How would you say your writing career began?
I was a dreamy kid. Both my parents worked, so I was left alone much of time. I lived in an apartment. There weren’t any other kids around except for a few cousins. I read. I played records. I fiddled at the piano my dead uncle had left us. I wanted to hang around music, art, literature, but I didn’t know what that meant back then. Art seemed to exist in a different world from my ugly urban neighborhood. But my destiny was already settled. Something was unfolding inside me. I was doomed to be an artist.
Was there a certain event, person or creative impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
My mother used to read or recite poems to me. They were not poems that today’s critics would celebrate. They were verses she had learned in school—Poe, Whittier, Longfellow, Riley, Kipling, Tennyson. I loved the sound of them. I found poetry intoxicating, though I never imagined myself writing a poem. But I always associated poetry with pleasure and an exhilarating sense of heightened consciousness.
I assumed I’d be a musician. I played piano, clarinet, and saxophone. I composed lots of amateurish music. I read poetry, but not in any serious way. Then at 19 I suddenly found myself drawn into the art. It surprised me, but I went with the impulse. In a few months I knew that this was what I had to do with my life. I also knew that I had much to learn. I’ve spent the rest of my life as a student of the art.
This is what happens in the lives of poets. You don’t choose to be a poet. The art chooses you.
What can you tell us about your creative process? Is there a daily routine you follow?
I write according to a simple, five-step plan—anxiety, delay, avoidance, despair, and then a little work. Each night I plan to reform my terrible habits. The next morning I go through the same process. But things get done.
I can write prose on demand. But poetic inspiration is a mostly involuntary process. A poem either comes or it doesn’t. When poems arrive, I try to let them take the shape they want. I never choose a topic in advance, though my poems often have a clear subject. Nor do I choose a form, though many of my poems use meter, rhyme, and stanza patterns. A phrase or line comes into my head along with a powerful rush of feeling. Writing the poem is my way of figuring exactly what this impulse is telling me. I don’t will a poem into being. I unravel it.
How does that process work in practical terms?
My poems develop slowly. I write the first draft in a sort of trance. I don’t try to impose any design on the poem. I just let it come in whatever way it wants. I usually draft between one and three pages of fragments before the rush of inspiration runs out. I then put the poem down for a day or two. When I return to it, I look at the draft to decide what shape the language suggests. Does it want to be in free verse or meter? Does it want to rhyme? Then the process of revision begins.
How much revision does it take to finish a poem?
An easy poem takes fifteen drafts, a hard one takes fifty. I sometimes work on a poem for years before it’s finished. I get some of my best ideas in revision. I am happiest when the poem unfolds in ways that surprise me. My best poems have mostly taken forms that I would never have predicted in the first draft.
Your book, 99 Poems: New & Selected, was just published by Graywolf Press. How is this book different from your others?
99 Poems surveys my whole career as a poet. It presents my best work from the last thirty years. Few people really know the range of my work because I’ve published my books at such long intervals—only four volumes since 1986.
How did you choose what to include?
I tried to make my Selected Poems selective. Most selected volumes are too long. They include too much work for the average reader. I cut over half of my poems.
I also gave 99 Poems a unique organization. I dislike the weird way in which new and selected volumes are organized—usually with the new poems up front followed by the earlier work in chronological order. I find that distracting. Most readers don’t care much about the chronology of a poet’s work. That is for scholars to ponder. The common reader wants to appreciate the individual poems. I decided to arrange 99 Poems around seven themes—Mystery, Place, Remembrance, Imagination, Story, Song, and Love.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that interest and inspire you most?
I write about the ideas and experience that emerge from my life. Some people write poems about the epistemology of perception or the unified field theory. I write about love and death, time and nature. I’m fascinated by what Yeats referred to as “the supreme theme of Art and Song.” I like to write about the difficult lives of artists and thinkers.
But let me repeat that for me writing poems is not a voluntary process. I write the poems that life and the Muse give me.
What or who are your greatest literary influences?
I’ve always read a lot of poetry so there are a great many influences all blended in my imagination. My favorite poets are probably Shakespeare, Frost, Auden, and Rilke. They have shaped my sense of the art. But I have also learned a lot from Philip Larkin, Weldon Kees, Donald Justice, Theodore Roethke, Robinson Jeffers, and Elizabeth Bishop (who was my teacher). You learn different things from different writers.
It’s not just poems that influence poetry. My poetic imagination has been shaped by old movies, pop songs, science textbooks, Catholic liturgy, the landscape of California. The event that most changed my life was the sudden death of my first son. I stopped writing entirely for almost a year. When I resumed, I was a different man. A few years later I quit my job, became a full-time writer, returned to California, and moved to the country. Your writing changes as your life changes. It has to.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem?
Creating a magic spell of heightened attention and sensitivity in the reader. All poetic technique is about creating that sense of enchantment. If the poem doesn’t cast that spell, it’s just ordinary language.
Your essay titled “Can Poetry Matter?” created an international discussion about the role of poetry in contemporary culture. (And it became the title essay of your critical collection that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.) If there were one main point you could have your readers take away, what would it be?
The essay makes a long, careful argument about the current state of poetry—to demonstrate how marginal it has become in our society. The essay also contains a number of positive ideas about reviving poetry’s popularity. If I had to pick one point from the piece, it would be the conviction that we can increase the audience for poetry.
What advice might you give to writers who are just starting their careers?
Love the art. Immerse yourself in it. Read as much as possible. Memorize poems that move or delight you. Search out friendships with other writers. Create your own community of writers. It doesn’t have to be large—two or three people will sustain you. Write or revise every day, even if only for an hour. Don’t postpone writing until some mythical moment arrives. Poetry begins in your real life or not at all. Poetry is not a career. It is a vocation, a dedication. It will transform your life, if you let it.