Rae Armantrout, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor emerita, sat down with the UCSD Guardian to talk about mutual yearning between the sciences and humanities, irony in contemporary life and the future of poetry.
Q: What’s your philosophy or method when you teach poetry to students? What would you like them to get out of it?
Well, first I would like [my poetry students] to read poetry, because a lot of them don’t. A lot of them are people who want to write poetry, don’t read much, and if they do they don’t read much modern poetry. So I want to familiarize them with the terrain, and what’s been done, and what makes them comfortable with it, for starters. And then show them that it can be enjoyable, because a lot of them are afraid of it; get them to be willing to play and take chances, because UCSD students are understandably very grade-oriented, success-oriented people, and I understand that — it is a college. But in order to be an artist, you need to be also able to take some chances and do some experiments, so I try to encourage that.
Q: What attracted you to poetry?
Well, I started writing poetry when I was about six. My mother read poetry to me — I think it must have been the sound of it that attracted me. And maybe the intimacy of being with my mother and having her reading it to me made it seem special. I was an only child, and so I had a lot of time on my hands. This was, obviously, before everyone was connected and all lives were totally filled with media. There was television, but there were about three channels. So I spent a lot of time reading, and I read all kinds of things, but I read poetry — maybe because I was exposed to it early — and I started keeping notebooks. I enjoyed language. When I was just in first grade, I wrote a tiny poem and my teacher liked it and put it in a little booklet, so I got my first encouragement early. I think it was always just a way to make my thoughts something more than just passing and ephemeral; it was a way to keep them and look at them. And then as I got older, it became a way to interface with the world. I often write when I feel puzzled by something, when I want to think more about it, or, of course, when something bothers me. Often what bothers me is something I hear on the news. So it’s a way for me to kind of talk back to the world.
Q: People generally characterize your poetry as part of “Language Poetry.” What is your definition of Language Poetry?
The Language Poets were a group of young friends, really, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who lived in San Francisco and New York, who influenced each other. I think I still have some things in common with those people, but it’s like anything else — that was a moment, and it’s not like I’ve got some kind of set of rules that I got from the Language Poets that I always have to apply. I suppose some things that were, or are, characteristic of Language Poetry is viewing language as it’s used in media and popular culture as a subject, as something to be examined in itself and not just taken for granted. Another thing would be that in Language Poetry, the parts, or the sections, can be kind of independent. I was talking about how my own poems are often in different parts, and I like the parts to come in and connect with each other, but at surprising, oblique angles. That’s sort of characteristic of Language Poetry too, although my work and that of the other people associated with Language Poetry looks very different now. I think that those two aspects are still present.
Q: Could you describe how you felt winning the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago?
I was amazed. I hadn’t seen that coming, and I was really happy. And then instantly my phone started ringing all the time, and then I felt sort of overwhelmed. It sort of changes what’s open to you; you get invited to more events and more readings. It also sort of changes your expectations.
Q: How do you actually write your poems? What are the thought processes and steps you take to compose them?
Well, just as I suggest to my students to do, I keep a little blank notebook, constantly write in it. Sometimes some of what I write ends up being in my poems, sometimes it doesn’t. But I just record my thoughts and what I see and what I hear — anything that seems interesting to me. So that’s usually how it starts. If I write something down that interests me the next day, I just try to start to accumulate material around that. I very seldom finish a poem in one day or in one sitting; it usually takes something like a week, at least. And I’m collecting material as I go, seeing what fits with what, putting pieces together.
Q: What’s your editing process?
I try to cut back anything that seems extra or unnecessary, because I think that conciseness and compression really give writing power, or can. Sometimes it just seems all too predictable, and when that is happening, then I try to give it a rest for a little while and then bring something from the side, something else. So as I said, my poems are often written in different parts, and I try to bring things in that the parts will have a surprising connection with one another.
Q: Are there any themes that you consistently return to?
