Nov. 20, 2009
Photo: Stefi Rubin
When did you first start writing? Was it always poetry?
As far as I can tell I began writing poems in my second semester of college. It was partly in response to a really fine teacher,
a man name Rodney Delasanta. This was at Providence College around 1964, and I had just discovered that I loved literature more than
I loved the problems I met up with in my capacity as a Physics major. In fact, Delasanta had us reading Dante's Inferno,
from the Divine Comedy. It was the John Ciardi translation, a paperback that had on its covers a group of cartoon devils.
I not only remember it vividly, but I still have the book itself. I had-I don't know why exactly-taken a lighter to the
edges of the front cover, to make it look as if it had come straight from hell's fires. Rather than this being a trace off
pyromania, I like to think it was a sign of just how real I thought literary texts were: as real as real can be.
In any case, I remember Delasanta was teaching us about Medieval and Renaissance ideals too. I had just learned the word sprezzatura,
to mean the way a nobleman had a kind of elegant capacity to deal with anything the world offered, a non-chalance in the face of
troubles. Well, the word came into play in my life around that time. I had taken my date to the Roger Williams Park in Providence,
and while we had learned against a hurricane fence, the penned buffalo decided to ram us. We laughed more than we should have, as it
was a little frightening. But the next day, early in the morning, in the college library, I was at a long wooden table, and composed
my first lines. They are memorable because they are so god-awful, and sweet in its response to the buffalo who had gone after us:
Butt, butt, base bale beast!
I fear your horns not in the least!
I am sure I was at first proud of the alliteration and the end rhyme. I am sure also I thought I was being nonchalant and
elegant in composing a couplet. Oh well, it was poetic sprezzatura, Providence-style, circa the mid-1960s, and I look on these
lines with real fondness for the lad who penned them and began to hope or wonder if this was what it was like for real poets.
I tell this story with more economy in a poem called "Elephant's Walking," in my first book, Tipping Point. I came from a working
class family, but one wherein there was a genuine love for books, and admiration for authors. So it wasn't completely out of the
blue that there should be a young poet in the family, but I am also pretty sure that falling in love with poetry, the reading and
the writing of it, was as much a surprise to my mother and father as it was to me. But that is what it felt like.
Saul Bellow once remarked that a writer was a reader who had been moved to emulation. I was that reader, and I was in the beginning
moved to emulate. At first it was Dante, then Hopkins, then there were almost too many poets and poems floating around in my mind
for me to say which had meant the most. I was reveling in the art, and did so throughout my undergraduate years. It is also true
that by the time those years were over, it was 1968, a fateful time in our country's history.
As for me, I had transferred to Brown University, across town and across economic divisions. By then the class poet of that year.
I don't have that "class poem," but I recollect it as a vision of all of us marching downhill to some danger, and frankly that was
not too far off. The Viet Nam war was on everyone's mind, one way or another. That is a topic I will pick up later in this interview,
in response to your question about my work at the Joiner Center. For now, let me just end this part by answering your second question.
Yes, it was always poetry, and essays about poetry and poets.
Describe your favorite place to write.
There are two ways to answer this question, one domestically, and the other internationally.
My favorite place to write at home is the attic, or the garage, depending on the season. In the winter, I retreat to the attic,
a small library and writing space, with an equally small window. It is insulated, and that means it is wonderfully quiet. Also
music when I play it is terrifically inspiring. In the summer, I migrate to the garage, again with a workspace I have carved out.
It is airy, and it reminds me of my father's gas station. In both places I can ignore phone calls, something that seems essential
for writing poems, the freedom to ignore the way the world calls after you.
Abroad I have had two residencies at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island in the west of Ireland, in Co. Mayo.
This cottage, originally owned by the Nobel Prize winning novelist, is set at the foot of a mountain called Slievemore.
Sheep pastures surround it, and from some windows you can see down to a bay. It is one of the quietest places in the world.
Of course sometimes one's solitude and quiet get interrupted by folks, usually German, who have made a pilgrimage to see where
Boll worked. But most of the time you can hear the sheep chewing on the grass. It is that quiet.
