Interview: Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky’s works of poetry include Sadness and Happiness (Princeton University Press, 1975), The Want Bone, (Ecco Press, 1990), The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (Farrar, Straus, 1996), and Gulf Music: Poems (Farrar, Straus 2007). He has also published prose, including the books Poetry and the World (Ecco Press, 1988), The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (Farrar, Straus ,1998), Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (Princeton University Press, 2002) and The Life of David (Schoken, 2005). He has edited many anthologies, among them Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology (Norton, 2000), co-edited with Maggie Dietz, which grew out of the project he directed as US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. This project invited Americans from all walks of life to name their favorite poems and to both record those poems for the audio archives of the Library of Congress and to capture their own reflections on why a particular poem called to them. Few contemporary poets have had as visible a presence as Robert Pinsky—he has appeared on both The Colbert Report and on an episode of The Simpsons. Yet, though his work and presence in popular culture have often had exalted status, his most recent book of poetry, At the Foundling Hospital, manages to delicately balance the universal and the personal, taking the reader from civilization’s battles to the side of a friend’s hospital bed. The poems reach out and take in both humanity’s sweep and what it means to be, simply, an individual human. Please also see our review of At the Foundling Hospital.
Danielle Kessinger for The Florida Review:
One of the things that struck me on reading At the Foundling Hospital is how often you took elements that didn’t have obvious links and connected them. For example, in your poem “Cunning and Greed,” you have David Copperfield and the collapse of bee colonies. Do you find these combinations come to you organically or do you find yourself gathering them together before you put pen to paper?
One of the nicest compliments I ever received from my wife was about something I made with my hands. She said, “I love your patshke imagination.” Patshke is a Yiddish word that sort of means patting something together. I’ve never been good at learning everything about anything. I don’t have a scholarly mind, but I do have a kind of oddball mind. I enjoy finding similarities in things that aren’t similar. For me poetry, compared to a long, naturalistic novel, is very good at making lightning moves. I sometimes say prose is like wading. You move through the medium slowly. You see things down at your toes. Poetry is like ice skating. So, you can move through a lot of territory very quickly. I get bored very, very easily, much more easily than most people, which is why I like poetry.
You’ve also presented your poetry in non-traditional ways beyond simply on the page or read aloud. You often perform with musicians.
I love working with jazz musicians, yes.
When you’ve worked with jazz musicians, were you usually choosing the poem you wanted to read based on the piece of music or was the piece of music pared with the poem as the starting point?
None of the above. We improvise, and it’s based on sound. I hope it’s not me reciting to music. I try to make my voice like a horn. The pianist I’ve done a couple CDs with, Laurence Hobgood keeps the poem text on the desk of the piano and looks at it like you’d look at a musical score, and I try hard to listen to him, and he listens to me. Sometimes we might have a rough plan, a set of chord changes. I started out as a musician. I don’t speak musician fluently, but I know enough of it to be able to discuss with Lawrence what we’re doing. It isn’t basing music on the words. It’s not songwriting. It isn’t basing songs on words, or words on music. It’s making music together.
How do you find the audience reacts to that collaboration?
It works so much in our favor because people are assuming they’re going to be embarrassed or bored. They are thinking, This guy is going to say poetry with music, and you can almost see the nervous panic in their faces. [Laughs.]
As US Poet Laurette when you were working on the Favorite Poem Project [see web links below]—which invited Americans to name and record their favorite poem—you found readers that represented a diverse group of Americans. What did you find that was common among the readers, even if what they picked was unexpected?
It was really the readers that were unexpected. It is very important to go to favoritepoem.org and to see that there are no poets, no literary critics, and no professors of poetry. You see a construction worker read lines of Walt Whitman and then talk about those lines very cogently. You see a Cambodian-American high school student in San Jose read a Langston Hughes poem, and she doesn’t mention that Langston Hughes was a black man. She relates the Langston Hughes poem to the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime. A US Marine with a Hispanic surname recites [William Butler] Yeats’ “Politics.”
It’s the only website I know that is actually about poetry in the sense that it’s not about poets, or smart things people say about poems. It’s about poetry in people’s lives.
How do you think poetry is important to people’s lives, not just the act of writing it, but the act of reading and reciting it?
It’s like answering the same question about cuisine as distinct from nutrition or lovemaking as distinct from procreation. I don’t know what the importance is. I don’t know why people like these things, but we seem to be an art-consuming animal. We don’t just walk around, we also dance. We don’t just talk, we also like to recite. If you have a tiny child, when you cradle it, it likes to be sung to. I’ve discovered an infant curls up in exactly the same way when you recite poetry as when you sing. It’s fundamental. It’s there. It’s a very basic part of human nature.
Having published your first book of poetry in 1975 and your most recent book of poetry in 2016, do you think that your approach to assembling your pieces into a larger work has changed over time?
Each book demands waiting for the physical materials to tell you what each poem is about and what the book is about. In the course of writing that book, At the Foundling Hospital, I had two or three friends die. That affected the subject of the foundling and culture. The foundling is taken into a culture it doesn’t particularly choose. It’s told you’re going to be a woman, you’re going to be Korean, you’re going to speak English, you’re going to be gay, you’re going to be subject to these diseases and have these immunities. The little child is just a squirmy little thing. It doesn’t know all that.
One of my friends was in a coma before he died. People sing to you when you are in a coma, they read, tell stories, tell jokes, and I found myself in the poem “In a Coma” trying to assemble the music, the news stories, the sports teams that he and I experienced when we were young. The sort of funerary or memorial aspect of the poem changed and was changed by the book’s project of talking about the foundling hospital and the infant foundlings and their growing up.
Identity is not the kind of fixed category that political discourse sometimes tries to make out of it. Culture is always mixed and fluid.
Favorite Poem Project Links: