An Interview with William Matthews

Part III

David Wojahn: The issue of precision and truthfulness, even on the level of the word itself, is something that always strikes me as characteristic of your work—just for the sake of your interest in puns and etymology and slipperiness of word meanings, such as "cleave" in your poem "Twins." It's something you've continually pointed out, continually exploited in your poems, just as Nabokov and Auden have. And both of those are figures you've elegized and shown a lot of affection for in your work. I have a feeling that, like Auden, the book you'd want to have with you on a desert island is a good dictionary.

William Matthews: Sure, the O.E.D. The big one. With a bookcase to hold all the volumes. If you could have a small library on a desert island, I would take all reference books. It's a sort of Borgesian conceit, this notion that all possible worlds and all possible books could be extracted from them. Not that one person could do more than a tiny amount of that extraction, but that you would be less lonely accompanied by those than anything else. There's a point where a smaller level or unit of attention—the interest in precision and accuracy—starts to turn into its opposite, so that there's a miniature version of the cautionary tale being enacted here, in that at a certain point, the radical slipperiness of language becomes something to be frustrated in slightly, but basically to delight in. How hard it is to be absolutely unambiguous in English is suggested by the degree of torture to which English is subjected to write a good legal contract or insurance policy. When the money is on the line and they really have to be unambiguous, they do terrible things to English in order to try and arrange for this. And it's been pointed out by a couple of friends and readers that I'm very fond of words like "slur," "mar," words in which one thing turns into another, in which lines are blurred. "Blur" would be another one of those. So the slipperiness becomes a precaution against too great a reliance on precision and accuracy and too much hubris in being a wielder of the same. A poem in which a kind of Mexican standoff can be achieved between the two is a poem I would find very satisfying to write.

DW: Do you think certain of your poems begin with a pun, begin with that desire to investigate a phrase or its intricacies and deceptiveness? A lot of the sections in Happy Childhood, such as "Good and Bad," "Right and Wrong," seem less about trying to glean those new understandings of those terms than they do about reveling in the impossibility of fixing in meaning.

WM: Yeah, it's the multifacetedness of the word, as moral words. I mean I thought of those four words as the four compass directions of a child's moral life. And this juncture is of course opposed by the adult world. There's a poem in that book called "Tardy," which is something that adults can't be. We're late. Children only are tardy. There are special moral words for children, even. So the multifacetedness has something to do with the nature of language, the language itself. It also has something, in that book, to do with the many different uses for moral suasion that adults have, many of which they're uninterested or unwilling to admit. It makes this navigation of this moral world a particularly prickly and interesting business for a child, and I wanted it to be a book written by a person the age I was when I wrote it.

It was also really a book about childhood and about stories of childhood, and about how important those stories are and how recklessly and poignantly untrue they all are. For example, it seems to me that everybody has two stories of his or her childhood. One is that you've had a happy childhood and you were well-loved; and the other is that you've had a desperately miserable childhood that you can barely bear to remember without breaking into tears. "'It was hell,' says former child" is a recognizable rhetorical formula. And both of those stories are true and neither is discardable. So I wanted to have some stuff in the book which represented the particular slipperiness of adult moral vocabularies in children, which would also be linked—just at the level of the line, as the poems go flowing by the reader—to the slipperiness of any language in the mouth of an adult who's interested to try and hear as much of what language does as it goes by. And I think those poems, in that sense, they're the load-bearing walls, if that book were a house.

James Harms: Because of the sorts of interests you have and the things that you write about and the way that you investigate your interest in language, it makes for poems where there is an emphasis on knowledge, facility, and wit. And one of the things that's always been constant in terms of the critical appreciation of your work is characterizing you as "a witty, smart poet." And I think in this new book, you actually address that.

WM: I actually complain about it. Andrew Hudgins, in my personal favorite bit of blurbury, he said that I was the most funny serious poet since Berryman. That's a compliment. To say that this is a very witty poet—it's possible to say it in a way that suggests that I might be a delightful dinner companion. And that seems to be a way to ignore, as I complain the poem, in "Time and Money," that what goes into this wit is the full measure of pain and rage and love that one brings to one's life. And as I said earlier, there's nothing that's relief about the comic or the witty, as I understand it. I don't even particularly agree with the notion—at one time, fairly commonplace during the 60's, when these short imagistic poems were highly praised by the prevailing taste—that irony is a defense against feeling. Irony is a form of feeling. Most of our feelings are deeply mixed, and I think the ironic and the antic and the comic get a kind of reflex low rating. And to mention it without the kind of rhetorical stress that Hudgins gave that little quote, in order to say, "Gee, I really mean this," does feel like faint praise. No one should expect praise, but if it's going to be offered, I hate the faint praise compared to the other praise.

DW: What are your writing habits like? Do you write every day? Do you work from a notebook, a diary?

WM: No, I don't write every day. And I don't have a notebook or diary. I did keep things at one time. When you first start writing, so little of what you write is worth keeping in the form in which you write it. But I would look at it and I would think, well maybe I could make something else out of this. And after a while I realized that I had little scraps of paper in a drawer somewhere and I would look at them. There is the anecdote from which Donald Hall takes the title of one of his books, that when he went back to the farm on which his grandparents had lived, and he went through their effects after whichever one of them died second, they were incredibly organized, and he found a box with a label on it with"String too short to be saved." And it was full of just such string. And I felt sort of this way about the stuff in the drawer, I thought, "I don't know why I'm keeping this." I think everybody's temperament is different, but for me, if I give that stuff away, the chance that it will come back in a usable form is much higher than if I keep it. So for me, the superstition is that by not having a journal or notebook, I get rid of these loose ends that always, in a deceptive and siren-like way for me, seem to say, "You can make something good of us." But the truth is that I didn't make anything good of them in the first place and they need to be dead in their current form in order for any energy that is trapped in them to be released and maybe come back around in a more usable or interesting form. So for me the superstition is that by not keeping a journal, I'm doing something good. Whether this is any truer than the opposite superstition, I have no idea.

As for the not working every day: when my sons were small, I used to write in the evening because I was the only parent in the household for most of those years, and I had heard so many bright women friends of mine complain about feeling torn between wanting to get their work done and their domestic responsibilities. And I said, "Well, that's easy, I'll write at night." I was sort of an insomniac in those years anyway. But then they got older and waiting for them to go to sleep meant that at a certain point you're starting to write at 11:30 at night, and that's going to be a cul de sac soon, you think. So I taught myself to write in the mornings and then I just wrote when I could. I never understood how somebody who has children could write at the same time every day, or guarantee that you would get any writing done on a given day. It just didn't seem possible or sensible to plan. Sebastian, my younger son, is thirty now, so it has been a long time since they've been part of the decision-making process about any of this stuff.

But I never wanted to do it differently. The first thing that happened when they weren't home was that I missed them terribly. I went through a serious empty-nest blues. I also realized that for the last ten years or so of my life, I'd been making most of the decisions I'd made . . . I'd been describing to myself as if I had made them for them. And then I scarcely new the answers to questions like, "What would you like to do?" This seemed embarrassing to me. My major reaction to them being gone was, one, to miss them and two, to realize how much of my own emotional life I had cheerfully allowed to be shadowed by the pleasure I took in raising them. And about the ninth thing on the list was to think about how my writing habits might change, and I wasn't sufficiently dissatisfied to change them. When I'm on a roll, I do work pretty much every day and I find whatever time it is that I can do it at. And then I go through periods when it's sort of like a pitcher letting his arm return to normal. You just think, "I'm resting now." And that seems to me part of the process. If I don't write for a couple of weeks, I don't get anxious. There never fails to be a point where I am bored by it and need to write. So I don't think of it as a menace or a block. It's just part of the way I do it.

DW: How do you go about revising a poem? How soon in the writing process do you figure you have a draft or how soon do you put it into the computer?

WM: It's an interesting question, what computers have done to poets. I think poems are twenty percent longer than they used to be, since the computer.

I do two things, and I do them simultaneously. One is that I work toward getting a draft and I would like to have a whole thing in front of me to be able to pick up and revise. But I also revise as I'm going along, which sounds like I'm less interested in getting to that whole thing and more interested in revising something that I don't even understand the full shape of yet. But both things happen simultaneously. Whether this is good or bad, who knows. And then when I have a draft, I put it on the computer because I like looking at it in type. For one thing, my handwriting, especially if I'm working fast or if I get excited, my handwriting is, you know . . . If I have to write a legible letter to somebody, I go into good penmanship behavior and my handwriting is legible to most people. But if I'm zipping along having a good time, I can write stuff that only I can read. You know, I have ways of writing the word "innumerable" so that it looks like a child's drawing of the sea with two little masts sticking out at the right-hand edge of the horizon. So I like looking at the objectification of it that's caused by putting it in a typeface. It makes a real difference. The fiction I like to use when I'm revising is when I look at it again, I look at it and I say to myself—I don't always do this anymore, but there was a period where I actually did—I would say to myself, "I wonder what I would do with this if I had written it?" I pretend that I just found it, and that I have no idea where it came from, I'm completely uninterested in the intentions or confusions that I had the other day. I try to treat it as much as if it were newly discovered as possible, as if it had been left there by a kind of reverse kleptomaniac.

For some reason, having it—I used to type them up before I had a PC—having it be in ink, and not in my own handwriting, helps me maintain the illusion that I didn't write this. What I really mean is I'm simply reminding myself not to be interested in the process that got me to that point, and [not] to be loyal to any of it and [not] to try to remember what I thought I was doing—because I don't care what those ideas were. All that's interesting is what's on the paper. So I almost never do any actual composing on the computer; I basically use it for storage. It's an extremely expensive typewriter and a file cabinet, basically is what I use the computer for. But I love it. I love not having to retype poems all the time, and I like being able to write a letter and then change a few little things. I really find it a very companionable tool. But it sure is a lot of money for a typewriter with some storage space.

JH: So you're not actually doing any of the editing, you print out a copy and do the revisions on a hard copy?

WM: I do very little of it on the screen. If it's really obvious, like a typo, or you think "Oh, that's not the right . . ." then I might do it right on the screen. But looking at it as if it were on its way to being a thing, I find very useful.

JH: We were just talking about those [unintelligible], but do you listen to music when you write?

WM: I don't listen to music when I write, because—I described earlier the way I listened to music—if I listen to music, then I can't write. Actually in the study that I write in, my desk is up against the wall.

JH: So that's your deprivation . . .?

WM: It wouldn't make a lot of sense to put it in front of the window in that room, but I could've done that. But I want to be in an imaginary cell with the poem, and I would like to be able to think I can get up from the cell and go to another part of the room and all my reference books would be there if I wanted to look something up. But when I've rented summer places or been sent off someplace—I've twice gone off to writer's colonies, which I don't particularly like, I think of them as art jail. I really like working at home, as I like having all my reference books and I like being able to go in and make coffee, and all that sort of stuff. Twice I've lived in places where there were commanding views and so forth, and I moved my desk both times because I found myself just staring out the window.

JH: Since you're not listening to music when you're writing a poem, still, you've talked so much in other interviews and over the years about jazz as an influence on your writing, and there's even a phrase you used—you've called it "linguistic improvisation." How would you compare that to the sort of improvisation that we are familiar with in jazz? Would you be able to describe how that influences your poems?

WM: As Mingus does suggest, improvisation doesn't come out of nowhere. And when you think of what [Dizzy] Gillespie and [Charlie] Parker and [Thelonious] Monk and those pioneer boppers had to know—the chord changes to a couple hundred songs, for example. And then the ability of opera singers to know a hundred roles, and Domingo must know 120 roles, he can pretty much walk on stage and sing without a lot of research to remind him of what's going on. And you think, this is not an astonishing feat; every one of those jazz musicians knew that stuff. And a lot of the work that was done . . . Gillespie was a little university. He used to take people, he could play the piano well enough to show everybody the chord structure if they didn't hear it. They worked often from scores, but there wasn't always enough sheet music around. Some of this stuff was they had composed something, a little riff based on the changes of "I've Got Rhythm" three days ago and their copyist had only made two copies and there were five of them on the bandstand. So an enormous amount of informal teaching of that sort was done. I don't know exactly what the equivalents are. I think somebody who was a very committed formalist would find it easy to answer this question. I'm not sure that that answer would be true, necessarily, but I could make a persuasive parallel between the two.

I think that the real influence has to do with phrasing and timing, with stuff that it would be easiest to talk about in terms of jazz singing. Though in fact what I listened to most avidly when I was a kid were horn players. I listen very carefully to pianists these days. Not that I've stopped listening to horn players or singers or anything, but there are a lot of things I don't quite understand about how jazz piano works, and I listen to a lot of piano these days, trying to figure out what I can about it. I do think it has to do with variations on a melody that's never quite stated, and I do think it has an enormous amount to do with never coming in exactly on the beat. And I think it has to do with how you move from one phrase to the next. I'm convinced that the best verse that I've written is not composed by the line but is composed by the phrase and the clause and the sentence, and that the line is a kind of necessary contradiction in the literal sense of contradiction; it's a counter-saying of what is actually going on. The line is an incredibly important unit but it is not the unit of composition, which Alexander Pope would think was a ludicrous thing to say.

DW: But then you've got a lot of poems in Time and Money that are in strict form in ways that a lot of your earlier poems weren't—a lot of quatrains and a lot of sonnets.

WM: The new book is going to have at least nineteen sonnets in it. I'm writing three series of six sonnets and I have another poem, I have a lone wolf sonnet in it. I don't know why. It's another one of those boredom issues. You just think, "I haven't written that many of these and I'm really enjoying doing it, so I'll do it until I get tired of it." But I think particularly, the more compulsory the form is, if the form forces you to compose by the line and things get wooden, and if you can figure out a way to compose through, it's like the moment in early jazz when people start ignoring the bar sign at the end of the measure. So you stop getting that two-step oompah rhythmic effect and you start getting stuff like the long breaks and pauses in the early Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Seven disc, and you think, "Now here's somebody who can hear his way all the way from the beginning of the solo to an end." And the first thing that has to happen to make that possible is for the bar sign to just go over. If you push this too far, looking to make too many parallels, you start to talk nonsense. But there's some deep connection between poetry and music. And it's not necessary to be interested in music to write good poems but if you're of that temperament, there's something really to be made use of. It's a little bit like a bubble, the closer you get to grabbing it, the more you destroy it in some way, you mangle it or you over-describe it.

JH: Or you just make it sort of neat and tidy in a way that it can't possibly . . .

WM: . . . Yeah, it's like a rectangular bubble.

JH: I'd like to talk about your formality a little bit, in that I was starting to make reductive comparisons that the form might divide you, with the constant [unintelligible] to move away from in order to the find the poem.

WM: Yeah. Also I'm particularly attracted to the sonnet for reasons that I hadn't worried about much until recently. It occurred to me, thinking of the very early sonnets in English, how many of them were poems of love and seduction. So that what you get in a sonnet is you have this incredibly rationalized structure, which is applied to a body of psychic energy, which is absolutely unamenable to the rational. The sonnet, like a particularly lively and interesting person, has this top layer of structure and rationalism—and underneath it's all this magmatic burbling of unconscious desires, some of which are unspeakable. The poise between the two in the sonnet is particularly interesting, that historically the sonnet has always been susceptible to containing things in that way, and that I like that.

JH: So it's sort of an organic entity in some respect? Is that why a sonnet . . . the thing that's always amazed me about the writing of a sonnet is how the turn that takes place in the sonnet when you're writing a true sonnet just seems to happen. As if it were an organic aspect of the form.

WM: As if you think at some point, "I've got to turn now." Or worse, or more eerily, as if it says, "I've got to turn now." It's particularly fun writing a series of sonnets in which none of the turns happens at the end of the eighth line. But the turn will happen.

JH: It's a rhetorical device, too.

WM: And it's true, that if the model I just gave of the sonnet is not a purely fanciful one, something like the turn has to happen so the power relationship between the two levels is potentially reversible. Otherwise the sonnet stays too rational. You have to allow the steam to come up through the crust so you pierce the pastry dough. And the turn is sort of like that in one way it, seems to me.

JH: There was a question that suddenly came up to me, David, that you were going to ask about sequencing, because you're writing these sequences of sonnets and you've always had sequences.

WM: The shape of the book I'm working on now, it has three very deliberate sequences in it. And it's a stolen idea. I got a letter in the mail saying, "We're composing an anthology of poems set in hotels, motels, bars, and restaurants." And I thought, "What I great idea! Why didn't I think of that?" After about fifteen seconds I thought, "Well of course, I already have, now I have." So I subsumed motels under hotels, and they are a series of six sonnets about, or set in, hotels, bars, and restaurants. Which are sort of like little secular chapels. They are places where we go to be with others in our loneliness and reflect on the state of our lives. So I was very attracted to doing that. There are four other sections, and none of them are sequences, but they now all have part titles. This is a shape I've never written anything remotely like. It really grew out of the material. I wasn't looking for it, and suddenly there it was. At that point you think, all right—until or unless it collapses, it's fine.

JH: At some point it enters into the process and you have something else to work against.

WM: Yeah, I mean I'm halfway through this book now, and if I were three-quarters of the way through, the point would happen where you would think, "Well, I need one more poem in this section, and I need a blue poem to go with this yellow poem, and they'll imply a green poem." It's too early for the shape to offer those kinds of opportunities very clearly, and you shouldn't impose the opportunities; you should wait until the structure gives them to you. Or such is my superstition.

The thing that the sequence can give you is it gives you several moments of closure. Where you've made something, and you can stand back and look at it to see if it has its structural integrity. I think I [unintelligible] once in a Stanley Kunitz interview. I always think of Kunitz with two of his friends [who] were [Theodore] Roethke and [Robert] Lowell, and so it gives a particular poignancy to what he says. He says the purpose of the form is so the poem won't crack up. I've always thought that was a beautiful moment. You don't need to feel, for example, that you have to completely understand everything in any one of those six sonnets. You would like to feel that you've more or less discovered what you want to by the time the six sonnets are as a group, but it relieves you of a kind of stupid ambition to be knowledgeable too early in the process.

