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Mark Strand

This Interview was recorded with Grace Cavalieri at the Library of Congress in October 1990. Mark has published eight books of Poetry, most recently The Continuous Life (1990). He is the author of three children's books and the coeditor of several anthologies, Including New Poetry of Mexico (with Octavio Paz) and Another Republic (with Charles Simic). He is also a translator and an art critic. As a poet, Mark has won numerous awards; In 1990, he was appointed fourth Poet Laureate of the United States.

The Continuous Life includes all new poems written since 1985. The title poem for your new book is "The Continuous Life" and it's been called the perfect poem, Do you like that poem?

I do like it. It's a recent one, and I'm more likely to say that about a recent one. I like it because it seems so normal and so accessible. My guess is that people wouldn't have much difficulty in understanding what's going on in this poem. I think it appeals to anyone who's had children or a family.

Why was the poem chosen for the title of the book?

Only because I like the title. It's not representative. The book is so mixed ... poems that are quite funny, some quite sad. This is in the middle. Just the way things are.

Many people make a lot of your childhood in Nova Scotia and the blues and the grays of your poetry. How much of that do you endorse? Do you feel there is truth in acknowledging the tone of your work because of the place you began?

I'm dependent on different landscapes, and I think the landscape of my summers in childhood in Nova Scotia is a very important one. I tended to mythologize it to make it the landscape I would draw on whenever I needed a landscape. It's not that I was writing about Nova Scotia, but more the look of a world that I carried with me, and of course that world kept changing as I kept remembering different things about it. Lately, living in Utah, the world of my poems is a mountainous one, and it s not so green or blue but more red and tan. There are snowstorms in it, the likes of which don't appear in my earlier poems. Sometimes the landscape is decor, not central to the poem. It depends on which poems we're talking about.

Always, of course, you are writing about our existence rather than our lives or I should say in addition to our lives.

You mean "being" with a capital B.

That's the one! And who does it better? Perhaps that's a good reason for you to be here as Poet Laureate. There's no one who can imitate you. No poet. I've always wondered about the critics who question that in your work, as if they're saying, "don't be you; be somebody else" and you've always accepted that instead of confronting it.

My anger is never public. GC It seems you let unfair criticism slide. People have said "narcissism, GC "solipsism" . . . I guess if you were convinced you were right, you didn't have to get angry. Maybe it's as simple as that.

I don't read that much of my criticism. I just don't keep up with it. I'm not a famous novelist about whom much is written, and when a book of mine comes out, I don't leaf through the little magazines or the newspapers to see what's written about me. I do hear of the criticisms out there leveled at me, but it's part of my belief you can't please all the people all the time.

I'm aware that literary critics are about themselves, and it's never more evident than when they're looking at your work. The words irony, wry, surreal are, however, apt phrases which are used.

I am sometimes each of those. It's hard not to be all of those things.

And sometimes very humorous. Was it in The Monument that you said, "Prose is language of meaning therefore I must mean what I say."

Something like that. Yes. I should have said, "So I suppose I must mean what I say." GC Let's talk about a poem in The Continuous Life, "The End." How long from inception to print? How long did you work on that? Incubating it?

I was working on it fruitlessly for three or four months. I finished it three or four times. What I needed was a rhetorical format. I was rereading D. H. Lawrence's poems, which gave me rhetorical clues to the solution of this poem. Most important was that I had the line "stories of cirrus/ And cumulus." Joseph Brodsky thought I should can this book Tales of Cirrus and Cumulus. I thought no, not as title for the book, but I can certainly build a poem around it. So that suggestion of Joseph's plus the reading of the Lawrence poems became this poem.

Your form often is, to say the least, venturesome. I mentioned The Monument before, because I've never seen anything quite like it. Can we say it's a meditation?

Yes. That's very accurate.

It struck me that your work in translating the Latin American writers has influenced you in that book (The Monument) ... the way the Latins cross genre, and jump form. They don't care if you can it prose or a poem. They do what they need to do, and I saw you doing that.

