective granted you regarding the interwoven values of art and reality?

JG Well, first off, let me tell you--as with almost everything I write--what happens in "Chastity" is literally true. The man didn't fall down the steps, but he collapsed at the bottom of the steps--where I was. He wasn't coming up and down the steps. He was just walking along on a Sunday afternoon and had a heart attack on the sidewalk: I mean I'm not correcting you--it's just because we're talking about reality. And I'll say again, you have to understand. I don't see my life as stark or difficult. I see it as rich. I don't know anybody who has a life as rich as mine. People I know can't spend their time walking around looking at the trees. They can do it on a vacation or on an occasional Sunday or sabbatical. I spent twelve years writing a poem one page long. I can indulge myself. It's important to me to say that, in my strange way, I'm constantly having a good time. I wake up every morning. My default state is a mild happiness. Even when I was living at Fort Juniper, and I was trying to live--because Walden was one of the two or three most influential books in my life and I read it young, and I always wanted to try it--so when they invited me to live at the Robert Francis house [in Amherst, MA], I stopped using heat. There was a little fireplace, but you had to sit right in front of it, and even then your back was going to freeze. Those are tough winters in Massachusetts. I used to wake up sometimes, it would be 20 degrees below zero inside the house!


It was wonderful!


I mean you're so aware of everything you do. If your hands slip out from under the covers, you know it! You sit down on the toilet seat and you make a sound. It's cold at that hour in the day. FG What about the choice that the boy makes, choosing to stay with his book instead of helping someone?

JG Well, first off, as I said, it's literally true. I had been for a year trying to learn to be honest. And not because of the opinion of the people around me or ... I'd get an even worse reputation than I already had. At that time I was ... an extremist. I would not compromise. As it says in the poem, I found I had started to go down to help even though I didn't want to go down. And it was War and Peace. So I turned back to the book and started reading again. Something in me felt guilty. I didn't want to acknowledge it. Those tonalities....

So I'm not interested in whether the boy was good or bad. I'm interested in the texture of the sensibility of that state of being young when you don't understand what honesty is. It's like you think you have to tell your mother all the terrible things you've done, or your grandmother. That's not honesty, that's cruelty. What's the point? I think honesty's terrific. I lie very rarely to people. I'll lie to corporations [laughs], I'll lie to insurance companies. I don't care. And if they drop a bag of money in the street, I'll take it home. But I won't steal from anybody. I won't cheat anybody out of a job or anything like that. Not because I have great moral standards. That's the way I'm made. I know sometimes it's complicated and you have to think it through. But it's not that the boy in the poem is right, and it's not that he's a villain.

That's a remarkable event to me. Something is captured there. Like my poem about being unfaithful to my wife that you mentioned, "Trying to Have Something Left Over." I don't know another poem that captures that particular shade of love. It's not like the whole, all-of-Italy love I had for Linda. You know that's major stuff. But what I'm writing about in "Trying ..." wasn't a major thing. It was a very special thing. And those nuances, they are just little kinds of felicities. I went back to Denmark twice to try and find that woman [with whom Gilbert describes having an affair in "Trying to Have Something Left Over"]. Because something happened to me. She asked me, the only thing she asked was, "Don't forget me. I know you love Linda and I know we won't see each other again and I don't ask anything. But in some place in you, don't forget me." And I wanted to go back because something bad happened, a male misunderstanding. And it makes me, even now, years later, sad that she will think it was just like what all the guys say, "I'll call you tomorrow," or "I meant it when I said I loved you," and they're gone. I didn't want to do that to her. It's no big deal. Maybe she didn't even notice. But I feel very bad about it. And I tried twice to find her in Denmark. Not to get in bed with her. I don't want anything from her. I just want to say, "Look, here's the poem. I didn't forget!" It was an important part of my life. It wasn't a major part, but it was a very important part of my life.

FG Well, what about fidelity? You have a number of poems about infidelity, a hard thing to write about, but to what does the poet need to maintain fidelity? And then a separate question: Why do you think it is that our species has such a hard time with marital fidelity? But to what must a poet maintain some kind of fidelity?

JG If I start telling you I'll go into a frenzy. [laughter]

If you're serious about your marriage or the woman you love, usually you end up hurting that person a lot. A lot of sadness in infidelity. There are times--people will think I'm really nuts--when I think you're morally obligated to be unfaithful. But if I had known how much Linda would suffer.... It's the only thing in my whole life that I really feel guilty about. That I wasn't careful enough or wise enough or understanding enough about what was going to happen to her. I regret that. I feel guilty about that. But infidelity is also about something that matters. It's not just that love is faithful and forever, that you'll never respond to another human being for as long as you live. That's nonsense. Anybody who says that has no knowledge of human nature.

I would say the same thing about women. Sometimes women have more of a responsibility to be unfaithful. It's not just men. But not for thrills. Not for fun. Not to feel proud. I don't believe in that. But sometimes something very important is at issue. How can a man not be curious about other women? I mean my whole life has really been centered on not only the one I love, but on trying to understand women. Different kinds of women. Different situations. And it's not to be a great Casanova. I feel thrill like any man does if somebody thinks so highly of me that she will allow me in her body. That's not only something to be grateful for and proud of, but amazed by. I mean the intimacy of that to me. I understand that for a lot of people it's not an intimacy. It's pleasure. They're allowed that. But if you ask what I think.

We'll die. I don't believe in going around having experiences to fill up the time. Like if the world is going to be destroyed by the atomic bomb in half an hour, to find somebody quickly to make love with. That's a waste of half an hour that you have in your life. I would go find the woman I care about or a woman to talk to or a woman to hold, maybe to comfort her or wipe away the tears. Those things are important. It's not just that the body did this to another body and there was a little spasm of pleasure at the end. That's nice, I like the pleasure. But that's not why I would be unfaithful. I admit my ego gets involved, but that's not the point. Something important is happening or the affair shouldn't be happening. I don't expect anybody to agree, I don't ask them to agree, but if you ask me why in my case ... You know, a large part of it is not for physical sex. I like physical sex and I get excited by seeing a woman I've never seen take her blouse off. That's an event. That's like--Well, there's a story in ancient Greece. A woman has done something very bad and her lawyer can't save her, and so she's going to be put to death. So her lawyer goes up to her and grabs her tunic and rips it off of her and says to the tribunal, "Could you destroy that?"

That's the way I feel. I'm crazy to see what they have in their closet. I'm wild to read the notebooks they kept when they were in second grade. What you do is, you're allowed into not just the body, but you can cross over into the privacy of another human being. I'm not much interested in the privacy of males, but I'm very much interested in the privacies of women. I've spent my life listening, not my ear to the door so much as my ear to the ground.

FG While also looking "At the full moon above the sea."

JG Well, yeah, to the moon too though the image I was thinking of, it's inappropriate, but it's that poem by Roethke about the man who's running wild around the landscape, and he comes upon a little hole, and he sings into the hole and puts his ear to it, and he hears somebody singing back to him. It's like that. It's the otherness. I mean we're supposed to all be monads, and we're trapped in ourselves, but there are times when ... you escape a little bit. And I had to be punished for it.

It's not like something you do every fifth week or something. To me it's something very large. Doesn't have to be heroic, but it matters to me. I don't understand how it's come to be so trivialized. You know, apart from AIDS, apart from caution, it's such a thing. I don't mean just infidelity, I mean living. Being alive. Finding your life and the otherness in that life. Sometimes, like when I live out in the fields in, say, a shepherd's shack, you're so aware of yourself. Living with yourself. It's a wonderful feeling. You can hear yourself as you walk over the stone floor of the house. It amazes me to wake up, that I'm there. And the same thing with women. The woman is the chief test of this. Whether you're able to go some place remarkable.

FG Are you up for a couple more questions?

JG You know, because, you can tell, this interests me. I don't care about the interview so much, but the subject interests me.

FG Me too. Well, I had to ask this--

LINDA GREGG (coming into the room) Are you playing chess or not?