DW: So it can become a kind of causal chain.

WM: Yeah. So I like this sense in which a sequence has certain built-in guards against just prattling on, and I like the way it gives you a chance to come back and do something similar from a completely different direction. I think of it in some ways as the experience of looking at a sculpture. In a sequence, you get to walk around it, you can see it from the back and the side and the front. Otherwise, you never see the whole thing at once. I mean, actually you never see the whole thing at once, but if you walk around it enough, you can imagine how all the different views of it cohere. One of the pleasures of writing a sequence is that something like that is available. You can circle something in a thoughtful way without feeling a need to kill it with brilliant accuracy the first time you sit down to write about it. Sometimes you don't even know what it is until you've written two or three of the sonnets.

JH: Well it sort of lends itself to a discursive mind, too, I mean, in terms of how we find our way through the subject matter. Your poems tend to be discursive in that way.

WM: Yeah.

JH: This leads to something else I took from an interview where you were talking a lot about jazz. And you talked about how the paradoxical problem with the audience for both jazz and poetry is such that both art forms have at their core a deep humanity and what it means to be human, and yet both are radically undervalued by the public. I was just wondering about your understanding of the problem of audience, what kind of impact it has had on your work. There is so much talk in our discipline about what we can do about the problem of poetry's lack of audience.

WM: I don't know; it's interesting. It has been a problem for public consideration all my life as a writer, and I first ran across it as a less-than-hypothetical question when I was on a literature panel for the National Endowment [for the Arts]. This was in the early 70's, late 60's and early 70's, and those were the years when lots of alternate distribution schemes were being funded. Those were the Nixon years, when the Endowment had the most money and the most freedom. This partly has to do with Nixon having been warehoused in Leonard Garment's New York law firm when he was out of power, and Leonard Garment's wife being a great devotee of the arts. A series of accidents caused this. But anyway, we spent enormous amounts of money on print centers and radical distribution schemes, and it seemed to me that the general idea was that something small and more local and something built by members of the community would be able to distribute books on a small scale, and that the major existing distribution networks were really good about "flooding airports with covers," as they say in the trade. Getting John Grisham and Elmore Leonard books out there where they could be bought almost like a Clark bar, they're right close to the cash register when you go up—that's what the distribution system knows how to do. What it doesn't know how to do is to get three copies of a book of poems to the three people in Fargo, North Dakota, who want to read it.

And none of these things ever work. I think Dana Gioia's ideas [in his "Can Poetry Matter" essay] are basically a common-sense attempt to transfer his marketing expertise from one field to another, and the fields are so different from one another that it's obviously a failure. I don't know what the answer is to how it could be made larger. What worries me most about the poetry audience is not its size, which in fact seems to me to be growing. When Donald Hall's first book was published [in 1956], there were 500 copies in print, and that was a book that did well. It was reviewed in Time magazine. Don was like twenty-six or something, and overnight he was well-known in whatever poetry circles were in those days. There weren't as many readings; I don't think the audience was as big. I think lots of copies that are sold to students are multi-reader copies. I think the audience has grown in the last twenty years, but what worries me is that the audience is essentially a group of people who are deliberately to the side of the rest of the social [world].

In fact, the urge to have poetry have a mass audience may in some peculiar way be American—or Russian. Large countries are subject to this dream, more than small countries, it seems to me. I have never heard Norwegians complain about how few Norwegians read poetry. Maecenas was a reader; Augustus was a reader. Aside from Eugene McCarthy and Jimmy Carter (who are not quite of the same mettle, it seems to me), the world—the worldly world—doesn't care about poetry, and most people who care about poetry think of the fact that they care about poetry as one of the badges of their unworldliness. They are members of a subsidized Bohemian class: teachers, students, grant applicants. They are off to the side, in a way. And it is understood that that's where poetry happens. And that seems to me a dangerous difference between the situationn that Martial and Horace were in. But if Martial and Horace made fun of somebody important really well, they could get away with it, but they knew that that person would hear about the poem and probably read it. And they knew that if they made of somebody important poorly that there might be repercussions. Generally that didn't happen, but Ovid did live out the last of his life on the Black Sea.

It's the sense that poetry is proud to be off to the side that worries me. The idea that everybody in Shakespeare's time knew and loved poetry is just a sentimental idea. If we were to ask what percentage of the British population was literate, we would already know what's wrong with that model. The British system or the French system, which is that you screen out a small number of adolescents and educate the hell out of them and you condemn everybody else to a life working in a pharmacy, is impossible for America—for sentimental reasons that I agree with. I think it's a cruel way to run a country. But our substitute, which is that you educate everybody poorly, has not caused a widespread interest in poetry. And I don't know what the answer to this is. The person that I think I'm, to the extent that I ever think about an audience, I imagine it's somebody probably about my age so that we share a wide range of cultural references—you don't have to explain who the Five Satins were. And that it's somebody that you would be perfectly comfortable talking to, quite frankly, over a brandy or a glass of wine rather late at night. Beyond that, I never invest that person with any further identity or even a sex. This person is either a man or a woman or both. I don't personalize it any further than that. But I imagine it is somebody I could converse with, not read to.

DW: But even within the poetry scene, it seems to me when I look at the state of contemporary poetry, the poets themselves have become more factionalized than ever. More so than in the late 60's and 70's when you were starting to write poetry.

WM: I think that's true.

DW: So in contrast to that sort of aesthetic catholicism, we have these Balkanized camps of language poets who don't talk to formal poets and academic writers who don't talk to poetry slam aficionados. What do you make of the present scene?

