The Uncontrollable Elements:
An Interview with Mark Strand
Mark Strand at the Library of Congress.
photo credit: Library of Congress
Mark Strand was the fourth US Poet Laureate (serving
from 1990-1991 at the Library of Congress). This interview was held
at the Library of Congress on January 22, 1991 and was originally published
in the March/April issue of the Writer's Center Carousel.
Nordhaus: How does it feel to be Poet Laureate/Consultant
in Poetry of a state which seems to be at war?
Strand: Well, my thoughts clearly are confused. The
war is new and I find myself watching it on TV both in horror and astonishment
at the technological virtuosity we display. Part of me is thrilled by
it . . . . but, then, it's so removedyou're getting an edited
version of the war thrice removed, pictures that were taken in a moving
aircraft transposed to another medium. What it does is create distance
. . . .
Nordhaus: On the subject of distance . . . your first
three books: Reasons for Moving, Darker, and The Story of
Our Lives, appeared during the Vietnam years, and yetwith a
few exceptions, they contain little direct reference to the war. I wonder
whether surrealism isn't, in itself, a form of resistance. In the context
of Eastern European poetry, for instance, surrealism has been viewed
as a response to political repression.
Strand: That's not necessarily true. Surrealism isn't
the only way one has of resisting. For instance, the Italians at the
time of fascism wrote hermetic verse. Surrealist poetry initially was
revolutionary. It wasn't an opposition to direct repression. It had
to do with the cumulative repression of the literary canon.
Nordhaus: What about psychological repressionin
"Eating Poetry, " those dogs in the basement?
Strand: Yes, that's interesting. When I wrote that poem,
I wasn't sure what I was writing about. It took me weeks to figure it
out, and you're rightpsychological repression is a feature of
that poem. The dogs are the self that would be liberated. They are the
animal, impulsive, uncontrollable elements in my nature, especially
in my appetite for poetry. The librarian represents somethingmore
polite, conventional. Probably my mother!
Nordhaus: Throughout your work, there are mirrorings
and reversals. I'm thinking of poems like "The Man in the Tree,
" or "The Tunnel, " where identities are confused or
reversed, in later poems like "The Story Of Our Lives" and
"Reading in Place, " where the distinction between the poem
and the world it supposedly reflects is confused or blurred.
Strand: It's not really a confusion. In the earlier
poems, in "The Tunnel" for example, I'm talking about two
parts of the same person working on each other. In "Reading in
Place" the reality of the reader plays against the action of the
poem. The poem's action presents another reality.
Nordhaus: In "Itself Now " the poem becomes
a metaphor for human life.
Strand: I guess it's related to the fact that I'm a
reader. Reading is all I do. And I'm not a particular or discriminating
reader. I don't go to the movies. I don't go anywhere. Reading is my
Nordhaus: Some of the other poems in your new book,
poems like "Narrative Poetry" and "Translation, "
take on intellectual and critical issues and attempt to enact the processes
they discuss. The undertaking is audacious; the danger is that such
poems can become emotionally remote.
Strand: Yes. It's hard to discuss these issues in a
diction that isn't academicized. I try to do it in a playful and palatable
way, to embed it in a humorous context, the human context of our everyday
Nordhaus: Can you talk about the formal impulses
in the new book?
Strand: Two-thirds of the poems in the book were in
rhyme and meter in rough drafts. I started out writing in forms. The
early poems were rhymed and metrical. The book I'm working on now will
have very little prose; two-thirds of the poems will be in rhyme and
metercouplets, sonnets. It's fun to do. The lines will continue
to be long: a long and languorous line with a lot of internal rhyme
and assonance. When you're rhyming short lines and the rhymes occur
with too much frequency, the poems become very song-like. It's not a
sound I feel I should capitalize on in my poetry; it tends to trivialize.
Also, the longer the line, the more time you have to prepare for the
Nordhaus: I wanted to ask you about the significance
of the title, The Continuous Life. The book is a departure from
and at the same time a continuation of your earlier work, and it comes
after a ten-year hiatus.