FG No, he already beat me.

JG He's a terrific chess player!

LG Was it hard to win?

JG It was hard not to be killed. Yeah, I struggled through half this game tip-toeing around trying to stay alive.

LG Is it true?

FG There was a moment in the game where there was a shift, and I couldn't tell what had happened. But I knew at that point I'd lost. I couldn't see it, because it seemed like I was still winning and he was still on the defensive. But his moves, although they looked defensive, were offensive.

JG It was a real pleasure. You know, because it's nice to play someone you like a lot, who you're not just beating. You're really playing the game.

LG I want to ask you a question. I was talking to CD [Wright] about Carolyn Forché's new book. CD read Forché's manuscript and helped with it, I guess as a reader. I was talking about this aspect of Carolyn [Forché], how she'd had a hard time writing for about ten years, and I wanted to know what that had to do with Forché using dramatic images, you know like the ears on the table. JG Well, that's what I think messed her up. She relied on that kind of false energy to carry the poem.

LG But why is that false energy?

JG Because it doesn't arise from her! It's always dependent. She's using it to find an edge.

LG That's what I said, but when I said it, it didn't sound as good as when you said it. That's what I said! CD said, "Well, you're intense too, Linda."

JG No but she's exploiting people being killed in order to get the imagery. I'm glad she's on their side. But why is it she always gets her energy by tapping into the horror or the suffering of other people?

LG But ...

JG My version of this is: I just think she's happy sitting there seeing those ears. Something in her is saying "Well, what a wonderful poem."

LG And you call that false energy?

JG Yes, it weakens you as a poet, because you depend on this enormously exaggerated material. It's like confessional poetry, when people talk about trying to kill themselves or an abortion that went bad or their mother's madness. The material has so much drama that you can just write it. You don't have to be a good poet.

LG So why would this contribute to Forché not writing?

JG Because you spoil the wellspring from which poetry should come.

LG Oh, so you have to rely on that all the time ...

JG Well, more than that, you can damage the wellspring. It's like the people in South America who clearcut trees and expect them to come back. Within two seasons, the soil is hard as concrete and everything dies because they'd tried to force it to do something that land is not supposed to do. I don't understand how anybody could search out so much suffering and not be damaged.

LG Well, that's funny, because I was trying to talk to CD about this, and I said, "Did you see Shoah ?" Because they made a film about the Holocaust with what's left over. And so these quiet filmmakers come, you can hear their voices, quiet, slow, and they've gone to the places where the concentration camps were, and what they're filming is a very large ... empty field. And then a farmer comes along and he says, "When I was a boy, I used to be on a little boat on that river over there." And a man comes in, and he's been asked to tell his story and he's tall and skinny and he sits down on a chair right facing the camera. And he sits there like a good boy, like he was told to do it, he had agreed to do it, and all of a sudden he drops his head and stands up with his head still down. "I can't do it," he says. And leaves the room. And this is the film, this 9-hour-long film about the Holocaust. Very, very ... You really get a sense of the Holocaust and its history not through the violence but through all of the erasures. Nothing spectacular.

JG I'm not saying people shouldn't use dramatic stuff. But to pin on the sensational? I think that ruins the part of you where poetry originates. You're using the power of other people's suffering to derive your own energy.

FG That's the amazing thing about Charles Reznikoff. In all his work but maybe particularly in Testimony, where he's writing about the Holocaust using documentary accounts of the Nuremberg trials. And he's absent from the poem. It's all their words. It comes across with an almost unbearable power. At the other end of that spectrum is the poet who's always visible, posing in a leather jacket in front of the burning city.

LG Actually, when I asked this, I was thinking it was more my issue. What happens with sensational material? And I really wanted to come in and ask about this, because when CD said, "Well, Carolyn makes these images, but then you do also, it's like the same." And I said, "I don't think so, I don't think so."

FG Oh, she's talking about intensity.

LG Yeah. Maybe all this energy ... but I felt it was so different. I wanted to ask about that difference. ... But I'm unbelievably tired ... [something about getting coffee].