WM: Well, I think it is a reflection of a general social malaise. I find that the English department in which I work is much more factionalized and politicized and territorial than it was in the 60's and 70's. I think society is more like this. In fact, very little melts in the melting pot. These little gummy accretions of like-minded people and special interest groups with the same special interests have a way of not getting mixed into the gruel that the melting pot ought to be producing. It seems to me that there is a failure of imagination at the social level for what makes a culture that is supposed to prize diversity work. That everybody talks a big game about diversity, but three-quarters of the people mean by diversity: "I don't want the door shut until my group gets in." And it's essentially a turf-war definition of diversity and not a genuinely catholic (with a small "c") definition. It's easier to get elected. It's easier to get your research published. It's easier to do all kinds of things by playing the "diversity card," to paraphrase Robert Shapiro's now-famous complaint, than it is to talk about what it would really be like to have a place in which a bunch of different people would instruct each other on how life feels when it's not lived by you but when it's lived by somebody else too at the same time. I see very little of this in the culture at large. And I think that in some sense poetry is following rather than leading in this trend, though social punditry is not my forte, and that's as far as I'm going to venture for the next decade, I hope.

JH: It's clearly different now than it . . .

WM: I find it rather depressing. I can't tell whether this is a result of a general tendency that starts to get to people in their forties, to find that the world is a diminished place compared to what it looked like when you were young, and that this has something to do with the seven ages of man and not everything to do with what you're actually looking at. I don't know how much of that's a factor. It does seem to me that the world is a somewhat shabbier place than it was when I was younger, and I don't know how much of that is pure sentimentalism and how much is true. But it seemed to me that there was a lot more discourse between poets of different inclinations and a sense that we were in on something big together. And that if we were all parasites on the same large wooly mammal, it was a good one. And rather than fight to see who got the most blood, we would cooperate to make sure that everybody could get a proboscis into the beast. It doesn't feel like that to me now.

Part IV

WM: I won't name names. But I was recently at a poetry event where there were three or four people of . . . more or less the poetry, these are males, this is something that happens among male poets more than among female poets, I think, about a generation below me, say, fifteen years of age, and I came into the room and they were all standing in a clump, and they all turned and looked at me, and in each of their eyes was a clear look that I could easily translate, and it said: "When you die, can I have your toys?"

This is something that happens when you're a certain age, I realize, thinking about this. I can't remember having quite such an interest. I mean, it seemed to me when I was younger that I needed people older than me to be around as long as possible, because they knew a lot of stuff that I didn't. I don't remember being on the other end of such a frankly Oedipal gaze. That feels to me as if something else may have changed. I mean, one of the things that's happened, in that regard, it may well be that, well, poetry and fiction workshops cause no harm whatsoever. What harm does a bad poem, or a bad story, cause in the world?

People who like to beat up on workshops just lament the fact that there's a club they belong to that a lot of other people can get into to. I think those motives are fairly transparent. But, in any case, one thing that may have happened as a result of the proliferation, the distribution of the opportunity to try and be a writer to a wider number of people—which, after all, is a very American idea. You know, that excellence will still be very elitist, but the opportunity will be absolutely equal—is that one thing that may happen . . . you know how many good books there are out there, which have been finalists nine times in different competitions, which are still not published, whose authors are still not quite going ahead with the next book because they're still looking over their shoulder worrying about the last book, etc.

It may be that the population has increased and that the sense of opportunity and access is diminishing because of the numbers and that that's the reason for that Oedipal gaze. It's not that these people are less generous than I was at their age; it's that they face a different demographic situation as artists. That would be my guess. And that may turn out to be the one serious problem of the proliferation of writing programs: it makes for a lot of unsatisfied people.

JH: Yeah, well, it professionalized it in a way that, ultimately, may not be that positive.

WM: Yeah.

JH: But of course, one of the things we were talking about earlier is that you were suggesting that the audience for poetry might, in fact, have grown. And I might probably credit the writing programs.

WM: I think to a great degree that's true. And that when people get out of the age bracket where it's appropriate to go to such places, then what do they do? Well, a lot of them come to writers' conferences in the summer. And they come for the same thing, it seems to me: instruction, if there's good instruction available, sure. But also they come for a little dash of courage. They come to be around other people who do this and care about it and don't think it's weird. They come to give each other courage and a certain kind of dignity that is hard to get elsewhere in the culture, so you come to these special events where it's bottled, sort of like compressed in a tank, like gas. The need for that is so real that people will pay twenty-eight hundred dollars to go to Bread Loaf, or, you know, whatever . . . two weeks of their life when they probably have three weeks vacation, etc.

I mean, that's a big deal to do that. People must really need what they think they can get. And it seems to me, at well-run writer's conferences, people do carry that home with them, in fact. They take away a renewed vigor and courage and so forth. And if there are institutions which can be a sort of support system that way, and there are a lot more people who are supported by it, then, in fact, they're more willing to take it seriously and to read the books and go to the readings. I think it has a real relationship to the growth of the audience.

JH: Richard Hugo always said that the writing workshop was one of the last places you could go and be treated like a human being in a way that made you feel deeply human.

WM: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. I think that was Dick's great genius as a teacher.

DW: Well, speaking about teaching, it sounds like these are things that do apply to your own teaching, because it sounds like you still delight in it in a way that a lot of teachers, or writing or anything else, don't necessarily maintain into their forties or fifties, or beyond.

WM: Yeah, I'm lucky. I still enjoy teaching a lot. My patience for almost everything else that goes on in academic life has plummeted, and I have had to work hard not to be fliply cynical. I spend more calories guarding against that than I used to, I notice. I hope that's not going to be a problem in the next chunk of life ahead of me. I certainly worry about it, but the actual teaching is fine. It's less likely to happen to me at this stage in my teaching career.

But I think what can damage your ability to enjoy your teaching is if you're poorly used as a teacher by the people who are in charge of assigning courses and figuring out what you can do well and what other people can do well. If you get a bad chairman who thinks it's just as easy for you to teach a fiction workshop as a poetry workshop. Or that because you can teach poetry writing you can step in and teach an essay-writing class if somebody's sick . . . I mean, there have been a couple of times in my career when I haven't enjoyed teaching anymore because I felt like I was struggling against the grain of the assignment I had been given and was being asked to do something that I didn't really have the experience or the wherewithal to do. And at that point you feel yourself flounder, and hate it.