You can see the theme that holds these places together, the quiet. My mother used to say that sometimes things were so loud
in our house you could not hear yourself think. I liked that phrase. I like to have a workspace quiet enough to hear myself
think. That is all I really need.
Recently, I heard you read from your new book, The Looking House. The poems from this book are stunning.
When I started to read your book, I could not put it down. Talk about your new book, The Looking House (Graywolf Press).
Thank you for those kind, affirming words about The Looking House. I am very glad to know you like these poems. All of them
were written in one of the three writing spots I just described above.
The poem that gives the book its title is called "The Looking House Stanza." It is set in Ireland, near the Boll Cottage, on the
flank of Slievemore mountain, looking East toward the Atlantic. The mountainside is for grazing, with heather and gorse growing
among the grasses. In earlier eras, the people who lived down in Keel village, by the water, would in summertime take their sheep
up on the mountainside. Then in winter, in storms, they would bring them down to the seaside village. Thus up on the flank of
Slievemore there grew up a summertime village, fashioned out of stones. It was a "booley" village, the word denoting that it was
During the 19th century famines, when Co. Mayo became emptied of so many of its people, the Slievemore booley village became abandoned.
What remains are ruins, just the stone frames of houses, and sheep grazing in and among them.
The poem is situated there beside one of those houses, and the speaker is looking out to sea, watching a storm gather and start
heading to shore. It is raining and the wind is strong. The speaker begins to think this storm is analogous to a great interior
affliction, for instance, the onset of a mental illness, but as he looks out over the mountainside, over the bay, over the ruined
houses, he starts to sense what all of this is teaching him is not the similarities among afflictions, but the way in which one is
sometimes helpless to prevent suffering. It is that terrible feeling of coming to know that one really cannot save the ones you
love that the speaker starts to "see" from his vantage point on the side of the mountain, next to a ruined house from
the Deserted Village on Achill Island in Co. Mayo, Ireland.
The poem gives the book its title because I began to see that each poem in its own way was a "looking house" and a "looking house
stanza." I hoped that each poem offered itself as a rough shelter from which one could look out and see the reality of things,
especially those realities that make you want to flinch and turn away.
Write about your other book publications, Tipping Point which won The Washington Prize and Full Moon Boat (Graywolf).
I was born in December of 1946. My first book, Tipping Point, came out in 1994. I was in my mid-forties when it was accepted for
publication. By all standards, I suppose, that was a lot later in life than most poets. At the same time I also know Frost,
Stevens, and my own teacher, William Stafford, all were in their mid-forties before their first books were published, and this
fact always consoled me.
There were many reasons why it took me so long to get started as a poet. I think it took me a very long time to bring into focus what
it meant to have for a vocation the writing of poems. For me the question of what it meant to have that vocation came into focus in
my mid-thirties, roughly ten years before my first book was taken. I had just finished a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago,
and I had already been teaching at the college level for a half dozen years. I had learned how to teach, and I had written a
dissertation, but I was only writing a few poems every year, enough-I began to realize-to keep the idea alive, but not enough
to really learn or practice the art.
It was about that time, in the that two poets began to influence me greatly. One was William Stafford, with whom I studied in
several different workshops in the far West. Another was Seamus Heaney, a little closer to home in that I was at the time teaching
in Harvard's History and Literature program. Stafford's sense of writing as a process of discovery, his sense of the importance of
writing daily, and his sense that if stuck one could "lower" his standards and keep writing, all these helped me dilute my own
stultifying, and somewhat fear-filled sense of perfectionism. Heaney gave me the metaphor by which to understand these things.
In a remark about his own life, he spoke of having learned to move the writing of poetry more to the center of his life. I had an
image of the solar system, and honestly I saw that poetry had been out beyond Jupiter.
And so I set about bringing the practice of poetry more to the center, gradually, steadily, and daily. It is also true that
the poetry of these two writers, along with many others, became my allies and teachers. I know when I was writing the poems
that went into Tipping Point, I was also on a daily basis reading and studying poetry by these two writers.
I'll respond to your questions about my second book and the Joiner Center in the next section.
You work closely with The Joiner Center (UMass-Boston).