Strand: That wasn't intentional, but, of course, it
can have all kinds of meanings. It's the title of a poem in the book,
not I think a representative poem, but one that many peoplemany
non-addicted readers of poetryliked. And, then, it seemed sort
of positive. I have this desire not to appearoverly dark.
Nordhaus: I've always wanted to ask about "The
Untelling." The obsessive, repetitive structure of that poem creates
such enormous emotional tension. The Freudians talk aboiit "screcii
incinories " imagined scenes that have the compelling quality
of tnenioriesand I've wondered if something of that sort isn't
at work here.
Strand: The event itself is conjured up. It's not a
real moment, but a mixture, a conflation of moments. It's about the
impossibility of capturing the reality of the past, the impossibility
of getting to the truth in language. The poem the narrator is attempting
to write is ambitious. It's in blank verse. It tries to recover a moment
in the past, to get the moment to enact itself again, but it fails.
One can't get to the truth.
Nordhaus: "The Untelling" also reminds
me, somehow, of Elizabeth
Bishop's "The Waiting Room." Both poems focus
with so much intensity on a particular moment ofa child's coming-to-consciousness.
Strand: All, but that's a great poem. She has such enormous
economy and restraint. I don't know how she does it. ["The Untelling"]
is all about failure. It's a fumbling poem. I wouldn't write those poems
[in The Story of Our Lives] now. At the time, I couldn't have
written them differently. I was so much in the middle of all that material.
I guess they wouldn't be different if I were writing them now. But they're
not poems I care for now, not the kind of poems I like to read.
Nordhaus: What about "Shooting Whales"which
was a little later, I think..
Strand: I think that's one of my best poemsbecause
there's a synthesis of lyrical and narrative elements; the lyrical component
is not overwhelmed by the awkwardnessthe klunkiness of narrative.
And the narrative isn't interrupted by lyrical digressions. Narrative
is so linear and predictable. What's difficult is to find the blend
of lyricism and action that will produce an energized narrative progression.
Nordhaus: I know you originally planned to be a painter.
Can you talk a little about the switch from painting to poetry?
Strand: I was an art student at the time, at Yale, but
I'd lost interest in painting, and I started taking English classes.
I'd been drawing since I was twelve or thirteen. It was assumed in the
family, and by my teachers, that I'd be an artist someday. But when
I got to Yale and spent time around real painters, I knew I wasn't.
I was looking at other people's work and didn't have a vision of my
own. I didn't have a vision of what I wanted.
Nordhaus: And did you, when you started writing?
Strand: I wanted to sound like Wallace Stevens,
like Lorca, whoever I was reading at the time. I tried
to duplicate what they did. I'd diagram their sentences, reproduce their
stanzas. I was fascinated by their poetry, but I didn't understand it.
Your ability to understand poetry increases with the effort you put
into your own poetry. The young read in a superficial way.
Nordhaus: You worked very hard.
Strand: I was insane, crazed, wholly absorbed. I led
a charmed life at Yale. I lived in the L. and B. Library. I had no money.
I worked at Mory's, delivered laundry. My last year, I taught freehand
drawing. My first poems were about paintingthey appeared in the
Yale literary magazine. I had a year between graduation and my Fulbright
to Italy, and I'd discovered the direction my life would take.
Nordhaus: What kind of family did you have? Clearly
they encouraged your interests in art and literature.
Strand: Books were the most important things in my household.
My parents were middle-class Jewish intellectuals, but of an odd stripe.
My father, though he was Jewish, grew up in a Catholic orphanage. He
left the orphanageand schoolwhen he was in the fifth grade;
but he read widely and learned languages and had a lively mind. He was
smart, a great story-teller, animated. My mother was born in New York
City, but raised in Quebec. Her father was a brilliant linguist. He
was chief censor for the Canadian government during World War I. He
knew Lithuanian, Latvian, the Ruthenian languages; he translated the
letters of prisoners of war. My mother was very beautiful and artistic,
somewhat reserved. She studied art, and later, when my father's business
took us to Latin America, she became an archaeologist.