So, for better or for worse, I have become a kind of specialist, and pretty much only teach what I'm good at teaching now. And while there are some dangers in that, it saves you from that other . . . I mean everybody's been given a couple courses like that somewhere along, and it's very painful to slog your way through those courses knowing what a mediocre job you're doing. Those are the times when I've thought: it would be easy to dislike life as a teacher if you're under the right or, in this case, wrong, circumstances.

But the stuff that can wear you down are issues of daily civility and governance in the department life, and when those things grow too complicated, you have to work very hard to seal off the actual teaching from everything else. And as the money and morale get lower and lower in the well around the country, around the educational community (and it's going to continue for the next several years), I think we're all going to spend more time, and more calories, sealing off the classroom in that way, from the rest of it. Which is going to cause a lot of steady and low-grade discomfort. I hope I'm wrong.

JH: Yeah, it certainly appears that's where we're headed. Have you noticed in terms of you teaching (you obviously still enjoy it), have you noticed a change over the years in your student writers' relationship to what they're doing . . . Have they changed?

WM: Well, the last one first: have they changed? Yes, when I first started teaching they were seventy-five percent male. They're now seventy-five percent female. I think a major change, the effects of which we've only begun to see the first results of, is that the make-up of the class is very different. It was only in the first four or five years that I taught that that proportion I described was true. This would have been in the early seventies that things started to shift. My female students routinely outnumber male students these days, and many of my best students in recent years have been women.

I think there's going to be a situation of near-equality in another generation or two, just in terms of numbers of published poets and so forth. There've been very few magazines in which the number of female writers has been fifty percent or higher, unless they were magazines specifically committed to achieving that goal. But more and more every year it's moving in that direction. I think that's a major change, the consequences of which we've only begun to glimpse or think about.

I think another thing is something you touched on when you spoke of a certain professionalization of writing programs. I think this is a problem, can be a problem. It's less a problem for me with the kind of students I have at City College, whose average age is probably thirty-five. I don't have a single student who, if you said to him or her, "What do you do?" they would say "I'm a graduate student in writing." They all have another identity, a professional or familial identity. And they're very serious as writers, and the best of them are quite skillful.

But I think for younger students than my group, which reflects being part of a big, urban university, and being part of City College, which goes out of its way to be accessible to people. All our graduate courses are at night because we assume our students have jobs. At Columbia, for example, all their classes are in the daytime, which assumes that you still have a really good financial relationship with your parents, if you ask what that assumption is. NYU, which is much more expensive than City College has an all-evening program for its graduate students.

I think there are slightly more Hispanic and Afro-American writers in workshops than there used to be. This doesn't always make the terms of the debate richer. For example, the better black students I've had at City College tend to have a very different set of assumptions about their relationship to an audience, and to a community, and to a tradition than the white students, who have no idea who they're speaking for or to, and don't think this is a problem. And the white and the black students often clash, rather affectionately. The animus is not at all racial, or cultural even. But it's . . . there's a real difference in understanding what it means to be a poet and what it means to speak as if you have an audience. Or, in the case of the white students, to speak as if you didn't know you had an audience and needed to figure out why you were speaking anyway.

And sometimes that can be an issue which—I wouldn't say it's divisive . . . I think both parties actually learn something from it, and we figure out a way to have a common vocabulary. And we go on and people from both camps do good work. And they seem less like members of camps. All the good things that should happen happen if the workshop is well-run, and the students are basically generous and honest. But at the beginning there's a real moment where people have to stop and figure out that they're not speaking in the same language, and what does this mean, and you could spend three or four of your first sessions dealing fifty percent with that and fifty percent with the poems. I think it's very different.

I haven't had since I was in Houston, where I was a visitor, just briefly, a really good . . . Well, Sandra Cisneros was a student of mine at Iowa, briefly. So I've had a couple of good Hispanic writers. And they have a very different sense of what it's like to be a poet and what position that is in the culture. I mean, these are solvable problems.

JH: Right.

WM: . . . and maybe even instructive ones. It doesn't automatically happen that when you throw more diverse types into the classroom . . . Good things don't happen right away. There are moments of real puzzlement. Including for me: I'm thinking, how am I going to do to bring these two groups together? And sometimes the thing to do is not to bring them together. Let them just bang on each other for a little while until they figure out how to do it. Everybody sort of sits up and admits to him or herself: I don't quite know how to do the next thing here.

And that's interesting, but, anyway, I think the biggest problem they face is that they have no preparation. Or what we think of as preparation. And maybe they have something that does prepare them, and we just don't recognize it because we're old fogies. But my sense is that the academic turf wars have destroyed the canon, and that there are some things that are good about that and there are some things that are very bad about it. And one of them is that it's very difficult to figure out what texts everyone in your class has read. It's a very small number.

You know, it used to be that what you did was you tried to wrestle a sort of liberal education out of your undergraduate institution, patching it together by the various things you were curious about, and then you went to graduate school and you did some more reading there. And then by the end of graduate school you had a list of stuff you wanted to go back and read or things that you'd never gotten to.

And so that there was—if you were a very active student, you know . . . you could sort of figure out a way to give yourself a, quote, literary education, if you were trying to be a literary person. But now no institution offers anything remotely like that. You go around and you give readings or you visit campuses, and you run into students who have read every word by Larry Levis, to name a poet I rather like . . . and have never opened a Greek anthology. They have no idea . . . they can't name more than nine of Shakespeare's plays. This is scandalous. This seems to me the biggest problem that these kids face. In fact, nobody was giving a liberal education to people who might want to become writers. I mean, that's not the job of a liberal education, it's much too specialized. But you could sort of pick and choose. You could kind of put one together on the roll-your-own basis if you were an undergraduate. I think it's very hard for them to arrange to have anything remotely like that. And surely they don't like hearing people like me tell them they're unprepared. And I don't: it's not acceptable discourse to say to people, you know: "You should have had horses," when no horses were available.

DW: You know, in your Selected Poems, you didn't include a lot of poems from your individual collections, which I might have expected you to include. And you also emphasized a lot of sideline work with the translations, the one-liner poem, as well as some uncollected poems. How did you hit upon the structure you employed in the Selected Poems . . . ?

