Thanks to the students and faculty of Creative Writing at The New School for providing interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016. Below are excerpts from interviews with the poetry finalists. Click the links to read more.
Elise Burchard interviewed Robert Pinsky about his book At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
At the Foundling Hospital is more than a collection of poems, it is a collection of infinite sounds—a symphony that plays to our deepest, most vulnerable questions about culture, ethnicity, identity, and the human condition. With a steady bass and a spinning, weaving melody that pricks and pulls you through each poignant line, Pinsky’s words are enough to send vibrations through the skull, the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Opening with “Instrument,” and closing with “The Saws,”—a poem that contemplates the meaning of the word “saws” as “old sayings”—we are called to more deeply consider sound and language as our means of building entity, identity, and humanity. His words offer space to meditate upon the questions of who we are and what we are given. Timely and potent, Pinsky’s image of the foundling is one that strongly represents every one of us as we are born into this mixed American culture that we must navigate. Through his own masterful blending and merging, Pinsky lends the reader the chance to reflect upon these ideas of origin and all the many things, both beautiful and awful, that are part of “Betokening a life.”
Elise Burchard: First, let me tell you, I couldn’t believe how relevant the book was for me, on both social and personal levels. I’ve already mentioned the illuminating experience I had while reading your poem “Grief,” and I just feel so lucky to have read this book as a whole.
Robert Pinsky: That means a lot to me, Elise. Young writers may underestimate how much their attention can matter to us older ones. So, in two words—thank you.
EB: How important is the element of sound to your reading and writing process? What do you see or hear? You begin At the Foundling Hospital with “Instrument,”—a poem that evokes the sounds of strings and plucking. How does your experience with music, sound, and translation inspire your work and perhaps this work, in particular?
RP: The sentence-melodies are at the heart of poetry for me. In a way, “writing” isn’t the right word for what I do—composing might be more accurate. I can do it with both hands on the steering wheel, or in the shower. The actual sound of the lines is primary. I may have ideas and feelings for months or years— but they don’t become a poem until I have the tune of a sentence and hear how the sentence-melody might play with and against the lines.
Wynne Kontos interviewed Tyehimba Jess about his book Olio (Wave Books).
Poet Tyehimba Jess’s work transcends the solitary act of reading. To consume Jess’s work is to take an active role in a performance, to find a place in history and to engage with a new type of creative experience.
Jess’s 2005 collection, leadbelly, is a chronicle of the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter using history, biography and poetry to explore a life. In Olio, Jess moves even further into the vibrant historical figures who made up the landscape of Black voices at a time when the oppressive nature of American society denied them a voice at all. Olio’s characters are a vast array of artists from musicians, singers and a sculptor, vital figures whose stories remain largely untold.
From his home in Chicago, Jess spoke to Wynne Kontos about bringing second life to these forgotten pioneers, the ways we absorb poetry today and how he believes artists can best impact their world.
Wynne Kontos: Olio is comprised of characters who played an important part of musical and theater history. Your previous work leadbelly also chronicles the life and work of a famous musician. What it is about musicians that pull you in, why do you like to explore their lives and work so closely? How did you choose the cast of Olio?
Tyehimba Jess: Generally I think that when you’re talking about the music of a country you’re talking more or less about the soundtrack of a country, the soundtrack by which people’s lives are lived. What’s interesting to me is to hear about the lives of the people who have created that soundtrack, and to investigate the ways that they innovated in order to create that soundtrack.
American music is critically and fundamentally tied to the African American experience, the experience of a people who were denied access to literacy for most of our time in this country through slavery. They were forced to forge another kind of literacy through the music. We’re able to chronicle the real heart and soul and the underside of the real American experience through that musical literacy and that continues throughout our poetry and our literature today.
Matthew L. Thompson interviewed Ishion Hutchinson about his book House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Matthew L. Thompson: Poetry is big on tradition. What poetic tradition(s) do you see your work being in conversation with and [which] do you see yourself writing into?
Ishion Hutchinson: When you read a lot you start to create your own tradition. You start to be jealous and in love with different literary types. As an English student in Jamaica, coming from a colonial background, the British canon, as such, was a big part of my education, which at times felt like a sort of imposition. It wasn’t so much a burden, though, because of the teachers themselves. They were trying to put us in context with this great English canon and making us realize we have to figure out ourselves in relation to it. So the tradition also involves my upbringing. I was raised in a household of women who talked and who had stories, who were silent and had these fantastic ways to implore me to work. I operate in the traditions where language excites my mind in ways that are unexpected, and it comes as much from reading novels and plays and poems in English or translated into English as much as from just listening to people around.
