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Michael Hettich interviews Jim Crenner

As an enthusiastic but unfocused third-year English major at Hobart College, in the spring of 1973 I took a poetry-writing class from James Crenner that changed my life as few other academic experiences have. I was a shy young man, someone who hardly ever spoke up in class, but I was an enthusiastic student of literature of all kinds, and I was hungry to find some direction, some grounding, some home from which to venture forth and return. Though I don’t remember much about the “workshop” aspect of his class, the poems Crenner shared with us, as well as the gentleness of his demeanor and style of presentation—and the genuine encouragement he gave to my poems and to me personally--opened my heart to the possibility – really a realization – that the path of poetry was a real one to be followed and that, with work, I could become “a poet.” From that point on—almost fifty years ago now—I have striven to do just that. Though I took only that one class with Jim Crenner, and though he and I never got to know each other personally—I was too shy to approach him—he has served as a kind of role model to me, and a deeply necessary one. Of all the mentors I have had in poetry-writing, primarily Jim Crenner, Anselm Hollo, Burton Raffel and John Williams—he was the most gentle, most encouraging, and least focused on himself. Instead he focused on the mysteries of poetry, and on the progress of his students. That is what I’ve tried to do in my own life. I have always held him in my heart with the deepest respect and gratitude.

When I started doing interviews for Hole in the Head Review back in May 2020, I wondered whether I might someday interview Jim. I knew he was friends with HHR’s editor, Bill Schulz, so I knew it was a possibility. Initially, other voices beckoned. This past autumn though, the opportunity finally arose and Jim agreed to respond to a set of questions I emailed to him. In the intervening months, a lot happened to both of us, and we had to put the process on hold a number of times while we attended to these other urgencies. Jim also wanted to make sure he answered each question thoroughly and forthrightly, as he has done. His intelligence, modesty and wisdom shine forth.


It’s a great pleasure for me to get to conduct this interview with you, Jim, so many years after you were my first poetry-writing professor. Thank you.

To get started, some background: When did you start writing, and who were your most significant teachers? Can you talk a bit about your experience getting your MFA in poetry-writing at Iowa? Were there any particular professors or fellow students who made a significant impact?

The pleasure is all mine, Michael, for the happy chance to complete a circle that opened so long ago—must have been in the early 70’s—and have a conversation here with the accomplished poet and writer that you are now.

Pardon me if I meld your first two questions into one. I first started trying seriously to write poetry in 1958, when, as a senior in college I was awarded a National Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for a free ride to do graduate studies anywhere in the U.S., in exchange for a promise to later give back two years to college teaching. Loving poetry as I did, and knowing about the then virtually unique graduate program in creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I applied there (and only there). And it was then that I first knuckled down in an effort to produce work that might get me accepted at Iowa. In other words, my motive for seriously starting to write poetry was pragmatic and sort of base. But it worked!

Despite having, as an undergraduate, fallen under the spell of “The Wasteland,” and early Pound, I had enough sense to know not to try to emulate anything so grand, but looked instead to models that felt more in tune with the preferences of my cohort of literary buddies at a small Catholic men’s college in the 1950’s. That meant the likes of e.e. cummings, E.A. Robinson, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginzberg, and Laurence Ferlinghetti, whose A Coney Island of the Mind, was a 1958 best-seller. The sheaf of poems I sent to Paul Engle with my application must have been pretty bad, but, thankfully, I remember nothing about them, except for one brain-worm of an opening that went, “Manic, malicious Mickey Mouse / and his damned dog, Plato….” Somehow, I was accepted anyway, and drove my dad’s hand-me-down ’50 Ford from Pittsburgh to the Promised Land—the Iowa Writers Workshop, which in those days was housed in a leftover WWII corrugated steel Quonset hut near the Iowa river.

And there I met the teacher—Donald Justice—whose poetry and poetics would meaningfully shape and color my first earnest efforts. Justice’s The Summer Anniversaries, had just won the Lamont Prize, and I fell under its spell. A list of its features that intrigued me would sound much like an inventory of the features of most of the poets I newly got to reading that year—Randall Jarrell, J.V. Cunningham, Howard Nemerov, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur: we’re talking formal structures, craftsmanship and elegant wit in short poems treating of modest subjects. But the keynote quality of Justice’s poetry—one that would be noted and celebrated again and again by critics and blurb writers—was his exquisite “ear” for the subtler modulations of the spoken language. And I think—though couldn’t have articulated it then—that it was something of that in Don’s poetry that I had the, let us say overweening hope of eventually finding in my own. At any rate, appreciation of craft itself was the primary result of my early time at Iowa. Virtually every poem in my first book (The Aging Ghost, Golden Quill Press, 1963) entails some elements of formal infrastructure—sonnets, sestinas, iambic meter, looser accentual patterns, rhymes, and subtler harmonies. My subjects were mostly slightly abstracted biographical topics, as the title poem of the collection would indicate, dealing as it does with the trauma of the early death of my younger brother.