WM: Well, this is partly an attempt to convert commercial considerations into artistic opportunity. Peter Davison, my editor, wanted me to compile a New and Selected. And my sense is that the new poems in a New and Selected get lost. And don't get read with the same curiosity, or in the same richness of context, which they would if they were in a book by themselves. So I thought: What can I offer him that will relieve me of the need to bury some new poems in a New and Selected, as I thought of it, maybe a little melodramatically. And then the stuff that is sideline-ish in nature is stuff I'm fond of.

I actually thought of the Selected more as a chance to rescue stuff from being out of print than as a way of representing myself, whom I hardly know, in that way. I mean, to be asked to have a historical perspective on yourself as a writer is an impossible and perhaps a dangerous task, I thought.

There's a longish uncollected poem in there called "The Waste Carpet," which is a poem I've always liked. It's the only one I revised. Everything else in that book is completely unrevised. My superstition is that's as it should be. That rather than gussying up your earlier work you should just be writing new poems. But I liked that poem so much that I revised about the last quarter of it. Not heavily, but significantly. The small changes I made made a lot of difference, or so it seemed. Because I'd always liked that poem and hadn't quite got it right. Other than that, I've basically thought, this is stuff I don't want to see go into oblivion before it's time, since I've been given an opportunity to rescue some of it.

I think the other thing that I found myself acting on, or maybe I only realized after the fact that I had done this, was that I had a slight tendency to prefer poems that had been under . . . that I thought were under-loved, or under-anthologized. Poems that I really liked, seemed to have liked more than others did. I thought that I would give the world a second chance to fall in love with them.

So I didn't treat it as a knowledgeable self-portrait of myself as a writer at all. And I just thought, well, what can I resuscitate? I mean, books go out of print so much faster, now that the warehousing costs have become the major financial issue for publishers. Things don't stay in print as long as they used to. It seems to me that they may need the second chance that a Selected Poems presents.

JH: Did you feel as though something significant had happened in your life, now that the Selected was out?

WM: Well, I think of it as one of the seven warning signs of being fifty, for a poet. The other thing it offers people a chance to do—because there a very few readers who have been with you the whole time—is it offers anybody who wants to a chance to read you chronologically, for whatever narrative that implies. And becoming officially someone to whom that can be done . . . I'm not quite sure what it does, but, as with the anecdote of the three Oedipal younger poets, it makes you aware that you're passing into a different stage in the eyes of the world. I don't think it feels particularly different to me. But the poetry world is invited to look at you in a slightly different way, some of which will come, normally, with the passage of time. But some won't happen unless there are milestones, like a Selected. And I probably only notice the crudest differences, in that regard, but I'm aware that they're happening.

JH: A little bit about this book you're writing now. But are you looking ahead at all in terms of where you want your poetry to go?

WM: I never have. It's always found a next thing to do. And I've always trusted that it will, without thinking too much about it. The one thing I could possibly predict is that I think there's going to be more translation than there has been until the very recent past. I didn't really do much after the Follain book until the Martial book, which is now just out. And I am two-thirds of the way through with a translation of Horace's Satires. This is a more considerable task than the Martial, just because of the length of those poems, which are . . . only a couple of which are below a hundred lines in length, for example.

And I have accepted a commission, not a commission that actually contains any money, so not a commission, but an invitation to translate for a new series of verse translations of the Greek tragedies. A big systematic edition which the University of Pennsylvania Press is going to use to announce its new director and new ambitions. It's the guy that used to be director at Johns Hopkins, which did a lot of stuff in translation. The classics. I'm going to do Prometheus Bound. It seems to me that opportunities to do translation are arriving, either on my own, by my own device, or by somebody else's. And I find that I welcome them whenever they show up. And that I like doing . . . working on two things at once.

And the current book is titled—the answer to this may suggest why I don't have longer range plans than I do—the current book is a title stolen from a Scott Joplin rag: Strenuous Life, it's called. And in the last three years or so, my father died and my wife got a cancer that was just . . . was first told was fatal. And then it was rediagnosed. It was a very aggressive tumor that took a year of treatment—a year of constant chemotherapy and radiation. At the end of that time, when the treatment was over and the first diagnostic tests, MRI's, etc. were taken, and there was the possibility that the tumor was entirely gone (that this incredibly aggressive tumor had been repelled by an incredibly wearing and aggressive treatment), her mother died. And she went to Rochester to do the stuff you do in the wake of a parent's death, and has stayed in Rochester ever since. In very good health, but absolutely unwilling to come back to New York, which in some way she associates with her illness.

I've been under siege for, you know, for three years, in some way. Which I take as an opportunity not to treat yourself like a fort. But the concatenation of all that led me to think about writing a book such as a title like Strenuous Life suggests, the degree to which life requires tremendous exertion. And to write a series of poems which are all written in the gravitational pull of that idea, somewhat the way that everything in a Happy Childhood is in the gravitational pull of its concerns. Or the looser one of Foreseeable Futures, which comes about from writing a book in which you think all the time about the past. And you think one day: Gee, it's really difficult, in fact, to think about the future. The fact that you have to ask to be a plural. You don't think of only one: if A then B, if B then this. etc. So in that book the drawstrings are less tightly pulled because of the nature of the thing that you're looking at, which is only barely visible.

But anyway, I'm preceded by a series of crude curiosities which then the book is an adventure in trying to refine and to map. I mean, at the present my job is just to finish Strenuous Life, which is about unusual strenuousnesses on the one hand, but there's a poem or two that I'm going to write for it which are about a subject I've never written about before, but which . . . it seems to me in some ways so obvious that you can't ignore it. Which is that I've had, for years, various durable but endurable orthopedic problems. And the truth of the matter is that for most of my adult life I've been in bearable but steady pain. There's a dull roar from this at all times.