FG Jack, I wanted to ask you: If somebody today wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn" just as Keats had written it, though without Keats having written it, would it still be a great poem? Or is its greatness relative to its place in history and to the practices of language in a certain place and time?

JG I think it'd still be a nice poem. I don't think it'd be important. First of all, we see it as very important because John Keats wrote it, and so with all the history of his early death, and the sadness. It's a graceful poem. The philosophical point it makes is a nice point. I don't think it's a large point. It's like, you know, if we could live in that scene, we could stay alive and perfect forever. That's nice. It doesn't tell me much about life. It's kind of pretty. It's graceful, it's a nice poem. It's not important to me.

FG And what about the ways of using language? I was intrigued by CD saying that "We'll be taking Jack's book down when we're in our 60s," and I was thinking, Well, how many years later will people be taking jack's books down and reading them and how much is vital poetry a product of the time in which it's written? One hundred years from now, won't the expectations of what a poem does be very different? Is Keats's formal structure and language valid for our time? As the New Formalists say?

JG It depends on what you want. Sure it's valid. You can make a very pretty poem out of it. That's legitimate. I don't think it's important. It's recreational. It's like taking a hot bath. You say, "Oh, it's lovely." I don't want to do that. I think poetry should be urgent. It doesn't have to be loud or shocking. But it should have intentions towards urgency. I don't think beauty is of much use in the modern world, not to me. I like beauty. I could eat it like I eat dessert or slather something with whipped cream. But it doesn't change me. What am I supposed to do with beauty? I enjoy it, nice, but I've got a life to live. So I want things that really enlarge my life, put pressure on me, get me to change, get me to deepen, enable me to be either more or another version of myself. To me poetry is like being at work. I'm after something. I'm making something. I'm being made by poetry into something. That to me is much bigger than enjoyment. I'm not saying other people should make my choices. I don't think people will. I doubt if anybody can write my kind of poetry. They shouldn't. They should write the kind of thing they want to write, can write. Whether it lasts, I don't care a lot. Sentimentally, you know, it would be nice to be alive for a hundred years. But it's not a factor in my writing poetry. I really don't want to, except in a kind of shallow way. It doesn't matter to me to leave the footsteps in the sands of time.

There's something else I wanted to say.

FG Poetry lasting and not needing it to last....

JG Yeah, but there was something else I very much wanted to say ... Oh! I don't understand why people will pay so much in order to be famous. I mean, they give up their whole life, you know, networking and going to conferences and slaving over their desks and eating dinner often with people they don't like. They deserve a lot of money. They deserve a lot of commotion. They've paid for it with their life. And I think they should get lots of stuff. But fame? I think to a few years back. All of Faulkner's books were out of print. Well, if Faulkner can go out of print, how long do they think they'll last? There must be 500 well-known poets. It would be lucky if two of them last. They'll last for a while, they'll dwindle, and somebody else will come along. Why would you give up your life for that? Why would you work for so many hours, so many days for that, when you could really be doing things?

I had lunch with a very famous American poet that I've known slightly for a long time and admired, and he was a very strong presence. Not Gerald Stern, somebody else equally famous, maybe even more famous in his time, and he had such confidence. We were in the Plaza Hotel, and I'd never been in the Plaza, I hadn't even walked in as a tourist, because I was a little shy. And we were there for three hours. And gradually, gradually, he started to get sad, and he ended up saying, "I failed at everything I've ever tried. I failed as an athlete when I was in college. I failed as a guitarist, though I was serious about it. I failed with my marriage, the woman that was with me, all those years when we really weren't doing well."

He listed all the things he failed at and he said, "Now I've failed as a poet." I said, "What do you mean, you've had every honor that you could possibly have. I mean your name is in the anthologies and will stay there a long time." And he said, "No." He said, "Nobody pays attention to me. I get reviewed a bit, small reviews, but they're not interested anymore."