Well, that book is a mystery to me. I'm sure without having read certain Latin American and European writers it would have been impossible.

Describe that impossible book.

It's a book of prose which sometimes ventures into the poetic. There are two poems in it which are parodies of my poetry up until that time. It's a work in fifty two sections dedicated to the translator of my work in the future, and it is a meditation on immortality ... how one is to be translated after one dies.

It's also quite funny.

It's meant as good humored.

And it's an unmonument also.

It unmonuments itself at every turn, but that's part of the joke.

You are setting it up to be translated in the future, but it is so irascible, so incorrigible. It seduces us in, and then it's also religious in parts. Has that gotten a lot of notice?

When it came out no. A lot of people didn't like The Monument because they didn't know what it was.

In it you say, "No life but in the document." That's important, because I do not regard it as gloomy. I take it to mean, "This is the document where the life is in the poem." That is what I thought The Monument was really about.

At the same time, I keep telling the translator, "Don't trust what I'm writing. You must make the monument yours. I am becoming you as you are becoming me." And so it's that I want to be translated not just what I've written but I want to be translated in such a way that I can live infinitely ... I want not translation but continuous life.

Now we're finding out.

Yes, maybe that's why I just wrote this book, The Continuous Life.

These lines: "The sky's song/ You're less than a cloud/ The tree's song/ You're less than a leaf" . . . Am I right here?

From The Monument. This is the poetry of erasure. This is a poem that declares itself by taking away from itself. It seemed like a parody of Walt Whitman the fact that my poem was written in fifty-two sections like "Song of Myself" and that I proclaim throughout The Monument that I am neither myself nor yourself but someone entirely other.

There's enough to take seriously here.

I say "a flash of voice." I think it's a phrase from Stevens. That's as I exist.

While we're thinking about the outer edge of your canon of work, let's talk about "The Killer Poet," a short story. It's one of the funniest story lines I've ever heard. Would you encapsulate it for us?

You dignify it by claiming it has a story line. I'm not very good at plots, but it's about a poet who kills his parents. It's discovered when he submits his first book for a prize in a competition, and they realize that here is a killer at loose, and of course they arrest him. His old friend, who's one of the judges, says, "I'm sorry but I'm going to have to kill you." His old friend happens to be a critic as well. There's a lot of allegorizing that goes on, and the poet writes a letter on the eve of his execution which was fun to write. It's not exactly the letter I would write, but it closes with something I might have said, "Clearly I am not a bad person. If I seem hidden or guarded it's because I have never understood how candor benefited the imagination. I chose not to shed light but to embody darkness, not to reveal order but to withhold it. I was alive with a negative certainty of my passion."

Sounds straightforward, sounds meditative and contemplative, but it also seems as if you were poking some fun at the academy.

Oh yes.

Tell us some of the considerations here.

Well, the fact is, prizes and honors don't mean that much. That's the bottom line. Isn't that what I seem to say in that?

It is. But you're the only one saying it.

I've heard other poets say it.

But they say, "bring 'em on."

They say, "Well, I happen to be here and it's very nice you've chosen me and gee don't take it away and give it to somebody else."

The funniest person in that regard was Howard Nemerov, who said, "Ford Foundation? Good. I'll buy me a Ford."

That's rather folksy, I think. That's rather American, too.

I've read only two of your three children's books.

I'm rewriting one now. My agent said I really forced a frame on the story. As soon' as he said that, I realized he was right. I'm redoing it.

In The Night Book, only a poet would put (in a children's book) a man having a nightcap. Has anyone ever pointed that out?

Actually, it has been pointed out, but not as a humorous episode as a dangerous and subversive element in the book. A child should not know anything about an adult having a drink at night.

You didn't say it was alcoholic.

No, I didn't, and it'd still be a nightcap.

I liked the freedom of it. In everything you do even when you're trying to obey the rules, writing a child's book, there are no rules you obey. [Reads.] "This is a man having a nightcap. A nightcap is a drink we have at night." That took the latitude that a poet would take.