Please talk about this and your involvement in the study of war and social consequences.
Full Moon Boat, my second book, was profoundly shaped by my work with the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social
Consequences at UMass-Boston. In fact my affiliation with the Joiner Center came about because of Tipping Point. My first reading
from the actual book happened in the spring of 1994, and that was when I met Kevin Bowen, himself a really wonderful poet, a
superb translator, and the Director of the Joiner Center for over twenty years. Kevin invited me to give a reading and workshop
in June at the annual Writers Conference sponsored by the Center. I stayed for the entire two weeks of the conference. I thought
I could help by offering manuscript consults, but what happened was that I met four writers from Viet Nam that
summer: Pham Tien Duat, To Nhuan Vy, Nguyen Quang Thieu, and Tran Dang Khoa. The art of translation was very much a
part of the Joiner Center's enterprise, and continues to this day. Martha Collins had founded the translation workshop
there, and in 1994 was herself finishing up her translation of Nguyen Quang Thieu's The Women Carry River Water. In any
case, translation was in the air! And I was able to spent a considerable amount of time with all four Vietnamese writers,
but particularly Tran Dang Khoa.
He spoke practically no English, and I practically no Vietnamese. But we spoke with each other at length through the generosity
and brilliance of Nguyen Ba Chung, the Joiner Center's resident Vietnamese translator and scholar. We even practiced co-translating
a couple of Khoa's poems, spending hours discussing the aesthetic assumptions and practices of our respective poetries.
Both of those co-translations, it should be said, were included in Full Moon Boat. Another way to measure the significance of
my real introduction to Vietnamese culture is in the title poem of that book. "Full Moon Boat" is a series of four vignettes
based on my first trip to Viet Nam, the following winter of 2005. The title itself is borrowed from a line of poetry by Ho Chi Minh.
The last vignette in the title poem actually reflects a moment outside of Tran Dang Khoa's native village. We were at a
river crossing, a place where there was only barge that worked back and forth across the Kinh Tay. Vehicles and people
crowded on. Ahead of me was an elderly woman with a bale of rice strapped to the back of her bicycle, but she had to push
it up a plank, and was having a genuinely hard time with it. I got behind the bale and helped push it with her. When we got
the bike and bale onto the deck, I realized that many of the Vietnamese had stopped to look at us, and to smile. This was
rural northern Viet Nam, and helpful Americans were absolutely a strange sight to most Vietnamese eyes.
The experience made me think of all sorts of crossings, and all sorts of witnesses to those crossings. In fact, over the next
few years the idea of crossings between cultures, between consciousnesses, between languages and poetics became one of my primary
concerns, and the poetry in Full Moon Boat is a reflection of that concern. The book begins with "The Return," which is a poem set
on a 747 jet flying home from the West Coast just after I had received an honorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps
as a conscientious objector. I had been stationed on Okinawa when I reached my decision that I would no longer participate in wars
of any sort. It had taken me many years before I ever wrote about that experience, and my first book probably took so long to write
because I knew that somewhere at the heart of it would be an exploration of that topic. My conscientious objection was, and remains,
a central event in the formation of my adult selfhood. But what I was not prepared for was just how extraordinary it would be for
me-twenty years later-to encounter Vietnamese culture, poetry, and people in a direct, face-to-face way. It had the feel of a large
circle being closed, and myself made whole.
Please talk about being co-translator with Nguyen Ba Chung of From a Corner of My Yard.
In 2004, Lady Borton, an American woman who has lived for many years in Hanoi, and a frequent teacher at the Joiner Center
workshops, contacted Nguyen Ba Chung and myself, wondering if we would be interested in translating this booklet of poems
written by Tran Dang Khoa when he was twelve years old. Khoa was a very accomplished young poet at an early age, and in 1968
he made a booklet out of what he said was his "twenty best poems," and mailed them off to President Ho Chi Minh as a birthday
gift. Over the years these early poems became canonical, published in many venues, taught in schools, memorized, and to this day
still so beloved that almost any store that sells books has copies of Khoa's early work. Our friend Lady Borton had, however,
recognized the historic worth of the original document, and proposed to the Ho Chi Minh Museum that they and the Education
Publishing House do a bi-lingual Vietnamese and English edition. And when they said yes, she contacted Chung and me, and of course
we eagerly said yes.