Which 20th and 21st -century poets mean the most to you?

Your question here warrants a complex ruminative response, but, begging your pardon, I’ll treat myself to a flippant brief one, and just say, first, that among the poets who mean the most to me, one is from the 19th century and means too much to be left out here: Emily Dickinson. From the 20th century, Yeats, Frost, Williams, Auden, and Larkin. Of the twenty-first: too early to say.

One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a class—and one that changed

my life—occurred in one of your classes, when you had us read Cesar Vallejo’s “Black

Stone Lying on a White Stone” in the Bly/Knopf translation. The poem stunned me

with its visceral imagery wild juxtapositions—with what came to be called by Bly and

others “Deep Image” poetry. I think of you as in some ways a “Deep Image” poet–or,

maybe more accurately as a poet fundamentally influenced by that approach,

characterized most fully perhaps by Bly himself, along with such writers as WS Merwin

and James Wright. I’d like to hear your thoughts on what “Deep Image” poetry means to

you and where you place it in the scope of 20 th century poetry.

Your question is as much a delightful anecdote as it is a question—and also a keen reminder of that terrific Cesar Vallejo poem you quote, in which he bemoans how “Everyone beat him / although he never does anything to them…” (never does anything except rend their hearts with his poems!) It was to Bly’s vivid versions of the works of Vallejo and the South Americans that I owed, not only my first awareness of their existence, but my fascination with their brand of surrealism, and eventually a vital shift in my own poetry.

As you conjecture in your question, Michael, my poetry from the late 60’s and through the 70’s, (published in 2 books in the 80’s) was indeed thoroughly—and almost suddenly—energized by the new freedom of expression that Deep Image poetry seemed to promise. I first met Bly when he read at Iowa in the mid ‘60’s (I did two stints at Iowa, 59-62 and 64-67), and as I was at that time interested in Bly’s American Writers Against the Vietnam War, I drove with him up to Minnesota to read anti-war poems before a tense audience at St. Olaf’s College. What Bly was reading (everywhere) by that time were his new Deep Image poems that would be published in ’67 as The Light Around the Body, and win the National Book Award in ’68. These were poems many of which sounded half-mad as they boiled over with anger at America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, savagely attacked and parodied political figures by name, and seemed to indict American poetry itself for failing to meet its social responsibility by refusing to throw itself into the fray—and did all this with a vital, free-swinging take on European surrealism that seemed to promise a new way of accessing states of mind and feeling that had been dormant in contemporary American poetry.

And okay, I should say here that the immediate effect Deep Image writing had on me at the time was due in part to its coinciding with a period of crisis in my personal life. In the early ‘70s I went through a painful divorce, and was in need of something other than alcohol to help me cope with my anger and angst. The differences between my first book and the next two (My Hat Flies On Again and an intermediate chapbook, The Airplane Burial Ground) are real and pretty much self-evident.

[Having said that, Michael, I run head-on into the embarrassing fact that neither of those books attracted much attention at the time, and both have long been out of print, and the issue of the difference between them and the first book will be lost on most readers here. Perhaps we could attach a few poems as contrasting examples at the end of the interview.]

Are there any other “schools” of American poetry that are of particular interest to you?

The short answer here is yes—and thank you for the question! Until it got me thinking about the matter, I hadn’t remembered that there was another and prominent “school” of American poetry aborning at the time when I was at Iowa, one that did indeed have some influence on my poetry, if not, indeed, on all of American poetry that followed. I mean the so-called “Confessional School.”

Robert Lowell’s Life Studies appeared during my first year at Iowa, to great acclaim, as did W.D. Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle, soon followed by Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Every one of these signature documents of the confessional was awarded a major prize (Plath’s posthumously) and attracted a great deal of attention. Confessional poetry was suddenly and assertively everywhere. Indeed, I can still recall one contentious Workshop discussion that centered on a draft of a new poem by my friend Lewis Turco and was addressed to Snodgrass: it began, “Christ, you made me sad / with your love songs gone awry!” And a bit of fur flew over the question of whether Heart’s Needle was a divorced poet’s brave display of anguish over his separation from his daughter, or a self-serving washing-of-laundry-in-public, and at what cost to the divorced wife and mother.

