Robert Pinsky at Slate: An Interview

With all due respect to excellent organizations like the Academy and the Poetry Society of America, as a matter of my own eccentricities I much prefer the informal, personal, improvised forum of Slate.

Robert Pinsky began his relationship with Slate.com in 1996. At the time, publicly available Internet was still a new phenomenon (Hotmail, the first web-based email service, launched in 1996 as well). As one astute observer points out, “the internet in 1996 looked like it had been created in its entirety by a panel of 13-year-olds with Geocities accounts who had about half an hour to spare each night before bedtime.” Thanks to the Wayback Machine internet archive, we can see, for example, how Pepsi’s home page looked in 1997:

 

Pepsi's home page, circa 1997.

It’s functional, but unlikely to win any design awards. As Pinsky points out in the interview below, in the first years of Slate, despite the ability to pay well for content due to the site’s parent company (Microsoft), many writers did not embrace the internet as a place to publish their work. What is remarkable is Pinsky’s foresight—he saw the potential in this inelegant new publishing medium, and embraced it, at a time when many people in his field were wary, disinterested, or simply unaware of it. Now, nearly sixteen years later, he has turned Slate into one of the most intellectually fascinating forums for discussion of poetry available anywhere online.

 

Unfortunately, even the Wayback Machine wasn’t paying attention to Slate back in 1996, so the earliest capture of the web site was in 1999; what’s striking about it is not so much how prehistoric it looks compared to today’s Slate, but that even then Pinsky was in active conversation with other poetry enthusiasts online:

 

Slate.com Screen Shot

Slate.com, 1999.

 

Now, twelve years after that conversation, we’re happy to bring you an interview with Robert Pinsky, the first poet of his stature (and the only one that we’re aware of to this day) to consistently make himself available for democratic, free-for-all online conversations about poetry.

 

Welcome to The California Journal of Poetics, Robert! You started publishing in Slate fifteen years ago, in 1996. Since then you’ve published a wide variety of content―your own poems; “diary entries,” which are loose personal essays sharing thoughts on poetry and the artistic life; more structured essays on poetry and poetics; and for many years now you’ve been sharing poems that you admire or find interesting and providing commentary on them. How did your relationship with Slate evolve? Has your editor suggested ideas over the years, or have you pitched ideas as they’ve come to you?

 

The first issue of Slate had a poem I recruited from Seamus Heaney, “The Little Canticles of Asturias,” which I like very much. But in 1996 many poets were unfamiliar with the Internet, and though we paid fairly well (the magazine was owned by Microsoft) some poets were reluctant. Many had to ask their students to show them the poem when it was published.

 

Fortunately, I have felt very free. Beginning with Mike Kinsley and Judith Shulewitz and continuing today with Dave Plotz, Judith Turner, and Ann Hulbert, Slate has been supportive and attentive in the right ways. The tactful, light-handed line-editing (in recent years by Nathan Heller, as well as Ann) has always led to improvements in my writing.

 

Evolution? The most significant development may be the “Classic Poem” discussions once a month. The magazine, now owned by the Washington Post Company, not Microsoft, has to be cost-conscious. The classic poems are in public domain, enabling Slate to continue payment for the new poems we publish the other three weeks of the month. A little more work for me, writing an introduction and engaging in the online discussion—but satisfying work.

 

The internet was still very new and relatively undeveloped in 1996—many people had never been online at that point, and even publicly accessible email was in its infancy.  Did the Slate editors say something to you that convinced you that working with them would be rewarding and that the site would find an audience? What were your reasons for being a part of a publishing project in a new medium that had an uncertain future and that many of your peers were wary of?

 

I guess having written the text for Mindwheel, and using a computer for that, may have helped. But really, I think it was a matter of personal inclinations.

 

Something in my make-up likes the unknown, the improvised, the provisional. Preparation, the idea of needing to prepare, panics me or repels me. I was the kid in school who prayed for a surprise pop-quiz, preferably on something that had not been assigned . . . I didn’t do well with clear instructions for study.