I was trying to think of as many things as I could which were modified by "night" . . . a nightcap was one of them. It could have been a cap someone wore at night. The illustrator made it a drink, and I didn't give him any instructions. Illustrators take liberties, and I sometimes have to change the text for them.

So you're not a bad guy to collaborate with.

I'm easy. Their job is much more difficult, as lavish and detailed as my illustrations have been. Two thirds of the work is theirs.

You said you did not consider yourself a great poet.

It's not for me to say. Greatness is something which is conferred on you long after you've died.

But yet there are living poets you consider great. You've named them.

They live far enough away from me.... It's as if they were dead.

I was thinking of your fiction, "Mr. and Mrs. Baby." Are you still writing for The New Yorker?

I don't write fiction any more. My career as a fiction writer was brief. When The New Yorker stopped buying my stories it got harder and harder to get up any enthusiasm. They pay less for poetry.

When I look back at your work, myth is the spine, but now, more than ever, I find you are given more to myth as a layering of thought.

I think you're right. Not only myth but also the elements of classical literature which I've gone back to ... the rereading of Virgil and Robert Fitzgerald's splendid translation, and rereading the Iliad and the Odyssey. They had a lot to do with my newer poems.

More than anything, I see a quality of comfort in your own work - a sense of being very at home in the poem at home in your skin. We look at it and say, "How do you get there?"

I'm delighted I that's a result of having read the classics. GC I don't know a poet who occupies all the layers at once. Your poems say, "Are we really here, or not?" Have the philosophers been using your

Not really!

There's a new book out about you from the University of Missouri Press. What do you think of it?

I haven't read it yet. I have to sequester myself to read about myself. It's not the. thing you want to do in public ... maybe on vacation.

How did going to Antioch College figure into your career? For an undergraduate, Antioch is a special institution. What do you feel about that kind of freedom?

Terrific if you know what re doing. If you don't it can set you back. I was a little immature and didn't really know what to do with the freedom given me. The gifted teacher Nolan Miller made me want to write. I never had before. I always thought I'd be a painter, but when I was in that class MY affections changed. My secret ambition was to be a painter until I went to art school at Yale. Then I allowed the other to come out.

And today?

I don't paint. It turns out I wasn't a very good painter.

To say, "I decided I would write" is a pretty amazing declaration, and it might not have happened in another college.


Because Antioch gathered unorthodox teachers who needed alternative systems?

No. The teachers were conventional. It was the system which was unconventional.

What was the connection and the spark with Nolan Miller?

He had deep intuition.

How did that inform your own teaching over the years?

I'm much less given to free association in the classroom. In my own teaching, I tend to reinforce the idea that I'm the teacher and they're the students.

What do you learn from your friends who are painters?

That the most honorable and individual view is not to be swayed by fashion. Fashion! There are times in my own career when I've deviated into writing a kind of poetry I've later regretted writing.

Maybe we readers didn't know the difference.

The poet makes a great deal more of these things than anyone else could. He sees himself up close. He tends to take more things seriously than are worth taking seriously. In a hundred years, if I am remembered at all, which is doubtful, one or two of my poems may sound exactly alike to the ears.

What courses did you teach at the University of Utah?

A mixture of literature and writing. Sometimes writers from Gogol to Barthelme. I'd have students write a three page pastiche addressing each style, even if the work had been a translation. I don't teach workshops, and I don't allow my students to write their own poems, because I think too much is riding on them. They take criticism hard. I tend to have them spend a whole quarter writing quatrains of different sorts so we have something discrete we can talk about. We focus on metrical solutions and how rhyme schemes work.

Can you see, through that, what distinguishes one from the other? Can you notice when someone is very promising?

It's easier when they all have the same assignment to see the greater ingenuity of some.

I think we have more good poets writing than ever before in history.

And more poor ones, more people involved in poetry. There's far too much written. People should take a sabbatical from writing and do more reading.

Is there anyone who would turn down a Mark Strand poem?

I certainly hope so.

You said it never occurred to you that you'd be Poet Laureate of the United States.

It never did. It's not the sort of thing that occurs to anyone.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and playwright. She produces The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress for public radio.