At any rate, I can see, in retrospect, that the new Confessional openness must have been a factor in my own use of some personal experiences as motives for if not overt subjects of some of the poems I wrote in its wake, Deep Image and otherwise.

I know you started The Seneca Review with Ira Sadoff and am curious to hear about the

circumstances that led to its inception, and the goals you two had for the journal. Can you

talk a bit, too, about the experience of editing what became one of the most widely

admired journals in the US?

Ah, the mixed pleasures of happenstance! I never had the slightest intention of getting

involved in editing a poetry journal. Certainly not at that time, in 1970, as an untenured Assistant Professor teaching two or three lit classes per trimester, still trying to figure out how best to shape creative writing classes for undergraduates, and living in a small apartment with a wife and three kids under the age of 9. I did not need another job. But there was the recently hired, ambitious and energetic young poet Ira Sadoff (today a retired, much published, widely renowned, and highly decorated poet, writer, and emeritus professor), sitting on my living room couch and pitching this hot new idea about our jointly founding and editing our own poetry journal. The impetus had originated with two students, who had pitched it to Ira and hooked him: they would go to their separate men’s and women’s Student Governments, and secure funding for the bi-annual publication of a high quality national journal, on the grounds that the bulk of the material would be by professional poets, whose work Ira and I would manage, but—and this was the selling point to the student governments—each issue would have a special section at the back for work by undergraduate poets at our own and other schools. And, in short, it worked. The students got the money, and Ira and I found a local printer (with an actual letterpress, and ink and trays of type!) and solicited some work from poets we knew, and the students got some home-grown student work, and we published The Seneca Review. But then—after a couple of solid issues had attracted some attention, new contributors, and even a few subscriptions from university libraries—we began to feel the precariousness of the issue-by-issue financing, along with a slackening of interest by the soon-to-graduate student editors. We then appealed to our college administration for support, and, mirabile dictu, the President wrote us into the permanent budget. (In the “Small World” department, it turns out that the President had a son who would grow up to be—today—the widely acclaimed poet, writer, university professor, and disabilities advocate, Steven Kuusisto.)

I think it was Donald Hall who wrote that a good poem embodies “the unsayable said,”

striving to reach a place not otherwise available to language. Do Hall’s words here ring

true to you? How do you attempt to get to this place in your own work?

At first glance, of course, Hall’s maxim looks like one of those teasers found in every Logic 101 course: “Everything inside these quotation marks is false,” whereby if the statement is true, it must be false, but if false it’s true, and thereby false, ad infinitum. But, in fact, on the contrary, I think Hall’s paradox is that rarest of things, a perfectly true assertion about real poetry. And my bottom line answer can be no better than “I think I know what he means.”

Where does the impulse to write poetry come from?

Maybe it comes from the same place whence came the impulse that caused Homo Sapiens to move out of Africa and spread out over the planet, produce flickering, fire-lit pictures on cave walls, erect monolithic mazes in the wilderness, build pyramids, invent writing and alphabets, establish complex cities, invent the movies, and produce a way to drift around the thermosphere on a space station: it comes, that is to say, from our big, astoundingly complex brain, which yearns to know and experience reality in ever greater detail, ever more deeply and subtly.

Humor plays a central role in your poetry, in its gentle awareness of the small (and not so small) absurdities of daily life, and of the griefs, pains and obsessions that define us, at least in part. It’s a gentle humor, never caustic or castigating or mean-hearted. And unlike many humor-driven poets—James Tate and Russel Edson come to mind—the world you write of is whole. It somehow makes sense. Though there’s darkness in your work, your work itself is never dark. Can you talk a bit about the role of humor in your work?

Much of your humor is self-effacing in a way that runs counter to the ethos of our time, so full of braggarts and self-proclaimers. It’s almost like you’re saying “don’t look at me” exactly at the moment when someone’s snapping your cell-phone picture. Is there an aesthetic intention here—or is it simply a reflection of your character?

To continue in the same vein: one of the qualities I most admire in your work is its modesty. Unlike many if not most poets, you rarely call attention to your own brilliant images, impressive lexicon or deftly-turned cadences. Can “modesty” be an aesthetic choice?

