An Interview with Rae Armantrout
Twentieth-century poets, such as Williams, Pound, Moore, and others, are known for their innovations and distinctive voices. But, like all artists, they began as readers of poetry steeped in the traditions of their day. Contemporary poets often begin with the traditions established by their predecessors. As they find their own voices, they begin to hand down their own traditions.
The work of Rae Armantrout is informed by the poetry she admired early in her life, when the conventions of poetry were being questioned, changed and recreated. Like her predecessors, the tradition that she studied, and still studies to this day, enabled her to find her own voice as an artist.
Armantrout, a native Californian, was educated at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University and she currently teaches at the University of California at San Diego. Her most recent book of poetry, Versed, was nominated for the National Book Award and honored with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
“I write so that I won't be passively assaulted by sensations, events, statements, etc. I write to ‘talk back’ to the world,” says Armantrout. “I guess I feel it's polite to answer when you've been addressed. I write when I feel puzzled. I think in writing or by writing. William Carlos Williams said, ‘The poet thinks with his (sic) poem.’ That seems right, at least to me.
“I was an only child. My mother worked and I spent a lot of time on my own. I wrote and read to keep myself company. I still do that. When I was in seventh grade, an English teacher named Mrs. Hancock gave me the Louis Untermeyer anthology of modern poetry, and I discovered Eliot and especially Williams. That was the start of my apprenticeship.”
Like the work of Williams, the poems in Versed are constructed of words very carefully and precisely arranged on the page. The look of the poem is important. Nevertheless, all poetry has a strong element of music. The poems in Versed are no exception. Where, then, do the visual images and sounds of the poem begin?
“I do see my work as aural in that it doesn't please me until it sounds good/right to me,” says the poet. “I think there is an interesting conflation that happens between sounding good and sounding right as in ‘true.’ This gives me pause -- and I like to play around with it and give other people ‘pause’ as well. I read my poems aloud to myself as I work on them.
“The question of where the poems come from is different. They can begin with something I see, hear, read, dream, or think as long as that input is accompanied by some kind of feeling. What really gets me going is when something provokes a feeling in me that I don't quite understand.
“I discovered Williams, Eliot, and Dickinson when I was in my teens,” Armantrout says. “When I was about 20, I somehow started reading Denise Levertov. Her work showed the Williams influence, of course. When I transferred to UC Berkeley as a junior, Levertov was teaching there and I took a class with her. She made me think harder about line break and she got me reading Robert Creeley. I made friends with a fellow student named Rochelle Nameroff who was married to Ron Silliman. Ron was the first person my own age I knew who was totally committed to poetry and, beyond that, to ‘making it new.’ I showed him the poems I was writing and waited for his mysteriously authoritative verdict. (I still do that.) Later, when I lived in San Francisco, I met other friends who came to be known as Language Writers. We challenged and encouraged one another. Many of them began writing long ‘new sentence’ prose poems, at least for a while. I experimented with that form but decided it wasn't really for me. Still, my relationship with these poet friends encouraged my already existing interest in parataxis and unusual juxtapositions.”
There are numerous examples of these juxtapositions in Ms. Armantrout’s most recent work, Versed. One of the poems in that collection, “In Place,” pairs such themes as life and death, the spiritual and the temporal, and the abstract and the concrete. These contrasting images create energy as well as a sense of mystery. A reader can see that mystery as an end in itself or he or she can try to reconcile those juxtapositions.
“I think we continue to find meaning(s) as we go along, but we never arrive at a final synthesis,” Armantrout says about the ways in which readers can approach her work. “The dissonances and consonances will keep coming as long as we’re alive, thinking, reading and writing.
“I’m glad you brought up ‘In Place,’ because it’s a poem I’m fond of and reviewers never seem to mention it. The first section goes:
We’ve been seated
in the afterlife.
it’s a good night
when the impala sprints off,
a good night
when the pride rips
at the carcass.