To be a "co-translator" is not the same as being a translator in the strict sense. I don't know Vietnamese, though I know a little
bit about it. But for Chung and me, it was collaboration in the deepest and finest sense. We both prepared basic, literal
translations, he from his fluency in both languages, me from my dictionary. When I finally was sure of the most literal sense
of each word, I tried then to discover as best I could what I began to call the "heart of the poem." Often that was the sense of
its metaphors and the connotations attached to them. Other times it was the rhythms, and the kind of emotions associated with them.
And each time I tried to come up with a version of the poem I would send to Chung for his critique. And we did this sort of exchange
endlessly. Perhaps as many as ten and fifteen times per poem.
The book itself is an historic document, with photographs of the young Khoa, his mother, and his native village. And the poems,
while clearly the work of a young boy, are themselves very sophisticated. Just one example: in one of his poems, he laments the
fact that his favorite "golden dog" has gone missing ever since an American bombing attack near his village. At one point, as the
boy recalls how the dog would rush out to greet him, he says "Oh, how my hand misses you!" For some reason that line told me all I
needed to know about this young poet's true gifts. These poems became famous during the war years, I should add. I have often thought
that in their evocation of Vietnamese village life, they were affirmations of what the people truly believed-that they would
outlast this, the last in a series of invaders. These poems of the village and the farm declared that they would outlast even the
B-52's. I was honored to be a part of this project, and to visit with Khoa in the summer before the book was published, to in fact
go with him to visit his aging parents in his native village, and to eat with them in the corner of that very yard his early
You are the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Suffolk University in Boston.
What has this been like for you? What challenges do you face running a creative writing program?
My teaching has been central to my life as a writer. Not only did it provide me with a way of making a living, but I can say without
exaggeration that all my years of teaching have been years in which I have been learning too, learning more and more about this art,
about the imagination, about American society, and the role literary culture plays within it. I have taught course in composition,
literature, poetry in particular. I have taught workshops in creative writing, and advanced seminars on issues of war and peace.
In all of those, despite the labors and time-commitments, I have found myself engaged as a writer. Of course there are the usual
challenges of not having enough hours in the day, and having to deal with bureaucratic realities such as budgets and scheduling,
but as I look back over many years of teaching, all that sort of thing quickly dissolves from view and what I see is the
extraordinary vision of young people-with all the distractions our society offers-engaged in words and imagination. I feel
privileged to be a part of their investigations into this art.
You also are heavily involved with PEN-New England. Talk about your role in this organization.
I used to be, but not so much any more. I was on the Executive Board of PEN New England for five years. In that time I was the
Chair of the Freedom to Write Committee, a group of PEN members who monitor the situation of writers who have gotten into trouble
with their governments. I also began or more accurately re-started a PEN New England writing workshop in the prisons, particularly
in Northampton County House of Correction. My sense in both kinds of work was that PEN's historic mission world wide was to somehow
affirm freedom of speech wherever it was threatened, and however it was threatened. That is the core value of PEN as an international
organization of writers.
What are you working on now?
A year ago, while on sabbatical I went to Israel and Palestine for a month. Two weeks of that sojourn were spent on a delegation
organized by a group called Interfaith Peace Builders. The goal of the delegation was to meet individual and groups from both sides
of that conflict, people who were explicitly committed to non-violent responses to the conflict. It was a revelation to spend day
after day with person after person so courageously responsive. The experience gave me a new and deeper sense of what living
non-violently was all about; it was the labor of peace-building, of making a civil society as opposed to a martial society.
It was doing this labor in the face of many fear-filled and aggressive forces. It was inspiring. I don't know exactly how
this translates into my poetry, but I do know that somehow that vision of affirmative and un-illusioned human labor in the
conflict zone was one of the most important things I have ever witnessed. I hope that I find the right words for it, and for
how it relates to all of us.
Thanks Fred for doing this interview.
Any last comments
No, except to say thank you for this wonderful opportunity to reflect.