I hope you won’t mind my crushing all three of your humor-cum-modesty questions into one blended answer. I have to say, first, that I’m flattered and honored by your generous, attentive, and nuanced comments about the role of said features in my poems, and I thank you for them. But they do make it hard for me to add much of anything substantial to your conjectures without the risk of seeming disingenuous, evasive, or immodest. But I should add, if it’s of any help, that, as an atheistic secular humanist, I have always found that humor—irony, satire, drollery, wryness, jokes, comedy, silliness—all of it—is, in my experience, essential to mental health and any possibility of happiness on earth. (And I am mostly happier than I deserve to be.) But I have always meant for my poems to be genuine reflections of my real thoughts and feelings, even when or if the upshot of a poem is a droll undermining of what it pretends to be saying in earnest. All this while keeping in mind, of course—even if only to mock it skeptically—Yeats’ famous dictum that “The poet is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.”

(On top of all that, one needs also to keep in mind what brain science now tells us about our own spectacular human capacity for self-deception.)

I should add that in recent decades I have written a dozen or more poems in which the “speaker” is neither “me” nor that Yeatsian loser who eats breakfast, but some familiar figure from literature (Melville’s Bartleby,), mythology (Melpomene, the muse of tragedy), or fantasy (Superman), and it should go without saying that what I have these characters suggest about human traits, ideas, or values inevitably reflect some version of my own traits, ideas, or values, though often comically or sarcastically distorted—or pretty clearly signaled as otherwise.

To frame a question with a quote from one of your own poems: How does a poem become a work of art rather than just the jottings of “the ego’s infantile wish to have all its musings aired”? Does poetic form have any bearing here?

Ah, yes, indeed, how does it do that? Or is there perhaps no clear or definable or even real difference between the two states, once all the accidental vicissitudes of time and taste and chance are taken into account? Maybe I’m just being lazy here, but (as a creative writing teacher for 45 years, and a poetry mag editor for five, and a poet for god knows how many) I have to be skeptical about the validity of such categorical distinctions, even when suggested (if only ironically) by one of my own poems.

Another teacher of mine, John Williams, called poetry “a kind of elevated prose,” echoing Pound’s injunction that poetry should be “at least as well written as prose.” Your poems, it seems to me, have that elevated prose style, that clarity, of poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Randall Jarrell. As a former professor of poetry-writing myself, I have found that most young poets associate “clarity” and “plain style” with a kind of simplemindedness, which is perhaps related to the way poetry is taught in high schools—and indeed in colleges and universities. How might poetry be taught more effectively?

I guess I would have to say, first, that a lot of the poetry I’ve seen written with clarity in a plain style is simpleminded, almost as much of it as the poetry I’ve seen written in any number of cryptic, surreal, esoteric, imagistic, graphic, jump-cut, or what-have-you non-plain styles. Various versions of both have happily come into and gone out of fashion over the years, and will continue to do so. A lot of both will be crap, some of both will be good. (I say that with the uncomfortable awareness that a simple good-bad distinction contradicts what I just said in response to your # 12 above.)

I hate to have to add that I’m not all that enthusiastic about the John Williams quote, while recognizing that taking it out of context may do it an injustice. It’s just that I feel strongly that poetry is essentially different from prose, elevated or otherwise, despite a myriad of surface similarities to be noted between them, as in the logically coherent “arguments” found in the poetry of, say, Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, Wilber, The difference—to replay the Donald Hall apothegm from question #7— is this: if poetry strives to say the unsayable, prose strive to say the sayable as effectively as possible.

One of my favorites of your poems is “The Company.” I love the poem for many reasons, among them the grace and clarity of its language, the vividness of its images, and the honest presence of its voice. Beyond that, there’s the awesome and completely earned turn in the last seven lines, the symmetry of its closure. I just love the journey we take here. Can you comment on the occasion of the poem, and on your process in making it? I’m sure you worked through many revisions to get to the grace and revelation you get here.

I’m pleased that you singled this one out, Michael. It is one of my own favorites, partly because it’s spoken entirely in earnest and in my own voice, without irony, humor, or other games. And, yes, as you imply, it cost me a lot of time to get this one right. I almost said “a lot of work,” but really it was time. Partly, I think, because the poem is really about time. And partly because it is about such a hidden person as my father was. You talk about modest—his modesty was dangerously close to being self-annihilating. After his stint in the CCC, he worked two full-time jobs during the depression, maintenance man by day and watchman by night. A remarkably talented, self-taught jack-of-all trades, he became an accomplished carpenter, electrician, plumber, and ultimately a crafter of exquisite furniture in wood and hammered brass. My poem is close-mouthed about all of this in part because he was. Indeed he was the only person I’ve ever known who actually spoke (sweetly) only when spoken to.