 

On the other hand, I remember that I did ask Mike Kinsley and Judith Shulewitz if this was for real, or a kind of prank. Thinking back to those days, I remember a very distinguished poet gave me a poem, it was posted in Slate, and there were a couple of typos. I explained to him that we could fix the typos pretty much immediately . . . and far from a comfort, that was sort of the last straw. Just too confusing for him, and clearly he wasn’t going to publish in Slate again.

 

Like all of us, I’m a mix of things: so while part of me liked the idea of something new and not-yet-defined, a conservative part of me, deeply engaged with the sounds of poems, loved the fact that in Slate we could offer audio along with the text.


One of the things we at CalJoPo find fascinating and engaging about your Slate work is that it gives us access to your mind working at the craft of poetry and the writing life from a variety of angles. It’s been rare, I think, for readers to have access to this kind of material by poets as accomplished, knowledgeable, and astute as you―at least without going to the library and copying from dozens of periodicals―so I don’t think there’s any mystery as to why your posts have been so popular. But what do you get out of this work? You’re a busy poet: what has kept you active on Slate for over a decade?

 

The feeling of freedom I mentioned is an important part of it. And I’m fascinated by the direct response online, in the “Comments” feature that has replaced “The Fray.” It’s a way of listening to a range of readers that suits me, partly because it involves no School or Foundation or Department or Office. I’ve never done well with organizations, meetings and such—I didn’t feel comfortable as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, for example—so with all due respect to excellent organizations like the Academy and the Poetry Society of America, as a matter of my own eccentricities I much prefer the informal, personal, improvised forum of Slate. For me, the magazine is a way of learning things and testing things without an academic or organizational container.

 

People come up with remarkable comments. I particularly like the participation by different kinds of people: well-known poets, unknown poets, students, teachers, readers, screwballs, speechifiers, scholars, newcomers, regulars. (I identify, personally, with all of those categories, including “screwball.”)

 

It seems that one of the things that has made your posts so successful is that readers are excited to have access to so many of your thoughts and ideas, and they are also excited that they are able to enter the conversation in the comments. I haven’t seen any other open conversations about poetry online that have the depth and variety of those on your Slate posts. Do you have one or two favorites of the many conversations that have taken place over the years?

 

I think people like listening to one another. That the scholar or poet likes hearing what an intelligent non-professional reader has to say. To read the older contributions to “The Fray” and “Comments” takes some Web skills: when you find the “Classic Poem,” the screen will say “There Have Been No Comments” until you change the Time Filter to any time at all, instead of just the past ninety days, or whatever it is.

 

There was a wonderful discussion—was it of Landor’s “On Love, on Grief . . .” two-line poem? Or maybe it was “There Was A Man of Double Deed” or “The Cruel Mother”? where one of the people wrote in about “what a jerk Robert Pinsky is, he has awful taste” and raised some question about rhyme—because he thinks that it’s required in good poetry. My response (the person’s manners were good, which is all I require) included noting that Homer and Horace don’t rhyme, and wondering how rhyme came into English. I think I voiced my vague idea that it came from Celtic balladeers in the mountains. Well, gradually other commenters joined the fray (or Fray) and cited sources for a history I hadn’t known: that rhyme came from Persian and / or Arabic into the Mediterranean languages, in the time of that great polyglot culture of Arabic, Jewish, Latin, Provençal literacy. We drifted to that, from my shortcomings!

 

Some more recent discussions I’ve particularly liked took place on the following posts:

 

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Robert! We look forward to many more years of online conversation with you at Slate.com.
 
Interview by Brandon Lussier

 

More Robert Pinsky:

 

Visit the Favorite Poem Project, founded by Pinsky in 1997

See all of Pinsky’s work at Slate.com

Read about Pinsky on his agent’s web site

Read another interview with Pinsky in Guernica Magazine

Buy Pinsky at Powells.com

Visit Pinsky’s Wikipedia page


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