I’m interested in science, and I read science, not at an expert level, but at an amateur level. So material that I pick up from physics or biology comes in, and I study that a little bit and bring parts of that in. But I also bring in popular culture. So it’s quite a weird mix. In terms of popular culture or science, there’s a kind of skepticism or curiosity that I bring to it, where what I’m really thinking is “Why do people think that?” or “Why do people like that?” or “Why does that exist?” or “What does it mean for that to be happening?”.
Q: How do poetry and science intertwine?
Well, they don’t necessarily. They only do in the work of some poets. I think that there’s a lot that’s at the edge of the sciences that’s just very, very strange and not well understood. And it kind of sparks the imagination to think about it, to try to imagine it. I understand that no one can really imagine it, and that actually, to understand it to the extent that it’s possible, you have to be able to do the math, which I can’t. But I think scientists are trained to dissociate their thinking from their emotions, which I don’t do. So I try to think about what scientists are learning about, say, inflation or the expansion of the universe, and not put my emotions in a separate box. You know, how does it make me feel that the galaxies are all running away from each other, and that eventually, some time within the potential life of the human species, a lot of what is visible will no longer be visible? I don’t always write about the sciences, but when I do, that’s it — just kind of bringing the human emotions into it somehow.
Q: Considering that UCSD is such a large STEM school, how can we balance the sciences and the humanities?
I don’t like to be prescriptive. I don’t like to tell people or even institutions what they have to do. I think there’s a hunger — people in the humanities would like to understand science better, and I think people in the sciences, I’m just guessing, would sometimes feel a little separated from their more emotional side or lives. I think there’s a kind of longing thereof the one side for the other. But people are just so busy, and the scientists are just so pressured, that it doesn’t happen very often … One thing I like about William Carlos Williams [a poet who was also a physician] is that his work is very empirically grounded. He always tells you what he’s seeing; he gives you the setting very concretely. And he gives you — you often have to infer it — why he’s thinking what he’s thinking. And then he doesn’t overwrite it; he just presents it.
Q: I know there are a lot of people who are baffled by contemporary poetry, and with this in mind, how would you suggest people approach such poems?
I think postmodern poems are trying to reflect and interact with the world as it is now, and the world as it is now is already a mediated world; it’s already a very text-heavy, textual world. And if you just wrote like [John] Keats or like William Carlos Williams, you would be out of sync with the contemporary world. The contemporary world is very complicated, and there are a lot of threads in it. And it comes at us from all around, and the postmodern poets are part of that experience. They’re from my generation, almost up to your generation, and they have a very different experience. I mean, TV shows are as much, frankly, a part of our experience as looking at a flower is. You can’t just write about looking at flowers. So how do you put all of that together? You don’t stop looking at flowers necessarily, but you’re also engaging with stuff online, with television — so it’s just a really thick mixture. Also, there’s a lot of irony in contemporary poetry, and we live in a very ironic time. I’m not saying that’s good, but it’s a fact. Maybe poetry should stand against that, maybe poetry should stand against the contemporary world of media saturation and poets should go out into the desert and write very simply. I’m not saying that’s not true — some poet could do that — but not every poet, because some poets live in cities, some poets are part of the world that we all inhabit, and it’s going to influence them. And I find it odd that you’re baffled by poets who are part of the very world you’re a part of.
Q: What do you think is poetry’s future?
I don’t know what any of our futures are. Leaving that aside for a minute, it doesn’t really look good for serious reading, but on the other hand, I think that people don’t want to totally let go of their interiority or their private places. Even if those private places need to connect with the world that they reflect, they’re still interior places. And I know that everyone talks about their personal life on Facebook, but I kind of wonder how personal that is. It seems like it’s all done so quickly. I wonder if people spend much time reflecting and developing their thoughts. You don’t have to be a poet to do that, but serious reading helps. And spending some time alone with a notebook helps, whatever you write in it. I think that’s good for people, and I think some people sense that. I don’t think poetry is ever going to be the most popular art form, but the United States is a big country, and even if 1 percent, or 0.5 percent really like poetry, that’s still a lot of people.