But the most profound thing about the poem, for me, was my lack of surprise at discovering how it had to end—and the peaceful joy that ending gave me with the feeling of being closer to my father than I had ever been in his lifetime, and this by virtue of joining in his commitment to accept and embrace the reality of being eventually forgotten forever.

Though it’s a very different poem from yours, “The Company” reminds me of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” in its clarity and power—in the fact that every word, every line break, every tonal shift counts. Even more strongly, I hear echoes of the beautiful and underrated poetry of Ann Stanford, particularly of her poem “The Sleeping Princess.” Does those connections make sense to you? Do you feel any precursor poets lurking behind yours?

I’m glad to be reminded of Robert Hayden—haven’t read or thought about him for years, but of course your simply naming “Those Winter Sundays,” brought it at once to mind, and I found it in a copy of The Norton and savored it again. Such a powerful, downplayed charge of the actual! It’s obvious why my “father” poem would have brought Hayden’s to mind for you, though his is a much more concrete, imagistic, and emotionally open strategy than mine. For whatever reasons, I find the contrast to be as rewarding as the similarities.

I confess to never having read any Ann Stanton before now, which is surprising, given that she was a student of Yvor Winters, whose reputation and work, both poetry and criticism, were on the common agenda at Iowa my first years there. The poet Robert Mezey had just arrived from having studied, on a fellowship at Stanford, with Yvor Winters, and Mezey’s stock was high and his high opinion of all things Winters-esque carried weight. I’m only surprised I never heard any mention of Stanton at the time.

Her poetry (which, thanks to you, I’ve now read a fair sampling of) almost out-Winters Winters, with its quiet self-possessed demeanor, perfectly regular meters and rhymes, and close to abstract treatment of all subjects, from love to larceny. Which is not at all to say that you’re off base in hearing echoes of her work in some of mine. Though never having heard of her, I can say with confidence that if I had encountered her poems during my early days at Iowa, I would have tried to emulate something of their modestlyly unaggressive intelligence and formal confidence, so I’m flattered that you detected a ghost of her work in mine.

Another of my favorites of your poems is “Failure to Mourn.” I particularly love the closure of this poem, its stunning abruptness. Can you talk about that poem a bit?

I’m a little surprised at your singling out “Failure to Mourn”—but also pleased, because it’s a fairly recent poem that I’m deeply invested in, while, at the same time, unable to feel totally confident about its being really finished. I worry that the narratives of the two funereal occasions are a notch too prosaic to result organically in, or earn, the climax of the last six or eight lines, which I admire as unstintingly as if they were the work of a total stranger. I’m afraid the poem is still a little too raw for me to be easy with saying much more about it. All three of the experiences recounted are as true to the remembered actuality as I could make them, and rereading them can bring me to tears. Enough said.

I own a copy of what I think was your first book, The Aging Ghost, published back in 1964 when you were twenty-six. The back-cover blurb quotes you as having learned the knack “of distinguishing my voice from everyone else’s” in Paul Engel’s poetry workshop at the University of Iowa. I’m curious to hear about that workshop and about how you went about learning to craft your own distinct voice.

Ironically, Michael, I hadn’t, for decades before reading your question, had at hand a copy of The Aging Ghost with its original dust jacket, and so had no recollection of the quote you refer to. In order to respond to your question, I had to root through bins of old books to find an intact copy of the jacket and read my blurb. And I confess that the claim to a distinctive voice made there by that version of me—60 years ago—did leave me feeling a little uncertain.

At a loss for how to begin a response, I decided to just sit down for an hour and, for the first time in years, read, as if it were by somebody else (as, of course, in way, it is), the whole book straight through, cover to cover. And I came away relieved and pretty certain that I could, indeed, hear—in those poems from long ago—a rather confident if modest voice of my own—a voice that, even with all the formalistic features of those early poems, I can still discern an echo of in my very different work today. And I feel as though I have already said, in earlier answers, enough about the experience of “Paul Engle’s Poetry Workshop” to justify the positive role I ascribed to it in that youthful blurb (though I should have termed it what it truly was in those days, Donald Justice’s poetry workshop). But, okay, I’ll risk over-simplifying the process by adding this: the nature of “workshop” practice presents you with evidence of how your poetry is perceived by other poets, and as their feedback comes closer and closer to describing effects that you intend, it’s because you are finding your voice.

