On your website, in addition to the usual “poet website” material, I noticed that you included your soup recipes. Why include recipes on the site, and why soup recipes in particular? It’s tempting to think of making soup as a metaphor for creating a poem. Do you approach those processes in a similar way?
Absolutely — I make soup the same way I make a poem. I take words and images and mix them together in the hot pot of my brain, and voilà — poetry. My sister is a jeweler, and I often say we do the same thing — but she uses stones while I use words. But don’t you think that everything is made that way — taking small pieces and making something larger and more complex?
Why soup? It’s one of my specialties, and I love to make a big pot on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. We have it for dinner and then I freeze the rest, so we have something nourishing when we are busy during the week. When I was first trying to cook, I would have loved to have recipes that really worked. A lot of people have tried my Deep South minestrone, which makes me almost as happy as getting a fan letter about a poem.
The soup recipes are only the beginning. I’m working on a list of my favorite poems, novels, photos of my collections of kimonos, Barbie dolls, eggbeaters, religious icons, frangipani trees, Chinese opera puppets. One of my muses is the 10th-century Japanese poet and memoirist Sei Shonagon. Her lists are always an inspiration. I also like to think of my life being seamless rather than compartmentalized, one pursuit leaking into another. I think most poets are magpies, collecting images, bright shiny bits that they can weave into a beautiful nest.
You’ve said in past interviews that you tackle poems 20 at a time. Do you still work that way? What is it about that method that works for you, do you think?
It’s practical. When I first started writing, I’d work on one or two poems at a time. If the poem wasn’t working out, it was difficult to let it go. However, when you’re working on a group of poems, it’s much easier to let the failed poems drop by the wayside. I always tell myself I’ll use a good phrase or line in another poem, but I rarely do. In fact, when I go through old files, I don’t even remember writing many discarded poems.
However, I have been surprised at how pleasurable it is to work on a group of poems. Sometimes they are connected by a metaphor, as in a group of bee poems in my first book, Delirium, or the mockingbird poems in Babel. At other times, they are linked by experience, as in my Italian odes in The Alphabet of Desire. Or I want to explore a form, as in the abecedarian sequences in Alphabet and All-Night Lingo Tango. Whatever the impetus, the poems inform each other and drive me deeper into myself and into the world that self is moving through at the time. It’s like falling in love in a way. I can’t wait to get to my desk each day, and I hardly know who I am when I’m in the throes of a project. But it’s painful too, in the way love can be.
Some of our readers may not realize that your husband, David Kirby, is also a poet. What is it like to be married to a poet? At what point do you two share your work with each other? Do the two of you solicit feedback or suggestions from each other?
Living with another poet is fantastic because the poetry store is always open. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, poetry is in the air. And I never have to make an excuse to work on a poem. He always understands. And he is a wonderful reader. I show him everything. I may not make every change he suggests, but I make a lot of them, and often his suggestions lead me to something I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
David is also an indefatigable worker. I learned everything about concentration and tenacity from him. We have a lot of fun together, but we also spend a lot of time apart at our separate desks. What we really love to do together is travel. We get along well at home, but on the road it is magic.
Did you read a lot as a child? What sorts of things, if so? Do you remember what first prompted you to write, and did you start with fiction or poetry?
One of my nicknames in my family was Mole, because I always had my nose in a book. Reading was transforming for me. I could go anywhere in a book — Jane Eyre’s Yorkshire, Dickens’s London, Austen’s Hampshire. My father loved poetry and recited poems to us. His anthology of poetry was where I first read Eliot, Cummings, Frost, and Stevens. We didn’t have many books in our house, so I started going to the library at an early age. I loved biographies and novels. In my school library, there was a series of biographies of great Americans. This was my introduction to history. Then, in the fourth grade, I bought a dictionary, and that was the beginning of my life as a poet. All those words — and all of them mine! I still love to rifle through the dictionary hunting for words.
My first published piece was a story I wrote in the third grade. It was called “The Magic Cornfield.” As I recall, you could eat the kernels of the corn and the sepia world would turn Technicolor. I realized a few years ago that was a pre-psychedelic mash of The Wizard of Oz and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” It was published in my elementary school newspaper, which was a transforming experience too. I’d walk down the hall and sixth-graders would say, “I liked your story.” I knew then I was on to something.
In an interview, you once said that you never experience anything without thinking, “How can I use this in a poem?” I think a lot of writers feel that way. Do you think that ever-present thought of using experiences as material detracts from the actual experience? Are you viewing it at a remove, in other words, or maybe consciously orchestrating events so you can generate material?
I know what you’re talking about, but I find that life is so huge that you don’t really have to orchestrate anything, especially heartbreak. The disasters are lurking, but I do think that as a writer one is always a little on the outside. Sometimes when I’m at a party and someone is telling me a juicy story, I feel as if I should stop her and say, “I’m a writer. Your story isn’t safe with me.” But I never do. Instead, I grub for details.