“In those lines, ‘we’ arrive at a synthesis of opposing positions (the impala’s position and the lions’) by rather suspect means. We’re in an ‘afterlife’ that’s a lot like the living room where we sit in our apparent human safety and comfort, detached, watching the 'struggle for survival' on television with the god’s eye-view equanimity that our abstraction affords us. Our tranquility is disturbed, though, by the word ‘afterlife’ which reminds us that, if we aren’t dead already, we soon will be. So this tranquility or ‘synthesis’ has a deathly aura.”
The images in this poem come from the poet’s imagination and her wish to “talk back to the world.” Her poetic sensibilities are her own, but, in some sense, when her poems “talk back to the world,” they become a part of the world. To what degree, then, is her work a part of a larger poetic tradition?
“I really have no idea what contemporary poetry would be like without the pathbreaking work of Williams, Stein, Stevens, Eliot, Pound, and Moore,” says Armantrout. “Personally I was most conscious of the influence of Williams. From him I learned the musical possibilities of the short line, the uses of enjambment, and the importance of looking at what’s around you. I was also struck early on by the way he incorporated overheard speech into his poems. But, of course, I’ve been influenced by the other Modernists too. Like pretty much everyone else, I learned about pastiche from Eliot and Pound. We were all encouraged to incorporate research data into poetry by the work of Marianne Moore. And from Stevens (as well as Dickinson) I must have learned something about mixing the abstract with the concrete.
“I was taken with Levertov’s work when I was in my early 20s, but now I find her poems a bit too simple for my taste. The conflicts in her poems seem largely external, seldom, if ever internal. In other words, she doesn’t argue with herself or really catch herself in error. She doesn’t dabble in the absurd. I think great poets do all these things. Of course, such judgment laden words make me a bit uncomfortable, but I feel, now, that Levertov is a good poet, not a great one.”
In our time, it the tradition of contemporary poetry is most often handed down in the classroom. Many readers of poetry, and literary forms, can look back to reading a book in school that began a life long love of books. Most readers of poetry were first introduced to the art by a teacher. Given that, it is no coincidence that many influential poets of our time are also teachers.
“My job as a teacher is to try to create readers, especially poetry readers,” says Armantrout. “Poetry (on the page at least) is a foreign language to most young people. Of course, there are always a few who get interested. When they say they’re changing their major from Bioengineering to Writing, as one did the other day, I think, ‘My God, what have I done?’ Sometimes I feel jaded. It’s as if I’ve been saying the same things to the same 20 year old for at least 25 years. You have to remind yourself that it’s new each time to him or her. Sometimes I wish I had a job where I could be quiet, maybe as a jeweler cutting stones. But if poets don’t pass on the enthusiasm for poetry, who will? There aren’t many scholars doing that these days.”
Earlier this year, Versed was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In a time when poetry is considered more a fine art than a popular one, it is noteworthy that a committee that honors works of journalism, biography and history also honors poetical works.
“This has been quite an experience for me,” says the poet on winning the Pulitzer Prize. “Until about three or four years ago, I was barely aware of awards. Poets ‘like me’ seldom if ever won them. Even this year, I didn’t know when the Pulitzer was given. It wasn’t like I was checking the Twitter feed to see if it would be me. It came out of the blue. In fact, I sometimes worry that the recognition I’ve gotten recently means that I’m losing my edge. I’m almost relieved when someone attacks my work. But, on the other hand, I’m really pleased that the awards have brought attention to Versed and that more people are reading it. (What they’ll make of it is another matter.)
“It amazes me to learn just how much media attention the Pulitzer, especially, generates. I wasn’t ready for that. My life has gotten strange in the last few weeks. I’ve begun to collect stories. For instance, yesterday I received a large manila envelope from someone in Georgia. Inside I found a blank index card and a handwritten note on yellow paper. The note read, ‘Congratulations on your well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. I haven’t read your book because it isn’t on my Kindle. Please send me an autographed photo and sign the index card on the unlined side. Feel free to write a few lines of verse.’ He considerately included a stamped, self-addressed envelope.”