And I want to write about . . . I want to write a little bit about physiology and pain. And managing pain, and ignoring it, and living with it, and so forth. So the title has started to cull in all kinds of possibilities. And to remind me of things that I might have paid more explicit attention to, but didn't. Because, you know, who wants to hear himself complain, you know. It's what you first think. But on the other hand you think: now wait a minute, I think about this, I have feelings about this. You know, just because it's not polite to stop strangers on the street and talk to them about this doesn't mean that you shouldn't be writing about this. So what's always happened to me is that some set of fairly practical concerns and curiosities have suggested an enterprise that you try and shape into a book, sort of a somewhat focused curiosity.

I have no idea what the next one will be, but they don't stop. My assumption is that it will come along. I've never thought that it would be a good thing or a bad thing to write a long poem, for example, which might be one of the answers to the question, what do you foresee? I never wanted to do it, but it doesn't mean that it wouldn't happen. But the reason for writing it would be that something would come up. There would be some, essentially, a life problem that I would think, you know, this is the best way that I know how to think about this. And then I would set out to do it. At a certain point you realize: I can't do it in the usual space. And then it would happen. Otherwise, it won't. And I haven't . . . I think I'm going to translate Horace's Epodes, when I get done with the Satires. And I'm sort of interested in translating Ovid's Amores, not the Ars Amoratia, but the Amores, the slangier, more discursive, less didactic, more dramatic poems, which I think are more interesting than the Art of Love, and which have not been particularly well-translated.

It's funny, some places, you know . . . Martial has probably had the best attention of any of those people. Horace's Satires, you know, Pope translated a few of them. And a few of the Epistles, but those, well, those are your benchmarks. But after that, it's been mostly classicists with indifferent skills as versifiers. And there's a body of that stuff that has not received any really good, serious attention. There's been good jobs by classicists who love them as poems and do the best they can, but that's not what you need.

JH: Especially, I mean, enormous reception of Pinsky's translation of Dante made it seem as if people are sort of dying to go back to read things that they think of as poetry and want that opportunity to do it.

WM: I think all that stuff should be translated every generation anyway, and the tendency has been for publishers to go out and hire a hip classicist to do it, and that's better than nothing. But, sure, the Pinsky translation is wonderful fun to read. He did a really good job with it. Doesn't have that much Italian, and he did a good job with it. It's an astonishing performance.

DW: There's a Raphael translation, The Essential Horace, but that's pretty . . . I think that's one of the last.

WM: That's really the last one. And I think sometimes his tone is very close to right, and others sound to me at times very far off. The British translations of Horace have always made him sound like a slightly bookish English dog with a faint proclivity for dung-pitching boys. And on the one hand, or an old . . . a kind of better Polonius at the worst. But actually, Horace's sort of continuous good sense has a lot of self-parody and complication in it, and it feels to me Pope's translations seem to me just right. But he only did about five of them. And maybe that's what scared away people in the interim. But anyway, there's possible work to be done in that area that it may be that I'll get to.

JH: Sounds as though that when you're translating, you're writing as well.

WM: Yeah, I'm usually writing as well. In fact, I went on a little spree. I had a . . . until about ten days ago I was writing extremely well and extremely fast, and I dropped the Horace completely. I haven't touched it for about six weeks. And then, the last week or so, I've been doing nothing. And I've been quite content. Now I'm beginning to start to itch again, and I may well start by doing a Horace satire or two and then I'll go back to the book that I'm working on now. But I often alternate and sometimes work on both projects in the same day.

DW: So when you translate, do you do a literal translation first? Or do you consult other translations?

WM: I consult other translations and, in the case of the Martial, I had a stack of about five Martial translations. He's been well-served. Dudley Fitts did a translation that's pretty good, and Rolfe Humphries did a translation. There's one by James Michie, the Scots poet, which I don't like quite as well as either of those, but which in a few places is very good. And then there are various other, you know, translations.

The person who I think would have been perfect for Martial at one stage of his writing life, maybe which . . . which may not have lasted long enough to do a book of a hundred, which is what I wound up doing . . . was J. V. Cunningham, who I think would have been a great translator of Martial. But he did three, and they're perfect. But that was it.

So I used all of those, in the . . . I have about three translations, none of which I particularly like. But they're all done by classicists who are better Latinists than I am. And so occasionally there'll be something . . . you know I'll look at the Latin, and I'll look at their translations, and I'll say: Oh, I see why he did that. That's, you know, that's an unusual ablative construction, and he's so much of a classicist he's trying to preserve that. But the way you do that in English is . . . I mean, so there's stuff to be learned from them, even if the verse translation is sometimes not what I think it ought to be. There are still times that some of the historical . . . I've worked up a lot of historical background stuff and now I'm pretty good; I could go on a quiz show and do fine.

But I don't know everything that somebody who's studied Latin literature all his life does, and occasionally their footnotes are really helpful. The kind of stuff that you need to know that about . . . it's not, you know, it's not the mythology or identifying the various emperors and stuff. But that if you're being asked to acknowledge . . . in the Roman courts, and this was when people were still outside, they're in forum scuffing up the dirt and the stones, and somebody from the court comes out and says, "We believe that so-and-so is the defendant in this suit. Can you identify him?" And if you can, you signify by turning your head so they can touch your earlobe. And there's a famous passage in Horace that I never figured out, in which somebody touches the earlobe. You just needed to run across somebody whose knowledge of Roman legal practice was good enough that they could tell you that. You know, you could tell that you were missing something. There's something here that I don't know, but I have no idea what it was or where to look for it. It's stuff like that. That's the stuff where you're really glad for the experts, even though their translations may not be too zippy.

JH: Right. You have plenty to do.

WM: Oh that's fine. Stuff I've been reading since I was a boy. It's another one of those things . . . I thought a couple of times when I was younger, I thought: when I'm old enough, which I'm not yet, I'm going to do this. And I didn't have any specific program for what I had to do to be old enough. But I just knew that I wasn't quite up to it yet. But I had always thought that I would do at least Martial, and then if the Martial went well, then I would take a deep breath and do Horace. And if I could do Horace, I can surely do the Amores, which are not as complicated as . . . technically or intellectually. Horace is really . . . he's as good as Virgil, he just doesn't like writing about people who aren't alive. And, of course, Virgil doesn't write about anybody who isn't either a god or a fictional character.