If this happens, why would these people think they're gonna last? Look at all the poets of the Untermeyer anthology [Modern American Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Louis Untermeyer] and such. My students don't know who Ken Kesey was. They don't know who Kerouac was. I mean what kind of fame is it? Why trade in your life for that?

No, there's too much out there for me. I don't need that.

FG One of the things that has been interesting to you is your relationship with Linda, which has spanned, I guess, 30 years.

JG More than that. Since 1962.

FG And you continue to write about that relationship. What part of your relationship with her was too difficult and what part has continued to grow?

JG Well, Linda, the love Linda had for me faded away. A little bit was my fault but a lot of it was just, we live too long now. We outlive marriage. You get so familiar with each other, if you're educated. Because if you're educated, you probably have great expectations that it will stay on a high level, that you'll be vibrant with each other, maybe not ecstatic, but vibrant with each other. Think of what it's like if somebody that you're married to and you're no longer excited by has some kind of irritating habit like they suck their teeth, and as years go on and you keep hearing that, and you get more tense, it's more unbearable, it's more unbearable, until it's an agony sitting there, listening to him suck his teeth. Marriage isn't built for people being in the house together and it's certainly not built for talking to each other. You know my grandfather and grandmother were married for 75 years. They had 14 kids. When my grandmother died at 96 and they were closing the coffin, my mother, standing a little behind her father, heard him say, "Still the prettiest woman I ever met." But they didn't see each other. He was out hunting squirrels, he was, uh, what do you call it when you pick the caterpillars off the tobacco plant because they eat the leaves.... And she was busy doing the laundry and putting an iron kettle over a wood fire out in the farmyard.

FG All their kids.

JG And all these kids screaming, yelling, working in the fields, getting in trouble. They're misbehaving in the barn. They were very, very physical people. If you talk to each other, you start talking seriously and you start arguing. It's very difficult if you're really close unless you're really in love and you stay in love. And people don't. They get affectionate, they stay together for the children. Or they're afraid that if they leave the relationship, nobody will want them anymore, their shelf life time is over.

To have a marriage that includes truly passionate romantic love that lasts, that's rare. There's nothing like it. I loved Michiko at the end of 11 years, and I'd loved her a lot in between, but it got better and better. That's strange. That's rare. Didn't have one argument in 11 years and she was not passive. She was lovely, sweet, and quiet, but she was a strong woman. Not once in 11 years.

FG Well, that reminds me--

JG But about Linda. Linda is extraordinary. I mean to be around Linda is a treat. And it's also baffling. Her mind is so different from mine. The way that poetry works. I've been trying to steal from Linda for over 30 years. I've stolen a little bit, but it's hard to find out how to do what she does. She really is wonderful.

FG What's continued to grow in your relationship with her?

JG Well, for one thing you grow different. Therefore if you're lucky, you're new to each other. Usually it ruins the marriage, of course. But there's more to Linda now. When I met Linda, she was a lamb. She was unbelievably satisfying in the sense that men dream. Someone said to me once, "I don't understand. You've got the greatest chick in the Haight-Ashbury, and you want to change her. Why? Why do you want to send her back to school? Why do you want her to learn all this stuff and improve her poetry? I mean, why change somebody that wonderful?" He was right in a way, but boy, to be with an adult woman who has all that stuff. If you're with a lamb, well--it's hard to be with that person because there's too much of a discrepancy. You can love that quality, adore it, thank God for it as I do and did, but it's different when she grows up. And she understands more and there's more to her. Therefore--

FG Therefore.

JG Or as Pound says, "Meanwhile...." She's also beautiful. Strange.

FG I like that. You know, I wanted to ask you a question in regard to the poem "Looking Away from Longing." There, you describe the end of a relationship as Orpheus might:
... A small him
and a smaller her with long black hair,
so happy together, beginning the trip
toward where she will die and leave him
looking at the back of her turned away
looking at a small tree.

And in "Recovering Amid the Farms," you describe a less intimate relationship, but also as Orpheus might describe his last vision of Eurydice:
 ... It is too far for me to see
but there is a moment of white if she turns her face.