I think that travel is a kind of orchestration, though, because I’m putting myself into a new world of images. There’s a concept in Buddhism called beginner’s mind, to look at everything as though you are seeing it for the first time. I think travel is a little like that for me. I am seeing something for the first time, which is exhilarating and sometimes scary. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said by the time you’re 12 years old, you have all the material you will ever need, and I think she’s right. But I like a catalyst to knock that material into shape, and travel is that for me.
What are the poems (by another poet) that you go back to again and again, ones that never fail to awe or inspire or delight you? Is there a poem that you read and think, “I wish I’d written this!”?
OMG, there are so many! I’m memorizing Hamlet’s soliloquies now. I would die to have written anything even a millionth as beautiful. “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the pilgrim sonnet, Friar Lawrence’s “In that you can be happy” scolding of Romeo. And those are just two plays. I love sonnet 57 — “Being your slave, what should I do / but tend upon the hour and times of your desire?” I love Lorca’s poem “Gacela of the Flight”: “I have lost myself in the sea many times / with my ear full of freshly cut flowers.” I love Neruda’s odes, and Keats’s, especially “Ode to a Nightingale” — “I have been half in love with easeful death.” I love Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sei Shonagon’s lists, and Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s too. I could go on forever. I love the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Eliot was one of my first big loves. The Four Quartets are gorgeous. I love Plath’s rants. Oh, how I wish I could write something like Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Ode to a Maggot” or Frank O’Hara’s blithe, heartbreaking Lunch Poems. I love Catullus, Ovid (bad boys), Horace, and Pindar. Reading a poem you love is like listening to Mozart — it’s ecstasy and heartbreak every time.
Do you still enjoy writing abecedarian poems?
I hope I’m finished going down that particular rabbit hole, but you never know. I really took the formal thing as far as I want to take it in my last book All-Night Lingo Tango. I counted syllables, used end rhymes, did double abecedarians, wrote sonnets, wrote abecedarian sonnets, and sometimes combined two or three constraints, as in “Ode to Dictionaries,” which is an abecedarian in rhymed couplets. I did a couple of poems with monorhymes, which were inspired by Joseph Brodsky’s “Twenty Sonnets for Mary Queen of Scots.” It was crazy, andI loved every minute of the process though I was a nervous wreck too.
In my new poems, I’m working in free verse again. But like Denise Levertov, I believe every poem has an intrinsic form. I had an enormous amount of fun working with form, but I was afraid of painting myself into a corner, so I stopped. It was really hard to start writing free verse again, but I’ve made the transition. Free verse is difficult in a completely different way than formal verse.
We recently featured your poem “Hear My Prayer, O Lord…” on The Writer’s Almanac. Can you talk a little bit about that poem?
That poem is from a series called Nine Sonnets from the Psalms. It’s in All-Night Lingo Tango. The poems came from a concatenation of my religious background and my love of old black-and-white movies. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family. My parents, especially my mother, were hard-core Calvinists. I couldn’t wait to get away from it (not them, because they were funny and loving and wonderful in lots of ways), but as time has gone by, I have realized the richness of my immersion in the King James Bible. In a previous book, Babel, I had written some sonnets based on phrases in the Psalms. “Vex Me” was on The Writer’s Almanac. So that was one element.
Then one August, our local cable station started running Turner Classic Movies. I love old movies, and I couldn’t tear myself away. Every day, they featured a different star. On the Greta Garbo day, I think I watched TV for 20 hours straight. At midnight, they started running the silent movies she made in Sweden. She was 16 and a little plump. I don’t really remember how I started writing the sonnets, but I made a list of possible first lines from the Psalms and the old movie stars — Garbo, Cagney, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Janet Leigh — lined up and started dancing with the Biblical phrases. I try a lot of these marriages that don’t work, but this one did.
There’s a great story about the last lines of “Hear My Prayer.” A young woman wrote me a couple of years ago and said she wanted to use them in a tattoo sleeve on her arm and could she have my permission. I said yes, of course, and then she said she wanted to me to write the lines in my own handwriting. She sent me a photo, and I can’t tell you how otherworldly it is to see your words indelibly marked on another person’s body. I list it on my résumé under reprints. It has to be one of the most interesting reprints on anyone’s résumé.
What have you been working on lately?
Last year, the Guggenheim Foundation gave me a fellowship. I took the year off from teaching to finish my new book. And with the last of the money, I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad from St. Petersburg to Beijing. I love Russian literature — novels and poetry — so the poetry store was wide open on that train. I have notes for about 20 poems that I’m working on now. One of my favorites so far is “The Brides of Ekaterinburg.” Ekaterinburg is an overnight train trip from Moscow. It’s right on the border between Europe and Asia. A friend who is a historian recommended the stop because Czar Nicholas and his family were killed there. We visited the various Romanov sites, but as we were driving around town, I couldn’t help but notice that there were dozens of bridal parties out taking photos. Our guide was a wonderful young woman who spoke perfect English and with a little prodding told me about the marriage rituals of modern Russia. It was a poetic storm. My husband says that all art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental. This was a perfect example, and it happened over and over again on the trip. I am so grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation for making it possible.
Interview by Holly Vanderhaar