What writers most inspire you? What writers do you think your work is most like?
I’m most moved by writers whose expression of the truth is as straightforward as possible (as Einstein put it, “as simple as possible but no simpler.”) There’s a big difference between language that’s complex and language that’s complicated. I have increasingly little patience for complication. Human life is crazy enough as it is! For quite a few years now I’ve been reading the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets (in no particular order): Han Shan, Du Fu, Li Po, Basho, Issa, Ryokan . . . I love the way their voices feel intimate and confiding, yet could come from any century at all. That’s immortality! I’ve learned a lot from them about how much you can leave out, and how to keep the focus outside of the self and its private dramas. As for more modern and contemporary poets, I’m a huge fan of Robinson Jeffers for his ecological prescience, Elizabeth Bishop for her imaginative daring, and early Merwin, particularly The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders for lessons on how to write absolutely clearly.
No matter how much or how little autobiographical your poetry really is, your collection Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been reads like an autobiography at some points. How do you describe your work to friends or family who know the part your life that you have written about? Do you ever feel the need to explain yourself or your work to them?
Many people assume that the voice in poems is that of the actual poet. Funny how that same assumption is rarely made when it comes to novels. But poems are fictions too, and often get at their crucial truths by making things up. Lying, in other words! Although there are a few things in those poems that actually happened to me, most are either wholly or partially invented. Not in an effort to camouflage anything, but because there were better images, more direct paths to the mysteries I was exploring. Poetry is, after all, a form of exploring. We don’t write because “we have something to say” but rather to find out what it is we have to say. My mother once got quite upset about something she read in my poems. She said she’d had no idea I’d gone through X, Y, and Z. I said, But Mom, I make it all up! And she responded, O, I’m so relieved!
Have you ever written in another genre besides poetry? If not, what you imagine your fiction or dramatic writing would be like?
I tried to write stories in college. It was hopeless. My teacher said I began each one in the middle and ended it in the middle of the next story. He was completely flummoxed. My mind just doesn’t see the world as narrative, I guess.
With inspirational art teachers in your past and many years teaching experience yourself, what do you think is the role of teachers in a young person’s artistic development? What is your educational philosophy?
I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone to write good poems. It’s certainly possible to teach people to read, to be more sensitive to language, and to pay closer attention to their own. But the making of poems involves a weird kind of insatiable curiosity that’s very inconvenient, far too inconvenient for most people to pursue beyond the fantasy of being a poet. It’s a pretty strange thing to do, if you think about it: devoting one’s life to pondering minute distinctions between this phrasing and that. But a good teacher can speed up an apprenticeship, and streamline a young poet’s reading so that they don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. A teacher can also be an early audience, a reality check, a source of encouragement, which is hard to come by.
What was your scariest moment in writing?
My scariest moment in writing is (not was) every time I think I’ll never write another line, which is often.
Your work contains many memorable phrases – “horses where the answers should have been” and many others. In your writing process, do these phrases come first and jump start the poem or do you find them in the midst of writing the poem?
Both. Sometimes a poem begins with a rhythmic phrase, or a few words locked together for reasons still mysterious to me. Sometimes a poem is born of the sheer need to say something, though I may start with exactly zero in mind. I think everyone’s different. Most often, the right words will emerge after many false starts and wrong turns, but if I’m stubborn, they eventually make themselves known to me.
How did you meet your husband?
I was teaching in the graduate program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was about as far from my New England background as you can get and still be on the planet. I was disoriented and unhappy, though there were many things I also loved about it. It was a great job with great people. Russell (Banks) came to town as a visiting professor, another Yankee in alien territory. So we naturally found one another. It took me the entire semester to figure out I was in love with him. We were best friends first, so it was like an old-fashioned courtship. I feel lucky to have met him that way.
Do you feel as if discovering Zen Buddhism has made any important differences in your writing?
That’s the big question! I could write a book about this (and may have to). My study of Zen has put me through the poetry meat-grinder. It has called into question just about every assumption I’ve ever had about the self, memory, and the making of art. Zen holds (this is the bouillon cube version!) that what we regard as our “self” is a fiction that we spend a lifetime building and then maintaining. The only problem is, it’s a phantom. The work of Zen is to learn to see the world (including the self) for what it really is: constant flux. If we can relax into endless change, we can let go of what we cling to in order to feel permanent. Impermanence is scary, after all! For a number of years now I’ve grappled with this alternative view of “reality” (for lack of a better word) and have fought an internal battle between believing in the truth of Buddhist insight (which seems intellectually obvious to me) and failing to be able to directly perceive it that way. The poems went through a sort of carwash during this time: only the essential, no decoration, no dust, no distracting stories! But now I find myself beginning to reassert my oldest convictions about things (which don’t contradict what Zen teaches, but put a radically different spin on it): that we are a strange and self-destructive species, that the earth was Eden, that the mind is the inventor of our reality, that we know next to nothing about our universe, and that poetry is the path I was born to walk on. When I came to consciousness, it was under my feet. Why me? Who knows? It’s just one of the things I’m stuck with, like narrow feet and a crazy love of dogs.