More overt references to Orpheus and Eurydice, to their inevitable separation, abound in your poems. It might be said that the women in your poems are most indelible when they turn away. Or that the Orpheus myth is attractive to you because it ends in failure. Your frequent use of the sentence fragment, too, might be said to emphasize your devotion to the broken, the shard, the ruin. Do you think that your poems--you sort of started to answer this for me with the Icarus poem, that new Icarus poem of yours--do you think that your poems both in technique and content romanticize failure?

JG Well, first of all, I don't know how to answer things that you say, not you, but everybody does this. The fact that there's broken fragments means that you are afraid to be with the person, or whatever they read into it. I don't work that way, because it doesn't get to truth. It's clever, and the critics make a career out of it.

FG Right.

JG But that's not the way things work. That's not how a poem is written. You don't sit down and say, "Okay, I'll use this broken fragment."

FG Because it signifies--

JG Yeah, no real poet writes that way. Let's see, where to begin. As I say in the poem, we were just talking about, there are things too difficult for human beings. We had a wonderful time. But marriage died there. A love affair died there. And what the poem captures is another model of what happens in love. It's not just, "She doesn't love me anymore ... the bitch." I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the quality of that marriage, that relationship, what happened there out in the barrenness. I think it was too hard on any woman to live that way. Nobody to talk to. Except me. It's hard. It puts all the pressure on you, on the relationship. The purity of it and the sadness of it. Two people that really did love each other, who had been major places together, I mean inside themselves. I'd never known a love stronger than the love with Linda. And it died. But I'm not interested in grieving over it. I'm interested in finding a way of registering it. We need more of that. We need to find the tonality of it. The difference between it and something it's not.

And Michiko and the poem about fish mountain ["Looking Away from Longing"]. I'd like it to be a gentle, sad poem. You know, at the time, you don't know she's going to die. You don't know that you're walking toward death. And when it occurs, you remember the earlier day, how we came down off the mountain, the fields were full of either mustard or probably, more likely, rapeseed. It's just incredible, miles of this perfect yellow. And we were so, so--to say in love means something exciting.

But it's so muted, it was almost like moonlight. Total. And being in love with Michiko was absolutely different than being in love with Linda. Indescribable, the perfection of that love with Michiko. The sweetness. The dearness. The closeness. Not needing anybody else. I mean Michiko liked people, but it was like a world we were together. And that's what she wanted. She didn't really want that other stuff. And to try to capture the tristezza of that moment, of this woman on her way to death--as we all are--but to not know it. To walk hand in hand into that future and not know it will come to rule my heart. Not because it's tragic. But because of the sweetness that's made more ... maybe sweet is not the word. Knowing that they didn't know at that point where they were going. And then afterwards you do know, and you look at it and you feel so tender, so tender. Like The Catcher in the Rye, you want to save them from going over the cliff. It's not a tragic feeling, it's a kind of rejoicing. Rejoicing in the death in a way. It sounds ... stupid. But somehow it's like that. I wrote Kochan about her death.

I told the man, the fellow who published it [Allen Hoey at Tamarack Editions], "I don't want to write an elegy. I don't want to write a book about pain. I want to write a book that somehow in telling that story makes you realize how wonderful it was to be married. That marriage. Of course, the marriage with Linda too was marvelous. It was stupendous. It was like being in love with Paris. Imagine marrying Paris. That's what it was like being married with Linda. With Michiko, absolutely like another planet. Not that one is better than another, but to hold on to each one's tonality.

FG Particularity.

JG Particularity. Sensibility. Whatever those good words are.

LG (coming into the room again) Double peony,


FG Yeah, Linda was the double peony.

LG That's my thing. Double peonies. We have wonderful ice cream.

FG We should stop.

LG You want to stop? Just for a minute?

Forrest Gander, a writer and translator with degrees in geology and literature, was born in the Mojave Desert and taught at Brown University. Recent books include Be With, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Twice Alive, just out from New Directions. Gander translates books by poets from Spain, Latin America, and Japan.
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Author:Gander, Forrest
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 2021
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