Nordhaus: And what did they read? Did they read poetry?
Strand: My parents read little poetry, but they remembered
the poems they'd learned as children. My father used to say he read
as a way of reaching places that he couldn't scratch. He'd memorize
what he read, Rabelais, pages and page of it, prose,
and poems, too. He washow shall I say thishe was a willing
prey of rhetoric. It was a way in which he entered into rapture. Also,
they read for information. Remember, my parents were living through
the depression in a time of political uncertainty. They were Communists
in the early thirties and then left the party. People with such uncertainty
built into their lives cling to prose, to non-fiction.
Nordhaus: And what kind of reader are you?
Strand: I read to steal. Also for rapture, for transport.
I learned to read late and was left back half a year in the fifth gradebecause
I was in another world, a day-dreamer. And I was interested in sports;
I couldn't stay inside. At 16, that changed. I became bookish. By 18
or 19, I'd struck a kind of balance, but I always felt I had a lot of
catching up to do.
Nordhaus: The general reader doesn't read poetry
Strand: I don't think poetry reveals itself quickly
enough for the general reader; and, remember, poems are about a great
many things at once, including their relationship to other poems.
Nordhaus: What are your thoughts about aging and
writing? Do poets improve as they mature?
Strand: You feel you can do better; you have more skill,
experience, whatever, but what you write doesn't have the energy, the
spark. Take Wordsworth, for example. The 1850 "Prelude"
is slightly better written than the 1805 versionbut the 1805 "Prelude"
is more powerful, a little less graceful. The good thing about getting
older is that you're not as ambitious, you're able to risk more. You
feel greater existential certainty about your being, but, then, you're
not as free as you are free to be, because you're bound by years and
years of using words that have become your words, writing in a manner
that has become your manner. One has the authority to experiment but
would have to reconstruct a new self in order to write the new poetry.
The poems in The Continuous Lifethey may look different,
sound different, but they're still my poems. I suppose if I wrote a
book on raising cabbages, it would still sound like my book.
Nordhaus: Since so many of our readers attend writing
workshops, I'd like to ask for your views about teaching poetry.
Strand: I like teaching, in moderation. I like it best
when I do little, but I do like doing some of it. I don't have much
use for workshops. Workshops can be destructive and painful if they're
good. If they're bad, you don't learn anything. When I teach, nobody
hands in their own poems. I give assignments that isolate particular
problemsaspects of sentence structure, quatrains, couplets. That
way we can suggest changes, and it doesn't hurt so much. The assignments
I teach a course in Experimental Writing. We look at
great beginnings and endings of novelsfor the intensity of invitation,
the degree of resolution, etc. I give the students 15 chapter titles,
and short novels are written over the course of the class. I also teach
a course in European Short FictionBorges, Kleist,
Gogol, Kafka, Calvino,
and Kundera. Also, Barthelme. Barthelme
is a writer I feel very drawn to.
Nordhaus: Has your position at the Library of Congress
been good for your writing?
Strand: I'm just starting to write again now. It's been
a year since I've written. I'm working on a big poem, part verse, part
prose, called "The Posthumous Valley." It's a post-apocalyptic
vision. The closest thing to it I can think of is the movie "Road
Warrior." The poem is about a band of people who enter a burned
out citycivilizationbut they can't stay. And then they meet
another band who turn out to be themselves...
Nordhaus: Earlier we talked about reversals of identity
ansd mirrorings in some of your earliest poems. We seem to be back at
Strand: Yes, but on a larger scale, a much, much vaster
Nordhaus's books include My Life
in Hiding, A Bracelet of Lies, and The Porcelain Apes
of Moses Mendelssohn, which was published by Milkweed Editions in
2002. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, New
Republic, Poetry, Best American Poetry 2000, and The
Other Side of the Hill: 1975-1995, an anthology of poems by the
Capitol Hill Poetry Group, published by Forest Woods Media Productions
in 1996. Nordhaus has served as Coordinator of the Folger Shakespeare
Library's poetry programs and as President of Washington Writers' Publishing
House. She lives in Washington, DC.
Published in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009.
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