So That Letter Becomes Dinner

Armantrout first began working at UCSD in 1981 as a part-time lecturer. Nearly 30 years later — a staple professor for LTWR 8B: Writing Poetry — she insists her appreciation for the written word has only increased.

“I always knew that I wanted to write poetry,” she said. Her mother would often read poetry aloud when she was a child, fostering a respect of the written word that bloomed as she got older. Down the line, Armantrout found herself most drawn to prehensile poets like Emily Dickinson, whose cerebral conceits and economical approach had a heavy influence on Armantrout’s own poetry.

In the preface to “Veil” — a 2001 selection of Armantrout’s poems — fellow poet and critic Ron Silliman described her poetry as “the literature of the anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical … possibilities.”

After transferring from San Diego State to UC Berkeley in 1969, Armantrout found herself surrounded by a gyre of Vietnam War protests and social activism. It was there that fellow students noticed her budding poetic prowess and encouraged her to pursue the written word more seriously.

“It was very exciting. Having people take my poetry seriously — taking poetry seriously at all was exciting,” Armantrout said.

In the late 1960s, Armantrout and some friends formed a community of poets who sought to investigate the structure of language — not unlike master modernist Louis Zukofsky, a poetic precursor — with a conversational tone. They were later dubbed the Language Poets, and included the likes of Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Steve Benson and Lyn Hejinian.

“It was intense, because all of those people were very smart and took themselves very seriously,” Armantrout said.

After earning her master’s in creative writing at San Francisco University, Armantrout moved back to San Diego in 1978. Initially, she felt alienated from her former home. But after spending the next couple years raising son Aaron, with her husband Chuck Korkegian, Armantrout finally landed a job at UCSD. Colleagues like Michael Davidson, she said, helped to ease the transition from Northern California — where Armantrout was surrounded with like-minded modernists — to Southern California.

Still, she faced some opposition from staunch academics when she began almost two decades ago.

“When I first taught poetry here, people tended to be resistant to modern poetry.” Armantrout said. “They tended to feel that poetry should rhyme and look like romantic poetry or Shakespearean sonnets. Now, they seem much less resistant.”

Marshall College senior Thomas Trudgeon — who’s currently working with Armantrout on his honors thesis — said he admires Armantrout for her modern approach to language.

“She’s a total sweetheart and makes you engage with language in ways you had never thought of before,” Trudgeon said. “She’s always been the sturdy backbone to the program and one of the more alluring attractions. In fact, she’s one of the reasons why I came to UCSD when I was in high school.”

After she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, Armantrout underwent surgery and chemotherapy. It was largely her ability to investigate her own mortality from an objective standpoint in “Dark Matter” that raked in such great acclaim.

According to Armantrout, her poetry involves introspective reasoning — an activity that helps her unravel her thoughts more clearly.

“Often, I start when I feel puzzled about something and I don’t know why,” she said.

Though “Versed” has received more media attention than any of her previous collections — and, according to the professor, reacquainted her many old friends — Armantrout said she is unsure if her latest collection is indeed her best work, let alone her favorite.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think that it’s a good book — as good as the last book. It’s amazing how winning something seems to make everyone think that you’re better than you were before.”

And as far as the future, this 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry has no plans to stop writing or teaching anytime soon. In fact, Armantrout said she plans to release another collection of poems next spring. It’s called “Money Shot,” and it explores the furrows of the recent financial crisis.

“Poetry gets me high somehow,” Armantrout said. “I get a charge out of it — it keeps me engaged. It is its own reward. It’s great to get prizes, but I was enjoying it before that. I’m just doing what I love doing.”

Readers can contact Neda Salamat at [email protected].

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