MLT: When I was reading House of Lords and Commons, some of the themes I read were geography, memory, desire, death, politics, home and family. Would you say your upbringing influenced your interest in digging into those themes more?
IH: Oh, absolutely. I think, in a way, we all have this lost eden in us. We had those years of innocence as a child and as we grow further away from it we are circling back in our memories, trying to recreate or recapture that lost eden. You hear that condition expressed in Houseman’s phrase, “That is the land of lost content.” By eden I do not mean anything Edenic, but whatever sense of grace that the child has lost. This sense of the world not being as terrifying as it really is. I find that I had that kind of a childhood, despite the poverty and the things that made life difficult. They were not so much so a burden to me as a child. I find that, in a way, a lot of my writing wants to, in part, commemorate and celebrate those magical years.
Kirsten Chen interviewed Monica Youn about her book Blackacre (Graywolf Press).
Kirsten Chen: I’d like to discuss the first poem, “Palinode.” While palinodes are usually a response to a previous poem, we're presented with this one straightaway. I thought initially of Socrates' famous palinode where he first rejects and then praises “mania” and its place in relationships. But then I learned that a palinode is also a term in Scots Law. Can you speak to your decision in opening the book with this device?
Monica Youn: I wanted to position the poem and the book with respect to my life as I had previously understood it, and also with respect to my previous books. My previous books had been preoccupied with desire, romantic and sexual obsession, and much of my life had been spent finding a life partner with whom to settle down and start a family. But I wanted to start this book from a position of failure and reassessment. It’s a statement of self-doubt, and remorse, with regard to a self that I had previously thought of as constituted by desire. How can you disentangle yourself from the desires that have shaped you? And what remains of the self after that?
KC: The book handles very difficult themes, particularly shame and judgment in the Hanged Man/Hanged Woman section. What was the role of the “audience” here?
MY: A lot of the Hanged Man / Hanged Woman poems, especially the portraits, were written with specific people in mind. For example, the hanged woman portraits are about my mother, to the extent that they’re about a single figure. At the time I wrote them, I had reached sort of a point of crisis with my life and the lives of people around me. A lot of things seemed to come to a head around the winter of 2010, spring of 2011, which was when I started the sequence. I had been recently married and received a diagnosis of infertility, which launched us on a multiyear struggle of various treatments until we finally gave up. The initial diagnosis, and the continuing failures, were devastating, both personally and as they affected my marriage. At the same time, my father had left my mother after a marriage of 40 years and she was facing old age without him. She kept telling me she wanted to kill herself. During that time, my father-in-law died and his wife was left a widow. I was also leaving a 15-year legal career and trying to figure out what my life had been about, what I had worked so hard for all those years.
Hillary Ferguson interviewed Bernadette Mayer about her book Works and Days (New Directions).
On a Monday morning in February, when it was a rare 60 degrees outside, I sat inside my New York-size apartment talking on the phone with Bernadette Mayer, who sat outside enjoying the weather in Upstate New York. The conversation felt more like a discussion than an interview, and at times—much like her work does to me—she pushed, pushed against, questioned, and made me question. She is also as dry and funny as I imagined she would be.
It was, I admit, difficult to come up with questions for someone who has been such a key influencer on my writing—and, in some way, a sort of cult-like figure-idol. In my nervousness, I texted a mentor/friend/teacher/poet who had also recently interviewed Bernadette.
I asked, “How, I mean how, did you prepare?”
Her response? “I thought about what I most wanted to know and tried to ask that!”
And so that is what I did. Or at least, what I could ask in a small window of time.
What follows is an interview/conversation/discussion that weaves in and around the questions I prepared, that deviates from poetry to life to the in between and back again, that offers and explores motherhood, womanhood, location, time, and briefly, the future or role of The Poet.
Hillary Ferguson: Motherhood in both its joys and perils is such a central aspect of your work, and as someone who has had multiple miscarriages—motherhood hasn’t happened for me yet—I found myself afterwards gravitating to those poems. Poets like you, Alice Notley, Rachel Zucker, and Brenda Shaughnessy sustained me in a way I still today can’t adequately articulate. Through your and their work, I gained permission to write about a subject matter I didn’t think was ok to write about at 25 in this City. So, I guess what I’m asking is who gave you permission to write about motherhood, especially during a time and era—the 70s—where mother-poetics were neither particularly popular nor encouraged?
Bernadette Mayer: Well, here I am: a woman, a mother, and a writer. It seemed kind of silly not to write about being a mother. What really annoyed me (as a poet) was that I didn’t have many examples of women writing about motherhood—especially from the really distant past when nobody would write about it. In Midwinter Day, there is a list of all the writers who were also mothers. You could count them. It was possible to make that list. I don’t think it would be possible to make a list like that now.