In my senior year at Hobart, I studied poetry with the Finnish-American poet Anselm Hollo, who, with his then-wife Josephine Claire, was a visiting professor at Hobart/William Smith. Anselm taught me a great deal about American poetry, introducing me to such poets as Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen as well as then-living presences like Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Alice Notley and Paul Blackburn. Though very different from yours, Anselm’s work then was also characterized by clarity, humor and a clear sense of form. I wonder how well you got to know him and what you thought of him and his work? Were you two friends? How about Josephine Claire?

Anselm Hollo was a terrifically important and energizing addition to the creative writing program in his years at H&WS, an advocate for a large and vital swath of important American poets most of whom neither Ira Sadof (who had left by then) nor I had had any personal experience of, nor had seriously studied or followed. You name the most prominent ones in your question, Michael, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave it at that. Anselm and Josie and I were compatible, mutually supportive colleagues, but we were never really close, and while I admired their poetry, I saw it as different from what I was doing. I nonetheless thought it a serious loss—as did a lot of students—when the Administration rejected the English Department’s petition to convert Anselm’s temporary position to a permanent tenurable slot, and he moved on.

I’d like to hear about any other visiting writers whose work or personalities made an impression, and/or any particularly outstanding students you taught at Hobart/William Smith.

I was almost always left with something new and different to think about after a poet’s campus visit—which usually included an informal meal, a glass or two of wine, and lively conversations. But I would be hard pressed all these years later to describe any specific effects or do more than name a few of the poets I remember most vividly as people—Galway Kinnell, Adrian Rich, James Tate, Denise Levertov, Charles Wright, Gary Snyder…. But this is a mug’s game, so let me just say that, while of course I did think about their work, it was rarely their style or their poetics that most interested me, but rather their attitude toward life, their philosophy, their way of being in the world. And so, after the initial impact on my work early on of the likes of Justice, Bly, and the Lowell of Life Studies— I would have to say … yes and no. As for students, I had some extraordinary students, but they were undergraduate tyros then and it would have been unusual for their work to have influenced mine. A number of them went on to graduate studies in poetry workshops and are currently (like yourself) now at the peak of sterling careers as poets, editors, and/or teachers.

Most writers hate the question, but I’ll ask it anyway: What’s your writing practice? Do you write every day? And a corollary: how much do you revise?

No, I don’t write every day, never did, and certainly couldn’t now, during my 86th trip around the Sun, even if I wanted to. There were stints, during my first year or so at Iowa as a graduate student without teaching duties, when I wrote on more days than not. Eventually marriage and three children on top of full-time teaching relegated writing to when-I-had-the-time-and-the desire. And I’ve never been able to persuade myself that, lacking that—lacking the desire—the right thing to do is knuckle down and cold bloodedly write. The closest thing to a description of my writing practice that I can articulate goes like this: I begin to write after I have already written something, something elusively vague or fragmentary. I’m not trying to be cute about this. I will have already jotted something down—something inchoate and indescribable—literally on paper, or figuratively by just turning it over in my mind—before I can really start to write. And at that point I can’t resist the desire to begin writing, trying to make or find something interesting or meaningful that I could only ever possibly get at by writing. I guess the commonplace version of his would be: I depend on inspiration to get me started.

But revising, that’s a whole other matter. My revision practice has always been paramount, compulsive, and perpetual. Even published works have not been safe. My personal copies of my books all contain penciled-in revisions. And the era of the typing computer has only made matters worse: I will sometimes change a given word or line in a work in progress six or eight times without even saving the intermediate revisions. I have already once or more revised all 21 of my answers to this interview. I will force myself, this time around, to mail it off to you. (I wrote that sentence two re-writes ago.) I sometimes feel the urge to take a tube of grease paint and scrawl on the mirror in a public bathroom, “Stop me before I revise again!”

Who should have won the Nobel Prize for poetry but didn’t? Or hasn’t yet?

There is of course no specific Nobel Prize for poetry, though a poet has occasionally been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—which, of course, has “normally” gone to a writer of prose fiction (or else to Bob Dylan). I think Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens were worthy candidates. Yates, for god’s sake. Auden. Adrien Rich. Philip Larkin. Robert Lowell. Gwendolyn Brooks…. Not that the big prize thing ought to mean all that much—but hey, come on now, really?



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